Right at the end of the 1998-99 football season, Manchester City were involved in perhaps the most famous Nationwide League Division Two Playoff Finals ever. And I’m not exaggerating – it was a dreadful game that sparked to life eight minutes from the end as, first, Carl Asaba and, second, Robert Taylor put Gillingham two goals in front. As the clock struck 90, Kevin Horlock pulled one back for City, before, at the end of stoppage time, Paul Dickov equalised.
And, it would seem that, at that point in that game, City angered whichever God it is that is in charge of handing out last minute goals. Because, since then, I’m struggling to remember many last minute goals that changed the game in City’s favour. There was, of course, Adam Johnson’s (1-1) stunner at Sunderland. And who could forget that time that Micah Richards (1-1) did it at Aston Villa (then swore on the telly)? He also did it at Everton (1-1), while Macken did it at Tottenham (3-4) and Robinho at Blackburn (2-2). Then there’s Kiki Musampa (1-0, Liverpool), Stephen Ireland (2-1, Reading) and Danny Califf (0-1, own goal, FC Midtjylland).
Contrast that to the events of last weekend: Matthew Etherington added himself to a list that contains (in no particular order) Paul Scholes, Mateusz Mozdzen Wayne Rooney, Tim Cahill, Ryan Shawcross, Dirk Kuyt, Michael Jakobsen, Michael Owen, Darren Bent, Gary Speed, Jimmy Bullard, Manuel Arboleda, Sanli Tuncay, Martin Vingaard, Glenn Murray, Richard Dunne (own goal) and Roman Bednar, all of whom have scored last minute, game changing goals against City.
And to think people say I don’t harbour grudges… Ha!
It seems odd that I’m moaning about City not scoring enough in the last minute by naming eight times when they have done it. But that’s all I can remember from the last twelve years, while City have conceded seven of them since Roberto Mancini took charge. It’s also slightly ironic that I praise Mancini so much for his defensive coaching.
It’s almost as if City never learn their lesson: it’s generally not a good idea to leave a member of the opposing team unmarked in the box with just seconds of the game remaining when leading a game by one goal. Or, worse, when drawing a game. And it certainly feels like it’s always City conceding the last minuters than scoring them.
Having watched the first half of the draw with Stoke through my fingers as the home side went closer than was really necessary to scoring, I was starting to enjoy the second half. Obviously, that was because I was watching with my City hat on (that is, my metaphorical City hat, though, because I was inside and it was too chuffing warm to wear the literal City hat) and, come the second half, City were starting to take control of the game.
In fact, by the time City scored, not many people will have expected a Stoke equaliser; it looked like, as the City pressure around the Stoke penalty area began to build, the home side had missed their chance and would have to settle for trying to keep City out. That being said, though, very few sides keep Stoke blank at their own ground and perhaps it was that complacency that cost the goal.
After City’s goal, Stoke didn’t exactly take the initiative in the game and start piling on the pressure for the equaliser. City didn’t let them: the visitors began to knock the ball around the edge of the home side’s box and keep possession. It confused me, at first, because, in such situations, I’m used to the team defending the six yard box and adopting a deft ‘anywhere-but-the-back-of-our-net-will-do-so-get-rid-of-it-quick’ approach. Even so, there was a warning shot minutes before the equaliser came: a free header from a free kick.
While I think the draw was a fair result – Stoke by far dominated the first half, but, in the second, didn’t seem to have a look in, while it was roles reversed for City – it’s disappointing to have taken the lead at a difficult place to go with ten minutes (ish) of the game remaining and not to go on and win. To have dealt with the first half pressure, the long throws, the corner kicks, the set pieces, the tall men in the box, the kitchen sink and whatever else Stoke hurled towards City, yet lose a goal to a lost header and an untracked run made it feel like a worse point than it actually was.
If you had offered 1-1 at the start of the day, I would have taken it without question. I’ve seen City fail to deal with Stoke’s threat on numerous occasions, so I would have been happy with a point before kick-off (that, and I predicted 1-1 on a prediction game on this here City podcast that I do, putting me further ahead of my co-host). Traditionally, City struggle at that ground (1-0, 3-1(aet), 1-1). But, even so, having been so close to stealing all three, it’s hard not to be disappointed, especially on the weekend when United and Arsenal won.
And, while the result mirrors the corresponding league result from last season, I would venture that it was an improved performance. Last season and the season before at the Britannia Stadium, City struggled to equalise against a team with ten men (they managed it last season, but not the one before). But every long throw that went into the box caused havoc and, right at the death, Ryan Shawcross was unlucky not to have scored the winner (again with seconds to play), having had what looked to be a perfectly fair goal ruled out for a foul.
Yet, last weekend, City coped well. Save for the odd moment of panic, Kompany and Touré were good in the air, Hart was decisive coming off his line and winning the ball when he did, and, for all the pressure, the Stoke goal never came. The City goal never looked like coming at that time, granted, but the defending was better.
So much better, in fact, that as half time came and went, City were able to use it as a platform to build on. They got themselves on top of the game and scored, albeit through a moment of brilliance that I suspected surprised Micah Richards as much as it did everyone else. Would City last season have done that? Probably not.
Kolo Touré appears to have shouldered a lot of the blame for that equaliser from my friends. He hoofed the ball away with about a minute to play and gifted possession back to Stoke and that, some argue, is what he did wrong. I tend not to agree, since the ball being at the keeper’s feet in his own area isn’t especially the most dangerous situation.
What was disappointing was that, from the clearance, Touré stepped out of the back four to challenge Jones for a header and lost. So Richards was forced inside to cover the space that the central defender had left. And then it was de Jong who, in a surprisingly quiet game for him, didn’t track Etherington and, from a flash of brilliance from Tuncay, the ball hit the net. Judging by his reaction, too, I think Joe Hart will have been disappointed he hasn’t saved it. Nevertheless, a good point it remains. It was close to being an excellent three points, but we have to settle for one.
Mark Lawrenson on Match of the Day suggested that Balotelli and Mancini didn’t fancy the game because it was cold and snowing. That would be messrs Balotelli and Mancini, formerly of Milan, an Italian city that famously has never even heard of cold or snow.
Joe Lovejoy in The Guardian speculated that City’s squad of foreigners (seven of which were English) struggled for being a fair-weather team, which would have been a valid criticism, had thirteen of the eighteen not forged a successful career here for more than two seasons. Though he did also describe the team as ‘Northern Softies’, making them both English and foreign.
Anyway, my admittedly sarcastically written and very roundabout point is that City didn’t draw the game because of something silly like the weather. It was a moment of bad defending that did them in.
Oh, and the wrath of the Last Minute Goal God.
The pesky bleeder.