The pressure cooker

It had been a dreadful first half performance, of that no one could argue.

Trailing 1-0, poor in possession, uncertain at the back and limited going forward, City didn’t appear to have the desire of a Mansfield team fighting for their lives. Perhaps most worrying, some players appeared to be hiding; giving the ball to others when they could have taken the initiative and hoping someone else would get City back in the game. Then just as the game moved into injury time Paul Heckingbottom fired over a free kick and Barry Conlon headed home the equaliser.

To the players it must have been a great relief; they’d failed to do themselves justice but could now put it right having got back level. It’s often said the best time to score is just before half time and how those visiting players’ fragile confidence must be rocking at seeing their good work undone. Roll on the second half, our players must have been thinking.

Then the half time whistle blew and boos rang out from the three home stands. Whatever psychological advantage City held was gone. Instead of going in on a high they were bluntly reminded of their failings. If Mansfield players had begun fearing the worst they were given a loud reminder of just how well they’d done. Instead of looking forward to coming out for the second half and putting right their wrongs, home players probably feared leaving the warmer confines of the dressing room. Soon after half time City fall behind and ultimately the game is lost.

We can criticise the players and consider it shameful they’re underperforming, but their League Two counterparts don’t have to face such a level of hostile abuse from their own crowd and it’s painfully obvious our players are, at best, average players for this level.

I wouldn’t disagree that the players deserved to be booed off at half time, but I don’t understand how anyone thinks it helps them. There was a lot wrong with City’s first half display and the players must have realised that, but there was no doubt Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs would be telling them so. We all wanted City to win but, while the players let the club down, wouldn’t warm applause and cries of “come on City” have being a better confidence boost as they trudged off for the interval, rather than loud boos ringing in their ears?

The booing culture is nothing new at Valley Parade of course and the dismal football we’ve largely endured in recent years has understandably resulted in low patience, but as City enjoy the biggest crowds in this division you wonder what sort of advantage it really gives us. It must be fantastic playing in front of a five figure crowd when they’re right behind you, but when things go wrong and the booing starts it must be very difficult. We can criticise the players and consider it shameful they’re underperforming, but their League Two counterparts don’t have to face such a level of hostile abuse from their own crowd and it’s painfully obvious our players are, at best, average players for this level.

Are our players scared to play at Valley Parade? Four defeats in the last five home games suggest that’s the case. During that same period there have been three wins from four on the road. Our midweek kick offs have seen some superb atmospheres but on Saturday afternoons the place can be too quiet with the opposition fans making all the noise. Just at the players are guilty of failing to set their own tempo, surely we supporters should be getting behind the players better?

When I look back on the home games this season the Peterborough win in September really sticks out. Not because Mark Bower’s second half header helped City climb to a season-best seventh position, but the fact the players were booed off at half time that afternoon. The score was 0-0 and, while Peterborough had dominated possession, they’d barely created a chance. I was stunned at the booing and looking at where Peterborough are now makes it even more incredible. Peterborough were a good side, but we weren’t playing that badly and went on to win the game. The reaction of the fans in booing the team off at the interval that day probably epitomises the pressure those wearing Claret and Amber have had to cope with all season.

But what’s the solution? Next season we’re dreaming of 20,000+ attendences, which some Premiership and Championship clubs can’t even manage. Yet we won’t be signing many players used to playing in front of such large crowds and we can only hope they can cope much better with the expectations and pressure than this season’s lot have managed.

I’d love to think that we fans could better our attitude and make the huge crowds more of an advantage, but the fall out and huge level of criticism over the last couple of days shows it’s unlikely. We now have a small percentage of fans who would actually be happy if Stuart was sacked tomorrow. That won’t happen and he will get the opportunity to build a better team for next season, but what happens if we then experience another slow start? The pressure and level of booing is probably only going to get worse. True it might be directed more at the management than the new players, but what will they think if they hear their manager, a supposed legend at this club, barracked by fans who claim to worship him?

In some ways it’s good there was little riding on the Mansfield defeat and I’d like to think such a reaction wouldn’t have occurred if City were in contention for promotion and struggling during a home game, though I’m not so sure.