In defeat, honour.
Mixed with “what if”. And liberally seasoned with “you cheating bastards”. Aye, it was a funny old afternoon at the Circle. From 2-0 up and daring to dream of a famous to win, to 2-2 and expecting a deflating cuffing, to holding our heads in hands at the end wondering quite how we’d lost. It was entertaining fare, in its own peculiarly disorganised way. But though City lost, they did so in a way that provided more positives than negatives; something of a recurring theme against the Big Clubs.
Of course, the sense of “what if” still lingered from the draw at West Brom five days earlier, but the side that came so close to City’s second away win of the season was selected in its entirety for the visit of the ailing Champions: McGregor; Chester, Davies, Bruce; Elmohamady, Meyler, Huddlestone, Livermore, Figueroa; Graham, Sagbo.
An unwelcome 12.45pm start was imposed on us all at the behest of Sky Sports, and long before kick-off we’d heard that the visitors were stuck in the traffic chaos that the closure of Spring Bank West was aggravating. So insert your own cliché about Man Utd still being on the team bus in the opening minutes if you must – and we hope the generally admirable David Moyes will refrain from the excuses and paranoia that so scarred his predecessor’s reign – but we’ll opt for a different form festive triteness, and wonder just the hell Steve Bruce put in the Christmas turkey at the club’s training ground on Wednesday. Because whatever it was, City absolutely roared out of the blocks.
City began the game attacking the North Stand, split half and half between City fans and Man Utd fans – once more, easily the best visiting support of the season, incidentally. On four minutes, a corner was swung in from the City left, the manager’s son headed it down to Chester, who was oddly unattended about six yards out and whose first-time volley smashed into the roof of the net.
All this before Man Utd had really got anywhere near Allan McGregor’s goal, though shortly after the City keeper was involved in a moment that’d have repercussions throughout the afternoon when he raced out to beat Ashley Young to a loose ball. Young collided heavily with McGregor, and though it was an obvious foul, the ball was there to be contested and we shouldn’t castigate Young. For this, anyway.
Back the other end, it was quickly 2-0. A brisk attack on the left saw Sagbo feed Meyler. He switched the ball into the area, where it was deflected, clumsily stabbed at by a Manc defender back to Meyler, whose shot clipped a white-shirted heel and bounced past the stranded De Gea. Two-nil on 13 minutes, and absolutely pandemonium at the Circle.
Okay, even with the benefit of hindsight, who thought it was game over? Exactly. None of us. Certainly not the Man Utd fans, who barely missed a beat with their noise (their pals from Merseyside could learn a thing or two about support based on what we’ve seen in recent weeks). Nor us, not with 77 minutes remaining and a backlash seemingly inevitable.
Having an obviously struggling keeper wasn’t ideal either. McGregor was still cutting a forlorn figure in goal, though after another quick check he opted to stay on as City wondered whether to stick or twist. To be fair, in all of Steve Bruce and Steve Agnew’s pre-match war-gaming, one supposes that a scenario of 2-0 inside quarter of an hour wasn’t one they really planned for. A bit like the second half against nine-man Sunderland, we didn’t look quite sure about what to do; Man Utd on the other hand had no such dilemma. The thoroughly dejected-looking Rafael was withdrawn for Adnan Januzaj.
And on 19, they hauled one back (rather selfishly at the precise moment the CTID chant was being prepared for – no sense of occasion, have they?). Januzaj was rashly fouled by Figueroa, Rooney sent in the free-kick from the Manchester United right and Smalling rose highest to head past McGregor.
The visitors were in control at this point, and McGregor had to defy his discomfort to produce a fine save from a Cleverley shot, but there was nothing he could do about the magnificent strike by Wayne Rooney minutes later from 25 yards that flew into the top corner. A goal of international quality.
2-2, 25 minutes on the clock, and from the heights of elation to the slough of despond inside fifteen crazy minutes. Yet the madness seemed to prey on the minds of both teams at this stage, both aware that their defending had been suboptimal thus far and apparently equally willing to sit back and cool their respective heads.
This brought about a more sedate and scrappy period of play. Referee Michael Oliver was taking charge of City for the first time since that appalling decision at White Hart Lane in October, and he took centre stage once more with his co-star Ashley Young, an inveterate cheat, attracting the ire of the East Stand for a characteristic Bambi-on-ice display. He’s terrible, Oliver, isn’t he? It’s not that he’s bent, far from it. No referees are. But some referees lack the mental toughness not to be swayed by the glamorous or hoodwinked by the nefarious, and he’s one of them.
Oh yes, the football. It had rather disintegrated at this point, and perhaps to our benefit; indeed, we reached the break with the score unexpectedly still 2-2 and just a Danny Graham shot that deflected onto the roof of the net as the game’s only chance, though De Gea was back on his line and would have prevented another goal anyway.
Two-all, and a chance to draw breath. Both managers will have had some stern words for their respective defences, but Steve Bruce had the added complication of needing to effect surgery upon his side. McGregor couldn’t continue and Meyler was also the recipient of a knock that kept him on the bench in the second half, so Steve Harper and Robert Koren were half-time replacements.
How would both sides approach the second forty-five? Man Utd’s hopes of reaching the top four would have been badly dented by dropping any points here, while City had already scored twice and scented another notable scalp. Yet the second half began cagily, with City perhaps shading it. Graham sent a well-hit shot from the edge of the area scudding goalwards, though De Gea adeptly parried it to safety. Davies rose best from a Huddlestone corner to nod the ball wide when you’d have really fancied him to score, and far from having to survive a Mancunian onslaught, City began to look threatening once more.
Valencia was cautioned by Mr Oliver for wrestling Sagbo to the ground when the City forward fastened onto possession with just his assailant and Smalling to beat and still the Tigers threatened, most of all when another well-delivered Huddlestone corner was met by Bruce, whose header lucklessly struck the post.
We paid for that moment of ill-fortune quite quickly. Young skilfully wriggled free on the Manchester right and proving that he can be a great player when remaining upright, fired in a superb cross towards Rooney – James Chester beat him to the ball but looked on in horror as his header flew past his own keeper to give the away side the lead. Jubilation in the away end (and we look forward to the next time City fans try to invade the pitch in celebration being given a pat down, a friendly word and escorted back to their seats by the stewards…oh).
City brought on George Boyd for Figueroa and seemed to move more towards a 4-4-2 formation, but we were visibly flattened by that goal. The game dissolved once again, with Rooney becoming the centre of attention. He was booked for oafishly gobbing off at the referee and ought to have seen red for a dive when feigning contact by Huddlestone. Mr Oliver bravely pretended nothing had happened.
Not that Rooney was alone. Young is a notorious cheat and Januzaj’s precocious talent is in danger of being eclipsed by his own propensity for simulation. And, y’know, this will sound like small-club sour grapes, blaming defeat on the systematic cheating of a narrowly-victorious bigger club. Let us be clear: we lost because in a madcap game, we were a fraction less clinical in front of goal. But not since perhaps Charlton in 2007 can a more squalid instance of pre-planned malfeasance have been seen on our pitch. Yes, we’re not perfect; Robbie Brady ought to be halfway through a ten game ban for cheating against Liverpool a short time ago. Because a ten game ban (to be increased to 20 in the event of an unsuccessful appeal) is the only way this cancer will be cured. Right now, there is no reason for a manager to instruct his players not to cheat, not when the only sanction is a yellow card. But losing a star player for a couple of months will focus a few minds. Once the FA have told Assem Allam to stop being so bloody silly, perhaps they can crack on with this.
Hmph. Carrick came on for the shameless Young and as the match wore on City roused themselves for one last go. And oh, there were chances. Three of them, all good. All could have been scored.
Firstly, a cross from the right was stood up to Graham at the far post. It was high and maybe a bit behind him, but his header was feebly directed straight to De Gea with almost all of the goal to aim for. Then De Gea charged out of his goal to collect a loose ball but was beaten to it and with no keeper, a combination of Huddlestone, Graham and Sagbo all failed to win the ball and effect a clean strike at a goal being marshalled only by two covering defenders.
Amid this final clatter of activity, Valencia was idiotically sent off for poking the ball down the touchline after play had already been halted – how typical of Mr Oliver to punish this sort of trivial offence while gaily permitting more serious misdeeds. And there was still one more glorious opportunity: with City pouring almost everyone forward, George Boyd played the pass of the match to slice the visitors’ defence open and find James Chester unmarked in the area. His first touch was good but his shot was hesitant, and De Gea deflected the ball to safety. And the game was lost.
Credit to Manchester United – the record books don’t distinguish between deserved and undeserved victories, and whatever their pedigree in comparison to ours, it’s still no mean feat to recover from two goals down away from home and win. You have to go back a very long way for the last time we did it, after all.
But it would be stretching credulity a little to believe that we deserved to lose this. This game was fearlessly taken to the Champions of England from the start, a lead was thrillingly built, and even the jarringly abrupt loss of that advantage didn’t cause heads to drop, nor did we fold in the second half when falling behind.
Any neutrals in the ground will have been richly entertained, the visiting fans will doubtless feel a sense of relief mingled with their joy, and we have only pride to show for it.
But rather a lot of pride. Played, City. And hard luck. Have a day off today, remember the deserved acclaim showered from the stands at the end, and anything approaching that performance tomorrow will see us end the year on 23 points.