It’s been a painful year. A year of despondence, disillusionment and augmenting pessimism; a year of declining expectations and of seemingly unrelenting suffering. A year of woe. A year of sorrow. A year of hurt.
364 days is what it’s taken. Fifteen away games attended, three points accumulated, and zero wins obtained. The country has been travelled high and low: maiden trips to Oakwell, the Pirelli and Griffin Park have ended fruitlessly, culminating in return journeys to either Norfolk or Durham characterised by an all too familiar sense of dejection and desperation.
Alex Neil and Alan Irvine have come and gone, while Daniel Farke’s City side initially seemed to represent an undesirable sense of continuity from previous regimes owing to the defensive frailties that became so conspicuous.
Three weeks ago at The Den, I turned. As City fans go, I would consider myself among the more optimistic of those who follow our side home and away, continually supporting and vehemently believing. In the capital that day however, it appeared that our side had taken the meaning of a bank holiday weekend all too literally.
Futile ball retention, laboured laterality and a fundamental lack of urgency reigned supreme; observations exacerbated by a defence that looked so visibly bewildered in the face of direct aerial bombardments and a raucous second tier atmosphere. As I boarded the 19:30 service home from Liverpool Street, it really did feel as though my away day luck would remain terminally cursed.
I took to the platforms of Twitter and MFW to express my fervent views. City’s defending was feckless that day, less a series of errors committed by individuals than it was the collective failure of an inexperienced and overawed backline that included the error-prone Marcel Franke and the out-of-form James Husband. Something had to change.
And, somewhat radically and remarkably, it has.
Timm Klose is back. Marco Stiepermann has been fast-tracked into the side in a makeshift left-back role, a position he has successfully appropriated as his own and taken to almost effortlessly at times. Stiepermann was superb at Bramall Lane this weekend, winning headers, making passes, and driving a City side that has lacked enterprise on so many occasions this season forward with purpose.
But forget individuals. While the likes of Tom Trybull, James Maddison and the blossoming Yanic Wildschut were also terrific in frustrating Chris Wilder’s side, what Saturday more significantly represented was a collective sense of desire, hunger and commitment that culminated in City’s third consecutive clean sheet.
Time and again on these away trips there has been an almost grim sense of inevitability about our side succumbing to periods of sustained second half pressure, delineating that softness and lack of fight that has led to defeats at the Madjeski, Hillsbrough, and Villa Park throughout the last year.
Not on Saturday.
That second half defensive display was – in its own bizarre, block-dominated and header-filled way – a thing of yellow and green beauty; a performance that constituted the complete antithesis to anything I have seen on the road from a City side for a long time.
Farke’s side successfully survived raid after raid from a good Sheffield United team vocally urged on by that partisan and increasingly furious home crowd – James Maddison’s antics did little to ease such anger – a set of stoic headers and clearances that continually thwarted the home team’s advances and, so unedifyingly, led to some ugly scenes outside Bramall Lane at full-time.
So credit to Farke and his team. And credit to those who were subject to such zealous criticism prior to the international break, and to those who have shown such laudable aptitude and pragmatism in transforming a defence characterised by serial brittleness into one capable of grinding out such brilliant results away from home.
Yes, circumstances have been favourable to Team Farke – the return of Klose and the advent Stiepperman’s form in particular – but the way in which he subordinated his seemingly intransigent possession-based principles in Sheffield and instead prioritised defensive solidity and quick attacks on the break deserves considerable credit.
Farke’s finest hour in a City dugout was, however, also the product of other more aesthetic factors. Widely derided last season – owing more to a lack of opportunity than his own limitations as a player – Yanic Wildschut was terrific; not only finishing unerringly but also running forward with directness while simultaneously manifesting his defensive attributes when tracking back. Wildschut’s presence on the wing may prove vital at similar away fixtures in the future, providing such a valuable outlet for City to possess potency going forward.
With four games approaching in the next eleven days, City travel to Griffin Park tonight with confidence. Farke’s team selection should prove interesting, needing to strike the correct balance between giving the likes of Klose, Trybull and Maddison a rest and deploying an XI capable of propelling his side into the fourth round.
Despite the relative insignificance of the competition, the illumination of the West London lights combined with the presence of the standing terrace behind the goal should foster a vociferous atmosphere.
It may have taken until mid-September, but FarkeLife is gelling. Contrary to initial concerns, City have not fallen too far off the pace despite our slow start and appear to be evolving into a competent and increasingly dependable Championship outfit; a squad that emits a hungry and dedicated aura and one that is becoming growingly cohesive and organised.
We will encounter obstacles. There will be slip-ups along the way. It still remains too early to judge whether the Farke experiment will endure as a sustainable project.
What the last week has proved, however, is that the German is a shrewd pragmatist capable of learning lesson and effecting change. 364 days? Never again, please Daniel.