I would love nothing more than to be constrained, come late May, to consume a slice of humble pie so large as to give me chronic indigestion which lasts until we kick off the 2002/3 season at Edgeley Park. But the prospect of having to stock up on the old Rennies is a dubious one, it has to be said. For it ain't gonna happen, Tiger People. Despite the endearing fantasies of some and the commendable optimism of others, an automatic spot is now surely out of reach, but worse still it is now looking as though even a play-off spot may be beyond us. OK, so we are sixth as I write this, but we occupy that position by dint of an inexorable downward spiral which started about half way through the Oldham cup-tie and which has seen us drop from second and apart from the Exeter game not play well since. During this time the chasing pack, a mere speck on the distance before Christmas, have now got us surrounded and, especially if Cheltenham win a couple of their games in hand, show every sign of presenting us with a clean pair of heels. OK, so before yesterday we were fifth in the form table, I gather, but remember that the last few games include a scrappy win and a fortunate draw against two of the three weakest sides in the country, while immediately prior to our recent "run" we contrived to lose to the third member of that undistinguished trio. And even if we do somehow manage to cling on to a play-off spot because one or more of our rivals blows up, what chance do we stand, based on a level of performance which has now effectively become the norm, of getting the right sort of result at the likes of Scunthorpe or Cheltenham? I fear that the play-off voucher in last night's programme may look a bit of a sick joke come the end of the season.
Last night truly epitomised a large part of our season. The most talented squad on paper in the Division faced an outfit who play in front of crowds of less than 2 000 unless a large away influx swells the gate, whose record signing cost them £ 30 000, and who don't, with all due respect to them, have a great deal to offer except their all. It should have been an easy three points for any side possessing even a whiff of professionalism and will to win, but yet again City, with a couple of exceptions, both Hull-born as it turns out, lacked any sort of organisation, motivation or passion, and succumbed cravenly, wretchedly. Macc were well worth their win, achieved by the simple expedients of hard work and sticking to a game plan, and but for the woodwork and some finishing that will surely at some stage be featured on some "Sporting Bloopers" TV slot the margin of victory could easily have been as high as four goals. This might sound like heresy, but I find myself almost wishing it had been 4 - 0, if only because that's about what we deserved for our approach to the game in general.
No doubt the rose-tinted brigade will as they read this be literally squealing in their anxiety to point out that we are sixth in the table, that it looked as though we wouldn't have a club this time last year, and what do I want? I'll tell you what I want; I want a team that at least tries to perform to its ability and strengths, and which has the professionalism to buckle down and graft when things aren't going right; I want someone to have responsibility for organising the team on the field; I want a team which is worthy of our admirable chairman, and wants to be part of what he is trying to create (and which he will, surely, succeed in creating); I want a team willing to repay the loyalty shown to them by the most long-suffering set of supporters in the country, and I want a manager who is capable of delivering all of this. Even this would not guarantee success, but at least it would give the fans some confidence that we were trying to get there. Even the first two of those would be a start; after all, everyone else seems to manage those, so what makes our players suppose they are so different?
As the final whistle went, Pearson was quick to rise from his seat to congratulate his Macc counterpart. One cannot even start to think what was going through his mind at the time. We have here probably the most knowledgeable and ambitious chairman outside the Premiership, a man with the ability finally to give us the succes we crave and of which we have been starved, and the funds, it seems, to make it happen, a man who shares our vision for the Club, and this is how he is repaid by those who he has publicly said he is willing to take with him on the exhilarating ride to the end point of that vision. Despite our alarming slide, the crowd last night was a healthy 8 431, but it seems clear, especially if you listened to the post-match stuff on Humberside last night, that an increasing number of fans are clearly staying loyal in order to support Pearson (evidenced by the fact there was not one chant of either "E-I-E-I-E-I-O" or "Brian, Brian give us a wave" last night). That's probably about the only consolation Pearson has as he wakes up this morning.
Anyway, some match facts for those of you who can stomach them. The guilty men, hints on the OWS of surprises in the team selection notwithstanding, were as follows:-
Subs: Whitmore (for Van Blerk, 55 min), Roberts (for Beresford, 81 min)
After an infinitesimal but impeccably-observed moment of silent remembrance in memory of the recently departed John Thaw, possessor, in his Kavanagh Q.C. guise, of the dodgiest all-purpose Northern accent ever, and a rather more boisterous (but generous, I hasten to add) Kempton welcome for Steve Wilson in the visitors' goal, Macc kicked off towards Bunkers with the howling wind at their backs. With a mere four minutes on the clock, Dudfield produced a sublime piece of work which sadly proved to be as good as it got for City all night. He picked up on a rather hasty clearance from Van Blerk, under pressure after a rather unwise throw out to him from the Muss, and went on a run which seemed to turn the entire right side of the Macc formation inside out before smacking the ball high past the diving Willo only for it to be headed off the line by a back-pedalling Macc. We then picked up the header and the resultant cross back in to the box appeared to be handled by a Macc defender, but the refusal of the ref to grant a penalty was only Chapter 1 in a tale of refereeing ineptitude which had reached epic proportions by the end.
The pattern of the game soon emerged however as Macc, adopting the sensible but rather obvious strategy of playing the ball short along the ground and giving each other options, as opposed to hoisting the ball high into the wind which is what City were doing, forced a series of corners and generally assumed the ascendancy. On two occasions when City did press forward, the unwillingness of players to make themselves some space meant that man with the ball ended up backtracking, the ball on one occasion ending up with the Muss and on the other being hoofed crossfield into the Kemptonside hoardings by Wicks, to the frustration of a crowd starting to turn restive as early as the fifteeenth minute. We did have a whiff of a chance when Willo flapped at a cross in nostalgia-inducing style and in so doing pushed the ball into the midriff of Dudfield who was taken by surprise and unable to direct the ball into the empty net. A stinging Edwards drive was then tipped over by Willo as it swirled in the wind on 25, but for the rest of the half it was pretty meagre stuff as we remained hesitant and struggled to cope with the conditions (which by this time included the odd flurry of sleet) as well as our visitors, some of whose fans (about 100 of them in total) must have been close to suffering from exposure.
It has to be said that matters were not helped by Mr Kaye, the referee, who along with his assistants (one of clear military bearing - probably RAF the way he danced about on the line - the other short and pigeon-chested but with a large head; can such a contrasting pair ever have taken the field together before?) missed or ignored quite a bit of some fairly niggly stuff but who was quick to clamp down on trivia in true jobsworth style, to the point that he ought to have considered stitiching commissionaire's epaulettes and a medal ribbon to his ref's shirt and growing a grey toothbrush moustache. The zenith of his first half display came on 33, when after letting a series of fouls on City players go unpunished, he gave us a free in the D on the edge of the box when Alexander had clearly slipped. Typically, we were, by dint of some customary over-elaboration, unable to exploit this ineptitude.
On the stroke of half time we were perhaps slightly unfortunate when a Beresford cross was diverted by a Macc defender onto Alexander's head, but as with the Dudfield incident earlier he wasn't really expecting it and was unable to divert the ball in.
Little's post-match radio verdict on the first half was that we matched Macclesfield and that "it was a bit nip and tuck", whatever that means (I thought it was something women had done to their faces when they reach middle-age). Maybe so Brian, but we're at home to the side fifteenth in the League. That's acceptable is it?
The half time break brought news of some staggering ineptitude on the part of those in charge the Kempton turnstiles. For possibly a good ten or fifteen minutes after the kick-off, a steady stream of fans continued to pour into the Kempton. Further enquiry at half time revealed that the problem was that the two turnstiles open for ticket and pass holders could not cope with the last-minute rush which often and inevitably occurs at an evening fixture. The mood of the fans queuing was not helped by the fact that the remaining two turnstiles were kept reserved for those paying cash even though by kick-off time a mere 13 (yes, thirteen) cash-paying places remained avaialble in the Kempton. Attempts to reason with the stewards to allow the other turnstiles to be used proved fruitless, it emerged, with the result that impatience turned to anger as the game started. As ever, though, there is humour in every situation, amd I am grateful to fellow TigerChat reporter mark Gretton for his account of how a steward to whom he had expressed his anger threatened to "eject" him......before he'd even entered the ground!! Seriously though, the tiniest bit of common sense could prevent all this.
So the second half began, and the coup de grace was delivered within a mere five minutes. Wicks, whose ineptitude stood out for most of the night even by the dubious standards of the team's performance generally, directed a clearing header under no pressure stright to a Macc ten yards away, and then compounded his error by haring out to the wing to join Van Blerk and the Macc to whom the ball was played, leaving a gap as wide as the M 62 for the ball to be threaded back inside and through to the Macc no 15, Lambert, whose shot flashed high across the goal and into the net from an acute angle. A well-executed strike, to be sure, but it would have been nice to see some modicum of effort to prevent it.
It got worse after that. Theo came on for Van Blerk and gave the lie to the view expressed at half time that this was a game which cried out for him. Our occasional Jamaican hero was clearly not up for it, staying very deep and backing off from opponents in a manner which might have been meritorious if we had been watching a kabaddi match. Interestingly, Van Blerk was not replaced at the back, leaving us with a defensive trio. Williams then received a straight red-card on 62 when he swore at the referee for not geting a free-kick after being scythed down quite viciously from behind; the Kempton was intially incensed at the sending off because it looked at first as though it was imposed for diving, but the truth emerged post-match. This was typical of the performance of the ref, who booked about half the City team as well as one Macc; his failure to give a free-kick and at least a yellow to the guilty Macc was outrageous but Ryan should have kept his tongue. Still, Williams will no doubt have been comforted by the fact that his early bath would allow him to get to the Waterfront half an hour earlier.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, there was to be no anger-fuelled frantic last half hour from the ten men. Au contraire. On 68, Macclesfield hit the post with a free header. Two minutes later came the blooper of the season, as Muss fubled a long-range effort at the feet of a Macc who contrived to hit the bar from fully three yards out. On 77 another long-range effort hit the post and went straight to a Macclesfield player who had a completely open goal, but dallied long enough to allow Muss to block his goalbound strike.
Frankly, we could not have complained too much at 0 - 4, and yet we might have snatched an implausible draw or even victory. Alexander will be disppointed that he miscued his effort on 72, after Greavesie (who, along with Mike Edwards, was the only one to come out of the game with any real credit) flicked on a chip into the box from Theo, in one of the latter's few telling interventions. Dudfield equally should have connected with a ball deflected into his path on 82, and then with a minute left on the clock Alexander ballooned a bouncing ball over the bar from about 12 yards out when he ought to have found the target.
These were rare bright spots in a gloomy evening, though. In fact it go so bad that the City fans in the Kempton stopped being angry (although the booing at the final whistle was long and lusty) and actually started to see the funny side of their own team's incompetence. One hopes and trusts that Mr Pearson will not be quite so phlegmatic. The audible groans of despair when it was announced that there was to be four minutes' injury time from spectators who were by now dispirited, stiff with cold and yearning for the pub/chippy/armchair by the fire said it all.
Where do we go from here? The general pre-match consensus was that we would know our fate for this season by the end of the Scunt game, but on last night's showing it is unlikely to take that long. Little's position surely becomes less tenable by the week; the plot has been lost and our manager clearly has run out of ideas to try to retrieve it. Moreover, the complacent, matter-of-fact way in which he delivers his post-match platitudes really makes you wonder whether he has to the motivation to remedy the situation, last night being the first time he has actually criticised the players for lack of effort. That said, there is to my mind no point in replacing him now, for I doubt whether even Ferguson could instil the discipline and motivation needed to steer us to victory in Cardiff in May, so deep-rooted does our deterioration seem to have become.
It's all so desperately, desperately disappointing.