It matters not how many times we remind ourselves just how tough the Championship is and how often we prepare ourselves for the “rollercoaster” – when days like yesterday come around they hurt.
But it’s not as if this one hasn’t been coming. In truth the warning signs have been there in just about every home game.
Until yesterday City had just done enough to either limp home for a win or snaffle a draw but against a Preston side who were on a six-game unbeaten run – including wins over Huddersfield and Villa – they were out-witted.
Yes, the stats show the Canaries to have had more possession and shots than their opponents but few would argue they did enough to deserve the win on an afternoon that was the very epitome of frustration; compounded further still by post-match news that Jonny Howson will now be missing for at least two months.
It was that type of day.
Yet it could have been all so different if Cameron Jerome’s first minute effort hadn’t brushed the fingertips of Preston keeper, Chris Maxwell. Alas it didn’t nestle in the back of the net and ultimately it was to be Maxwell’s biggest test of the afternoon.
Predictably, and understandably in fairness, there was much angst in evidence afterwards as City fans pondered whether it was ‘one of those days’ or something of greater significance, but most agreed that it’s been coming for a while.
And when the updated league table hoved into view it became evident that the Canaries record against those in the top half of the table is currently not one to be proud of. In fact, of the Championship’s top fourteen only Bristol City have succumbed to City’s Premier League charms, in one of the aforementioned bum-squeakers.
And while no cause for panic – there’s rarely cause for panic – that has to be a concern. And with Brighton, Leeds and QPR up next is something that has to be addressed as soon as.
Whether Alex Neil will look at address it by a tweak of approach or a change on personnel will only be revealed at 2pm next Saturday, but from the outside looking in it appears a little something needs to change.
Wholesale changes, in my view, are not the answer – we’re not jogging along at just below two points per game for no reason – but the disappointment at Craven Cottage closely followed by yesterday’s defeat means to tread the exact same path would be to not recognise any of the current failings.
For starters it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Neil to justify a starting berth for Robbie Brady who, despite the occasional flash of quality, seems unable to extricate himself from the memories of Lille in June. An on-fire Brady would be a shoo-in – this version needs a rocket.
It’s true that an Olsson/Brady combo make for an almost impregnable left side and even an out-of-sorts Irishman makes it solid and secure from a defensive angle but in terms of a quality supply from that flank it invariably comes from him tucking in and the Swede bombing down the outside.
We need the Brady of Euro 2016 vintage, not the Craven Cottage plonk.
The obvious shout is for Alex Pritchard to get the nod instead but, while it’s clear we need to get the ex-Spurs man on the pitch, I share Neil’s caution over playing him and Wes in the same midfield too frequently when the boots are flying and the challenges crunching. The risk is we get over-run.
It was of course a total joy to see the pair of them link up so beautifully against Rotherham but few will grant them the freedom and space the that Millers did.
Wes, following the Rotherham masterclass, has struggled and it’s an obvious one to the watching world that if the Irishman’s effectiveness is blunted then so too is much of City’s creativity. Fulham and Preston both did that job with considerable success.
Throw a jaded-looking Jacob Murphy into the mix and you have a huge chunk of your midfield mis-firing; the upshot of which is one point out of the last six.
So, there is a tweak or two – or even three – needed but what stood out yesterday, and which has been in evidence even in the run of six wins in eight, is there appears a mental fragility to this group. When the going gets tough the resolve doesn’t increase – it fades.
An abundance of technical ability has taken us to fourth in the table but the Championship, and all that comes with it, also takes qualities of a very different kind to be successful. Like bottle, nerve and resilience.
The words of the song tell them to “Never mind the danger…”. The Class of 2016 should heed this message.
Only if you have your fair share of those can the silky skills flourish.
But now’s not the time for recriminations or panic. In the cold light of day Newcastle are just four points better off than City and if the aim is to remain ‘in the mix’ until that frantic three-month run-in begins then we’re on course.
Let’s just acknowledge there is ample room for improvement.
“On the Ball City…”