There was no bad luck to blame tonight, and no poor refereeing. We just didn't play well enough, and deserved everything we got.
It'd be easy to dismiss the match as a nothing game, in a tournament nobody really worries too much about. But the signs were rather grim tonight. That was an almost full strength line-up, and MR clearly sent out a side to win that game. And in truth, we never really came close.
After enduring a thoroughly miserable day yesterday, and with the weekends flattening by QPR still fresh on the mind, I genuinely wasn't looking forward to this game. Which is unlike me, since I ALWAYS look forward to games, whether they're league, cup or even just a friendly. I felt lethargic, uninspired, and basically totally in the wrong frame of mind for football.
And yet I forced myself to go, and now I'm regretting the decision, because I'd have been better fixed keeping that extortionate amount of money I was charged in my pocket, and saving it for another day.
I think everyone else must have felt the same as me, because as we arrived at the ground, it felt like a morgue. We weren't especially late, but nobody seemed to be milling around. Maybe the result at the weekend put a few people off, but it was clear already that it wasn't a fixture that was going to attract a bumper crowd. It was a long time before we saw anyone in a Reds shirt wandering around outside Oakwell.
We made the decision to head for the East stand for a change, so got ourselves set up with a pie and a pint, ready for the game. The place still looked empty, like a ghost town, and it felt like a pre-season friendly really. The closer we got to kick off, the more I was dreading the game.
Rochdale were always going to be a difficult task for us, after earning promotion last season. You got the feeling they'd be well up for knocking us out and taking a Championship scalp. But when the team sheet was read out, my mind was put at rest. MR had clearly chosen a strong starting eleven, so winning this game was obviously the intention.
Sitting in the East stand, I was inevitably caught out by the sun again. You'd think I'd learnt my lesson after the Wednesday friendly, but I totally forgot, and spent the early part of the game covering my eyes. Actually, maybe that wouldn't have been a bad idea for the whole 90 minutes.
The game kicked off and we started ok, seeing a lot of the ball. Butterfield especially was in possession a lot in midfield, but couldn't really dictate play. The most worrying aspect was the lack of the killer instinct, the inability to play the final ball, to create clear cut chances. Whenever we got within 5 yards of the Rochdale box, we panicked, began looking backwards, passing ourselves out of good, strong positions. It was frustrating to watch.
We're crying out for an attacking midfielder, who picks the ball up and drives us forward, who is unafraid to look up and ping a shot at goal if he doesn't have a better option. Brian Howard was probably the last, and Butterfield has only done it in flashes, certainly not enough last night.
We had a couple of sights of goal, such as Hammill hitting one straight at the keeper, but as the half wore on, Rochdale started getting a foothold in the game, and had a couple of decent chances themselves. Their big lad on the left hand side looked dangerous, although Trippier coped admirably well with him in his first appearance since coming back to us on loan. It looked like a total mismatch, but the young lad from City was always on his heels, snapping at him and not letting him settle in the game.
As half time arrived, there was some booing, not much, but enough for the players to hear as they trudged off the pitch. MR needed to give them a kick up the arse in the changing room.
I went into the concourse, since I'd decided in my infinite wisdom to wear only a thin shirt, and it had suddenly become rather cold watching that flat first half. I found myself wishing the sun would come back.
It didn't, and as the sky got darker and darker, so did the performance. Desperation set in, and long balls started pumping forward, without success. Hume and Devaney came on, with the latter making a real impact. Disco was on fire, running at defenders, twisting and turning, something which we sorely missed in the first half. Hume worked hard, as usual, but didn't cope well with the aerial bombardment we were throwing up from the back.
And then the unthinkable happened, right when the crowd were really beginning to get on the players backs; Rochdale scored. And Luke Steele, yet again, was totally at fault, letting a seemingly harmless header squirm through his hands and into the bottom corner. I like Luke, he's a great shot stopper, but if he doesn't cut these silly, costly mistakes out, then he's got to go. It's too frequent, and it's costing us goals. Luckily for him, and unluckily for us, there's no real competition for his place, other than the hapless Preece, so he's safe.
To be honest, after the first went in, Rochdale took over, and for a good 10-15 minute spell after that, they should have doubled their lead at least. That's the second game in a row where we've gone behind and lost our heads, and we should have been punished.
Quite how their lad missed that chance at the back post, with the whole goal gaping, I'll never know. From where I was, it looked a certain goal. But we survived.
As the clocked ticked over 70 minutes, we started putting pressure on Rochdale, albeit without really looking like scoring. Long balls were being pumped towards Hume whilst Liam Dickinson stood behind him. Why do we always do that?
But we looked susceptible to being caught on the break, and Rochdale missed a couple of good chances. It was real end to end stuff.
Dickinson missed our best chance of the night, after a low cross into the area landed at his feet, but he managed to scuff his shot out of play. The jeers were deafening, or as deafening as they can be from a dismal, uninspired 4,000 crowd.
Stoppage time came and went, with us pressuring but never looking like getting the goal that would've taken the tie into extra time. Ironically, the closest we came was when Hassell came on, and headed straight at the keeper from a corner. It's a depressing thought when your right back is the main goal threat. I found myself hoping we didn't score; I was cold, tired, fed up and totally against the thought of sitting through another 30 minutes of what I'd just seen. After a lifetime of added time, the referee blew the whistle and it was over.
Another Carling Cup ending to lower league opposition in the first round.
Not that exiting the cup bothers me. We're not gonna win it, and even if you get a big draw, it's usually a reserve team that you end up playing on some cold Tuesday night anyway. But the manner of the performance causes worry. We just didn't look up to it.
Our opponents deserve credit. At times they played some good stuff, and defended stoutly in the face of some lacklustre Barnsley attacking. Overall, we dominated possession but it could really have gone either way. I certainly won't begrudge them their win. They looked a tidy side, and if they play like that all season, might surprise a few people in League One.
A few came out with some credit last night. Doyle had a good game, which is good to see, since the lad takes a lot of stick. Trippier also looked good, as did Disco when he came on. And Hammill wasn't bad either, and had a few pot shots from distance as we desperately searched for an equaliser. But a few were suspect again; McEveley still hasn't settled into his role, much like Lovre, who looks slow at times. And Steele is becoming more and more at risk, another erratic display from him. Dickinson also hasn't won the crowd over, and a goal last night would've helped his confidence no end, but he fluffed his lines. Even Shackell, who I personally thought looked immense throughout pre-season, has started showing some cracks. We need serious improvement.
The pressure is growing on MR. 12 without win, stretching back to last season, is an intimidating statistic for the gaffer to have hanging over him. But this is a new team. I'm willing to let him off with 10 of those games. The last 2, however, have been poor, and MR will himself be aware of how much we need a morale-boosting win on Saturday against Crystal Palace. Maybe then our season can start properly.
Thanks for reading.