Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time has many fine scenes and observations. Early on, in throes of a teenage infatuation with a girl, he imagines how their relationship could develop, what he’ll write to her, what she’ll write back, how they’ll meet.
At that point he tries to halt his imagining. Whatever might happen in reality, it could never be exactly as he imagines it; by fantasizing it, he’s ruling out that possibility and he must stop.
I found myself in a similar situation around 2.25 pm on Saturday. Ten minutes to go, and we’ve contained the rich attacking talent of Man City. How many other teams in the past year, I found myself wondering, had kept Man City blank? How will it feel if we do it?
It was a thought that clearly tempted fate and I tried hard to banish it. After all, they still had Silva and Aguero on the pitch, as well as £60m of talent in their central midfielders against our combined £2m of Jonny Howson and Gary ONeil. They’d brought on £50m Raheem Sterling from the bench. And we’d conceded so many late goals….
The answer, by the way, is that over the past twelve months Man City had scored in 48 of 53 games, netting 120 goals in the process. We became just the sixth team in 54 to hold them goalless – an achievement perhaps all the more remarkable as we’d conceded 24 in our last six meetings with them.
As you can tell, I’m quite keen on stats. But sometimes they don’t tell the full story, or even the gist of it. I was staggered to see one of our fans (a would-be writer, no less) criticising Sky’s choice of Gary O’Neil as Man of the Match. He argued that O’Neil’s stats didn’t put him among the best players in the game.
Well, sometimes you have to trust your own eyes. O’Neil’s tireless commitment, desire and encouragement of those around him made him an obvious candidate.
The only rider – and perhaps the best reflection of the game – is that he was far from the only candidate. Any one of our back four could have laid claim to the honour (yes, including Russell Martin), as could O’Neil’s partner in resilience Jonny Howson. An impressive first start from Patrick Bamford was icing on the cake.
The table may not look much different after Saturday, but the landscape does. I don’t know whether the players were losing belief after Swansea, but every social medium (and this forum) told us graphically that the fans were. The performance and result on Saturday has turned the mood around; that’s worth its weight in gold.
As a persistent optimist and advocate of hope, regular readers will expect me to be feeling vindicated this week. Yes, to a point. But that’s not all I’ve been saying. Without wanting to let any air out of the balloon of hope, we have to reiterate a point I – and many others – have made.
It’s fine to deliver a whole-hearted performance against the Chelseas and Man Cities, and this time it’s given us a precious point. However, it’s all in vain unless we replicate that level of desire against West Brom, Crystal Palace, and of course our two main relegation rivals.
Unlike a week ago, we all know we CAN do it. Now we have to ACTUALLY do it.
In his post-match comments, Alex Neil was at pains to acknowledge the role of the fans in Saturday’s achievement. To play against a team of Man City’s skills is physically and mentally draining; as our players flagged from their efforts, the crowd kept them going. That’s how we made a difference on Saturday, and can help our team over the next eight games.
Like the players, perhaps we should use the week to work on our mental set-up. Some on Twitter are now bemoaning the points we dropped against Swansea, Liverpool and so on. That’s appropriate for Villa fans, but for City fans it’s something we need to set aside until May 16.
Yes, we’ve wasted opportunities – but that’s done. Irrespective of what’s gone before, we’re in a fight and it’s a fight we can win. Only the present matters, not the past – and the present is where we can make a difference. Perhaps THE difference.
That’s not just fantasy.