That one hurt. It’s pointless pretending otherwise. No time for bravado.
The ‘we dust ourselves down and go again’ platitudes have already been unleashed – there is no alternative – but equally there is no escaping how seismic and potentially harmful last night’s defeat was.
Alex Neil was, as ever, bold, unequivocal and eloquent post-match but there was no hiding the pain, and he admitted that if promotion is to be achieved it’s now likely to be done via the play-offs.
To be in the realms of hoping for favours from the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham – both likely to have the flip-flops and sunscreen at the ready – is far from ideal and in truth it is difficult to envisage a route to second place.
But football is notoriously odd. We’ve long known that and it’s almost inconceivable that there will no more slip-ups from other incumbents of the top four. Whether, if they occur, they play into City’s hands is in the lap of the gods right now.
Last night’s performance was of course below the standard set of late but, given the high intensity of the run-in and City’s run of consecutive energy-draining wins, it was – certainly with the benefit of hindsight – not a complete surprise.
While the legs looked a little lifeless, certainly in those fraught opening fifteen minutes, it was the minds that looked even more tired. Gone was the zip to which we have become accustomed, instead the passing was a bit laboured and ponderous.
The early goal played perfectly into Middesbrough’s game-plan and gave them something to cling on to; just how Aitor Karanka had dreamt it. From that moment, faced with the meanest defence in the Championship, it was always going to be a severe test.
That City only went on to create two clear-cut chances while having enjoyed 69 per cent of possession speaks volumes for the Boro defence, and it was clear why they have conceded less than a goal per game. For the record, Daniel Ayala – once of this parish – was outstanding at the heart of their defence alongside Ben Gibson.
But while the visitors defended heroically, it was their antics to run down the clock that really stuck in the craw. Yes, it’s deemed as being ‘professional and all teams do it – including City – but the ultra-cynical edge to their time-wasting left a nasty taste. Yet it was Robert Madley – a Premier League referee would you believe – who was the facilitator.
I’m loathe to openly criticise referees – having tried and failed I can confirm it’s the most difficult job in the world – but Master Madley’s weak performance afforded the Boro players a perfect platform for their RADA audition.
While the seven minutes of added-on time was probably a fair reflection, the referee’s penchant for stopping the play for every slight niggle, yet reluctance to flash yellow made for the stop-start game that Karanka yearned.
In fairness TV evidence appears to confirm that the two major decisions for which he felt the wrath of Carrow Road – the Wes dive and the second-half penalty appeal for handball – were both correct, so it is less his decision making, more his handling of the time-wasting that really rankles.
But we can’t blame Madley for defeat. That was of City’s own making. It just felt and looked like a game too far.
Cameron Jerome, after an exhaustive run of games that has seen him successfully plough that lone furrow, appears one who is running on empty, and City’s propensity to ‘go long’ last night did him few favours. Against the towering Ayala he had little joy in the air and furthermore last night’s lack of quality in the final third offered him barely a glimpse of goal.
He’s been superb of late, but it just wasn’t his night and he – along with the rest of the squad – will benefit hugely from having a full week to freshen up prior to the trip to Rotherham.
I’ve read some online nonsense this morning about City being ‘bottlers’ but, as disappointing as last night was, I couldn’t disagree more. I saw no-one hide, no-one shirk a tackle, no-one give less than their all and, from the outside looking in, no-one froze.
In the final analysis we came up a little short due mainly to a horribly leggy opening quarter of an hour and an equally horrible miss by the otherwise excellent Jonny Howson. And that’s it. ‘Bottlers’ they most certainly are not.
So, where now?
Well, given that Alex deems the play-offs to be most likely, I too am going to assume the worst. The players will continue to strain every sinew to win the final two games but on the premise it may still not be enough. And, in the spirit of scratching around for positives, I would suggest that is a more favourable approach than losing out on the automatics in the final throes of the Fulham game.
At least now Team Neil won’t have the unenviable task picking the players up from the depths to go again. Convinced? No, me neither…
Finally, I couldn’t end without mentioning one of the finest and most appropriate examples of alliteration I’ve heard for some time, as told by a young man sitting to my right last night.
I’m not a big fan of Karanka either.
David Bowen says
Hi Gary, it is so disappointing to have come so close to scrambling back up to the autos, I hope it doesn’t drain the player’s confidence!
Wishful thinking maybe, but how good would it feel to go to Wembley and spoil Mick McCarthy’s party?
Azores Canary says
Spot on, Gary. But don’t write us off yet. The football Gods are mischievous creatures. We will see, come close of play today.
Having travelled all the way from a tiny island in Mid Atlantic to watch this one, I must admit to being impressed by the enthusiasm of the Carra. From start to finish a wilted team was urged on enthusiastically by the faithful. Sadly, in vain.
And yes, Gary, the unprintable (but easily fathomed) alliteration adequately attributed the appalling antics of the away team to Karanka.
But I much prefer the version of the young gentleman on your right!!
Gary Gowers says
‘Azores…’ (2) – Huge respect for your efforts to see the game; just a shame it wasn’t a win!
As you say, still a few twists and turns to come.
Jim Davies says
Losing to Boro’ would hurt less if they had beaten us honestly, and without the assistance of the man in black. I know referees are able to halt the game for a head injury, but what entitles him to stop the game for a player who is merely limping, and who is perfectly able to get himself to the touch line for treatment? I know it’s only one example of his ineptitude, but it was typical of his performance on the night.
Luck is an underestimated quality in sport (I recommend Ed Smith’s excellent book on the subject,) and it deserted City last night through a combination of;
A) an early own goal that created the one situation where a pretty limited Middlesborough side could thrive – yes they had a good start but ultimately they delivered very few shots on target and it would have been a totally different game if they hadn’t had been able to park the bus.
B) an incredibly weak referee who did nothing to prevent the blatant time wasting of Middlesborough.
Luck went against us last night and maybe it means our season will be slightly longer but it will turn against someone else in the coming weeks and City will benefit. Our side has many other attributes (& I still believe we have more of those qualities than all our other rivals), let’s keep the faith our quality will ultimately deliver.
Neil N. Pray says
I always thought it was unrealistic to expect to win EVERY game in the run-in. I wonder if we were taken by surprise by the strength of Boro’s attacking in the early period. All the talk before the game was about how they like to sit deep and play on the counter. Maybe defeats at Bournemouth and Watford forced them to change tack.
We may have been unlucky to lose a game we dominated, and the referee was terribly weak, but on the other hand we could have been two or three down early doors. I don’t understand how Bamford was allowed so much time and space. We lost composure on the ball, with Tettey in particular wasteful, anxious to make amends for his unfortunate error. Terrific tackle by him in the first half though.
We need to forget this disappointment, win our last two games convincingly, and make sure we are the form team going into the playoffs.
Does anyone know if a playoff match is included in a season ticket? Clearly automatic promotion is now gone, the playoffs are a total lottery but I can be fairly sure none of the others will fancy playing us.
There’s a way to go in this season yet,
Colin mason says
We’re okay, just wait and see less pressure on us for time being. We are a class act. AN right to switch focus onto play offs may be we’ll meet Boro at Wembley,now that would be interesting!
Stewart Lewis says
Strange things happen in football, but we probably now need to reconcile ourselves to the play-offs. We’d need two of the teams above us to falter while we win our last two – possible but unlikely.
I’m sure AN will have them focused on clear wins in the next two, to send us into the post-season with renewed confidence. As Paul (7) says, other teams will be very wary of meeting us.
I think I can reveal the secret of Karanka’s penchant for the underhand, play-acting and time-wasting. For two years he was Assistant Manager at Real Madrid…under Jose Mourinho. Enough said.
Gary Field says
@7 Paul, the answer to your question is, unfortunately, no.
As for the game itself, as excellent as Boro were in that opening 15 minutes, their cause was undoubtedly assisted by some poor decision making amongst the Norwich players.
We’ve now played Boro twice this season, with 0-5 scoreline. I think we owe them one!
Of course, less than 24 hours later and Bournemouth had dropped two points and things didn’t seem as bad as they could have been.
That said, the play offs now seem the most likely option and, for all the head scratching over possible permutations on opponents, I can’t help but feel that we’ll meet Boro again before the season is over.
One thing is for certain, after the opposition’s antics on Friday night, if it’s not going to be us via the automatics, I now have two firm preferences and a least favourite option.
This season still has the potential for a thrilling finale at the most famous football venue in the World.
What a fitting climax that would be, 30 years on ….