We filed into the KC Stadium nervous, ahead of a key fixture in the relegation battle. We left the KC Stadium angry, after witnessing what was tantamount to a relegation surrender.
Some people will shake their heads and wonder how a side that has taken four points from Liverpool and drawn at Arsenal and Manchester City can possibly be embroiled in a battle against the drop, but the answer is relatively simple: A string of inadequate results against the sides around us at the intestinal end of the Premier League, and an inability to finish off sides after having our foot on their necks. We let Leicester and Newcastle have four points each to our one, allowed Sunderland to escape with a point in a game which we should have won, and coughed up six points to Burnley who were bottom of the division on each occasion.
How can you do that and expect to remain a top tier side? The good results against top four teams are all very nice, but beating the struggling sides is the key to salvation, and a true test of the character of your squad. It’s easy for any player to self-motivate when up against marquee opposition, but when they have to roll up their sleeves and scrap against determined and dogged opponents, not just to edify themselves, but to show respect to and give their all for their colleagues, their manager and their fans, that’s harder, and after this game, it’s hard to imagine many players being able to look each other in the eye and say they gave it their all. How very sad.
Steve Bruce stuck with the same starting eleven that beat both Crystal Palace and Liverpool before self destructing against a slick Arsenal side who needed little assistance from us to depart with three points. We carded, then: Harper; McShane, Dawson, Chester; Brady, Livermore, Huddlestone, Quinn, Elmohamady; Aluko and N’Doye.
Burnley kicked off, knowing only victory could save them and even then maybe not, playing towards the North Stand. City meanwhile, now also occupied a relegation spot after Sunderland took advantage of Everton profligacy and won 2-0 in the first game of the day.
The team in claret and blue, backed by a raucous mob in the North/East corner, had the first opportunity of note, former Tiger George Boyd bounded down the right wing and delivered a cross he hoped would find an extremity of either Ings or Taylor but instead found Steve Harper’s gloved hands.
City responded well, Brady cut in on the left and chipped the ball to Aluko who couldn’t dig out a shot after several controlling touches, however Quinn swung a cross beyond the far goalpost to Elmo, but his touch was errant and the ball struck him and went out for a goal kick.
The home crowd was energised by this for a split second but soon went back to transmitting silent nervousness. After a week of social media broadcast hand wringing about getting behind the team and not protesting, very few people were doing what they’d implored others to do.
Quinn and Brady hough, were motivated regardless: The former deftly clipped the ball beyond his marker and into the path of Brady, sprinting towards the byline before crossing the ball in-between the keeper and a slew of defenders in the hope that Aluko, N’Doye or Elmo would attack it, they didn’t and a defender sliced the ball over for a corner. So far, so alright at this point, and almost better when further interplay between Quinn and Brady led to a deep cross that Elmo headed wide and high.
Burnley were creating chances too though, Barnes headed over after beating Chester to a cross from a corner, they were looking more composed too, generally keeping the ball for spells whereas we were often errant in our passing, Huddlestone and Livermore as culpable as they were against Arsenal.
City’s best chance from open play of the half came from Paul McShane, who rose to meet Brady’s inswinging corner kick but his headed attempt was over the goal. At the other end Taylor crossed well for Barnes who got ahead of Dawson but his downward header didn’t trouble Harper too much.
N’Doye won a free kick after being held back as he smartly controlled a long and hopefully punted ball downfield by Huddlestone. From it Brady arced the ball over the wall but not under the crossbar, which it smacked against and bounced over. There were hearts in mouths in the home sections after Huddlestone’s weak clearance went straight to Mee, but he couldn’t get his foot sufficiently over the ball and spooned it way over.
N’Doye fell to the floor clutching his face after being beaten to the ball by Shackell but there really didn’t seem anything in it, certainly no elbow use as was seemingly being implied. Perhaps N’Doye was just trying to inject some drama into a half of torpor and tepidity both on the field and in the stands. There are new floodlight gantry’s in each corner of the ground and LED lamps running the full length of the East Stand, but even had they have been switched on, this was a low wattage half of football.
No changes were made during the break and little changed early in the second half. Elmo fired a low cross into the box but Aluko couldn’t get on the end of it and at the other end Barnes tried an overhead kick that went wide in a move that seemed to take place in slow motion. There was so little pace on the effort that even old man Harper was never in trouble even had it been on target.
One of the few who emerged from this game with great credit was Stephen Quinn, whose industry and heart deserved better, certainly a better response from his team mates. His cross from the left let to a Livermore shot that was charged down, and after Elmo passed to him, a relatively tame shot into the ‘keeper’s grasp from Huddlestone.
Oh Tom Huddlestone. Do you remember this time last year when people were expressing outrage at Huddlestone’s being overlooked by the national team? When he was being touted as a possible World Cup squad member? What has happened to that player? Today Huddlestone was emblematic of the lack of urgency shown by many of the team following the Liverpool game, as if they felt safety was assured and none of the other teams would even bother trying.
He slothed around the pitch as if this was the first game of pre-season, and his passing accuracy was brilliant if you count him as a Burnley player. Quite how he maintained his place after being directly responsible for two of the goals conceded in the Arsenal defeat is mystifying, but despite setting his performance bar at its lowest level during his two years at the club on Monday, he was trying, or not trying if you will, to limbo underneath it.
We’ve heard people say all season long that there is a great player in there somewhere and we know that is the case from 2013/14, but he’s nowhere to be seen in 2014/15, and nothing seems to motivate him, not being dropped for a short while, not the impending wage cut, nothing, and if he thinks he’ll easily move to another Premier League side, he’s doing so figuring none of them will watch game footage from this season. He’s far from the only one to underwhelm this year, but when you’re considering the big name players who just haven’t earned their thousands, his name springs to mind first.
Burnley started to turn up the heat, and had a spell of possession so long it was easy to forget that they were the away side. Harper punched away a deep cross only for Taylor to fizz in a cross that missed Barnes diving header attempt by a tiny margin.
A brief respite came when Chester’s raking ball found Brady, who dinked the ball past a marker and darted purposely diagonally upfield, he squared for Livermore, who found Aluko in the box with back to goal, and yet again he failed to create space and his shot was harmlessly against claret sock covered shins.
The Burnley onslaught soon resumed though, Ings got the better of Chester wide of goal and sprinted towards it, slaloming past Dawson and McShane before being bundled over by team mate Barnes and appealing for a foul! Boyd laid the ball back for Arfield and his shot was blocked and Harper gathered. City though, were living dangerously.
We were looking woefully weak in midfield and as a result creating little up front, so Steve Bruce withdrew the abject Livermore, adding Meyler for graft and solidity in midfield, and implementing phase one of his now familiar when we need something kitchen sink policy by swapping a forward for a defender, Jelavić for McShane.
The plan seemed to be working for a few seconds at least, Jelavić’s blasted shot from outside the box pinballed off a defender to Aluko, who fed a wide Meyler, but his cross was headed away and then cleared.
But Burnley were soon back on the front foot. Trippier’s cross from the right was swiped upwards by Dawson, who went to contest the second ball himself against Barnes and came down from that tussle holding his nose as Meyler tackled Taylor and conceded a corner. As Burnley prepared for that the ref noticed a spot of blood on Dawson’s shirt and ordered him off to replace it, leaving us a man down as the corner kick was fired in. After a short bout of head tennis, George Boyd passed back to Mee who curled in a cross that Elmo headed, Brady made an unfortunate mess of controlling or clearing the ball, and Danny Ings blasted the ball in from close range. 1-0 Burnley.
Claret and blue clad players exulted in front of claret and blue clad fans, they didn’t even care that it no longer mattered if they won and that other scores meant they were likely down anyway, they revelled in their togetherness, and City were drawn further into the mire.
So now’s the time when the Tigers finally shake themselves from their somnambulism and fight back into the game, right? Wrong. The urgency the crowd willed them to show just never came, City carried on in a fairly pedestrian manner, although Bruce activated phase two of operation kitchen sink by replacing Aluko with Hernandez.
Jelavić headed fairly tamely goalward from Elmo’s raking cross, and Quinn reacted quickly to the deflection of a Burnley man with a diving header that lacked the requisite fizz, it hit Hernandez, who tried a cute back heel, but that too lacked power and the ‘keeper gratefully pouched it.
Burnley put the ball in the net a second time but Barnes, who’d contested a high ball with Harper on the goal line, made only a cursory claim of innocence when the ref deemed his challenge to be a foul.
The ball was mostly in our side of the field, though Quinn won a free kick after an Elmo cross was headed away, and Brady, having already rattled the woodwork, eyed another dead ball strike. Jelavić faked to take it, and Brady walloped it over the wall, past the keeper, but again against the bar, and Burnley hacked away the rebound. Soon after Quinn fired a shot that again homed in on the ‘keepers gloves. Ten minutes remained.
Brady was fouled by Boyd near the South Stand byline, but nothing came from Huddlestone’s unfocused chip from the free kick. Brainlessly, City conceded several needless free kicks in their own half to allow Burnley to tick away added time without incident and the ref soon signalled the end of a wretched afternoon for City.
Whichever way you look at it, a side who knew deep down they were down, wanted this game more than the side with a more realistic chance of survival, a chance they squandered. For this, you have to ask questions of Steve Bruce’s ability to motivate his charges. There has been a pattern developing over the last few years, one of late season complacency and hopefulness when hard work was required.
2013, City beat Ipswich, figure they’ve done enough to secure runners-up spot, then phone in performances against Wolves and Bristol City, stink the place up at Barnsley, and stumble over the line on the final day in a chaotic game against Cardiff.
2014, with an FA Cup final to look forward to, City lose four of their last five league games and tumble down the table, finishing lower than they could have done.
2015, after an improbable win over Liverpool, City meekly accept defeat to Arsenal and lose to the bottom side as teams above us win or draw, leaving us with an away trip to Tottenham and a home game against Manchester United left to ensure survival.
It’s a frankly terrifying pattern, and one that could end with a totally needless relegation when we’ve had it well within our power and capacity to avoid it. A relegation battle? If only, we cruised against Burnley when some sense of urgency was needed, and when you’re really in need of three points, that is as good as a relegation surrender.