Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Carling Cup 2nd round: Swansea City 2 - 1 Hull City (AET) - 26/08/08

So, that was the League Cup for Hull City then. A competition which is not yet 50 years old, is treated with similar affection as dog dirt on the shoe by the biggest clubs (until they reach the final, then it becomes a massive, all-compassing, decade-defining event) and City have let their involvement wither away and die in 120 artless minutes.

This was very hard to watch, especially after half time. Until then, the Tigers looked slick against their progressive opponents at the grandly-named and not soulless Liberty Stadium. Swansea City, who were today's Hull City in a previous life (Toshack, Curtis and those fences at the Vetch in the early 1980s helping them to quickfire promotions from bottom to top), are new to the Championship but have the ambition, support and facilities to make their way up and out of there as swiftly as possible.

Phil Brown, despite himself, saw his Hull City side reach the third round last season, thanks to a cakewalk at Crewe and then a fine, galvanising 1-0 win at Premier League side Wigan Athletic which saw the last goal in Tigers attire from Stuart Elliott and the first glimpse of signing-in-waiting Caleb Folan, who would join City a week or so later from the Latics. Chelsea destroyed us in the next round but a few quid was made. It certainly didn't affect our form as we began our assault on the division which led to promotion.

This time, Brown picked the entire second string, chaps whose Premier League involvement will be dictated purely by injuries to more prized possessions in the squad. Nobody who began at Blackburn was in the starting XI in south Wales, and so you'd expect the men in our weird lead-coloured change strip to grasp the opportunity with strong fists.

For the most part, they didn't.

The first half was pretty but not productive enough. City made ample chances, generated enough possession to prompt occasional cheers per pass from the travelling contingent (147 of them, thanks to the Swansea tannoy bloke whose bass setting was too loud on his graphic equalizer) and exercised a spot of head-patting lording over the hosts, but only scored once. That's dangerous.

The goal was divine though. Nick Barmby and Bryan Hughes slickly changed passes to fox the Swansea outfield and it was left to Folan to give Windass all the room he needed to turn the final defender and crisply steer a left-footer beyond Dorus De Vries' right hand.

This was easy. It could and should have been, at least. City got cocky, too intricate, looking for total football and as such chances were spurned or not even foisted upon the opposition goalkeeper, whose relationship to 1970s-serving Tigers left back Roger De Vries is not yet clear, never mind the bloke who sponsors the KC's west stand.

Swansea's main issue when in possession was the velocity of their passing. It was unclear just how many concessions their own manager, Roberto Martinez, had made in his own team selection (though dangerous top scorer Jason Scotland wasn't in sight) but those who threw out there for the evening in the spotlight had a distinct trouble in playing passes which actually reached their target.

For all that, they made opportunities in a first half they'd care to forget. Handy striker Guillem Bauza picked himself up from a Wayne Brown foul to ghost past keeper Matt Duke, who hauls him down. A penalty seems obvious, a red card a possibility. However, the referee decided Bauza had fouled Brown immediately before Brown had returned the favour, and the Tigers luckily get a free kick when they could have been a goal and a man down. Shaun McDonald headed a corner goalwards only for it to deflected away by Ryan France; then Brown himself got across to snuff out the danger from the uber-dangerous Jordi Gomez as he bore in on a through ball.

What else for the Tigers, though? Not a lot, beyond the possession. It was all eyes (well, 147 pairs of them anyway) on the Windass/Folan partnership, really. Both knew they were working with and for one another, but also knew that whoever put in the best shift would start at Wigan due to Marlon King's ineligibility. It emerged that while Windass was witthdrawn in the second half, he clearly had the better time of it, even though Folan played the full 120 and had more possession. Given the age and mobility factor, however, a display of adequacy in a muted Carling Cup tie does not a Premier League starter make. Windass scored, wasted less ball and generally got on the right side of most things involving him, but the head says Folan will get the nod.

Anyway, the second half. This is where City's obvious class, coupled with the gulf in fitness levels would rbeak Swansea's hope, sending them back to the Championship with a sense of their own futility. Erm, except the Tigers were appalling. Carelessly, wearily, arrogantly so.

The home side fought. They wanted to get their scalp and the only surprise about the equaliser was the length of time it actually took to arrive. Before it did, substitute Gorka Pintado, on some sort of mission after his early introduction, slapped a hurried shot over the bar from Garry Monk's fine build-up (evading a foul from Brown in the process, for which the shiny-pated City defender was retrospectively booked); then the same sub prompted a fine stretching save from Duke as he met a corner unmarked.

All this was building up to the leveller which finally came when Gomez chipped in a deft ball for Pintado to glance beyond Duke's glove on 63 minutes. 1-1 and no less than Swansea deserved. More to the point, no less than a toothless Tigers outfit deserved too. Reserves destined to remain so.

Guys like Bryan Hughes could have used a game like this to re-stablish their Premier League credentials. Hughes' good fortune at the end of last season, when he featured in all of the play-off games after Dean Marney was struck down with injury, has not transferred itself to pre-season when his manager seemed deeply unimpressed. he hasn't made a bench yet, but upon a recll for this game seemed to have taken nothing on board in terms of work rate or desire to find the correct pass.

For Wayne Brown, it was an exercise in brutality over subtlety, and as Gomez and later Pintado gave him hell, it emphasised the wisdom with which his namesake manager recruited a new centre back partner for Michael Turner in the summer. Wayne Brown worked a treat in the Championship; on the basis of this display against Swansea, his Premier League credentials seem scarce.

Others got a chance who seem to be on a permanent fringe list. Nathan Doyle gatecrashed the play-off party with two sub appearances and a goal after spending the whole campaign waving from the back, trying to get his gaffer's eye. he played at left back and showed endeavour without enchantment. Ryan France, a fine footballer in our lower league life, got a central role and outplayed Hughes substantially but still lacks something, even though it isn't effort. Barmby, Windass, Folan and the underwhleming (so far) new boy Peter Halmosi will all get their moments in the Premier League but one has to question how much their importance to the cause has diminished since promotion. Duke has been the reserve keeper since the dawn of time, albeit a very good one. Liam Cooper is a kid who'll make it somewhere else other than Hull City.

As for Bernard Mendy, the experienced French defender we bought with glee in the summer, well, he looks like several accidents waiting to happen at once.

Swansea squeezed the Tigers as much as they could in the final quarter of the 90 minutes. Gomez had crosses just evade their target, a shot off the post and then put Pintado in on 88 which was only halted by a brave dive at his feet by Duke.

Three minutes of injury time and an extra 30 minutes was clearly going to happen. This wasn't in the script - the script of a Premier League club who should know better than to get caught like this, and the script of 147 crazy fools who'd made the long journey with the not untoward hope of getting home before 1am.

But wait! Game over. A minute into the additional time, Brown fouled Febian Brandy. It's only the League Cup, give them their late penalty victory and we can get home before the onset of Wednesday's daylight.

Duke flings himself to his left and saves. Brilliant, it has to be said. One of those moments where you congratulate the keeper and celebrate his personal triumph - this is a football player who had treatment for testicular cancer last year - but at the same time, the dullness and meaninglessness of the occasion meant we would have been happy (no, not happy, but begrudgingly accepting) of a 2-1 defeat in the early rounds of the least prestigious competition and a chance to get away.

Hey ho, extra time. Michael Turner, who doesn't allow guff like this, gets on from the bench for young Cooper. City had already introduced King (so much for being ineligible via his loan) for Windass and young Nicky Featherstone, a local boy on a permanent periphery of the first team, for Barmby. Now Turner, our gallant and towering central defender who'll become our first-ever England player soon, is on. He'll put a stop to this. He'll prevent penalties.

Yep, he did. By fouling Shaun McDonald in the box just before the first period was done. Gomez took it this time, and scored. Duke went the other way. 2-1 to the home side and a sense of relief.

Mind you, we nearly prolonged the anguish further by equalising very late on. Hughes, playing a ball which worked for once, delivered a free kick to the far post where a panicky defender headed right across his own goal. Folan was there, finally ready to sieze his chance from a couple of yards - and headed it over the bar. Despair. And yet relief too. To go all the way to Swansea to lose on penalties would have been an extravagance even the hardest of diehards would have found difficult to justify.

The final whistle was greeted with joy from the home contingent and a murmur of discontentment from the few Tigers fans who'd stuck around for the whole sorry evening. Plusses? France had a good match, but he isn't Ashbee or Marney and he'll only join that list of players to have featured for the Tigers in all four divisions via the bench and an injury crisis. Duke was ace, and it's a comfort to know he's there and ravenous in the event of Boaz Myhill coming unstuck. Windass probably did enough in an hour than Folan in twice the time to get on board against Wigan, but that's in the lap of the gods now.

The rest deserve the title of fringe player - they looked like nothing else.

Swansea City: De Vries, Painter, Monk, Collins (Rangel 55), Serran, Orlandi, Gomez, Tudur-Jones, MacDonald, Allen (Pintado 54), Bauza (Brandy 81). Subs not used: O'Leary, Tate, Gower, Lawrence.

Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Cooper (Turner 91), Brown, Doyle, Barmby (Featherstone 72), Hughes, France, Halmosi, Folan, Windass (King 62). Subs not used: Atkinson, Garcia, Welsh, Warner.