Issue Le Foiled

As told by Jason Mckeown

So that’s it, thank you very much, goodnight. After this reverse there will be no more debate about where City will be playing next season.

When Rochdale sub Adam Le Fondre struck a late winner at Valley Parade six weeks ago it was seen by many City fans as the end to any Play Off chances. The more optimistic, or foolish, amongst us have kept some hope, borne from some subsequent excellent wins, but Le Fondre’s latest substitute cameo has ensured a City top seven finish is as likely as a relaxed passport official at Heathrow Airport.

As the final whistle was blown on the game and on City’s frail promotion hopes last night, the players received warm applause from the away fans as they accepted their team’s fate. It was an unfortunate defeat in many ways and worth noting it is only the second on the road in 2008. It may have been the night where lingering dreams were put to bed, but it was in costly home defeats to the likes of Mansfield, Dagenham and Bury that such ambitions were truly thwarted.

For the home side they can still dream of only the second promotion in their 100-year history. Needing the win just as badly but with more credible chances, Rochdale got off to a flyer by taking the lead inside 30 seconds. Eddie Johnson tried to keep hold of the ball for too long on the edge of the area and was robbed by David Perkin, the man who ran the show in the February Valley Parade meeting, who then charged through and scored with a low finish. As the home players celebrated several City players angrily confronted the linesman, though it wasn’t obvious what they were complaining about. It would not be the last argument between some very poor officials and those in Claret and Amber during the game.

Stunned by such a bad start, it took a while for City to get going as Rochdale passed the ball around well and created a few half chances. At Valley Parade they surprised with their all out attacking way of playing, which saw them dominate large periods, and they again proceeded to play with a high defensive line last night. Barry Conlon and Peter Thorne were both caught offside on numerous occasions. Johnson and Penford worked hard in midfield but lacked the presence and authority to truly win control over Rochdale’s. It was a night where the continuing absence of Lee Bullock was particularly felt.

A cleverly worked free kick saw Johnson hit the post after Paul Heckingbottom chipped the ball into his path and Penford also went close but, just like the first half at Darlington on Saturday, the home side enjoyed more possession and looked the bigger threat. Ben Muirhead, curiously booed by some City fans, almost struck a second but his low shot from distance fizzled wide. Yet for all the chances Rochdale created, just like at Valley Parade, you sensed they were lacking a decent striker to put them away and truly make them a force.

Someone like Thorne perhaps. As the ink dries on a newly signed contract, City’s top scorer added a 13th goal of the season on the hour by equalising from the spot. A good pass picked out Joe Colbeck, starved of the ball all evening and not the threat he can be, who ran into the area only to be bundled over. This was the first time since his penalty miss against Dagenham that Conlon has been on the pitch when City have won a spot kick, but the Irish striker would have been a brave man to try and take the ball off Thorne who dispatched the penalty confidently.

On Saturday City’s equaliser inspired the team onto better things, but it was Rochdale who roared back strongly. While this writer has yet to see the MK Dons this season and only saw Peterborough defeated at Valley Parade when they were yet to hit the subsequent heights they’ve achieved, the Dale have been the most impressive League Two opposition so far. With Perkin at the hub of everything, they continued to pass the ball around well and created some good chances. It was a night City’s defence needed to play well and there were some good performances from David Wetherall, Mark Bower and Heckingbottom. Recalled at right back, Ben Starosta struggled all evening and Rochdale particularly threatened down his side.

Alex Rhodes and Luke Medley came on as sub in an effort to turn the tide, but City were their own worst enemies by frequently giving the ball away whenever they won it back. What was needed was some calm and to play a few passes around to take the sting out of the game and control the tempo, instead efforts were blighted by hurried passes and stupidly ambitious balls out wide which just saw the pressure straight back on the defence. Clearances were often wayward; particularly Loach’s kicking which was woeful. Rochdale continued to create chances with Perkin almost netting from a spectacular strike, City were hanging on.

Which they failed to manage as substitute Le Fondre once again struck with a well placed low shot from just inside the penalty area, with just three minutes to go. There were groans from some City fans as TJ Moncur was thrown on to play up front, but his presence almost helped City to snatch an equaliser as Rochdale became nervous. Bower and Conlon both saw efforts come back off the bar and Penford’s stab attempt at goal was cleared off the line. On another night one of these chances would have gone in and City left the field at the end rueing their luck.

Such was the unlikeliness of the Play Offs, even if City had won, that the disappointment of being ruled out does not feel so bad at the moment. In many people’s eyes, this season will go down as a disappointment and this is understandable if not entirely accurate. When considering where City were five months ago and how much ground needed to be made up following the dreadful first third to the season, it was always going to be a tall order. 2008 has largely being good and, while there has been some poor performances, they have been outnumbered by some decent ones.

We may not be visiting Spotland next year as Rochdale look a good bet to finish and go up through the Play Offs, but City will be back next season a much wiser, smarter and hopefully better team. There’s now six games left to enjoy and a busy summer of ins and outs to follow. The makings of a decent side are here and there should be confidence in the management team that the summer strengthening can turn us into a stronger force next season.

Hopes of promotion over, but it won’t be long until we’re dreaming again.