Even before a ball had been kicked, yesterday’s trip to the Pirelli offered up enough juicy ‘along come Norwich’ potential to whet the appetite of the Burton faithful.
Not a single clean home sheet all season for the Brewers and eight home defeats on the bounce were sufficient to make the collective #NCFC sphincter twitch, and sure enough…
That City emerged from a truly dire afternoon with a point and a clean sheet was worthy of note, but that was just about it. In terms of performance levels it was ugliness personified. And I mean really ugly.
What began with Kyle McFadzean heading just over Angus’s crossbar and ended with handbags between James Maddison and Tom Flanagan was about as stodgy and attritional as it gets in the Championship. Moments of genuine quality were virtually non-existent.
Daniel Farke’s post-match justification of his team selection suggested he’d almost written the afternoon off as any sort of spectacle and instead had selected and prepared an XI for an afternoon in the trenches. The problem is, with a couple of notable exceptions who we’ll come to later, we don’t really have the personnel equipped for such a battle.
Anyone serious about going toe-to-toe with the Brewers and determined just to scrap it out wouldn’t ideally pick an XI than included Wes and Mario Vrancic. To describe the need for fighters and bruisers and then include two of his better technicians didn’t add up.
That we got a scrappy, untidy, turgid encounter in which the home side created more goal-scoring chances and shaded it came as no surprise at all. That’s what tends to happen when you set a team up to play in a way that has become alien to them and when you have players in there not really suited to it.
Unfortunately it was one that many saw coming at 2pm, upon the release of the team-sheet. Six changes from the side that emerged victorious at St Andrew’s seemed a massive missed opportunity to harness some momentum and that all-too-rare winning feeling.
Of course the workload of the squad had to be managed with hectic Christmas/New Year schedule but it would have been nice to have at least maintained the core of that XI and used it as a platform on which to build. Six changes took us all the way back to square one I’m afraid and it showed.
Alex Tettey, with his knees made of cheese, was a fairly obvious non-starter – although with Harrison Reed getting injured that didn’t work out too well – and there is a logic to Jamal Lewis being managed carefully, especially after him having had a long-term injury. Alex Pritchard too to a point.
Yet we’re talking here about super-fit athletes who want to play, all of whom would have been desperate to carry on where they left off in Birmingham.
Yes, victory in the second city was against a very ordinary side, and was indeed nothing to get too carried away over, but such has been the paucity of both performances and results it was something positive to latch onto and embrace. It offered hope where there had appeared little.
We didn’t lose yesterday but it still feels like the train has hit the buffers.
In reality however, and certainly in Farke’s eyes, we’re but half-way through a two-act play; the second half being played out tomorrow afternoon against the Lions of Bermondsey. And if – big if – City are able to snaffle three points from what promises to be another twitchy Carrow Road afternoon, then the head coach and his team will consider their negotiation of the Christmas/New Year period a job well done.
So, despite yesterday feeling a bit like a kick in the cojones, maybe we should keep the powder dry until 5pm tomorrow. A win and you know what we’re like… that chink of light at the end of the tunnel will reappear.
For those who like to scratch around for positives beyond the point and clean sheet there were a few, not least the Grant Hanley/Christoph Zimmermann partnership that was more than a match for anything the Brewers could launch at them. While neither possesses the calmness and class in possession of Timm Klose, both are dependable if there is a ball there to be won either on the ground or in the air. They were excellent, so too Angus who with every passing display edges himself closer to a Premier League gig next season.
At the other end of the spectrum we have James Husband and Marley Watkins. I’ll leave it there other than to say that I agree wholeheartedly with every word uttered by Wes in the face of Mr Husband after that theatrical and needless dive (even though I have no idea what those words were).
One more thought before I sign off and leave you to clear the decks for tonight’s celebrations. As ever, I watched Match of the Day last night – and obviously did the mandatory loving-it-and-hating-it-at-the same-time thing – but while watching Swansea beat Watford in a proper adrenaline-fuelled humdinger it dawned on me both were fellow promotees and in our last two promotion seasons.
While the Swans now face a relegation battle, they are actually enjoying their seventh consecutive season in the top flight during which time they have successfully mixed it with the elite and picked up a League Cup along the way. It’s been a success story. If the worst happens they’ll be in excellent shape to return.
Watford too now appear comfortable in their surroundings and are looking for more than being the 17th best team in the English game. The Pozzo family, while not everyone’s cup of tea, have turned Vicarage Road into a stadium geared for top flight football and have delivered a team on the pitch befitting of the surroundings.
The supporters of both teams have been living the dream.
Obviously there’ll be those accusing me of cherry-picking and, yes, there are far more clubs in a similar boat to ourselves but I can’t pretend I didn’t look on with envy last night and ask myself ‘why couldn’t that have been us?’.
Happy New Year to you all. Enjoy tonight. See you all the other side.