Avoiding the Brown Stuff

On occasions this season, it’s been difficult not to arrogantly believe that we’re better than this.

I refer not only to playing in the basic surroundings of opponents like Macclesfield Town, who’s tiny and unremarkable stadium is a different league to our Valley Parade home, but of the quality and manner of football we play. It’s not that we don’t produce pleasing on-the-eye passing that belongs in a higher level than League Two, the first half of the midweek Shrewsbury home win a perfect illustration, but on other occasions we can be reduced to playing the limited kick and rush style that England’s bottom professional division is reputed for.

Saturday’s fortuitous victory over Macclesfield was certainly a performance more about hope than confidence, haste rather than control, fluster rather than fluency. It‘s very easy to be critical of so many elements of the performance and most things Stuart will have learned from a cold February afternoon will probably be negatives.

Had City lost, and they could so easily have, the journey home for us 900 away fans would have been largely spent complaining and telling each other how the season is over. Yet for all the criticism City’s performance might justifiably warrant, the fact is we won. As the final whistle blew the players were warmly applauded from the pitch and I couldn’t help but have a mischievous grin thinking of how the victory had been earned.

How many times in recent years, particularly last season, have away teams rolled up to Valley Parade and undeservedly won? As our season went so badly wrong this time last year, I would often read through the Monday’s Telegraph and Argus match reports and look at the stats. City would invariably have had more shots and corners and I knew we had deserved to win, but the only statistic that would alter the league table was the final score. We can acknowledge some familiarity in thinking how Macclesfield fans would have gone home cursing their side’s luck and bemoaning the lack of firepower.

On Saturday that lack of firepower could be squarely blamed on former City striker Michael Symes. The on-loan Shrewsbury man would have been keen to show us the talent we rarely glimpsed during his two year Valley Parade stay, yet the hat trick of chances he squandered in quick succession midway through the second half could all be characterised by the weakness of the attempt on goal. Each time Symes had the time and space to do better and each time Scott Loach was able to make a comfortable save. When Symes burst through again and sent over a low cross that should have been a tap in, he misjudged the situation and the ball rolled harmlessly across the goal.

But if one keeper’s bad mistake handed the win on a plate, it was the other keeper who sealed it. Loach earned many admirers following his midweek debut but his performance at Moss Rose was something else.

All this came during a strong period of home dominance following an uninspiring first 60 minutes from both sides. City never seemed to be able to get going and force a spell of pressure, other than the occasional flurry of corners. Macclesfield played a high defensive line which largely succeeded in stopping City getting forward. When we would win the ball and attack, too often we would lose the ball just inside the Macclesfield half.

Part of this was down to the unnecessary level of urgency when we have possession which is regularly seen away from home. It’s as if we must be on the attack instantly as long passes are launched forward hopefully or balls released for our wingers that they have little chance of reaching. We usually seem to be able to play in a much calmer way at home and you wish City would try to execute their tempo on the match. Surely it’s better for us to be passing the ball around in our own half, rather than letting the opposition do so?

A lack of a target man also didn’t help. We badly needed the ball to stick when our forwards received it but this is less Peter Thorne’s and certainly Willy Topp’s game. The latter produced some good touches and looked a threat, but ultimately we’ll need more from him as he learns the English game. In hindsight Barry Conlon might have been a better option to start the game.

Without a target man, we could still have succeeded with wingers stretching the game and running at the home defenders so they drop back. Joe Colbeck’s display, easily his worst in recent weeks, ensured that the suspended Omar Daley was missed. It’s not Kyle Nix’s game to beat opposition full backs for pace and it all meant that City’s attacks were sporadic and limited. Topp had the best chance when he forced a mistake and had a run on goal, only to be crudely chopped down on the edge of the area. A couple of headers from corners were cleared off the line but the first two thirds of the game had 0-0 written all over it.

Cue Macclesfield’s sudden onslaught which left City hanging on and pushing their luck. Remarkably, in the middle of this heavy period of pressure it was the Bantams who scored. Again it was a long hopeful ball up the field which substitute David Brown, on for Topp, willingly chased. Macclesfield keeper Jonny Brain ran out to clear but complexly missed the ball, leaving a grateful Brown to fire it into the open net. It might not quite have been the way he dreamt it last night, but new signing Brown could not have asked for a better start from his first six minutes of professional football. The young striker impressed with his pace and was a nuisance to the opposition. He’s certainly a small lad and won’t win many headers; watching him play alongside fellow substitute Conlon looked the ultimate little and large partnership.

But if one keeper’s bad mistake handed the win on a plate, it was the other keeper who sealed it. Loach earned many admirers following his midweek debut but his performance at Moss Rose was something else. Macclesfield continue to apply heavy pressure after the goal and Matt Clarke, who’s not looked as solid the last four games, got away with a bad miskick in front of goal. From another attack Loach produced a superb reaction block from a low shot only for Macclesfield to be given the ultimate opportunity to score after Colbeck fouled Danny Thomas in the area as the ball ran loose.

Loach might have only been playing his fifth ever senior game, but he’d been here before saving a penalty at Macclesfield while on loan at Morecambe. He made history repeat itself by getting down low to push away Canadian midfielder Terry Dunfield’s penalty and, even more impressively, reacted to block Neil Ashton’s powerful rebound attempt. Cue wild celebrations on the terrace behind and City players rushing over to congratulate their new team mate. A week ago none of us had heard of Loach, but after another good save we were chanting his name.

Those saves spelled the end to heavy pressure and, despite one late scare where City scrambled the ball off the line, we held out with David Wetherall once again outstanding. Conlon and Colbeck, who curiously improved after giving away the penalty, both went close to adding a second. A lucky win no doubt, which ended with Loach hugging fans at the front of the stand, but it was a game that City would probably have lost earlier in the season and this alone can be judged as progress.

Suddenly the table makes far better reading; City are 10 points from the play offs and still have a couple of games in hand over most teams, there was even an optimistic chant about City going up this season. Recent form has been excellent and, with four of the next five games at home, sandwiched between a trip to struggling Notts County, there’s a great opportunity to push on.

So I now look forward to reading Monday’s Telegraph and Argus match report and noting that the shot count will not be in our favour, but that the scoreline appearing at the top of the page is all that matters. We’ll need to be better than our efforts at Moss Rose but, if we’re celebrating any achievements come May, it’s winning games like this which will have provided the platform.

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