“You hear people talk about ‘managing the game,’ ” he says. “It’s code for squeezing the boundaries of the laws, taking it into cheating in some areas. Managers will say, ‘Kill the game for the last ten minutes.’ Well, that’s what you’re doing — you’re killing the game. People pay to watch 90 minutes, not 80.”
The words of Paul Tisdale in the article that appeared in The Times a couple of weeks ago played out in spades as City eventually broke down a determined and cynical Morecambe rearguard to earn a point in blustery conditions and despite the best efforts of some very adrift officials.
City’s line-up included four changes, two of them forced – Christy Pym, himself a late replacement in the win at Cheltenham, was sidelined and would be seen with a cast boot on his foot, hopefully only precautionary, while Liam Sercombe hadn’t recovered from the knock that forced him off last week. James Hamon had fortunately recovered from his concussion to resume between the sticks, while Tom McCready replaced Sercombe in midfield for his first start, somewhat ironically against his most recent former employers. The other two changes were tactical, with Lee Holmes and Clinton Morrison coming in for Graham Cummins and David Wheeler. Alex Nicholls, Danny Butterfield and Craig Woodman were all deemed fit enough to return to the bench alongside Cummins, Wheeler, Bennett and 16 year old sub goalkeeper Kavanagh Keadell.
It was City who were quickest out of the blocks, almost forcing an opening straight from the kick off, which set the tone for the first quarter of an hour, McCready trying his luck while Lee Holmes’ cross deserved to be touched in. How often, however, has a team been under the cosh early on only to take the lead against the run of play, and so it was here. Ribeiro in advancing beyond his centre back role was caught out of position as Morecambe gained possession and, with Jamie McAllister forced to cover across this left young Aaron McGowan in acres of space on the corner of the box. His shot was fairly weak and nowhere near the corner of the goal but somehow it had enough on it to beat Hamon, who when he looked back at it will have been devastated to have let it through him. This led to the first signs we were dealing with a weak referee – McGowan was jogging back to the centre when it dawned on him that he ought to celebrate in front of the Bank, so he about-turned and ran over to the home supporters, with giant number 6 Edwards particularly guilty of some shocking goading. The referee could have been well within his rights to book both McGowan and Edwards, but instead merely wagged a finger.
If ever a goal knocked the stuffing out of a side it was this one, suddenly all that enterprise and energy City had shown early on evaporated into a half pock-marked by poor decision making in making the wrong pass, poor decision making in terms of looking for the extra pass when a shot was on (or vice versa!) and poor decision making in terms of the officials, although the blustery conditions were heavily against City, at times so strong that even running with the ball was problematic. Tom Nichols made an enterprising run down the right flank and as he cut inside he was bundled over by Kenyon, the decision surely to make being one of whether he was outside or inside the box when he was fouled, a goal kick was given. A rare Morecambe attack saw Jack Redshaw offside by some distance but the linesman was ten yards behind play and missed it – a minute or so later he did call an offside, again from ten yards behind play. Another City attack saw Nichols crudely taken out by a forearm smash from Kenyon as he approached the box, again nothing doing, to howls of derision from the City faithful. The half time whistle sounded to a chorus of boos, perhaps both for a City performance bereft of ambition and the sheer ineptitude of the officials.
With the conditions now in City’s favour the formation was changed to three at the back with Arron Davies and Lee Holmes acting as attacking wing-backs, but it was Jamie Devitt, the villain of the piece last season, who had the first opportunity of the half, shooting wide when well placed. Christian Ribeiro took a knock and was replaced by Alex Nicholls, forcing a shuffle of the pack with Davies pushing inside, Oakley dropping back into defence and Nicholls playing wide right. His impact was instant, forcing Morecambe back with an energetic and skilful display. The Shrimps had by now resorted to full on cynicism, taking forever to restart play and falling over, apparently dead, at every opportunity. The introduction of Kevin Ellison added brute force and stray elbows into the mix, while City made a double switch, replacing Clinton Morrison and the unlucky Tom McCready (whose energy and verve contrasted with the very below par Ryan Harley) with Cummins and Wheeler. There were howls of derision from the City supporters when, awarded a free kick in a great position, Oakley and Harley faffed around instead of delivering a killer cross, the ball eventually going out for a Morecambe throw deep inside City territory.
City thought they had equalised with about fifteen left on the clock. A free kick from Holmes was headed against the woodwork by Cummins and Wheeler followed in and tapped home, but the linesman had his flag up. Replays would show it was the most borderline of borderline offsides, with perhaps the tip of Wheeler’s nose in an offside position. There was little respite however, as Alex Nicholls found himself in acres of space in the Morecambe box, giving him time to bring the ball down and draw the somewhat hapless Arestidiou (whose kicking was so poor as to remind City supporters of Ashley Bayes in his pomp) into a dive before smashing home.
This should have been the cue for City to go gung ho for a winner, indeed Harley should have done better when well placed and Davies tried a delicate effort that caught the wind and drifted just the wrong side of the post, but in fact Morecambe carved out a number of half chances near the end, causing some panic in the box as City struggled to clear. As the game drifted towards a draw, there was a final moment of anguish for City. Tom Nichols, who had been frustrated by taking a hammering all game without protection, finally lost his cool and lashed out at his marker, earning a deserved red card which means City go into a vital Easter period against promotion rivals bereft of their top scorer. His dismissal marked the third occasion in fixtures between these sides where a City player has retaliated and been sent off, after Bertie Cozic and infamously Matt Gill at Wembley.
In the end this will definitely be considered two points dropped, and perhaps served as a sign of why City aren’t ready to be considered promotion contenders. Starting well, all confidence evaporated when Morecambe took the lead, and despite having almost all the play in the second half clear-cut chances were few and far between. City will have every right to feel aggrieved about the officials who did nothing to temper the cynicism of the visiting side, and were perhaps bullied – laughably even the “magic spray” proving to be a waste of time – Mr Bull would confidently pace out his ten steps, then would retreat timidly back several steps after realising the Morecambe wall wasn’t budging an inch. Until officials clamp down on cynicism, timewasting and various other attempts to kill the game then teams will continue to do it. Mr Bull might like to watch the DVD of City’s match at Dagenham earlier in the season, where referee Keith Stroud gave a masterclass in dealing with this sort of behaviour, booking Daggers players and adding an inordinate amount of injury time.
As far as City are concerned, it was a disjointed performance, good up until the goal, awful for the rest of the first half, and pressing hard for an equaliser in the second half without carving out too many opportunities. Ryan Harley was perhaps symptomatic, drained of confidence during the course of the game to the extent he was getting simple tasks wrong by the end – perhaps the beard he was sporting in his MOM display at Carlisle had Samsonesque qualities. On the other hand, McCready looked lively as did Holmes, while Jamie McAllister at the back was solid as a rock. Clinton Morrison did what Clinton Morrison does – giving as good as he got in a very physical battle with the Morecambe defence while using the ball well as long as it was directly to him, a yard or so beyond him and he lacked the pace to retrieve it. The MOM, chosen by the sponsors under heavy insistence from your report writer, was sub Alex Nicholls, who put in a display full of skill and energy and was rewarded with the equaliser.
City could really have done with the three points going into a run of five straight games against sides ahead of them in the table, but at least playing against sides expected to win they might actually play some Football (Wycombe aside, obviously) which may play into City’s hands.
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