C’MON!! It’s still on! This wonderful team has given us a stream of unforgettable memories this season, it’s shown dazzling skill and imagination and a huge appetite for responding positively to adversity, it’s tough-minded, it’s brilliantly managed. We’re in the Play Offs at worst and, since the League table is incapable of lying, we are in them as the best team and, even more positively, it is still securely in our own amber and black hands to win promotion outright. A home win, a single home win, a deflection, a freak bounce, that is all we need right now. That is ALL we need! And, as my good friend Ed Bacon observed at the final whistle at Oakwell yesterday, ‘If anyone had offered us that at the start of the season, we’d’ve snapped their hand off, wouldn’t we Steve’. So! Onward Tigers fans, to next weekend, to glor …. phhhttttt ….. bzzzzzz …. mmmnnngghhh …..
Can’t do it any more. No. Sorry.
I mean, everything I have written in that opening paragraph is unarguably true – well, except the bit about Ed Bacon: in fact, as the whistle blew, eyes narrowed, he murmured ‘The frog at the bottom of the well sees only the sky’ and moved away through the monied ranks of all South Yorkshire’s police in a state of Zen calm. The rest of it though – terrific team, terrific season, still our prize to claim – is spot on. But it sounds hollow this morning.
This was a dreadful display.
We were tentative at Wolves. Leg-weary at home to Bristol City. At Barnsley we were tentative and leg-weary from start to finish, but you can throw in half-paced, unimaginative, completely and totally leaderless and sullen too, and add a pinch of gutless and unwilling to take responsibility on top as well.
It felt as bad as anything since the Dolan era.
I know that’s ridiculous. I know it’s a gross over-reaction. And I know that this time next week we might be a Premier League club, and none of this lament will matter a jot. But that’s how it felt, and that’s how it feels. Not a single player among our 14 was even satisfactory yesterday, and you really do have to trip back to the days of Dolan since we’ve been forced to dismiss the whole lot of them as sub-standard. That, however, was the sum total of yesterday’s horror show.
On a dark freezing cold midwinter afternoon in South Yorkshire, watched over by the sheeted dead gibbering in their ivy churchyards, ghouls and boggarts capering over the ice-gripped moors, and kestrels, blood-clawed kestrels every bloody where, we carded:
Chester Faye McShane
And the first five minutes of the match fizz with action and dynamism. Faye, newly installed as skipper, commits to a lunging tackle out wide. Fortunately his timing is perfect, and the ball scorches out of play to clatter against the hoardings. Then Boyd breaks down the left, but his square ball is rolled too close to ‘keeper Steele, who collects ahead of the advancing Meyler.
And then, after 4 minutes, they score. Time for one of theirs in central midfield, space to play an easy ball in behind our defence, Mellis in the inside right channel, a booming thunderous shot that thumps the underside of the bar and enters the net.
Stockdale was helpless. No blame there. Less so Evans, who is meant to defend the central three back-line, less so McShane, whose side of that central three was so woefully left exposed.
A minute later Boyd chips hopefully over the goalkeeper, but without conviction, and the effort is easily headed clear. And then very little happens for a long time.
Barnsley were watchful on both flanks, carefully offering neither Brady nor Elmo any invitation to surge into space. Or even amble into space. Yesterday, ‘surging’ we emphatically did not do. And Barnsley flooded midfield, making life difficult for Corry Evans in particular, and aimed to dominate possession. Which they did do, successfully, convincingly.
Barnsley had a clear game plan, and executed it cleanly. We looked tired, slow and shapeless, and inflexible too. No Plan B. Not much of a Plan A either. Barnsley were well worth this win.
Poor Quinn must surely be carrying an injury. He hardly touched the ball. This is not the dynamic and skilful midfielder who has lit up this season with his consistent excellence. Meyler was just about the most lively of our midfield trio, but all of the Barns were his superior. Brady rarely looked able to snap the home side’s shackles. Elmo never did, not even once. The pace and menace down the flanks with which we’ve tormented teams this season is vanished. James Chester looks terrified when the ball comes close to him unless it’s in the air. He has zero confidence in his first touch, and wastes possession as if it’s his religion. Our strikers? They’ve stopped striking. There is no hint of them starting again.
No one leads. Faye has the armband but he’s not a shouter and he is anyway far too genial a chap. Right now we need someone in this side to put the fear of God into persistent non-performers. Ashbee could do it, Barmby and Windass too. It’s down to Steve Bruce here.
It’s a tired, bitty, messy affair. Boyd bibbles a weak 25 yarder straight at the keeper half way through, but otherwise half-time is reached with the Tigers having shown no threat in the final third at all. And it could have got even worse in the two added minutes when Noble-Lazarus, a scion of a minor Silesian branch of the Habsburgs, wanders through four – four! – feeble attempts to tackle before shooting wide. At the break the consolation is only that it’s just a single goal deficit.
Boyd has loped around ineffectually, but Fryatt has been largely static and entirely valueless, so whereas the arrival of Simpson straight after the break is no surprise, the exclusion of the Scottish internationalist ahead of last season’s obviously-still-not-fit top scorer definitely is. Simpson offers energy but no finesse, but since the first period brought neither, he’s a welcome entrant.
Brady delivers a free-kick on 46 from wide on the right which results in a looping header easily held by Steele, but if we are hoping for a perkier performance consequent on a Bruce dressing-room grilling, then we are to be disappointed. On 50 it’s 2-0. Far too much time and space is allowed to theirs in an advanced position and O’Grady, one of the home side’s several lively and impressive midfielders, thumps a shot from right to left and past Stockdale.
The shot didn’t fly into the far corner. It was close enough to Stockdale’s right hand for him to have made a much better effort to stop it. The same was true of Kevin Doyle’s decisive goal at Wolves the week before last, which was similarly a shot that didn’t rip into the corner of the net but instead was saveable, albeit that on that occasion it was Stockdale’s left mitt that was left flapping in vain.
It was horrible to watch now. When we got the ball (rarely), we gave it away (routinely). Every City head had dropped.
Entertainment was taken where we could find it, largely in the shape of hostilities breaking out between City fans, including one spectacularly vivid incident in which one angry chap promised his aggressor that he would ‘phone him up tomorrow and sort him out’. Marvin Hagler v Tommy Hearns it wasn’t.
Proschwitz, who is useless, replaced Fryatt, who is not but was yesterday.
No movement, no passing, no support for team-mates. Ball lumped aimlessly forward. Why are we doing this, after a season of success achieved through playing properly? Self-belief has shrunk so far, it is invisible now.
Evans is removed on 78 in favour of Rosenoir, who heads to left-back and we convert to a species of 4-4-42. Too late. Maybe 78 minutes too late. The players are looking too jaded to inject the fierce pace that is required to make a 3-5-2 system work both going forward and defensively, and anyway opponents now know exactly how we are going to play and plan accordingly. Barnsley did. Cardiff will.
An Elmo cross almost hits Proschwitz on the head but fortunately the big German is able to turn his head away from contact with the ball and avoid any risk of facial bruising. On 80 the poor love is forced to apply his Kopf to the ball when free inside the box but fortunately he doesn’t seem to be hurt at all and he kindly directs the header safely and softly over the crossbar to preclude any risk of the goalkeeper’s gloves getting dirty.
Terrible stuff from Proschwitz, who also punts a lame little shot feebly wide a bit later on. Which means that, for all his failings, Proschwitz at least accumulated more sights on goal in his half an hour on the pitch yesterday than the rest of our strikers combined. Maybe more than they’ve managed in the last three matches in total. Our forward famine is truly dismal.
On 83 McShane applies his head properly to a Brady corner, but his effort flies over the top. And we are done (for). Game over.
Steve Bruce walked off ahead of most of the players and acknowledged the supporting chants aimed at him by the fans in the section I was in, fairly close to the tunnel. And, of course, he deserves our support. We have 78 points and have done a whole bunch of wonderful things this long season. And we have one game left. Minimum. Mr Bruce would doubtless observe that we just have to dust waselves doon and go again, and it is a practice I commend to you this bleak Sunday morning.
I didn’t enjoy yesterday, and I didn’t enjoy writing this. I doubt I will enjoy next Saturday.