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.