“Unfortunately, on this occasion your application has been unsuccessful”.
A line I’ve (unsurprisingly) been on the receiving end of on numerous occasions – usually in my professional life but occasionally when hoping to attend an ‘event’, which on this occasion was a football match.
While I missed out, one thousand of our brethren didn’t and it was they, rather than the players, who lit up Carrow Road yesterday afternoon.
The sight and sound of noise and interaction from the stands was, for us softies at least, really moving and there was definitely something in my eye as those first cheers echoed around the ol’ place when the players emerged for the pre-match warm-up.
And while the players offered up a slightly underwhelming performance – which I’ll get onto in a bit – the chosen thousand didn’t fail to deliver.
It sounded like a home game.
The squeeze was put on referee John Brooks.
The players were driven on in the tricky moments.
Goals were properly celebrated.
It felt like a Championship game.
That Teemu Pukki went within a whisker of adding a late twist to the afternoon in a 2018-19 style was, I suspect, partly due to the fans driving the team on in those dying minutes.
So, well done all, including the club. To have everything in place and tick all the right boxes at such short notice was a feat in itself. It’s a small step, it may end up being the only step this season, but it brought some much-needed joy in what continues to be a grim year.
It would have been fitting for the fans to have been treated to a swashbuckling, smooth-as-silk masterclass of Farkeball, but luckily most were just glad to be there and what in fact they were privy to was the starkest reminder yet of how the Championship differs from the Premier League.
It was also a timely reminder of just how difficult it is to win a Championship game and how there are no short-cuts to doing so.
Preston epitomise everything that’s good and bad about the second-tier. Shut your eyes, think of the Championship and you see Preston.
Organised, well-drilled, combative, hard-working, obdurate, energetic and bloody hard to play against. One of those sides, as a player, you dread facing. It’s no coincidence they were the last team to beat us in the second tier – in February 2019.
With this City team still very much in its development phase, it made for a game that scored highly in terms of endeavour but barely registered on the artistic impression scale.
Sean Dyche may have approved. Craig Revel-Horwood less so.
But that’s the Championship. There’ll hopefully be days to come when Farkeball 2.0 will swing into action and they’ll move smoothly though the gears, when the ball will be zipped from A to B, B to C and giant lumps of centre-back will be twisted and turned until their heads are spinning, but more often than not brawn will edge out brain.
The new faces are still finding their bearings and trying to figure out how and where they fit into Farke’s dream team, while the old guard are yet to hit their straps, some still inhibited by the lingering memories of their own annus horribilis.
It was disjointed, ugly at times, and minus any real sense of fluidity, which makes the point gained all the more precious. It also ended that miserable run of six consecutive home defeats.
For much of the afternoon City were second-best, with Alex Neil’s request for a cohesive high-press being well-executed by his troops.
All too often, Tim Krul was forced to go long rather than take his preferred route of a centre-back or deep lying midfielder, and even when that option was deployed, how many times did Christoph Zimmermann lump the ball aimlessly long?
The back-four, both as the (literally) last line of defence and the first line of attack, was unable to function as they or Farke intended, and while it’s early days for everyone, with a shiny new centre-back in the house who’s itching to be given an opportunity, the time must be nigh.
Both goals conceded were soft.
The penalty concession by Ollie Skipp was a tight call but, probably, just about right and was one of those “he’ll learn” moments, with Ben Davies theatrics of an ilk that would have found favour with the Strictly judges.
The second goal was… Norwich City.
While game 2 is no good barometer of what’s to come, something still needs to change around how we defend and if that means subtle personnel changes then that’s how it has to be.
The same with the Skipp/McLean combo that’s designed to be solid and offer a layer of protection to the back four. Again, early days, but a partnership whose modus operandi is to be the team’s engine room spluttered rather than purred.
While Skipp has been delegated the Tettey role, he looks infinitely happier fulfilling the McLean part of the contract; his driving runs from deep in the second-half being one of the more eye-catching aspects of yesterday’s display.
It’s clearly a question of Farke finding his best combinations from a plethora of options. and it’s also clear McLean is struggling to find the form of early last season when he was one of the team’s most potent forces.
He doesn’t have to be the first name on the team sheet.
But, through all that disjointed-ness (is that a word?), there were still moments to warm the heart, notably the sight of the old Teemu Pukki emerging from the shell of the more recent, tormented, hesitant version.
His bullet-header goalward that was given the David de Gea treatment by Declan Rudd was a beautiful thing, but even better was his razor-sharp movement to get half-a-yard on the Preston centre-back in the final minute. On that occasion, Rudd discovered his inner Kevin Keelan, but the Finn’s technique to first of all get there and then get his effort on target was, for me, the moment of the afternoon.
Worth noting too was how Przemysław Płacheta made up the ground to get the cross in; an arguably more impressive feat than his goal, which itself was well executed after his initial effort threated only those in the front row of the South Stand.
Płacheta is unpolished – no question – and we’ve yet found the best way to use his obvious asset, but if we can, there’ll be some Championship right-backs nipping up at the prospect of facing him.
Hopefully, going forward, his presence will bring out the best in Onel Hernandez (as opposed to the Onel we watched yesterday) and the team can find a rhythm and platform that will offer the wide men some better quality service.
But, these are abnormal times. In a normal pre-season, yesterday would have been the final friendly at Carrow Road against quality European opposition and Farke would still be pondering his starting XI for the big KO.
So, let’s judge gently for now… and let the buggers have it in a month’s time if passes are still being sprayed everywhere but to their intended destination 😉
We’re fourth. Unbeaten. And we’ve barely started.
On the Ball City.