It was not feeling miserable when leaving, that was the best part about Saturday.
After four weekends where City have lost, not to mention the midweek Accrington debacle, that empty feeling that stays with you most of the week and leaves you not wanting to think about football had become all too familiar. I walked down Midland Road after the game feeling a little disappointed that City had failed to turn their superiority into a win and felt worried about the lack of goals and decent service running through the team, but I also left feeling much more positive about City’s prospects for the season and had renewed belief that happier times were not that far around the corner.
A lot of people came out of Saturday with credit. Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs have clearly worked hard on the training ground at lifting sagging spirits and raising confidence. Stuart has recently commented that it’s going to take a while to build a team that he is happy with, but the one assembled so far competed much better to belatedly demonstrate that fourth bottom of the entire Football League was a false position.
There wasn’t much different about the way the team lined up against Darlington than in previous games and Stuart resisted the urge to make wholesome changes. He was rewarded by those he kept faith with and seems to have a clear vision of how he wants his team to play. The sight of a second place team clearly time wasting and settling for a draw in the closing stages showed just how effective that play had been.
Credit also to the supporters who got behind the team. I was partly dreading Saturday’s game for fear of another defeat, I also feared the reaction of supporters to another loss. After the first 20 minutes there was barely a moan to be heard among supporters, apart from at the officials anyway, as everyone seemed to recognise that the 11 in claret and amber shirts were giving their all. The atmosphere felt a bit flat in the first half, but those in the Kop again got suitably behind the players as they attacked towards them in the second.
Having the biggest crowds in the division can be an effective weapon, but it can also be a hindrance. 12,000 moaning and complaining is a lot louder than 7,000 and we’ve already seen certain players disappear into their shells when the grumbles get louder. It’s hard to stay positive at times, but it was heartening that the crowd really got behind the players and encouraged them to keep going forward. It’s extremely rare for a 0-0 draw to be recognised with a standing ovation and it seemed clear the players really appreciated the support, by the way they held back to applaud the three stands. I don’t think they could have got off the pitch quicker at the final whistle against Accrington!
But credit most of all should go to the players. Their performances and general attitude have been openly questioned in recent weeks and deservedly so. We all know they can do better than five defeats in a row, but the criticism must have hurt. Only a year ago a couple of defeats became a crisis and performances got worse, as those paid to represent City struggled and failed to handle the pressure. Stuart spoke before the Darlo match of expecting no one to hide and every player responded well. It was hard to find fault with anyone’s performance, if only one of the numerous chances created could have been put away.
I arrived at Valley Parade expecting little, I certainly didn’t imagine I would witness City’s best home performance of the season so far. To an uninformed observer, it would have been easy to be confused over which team sat second in the league and which was near the bottom. The quality of the final ball still leaves a lot to be desired and I can’t remember a City side who have ever put in so many awful corners, but we weren’t far away from giving Darlo a real spanking.
Perhaps the most heartening thing about the display was the work rate from everyone, something lacking in recent weeks. Omar Daley has excited and then frustrated all too often, but has barely tracked back into his own half during the last few defeats. On Saturday he was helping his defence and getting up and down the pitch really well. We know he has plenty of skill and pace, but it’s the end product and desire to work hard when City don’t have the ball that’s been lacking.
Omar was often back in the City penalty area on Saturday helping out Darren Williams, who was outstanding, while he also looked a threat going forward. On the other winger Kyle Nix looks a really impressive player and a winger who can also tackle. He’s not the quickest, especially compared to Daley, but his dribbling is excellent and he showed a cool head to work the ball into good positions and find a team mate.
Up front, Barry Conlon has looked a different player the last two games. Yes he should have scored at least twice and he does seem to hesitate when a chance comes his way, but as a target man holding up the ball he was phenomenal. Players could clear the ball up to him, when under pressure, and the ball would stick there. He helped lay on some excellent chances and also has a reasonable first touch.
It’s hard to imagine Conlon reaching double figures for us this season, but if he can get a goal from open play his confidence will surely go up another notch. The challenge for Conlon is to maintain and perhaps better his last two performances. Should he keep it up, he will be a regular name on the team sheet regardless of how often he finds the net.
Defensively City were much better and, while Mark Bower and David Wetherall have performed much better the last three games, the protection the whole midfield gave them also helped. Watching recent games, to me it has felt too many forward players were expecting the defence to win the ball back and waited up field for a pass. Against Morecambe we often appeared outnumbered when the home side attacked so it was good to see Nicky Law and Eddie Johnson working hard in both boxes. Paul Heckingbottom also bounced back well after a series of poor displays.
Ultimately it’s down to the players to turn around the slump and get City into winning ways. Saturday was a great start and hopefully confidence and belief will have returned. The performance was heartening and we should have won, but it’s important the result becomes something to build on rather than a high point. It’s worth noting that Saturday’s failure to find the breakthrough means it’s over 300 minutes since City last scored at Valley Parade.
On Saturday City travel to face a Grimsby side which has lost four on the bounce and so won’t be feeling too confident themselves. It’s important City stand up to the challenge and come away with something. After our own dismal run it’s fair to say that our players will know how Grimsby will be feeling right now – and also know why we shouldn’t underestimate them. Hopefully Darlo will be the turning point but, for how well City’s players performed against the high flying Quakers, it’s a level of performance and effort required every week.
So we left Valley Parade much happier than we arrived, with more confidence about our season and the hope that the slide has been arrested. After four Saturday’s in a row feeling miserable, let’s hope we’ve had our quota for a while and can enjoy the rest of our weekend once more. Surely it’s time the footballing gods started sharing out the misery, starting with that lot t’other side of Pudsey.