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.

Pegged Back At Bury

Despite leading twice, City were pegged back by a late equaliser that denied them a third straight win.

City started the game much the brighter, forcing numerous early corners and creating a couple of half chances. Barry Conlon had an excellent first half – really rising to the challenge of this game in testing conditions. He held the ball up brilliantly and was a real presence up front.

Neither team really stamped their authority on the game until a key moment late in the first half. Omar Daley picked up possession on the right, darted forward, and whipped in an extremely dangerous ball, which looked destined to pick out Peter Thorne at the far post – but it was stopped from reaching its target by a blatant handball by a Bury defender inside the penalty area.

The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. There seemed to be some debate about who was going to take the penalty, with Thorne and Conlon both eyeing it up. But it was Conlon who stepped up and drilled the ball straight down the middle, and whilst the keeper got a touch with his legs, it wasn’t enough to stop it nesting into the back of the net, much to the jubilation of the City fans behind the goal.

The second half got underway with City looking comfortable. The pressure was very much on Bury to come out and start showing the form that they did last week in beating Championship side Norwich.

There were no real signs of being City’s lead being under threat, until a shocking mistake by Matt Clarke. He released a kamikaze backpass that immediately forced Wetherall and himself to backtrack rapidly, but Bury striker Andy Bishop capitalized by outpacing them both and slotting the ball past Donavan Ricketts. This type of mistake from Clarke was so uncharacteristic of his recent City form, and it was clear to see he was devastated in the immediate aftermath of Bury scoring.

Unfortunately for Clarke, that goal really changed the game, as City went from being comfortable, to having to really pull out all the stops in an effort to grab the three points.

The game faded away midway through the second half. Both teams showed no real signs of having enough to grab a late winner.

But on 80 minutes, City broke with Colbeck feeding Daley, who seemed to hesitate, before releasing a brilliant pass that picked out substitute Kyle Nix. Nix took a touch, which seemed to have taken him too far wide, but he unleashed a deadly low strike with his left foot which he planted at the keepers far post. Celebrations in the away end were euphoric as it seemed certain that we could hang on to pick up a precious three points.

A special mention needs to be made for Omar Daley’s contribution tonight. He was my man of the match with his assists for both goals and whilst he wasn’t always at his scintillating best, he backtracked and helped out the defense on numerous occasions. His workrate was a breath of fresh air. There was one instance (halfway through the second half) where he had just ran half the pitch during a run on the attack on the left wing, and when Bury broke on the counter attack, he cover the full length of the pitch to come back to help Heckingbottom defensively. Maybe with his new contract, this is hopefully a sign of things to come?

But an away victory tonight wasn’t to be. City never looked convincing or confident enough in the last 10 minutes to see the game through. And when 18 year old midfielder Dale Stephens unleashed a stunning strike from 25 yards that gave Ricketts no chance, the game seemed destined to finish as a draw.

And in typical City fashion, after Bury equalized, we had to endure more nervy defending and it even looked like Bury could snatch a late winner, as they finished the stronger.

But the referee blew his whistle with honours even. And once again, City succumbed to a late goal. Its seems to be a trend this season that the team don’t quite have enough conviction to “ shut up shop” with 10, 15 or even 20 minutes to go. We can think back to Barnet away (conceded a late winner that cost us a point) , Morecambe away ( a point thrown away, that should have been 3) , MK Dons away ( 2 late goals conceded) , Stockport at home ( late goal that cost us a win). This type of play is especially hard to accept given the number of experienced campaigners in the team – but I don’t necessarily think they are 100% to blame. It is more of a team mentality , that we sit back and invite pressure, and away from home teams come at us, and we don’t know how to cope without panicking.

We have a good enough footbaling side in this division to have to talent to play the ball to feet to get ourselves out of trouble when we are under pressure. But too often this season, we have resorted to playing it “long”, Wimbledon style. And that doesn’t just apply to defending, we often attack in the same way. And how often to these high balls up the pitch result in success? Hardly ever. Yet, the management team insist on playing this way. Most probably because they think that it could be the only way that we can play to get out of this division.

But I personally, wholeheartedly disagree. We have enough players that are decent with ball to feet, running a passing game, that would surely be more effective, as playing flowing football generates confidence and allows us to confidently pass our selves out of trouble when pressure mounts on us – especially away from home.