A point apiece in the derby and the bragging rights are void, but pain felt acutely north of the borderMon 27 Feb 17 by Gary Gowers
For once there was no debate to be had over whether it was a point gained or two points dropped.
Yesterday was all about the result, the quality of performance almost an irrelevance, and when faced with what many labelled a ‘must win’ City came up just short. And not for the first time.
Had it been a boxing match it would have been stopped. If football matches were decided by stats City would have romped home. But as goals still remain the EFL’s determiner of choice it was another moment of iffy defending and a mistake from the otherwise imperious Bartosz Bialkowski that decreed the latest leg of the East Anglian derby a draw.
But it felt like a win for them and a defeat for us. And if confirmation were needed I understand Mick the Moaner greeted the 57,678th and final blast of Oliver Langford’s whistle with a fist pump.
Okay, so the unbeaten record for City goes on and there only briefly looked to be a prospect of Town doing to us what they did way back in April 2009 but derby bragging rights aside it could end up being a really costly afternoon (and I’m not just referring to the season ticket status of the premature flare thrower).
Sheffield Wednesday’s defeat at Elland Road had opened up a sliver of opportunity, one that simply had to be seized, but while that sliver remains it’s one that’s diminished slightly as a result of City’s failure to convert more than one opportunity on an afternoon that produced several.
Alex Neil’s customary post-match positivity deemed the away trip to Hillsborough as must-win regardless of yesterday’s outcome, and he wouldn’t be expected to say anything else, but spin it however you like, City suffered a blow and the old enemy’s plan to throw a spanner in the works of our proposed late charge for sixth worked just as Big Mick had planned it.
Town’s ambitions were limited from the word go and the midweek noises emanating from down south about a draw being a good result were proven to be factual rather mind games. Five at the back, albeit with the full-backs given licence to convert to wing-backs, was designed with one thing in mind and one thing alone: to keep it very tight.
That City scored just the once equated to job done for our Suffolk brethren. To have sneaked a win would have been one huge, gigantic bonus – and but for City getting level so quickly it wasn’t beyond the realms.
Those five glorious minutes will of course go down in Town folklore alongside the shorts worn by Paul Anderson when he equalised in the first leg of the play-off semi-final, but once level if anyone was going to muster a late winner he would have been wearing yellow.
But it didn’t happen, largely down to the fine reflexes of Bialkowski, and at a time when we are supposed to be cranking up the pressure on those in our sights we have won just once in our last five games. And, as pointed out by a respected #NCFC tweeter, in those games City have played teams who are 15th, 18th, 19th, and 22nd.
Hardly a side on the cusp of a late charge.
Yet behind the disappointment it was noteworthy that moans and groans were few and far between at the final whistle and while the high fives and fist pumps were confined to those in blue – who celebrated as if another star above the badge had been earned – there was warmth and appreciation in evidence from the faithful.
Fears that the frailty and preciousness often in evidence on the road would reappear in the face of a physical onslaught were unfounded and having matched a side whose raison d’etre is to scrap, a platform on which to perform was delivered.
Where it fell down was the inability to find enough quality in the final third to really hurt the massed ranks of blue and when half-chances arrived they were either snatched at or Town’s keeper was up to the task, and in a game of fine margins City’s cutting edge, on the day, went AWOL.
As a spectacle, I don’t expect there to have been too many purring purists outside of the respective Yellow and Blue Armies but for those of us inside the bubble it delivered the usual levels of tension and nervousness interrupted with sporadic bursts of excitement; mental exhaustion levels in the stands being right up there with physical exertion levels on the pitch.
That Jacob Murphy was able to atone for his marking blunder was appropriate, and it was interesting to hear post-match how they had identified Bialkowski’s weakness on his near-post; so too his, and presumably his brother’s, acute understanding of precisely how much the derby means to the fans – a by-product of their long association with the club.
And it showed. For all of their pace and attacking flair, the lightweight label is one the boys have found hard to shake off, particularly when defensive duties are focused upon, but Jacob displayed an appetite yesterday that’s not always been evident. His goal was a just reward.
Star of the City show was again Mitchell Dijks who with every gigantic stride edges himself closer to a Premier League deal next season and we really do have to make the most of what seems certain to be the Dutchman’s short spell at our club.
For Town, David McGoldrick showed what a thoroughly decent player he is when fully fit and is one, possibly the only one, who would force his way into City’s starting XI.
Typically McCarthy was unable to speak of the derby without mentioning financial disparity, as ever ignoring how City initially dipped their noses in the Premier League trough under Paul Lambert without the proverbial pot to pee in, but it was hard to deny Town their moment in the sun. They’d done a number on us.
For City however hope springs eternal (for now), and while there’s still a mathematical chance of the play-offs every sinew will be strained to make that happen – but it’s clearly a riddle that will only be solved by a massive improvement in the form away from Carrow Road.
Hillsborough next Saturday represents a massive opportunity but an even greater challenge. A failure to win there – and there’s precious little evidence to suggest a win is achievable – and the plans can begin for the Championship 2017/18.