In isolation yesterday’s crushing defeat at the Pirelli Stadium would have have been one to take on the chin. City had after all, following the bleakest of winters, rallied to such an extent the P word was once again in existence.
Four wins and two draws in our last six games had re-whetted the appetite and I signed off my Newcastle piece with ‘A win against Burton and it’s still all to play for’.
Don’t learn do I.
The signs were there of course but I chose to ignore them: three of the four said wins were at Carrow Road. And as it transpires, the away win in Cardiff was most likely not the start of something but instead a one-off.
All of which makes yesterday’s blow rather more than one to take on the chin.
Timm Klose will understandably and deservedly take most of the flak but it didn’t boil down to just one horrendous error from an international defender who should have known better.
It was about City’s inability to make a genuine impression on a defence who would have been prepared, by Nigel Clough, for a torrid afternoon. It was also about their inability to stretch and test Burton keeper, Jon McLaughlin. And it was about the collective inability to square up to a side who made it their business to ‘mix it’.
It’s happened many times before – Rotherham and Barnsley just two examples off the top of my head – and there’s unfortunately little evidence to suggest it won’t happen again this season.
Clough junior is well known as a shrewd operator and will have been acutely aware of City’s tendency to buckle when faced with opposition who work, tackle, block and chase to within inch of their lives. So too their equally painful tendency of giving away soft goals when put under just a modicum of pressure.
In short he’d have known that the Brewers, if they went about their job properly, would carve out or be offered up on a plate a chance or two. And that’s all they needed.
He went on to sum it up in a nutshell to the BBC: “It was just about pure hard work and the desire to stop the opposition playing … It was the work-rate today that did it and I thought that was outstanding. There was a real desire at the end to see it through and get the three points.”
Also worthy of note is that Clough’s team, despite being in 20th place in the Championship, have conceded one goal fewer than City. Yes, they’ve played one game less and yes, they’ve jogged along at only just over one goal scored per game but purely as a defensive unit they’ve been as successful (wrong word) as us.
For many yesterday’s result sounded the death knell for any faint hopes of squeezing into the play-offs and the deflation of defeat accompanied by the nature of it suggested that a seven point gap is too great.
To put together a believable case for a top six finish now relies on a four-leaf clover, a rabbit’s foot and and a couple of horseshoes.
Yet, football supporting being the fickle business it is I’d wager there will still be some whose belief could be reignited if we were able to find a way to three points next Sunday. I’d probably be one.
The pragmatists however will point to the facts:
– Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday show no signs of wobbling
– City have won once on the road since October
– In 13 games City have to gain 8 points on the two Yorkshire clubs
– City realistically need 8 wins from said 13 games
– They have taken just two points from the current top six.
All of which points to it all but being season over. Of course the towel won’t be thrown in and no doubt there are examples of teams in City’s position sneaking into sixth place at the eleventh hour but there is an underlying frailty to this group that sets it apart from others.
And it’s a frailty that shows few signs of abating.
New dawns have generally been the product of flat-track bullying at Carrow Road – with admittedly the odd exception – and have ended up being the false variety, with City’s away-day woes the result of an embedded inability to stand up and be counted when it really matters.
The collective mind appears weak, so too the physicality – even with the addition of Dutch muscle. And to compound it all Alex Neill admitted post-match that his players are ill-equipped to handle the Burton-type scenario; something that despite being clearly aware of he appears unable to address.
So, in a season that’s been positively littered with dark days yesterday was sadly another. We’d taken some positive, significant strides forward over the last few weeks and the toxicity of early January had subsided but yesterday was not just a backward step – it was a body blow, a potentially terminal one.
We go again next Sunday, of course, and if ever there is a day to unite and put the away-day travails behind us it’s when the old enemy pitch up. But it won’t be the formality some are predicting, even with Tom Lawrence suspended for the Blues.
Mick McCarthy will be only too aware how City’s frailties fall into his own comfort zone and will set them up to do to us what Burton did yesterday and what Barnsley, Rotherham and co have done before.
It’ll be ugly – no question – but let’s just hope for once the players can deliver when the heat is really on.