We’ve all heard of an “inspired substitution”. They happen quite a lot in football; hell, even City managers have been known to make them. No, they have. Really. Have a think about it for a bit.
But an inspired double substitution? That’s a different animal entirely. You have to be a very forward-thinking or special or fortunate manager to wangle that even once in your career. As for City, it’s hard to instantly think of one. There was an occasion in 1989 when, in Stan Ternent’s first game in charge of Hull City, he slung on strikers Andy Payton and Ian McParland at Bradford when the Tigers, still without a win that season, were 2-1 down. Both scored in the last ten minutes – McParland’s winner was in injury time – and City finally were off the mark.
That one will do nicely.
But now we have the best of the lot. It’s one thing bringing on two subs and seeing them gradually turn a game; it’s another bringing on two subs and seeing them instantly turn a game. With this remarkable feat, we got our long-awaited win over Burnley. Goalless after an hour, and the game already deep in a dismal mire, Steve Bruce shook it up.
Gedo and Alex Bruce went off, Jay Simpson and Robert Koren came on. Within one minute, the two combined to set up City’s winning goal.
That’s both subs.
Both. Within a single minute.
Stephen Quinn was the scorer, and with it City won the game. The Tigers are back in second, three points off leaders Cardiff City and still on course for promotion back to the Premier League. And yet another massive monkey is cast off our backs in the process.
The manager made just one change to the side that capitulated so wretchedly at Crystal Palace six nights earlier, with his heir shifting forward into the ratting role in midfield, and Paul McShane returning to the back three. Koren was the one to make way. The teamsheet read thus: Stockdale; Chester, Hobbs, McShane; Elmohamady, Meyler, Bruce, Quinn, Brady; Boyd, Gedo.
Damn cold night, and 356 crossed the Pennines in rubbish conditions while many more snuggled up on settees and beanbags or hurried in woolly hat and wells down the local to watch it on telly. Burnley and Sky is not a good combination for City fans with a superstitious bent, really. Seven straight losses to the Clarets and two Championship defeats in a row on Sky this calendar year alone. However, as we’ve proved with half dozen or so other adversaries this season, bad runs have to come to an end eventually.
But it wasn’t a thriller, heaven forfend no. It was an occasion where graft outstripped skill and inventiveness by some margin. City rarely looked in danger but it wasn’t a flowing attacking performance either, though George Boyd made up for his listlessness at Selhurst Park with an especially involved contribution in the centre of all City tried.
In the very first minute, Quinn headed a David Meyler cross wide, but that was the mainspring of the Tigers’ array of openings for much of the first half. Burnley, still harbouring faint hopes of a play-off place, made most of the play over the initial 30 minutes, but had little to show for it. James Chester blocked a Jason Shackell chance from close range, then David Stockdale tipped away a piledriver from Ross Wallace, with Chris McCann heading over the winger’s consequent corner kick.
Eventually, City upped the ante and a cute interception and through ball by Jack Hobbs gave Boyd a run down the inside left channel but his eventual shot was deflected wide by the challenge of Michael Duff. Ahmed Elmohamady then crossed from the right for Robbie Brady to head back to the edge of the box, but Bruce – arguably the last person you want shaping up for a 25-yard volley – sliced the chance high and wide.
Half time, 0-0. The Sky studio people earned their money at the break.
The fact that City were level at the interval actually felt like a cause for celebration. This was Burnley, after all. Their recent hold on us is stupidly random as well as depressing, but since our promotion year of 2008, they’ve had everything go their way in this fixture, be it at Turf Moor or the Circle. We saw the madness of Geovanni’s meltdown; the seeing-to when Nigel Pearson labelled his players “cowards”; the concession of a 2-0 lead and all three points in ten utterly mental minutes; the ruination of all New Year celebrations when Péter Gulácsi blamed his incompetence on an injury that didn’t exist; and finally Dean Marney scoring the winner earlier this season and acting like a prize dimwit afterwards. And those are the memorable ones; the couple of others were dreadful through their featurelessness. So it is easy to be gleeful at not going behind to Burnley, even if it was only midway through the event and there remained ample time for City to cock it up.
The second half began with Boyd swivelling elegantly to reverse a pass towards Gedo who forced a decent, if not especially taxing, save from Lee Grant with his near post drive. Further indifference followed from each team, though City were distantly winning the possession race, before a cracking centre by Robbie Brady evaded the jump of left back Ben Mee and the distracted Meyler let the ball hit him on the knee and bobble wide.
We got to the hour mark and the subs were warming up. Koren was among them; when such a mercurial and experienced player as he is dropped, what does he think? Performers of his calibre can often feel a sense of entitlement, knowing that they are renowned for winning matches, and Koren is especially replete with examples of when one bit of craft with the ball has snaffled or rescued something for City. But when he’s ultra-quiet – not just failing to win games for City, but failing to look interested in doing so (for example, six nights ago) – it’s good to see he is droppable. Moreover, it’s good to see that he takes such decisions maturely and has a desire to prove the manager wrong.
He entered the game just after the hour, as did Simpson. Two minutes later, Koren collected a ball on the flank, level with the 18 yard line. He played a classy horizontal ball to the withdrawing Simpson, who slipped it further along the line for Quinn to swipe an instant snapshot past Grant and through the minutest of gaps at the near post. It was Quinn’s third for the club (and his first shot on target for an age) and it broke the deadlock stylishly and with some relief and joy too. It was also City’s first goal at Turf Moor since Michael Turner’s injury time winner more than five years ago.
It’s a pity the laws didn’t allow City to bring Bruce straight back on again, really.
A goal up but without a naturally defensive presence in the midfield now, so while City had earned their lead, they had to work and improvise a little in order to protect and maintain it. Fortunately, Burnley just didn’t seem to have any fight in them; a surprise for a team managed by a bullish (and likeable) man in Sean Dyche. City eventually crisped up the rearguard by bringing on Liam Rosenior for Quinn.
Sam Vokes put a shot over, as did Kieran Trippier a few minutes later from a good deal further out. Further opportunities for Burnley to pinch something came via City’s own wobbly moments; Paul McShane was perhaps fortunate not to be done for handball when stooping in his own box to block a cross, then in the four added minutes Stockdale dropped a high ball in the six yard area and induced mild panic before McShane belted it clear.
Charlie Austin, unprepared for facing three sinewy centre backs all night, managed to head one reasonable chance wide in the death throes of the game, before the final whistle brought the historical madness of this fixture to, at last, a grateful and jubilant end for the Tigers.
City will play better but rarely will they win better. One goal scored, tight and undaunted at the back (most welcome after shipping ten in three), disciplined and calculating all over the pitch. Plus the nice headline moment of two subs jogging on to the pitch and in the twinkling of an eye, setting up that single goal. The future has always been bright this season; but never quite as bright as it looks right now.