Season buried?

The wife is unlikely to agree, but I can be something of a romantic. Nothing to do with possessing the thoughtfulness to buy flowers or watch Hugh Grant films without complaining; but some events do tug at the heart strings, such as the re-crowning of Kevin Keegan as King of the Toon Army.

Keegan’s return to manage Newcastle United is a great story that may inject some much needed interest into an increasingly tedious Premier League. He brings back memories of a more golden period of English football in the 1990s where his attacking principles, as enthralling to watch as they were naive, almost saw Newcastle crowned Champions of England. Compared to the style of football some of the top teams now bore us with, take a bow Chelsea and Liverpool, it’s no wonder this attack-minded philosopher’s return has prompted jubilant scenes on Tyneside.

At City, we can understand how those Newcastle United fans are feeling after our own hero returned to Valley Parade. The fact that Stuart McCall’s appointment came during the summer meant our celebrations were more muted, but no less ecstatic. Compared to the situation a year ago at the end of Colin Todd’s reign, we fans are largely united in our support of Stuart and any future success will taste all the sweeter with him leading us.

Whatever the outcome of this season, and on the evidence at Gigg Lane on Tuesday it’s less likely to feature a trip to Wembley, there will be some success to build on. The level of support this season has been astounding at times. The season ticket initiative has seen huge crowds at every home game and we are on course for our highest season average attendance since the days when the term ‘administration’ held little meaning. Away from home the support has been equally notable and on a cold, wet January night we took 1,056 supporters to Bury – who would have expected that a year ago?

The disappointment of two points dropped meant that, not for the first time, the atmosphere in the away end was the highlight of the evening.

All of which is leading to a special atmosphere around the club and, while the support at Gigg Lane was outstanding, it’s become the norm on the road this season as we fans travel in large numbers to back our team. On the field, things are also slowly improving and there are signs that things might belatedly be coming together.

Not the team assembled can quite match the support just yet. There were some positives to take from the draw with Bury; we’ve heard plenty recently about the need to become a more physical side and Bury, enjoying the rejuvenation that sacking a manager can bring, offered a stern test. In difficult conditions tackles were flying in and long balls booted into our box. City struggled at times to clear some dangerous deliveries, but largely stood strong with David Wetherall particularly outstanding.

Going forward we didn’t quite enjoy the same fluidity as the previous two games but, in Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck, possess a pair of in-form wingers. The ink drying on a newly signed contract, this was the sort of evening where Daley might previously have disappeared. Not everything he tried came off, as ever, and his defensive abilities still need some work, but his pace and dribbling skills frightened the home defence and he was always the likeliest City player to break the deadlock. Keegan would surely approve.

Up front Barry Conlon toiled hard again and was wholly effective at holding up the ball. He was exactly the type of player needed in such a physical encounter and his goal, widely appreciated by his growing fan club, appeared to lead us on the path to victory. City were far from their best though and Bury came back strongly. It was unfortunate that Matt Clarke’s error allowed the home side back into it, though it’s testament to the outstanding recent form of our centre back that his mistake came as such a shock.

It was left to City to find the initiative again and, while our attacks often had more purpose than the struggling Shakers, the familiar frustrations of poor use of the ball were evident again. If only our players would be prepared to take their time and work the ball around, instead of feeling the need to punt the ball into the box following a few passes. The quality we do possess was evidenced by Kyle Nix’s brilliantly taken goal 12 minutes from time, superbly set up by Daley, but Bury deserved the draw which was earned by Dale Stephen’s screamer three minutes from time.

It was frustrating that City couldn’t hang on and we were never able to gain a grip in the centre of the park. Fingers are firmly pointed at Paul Evans as the Welsh midfielder is suffering a disappointing run of form.

My memories of Evans’ first spell at City are of a player who would have one brilliant game followed by a succession of average performances. Once again we’re looking for consistency from the 33-year-old. We know he is capable of delivering a match winning pass, but we also need to him to play the simple ball when appropriate and stamp his authority on a game. Eddie Johnson’s presence on the bench, returning from a long lay off, was welcome. Stuart must be considering his inclusion into the first eleven at Evans’ expense. Alongside Evans, Lee Bullock quietly impresses. Hopefully, with Hartlepool announcing he can leave, a deal can be agreed for a player out of contract in the summer.

The disappointment of two points dropped meant that, not for the first time, the atmosphere in the away end was the highlight of the evening. The last time we played at Gigg lane, on route to the Premiership in 1999, we had more fans than Bury and it wasn’t far off again last night. The sheer numbers and passionate singing around me left a tingle down my spine. The standard of football isn’t the best, but our stature and size has made our first season back in League Two a memorable one.

At the time Keegan was on the brink of bringing the title to Tyneside before imploding in 1996, City were embarking on a superb late run of form that lifted us from mid table to promotion via Wembley. Newcastle won’t go 12 points clear this season, but history could yet repeat itself for City. For that to happen the passion and enthusiasm City fans are displaying home and away will play its part.

A quote from a Newcastle supporter during the Tyneside hysteria last week should also ring true for City fans, “The louder we scream, the faster we’ll go.” Us City fans are certainly screaming loudly on our tour of League Two and, despite dropping points at Bury, now’s not the time to quieten. Our noise cannot be matched in this division and may yet inspire an unlikely play off push between now and May.

And I would just love it if that happened, love it.

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