Robert Carlysle, the Scottish essayist, once noted that “the first duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it, he cannot act till then.”
Both sets of fans were forced to contemplate their respective sides’ inability to conquer fear of defeat as they filed out of the KC Stadium on Saturday, after witnessing a game blighted by indecision, creative stagnation and a lack of conviction that three points could be had, rather than a share of two. Complaints about our highlights being last or late into Match of the Day could not be levelled at the BBC this week, in fact they showed restraint in not making it the first game on The Football League Show.
Perhaps the fear was understandable, City had stopped the rot at Everton on Wednesday with a hard won point that ended a run of four straight defeats, whereas West Brom were still rotting, they too suffered four losses on the bounce, the latest at home to West Ham in midweek. Practically every interview conducted at the Millhousewoods Lane training ground in the run up to this tie made reference to December being a month that would define The Tigers’ season, so early match jitters can be forgiven.
Less forgivable is City not capitalising on The Baggie’s profligacy from the penalty spot and Allan McGregor’s third spot-kick save of the campaign by upping their game sufficiently enough to win. The point may prove valuable in the long run but at 5 o’ clock on Saturday it wasn’t enough to stop us slipping back into the relegation zone.
Steve Bruce made two changes to the eleven that were praised for a battling 2nd half at Goodison Park, and both were enforced: Mohammed Diame hobbled off at Everton and is likely to be out for a few weeks with knee-knack, whereas a stomach bug reduced Nikica Jelavic’s role to substitute.
The Tigers fielded : McGregor; Rosenior, Chester, Dawson, Elmohamady; Quinn, Huddlestone, Livermore, Meyler; Aluko and Hernandez. Elmohamady’s position was a puzzler, he wasn’t far back enough to be the right-back in a 4-4-2, nor sufficiently advanced to truly be part of a packed midfield in 3-5-2, and rarely strayed ahead of Meyler, so cut a rather subdued and ineffective figure.
The North Stand was quite noisy at kick off, but soon lulled into noiselessness by an opening that was anything but ‘premier’. Victor Anichebe made energetic entreaties to ref Michael Oliver for a penalty after Micheal Dawson had a tug on the West Brom forward’s jersey at the edge of the box but it was City who were awarded a free kick. The ref didn’t seem entirely sure of his decision and the more cynical of Tiger Nationals (err, that’ll be me and the bloke next to me) wondered out loud if he’d have that in mind the next time there was an incident in our box.
At the other end, David Meyler received an oblique pass from Sone Aluko and swept in a turf hugging cross that had Hernandez sliding to get on the end of it, but the ball was shielded by two white shirted defenders. A rare Elmo cross was hacked away by Lescott for a corner but Quinn’s delivery wasn’t attacked with gusto and West Brom’s rearguard mopped up.
Soon after came Anichebe and West Brom’s second appeal for a spot kick. Livermore was too touchy feely as he tried to prevent Anichebe turning to face goal inside the box and Oliver had no hesitation in blowing his whistle this time. Graham Dorran’s struck the ball low, but not particularly hard to McGregor’s left, allowing our black-tights wearing netman to fling himself at it and save, Quinn hacking the ball to safety as the Tiger Nation exulted and exhorted City to take advantage.
The defence though, didn’t advance enough to push West Brom to half way, and whenever The Baggies had the ball, they were able to quickly play the ball deep into our territory. Chester blocked a shot by Anichebe, again allowed to receive the ball and turn in our box. From the corner, Mulumbu mis-hit a shot that struck Huddlestone, prompting more penalty appeals, presumably for handball, that were correctly ignored.
Hernandez headed goalward from a cross but he was so far from goal, and got so little purchase on the header, that the ball trickled feebly wide. Aluko had created the chance with some good industry, and he was emblematic of City’s good application without good decision making. City were mistiming or just misplacing passes, often playing the ball just behind a man who needed it in front of him, and you suspect that nervousness and fear was the root cause.
The game entered a phase that traditionally we’d describe as ‘largely formless’, a wafer thin euphemistic disguise for very boring. The chap next to me enquired how the NFL season was going and it was far more enjoyable to indulge him by discussing the relative strengths and Superbowl chances of the Green Bay Packers than to pay rapt attention to the game unfolding at a snail’s pace in front of us.
We relied on the noises of the crowd to let us know when something of note was occurring, and enough people weren’t using stadium wi-fi to order pies and pints or looking to see who Leeds were losing to this week to alert us to an arcing West Brom cross, but play was halted when the ref decided McGregor was being impeded.
Meyler advanced menacingly forward but his pass was to the feet of a defender rather than on the toes of Hernandez and both sides were guilty of exchanging missed passes. Half time, when it was signalled, was a mercy, this was a poor advert for the half-season passes being touted by the video boards and the managers had chance to lecture players on footballing basics as fans took solace in beer or a trip to the bog.
If West Brom looked the more dangerous of the two sides in the first half, then it was City who were leaning forwards in the second, if not quite on the front foot (to borrow an Andy Townsend-ism). Hernandez turned to shoot a shot wide after neat build up by Aluko. The Uruguayan maintains the willingness to shoot from range he showed early on in his City career but whereas then he always seemed to face goal, today he always received the ball with his back to goal. He’s not alone in not repeating early season good form however. Quinn was exasperated by Hernandez’s not considering passing to him on the left wing and he was equally frustrated when Livermore eschewed a return ball, instead spinning to give the ball to Meyler who threaded the ball ahead of Aluko in the box, but the experienced Lescott nipped in, Aluko lost his balance and the chance was gone. Lescott eyed Aluko suspiciously, as if the Nigerian international had intentionally taken a tumble, but he never appealed, either vocally or with body language.
Meyler seemed to have escaped a card or ticking off for crunching Gardner in the centre-circle as Oliver waved play on and the ball never went dead for him to respond in a timeous manner, but a caution was issued after City’s best spell of the game. A patient series of short passes moved City from defence to attack via both flanks, eventually creating a chance for Quinn who met Livermore’s centre with a quasi-diving header that troubled Foster, his dive was late but enough to beat the ball away. The ball wasn’t cleared effectively and Huddlestone reminded everyone why he went so long without a haircut with a wild shot wide. Better from The Tigers though.
Bruce made a double substitution, Rosenior and Quinn were withdrawn (much to Quinn’s visible frustration) and Robertson and Brady introduced. The change succeeded in infusing City with some attacking bent, Huddlestone’s raking pass found Brady who sought to put Hernandez on goal, Lescott intervened but the new dad Uruguayan made a nuisance of himself enough to force Worf into conceding a corner. Brady’s centre didn’t beat the first man but he was given another chance to cross when Huddlestone was first to the clearance, the Irishman’s second cross was better and caused a melee in the box leading to a blocked shot by Meyler and a hooked shot by Livermore that didn’t have the required zip to beat Foster. City were growing in stature, but then any improvement stood out after turgid play earlier.
A West Brom free kick nearly undermined all the advancement though after Huddlestone climbed over Gardner. Gardner himself struck the direct free kick that was heading in near the near post but McGregor, who has fared better against penalties than free kicks at City, got across well to beat the ball wide.
Berahino, WBA’s top scorer this term, was sent on for a narked Anichebe who mardily took forever to leave the field of play. Brady fired in a curling cross from a free kick some 30 yards out and Hernandez, facing goal this time, headed narrowly wide, his best contribution. It was enough for ‘Abel H.’ to avoid the shepherd’s crook as Bruce made a final change, sending on a Gaviscon enabled Jelavić to replace Aluko who had an afternoon of high application and endeavour, just little in the way of end product. Not alone in that though, our Sone.
Bruce was being positive with his changes, but we really needed to show positivity from the outset in what is surely one of the most winnable of December games. Huddlestone dragged a shot from outside the box off target and that was about that. All in all, a bitterly disappointing result and a poor start to a month that will set the tone for the second half of the campaign, will it be a long slog against relegation, or can we as Bruce maintains, look forward to brighter things?
It’s hard to imagine us shaking off fear at Stamford Bridge next week, but sooner or later we’ll have to cast off paralysing doubt if we’re to keep approximately triangular Premier League patches on our shirt sleeves. Our biggest fear right now, is fear itself.