A rotten decision, given by a cowardly referee. There is a reason why it grates so much, but there is an superior sector within football that doesn’t want to hear the reason. Steve Bruce, by his own admission, will get fined for his comments afterwards that suggested that such a penalty would not have been given in the opposing box, but he was right. It was a penalty that shouldn’t have been awarded and it lost City a richly deserved point.
Bruce essentially picked Tom Huddlestone, Yannick Sagbo and a stack of Championship players. He had no choice, really. The removal of our first choice strikeforce by the criminally underpunished Gareth Barry last week meant that a previously unseen, untried, unheralded duo of Sagbo and George Boyd played up front. A mixture of understandable concern over Tottenham’s pace and potency up front and a general lack of midfielders due to injury and ineligibility meant that he picked five at the back. Alex Bruce, Paul McShane (now the only player to have featured in all three of City’s top flight seasons) and David Meyler were all in the team; Aaron Mclean and Nick Proschwitz came on as subs. And we very nearly got away with it.
While City didn’t put Tottenham Hotspur under pressure for great periods of the game, this was no defensive performance. It was tight, strong, committed, collective. The quintet, especially son and heir Bruce, were immense. The full backs overlapped less frequently but still ploughed lengthy and rewarding furrows for the whole game. Huddlestone’s class, after initially giving the ball away with his first two touches, was as evident on the Seven Sisters Road in royal blue as it had been for many years in pure white. Sagbo was a beast, threatening but under control. And Boyd was the best of the lot; full of running, intelligent, subtle, easy on the eye. He could yet become a proper Premier League player.
To maintain tradition and put everyone in their spot, we carded thus: Harper; Rosenior, Bruce, McShane, Davies, Figueroa; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Meyler; Boyd, Sagbo.
White Hart Lane is a superb ground with an enjoyably steep gradient taking you to the visitors’ corner, though the surrounding area and transport links could benefit from a vacuum cleaner and an existence respectively. Fortunately the 2013 Apocalyptic Storm (copyright: southerners in media outlets) wasn’t taking hold to the tune of anything more than a light breeze as the kick off time approached, and a not unexpectedly cacophonous Tiger Nation crammed into the seats for one of football’s better views.
And they were in for a treat.
Immediately, one should declare that Spurs are a gifted, speedy and spontaneous side who, on their day, would be a thrill to watch. But like every team to have entertained City this season, it was evident that the players (and the fans, though Spurs fans are always like this) felt that their physical attendance would be enough to win this one. As the less cultured but ultra-dedicated team of comparable ragbags in City’s elegant change kit set about stealing and maintaining the ball, it was clear that nobody was going to win this game at a canter.
Aaron Lennon had a shot blocked early on by the predictably superb Curtis Davies, before Liam Rosenior won a free kick that Huddlestone curled in and Spurs, in what was their most annoyingly impressive habit of the game, got it clear under pressure from the self-launching Davies.
Paulinho then hooked a Lewis Holtby free kick just over the bar before a breakneck counter attack from Andros Townsend ended up with the England man curling a shot towards the far post which Steve Harper, on his Premier League debut for the Tigers, clawed away well.
City were unperturbed, and superb in being so. Huddlestone began to show his authority, something he seems too decent and adjusted a guy to have had in mind for this game specifically, and his influence on the flow and pace of the occasion, as well as on the colleagues around him, was a sight for sore eyes; indeed, there was a definite “give it to Tom” policy from the three centre backs and Meyler, and in his usual sagacious way, he didn’t disappoint when it came to using that trust.
He was also tenacious, winning one cracking tackle to break down a Tottenham attack and using the ball with his natural intelligence to make space for Ahmed Elmohamady, take the return and cross dangerously for Michael Dawson to head clear. Boyd followed up with a left foot drive which could have bounced awkwardly but wasn’t too much of an issue for Hugo Lloris. Shortly afterwards, Huddlestone put Sagbo down the inside right channel and his shot was on target but readily available for Lloris to deal with.
City then won a free kick on the left which Huddlestone swung in. Again, a Spurs head was majestic in raising the highest, but there were shouts (optimistic ones, all told; though had the foul been in the City box….) for a penalty as McShane felt the weight of a forearm against his back. Both Bruce and Sagbo then had shots blocked – both were well hit and on target – before Spurs could bundle it away to Elmohamady, whose cross was headed on target but powerlessly at Lloris by Davies. It was impressive, exciting, daring, even insolent stuff from City, and the brilliant away support lapped it up.
Huddlestone then stopped a counter attack with a meaty and timely tackle on the edge of the City box and the Tigers spilled forward in search of more. Two corners were forced with which this impenetrable Spurs rearguard in the air adroitly dealt, but although nobody was getting through on these set-pieces, City really were playing magnificently.
Tottenham felt the need to respond, perhaps realising this was no gimme after all. Townsend put in an evil cross that had “own goal off unwitting shin” written through it like rock, but McShane headstrongly steered it out. City scampered purposefully back to the other end, with Boyd now as regular an outlet in a wide position as Huddlestone was centrally, and he won a corner which he took himself, and the clearance landed on Huddlestone’s sweet spot but the volley was a few inches over.
Spurs won a free kick from 25 yards which the overrated Kyle Walker – hard shot, quick off the mark, rubbish at defending – slapped right above Harper’s head, forcing City’s custodian to thrown a palm to divert up and out. As the two added minutes began, Boyd almost squirmed through on a skirmish round the edge of the box and seemed to tumble from a Dawson ankle tap but no players protested.
The half time whistle sounded and City exited to a massive ovation.
God, this was good.
If it ended 3-0 now, we’d not be too fussed.
Nah, scrub that. If the first 45 minutes can be so even, so can the second.
Spurs made a half time change. On the hour, they made another. On 70 minutes, they made a third. Throughout this period, and beyond, City didn’t make any. The XI were in command of their destiny.
The home side were more dominant after the break, as City created less and shored up more. Walker smacked a free kick straight into Harper’s hands and then the egregious Roberto Soldado – we can see why Spurs fans don’t rate him – was put through down the inside left channel but was too obsessed with finding his right foot and telegraphed the direction of the eventual shot manifestly, allowing Harper to drop low and push away.
Soldado. What a conman. A two-fold conman, in fact; first he cons people into thinking he’s good at football, then he attempts to con referees into thinking he has been elbowed in the face, a con made clear by the sudden lack of pain on show as he jumps to his feet to confront the ruffian who’d breathed near him after the official had chosen to ignore him. When he did this to McShane, the referee should have booked him for dissent. Ungentlemanly conduct. War crimes. Anything.
Ahead of this, City made their first chance of the half after Sagbo was fouled on the counter and Boyd swung in the free kick but again, Spurs mountainously did what was necessary. As all the attention is focussed on Tottenham’s pace and guile up front and on the wings, it’s not unworthy to mention again their strength in defence when dealing with aerial threats. It was flawless.
Townsend saw a shot go just wide after Lennon got into a niggle with the comfortable Figueroa, then Elmohamady delivered a ball which Boyd’s forehead couldn’t keep down. As the final ten minutes then approached, with Lennon and Holtby now off the pitch, the hope began to envelop the City support that a point was now really possible, even on the verge of likely, on a day when everyone with or without a personal interest expected Tottenham to batter their opponents with time and energy to spare. This was made even more tangible by the truly rubbish effort from Paulinho that went a very, very long way wide and was belted more out of frustration than expectation.
Then in stepped the referee. Until this point, it’s been perhaps noted by people accidentally reading this eyewash that the official’s name has not been mentioned. The author went to school with a Michael Oliver who was a very good footballer, and is concerned about the wrong person’s email address being found on Google. But, alas, Michael Oliver it was, though not, gratifyingly a 41 year old chap from Hedon.
His control of the game had been a tad fussy thus far – the usual fouls given for mild incidents in zones of the pitch not especially dangerous – and when Townsend angrily smashed the ball into the disabled area of the City fans when the referee blew his whistle (for a Spurs free kick, it should be noted), there was no sign of a caution for dissent, while the likes of Meyler and Boyd picked up bookings for more innocuous odds and ends that barely transgressed a law. But he hadn’t been the focal point of the game until the 80th minute came along and Jan Vertonghen tried to cross from just outside the left side of the area, and Elmohamady closed in to block.
The ball hit his hand. That’s beyond dispute. But the distraught Egyptian was barely inches away from his adversary, his hands were not raised, the ball struck his thigh first and Oliver was in a position where the hand was entirely debarred from sight. Not only could the referee be not sure it was handball, the evidence even in a split-second said that it was accidental. But a penalty he gave, and Soldado rescued himself from his personal pit of wretched mediocrity and charmless chicanery by sending Harper the wrong way and laying claim to headlines and approbation that he didn’t deserve.
With ten minutes to go, it was entirely feasible that City could have imploded and allowed in a couple more. It is to their credit on the grandest scale that they didn’t, and Bruce took a chance on Robbie Brady straightaway, chucking him on for ten or so minutes to try to combat his soreness with something special. As if to signify an “up and at ’em” approach that most teams in this situation would adopt anyway, he also slung on Mclean for the first – and possibly last, though it’s one more than he and any of us expected – Premier League appearance of his affable career and then added Proschwitz to the mix as well, eschewing the less aerial but more discerning striking talents of Gedo, who remained on the bench.
Spurs played a fair portion of the closing spell with ten men after Townsend’s velocity, with a little help from McShane, took him flying via the shins over an advertising hoarding which covered the photographer’s pit, and he was supposedly unconscious for a spell as medics treated both him and a snapper who was unwittingly clouted across the head to the extent of a deep cut. His decision to come back on for the last few minutes was foolhardy and probably against the laws of the game, given that he was sparko for a bit and even a spot of concussion demands a two-week rest.
During this period, City struggled to create, even via the use of long balls and Proschwitz’s head – neither he nor Mclean won anything in the air and possibly touched the ball once each. Brady hit one free kick straight at Lloris, then in the last seconds of five added minutes, Davies was shoved over on the every edge of the area and Huddlestone went for the banana blast with the outside of the boot and missed the open side of the net by inches.
Elmohamady maintained a wide-eyed innocence with the referee after the final whistle and both managers bemoaned the decision, though clearly Andre Villas-Boas could afford to look the sportsman in this situation as his team had reaped a benefit that they deserved on possession but not on chances and certainly not on spirit. Though Spurs had most of the ball, Harper had no more to do than his opposite number Lloris and City yet again have cursed their luck, asked questions of bigger teams and emerged with plaudits, if not points. That the five away games so far have included Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton and Spurs, and the clocks have only just gone back, is a handy pointer for the trips to come, which before Christmas include Southampton, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion. Winnable, each of them.
Most eyes are on Sunderland’s visit to the Circle on Saturday, but of course City do return to White Hart Lane on Wednesday night, possibly with the same side, for the League Cup tie and, irrespective of club and coaching attitudes to the competition, will feel a need to right a wrong or two. That the opportunity to do so is there, even within a less important setting, is pretty handy for the manager and squad and the best way to react to losing a point is to go back and make one.