I like trying to sum a game up with song lyrics; those of you who are regulars here will know it’s a little thing I try at times. I’d have to rework some lyrics today to the tune of The Beautiful South’s Perfect Ten.
It would go something like this – “The Imperfect ten, up against a twelve, City should have won by two or three.”
Let’s jump straight in, shall we? We’re back to a point where you’re wondering how Michael Skubala is going to fit all of his pieces together rather than where the few pieces he has might go to make up a whole picture. There was a shock when we saw Joe Taylor had been dropped, and whilst that sounds like it is to the player’s detriment, I’m not sure it is. Dylan Duffy came in, which gave us pace on both sides of the park, and we felt like we were starting in something more akin to a 3-4-3 rather than the previous week’s 3-5-2. But, as we know, formations are overrated these days and you can be playing multiple shapes in and out of possession.
How mad was the bench as well? Ben House did return for the game, and considering we were originally thinking the end of February, he’s done incredibly well to get to where he is; kudos to the medical team. Paudie didn’t come back into the side after his four-match ban, but his presence on the bench gave it an air of strength as well. New signing Conor McGrandles was there, and Jack Burroughs too, a player who has been integral this season. The bench looked really strong, and that’s without Mandroiu and Taylor being mentioned. Their first team had former Imp Jake Caprice in it, a player who left just before the Cowley era, and Mustapha Carayol, who will always be linked in my mind with relegation in 2010 but is still a good prospect at this level.
I’ve got to make reference to their two big ‘uns up top as well. Kyle Hudlin is huge, and with Ademola Ola-Adebomi alongside him, I thought they’d carry a real threat in the box. I had the home comms on, and they were enthusing about how well the two linked up – I didn’t really see that. Burton’s only tactic with the ball seemed to be to try and hit one of the big lumps, which is a shame for technically gifted players like Joe Powell and Mark Helm to be laden with such an ugly, route one approach. Their out-of-possession approach involved another of their key players – referee Jeremy Simpson. At one point, my anger directed towards him had me thinking it was 2003 again, a time when I rarely tried to have balance or see things from the other side. I’ve got to start with the official because he dictated much of the game. At least one of his decisions was as big as a goal and, therefore, became a huge talking point.
Immediately after the game, and certainly during it, I was incandescent with rage. Make no mistake, Burton are a dirty side, and whilst Bolton apply the dark arts with a Machiavellian panache, a sneaky, cunning approach that is rarely seen, Burton does it with all the subtlety and guile of a snooker ball in a sock. Their first booking, for a really poor tackle on Ted Bishop, was justified, and I’m not sure any of the seven that followed for them were less so. My anger wasn’t so much at the referee but at them – pulling shirts, tugging back, tripping up, and always a different man than before, ensuring the yellows were spread as evenly as Lurpak on my morning toast. Sadly, our yellows were spread as evenly as the Aldi alternative, Norpak, which (if you’ve ever had it, you’ll know) just lumps together and spoils the bread. Yep, we got two yellows within minutes of each other that ended Alex Mitchell’s game before the half-hour mark.
The first yellow card is not a yellow – it’s not even a foul. Hudlin throws his head back into Mitchell if anything, but Mitchell gets a yellow. It’s a really poor card, and I think the ref gives it because, at that point, he’s already handed out three to them. Moments after, he tangles with Ola-Adebomi, and whilst there’s not a great angle to watch from, I’m not convinced that is a foul either. The replay shows as the ball comes over their lad and has an arm over Mitchell. Yes, Mitchell has an arm in as well, but he moved it before Ola-Adebomi fell, and he’s not openly pulling a shirt. I think they bought a red card, and Mitchell’s game was over for two offences I don’t think warranted a yellow.
What really irked me was despite their eight yellows (that’s more than any team has attracted since we came back into the league), they actually got away with much more. There were bumps and pushes on Freddie that were equal to that on Hudlin supposedly by Mitchell for the first yellow, that went unpunished. Burton felt like the naughty child who gets told off and doesn’t listen. Where does the referee go, then? Sometimes, a referee is the victim of his own actions, but that first early yellow was meant to throw down a marker, and Burton just didn’t care. Mind you, there was a foul throw given against Lasse, which was fair enough, but then I counted at least six, distributed across both sides, that were not punished. If you’re going to lay down a marker, you have to follow that, and Simpson didn’t.
I’m more than 900 words in and haven’t mentioned the football, but let’s be honest, the first half wasn’t great. It was a broken game, punctuated by few moments of real skill or ability. That said, there’s no doubt we could, and perhaps should, have been 2-0 up at half time. The moments we did get our quality players on the ball really stood out – Reeco is such a huge figure for us, and he tied Jake Moon in knots before whipping a wonderful ball into Lasse. He stole in behind Tolaji Bola with a header, only to see former Grimsby keeper Max Crocombe pull off a save that reminisced of Gordon Bank, World Cup 1970. It was that good.
That was with 11 men, but with ten men, we should still have scored, Adam Jackson fluffing his lines with a header from six yards out. In fairness, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. We recycled a corner, Erhahon outsmarting Helm, Bishop delivering a great cross for Freddie to nod on to Jacko. Now, the ball is coming across and looping up and down, so there’s no pace on it. He has to try to add pace and direction, but only got a bit of power on it and Crocombe plucked the ball out of the air easily.
Burton’s best chances came as you’d expect from a side that displayed little finesse in its approach: scuffles and scrapes around the area. I know Jensen made a couple of saves, and once or twice, we were all at sea at the back, but I never felt they were going to score. They had two shots on target in the first half, neither of which I can really recall, and neither of which were clear-cut. Their best spell came from Mitchell’s sending off up to the 45-minute mark, and it’s obvious why. They had a man advantage, and we were just looking to get to the half time break to reorganise. Sadly for Dylan Duffy, he was eventually the man to make way for a centre half, and ironically, Paudie O’Connor gets his first chance after being sent off as an early sub to accommodate a reshuffle after a red card.
We did get to half time in an attritional first half low on quality. The players trudged off the field like it was the end of a battle – the pitch looked like a battlefield, and at least one set of players had come ready for a war. However, we’d stood our ground, not sunk to their levels and still went in a man down, bruised and battered. My assumption was that they’d come out all guns blazing, still direct but maybe not quite as cynical. How wrong I was.