Fuck. Fucking fuck. Fuckety fuckety fuckety fuck. On toast. With huge great miserable dollops of fuck on top. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Fuck.
Readers of a sensitive disposition might want to look away now. Those of you hoping to find a rational and balanced analysis of the 97 minutes at Hillsborough tonight? Nope, not here. Do something more useful, like watching it on I-Player. Because I have some things to get off my chest.
Like that fucking drummer. Jesus Christ. If you have to have a drummer to tell you when and what to sing, then you’re not a football crowd. See also organised karaoke to “Hey Ho (fucking) Silver Lining”. And as for the pre-match light show. I genuinely thought the floodlights had failed and were slowly coming back on. Maybe it was just an attempt to hide the vast banks of empty seats.
And then there’s what passes for the concourse in the Upper West Stand. A set of tight steps enclosed by charming corrugated plastic that’s somewhere between a 70s British Rail station and a Little Chef motorway footbridge. Except there are 4,000 people trying to move about, buy a pint, or go for a piss. I’m all for proper old-fashioned grounds rather than soulless megabowls, but really…
Still, this is all a distraction, because the real issues apply to our football club. And the quality that we saw today. Or rather lack of it. What we saw today should make us all take a moment to pinch ourselves. About the impossible, incredible fantasy that we’ve been living these last few months. Because today was a much-needed reality check.
They say you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore. Well, today we saw what a perfectly calibrated machine our team has become and how that fine clockwork system was disrupted by changes in personnel.
Without Pope’s confidence, distribution, and sweeping. Without Trippier’s all-encompassing influence, his insatiable drive to push the team forward, his decision-making and organisation. Without two confident full-backs and a goalkeeper, the unyielding base of our system was like sand slipping through our fingers.
Without Miggy’s pace and energy running behind. Without the dynamic triangles between him, Trippier, and Bruno. Without Bruno. His shielding of the ball. Without the metronome that sets our rhythm, our heartbeat. Without the vision and execution that finds the right ball, that slips our front three in behind.
In the first half, our pressing was a beat off. As was our ball retention. We saw more mistakes in half an hour than we had all season. A defensive throw-in that went straight to their striker. A backpass that created another direct chance. A ball fizzed in from our desperately exposed left flank that should surely have found a touch to go in.
Against that we had chances of our own. Isak was a constant threat, but showed understandable signs of rust. Slipped in on the right of the box he took an extra touch and had his shot easily blocked when the away end expected the Anfield lash into the roof of the net. On another occasion, he hung in the air for an eternity before heading against the keeper. All telescopic Inspector Gadget legs and with pace and a trick, there is much more to come. So much more.
Which brings us to his half-time £25 million replacement. And that chance. With the cavalry called and the deficit reduced to one, we were in the ascendancy. Somehow, Bruno played Big Joe in and he drove forward into the box. He could have gone it alone but squared it to our alleged striker. Even I didn’t think he could miss. This was it. Redemption.
Into Row Z. Sweet Mary Mother of God.
With the turning circle of a supertanker and a touch to match, a fundamental inability to finish rather limits your capacity as a striker. And, in Josh Windass, the Owls had someone to put our lump of Wood to shame. All bustling energy he terrorised our defensive line and could have had a hat-trick, even if his opener was clearly offside.
And then there’s Jacob Murphy. Without the usual quality around him he was hopelessly exposed. A rabbit in the headlights, scared of his own shadow, unable to make decisions and push forward. Twice he was one-on-one. Twice the outcome was pathetic and reprehensible. The only positive was that he wasn’t as terrified as Lewis behind him. We were a team hobbled.
There’s a line of argument that this wasn’t a bad match to lose. That our resources would be stretched by a second cup run. That Tuesday is more important to the point of sacrificing today. That might be well-intentioned; it might even have a grain of truth. But it’s also desperately misguided and insulting to those of us who stood in a full West Stand, invested with hope, only to have to watch the vomit-inducing, choreographed home celebrations around us.
More importantly, it’s also wrong for strategic and footballing reasons. Every season there are two chances to win something. We just sacrificed 50% of that chance. And for what? We might play brilliantly on Tuesday but lose to a fluke. That’s what happens in football. That’s a hell of a lot to put on a single 90 minutes of chance. A season that promised everything might be over in three days’ time.
Luton, Oxford, Swindon, Wimbledon, West Brom, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday, Norwich, Swansea, QPR, Stoke, Wolves, Bolton, Coventry, Portsmouth, Wigan, Leicester, West Ham, Nottingham Forest.
What do they all have in common? They’ve all won a domestic cup competition more recently than we have. For the 49th time in my life, we’ve gone out of the FA Cup. Don’t tell me that’s a good thing. Losing hurts.
And if it stops hurting, then this isn’t football anymore.
Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731