Sunday, 2 November 2008

11: Manchester United 4 - 3 Hull City - 01/11/2008

I love that scoreline, even though it is as useless as a 6-0 reversal when it comes to acquiring points on the board. A defeat, but a defeat bathed and drizzled in glory, in determination and in spirit which should now set any remaining seals on Hull City's status as the most admired football club in the country.

A 4-3 scoreline can also, should you have not attended the game or read any reports, prompt numerous theories on how the match transpired. Did the home side score a late winner? Did the visitors peg back three times, or even lead the game on a couple of occasions? Or was it over long before the end and the winners ultimately eased their toes from the throttle a little too much?

The latter, in fact. Well, partly. The game was over by the hour, when Manchester United scored their fourth and established a three-goal lead. Here, lesser teams would have collapsed entirely, lost their will and fight, and succumbed to a fifth, sixth, even seventh. Not Hull City. Two strikes, thanks entirely to the industry and endearing awkwardness of substitute Bernard Mendy, triggered the European champions to soil their underclothes for the closing ten minutes or so, and although the equaliser couldn't be found, the losing side left the Theatre of Dreams with a far more heroic aura around them than their distinguished conquerors.

Some suggested that Mendy might start at Old Trafford as a consequence of Ian Ashbee's suspension. However, Phil Brown eschewed the idea of using extra width in midfield and merely elevated Bryan Hughes to the starting XI while giving George Boateng the armband. Other than that, as you were.

And, just like Chelsea in midweek, City did not get anything like the required period to size up their opposition. United smelled blood, blood of black and amber stripes, and set about their visitors with ruthless efficiency and attacking instinct, leading to a goal after little more than two minutes. Cristano Ronaldo heeled down Gary Neville's diagonal ball to Dimitar Berbatov, then controlled a strongly-hit return before lashing a left-footer beyond Boaz Myhill's stretch and in off the near post.

Ulp. Chelsea were never in trouble afterwards when they did this to us on Wednesday night, but they weren't at home and never felt the need to rip us to pieces. At Old Trafford, a Manchester United side containing Ronaldo, Berbatov and the spud-headed pocket of petulance Wayne Rooney would have no qualms about doing to us what their predecessors did to Ipswich a decade and a bit ago.

Still, we had to grin and bear it, and the City contingent, crammed in like battery chickens in the corner of the East Stand, did at least outdo Manchester United in the singing stakes. This is not surprising. A ground so vast contains, on a percentage basis, so few Mancunian obsessives in comparison to the tourists, from both Surrey and Shanghai, that singing audible pro-Manc songs is a little difficult. Gleefully, the Tiger Nation lapped up the legendary lack of atmosphere from the home quarters and created their own little world of noise and bravado. Now the City players needed to respond.

Geovanni, afforded extra booing from the dozen or so people within the home stands who knew he played for Manchester City last season, swiped a free kick high over the bar - the Tottenham one was no fluke, but he hasn't tested a goalkeeper properly with one season - as City struggled initially to know what to do with the spherical object bouncing near these red shirts.

Rooney swatted a left-footer high over the bar as United maintained possession, keeping it simple with Michael Carrick and those two first-name-only peripheral figures, Anderson and Nani, gently feeding the illustrious trio of headliners who chose to attack purely when it suited them. City's possession began to grow too, but there was little Marlon King or Daniel Cousin could do with the channelled balls from Dean Marney and Geovanni as the central defenders - they're good, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic - frequently read the pass before it had even been played.

City lacked width too - there were occasions where Marney was pleading for a wide outlet as he faced two red-shirted oppressors, but Paul McShane patently failed to provide it, much to Tiger Nation chagrin. Days like this make on yearn again for an on-song Sam Ricketts, but the width problem would be devastatingly remedied by Brown later on.

Anyway, the best hope for an equaliser appeared to be via a set-piece. And so, it was with little surprise but indescribable joy that, after Vidic had been a little too friendly with King, Andy Dawson bent in a wicked free kick which Cousin glanced home. His second goal for the Tigers had finally come, and having got his first at Arsenal, clearly he is relishing the big occasions. Someone should tell him, without any element of blame or criticism, that we are Hull City and therefore all these occasions are big. Still, he celebrated grinningly with the travelling masses whose own celebrations were hellishly insane, and quite superb.

So it's 1-1, at Old Trafford. Flip. Is this going to be another of those iconic examples of Hollywood-style underdog victory which most dreamcatchers would allow to slip through its web because it's too far-fetched?

No. It's level for only six minutes.

United break in truly jaw-dropping manner. Rooney, then Berbatov, and ultimately the unheralded but useful Carrick collected the ball and drove a low left-footer, like United's opener, again beyond Myhill and in via his post.

It's 2-1, and this time the hosts don't fancy letting anything slip. Ronaldo quickly hares through on goal but Myhill bashes away his chance. The same Portuguese whining genius then takes his time as he find room again, only for Kamil Zayatte to get in the way. Still 2-1, and anything but a disgrace to be going in with that score at the break, we think.

Fatal. Just as we observe the fourth official start twiddling his knobs on the touchline, United force a corner which is delivered on to Ronaldo's forehead, despite the attentions of four (yes, four) Tigers defenders, and Myhill hasn't a prayer.

It's still not a disgrace to be 3-1 down, though the opportunity for a crafty point to take home is severely dampened by a two-goal margin. Irrespective of who the opposition is, it's also annoying to lose a goal top such a simple set-piece when City has prided itself on defensive strength when corners and free-kicks have been swerved into our box. We have Rory Delap's long throws to cope with before the end of the month, too...

Having joined an immovable pie queue at half time for non-existent pies (Old Trafford is more disgraceful in some quarters than a lot of so-called 'lesser' stadia - the catering being one issue, the stewarding another), I returned to my seat, just in time for the restart. With City now attacking the Stretford End, I bemoaned the craning my neck may need to do to spot the correct protagonists when we attacked. Then I realised that City in attack may be an irregular event in this second half so I should be grateful for any cricking.

Indeed, Manchester United were quickly into their European-dominating, American-bankrupting stride. Rooney got to the byline after some glorious interplay and, after a slightly lucky deflection on the shaven Scouse antagonist's cross, Berbatov screwed a shot wastefully wide.

All City had to show for the opening 15 minutes of the half was another Geovanni free kick off target. It was otherwise the Manchester United showcase event. Berbatov, inexplicably wearing gloves (just how tropical is Bulgaria in the winter to make 11 degrees celsius tantamount to a cold snap?), delivered a sublime ball into Ronaldo's path but again he didn't smell the hat-trick quite enough and put his shot far from the post.

Ronaldo was then sent, one-on-one, at Myhill. This was it, the hat-trick, the match ball, the posing, the preening. We couldn't bear the idea of it. Neither, gratifyingly, could Zayatte, who made sure the Portuguese's disrespectful dithering came to nought by haring across his nemesis and making count a fabulous, applause-inducing tackle. Sadly, from the corner, City fell asleep again Vidic sidefooted home, unmarked, from close range. Another soft goal against opposition who are talented enough to rip teams to shreds without poor marking to assist them.

Enough, thinks Phil Brown. At 4-1 down, and with width (not to mention keeping the ball) a severe issue, off comes the anonymous, frustrating Hughes (another chance gone begging there) and on comes Mendy.

Bernard Mendy. Unquestionably the cult figure of the Tigers squad, an experienced French international midfielder, now in his 30s, whose bungling, effervescent, almost maverick style has made him both a hero and a source of immense frustration to the Tiger Nation and, presumably, to his manager too. And now, here he is, expected to help transform a game already lost, against the greatest side in club football, on their own patch.

He succeeds.

Taking a fine ball from Boateng, Mendy chests it down past his French compatriot Patrice Evra and lobs the onrushing Edwin Van der Sar. The ball drops and is volleyed clear by Vidic but the assistant referee correctly (brilliantly) flags for a goal. Replays later confirm he was bang on. City have pulled one back.

Then, with little under ten minutes remaining (during which time United have profligately missed through Rooney and sub Carlos Tevez), Mendy gets both strength and pace on Ferdinand, who hauls him down in the box. Not many opponents get penalties at Old Trafford, especially at the Stretford End, and Mike Dean was as brave as he was accurate in his assessment of the challenge. Geovanni found the corner and it was 4-3.

If we're honest, City didn't really create anything resembling a great chance to equalise in the remaining minutes, and other issues came instead - Michael Turner, booked earlier, was lucky not to be sent off for a tackle on Carrick as the midfielder glided into a shooting position, while the loony Rooney went into his usual sulky, kick-out-at-all mode and picked up a yellow himself. Breakaways for the Tigers did raise hopes but no chance came of them, and after much chortling at the way Manchester United's multi-millionaires were panicking at the end, the whistle sounded.

Three goals at Old Trafford, but not a point to be had. Ah well. There was certainly a restoration of pride following the tepid showing against Chelsea, and another occasion to store in the memory bank for when the grandchildren start asking questions about City in a few years time. The players stayed on the pitch for a long session of mutual appreciation with the Tiger Nation, and quite right too. Everything about Hull City represented pride, progress and talent today. The lack of points, the concession of our unbeaten away record, and the drop into a meagre sixth place in the Premier League table is almost incidental. You should never feel happy after defeat but this is the closest feeling one can have to it.

The holiday is over and City return to the real business next week with Bolton Wanderers coming to the KC. Ashbee will be back, and I just wonder if Bernard Mendy might play?

Manchester United: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Carrick (Giggs 72), Anderson (O'Shea 88), Nani (Tevez 64), Berbatov, Rooney. Subs not used: Foster, Park, Rafael Da Silva, Fletcher.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Marney, Hughes (Mendy 59), Boateng (Folan 86), Geovanni, King (Halmosi 63), Cousin. Subs not used: Duke, Barmby, Garcia, Ricketts.