By Jason McKeown
Afternoons like the one experienced on Boxing Day provide an emphatic reminder of the importance of the main job in hand – escaping this bloody division.
I am not one of those arrogant, snobbish types who looks down upon League Two and believes we don’t deserve to be here. Mistakes have been made. League Two has been our home for over five years now for many good reasons, and in truth I’ve enjoyed many aspects to life in the bottom division. But there comes a time where the more tedious elements of football at this level have been endured far too many times. It’s time to move on.
And, in truth, I’m whole-heartedly sick of playing teams like Accrington Stanley.
Not because we’re too good for this, not because it’s unglamorous (we go to watch City, not the opposition) and not because Accrington are a poxy club (I wish they’d bring a bigger away following on Boxing Day given they’re less than an hour away, but I do like Accrington as a club and they’re supporters are fantastic). But because of their dreadful tactics, which spoils the entertainment value of football.
We had started the game well, with Zavon Hines and James Hanson linking up promisingly. Not everything Hines did came off, but he was obviously our dangerman who was likely to make things happen. Our spark. Accrington saw that too, and so began to implement a cynical and ugly gameplan of kicking him out of the match. Robust challenges on him overstepped the mark on several occasions. It may have been accidental on Accrington’s part that a loose fingernail ended up inside Zavon’s eye, ultimately forcing him to depart the field, but it left a sour taste given the way he had been treated before.
On comes Nahki Wells, same result of experiencing overly physical Accrington challenges. Later on Kyel Reid, who we’ve only just got back, was on the receiving end of similar stuff. Imagine if Reid had been hurt and we’d lost him again for a few months? I get the fact Accrington had to try something to stop us from playing, we can hardly expect them to roll over and let us defeat them, but this borderline legal approach makes for a really dismal watch. It’s not nice to watch less physically strong players be kicked up in the air.
It’s not a novel approach. I remember Year Zero of our adventure in League Two, Macclesfield Town at home in August 2007. We were treated to the sight of one of our players being rugby tackled at one stage, and flair player Omar Daley was on the receiving end of some questionable tackles. We’ve seen so many teams at this level attempt to succeed through brawn rather than brain.
Then when Accrington snatched an equaliser, we endured that other dismal aspect of League Two that drives me mad. Time wasting. City had poured forward but the ball had gone out for a goal kick, cue the big centre half falling down ‘injured’, and the full back casually dribbling the ball up the field so his goalkeeper couldn’t restart the game. From then on, every Accrington goal kick and every throw in was carried out painfully slowly. The referee typically impotent towards doing anything about it.
City scored a winner, thank goodness, but as the fourth official put up the board to signal four minutes of added time there was a frustration that a large chunk of those four minutes was the result of Accrington’s time-wasting. They had bought themselves more time to get an equaliser by time-wasting their way to a point. There would have been no justice if Stanley had have equalised during stoppage time. Just like Crawley Town last season, I couldn’t help but feel there was a decent football team within that Accrington side – it’s just held back by stone-age tactics.
The Accrington manager Leam Richardson saw events completely differently, and his post-match interview is all the more remarkable for the fact we can see him on the video, airing his distorted views with a straight face. It’s a common feature of League Two opposing managers to make ludicrous claims of dominating the match when at best they had a 20-minute spell of pressure (tick), that the referee made a scandalously bad decision (tick) and to criticise City’s approach (tick, bingo – full house Richardson!). You wonder if the Valley Parade media room has a crib sheet for opposition manager’s to use, so well worn is the script. The message to their supporters: they were brave and unlucky to lose to “big club” Bradford City.
I’m so pleased that City won the game – as others have said, in other seasons we would not have won such a match – but the tedious approach of Accrington left a sour taste in the mouth from knowing they were so close to getting away with it. Again.
And I just hope that the three points we gained from a tough afternoon put us another step closer to escpasing from a division where such tactics have become the norm.