It was a cliché lover’s dream…
It was a game of two halves.
City did set up with two banks of four.
They certainly did put their bodies on the line.
And – at the end of the day – it was all about the three points.
The Liverpool disaster still brings back painful memories – for me at least – but the progress made in the intervening 66 days is immeasurable. In Chris Hughton’s words the antidote to that, and the marginally better fare served up at Chelsea in the game that followed, was to ‘go back to basics’.
Nothing complicated… just a return to the habits of old; those that have been drilled into each and every player from the day they were taken under the umbrella of pro-football.
A back-four that keeps its shape and doesn’t leave big gaps between the central defenders and the full-backs (or ‘in the channels’ to use the footballing vernacular); a midfield that works its socks off, provides protection to the back-four and creates chances going forward; and a forward-line that not only provides an attacking threat, but also provides the first line of defence.
It’s fair to say that Team Hughton has ticked each of these boxes in the last nine weeks, culminating in City’s best run of top flight results since 1994. It may sound simple – ultimately football is a simple game – but it isn’t.
I wrote a few weeks back – in the midst of the ‘iffy’ run – that the unforgiving nature of the Premiership meant that Hughton was being forced to do his tinkering in real time. That he has done so with such success, whilst always in the ultimate media spotlight, is furthermore to his credit. The fact he has also done so with an endearing charm and class – far belying most of his Premiership counterparts – merely adds to the reputation he is quietly building for himself in these parts.
That some of our number still chose to question his decision making frankly baffles me…
As mentioned earlier, it is virtually impossible to write a report on yesterday’s game without referring to a ‘game of two halves’… I’ve just proved it (twice).
The first half an hour produced football as good as anything we’ve witnessed this season; and few could argue that we were not worthy of the two goal lead. With the MotD2 producers affording us the ‘Swanseola’ treatment for the second goal my weekend was almost complete; the only regret being that it was missing the contorted expression of a eulogising Alan Shearer. But sometimes you can’t have it all…
The sucker punch, conceded on the stroke of half-time was always going to change the dynamic of the game. Until that point Sunderland had looked about as abject as anything Carrow Road had witnessed since Aston Villa’s final day debacle last season – but Craig Gardener’s crisp strike gave them belief. A belief that for 44 minutes had been very well disguised.
The upshot of this 44th minute shot in the arm was a performance that one would expect from such a line-up. I commented on hearing the teams how strong Sunderland looked on paper – and from minute 45 through to 94 they showed it.
Martin O’Neill’s half-time change – bringing on the talented Sessegnon twin to replace his comedic brother – worked a treat and there was no doubting it was the visitors who carried the greater threat after the break. The sublime passing rhythm that City had found in the opening 45 disappeared and instead we were forced to defend for long periods – desperately so on occasions.
But defend it they did. To emerge from such a thorough going over speaks volumes not only for the individuals involved – although it would be remiss not to mention Mark Bunn’s excellent contribution – but also the way they’ve been organised and coached. Perhaps we were witnessing the first tangible contribution of Colin Calderwood; a good old-school centre half himself, one imagines him purring at the positioning and tackling of Messrs Bassong and Bennett (R) as they responded magnificently to the intense pressure.
Whilst few could argue with the Wearsiders claim that they deserved at least a point, they didn’t get one. Instead they returned north with zilch… let’s hope they’re not expecting an apology.
There’ll be plenty of occasions when we return home pointless having thought we earned one or more – it happens all the time. Who’s to say our trip to the Liberty Stadium won’t end in a similar fashion. Stranger things have happened.
When you’re on an eight game unbeaten run these things tend to go in your favour… football’s daft like that.
On a different note… the FA Cup has thrown up a curious one. Let’s hope Hughton reminds the players that Peterborough’s ‘celebrity fan’, Adrian Durham (him of TalkSport infamy) earlier described us as the ‘worst side in Premier League history’. Team talk sorted.
And finally (slightly off topic)… the best song of the weekend award surely goes to the travelling AFC Wimbledon fans at their FA cup ‘grudge match’ with MK Dons. Despite losing to a late Jon Otsemobor(!) goal their rendition of ‘Where were you when you were us?’ was the undoubted highlight of the second round. Genius.