Monday, 20 October 2008

08: Hull City 1 - 0 West Ham United, 19/10/2008

Well, it seemed that the establishment were having it all their own way again as the so-called Big Four won their matches and took on the top four positions in the Premier League on Saturday evening.

Not once did anyone point out, even superficially or patronisingly, that a Hull City victory on Sunday would push Manchester United and Arsenal down a place.

And that's what happened.

It was a strong test for City's nerve, this encounter. West Ham have had a decent run this season, despite off pitch turmoils which has left them skint, unsponsored and letting a manager fall on his own sword over that key issue of authority. It's as if everyone has been dissatisfied with everything except the actual football.

This made them a dangerous proposition at the KC Stadium where City had only won one of their three matches thus far. Phil Brown, a man whose belief in his players seems to grow by the week, belied Premier League tradition by refusing to alter a winning side. He picked the same 4-3-3 formation and the same eleven players that had looked after Arsenal and Tottenham.

City started brightly enough, as Daniel Cousin got the better through sheer brute force of Lucas Neill, no shrinking violet himself, and swerved over a penetrating cross which was forced away for a corner. From the cleared set-piece, City regrouped and Hammers keeper Robert Green did well to pouch a dangerous lows ball from Marlon King, who had been put clear by Ian Ashbee.

West Ham enjoyed a fair spell of possession in the first half and created a glorious chance through pace and incisiveness from the deeply unlikeable but even more deeply gifted Craig Bellamy. His dart down the flank - with none other than Geovanni chasing him, which was good to see even though he couldn't catch the Welshman - resulted in a smart pull back to Carlton Cole, whose snapshot was straight at Boaz Myhill. Cole, rightly, chastised himself for aiming the shot so close to Myhill that the City stopper didn't need to move his feet to collect the ball.

Then came an incident which has been overplayed on rolling sports networks ever since. Myhill is set to launch a kick from his hands, but akin to Best on Banks, Herita Ilunga clips the ball in the air as the keeper drops it footwards and proceeds to send a bouncing overhead kick into the City net. The whistle had long gone before the ball crossed the line, rightly, although the booking handed out by referee Chris Foy - presumably for ungentlemanly conduct or dangerous play - seemed a trifle harsh.

However, the debate ever since about whether a goal should have been given has been just absurd. The whole reason strikers no longer stand in front of goalkeepers waiting to release the ball is because they are no longer allowed to attempt any sort of interception. The ball is deemed to be in the keeper's exclusive possession until he has kicked it or until it is released to the ground. Hence why Best's effort was disallowed - which Best protested about to his death - but Dion Dublin's goal after an unsighted Shay Given dropped the ball to the turf prior to kicking was given. As for Gary Crosby on Andy Dibble, I've no idea. But there shouldn't have been this debate - Ilunga committed a footballing felony and the referee was quite right to blow up. End of.

Dean Marney volleyed City's best chance of the half just wide from King's fine run and cross, then the same midfielder - inspired by Geovanni's recent escapades, maybe - had a dig from distance which swooped over the bar. End to end, even-handed stuff. Compelling on a tactical front it had become without being necessarily thrilling or aesthetically satisfying.

Ilunga had a free header from ex-City loanee Mark Noble's corner which he sent wide, yelling in frustration as his running momentum took him into the City net. It was a rare defensive slip from City, for whom Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte were their usual granite-like selves. But the Hammers, playing patient, intricate football you'd expect to be preached by Gianfranco Zola, were getting closer and becoming the dominant party as the half drew to a close.

Valon Behrami hit one well wide from a well-executed short corner routine, then after Ilunga escaped a second yellow for a foul on Marney, Bellamy belted a very good opportunity well over the bar as the ball bounced awkwardly in the City penalty area.

So, no goals, but ample action and despite the odd shudder of nerves, City looked comfortable. Ashbee and George Boateng were having good exchanges with Noble and Scott Parker and the battle Cousin and King were having with Neill and Matthew Upson was a lesson in patience and strength. It was all pretty even stuff, and played in the right spirit.

The second half started with City in a similar mood to the opening minutes of the first and this time a reward was imminent. Marney crossed elegantly and King volleyed it cleanly but slightly too wide of the near post. From the re-gathered ball, McShane tried a cross which Ilunga deflected behind, and there was Turner, with a late run and a marvellously timed leap, to bury Andy Dawson's curling corner past Green.

Turner's second of the season, in the usual manner he scores his goals. The odds on him to open the scoring are always carelessly generous from the bookies, as if they've totally ignored Turner's record in such situations. A few quid would have been won as the ball nestled nicely in West Ham's net and the crowd rose in joyous acclaim.

City led, but perversely you could say just as much that it was harsh on the Hammers as it was justified for the Tigers. You could also say that one goal was possibly going to be enough to earn a victory, although now Turner had got it, the prospect of keeping West Ham away from the Tigers' goal for 40 minutes was a tough one.

As if to prove it, Behrami almost set up an instant equaliser as he charged past Dawson and clipped a low ball to Cole who spun well and, slightly off balance, crashed a left-footed shot over Myhill and away off the bar. The angle was tight and Cole had to swivel quickly to make the opportunity, but his proximity to the goal suggested he could have done better. It was certainly a let-off for the Tigers.

As well as a let-off, it was also a leg-up. City retained some great belief after taking the lead and then seeing a little luck go their way as West Ham fought back. Possession was maintained, McShane and Dawson worked the flanks tirelessly and even the formidable Zayatte managed a foray through two tackles to smash a vicious shot past Green but ever so slightly too high.

Parker shot well wide after Zayatte's attempted clearance took a fortuitous rebound into Cole's path, allowing the ex-England midfielder to be given room for the effort. Cole then got free of Turner and McShane in a powerful, impressive run, but his long cross forced too much out of Matthew Etherington, whose volley could only find the side netting.

With 20 minutes left, Brown started to ring the changes. Bryan Hughes came on for the hobbling Boateng, then Peter Halmosi's natural width altered City's attacking pattern as the tiring Geovanni - given much possession but unsurprisingly stopped from getting a single shot in - gave way. Later, Hammers youth product Richard Garcia was applauded on by both sets of fans as he replaced the hard-working Cousin to take to the City right flank.

West Ham made their own changes and used the last ten minutes to really issue a squeeze on City. Numerous balls were chipped in from the flanks but the Tigers held on with a degree of comfort even though regaining possession was a rare treat. Three minutes were added and the danger was time and again snuffed out. The final whistle heralded another significant day in the Hull City adventure.

Back in third, with the four members of the main English elite providing the bread in the Hull City sandwich. As amazing as Arsenal was and as professional as Tottenham was, this victory has a deeper-lying meaning, as City had been underwhelming at home in the previous two encounters there - a 5-0 pasting followed by the concession of a two-goal lead to cling on to a point. This was about nerves of steel, quality defending and a tactical plan which epitomised the belief the manager holds in a remarkable group of players. No-one should bemoan a Hull City supporter feeling slightly smug again after this.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Marney, Ashbee, Boateng (Hughes 72), Geovanni (Halmosi 73), Cousin (Garcia 82), King. Subs not used: Duke, Mendy, Folan, Ricketts.

West Ham: Green, Faubert (Di Michele 73), Neill, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Noble, Etherington (Sears 83), Bellamy, Cole.
Subs not used: Lastuvka, Lopez, Boa Morte, Mullins, Davenport