No happy ending as City fall short at Wembley

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Image by Thomas Gadd

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.

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Categories: Match Reviews

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18 replies

  1. Thanks for another great write-up Katie. Being in Canada and not being able to be at the match, I look to WOAP to provide me with the details.

    They were in it until the end, just couldn’t find that finishing touch.

    I was worried going in that City’s lack of clinical finishing would come back to haunt them in the end.

    Need to find a striker who can score 20 goals and help out Wyke up front. That has eluded City since Nahki left.

    Pretty sure that was the missing piece for City to get automatic this year. Defensively, I think City were solid. Stats prove that. But you need goals to win games. Turn all those draws into wins.

    Other than that, I think we should be proud of what the Bantams achieved this season with that summer of turmoil last year.

    • “Need to find a striker who will score 20 goals”? Isn’t that Wyke? He would’ve done that if he’d been here from the start of the season, As would Jones

      • He will have his chance next season to show what he’s made of, but he cannot do it all alone. I don’t know what the answer is to get him scoring on a regular basis.

        3 playoffs games and the only goal we scored was by McArdle.

  2. Well done getting to the play offs but my gosh did we get what we deserved. Our attacking play is terrible we could still be playing now and not create a goal scoring chance. Poor Charlie wyke got nothing and has not for a while. He is not James Hanson let’s get the ball to his feet in the box, he had no chance in the air against Webster . His value must be reducing we are ruining him. Why go outwide all the time, it is lazy we are going backwards in terms of movement and becoming so predictable (this is on a par with parky). On a plus side defensively we look strong but anyone who thinks we are playing better football this year is deluded, yes we did at the start of the season but since October we have been awful going forward, Doyle don’t even bother playing the ball out anymore – what a shame.

    • You are an incredibly harsh critic Claire. I can only imagine you didn’t watch City last year if you think the football this year isn’t better. It was winning football last year but it was dreadful to watch. Give me this team and its honest endeavour – and its flaws – over last season’s every day of the week.If that’s deluded I’m very happy to be deluded.

      ISWT

      • 1 goal in 3 play off games. Charlie wyke starved of service a pre determined style that encourages getting the ball out wide is not hurting teams nor is it effective. We had 18 attempts on goal 3 on target and 60 odd percent possession it is the same story for the majority of the season. The reason for the critical analysis is because we are addressing it or improving and to make matters worse we are hurting a proven goal scorer and our prized asset. Football is about opinion I respect yours but feel if the points I have raised where addressed we would have been promoted this season.

      • Claire, I totally respect your opinion and you are by no means not the only one critical. However I do find certain elements of your tone and choice of words unfair on the club.

        “my gosh did we get what we deserved” – really? We were the better side and had more shots, corners and possessions. Yes we totally wasted good chances and should have created more, but I don’t see how that means we got what we deserved. Whatever the failings of the team they are not endevour and honesty. I’ve seen many City teams over the years with nowhere near the heart, ethic and workrate of this bunch. They have given absolutely everything. The shortcomings are ability-led not attitude. I think that’s an important point.

        As for Wyke, I hope your very high esteem felt towards him is proven to be correct but he came to VP with Carlisle fans saying he scores goals but does absolutely nothing else for the team, going anonymous for spells, and I think he does the same for City. Yes he needs better service without a doubt, but there’s also got to be an onus on him to do a bit more. Put it this way he won’t play in the Championship if he doesn’t look to improve his own all round game.

        Anyway let’s not have a fall out. We’re all hurting right now but we all care and want the same things.

        Jason

  3. A real shame to fall at final hurdle after such a great season.

    But one thing I’ve noticed in recent matches and also present at Wembley is that except for set pieces we just don’t have enough bodies in the box when the ball gets delivered in. Often just Wyke on his own, and he doesn’t seem to be able to hold it up well like Hanson did. Compare that to Millwall who always seemed to have their talisman Gregory and Morrisson plus another in the box – no surprise it was them combining to score.

    Looking at final table stats with 62 goals scored in the season we are about 10th in the league (yes brilliant defence but not enough going forwards). But all in all a wonderful season – hope we build on it and grow. Keep the faith. Steve

    • Offense is lacking, you are correct.

      It has been a problem all season. All those draws …

      Based on the stats I’ve seen, we are looking at 1 goal out of 42 shots in the playoffs.

      People may not be big on stats, but they still paint a picture.

    • I disagree about Wykes hold up play I actually think it’s much better than Hansons. Hanson was very good in the air but not great at holding onto the ball and bringing others into the game. Wyke looks after the ball much better in my opinion.

  4. Great season for me. Fans got right behind team and created a brilliant atmosphere. 19k season ticket holders for next season although it wont be the championship but it will go along way in attracting the right kind of player to push us to the next level. Its only a matter of time. Mccall has done a terrific job and gets every last ounce if effort out of the players.

    Vincelot, NKP and Macardle were solid today and Doyle was never troubled. 1 shot on target and they win the game. Clarke was superb in the first half if he scores the 1 on 1 its a different outcome.

    There was nothing in the last third again and this is something Stuart has to address in the summer and im sure he will. Millwall got stronger as the game wore on and we faded 2nd half. The substitutions made little difference

    A word on Millwall fans, they are even magnamious in victory and a vile club who imtimidate other fans with their awful chants, annoying noises and pitch invasion that really spoilled the occasion. All designed to intimidate and make genuine fans uncomfortable. In comparision the city fans were class and showed Millwall what its all about.

    Im confident we will come back stronger next season and Stuart and the backroom staff will address the shortcomings for the next season thatvwill see us promoted.

  5. One thing that worried me before the game was watching the shooting practice; McMahon, Clarke, Wyke, Hiwula, Jones, Law being rolled the ball to shoot at Sattelmaier.

    Without any pressure only about 25% of their shots even hit the target – never mind beat Sattelmaier.

    I know these are third division players but that did seem to say something about the problem.

    Great season – roll on next year and some laser guided shooting boots all round.

  6. Only one observation. Millwall won because of Gregory and Morison. They started and finished the match. I would have liked to have seen the pairing of Wyke and Jones do the same. Billy Clarke could absolutely have figured, but goals win promotion and Billy is not a real goalscorer. Jones is and should have started. Onwards and upwards.

  7. I was becoming resigned before they scored. We were not troubling them much, they missed one glaring one-on-one and were getting stronger if owt. It was easy to see for me from my unaccustomed end-on view that we were getting the ball wide ok but not getting men past their back four – no-one making runs, no balls into space, sometimes not enough men there. Wyke was anonymous, but if I’d been told we were just going to put high crosses in to him on his own against their thugs, I’d have expected the same level of success.
    We need quicker passes at times, and I’m sure the team and Stuart’s staff know that.
    We need a goalscorer – I’m hoping that proves to be Jones/Wyke.
    Stuart has transformed the way we play, built on the squad we had, got us to the play-off final – what a bloody brilliant season!!!
    So we lost – it was always going to be close. We can be proud of our club, our fans, our team, and our Stuart.

  8. Jason, I accept the “my gosh” comments where harsh but I was upset and so frustrated. In terms of the game, we only created 1 proper chance in open play, millwall were happy for us to have possession as we were not hurting them – ppl are getting fooled that this possession football is the answer, defensively yes it is great teams can not score against us without the ball but by insisting on working it outwide at every opportunity it is making us slow predictable and very ineffective in the final third. As for Charlie wyke I have seen ppl calling him out – it is not his fault, he has great technical ability and can influence play deeper but not with the way we are playing and as for chances – when was the last chance we created for him in the area on the floor? Tactically we are doing everything we can to starve service and bypass him throughout the match, if we continue in this vain he will turn into a 10 goal a season striker. I am not saying we are far off,I just want our attacking play to be assessed and improved, but it seems to be going backwards and everyone thinks we are playing amazing football when in reality we are not and need to do so much better and can do so much better.

    • I agree to a large extent. Perhaps now is not the time for a post mortem – we should be reflecting on a great season instead of picking fault but when we start to plan for next season we might want to look at how we get the ball into the danger areas more often. We keep the ball beautifully at times and the passing can be wonderful but we’re not hurting the opposition with it. We should be careful about taking possession as a measure of our dominance in games. We should instead measure how many times we get the ball into the box, shots on goal within the penalty area etc. I’m not suggesting hoofball but I think we should try and fuse our passing game with a more direct style somehow. We rarely stretched Millwall, most times they had a good 9 players behind the ball.

      Before the game I would have agreed that playing out wide was the way to go. The wide open spaces at Wembley should have been made for Marshall and you have to give credit to Millwall, they kept him very quiet. This left Charlie on his own with no service. Clarke played his socks off, I’m saddened to read the stick he’s getting on social media.

      Because I’m a pessimist I’m a little worried about next season. Over achieving this season will ramp the pressure up on Stuart for next term. Any loss of form, a winless streak or a string of poor performances will quickly become a crisis. Lets hope for a good summer recruitment and a decent start to next season.

      However, that’s for another day. Lets enjoy the season just gone. The players and supporters have done us proud.

      • I agree I am not suggesting hoofball either, my options would be surrender some possession and look to counter attack more (this created the Clarke chance). Josh Cullen and Nicky law have the ability to run at teams but they are constantly looking to play wide, go at them bring back the triangles one 2s in and around the area pull defenders out of position get in behind them,draw fouls, pass to wykes feet then run off him and get in behind him give it his feet let him make a yard and shoot. We can do this the frustration is that we don’t

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