Sunday, 24 August 2008

02: Blackburn Rovers 1 - 1 Hull City - 23/08/2008

No, the Premier League isn't easy. But, if you've got a sound team, high fitness levels, solid tactics and a desire to exploit the prejudice naturally aimed by the glitterati towards clubs who've just been promoted, then you've got half a chance.

Hull City are proving this. At Blackburn, it was clear that the home side felt they'd almost been given a bye when the fixture list turned the Tigers up for the opening game at Ewood Park. Such noises may not have been coming officially out of the club, but the lax attitude of their players and some appallingly patronising comments from their supporters overheard beforehand made sure their position on such a trifling issue as playing Hull City was felt.

So, we outplayed them. Beyond that - we outmuscled them, out-tried them, outran them. We created more chances, we had tremendous possession and finished the stronger, fitter and more ravenous side. A spot of tranquillity when faced with an opening on goal was all that separated us from a second haul of three points.

Phil Brown made two changes from the opening line-up against Fulham. Nick Barmby, ineffective as an all-round wideman at the KC last week, made way for the enigmatic Craig Fagan, who started in his familiar right hand role, prompting a switch to the opposite side for new Aussie cap Richard Garcia. Meanwhile, the influential George Boateng, carried off twice on his debut the week prior, couldn't shake off the groin injury suffered and Dean Marney, another enigma of recent times, slotted into the midfield.

Backed by 4,000 noisy (very, very noisy; brilliantly, characteristically noisy) travelling members of the expanding Tiger Nation, City started encouragingly. Brazilian conjurer Geovanni was set free by Marney after Blackburn cocked up a corner, but his shot hit the side netting.

It's bright. Blackburn make half-chances, with David Dunn to the fore, but either Michael Turner or Anthony Gardner do their job in the centre of defence and Boaz Myhill is extremely well shielded in City's goal. At the other end, Geovanni reminds us that sometimes even your Brazilian twinkletoes can get taffled up, as he sends a free kick, Marney-esque, closer to Clitheroe than the Rovers net.

Marney blocks excellently as Dunn shapes to shoot from the same range which had curled Rovers lusciously ahead the week before at Everton, then Morten Gamst Pedersen (now with Pedersen on his back again, having switched to Gamst for a bit so as not to be confused with the glorious Henrik) swatted a sweet left foot bouncer just wide of Myhill's post after Gardner could only get half a nod on Steven Reid's free kick.

This opening quarter of the game telegraphed the pace of the Premier League and exposed, wonderfully, the high fitness levels of the Tigers players which the manager had made a point of highlighting in all of his post-match interviews seven days ago. It may get tougher as the season wears on and the knocks and scrapes begin to appear, but right now we'll compete on a total even level on fitness alone. The rest is then up to the players.

Gardner and a skipper now beyond adjectival superlatives, Ian Ashbee, put in some glorious tackles as Rovers began to apply more of a squeeze on possession. This was trenches stuff, but we were prepared and equipped. And, when given the opportunity, we could still create too.

Myhill's sharp thinking allowed him to hurl a ball clutched from a corner into Geovanni's path. The Brazilian fed Marlon King who sent Marney haring down the right via the overlap. Marney's unselfishness was to his credit but Fagan's failure to anticipate the far post ball meant that hindsight was yelling at Marney to have a shot next time. He was certainly in a position so to do.

King, looking stronger than the week before, had a shot blocked by Chris Samba on the half hour as City pressed further. A defence which had looked impenetrable had given the attacking forces
scope to express themselves. Then the defence let the side down, a rare occasion indeed.

Reid, centrally based and looking to cause damage, sent a clean ball through the inside right channel for Jason Roberts to chase. Everybody expected a flag, it didn't arrive, and Roberts took his time before steering a collected finish past Myhill.

Hoots of derision followed the action replay on Ewood's screen as City fans protested that such showed proof of Roberts' mistimed run, but Sam Ricketts hadn't quite stepped up in time on the opposite side, something which the camerawork didn't quite manage to include. Correct decision, if not a justified goal on possession.

Still, it's not as if we weren't sure of ourselves, though few could imagine we would fashion an equaliser within 30 seconds of being adrift. From the kick off, the ball was spread to Andy Dawson who hit a long diagonal ball towards King. The challenge arrowed the ball to Fagan whose inside turn and left foot cross looked initially way too long, yet Garcia had spread wide and, unchallenged and level with the Rovers defence, looped a fine header over Paul Robinson and in via a post.

There was bedlam, mayhem and all those other words meaning bedlam and mayhem which surely exist in our language. Brown did his almost customary three trots on to the pitch before punching the air high and, after a roaringly brilliant double tackle by Turner on Roque Santa Cruz as the prolific striker smelled black and amber blood, the Tigers went in at the break with a goal, a character-laden comeback and a feeling of being really rather satisfied.

Dunn, the Rovers creative force, didn't emerge for the second half, which was a bonus. Robinson, meanwhile, creditably chose to silence the small undertone of cretinous booing which was gradually being aimed his way by applauding the Tigers fans, as one of which the Beverley-born keeper counts himself, and receiving considerable return acclaim from the 4,000. What a nice place the Premier League is.

City began the second half smartly, despite a defensive reshuffle forced when Dawson took a hefty ankle whack and was replaced by French debutant Bernard Mendy, who took over the right hand side with Ricketts shifting across to his international role on the left.

This second half was Fagan's. Time and again he was sent clear by Marney or Geovanni, and time and again he made light work of England couldabeen Stephen Warnock. The issue with Fagan has always been that he struggles to find the right cross when played wide and is less than adept at finishing when played centrally. There is still work to be done on the former, given that he is unlikely to feature as a central striker for City again. But for some of his time he's also struggled, albeit via injury troubles, to get into crossing positions, and yet here he was giving an England left back (six minutes of international football only, fewer even than our own Brian Marwood) a runaround of torrid proportions, having pickpocketed (no Lineker-esque gags about Fagan here, if you don't mind - that's Fagin anyway Gary) another England couldabeen left back in Paul Konchesky to set up the winner a week earlier.

Geovanni put him through and his cross was panic-inducing among the Rovers back line, the scuffed clearance bouncing before Marney, who shot over. Then Fagan skipped clear again and gave King a chance but the flag went up for offside as he and Robinson went in, studs and gloves respectively, to win it.

By this point Geovanni had been withdrawn in favour of Caleb Folan, scorer of that Fagan-created clincher against Fulham, and instantly he clipped a clever ball over the defence for the tiring but far from workshy King to chase, but Robinson just got there first.

Blackburn, realising that something would have to improve, started to up the pressure and City coped manfully. Turner was forever winning headers, Ashbee's tackling was beyond committed, and the home side - not to mention a morbidly silent home support - were struggling. Santa Cruz managed one twist away from Gardner but the shot was tame and weary and not worthy of a new four-year contract. It seemed that, even though this was the Premier League and therefore any experienced side could just win it with a click of the fingers, City were best placed to take the points if they wanted them.

And want them they did. King and Folan both smelt goal from inside the area but Rovers defenders replicated the efforts of Turner by placing last-gasp bodily parts in the way. Brown sent on Barmby to replace goalscorer Garcia, who got a tumultuous reception from the 4,000, meaning that yet again Dean Windass remained benched and bibbed for the game and the Sunday newspaper hacks had been denied the story they had craved.

City forced a late corner, their only one of the half, which Marney shaped to take. There's no sign of the old, profligate Marney on set-pieces any more as this one whizzed dangerously into the six yard zone where Folan's forehead met it, but he couldn't quite transfer enough beef on the ball and it flew across goal and away.

Still City kept coming as the board indicated four minutes added time. Folan followed a half clearance with a 25 yard volley which was hit with the required cleanliness but straight at Robinson. Then the gangly striker chased down a wide ball and fed the advancing Ricketts who was on target but didn't connect well enough with his low right-footer, and Robinson got down to hold it at his near post.

And there was one more go, as the busy Folan, petrifying a Premier League defence with similar gusto as he showed to the more fragile Championship back lines last year, made room for a near post shot which again Robinson was in the right position to pouch.

Pedersen and sub Tugay both had long-rangers watched out of harm's way by Myhill as Blackburn's late attempt at winning proved weak by comparison. The final whistle heralded a shrilling cheer of victory from the City fans, for a mere 1-1 draw. But everybody would have taken a point, and the fact that we could feel ever so mildly disillusioned at not winning the match shows how far we are coming and how up to the task we seem. A lot of people are going to be proved wrong, it appears.

Fitness, collective responsibility, confidence and no little quality have punctuated our opening two performances in the top tier of the English game. Such endeavour and concentration has reaped a reward of four points and - still - a record as the only side ever not to lose a Premier League match. Keep watching, there'll be more of this to come.

Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Ooijer, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock, Reid, Mokoena (Kerimoglu 67), Dunn (Emerton 46), Pedersen, Roque Santa Cruz, Roberts (McCarthy 81). Subs not used: Simpson, Treacy, Derbyshire, Brown.

Hull City:
Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Dawson (Mendy 58), Garcia (Barmby 78), Ashbee, Marney, Fagan, Geovanni (Folan 65), King. Subs not used: Brown, Windass, Duke, Halmosi.