By Alex Scott
This has to be one of the least confident seventh place fan bases in the country. After a disappointing reverse and accompanying performance at Oakwell over the weekend, this uncomfortable disenchantment is explainable if not totally justifiable. There won’t be many top ten teams with as little positive momentum amongst its fans.
City are on course for 69 points this season, probably enough to just miss out on the play offs, but still a successful return. Despite this, confidence is waning. It isn’t like they’ve fallen off a cliff recently and all the arrows are pointing down, the form over the past five games, and ten games, has been broadly in line with the season as a whole, or in truth a little better.
I suppose the effect is a necessary consequence of a poor start at home. Forgetting that the three losses came against Peterborough and Swindon (second and third in the division respectively), and a recently-relegated, if inconsistent Yeovil team, it isn’t possible to avoid some disillusion when you are losing at home. Even when they managed beat a poor Crewe team, it did come across from the outside that they didn’t beat them well enough, or quickly enough in the eyes of some.
Up until Sunday’s defeat against also recently-relegated Barnsley, City had shown much more on the road than at Valley Parade, and this was reflected in the respective point totals, with only Bristol City and Peterborough better on their travels. It should be noted that had City managed a point at Oakwell, they would have the best record in the division away from home.
Being stronger on the road has its benefits for a team over a season: there will be no dead rubbers or lost causes. Being hard to beat, restricting chances on your goal, and taking yours when they arise is a much-travelled road to success; however, being able to pull off the same game plan in front of an expectant home crowd is another matter. In fact, at home, City are mostly being done at their own game.
The result of this divergence in performance is that the majority of the fans don’t get to see the team at their strongest. This inhibits the confidence in the team, and the resultant atmosphere at Valley Parade. The team don’t look comfortable, and part of this may be down to the expectation. They have to be proactive at home, and this doesn’t play to the strength of the team, which is more built around absorbing pressure and possession.
That probably the side’s best two league performances this year came at Crawley and Milton Keynes, in front of probably no more than 500 City fans combined, isn’t ideal in terms of building momentum amongst the on looking home crowd.
Pointing any of this out is admittedly easy to say as someone who mostly attends away games, and has that level of detachment. I imagine I would have a different impression of this team if I had only seen home games this season. I’m not suggesting I’m right and others are wrong to feel what they feel, I’m just considering that from the outside the negativity does appear a little unwarranted, given the team is seventh in the league after all.
This isn’t going to be a long, adamant defence of the team, with me chanting how well they are playing. Given my experiences this year, I think this team has a looooooong way to go to be competitive towards the top of this division over an extended period. However, there are a number of considerations that could be extended to the team at the moment.
Firstly, it’s a brand new team! There was a necessary turnover in the summer as the previous team was decided to have run its course, and that there have been certain teething problems and inconsistencies is understandable. That the team have struggled to gel at times and have looked as awkward as they have but are still seventh should be an encouragement. It’s not like they’re going to get worse playing together as the season goes along.
In addition, the injuries to Andrew Davies and James Hanson have meant that the team has been missing clearly their two best players for months at a time (and counting for the latter…), mostly concurrently. But they are still winning games; they haven’t let their form tail off from the start of the season. They sit today in mid-October only five points off the automatic promotion places.
Davies is going to miss 20 games a year, it’s no one’s fault. It just is. And again, we’d never be able to afford him otherwise. But given the acquisition of the impressive Christopher Routis, and the flexibility of the rest of the back line, it wouldn’t be fair to accuse Parkinson of not preparing for that absence this time around.
Hanson is a different point, and the absence of an adequate replacement for him has hurt the side considerably in quality of their performances over recent weeks. But given the balance of performances, Parkinson would be reasonable in expecting more from Billy Clarke, Aaron Mclean and Mason Bennett under the circumstances.
That no Hanson facsimile in the Jon Stead mould has been recruited is curious, but given the paucity of disposable income and the lack of available options this early in the season (before the managerial merry-go-round gets going in earnest), it’s probably explainable. But again, the team are still seventh. They have managed to gain points and wins in Hanson’s absence, and given they are clearly a better side when he is in the team that probably bodes well.
Finally, we have supported more than our fair share of unlikable City teams in the past; this clearly isn’t one of them. This is a good, likeable collection of players. They try hard, there’s a sense of unity there; there aren’t many players to dislike. They’ve gone through some adversity early in the year, and they’ve battled through and are still performing well. They also have ambition in how they carry themselves, which is an admirable characteristic, even though it may be counterproductive in expectation management amongst the fans.
Not to mention that they beat bloody Leeds six weeks ago.
If you’d have offered any of us seventh in mid-October back in August we’d have taken it. Not to mention that we’d be missing our best attacker and best defender for half the season to date. Being sat just outside the play offs is perfectly reasonable output.
But none of this really does change the fact a lot of fans are disillusioned, that a large section of fans do want more, that even the likes of our own Jason McKeown can feel as detached as he clearly did on Sunday. It isn’t really a question of whether any of this is merited, it just is. The merits of the justification don’t really matter.
Regardless of the performance in the league and cups, which on its face to outsiders, even those such as myself, looks reasonable, something clearly isn’t right at the club. Something is missing.
I went to see the last City team lose 4-1 in a rainstorm in Exeter two years ago and I wasn’t that demoralised. I also saw abysmal away defeats at Wimbledon and Barnet, and worse home defeats to Oxford and Exeter again during that season, and things seldom slipped into the numbing malaise and discontent of this season. That side finished seventh.
The disillusion across the fan base which does seem to be becoming more and more endemic, isn’t really coming from what’s on the field. It’s something else.
For the most part, they’ve been fine on the field. There have been inconsistencies in performance – this team does appear to have a particularly high variance – but for the most part they haven’t been often outclassed. This isn’t to say there aren’t structural issues to work through (not least that the side is built around a 6’4 centre forward hitherto incompatible with his highly-paid partner, and with precisely zero players in the squad capable of getting to the by-line), but to say purely from how the team has performed that there are huge reasons to be pessimistic isn’t fair.
If City showed up on Sunday and drew one all, this week may have been slightly more positive, being sat in the play off positions and all. But it wouldn’t have changed the overwhelming feeling of the season that, even though this team beat Leeds and are doing fine in the league, something still isn’t sitting right.
It’s fair to say there has been a severance in something over the past year or so between the fans and the club. Jason alluded to this briefly on Sunday. I am definitely less engaged than I was twelve months ago.
Maybe it’s because that the previous team played above themselves. Maybe it’s because they knew who they were, played to their strengths, and had courage in their convictions. Maybe it was because they got it in the bloody mix sometimes. Maybe it’s because they were successful. It could be any number of these things, or none of them, it may just be time.
Irrespective of the why, the team, and the fans do have an issue to tackle. The players need to find a way of being comfortable at Valley Parade. The lack of comfort, an hour against a 10-man Leeds team aside, has been noticeable all season long and this has corrupted the atmosphere. Whether this necessitates a change in formation – like against Crewe – or just a change in mind set, it something Parkinson needs to get to the bottom of, and quickly.
In all likelihood this will come in time, especially with the return of James Hanson, the inclusion of whom makes everything else seem easier. He also offers the club a clear route to scoring goals, which has been conspicuously absent over recent times. As the season moves on, it is probably fair to expect that this team will settle down somewhere in upper mid-table, in line with the prediction of most.
Whether they can carry the fans with them to this point is another question. A question we’ve not had to ask in a while.
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