Sunday, 28 September 2008

06: Arsenal 1 - 2 Hull City - 27/09/2008

I am in a state of shock. A state of unrivalled, incomprehensible, magnificent delirium.

Let me state categorically that the ambition of Hull City fans as we pottered around the Piccadilly Line prior to this match was hovering somewhere between realistic and pessimistic. Some just wanted to get out without a battering. Some wanted the game to be a spectacle and for nobody to suffer injury. Me, I wanted the goal difference to stay down and to be able to celebrate a Hull City goal.

We got an inkling, however, of the way Phil Brown had decided to approach the game when the beep-beep of team news lodged into people's mobiles - and he had picked a 4-3-3. None of this business of packing the midfield with artless cloggers (though we personally have cloggers of great artful artlessness, if you please - footballists will understand that) and sticking one bored soul up front to pick his nose, natter to Kolo Touré and watch our defence die of exhaustion.

Instead, Brown recalled Geovanni to play behind a front two of Daniel Cousin and Marlon King, while restoring George Boateng to a broader midfield alongside Ian Ashbee and Dean Marney. The obvious threat of Theo Walcott lent some credence to the idea of Sam Ricketts' return at full back, but Brown kept the faith with the same foursome as had faced Everton, a decision made easier by Anthony Gardner's continued absence with injury.

Arsenal, in all their grandeur and wisdom, ditched all 11 toddlers who had given Sheffield United a thorough sodomising in the Carling Cup and restored the big Gunners - van Persie, Eboué, Adebayor, Fàbregas etc. They may not be English, but they represent English football's greatest exponents and Hull City had to face them.

Two quick observations about the opposition before the game got underway. Firstly, the Emirates Stadium is exceptional, but somehow I suspect many Arsenal fans still yearn for Highbury. It's not quite as amazing and atmospheric and aesthetically delightful as I'd pre-supposed, though the walkways, bridges and concourses - plus the efficiency of the staff - was most welcoming. Leicester City and Coventry City can learn from this lot.

Secondly, Arsenal should desist from announcing their players purely by their first names. That is exceptionally tacky. Maybe the exotica lent by such a multi-cultural team means that it sounds more grand to just proclaim "Theo!" and "Emmanuel!" and "William!" but it still fails in its presumed effort to make the players - on £80,000 or thereabouts a week - sound more in touch with the commoners. We couldn't do that - "Ian!" "Andy!" and "Dean!" wouldn't quite have the same impact.

Anyway, the game. As we settled into our padded seats and sang, Arsenal immediately did as nobody in the world wouldn't have expected - they took careful control of the ball and largely declined to let their opponents get any great feel of it.

This is where the entertainment value of such an occasion comes in. We didn't expect to get anything, but we didn't want a hammering either, for obvious reasons. However, hammerings in no-brainer games become ever so slightly more bearable if the football on show is evidently of a class so great, so highbrow, so immeasurable against any other bunch of dullards to have played Hull City off a park in the past (and there have been many hundreds of those) that you just find yourself sitting back, putting your allegiance as far to one side as you dare and being enthralled by the Beautiful Game.

Arsenal play the Beautiful Game. Their problem, however, is that they try to make it too beautiful. When a great long ball or an 18 yard or shot is the clear outcome of a move, they'll try one final bit of magic, as if they are given an "Ole!" bonus akin to those associated with goals or games.

Still, football like this needs to be tempered. Brown said this week that the physical side of football is more important than ever when against the most technically proficient sides, and City, essentially, got stuck in. Andy Dawson, a left back of fortitude and decency, may never have a finer 90 minutes in a Hull City shirt, and he saved his Condor moment for a match-up with Walcott.

One challenge, on the edge of his own box as England's brightest hope got a yard on him, was so impeccably timed that it should have received spontaneous applause from all in the ground, not just those of us who appreciate Dawson's energy, will and defensive ability. Although Walcott's moment would come, nothing became his performance against City quite as much as the way he was out-thought by a defender who is 30 next month and was only deemed good enough for Scunthorpe United ten years ago.

City in general followed Dawson's lead. Despite the progressive formation, the Tigers got men behind the ball and forced Arsenal more square than forward for large spells of the first half. Ashbee clattered anything in red, Boateng did so with extra subtlety. Dean Marney, whose place had been seemingly under threat of Boateng's return before Brown's cunning plan of attack was revealed, had a game of immense effectiveness - chasing and yet creating, tackling back and yet providing a visionary outlook. This allowed Geovanni room when he got the ball and gave both King and Cousin the scope to make runs and actually expect a football to land at their feet.

Geovanni had City's first real go at goal in the first half, turning an overhead kick high beyond the crossbar after Dawson's corner had been headed high rather than clear by Touré. Later, the enigmatic Brazilian - a player whom Brown seems to be reserving for the games we seemingly can't win without him - belted a good chance too high again after Cousin used his strength and experience to hold off William Gallas and play into his path.

Arsenal had the ball in the net when Emmanuel Adebayor, a player as recognisable now for the headphones round his neck during interviews as he is for his gawky goalscoring prowess, shoved Michael Turner and handled the ball as it bobbled past Boaz Myhill, but referee Alan Wiley - our Wembley ref, which was a fine omen - blew up in ample time.

City maintained their defensive discipline, with only Ashbee receiving a caution (and that appeared a tad harsh) while Turner and the quite superb Kamil Zayatte were as solid as any self-respecting piece of igneous calcium carbonate would aspire to be. Zayatte looks an awesome find, especially - we already knew that Turner was the greatest defender we'd ever had. Now we've acquired someone who, in these early stages, could prove roughly as crucial.

Aside from the tackling, blocking and closing down - all within the rules and all necessary to stop the technically excellent from showing their technical excellence - City were also merciless with their use of the offside trap and showed great promise on the counter attack. King stepped up to the plate here especially, taking numerous divine balls from Geovanni or Marney and working the wide positions while waiting, and usually getting, support from Cousin or one of the midfielders. The key was getting to half time unscathed, and so it happened. Goalless, and the applause from the Tiger Nation was as rapturous and proud as it was possible to be.

The second half started optimistically but clearly Arsene Wenger, for all his refinement and professor's eyeglasses, is capable of giving his players a thorough talking to. They blasted at City from the outset, and for the first time Walcott got the better of Dawson. He went outside, then in, then out and finally delivered a cross which hit Zayatte, then Fàbregas, and finally skidded over the line, with a hint of apology, via Paul McShane's shin. A goal from a City player, a goal fro Arsenal. Expecting Arsenal's janitor to be locating a key for the padlock on those floodgates, we took our seats, fearing the worst.

Arsenal were ahead for ten minutes.

Turner played a long crossfield ball which was gently nodded into Geovanni's path by Cousin. The Brazilian had to go backwards to cut inside Eboué, and with absolutely no right whatsoever to do so, promptly swiped a stunning, curling, dipping and heavenly 30-yarder beyond Manuel Almunia.

The mentalism among the City fans was something any scientist with ambitions to retire early would kill to bottle and sell. I have never, honestly, felt like that after a goal. A goal so gorgeous, so sweet, so spectacular, so unexpected and at such a venue, housing such extraordinary opposition.

This was different to Wembley, as there we had the pressure of being favourites and making club history on our backs. We responded. This time, we had no pressure whatsoever on us, except to maintain our integrity. Geovanni had just given us the greatest moment of our lives. Sorry Deano.

However, it was soon usurped as Cousin broke and tried a shot from distance which Touré deflected wide. Dawson swung in the corner and the Gabonese player got a meaty glance on the ball, finding the corner and re-enacting the bedlam, mayhem, insanity within the Tiger Nation's jam-packed section of the Emirates. Jesus H Corbett, we're 2-1 up at Arsenal...

There was still 25 minutes to go. Brown now finally had to err on caution's side, withdrawing Geovanni for Bryan Hughes and reverting to a proper 4-4-2 - still a set-up more positive than the one most sides opt for at the Emirates before a ball has been kicked. Richard Garcia then replaced a tiring Boateng, allowing Marney to reform his fine central partnership with Ashbee. Hughes and Garcia immediately combined to give the latter a half chance which he couldn't get his instep round.

Arsenal, joyously, withdrew Walcott and brought on Argentine teenager Carlos Vela, whose hat-trick had made Sheffield United's men look amusingly foolish in midweek. It wasn't the only change Wenger made, but ultimately he and all of us knew that the players on show still had all they needed to make our lead little more than a temporary flash of fortune.

And boy did the Gunners get at us in the closing minutes. Gallas powerfully headed a corner on to Myhill's bar, only for the rebound to hit young Vela before the child star could react - another day such a rebound bobbles in. Not this time.

Robin van Persie, an immense threat without an end product this time, put one shot wide on the run, then hit a late free kick into the wall, and finally crunched a left footer from 25 yards which seemed an obvious equaliser but cleared the bar by an inch, no more.

However, the best moment was reserved for our goalkeeper. Despite the onslaught, Myhill had needed to do very little due to the profligacy of Arsenal in either shooting off target or choosing to pass when the goal gaped before them. Yet his concentration and positioning hadn't dawdled throughout this period of pressure, and his tip-over from Fàbregas' rifled drive was a work of fine custodian's art, displayable in any footballing gallery the world over. Seriously. Cameras observed Brown celebrating it in the technical zone with the same fist-clenching glee he celebrated the goals - and, ultimately, the victory.

The final whistle was just a moment I feel I cannot put into words. It goes beyond language, beyond bodily changes (fast heartbeat, churned stomach) and almost feels too private to reveal, in any event. Hull City, going to Arsenal, in the Premier League - and winning from a position of a goal down? It isn't absurd, it isn't a dream, but the reality doesn't extend to description. I'm incapable. Just assume that I'm happy. Everyone else is - including the players, who saluted the Tiger Nation for a very long time after the greatest evening of achievement and dedication we've ever seen from men wearing the Hull City shirt. I dare not ask for more moments like this, but somehow I expect we'll get them.

Hull City, a force in the Premier League. It really is time you all accepted it!

Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy, Eboué (Bendtner 69), Fàbregas, Denilson, Walcott (Vela 77), Adebayor, Van Persie. Subs not used: Fabianski, Ramsey, Song Billong, Silvestre, Djourou.

Hull City:
Myhill, McShane, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Marney, Boateng (Garcia 76), Geovanni (Hughes 72), Ashbee, Cousin (Mendy 80), King. Subs not used: Duke, Halmosi, Folan, Ricketts.