The Special Tonight. Is. Massive.
By 10pm we could be a two-legged semi-final away from a visit to Wembley. It’s now our only chance of that happening this season following yet again exiting the FA cup at the first opportunity, and a sold out and noisy St James Park awaits – a huge opportunity.
Saturday was frustrating and disappointing – the performance was well below what we have come to expect this season and I still think we should have had enough on the pitch to get the job done. In brief, a mixture of players who were rusty (Isak, Anderson), rusty and not up to the required standard (Lewis, Lascelles, Manquillo, Ritchie) and just poor (Wood, Murphy) contributed to this. I think with the games we have had Howe did have to make changes, not doing so would also have been a gamble in my opinion, but it does again highlight the lack of depth in the squad despite the first team being class – it isn’t comparable to some of the disasters we’ve had going out of this competition over the years but the manager would have expected more from the players he put out. I don’t think this defeat necessarily changes any plans for the rest of the month – we’re run better than that these days and I’m sure it will be addressed in part in the coming weeks, both manager and club are well aware of where we need to strengthen. Fair play to Sheffield Wednesday though, who played some decent football and deserved their win, taking their chances unlike us.
What has unfortunately come to dominate the post-match chat however is the numerous concerning reports from the away end of overcrowding. I say unfortunately, but in truth I can’t believe in 2023 we’re talking about these types of issues anywhere, let alone at a ground that should have had fundamental and permanent change happen to it long ago. My experience of Saturday (as that of many others by the looks of it) was this did not seem to be the case. We were in the upper stand, where there were entrances at either side of the away end to get in. Stewards directed us to the wrong set of turnstiles that were on our tickets, meaning we had to walk most of the length of the concourse to get to our correct block once we got in. This was about 30 minutes before kick-off, and it already felt uncomfortably full and you had to push your way through the crowds to get to the right end. The entrances to the stands are so narrow there isn’t enough space for two people to pass on the stairs in different directions, also contributing to congestion both in the concourse and in the entrances/exits. There seemed to be more overcrowding in the lower tier and there has been numerous reports of that on social media. The place did not feel fit for purpose to safely have 4,500 people there.
This was my first visit to the ground but from speaking to others who had been before (including to a City supporting mate of mine who went in 2005) the same issues were coming up. My dad, who visited the same end as an away fan in the 80s described similar issues and what seems like the same layout in place when he went. Astonishing. We’ve seen over the last couple of days that the FA are going to investigate reports of what happened. The supporters trust are collating any accounts from fans who were there and did an excellent job when similar issues happened at Leeds last season, so I would encourage anyone there to get in touch with them with their experiences.
On to this evening and of the only positives we can take out of Saturday were no injuries and the return of Isak, who got through 45 minutes in one piece and will hopefully make the bench. Howe stated we would be back to full strength tonight which is of course no surprise, and you could see how significantly the levels went up on Saturday when are big players came on. The big mystery surrounds ASM, who was absent from the squad on Saturday but seemingly feeling well enough to be back in the gym the following morning. You can sometimes read too much into these things, but it is odd. It won’t be a distraction this evening though and Howe will have everyone fully focused – whether he’s on the bench is anyone’s guess but I think he probably will be.
Leicester come into this game with another long injury list – no Maddison, Dewsbury-Hall, Praet, Evans, Justin, Bertrand and Soumare if Rogers press conference yesterday is to be believed. They will obviously come with a point to prove but they come here at a massive disadvantage against a side with a formidable and unbeaten home record. We blew these away a few weeks ago and a strong start will bring back horrible memories for them – I hope we get at them early but cup games don’t always pan out like that. I’m confident we’ll get the win tonight, I’d back our first eleven against anyone at home and it will be lost on none of them how important tonight is to the football club and the rest of our season. I’m buzzing and can’t wait to get in there later.