A defeat written in the stars

Steve GedgeThere aren't that many things which are certain in football. If you're a Portsmouth fan come May you won't be expecting to see your side in the Premier League again any time soon.Steve Gedge

There aren't that many things which are certain in football. If you're a Portsmouth fan come May you won't be expecting to see your side in the Premier League again any time soon. If you follow Ipswich you'll go along to games at the moment fully expecting only a draw.

If you support Peterborough you know your manager will get axed at the most unlikely time. (If I was Jim Gannon - who this column has suggested as a possible Norwich managerial contender in the past - I wouldn't be identifying my office with an engraved metal sign screwed into the door, I'd be just using a piece of paper and some blu-tack.)

But forget all of these. If you are a City fan you always knew that our unbeaten run was going to come to an end on Saturday.

Well I did, and so did everyone else I spoke to, anyway.


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It was the one fixture of the three and a half we were without Grant Holt in which you sensed his absence would be most crucial.

You needed someone battling up front who could also draw markers away from goal by moving wide.

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We didn't have that. Instead, too much pressure was placed upon Wes Hoolahan and he was totally marked out of the game.

We can complain about our poor corners, the fact that home keeper David Forde was never really put under any aerial pressure, or that we had no real cutting edge up front when we did start winning the ball.

It was just a poor afternoon all round - the second goal was typical of the kind of shoddy defending we've seen all too much of in recent Championship seasons - and we were deservedly beaten by a much better side on the day.

All too often this season we've been let off because opponents fluffed the chances that came their way. Not this time.

And at the other end the magic 77-minute mark went by without us really ever looking like finding a way back into the match.

In a manner befitting a fixture once marked - and I choose my words carefully - by Kevin Muscat - there were some, shall we say, robust challenges, one in which it would have been no surprise had someone been sent off. A red card would have been more understandable too than in a less intensive encounter with, say, Brentford.

But Millwall wanted it far more than we did on Saturday, and, ironically, that may be the one consolation from our defeat.

The way that some of the more loveable home fans were bouncing up and down with sheer delight at the prospect of beating us was actually rather encouraging.

There's no real history between our clubs, but Charlton go to The New Den next month for a derby visit which last took place in December 1995.

If Millwall were keen to beat us, they are really, really going to want to see off the Addicks and you'd be surprised if Phil Parkinson's side even got a point from that one.

Much as I'd like us to win the title - and you sense that because of his playing record Paul Lambert is keen to collect as much silverware as possible - if we finish second this season I'll still be absolutely delighted.

And because of Charlton's dropped points on Saturday we remain two games clear, with 16 still to play.

If they lose at Millwall that leaves 13 fixtures which we would have to win - or maybe better Charlton's result - to be absolutely certain of going up.

We've got eight home games left, and you'd back us to take the majority of points on offer.

Away from home we still have to face the likes of Brighton, Tranmere, Oldham and Leyton Orient, all of whom are not likely to be a patch on Millwall.

Forget the opening day of the season, Saturday was what I'd call a 'blip'.

Even with Holt we would probably, at best, have drawn with a battling home side, but this time we got away without him for the rest of his prolonged absence.

We won't be as lucky should it happen again this season. And that really is a fact.

t HISTORY PROVIDES A WARNING TO HELP BEAT COMPLACENCY

As good as it was to see so many City fans at Millwall on Saturday it did bring back one unfortunate recent memory: February 16, 2008.

You may not recall the date, but you're likely to remember the result - Ian Holloway's soon-to-be-relegated Leicester 4 Norwich 0.

It was perhaps the last time we took as many supporters for a run-of-the-mill league fixture and during last week, when stories of high ticket sales started to emerge you did wonder whether we were set for a repeat of the same sort of over-confidence seen two years ago. (Obviously I don't include the Colchester game in any of this: the Norwich programme states that we had only 1,900 supporters there and who am I to doubt such an august and reliable publication?)

Then we'd enjoyed a 13-match unbeaten run to soar into the top half of the table, spark some talk of a play-off charge and leave Glenn Roeder to ponder this surely unique policy for the remainder of the season: 'We're going to go for as many points as possible and see where we finish.'

As it was, we were absolutely creamed by Leicester and went on to take only 13 points from our remaining 13 fixtures, needing that penultimate-day win over 10-man QPR to finally be sure of staying up.

Not for a moment do I think we're on the verge of a similar collapse; for starters this Saturday we visit a club with a home record which reads P13 W2 D2 L9.

But a bit of realism won't go amiss and will nip a growing tide of over-expectation in the bud. I remain confident that we'll finish in the top two, but if we start losing other key players or face sides who get their tactics spot on then this is what might happen again.

We just have to get used to it. After all, it was rather the norm during the past four seasons.

t FIXTURE LIST CAN BE SO CONFUSING

I have some mixed feelings about this season's fixture list. On the one hand it always amazes me that we have to face teams such as Millwall just six weeks after our first meeting, yet there's a near seven-month gap between the two matches with Carlisle. Why?

We were the last team to beat the Lions and they were smarting for revenge on Saturday - hence a very big attendance of home supporters. Had we played them later in the season, who knows?

On the other hand though...

In January we beat Wycombe and Exeter, who, obviously still smarting from what they perceived as the injustice, each bounced back the following Saturday to take points off Leeds. And as if that wasn't enough, Hartlepool have done exactly the same this weekend.

So, where do Brighton head for in their next match after hosting us this coming Saturday? Correct, Elland Road. And you won't need me to tell you the order of Bristol Rovers' final two opponents in May either.

t ZAK GIVEN A ROUGH RIDE

When you're in the middle of a full away section the noise from home stands can often be drowned out.

That wasn't the case on Saturday. Well, not during the substitutes' interval warm-up or the second half anyway.

I think the only word which can sum up the reception given to Zak Whitbread is 'sustained'.

Whether there's more to his move than just leaving for another club in the same division that's upset Millwall fans, I don't know.

But the boos which greeted his every touch did rather make you wonder whether it was a case of mistaken identity. Rather than being the player who moved to Norwich, they thought he was instead the man who had actually allowed his contract to run out and then join West Ham or Crystal Palace without a much-needed fee changing hands.

However, then you remembered he's actually a defender and not a goalkeeper.

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