Issue The spirit of the mid-table finish

As told by Jason Mckeown

I had a good chuckle to myself before our game with Chester on Saturday. The match day programme was making a big deal about Sir Bobby Robson sticking up for manager Mark Wright, while his traditional programme notes were no more than a collection of press quotes sandwiched between over-the-top praise from the editor for his managerial ability. Apparently if he’d been allowed to work his “transfer magic” the Blues would now be 15 points better off.

As the home players came onto the pitch to warm up, the enthusiastic bloke on the microphone urged home supporters to give them a round of applause for earning “a heroic point” at Bury the previous week, to which they obliged. In addition to thanking the match day sponsors at least three times he also kept yelling about “believing” and it would have been interesting to see if the home fans, who must listen to this sort of thing every other week, bothered to listen or were screaming at him to shut up, with their team winless in 17.

But if two sides of the ground were trying to ignore the cheese, the atmosphere in the away stands was chalk in its comparison.

For some 30 minutes before kick off I listened to a group of fans nearby moan long and hard about City’s form, players and management. “We’d better win today, or we have no chance of the play offs.” As the stand filled up I felt as thought all around were either moaners or quiet people, the latter group probably biting their tongue like me. As the game kicked off some chanting began, but it soon fizzled into quietness and, by the second half, groans and moans. All I could hear was people yelling abuse. Every time Matt Clarke came near us he was told to eff off. Zesh Rehman was the subject of largely harmless but still borderline racist jokes as he failed to get the ball forward quickly. Michael Boulding and Steve Jones are lazy bastards, Paul Mullin garbage. With no substitutes in sight the focus quickly turns to Stuart. “He’s not a manager,” it’s said of our manager.

I’m not criticising fellow fans, I happened to be in a bad section of the away support and anyone who travels almost 100 miles to support their team has a right to air their views. City were awful, clueless during the second half especially. The lack of confidence quickly manifested into desperation to rush the ball forwards instead of showing composure. The quality of crosses into the box was pathetic, the invention in the centre of the pack minimal. Stuart should not escape criticism either, the 4-3-1-2 formation employed failed to have an impact on a five man defence, resulting in City playing too narrow and direct. He did not make changes to the team’s shape and the questions Blues winger Richie Partridge posed were not replicated on City’s flanks. The team has played better and been booed off, so such a reaction came as no surprise when the final whistle was blown.

Yet as disappointed as I felt with the performance and game trudging back to the car, it was the boos which remained ringing in my ear. No one would advocate the kind of over-optimistic uncritical approach of Chester and our recent dreadful run of form is testing everyone’s patience, but again we quickly turned on the team, groaned loudly whenever a move broke down and only chanted on a few occasions during the second half. A goal, no matter how undeserved, might have changed the poor atmosphere, but the spirit and togetherness we should have with the team on the road has disappeared.

And if that sounds fanciful, you mustn’t have watched City on the road last season. The atmosphere at away games during our first campaign in the basement league was the best it had been since the first in the Premiership. I still look back fondly at that night at Lincoln, where we didn’t stop chanting for 90 minutes and were rewarded with a thrilling win. I recall the joy at Blundell Park when Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu struck a stoppage time penalty and Stuart had to race over to appeal to those of us in the away stand to calm down, such were the scenes of jubilation which had spilled onto the pitch. I remember the fun we had at Accrington, the second halves at Darlington and Notts County, the Wetherall day at Rotherham, the noise we made at Bury and Rochdale. All of this and the club finished mid-table.

Of course we won more often on our travels than this season, which helped the enthusiasm of support. One of my favourite away trips last year though was Stockport. We were in an uncovered stand, it was raining heavily and we were playing terribly, losing 2-1; yet we didn’t stop singing, even throughout half time. Last season we had chants for almost every player, we would sing the White Stripes song and sometimes even Johnny Cash. After games my lot would drive home with our voices hoarse from making so much noise, but almost always feeling happy for the experience.

This season, for whatever reason it’s just not been the same. Huddersfield and Leeds were fun, but the edgier atmosphere you get in derbies meant it was less comfortable. At Accrington I watched a middle age man push my wife out the way and someone else spit at the home keeper. At Lincoln we witnessed fighting in the high street and then a group of our fans try to kick off with the home fans during the game. At Notts County we quickly dished out the dreaded “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” and told players to ‘eff off at full time.

At Rotherham I was freezing as we sat their quietly and a young lad behind me spent the game slagging off everyone else’s man of the match, Luke O’Brien. My favourite away trips so far are Macclesfield and Luton – the former because we cruised it so could spend the second half having banter with the home side’s struggling strikers, the latter because, after first half adversity, we passionately got behind the team. Bury was good for that, too.

I do wonder if the increased away followings this season have something to with why the atmosphere isn’t quite as good. I don’t mean everyone who’s started coming more regularly this season is a moaner or fails to get behind the team, but more that larger crowds mean the fans who regularly start the chants are more spread out from each other.

This may have nothing to do with the team’s failings on the road this season but, as our players attacked our end of the stadium on Saturday, how much of a difference might it have made if they were loudly roared on, applauded when they did things right and not yelled abuse at when they did things wrong? If a player gives the ball away he hears groans and that doesn’t help him to have the confidence to show more guile the next time he has possession.

There are at least three away games to go and there should be a decent turn out at each. I hope we don’t carry on like the last few away games, making some noise for the first 20 minutes before gradually getting quieter, applauding ourselves later over how we brought such a big crowd and how our team “don’t deserve us”. If it goes quiet at Morecambe next week and the grumbles start to get louder, I hope a few more like me will remember the spirit on the road last season and start singing, “Stuart McCall’s Bratfud Army.”

We supporters might not be able make the players perform better, but maybe like the Chester fans we need to at least try believing.