By Alex Scott
Well, that was fast. Straightforward and all. No heroics. No last minute miracle comebacks. No superhuman saves, or ‘keeper force field moments. Just a reserve team and “concentrate on the league”. The league has to be the priority. But still, are we allowed to be underwhelmed? Is that OK?
Can we be upset that as reigning finalists, the team showed the tournament the level of disrespect to play a reserve team? Can we be upset that in our biggest rivalry game of the season, City consciously weakened themselves? Can we be upset… should we be upset, that in our biggest rivalry game of the season, our rivals’ fans didn’t appear to be that bothered? Does that say more about them or us?
I understand the arguments to rest players. I do. Squad players needed game time as part of the early-season training regime. Give them a chance to fight for a place in the first team. Competition breeds success. I get it. And it worked last year. Go back and look at that team that beat Watford at Vicarage Road. Six changes that day and they pulled it off.
But still, Tuesday night was a bit crap, wasn’t it?
I’m so bloody entitled. It’s not fair to compare last year to this, but I’m struggling not to. Getting knocked out against a team who four months ago were two divisions above us, away from home, there’s no shame in that. It’s like any normal year. Like any normal team. It could be worse; we could be Brighton. We could be about 70 other Football League teams and be less happy than we are now. (Leeds fans are infuriatingly happy right now. And the Newport County faithful are probably happier than us, and happier than anyone else in the history of professional sport fandom for that matter.)
But, I don’t know, I expected us to win. Even with a depleted starting eleven. That obviously unfair expectation was an act of self-delusion, and I set myself up for a fall. That’s not their fault. But I did expect them to win. Even at two-nil down. On the hour mark, James Vaughan, who was excellent, and the difference between the teams, was replaced simultaneously with the introduction of Nahki Wells and James Hanson, and a dangerous looking set piece on the City right flank. Right at that point I thought they were going to win. In fact I just assumed they were going to win. Even with ten minutes left. Even with two minutes left I just thought they’d equalise. I knew it.
The wonderful Nahki Wells goal aside, his tenth in as many games, there wasn’t much there on Tuesday night to shout about. Kyel Reid played well again. The oft-negative reaction he elicits from our fan base continues to baffle me to the point where I think we need a collective intervention. He was by far the most dangerous player in the starting eleven last night, in that he was the only player who threatened at all. It’s not like he doesn’t graft. He tracked all the way back to boot the ball out for a corner from Jonny Mac’s grasp on Tuesday. I mean, he didn’t have to, but at least he was there to do so.
It’s a well-worn path, but the only reason we get to have Kyel Reid is that he has no right foot, and his crossing is a bit inconsistent. It is what it is. If his crossing was more consistent he’d be playing for Middlesbrough. If he had a right foot, he’d be playing for Palace. He was the only player capable of causing any damage whatsoever Tuesday night against a what-should-be-sort-of-decent Championship team. No one else even came close. Garry Thompson put in a shift, and did have a couple of snap shots. But aside from that? Anyone at all? Any non-set piece moment of threat?
My point is that, I don’t know who some people want Kyel Reid to be? What else does he need to do? He’s really good. He’s tries really hard. It genuinely baffles me that he has to work this hard for people’s appreciation, and still doesn’t receive it. We all need to snap out of this self-delusion. It’s us… not him. Or them.
Elsewhere, Carl McHugh probably isn’t the answer at left back. Every reserve the team throw in instead of James Meredith only reaffirms his talent in my eyes. They really stutter without the Aussie. The ‘Nathan Doyle at the base of the midfield spinning the ball to the left back’ is a real staple of how this team functions, and without Meredith there to receive that pass and… you know, do things, the fluency of the side is really impacted. Touching back onto the Reid point for a second, these two bring the best out of each other and the hour or so they have played together this season has not-coincidentally been the team’s best 60 minutes.
Outside of Reid and McHugh the primary takeaway, unfortunately, was Jonny Mac. He’s been essentially flawless for six months, and was good for the vast majority of last season. But one mistake (after his defence had made an absolute meal out of clearing the ball… twice), and now he needs to go. I’m not really here or there. I like him, I want him to succeed, I enjoy supporting him, but if Parkinson brought in a star number one, I wouldn’t be overly bothered.
Similarly to Reid, Jon McLaughlin is Jon McLaughlin, and that’s why he hasn’t moved on yet. Simon Eastwood is in the bloody Championship; the level you need to reach to be up there isn’t exactly high. But Jonny Mac is still here. He does have these flaws, which reappear every few weeks, and in all credit, in recent times, months. He’s been very good for a while now, and played a huge role in helping us get promoted for which he’s received approximately zero credit. Matt Duke wasn’t going to carry us.
Similarly to Hanson of years past he has perished at the hands of our social insecurities. He’s still that boy from four years ago in the eyes of some, blinded to his advances. We know him so we can slag him off. Local boy-done-washout. I can’t say with certainty he will reach vertiginous new heights like his long-time teammate Hanson, but I absolutely can’t say he won’t. He has everything you’d want if he could just put it all together. Something which he might just be in the process of doing. A shower doesn’t make an autumn just yet (he says, reverse-jinxing Mother Earth), he still should be our guy.
The lack of magic, the normality of Tuesday night’s match was compounded by how one-sided the intensity was, off the pitch. City sold their allocation, and were vocal throughout for better and for worse, yet Town only brought 7,500 themselves, and the majority seemed quite non-plussed about beating us. They weren’t even ‘Olé’-ing at the end! Adam Clayton completed approximately 4,000 passes in that midfield, and not one ‘Olé’? You know those terrible, doomed relationships when you’re trying way harder than the girl? Yeah…that. The whole thing seemed sort of futile by half time. Especially when all City were doing was killing time until the hour when they were allowed to bring on Wells and Hanson.
Upon which I have a question. I’m in nit-pick mode here in a desperate attempt to force conflict, so I’ll plead the court for a little leeway, but the question is still probably valid. At what point does the inability to play without one, or both, of the team’s centre forwards become an indictment on those who build the squad? It may be a testament to just how great they both are, and I’m not discounting that possibility, but it’s fair that the question should be raised, right? That there still isn’t a plan B after all this time? Or even a Plan A.1?
Look, I’m not criticising. Well, I suppose I am actually, but it’s a valid question right? We all know that Wells is our best player and if he goes we are sort of knackered until we could bring someone else in. But what if Hanson gets a three month injury? Then what happens? Genuinely? Wells and Thompson? Wells and Connell?
James Hanson missed so few games last year, it’s difficult to analyse what the team are like without him, but I suppose that’s why I’m here. Chesterfield at home saw Wells and Thompson start; the game was a 0-0 draw. There was the 2-1 home defeat to Oxford with Andy Gray and Wells up top. The Gray and Thompson debacle at Wimbledon. A 0-0 draw at Plymouth and a 0-0 draw at Cheltenham. That is basically it. Not exactly convincing for the post-Hanson landscape. Hanson didn’t start the 3-0 win at Wycombe, but came on at 1-0 after Doyle’s essentially random 1st minute opener, and helped turn it into three, setting up that wonderful Will Atkinson goal. (*stares wistfully into middle distance*)
But yeah, for the approximately 3,011th time in the last two years: they haven’t shown the ability to play without Wells and Hanson.
Without that out ball over the top into the channel for one of the two to chase and buy up cheap field position the rest of the team can’t function as an offensive unit, outside of set pieces. Actually without the out ball to the right flank where Thompson can beat his left back in the air, the team can’t function as an offensive unit, outside of set pieces. The two invariably coexist. I get that Wells and Hanson are two great players, and the historical underestimation of James Hanson only increases by the week, but shouldn’t the team have a Plan B by now?
This article feels negative to write, I assume it reads that way also. I’m not negative; I’m really happy with this team, and the manager, and everything about them and I wouldn’t change a thing. But that game on Tuesday felt like a stomach punch. And that’s on me, not them. After the performance on Saturday – after freezing a little early on, I thought they were fantastic – my general euphoria made me too optimistic. I looked at Huddersfield who were twenty minutes away from being in our division this season and was all “F**k it, we can beat these guys. We might even be better than them.”
To get (sort of) outplayed to that extent was a shock to me. Not that Town were overly threatening, but the general running rings, Nathan Dyer flashback-ness of the whole performance, was a shock to me. If you’ll indulge my credit-where-it’s-due face, I thought Huddersfield were really impressive. They were far better than I expected, and streets ahead of Bristol City, a nominal proxy for them in my mind. Perhaps it would have been different with Andrew Davies, Gary Jones et al, but I’m not so sure.
I don’t think I’m a bit subdued because they got knocked out of a tournament, I don’t even think I’m a bit subdued because the club didn’t really care that much about something which I did. I just… I don’t know, these guys have been superheroes for twelve months, you know? They’ve performed miracles. And it’s got to the point where I just assume a miracle is imminent. I have so much faith in these guys. And when I expect them to walk on the water when they are just going for a swim, it does leave me a bit down. This is on me, not them. I know that. But on a personal, internal football-supporting-child level, this feels a bit like a rude awakening to reality.
Huddersfield Town are better at football than we are, and they beat us, relatively comfortably. The same way they normally do. There shouldn’t be a shock in that. But it still felt like there was. For me anyway. These guys always show up when it matters, they don’t know how to lose.
The rock was rolled away, and logic overpowered faith. The storybook ending evaded for once. They still kept fighting – they really don’t know how to lose – but for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, they looked human.
In the cold light of day the defeat probably won’t be that bad an outcome, there’s another game to win on Saturday, and the opportunity for four points from two games. It’s only a cup, anyway.