Sometimes, you feel as though it’s coming. With fifteen minutes remaining at Hillsborough and City having enjoyed a second half of domination, a breakthrough felt imminent. Most of the time, the naturally pessimistic nature of the City fans refuses to allow any rays of hope permeate the cloak of gloom. It didn’t feel like that yesterday. It didn’t turn out like that yesterday. A goal was going to arrive, somehow, at some point – and we were right.
When it arrived, it was the reward for a display rather unlike recent ones, but no less impressive for it. Hard work and organisation won the day, as opposed to the thrilling, high-risk all-out-attack we’d grown accustomed to throughout September. That was as much through necessity than design. An unwelcome rash of injuries meant that a switch to 4-4-2 was inevitable. Chester, Dudgeon and Bruce were all out, to be joined on the day by Robert Koren.
It meant that Steve Bruce reorganised thus: Amos; Rosenior, Faye, McShane, Dawson; Elmohamady, McKenna, Olofinjana, Quinn; Aluko, Simpson. City only had enough fit bodies to name six substitutes, with Conor Townsend named among them.
Since returning to the Championship with a bang – seven points from their first three games – things have rather dropped off for Sheffield Wednesday. Their midweek draw at Burnley ended a sequence of five successive League defeats. They had ex-Tiger Anthony Gardner in defence and one-time City loanee Stephen Bywater on the bench, with Jay Bothroyd the likeliest attacking threat.
A brilliantly sunny day had yielded to light cloud by the time kick-off arrived, with City clad in all-amber and attacking the far end to us, marooned as we were in the upper tier of the Leppings Lane End. The Tigers had the first chance of the game, with Sone Aluko flashing a shot narrowly wide of Chris Kirkland’s near post. Wednesday came straight back, with a Ross Barkley shot flying harmlessly wide of Amos’ goal.
It was a slow-paced opening, but opportunities were occasionally arriving. Faye headed straight after Kirkland after Dawson sent a cross over from a half-cleared corner, while the nearest any side came to scoring was when Michail Antonio shot about a foot wide of Amos’ left hand post with the City keeper beaten – it’d looked in from our vantage point.
This enthused the home support and their players, and they had another chance when a corner on the City right was met by Miguel Llera under pressure from Olofinjana – it beat Amos but was cleared off the line by Elmohamady amid deeply unconvincing appeals that it’d actually crossed the line. A let-off for City.
The dangerous Antonio had another chance after a smart piece of control and a neat turn saw him with a sight of goal, though thankfully his shot was the weakest part of a sinuous piece of play and it bobbled safely wide.
Paul McKenna picked up the afternoon’s first caution for a deliberate trip on Semedo that cynically halted a promising burst forward from the Wednesday man, and with half-time approaching Wednesday’s squall of pressure began to blow itself out and City reasserted themselves. A couple of corners were forced, one of which was cleared to McKenna – he sent a blistering volley goalwards which had Kirkland haring across his goal, and doubtless relieved to see the ball scream a yard or so wide.
Still, a satisfactory opening half. Wednesday looked spirited but ordinary, while City looked a more composed outfit than in recent times. The attacking threat was somewhat blunted, which may have owed as much to Koren’s absence as a change in formation. Nonetheless, as we entered the cramped concourses in search of refreshment, there was a general mood of optimism.
So, back to the game. Except…no, we can’t really get back to the football just yet. There were to be no refreshments. The staff on the concourse who ordinarily dispense food and drink to away fans, who are stood inside actual cages (I’m not making this up), had been instructed not to sell alcohol. I don’t blame them – the 0956 train was absolutely teeming with perhaps as many as 200 people whose sullen outlook, identikit hoolie-wear and cheap lager hinted that football wasn’t their only reason for travelling to Sheffield.
There’d been a massive police presence in the city centre all day and a helicopter buzzed about – it was obvious that more than a few were there for reasons of mischief. So deciding not to sell alcohol to those excitable youths wasn’t an especially contentious decision, annoying as we civilians found it. Whether the alcohol restrictions explain what happened next is unknowable, but suddenly a smoke bomb was let off, missiles were hurled (pies, mainly – an unforgiveable waste) and the police were repeatedly charged by City fans amid shouts of “scum”, “murderers” and, err, “Justice for the 96”. “City fans” is a term used mainly for expediency rather than accuracy, by the way – they’re conspicuous by their absence on Tuesday nights on the South Coast, for example.
Now, we are no fans of South Yorkshire Police, whose dreadful past will forever stain their reputation. Even your humble, even-tempered match reporter was punched wholly without provocation outside Bramall Lane by one of these goons a few years ago, allegedly for stubbing a cigarette out on a police horse – an imaginative charge to level at a non-smoker. Supplementary examples of their malice and ineptitude are not difficult to uncover. However, their decision to tactically scarper down a stairwell and out of the away end instead of drawing batons and wading in may have prevented an extremely unhappy situation becoming one of the lead stories on the news today, galling though it must have been for them to cede “victory” to their noisome assailants.
Of course, most people who regularly attend away games know that the occasional outbreak of anti-sociable conduct is possible, especially during Yorkshire derbies. It’s annoying, but it is at least rare, and nowhere near as prevalent as with many other football clubs or either of the two eggchasing franchises currently in the city. Nonetheless, kids looked on frightened, old folk were intimidated, pies were wasted and I didn’t get a drink.
Right, football. Because it gets good from here. Most of those in the stands were blissfully unaware of the extracurricular activities below them during the break, and the vibe remained positive. In stark contrast to the insipid way the second half of our last away game began, City opened brightly, assumed control and rarely let it slip.
The first chance came when Stephen Quinn – harangued throughout for his Sheff Utd affinity – sent a low shot/cross through the goal area from the left hand side after being intelligently supplied by Dawson. Jay Simpson had read his intentions but couldn’t quite make it there in time at the far post.
Dawson was the next to try when the ball broke to him – sadly it was on his right foot, and he awkwardly spooned the ball well over. The City left-back had chugged away productively on his return to the side, getting forward only occasionally, but he was involved in the day’s most contentious decision. It came when he failed to read a ball that seemed to swirl awkwardly in the gathering breeze, allowed Antonio to challenge him on the second bounce. The City captain lost out and Antonio appeared to have the ball on the right hand side of the area, Dawson charged him into and Antonio went down…and referee Mr Moss waved play on. We won’t quarrel with a professional official a hundred yards closer than us, but it felt very much as though we’d got away with one. The appeals from both crowd and Antonio were authentic, as was the dismay as their dismissal.
On the hour Sone Aluko acquired a maddeningly childish caution for refusing to retreat quickly enough at a free-kick on the edge of Wednesday’s own area, but he was a threat throughout and minutes later narrowly missed when McKenna teed him up. He bent his shot past Kirkland, but also past the post. There were 62 minutes on the clock, and with the home side looking ragged and City scenting blood, that oddly positive mood was hardening into greater certainty about a happy outcome…
With the match three-quarters through Aluko was messily chopped down 25 yards from goal, and in an encouragingly central position. Perhaps Andy Dawson ought to have taken it, with Chris Kirkland leaving open the right-hand side of his goal, sweetly inviting a left-footer. However, Ahmed Elmohamady won the battle of wills, and promptly deposited the ball into the empty seats beneath us.
Back came City, completely on top now. Tormentor-in-chief Aluko attracted two bedraggled Owls to him before cutely slipping the ball into Simpson’s path on the right about ten yards from goal. An instant shot was his only chance with a brace of defenders converging upon him – however he needed a touch to steady himself and the eventual shot was smothered.
Fifteen minutes left. It’s on – as was Aaron Mclean, replacing the tiring Simpson. Two minutes later, we scored. Mclean, a footballing pocket battleship, tussled for a long ball sent forward by Amos, and succeeded in flicking it to Aluko. Mclean’s power in winning the ball had knocked his would-be marker to the ground, and he rapidly hared forward even as the ball arrived at Aluko. The Nigerian international took one touch and executed a perfect left-footed backheel to the darting Mclean, who dummied and cracked a low right-footed shot past Kirkland and in.
Cue total Tiger mayhem. The players rushed forward to celebrate as bodies writhed, tumbled and exulted madly. Another flare/smokebomb was set off – what IS it with these at City at the moment? They’re cool, of course, and it thickened the air as mad celebrations filled the ground.
That was about it for City as an attacking force as they settled down to acquire the type of doughty 1-0 away win that teams at the top need to repeatedly amass throughout the season. Wednesday, in truth, made it fairly straightforward. They’d looked a side short of confidence and ideas in the second half. Jermaine Johnson rather typified this with what was to be their only attempt at salvaging a point, when he dimly belted a shot at Amos from an impossibly tight angle – it required a strong save, but the ball ought to have been crossed instead of blasted.
Nick Proschwitz came on for Aluko with five minutes remaining. His height was to prove useful, both as a means of relieving pressure and also once very useful when terminating a threatening Sheffield move on their left.
Four minutes of injury time were signalled by Mr Moss, but in truth they served only to extend the party, not spoil it. They were easily navigated, and at full-time the players piled over to tumultuous acclaim.
What to make of it all? City were a far tighter side than of late, with a clear determination to remain organised. Against a poor Sheffield Wednesday side, that made a clean sheet likely. Happily it didn’t detract too much from the attacking – and what deficiencies there are can be explained as much through missing personnel (Dudgeon, Koren) than how they were arranged.
And what’s more, it suggests that Steve Bruce has a real ace up his sleeve: if City can win with both 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 and look comfortable with either, we’ll have greater flexibility than most our adversaries. That ability to swap formations could prove priceless.
That’s for the future, however. For now we’ll enjoy the international break knowing that a troubling sequence of results was halted with the impressive and hugely enjoyable victory. Well done City.