Sunday, 26 October 2008

09: West Bromwich Albion 0 - 3 Hull City - 25/10/2008

Like all self-employed people, I've recently had to do my accounts, ready for the taxman to make his annual blood demand. Now I want to look at them again, to see if I can afford the odd return flight to Europe next year.

Four wins in a row, three clean sheets and just a couple more admissions from those who write Hull City off that maybe we're on to something here.

European football next season is obviously still a million miles away. But given that we have been a club starkly devoid of anything to celebrate in the vast bulk of our 104-year history, we're entitled to dream now. Of survival? Certainly. Of further incomprehensible victories? Definitely. Of a UEFA Cup place? Well, possibly. Of the Champions League? Stop it.

But the dream and the idealism should be enough to keep the players and the manager focussed on each separate match, each challenge. Every single one represents a further little step towards something which may not happen, but at least feels like it could. Beating Arsenal gave us headlines and a day of memories few others in the life of a City fan and member of the human race can match, but now, three more wins out of three later, the dream has become very, very clear.

West Bromwich Albion, a team with a graceful playing manner and a humble manager of personal integrity as well as ability, represented a stranger sort of challenge. After doing three glamorous London clubs, two on their own patch, can we rise to the occasion when it is "only" one of the teams who were promoted with us last season? One we already know how to beat at their own ground?

Yes. Oh yes, we can.

Phil Brown likes to keep it simple. The formation which so outfoxed Arsenal was maintained for Tottenham and West Ham, and so now it's also more than adequate for West Brom. The same XI, though Geovanni was playing less as a third forward and more as a wider, attacking midfielder.

A full away end, as always, within a tight ground as part of one of football's friendlier communities, sat expectant as the game started. The Baggies soon confirmed that, like last season, they were as vulnerable in defence as they were methodical, quick and decisive in attack.

City attacked first - Geovanni ghosted in from his flank to head a bouncing ball straight at England keeper Scott Carson, but soon the home side are in full flow, with the rapid Ishmael Miller - amazingly quick but susceptible to miscontrols in full flight - bearing through on goal before going down under a strong Andy Dawson challenge. It wasn't as clear as the iconic tackle on Theo Walcott but it seemed Dawson got something of the ball, yet the referee gave a free kick. Dawson was treated for a knock as the set-piece was lined up, but it was deflected harmlessly through to Boaz Myhill. The main upshot of it was that Dawson soldiered on for five more minutes but ultimately couldn't continue, so Sam Ricketts was sent on for his first taste of the action since the nightmare of Wigan Athletic.

Ian Ashbee cleared over his own crossbar as Miller and the dangerous, cumbersome Roman Bednar combined on another centralised attack, then Jonas Olsson headed against the bar and out after Myhill could only beat out Borja Valero's low drive. Defenders then surrounded and snuffed out Bednar as he tried to latch on to the rebound. An escape, a spot of fortune again involving the woodwork - Tottenham (twice), Arsenal and West Ham both hit the City goal frame in their fruitless quests to breach the Tigers defence. Now the Baggies had fallen victim to the same curse. Maybe this could be our day again...

Kamil Zayatte, within another tremendous defensive masterclass alongside Michael Turner, slid in to deny Bednar as he hared clear and West Brom sensed the goal they deserved was coming. But City held firm, again. These people who claim that attacking sides deserve goals should remember that good football is as much about what you prevent going in your own net than it is placing chances in the opponents' net. City aren't defensive, but they are very good in defence.

As play switched to the other end, Dean Marney's vibrant breaking run gave Marlon King a chance but he shot right across goal. The same striker, whose first touch alone provides Caleb Folan, the hero of last season's win here, with a major reason why he has to be content with the bench these days, then brought down with delicacy a long George Boateng pass before unselfishly feeding the late run of Geovanni, who fired right at Carson.

It's one of those end-to-end affairs and it's hard to catch one's breath at times. Within 30 seconds of Geovanni's shot, the Baggies have forced a corner which they take short, and central defender Ryan Donk obligingly nods right at Myhill. Then, instantly, Marney is going on a smart run to make room for a shot, via a very pretty feign which leaves one home player on his backside, but the shot is deflected away.

City's best chance comes from the resulting corner, as Marney plonks a swerving, evil delivery on to the unmarked Zayatte's head, but he steers it wide. Quick, back we go to the other end then ... Geovanni loses possesion and Miller's finishing lets him down again, beating the ball straight towards Myhill.

One last go from the home side, who deserve to be ahead. Myhill again shows his agility and positional perfection, plunging low to his right to divert a shot from Miller wide. An excellent save, and as the half-time whistle goes, a goalless scoreline is a surprise. But City can defend, remember - that's why the score is down and it's as important and as easy-on-the-eye as any delightful bit of attacking artistry.

So, what did Brown say at half time? I'd love to know. So would struggling managers everywhere. City weren't poor but were second best, yet within 90 seconds of the restart King, Geovanni and Daniel Cousin had combined to force a corner, and this time Marney's swerver found Zayatte's right instep - again he was unmarked - and the ball smashed into the back of the net with Carson not seeing a thing.

A pile of ten black and amber striped bodies assembled in celebration as the travelling masses went crazy. 0-1, here we go again.

The next 20 minutes were as crazy and as delirious as most other recent City escapades. The Tigers, galvanised by the goal and the ear-splitting noise of appreciation from the travelling support, proceeded to rip the Baggies apart with incisive, devastating attacking play, the kind your dad would rattle on about when Chilton and Wagstaff were putting away chances created by Henderson and Butler. The Baggies were shellshocked, on and off the pitch.

Route one began the move for City's second goal, but once Cousin won the header from Myhill's clearance the rest was aesthetic joy. Geovanni clipped the ball on, King beat the offside trap and cunningly and visionarily lifted it over the last defender's head for the sprinting Geovanni to reach with a divine diving header which went under Carson and rolled home.

A Brazilian, scoring with a diving header. Last time that happened? I remember Juninho doing so once at Middlesbrough from a Mikkel Beck cross, but beyond that...

The delirium increases further within four more minutes when another Myhill punt was messed up dreadfully by Gianni Zuiverloon, and King's composure when faced only with Carson was more than enough.

The last 20 minutes featured more chances for either side but frankly, they became irrelevant. City closed up shop, maintaining possession for long spells while still making sure Albion had little to trouble Myhill with. Ashbee, booked earlier, was withdrawn to give Bryan Hughes an extended run as the skipper will now be banned for next week's trip to Old Trafford, while Richard Garcia also got a good spell on the park as Geovanni left to more tumultuous applause.

City have won four in a row and amassed 20 points from 27 so far. This is not only good for long-term reasons, it also means that the games against Chelsea at the KC on Wednesday night and at Manchester United next weekend can be almost written off. Even the manager, nor our very enraptured chairman, will expect much from those games, but that's not to say we won't go for it; nor will it follow that these two illustrious opponents will not take us seriously. Liverpool's win at Stamford Bridge means we go into the Chelsea game, on points at least, as equals. Irrespective of results, we may yet go into the Manchester United match ahead of them in the table. My feeling is, just like at Arsenal, we're going to just go for it in both matches. Four or six points would be mad, three points terrific, even one point an achievement.

This is a crazy world and it's fantastic to be part of it.

West Bromwich Albion: Carson, Zuiverloon, Donk, Olsson, Robinson, Morrison (Moore 80), Greening, Koren (Brunt 80), Borja Valero, Miller (MacDonald 80), Bednar. Subs not used: Kiely, Hoefkens, Cech, Barnett.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson (Ricketts 10), Marney, Ashbee (Hughes 75), Boateng, Cousin, King, Geovanni (Garcia 78). Subs not used: Duke, Mendy, Halmosi, Folan.