We should have know better than to expect victory on opening day. Thirteen seasons without a win suggests it’s never going to happen.
But this was no no-show.
Instead it felt like the archetypal first game of the Premier League season for a side newly promoted from the Championship:
– Play with verve and energy ✔
– Enjoy long spells of possession ✔
– Miss chances ✔
– Get caught with late sucker punch ✔
– Be on the receiving end of some awful officialdom ✔
When I began football writing I vowed never to stoop so low as to blindly lament referees, given it’s the most godforsaken job in the world, but in the case of Simon Hooper I’m granting myself an exception.
The first question to ask is why Hooper was given the gig in the first place? The warning signs were there before a ball had been kicked; five days ago in fact when former ref Mark Halsey wrote a piece questioning the appointment.
Not only was this Hooper’s first game at the top level, he’s not even on the select list of referees from whom the Premier League appointments are usually made. This was, it seems, a trial, which serves only to make the appointment appear even more odd.
In the words of Halsey; “I just hope he has a really good game because if he doesn’t they’ll be an outrage.”
Well he didn’t. And there is.
And it wasn’t just about the disallowed goal and the denied penalty appeal. It began with Glenn Murray cleaning out Graham Dorrans with studs showing, for which he earned a light-hearted slap on the wrist, only for minutes later Alex Tettey to earn a yellow card for something that, from the River End at least, looked no worse.
Sadly that set the tone and from there on in it felt like each decision was a 50/50 toss-up as to whether or not it was the right one.
The penalty decision was possibly not helped by Seb’s theatrical, arm-flailing fall but, even minus the yellow and green blinkers, it was one you’re often given.
The disallowed goal was one that will go down in the Carrow Road annals as one right up there with Andy D’Urso’s denial of a penalty for that blatant shove on Adam Drury in, I think, the Roeder era.
It sticks in the craw, no question, but we must accept that it probably did cost us a point, possibly three, and move on. At least I’ll try.
Elsewhere there was plenty to offer hope for the months ahead and, while the aforementioned verve and energy of the opening half an hour did level out (it was almost impossible to maintain that momentum), there was more than enough about the overall performance to suggest we’re going to be competitive.
As ever, it’s what happens at both extremities of the pitch that counts and whether playing in the Anglian Combination or in the Premier League a combination of missed chances and ordinary defending is never going to end well.
Yet I felt a tad sorry for Lewis Grabban. Yes he should have scored – a lunge with his left foot instead of his right would have been enough – but his overall game (contrary to popular opinion it seems) was in my view more than decent.
His movement was good, the ball ‘stuck’ quite well and he worked the channels in the way Alex Neil would have requested. But strikers are judged on goals alone and, in truth, he looked less likely to score than Cameron Jerome, whose physicality offered Messrs Dann and Delaney a different type of challenge.
Alex’s other big call, to leave Nathan Redmond on the bench in favour of offering the right-sided role to Jonny Howson, was a brave one and ensured that when the former entered the fray he was bursting to make an impact, which he did.
Neil’s post-match comment, that Redmond was ‘less ready’ for the opener than others was presumably a reference to his late start to pre-season, but if a game or two on the bench also keeps him away from prying Premier League eyes until September 1 then so be it – although to have rattled one in from 25-yards didn’t help.
Defensively, City coped reasonably well for the most part against a side that is perfectly equipped to soak up pressure and hit sides on the break but the first goal will end up in the file marked ‘too soft’.
Robbie Brady, who was otherwise excellent on his debut, was for once caught wrong side of Jason Puncheon and to offer him time to stand one up at the back stick as he did was always asking for trouble.
The second, to concede from a basic set piece, will likely end up in the file marked ‘disaster’.
But, in true footballing tradition, there were plenty of the proverbial positives to draw on. Work to be done, yes, but still good things to build on.
As a paid-up member of the Graham Dorrans fan club I marvelled at the quality of his passing and he’s now starting to resemble the West Brom player of the Roy Hodgson era, and that can only be a good thing for all of us.
One of the failings of City’s last Premier League foray was their inability to keep the ball. I may be jumping the gun but based on the evidence of pre-season and yesterday that’s not going to be a problem this time round. The trick of course will be to ensure there is a product at the end of the possession – aka ‘the tricky bit’.
Not for the first time, Alex summed it up far better in one sentence than I have in 800+ words; “…we didn’t help ourselves at times – in terms of defensively some of the goals we conceded were extremely sloppy and when you have to score two and three to get something out of a match it is tough.”
And there it is – in a nutshell.
“On the Ball City…”