By Katie Whyatt
There was a moment before kick-off – brief, fleeting – that, in some parallel universe, would have provided the perfect symbol for a season that came within touching distance of the perfect fairytale but fell – brutally, agonisingly, wrenchingly – at the last chapter. As the camera panned across the City team while jets of fireworks shot into the uncertain Wembley sky, Stuart McCall allowed himself the smallest smirk.
It was understated, barely noticeable, and would have passed invisible and unnoticed were it not for the Wembley big screens capturing the moment for 54,000 eyes. But it was there. City have lived so this season, on the field, McCall conducting himself with a distance, humility and clarity that has mirrored his team’s quiet, wily guile, and often felt at odds with the manic outpourings of affection he so often inspires. But this was his moment, his time. He has downplayed many of his achievements in this season but probably allowed himself, in that moment, to at least begin to recognise what he had accomplished.
In an ideal world, that would be your narrative. The boy done good gets better. McCall has painted himself as so far removed from the man of 2007 that it has often felt erroneous to draw comparisons to his first tenure, yet the temptation to paint this is as redemption has always been there. But the fairytale fell short of its Labovian finish. There is a Prince Charming, but no white horse, no carriage, no car for him to topple off, beer in hand. In the minute between the handshakes and kick off, McCall had somehow managed to change from his suit into a tracksuit, reinforcing his age old argument that he actually has an identical twin brother / stunt double with a penchant for falling off stationary vehicles but more importantly donning appropriate clothing to repeat the feat. That is what you could have had, how you could have finished this season: promotion, and a fanbase quietly stunned there were no broken bones.
Instead, there is no happy narrative for what happened today. Maybe the carriage turned back into a pumpkin, if you will – I don’t know. After an hour of dominance, City busting guts with their trademark bruising, blistering tempo, they read their lines, right on cue, and did what they have done – and have always looked prone to doing – time and again this season: allowed dominance to come down to one condemning flashpoint.
This time, it was Steve Morison – who else? – who delivered the fatal blow, jabbing Lee Gregory’s – again, who else? – header back across goal beyond the arms of Colin Doyle. Jed Wallace had burst down the left, Gregory’s looping punt into the box had caused mania, and Morison had scampered free to deliver the inevitable. If the conjecture is right, and the TV replays do indeed show Morison’s head was an inch ahead of the final defender, it makes it infinitely harder to stomach – but without having access to a video replay at this point, it’s hard to evaluate the call. In any case, City’s old failings were in evidence again: that Tony McMahon had a first half shot that arrowed out for a throw on the other flank says, to be frank, a lot.
In a lot of ways, this was business as usual. City – starting in their 3-5-2, flirting briefly with 3-4-3 after the break before rebounding to their usual format – brought their trademark vigour and tempo, teamed it routinely with a brusquer edge, but sometimes lacked bite, precision. The game was enacted at breakneck speed and both sides hurtled into chances and challenges like drivers swerving into hairpin bends. The game was barely two minutes old when Romain Vincelot bundled over the top of Lee Gregory and that set the tone for a match that was frantic, frenetic, wild. City had their nervy moments at the back but, on the whole, dealt ably with Millwall’s talismaic two, finding a way, seemingly persistently, to scythe and slash the danger away no matter how late they left it. They brought risk but, typically, would catch each other if they tripped. At the other end, mind, Millwall nullified Charlie Wyke. Mark Marshall was his usual sprightly self but City’s shortcomings in the final third persisted.
Marshall, in a moment of visionary genius, unleashed Billy Clarke into acres of green with a cutting through ball, but Clarke’s smart shot drew a catlike clawed save from Jordan Archer to pelt the danger past the post. Clarke would later try to sweep up Marshall’s bobbling shot but would be hacked down for a free kick that McMahon would fire into a pack of white and blue shirts. And so it was, as it has been, City as dominant, as entertaining, as relentless as could be, without hurting their opponents.
None of their old tricks, their old cards that have never before failed them, worked this time. They searched repeatedly for McArdle at both posts, left Wembley’s west end primed for its iconic moment for the City annals – but one never materialised.
Millwall were second best but had their moments. Nat Knight-Percival was caught out from a jaunt up the left but Morison’s mazy run went unrewarded as he couldn’t execute his pass to Aiden O’Brien. Morison would blast high and wide in the second half but he was on target five minutes from time with a clinicism and nerve that City had barely hinted at showing.
That was the moment, albeit marred by what followed, that no one saw coming. City’s helplessness became clear in earnest and the final ten minutes – five having been added – became an endeavour in heartbreak limitation. All of it hurt, from McMahon’s floated ball to Meredith, whose header drifted wide of the post, to Josh Cullen’s hopeful snap volley from 20 yards.
The pitch invasion followed (and I will say nothing on that other than that I’ve never seen Knight-Percival run so fast) and it was… I don’t know. It didn’t hurt in that moment. I hadn’t processed it. I saw the five added minutes and even then was sure they’d pull it back.
Immediately, gratitude triumphed over sadness. You were thankful, so thankful. This has been an amazing team, a beautiful story from beginning until five minutes before its end, which, although falling short, has birthed the most vibrant and cultured Valley Parade team for decades. One day, this season will live as that: not quite, in the end, but often touching greatness.
Having not heard any of the post-match reaction, it’s impossible to say whether this feels like the end or the beginning. Cullen, surely, will go back to West Ham. Law is contracted for one year more. McArdle, Meredith, Marshall and McMahon are out of contract. Hiwula’s loan is up. City will likely be more than a flash in the pan, but losing throws the uncertainties into a more trembling focus than promotion would have.
The duality of pride and hurt is a weird thing to feel. Tonight, you couldn’t have one without the other. I stayed, like the stickler for pain I am, for the trophy presentation, and that’s when I realised what they’d lost. You knew it would come down to one moment but you hoped City, like the team they are, would have been able to hang on as they have all season. They’ve never left the play offs since entering them, never sat lower than fifth since August. They have ticked every box in their recruitment. What more could they have done? This team deserved better, but familiar failings recurred.
Categories: Match Reviews