Apparently the gate yesterday was 6,777. The presence of a feisty 858 City fans notwithstanding, the expansive tracts of empty blue seating at Ewood Park suggest that the doctrine of Allamonomics is alive and kicking not just in Hull. But whatever the accuracy of the crowd reporting, the paucity of spectators does make you think back to how things would have been in previous years, when the phrase “the magic of the FA Cup” struck a genuine chord in the hearts of all proper football supporters. In 1966, my first year of Tigerwatching, a City 3rd Round Cup tie at Ewood would probably have attracted a crowd north of 25,000, with very probably 3,000 or so Tigerfolk having crossed the Pennines in a fleet of charabancs and a couple of special trains. Even until the early 90s this would have been a big game, a special occasion. Third round day (although it’s actually four days now) was one of the most exciting and eagerly- anticipated days in the football calendar, and for those of us who remember that excitement and anticipation it is genuinely saddening to see the knock-out format subordinated the way it has been to the league format by managers, supporters and football powers-that-be.
This could all be reversed at a stroke by the FA ruling that one of the Champions’ League places should go to the FA Cup winners (or better still informing UEFA that henceforth only two candidates will be entered for that competition, namely the winners of the Premier League and the FA Cup, as the only clubs that could properly be regarded as “champions”), but we have to be realistic enough to accept that that would never be accepted by the rapacious and influential owners of the clubs at risk of missing out on the European place to which they believe themselves entitled at the hands of some less well-resourced outfit.
To be honest, however, only those watching the game through the most amber-and-black tinted of glasses would venture that the football was worthy of a packed-out Ewood Park or indeed provided the kind of heart-stopping drama or absorbing contest that makes old farts such as myself such staunch supporters of the FA Cup. Au contraire, whilst it cannot be denied that the last twenty-odd minutes were something of a nail-biter, the football as a whole was what the great Doug Baillie (who incidentally hails from the same Scottish village as the even greater Jock Davidson) would have described in the Sunday Post as a “gey dreich affair”.
But does anyone care about that? Hell, it was a win. Away. In the Cup. With a clean sheet duly kept. In a game which, although against a team from the division below, we were probably (forgot to check the odds) not favourites to win, hence a bullet dodged, potential banana skin safely side-stepped. Which will do no harm for confidence or morale if nothing for our League plight. And in which there were the first tentative signs that the debilitating injury crisis which has dogged us all season might just be starting to ease.
So, all in all, a decidedly satisfactory afternoon from where I’m sitting. And one for which, my travelling companion and I agreed as we emerged from the stand into the bitterly cold Blackburn night air at the end, we would gladly have snatched off the hand of the offeror two hours previously.
Credit to Adkins for fielding a relatively strong side. If we are to build the cohesion, spirit and (dare I say it) fitness to see us safely through what promises to be a very challenging second half or so of the League season, this lot need to be playing together as much as they reasonably can. The temptation to field an inexperienced side must have been significant but the manager made the right choice whereas the under-fire Mr Bruce, to pick a name not at random, did not yesterday (who’d have thunk it, eh?) and came very badly unstuck.
So we lined up as follows:-
Aina Hector Tomori Clark
Toral Stewart Evandro Henriksen Bowen
In the first half City defended the end populated by the raucous Tigerfolk, producing the only noise emanating from the stands. The game started in familiarly formless fashion, the monotony of it broken after 11 minutes when a ball from their left is deflected across the City box and the number 16, Caddis, decides to thwack the leather first time from the corner of penalty area. Marshall is nowhere near it and we’re all mightily relieved to see it thud off the crossbar. A let off for sure, but it does seem to jolt City into action somewhat and we start to thread together some decent passages of play and even to cause the home defence a few headaches, with Dio having an effort blocked on 26 and Bowen (who still seems to be getting himself back up to speed) shooting wide a minute later. Then on the half hour mark Stewart ought to do better when finding himself in space following a free kick but fails to connect properly.
Not much more to report on the rest of the first half, the highlight being a lusty chorus of “Your support is worse than ours” from the City fans until we win a free two minutes before the break and this is headed across the face of the goal (not sure by whom) with nobody in amber and black able to supply the finishing touch. About this time, Corry Evans, who seems to have taken a knock, is subbed and receives a generous ovation from the City support.
And that’s about as much as can safely be said about the first period. A bit like the famous Sunderland game in 1974 (the John Hawley goal one), when YTV showed no first-half highlights at all apart from a clip of potential penalty shout when Chris Galvin was felled.
At half time there’s a bit of discussion about how the predictable rituals of the transfer window are there again, in the guise of a statement in the HDM during the week about City hoping to get their business done early followed by rumours of City having entered into a NDA with a potential suitor. We get this every transfer window. Do the people who write this, and more particularly those who put this stuff out on behalf of the Allams, really believe that City supporters are that gullible and stupid? Or maybe some of them are: the number of people on Twitter solemnly pronouncing of late that “it’s now time for the Allams to be thinking about selling” as if they’ve had some kind of miraculous Eureka moment just makes you want to bury your head in your hands, doesn’t it?
Anyway, the abiding impression from the first half, that City appear to have more quality but compromised by a big question mark over whether they can do anything with it, seems very much to be applicable to the second period too, as our heroes advance towards the City support in gentle waves reminiscent of a benign incoming sea tide lapping the shore on a calm day. After almost ten minutes of this, however, we finally cause some genuine panic in the Blackburn box, although the threat is eventually nullified more by an inability on our part to weight the final pass correctly or summon the confidence to have a dig than by the Rovers defence actually appearing to have got some sort of grip on the situation.
But when someone finally decides to direct the leather in the direction of the net, guess what? On 57 Toral whips in a corner from the right and Aina, who seemed to have been floored during the pushing and shoving that preceded the corner, rises to nod the beautifully-weighted leather just inside the diving Leutwiler’s right-hand post. A goal so clinically executed that you could be fooled into thinking that we did this sort of thing all the time.
We continue to press, and two minute after the goal Bowen rises at the far post to head another Toral corner. Leutwiler clearly gets a hand to it before it strikes the side netting but referee Langford awards a goal kick.
But from that point onwards the whole complexion of the game changes, as starkly as if someone has flicked a switch. Whether it’s down to panic, complacency or the increasingly-palpable lack of fitness goodness knows, but, relative to what has gone before, we go rather to pieces. This first manifests itself most worryingly on 63 minutes when some appalling sloppy defending allows Conway acres of space only for him to fire straight at Marshall. A let-off. Six minutes later and an equally poor defensive effort sees Danny Graham given far too much space, but he spoons wastefully over.
But hang on. The opposition hitting the bar. Danny Graham missing for them when it looked easier to score. Didn’t both those things happen in the Southend Cup-tie in 2014? If you believe in omens and can remember how we fared in the Cup that year, best get your money on us (and your hotel booked) pronto.
We get a bit of respite on 78, when Bowen flashes one just wide, but it’s a rare breather: we’re really under the cosh now, not helped by some cynical stuff from the home side which seems perpetually to fool the referee, although personally I have always been suspicious of referees in games against outfits below us in the pecking order ever since the infamous Hednesford game.
83. They get a corner. Two of our defenders get in each other’s way trying to clear it. They must score, but Mulgrew (I think) fires over the bar.
With five minutes left we attack again and a neat move is finished off by Toral blasting home powerfully from about 18 yards. The linesman’s flag is however raised for offside, although that’s probably just as well to be honest, given our recent track record at hanging onto two-goal leads.
Mercifully, we are then spared any more goalmouth scares in the 90 minutes, and then receive an unexpected stroke of luck when a mere three minutes’ stoppage time are added, despite six substitutions and a goal in the second half. There’s still time though for one final piece of foolery which would have been quite amusing had the potential consequences not been so serious, when a free kick is floated into the City box. The leather bounces and its course is only halted when it makes gentle contact with Marshall’s nads, with the City netminder so apparently mesmerised by the approaching sphere as to render him incapable of actually remembering to put his hands round it.
Soon afterwards the ref brings an end to the proceedings and we are in the hat for the next round. Which made it an enjoyable journey home, even if most of it for me was spent in the company of two very drunk and loud Chesterfield fans who had been to see their team lose 4-0 at Accrington. For are there really many finer things in life than spending the weekend speculating about who you’re going to get in the next round?
Millwall at home it is, then.
Ian Thomson (via Tiger Chat)