Friday, 31 October 2008

United we fall

There seems to have been a lot of footballers over the years who had a spell as a schoolboy, youth, apprentice or triallist at Manchester United, and of course, never quite made it.

For every Paul Scholes, there is many a Paul McShane or David Brown, a Mark Lynch or a Jamie Wood. If they are lucky, these also-rans manage a League Cup appearance or two, or maybe the odd Champions League substitute cameo at a stage when the group is already won.

Those four names randomly picked out were not random at all, as Hull City got them all. McShane is with us now, on loan from Sunderland, having been brought up at clubs in Scotland and Iceland in his youth days. His Manchester United times were as typical as a wannabe spell could be - looked good at 17, signed up, given a squad number, won the FA Youth Cup and then was sent out on numerous loans before leaving for free. Perhaps the oddest thing about McShane's time at Old Trafford, given his comfort in the Premier League these days, is that he didn't make even the fabled substitute appearance in a distinctly unimportant first team match.

That couldn't be said for Lynch, a predecessor of McShane's as a wannabe Manchester United right back and a first choice Hull City right back. Lynch infamously made a solitary United substitute appearance in the Champions League against Deportivo La Coruna - infamous as he scored an own goal. He was given a free transfer to Sunderland and then within a year was freed again to join Hull City.

Unlike McShane (at this stage anyway - doubters exist about aspects of McShane's game but he isn't a kamikaze right back), Lynch was an instant failure at the KC Stadium. He wasn't helped by being kneecapped 15 seconds into his debut by Paul Furlong's studs, but even upon his return he was exposed as a full back of limited positional sense, restricted tackling ability and wretched distribution. Peter Taylor's desperation at one stage forced him to switch Lynch from right to left as both Andy Dawson and Roland Edge were crocked, and Lynch responded in the way we all expected - with a car crash display. He was sent off at Coventry City (although we won that game thanks entirely to John Welsh) and was, for the third season in a row, given a free transfer by his club. It was one of Peter Taylor's final acts before he also left, and Phil Parkinson did at least find Sam Ricketts as a replacement. Lynch spent two years at Yeovil Town before he was - you're way ahead now - given a free transfer. He's now at Rotherham United, who are probably checking their limited accounts to see if they can afford an ejector seat for the season's end.

David Brown and Jamie Wood go back a decade with City, a period which is much publicised by the slavering Fleet Street slowcoaches at the moment as we were bottom of the pile. Both were kids at Old Trafford who were let go, and when you saw them partake in the lowest division, it wasn't hard to see why. Brown was, with hindsight, probably not afforded the requisite amount of credit as he could clearly score goals. He scored 11 in a dreadful team, which was a good start, but his desire seemed to dissolve thereafter, along with his strike ratio, and he was famously released into the non-league pyramid when there were still two years left on his deal.

Wood epitomised the ineptitude of Hull City more than most players. A striker of speed and awareness, he was let down by being quite appalling at hitting the target. Severe doubts about his finishing were expressed the moment he joined the club, and ultimately he didn't find the net where a keeper's gloves, an item of woodwork or some bloke in Boothferry Park's seats would suffice. His name would be even more consigned to the historic dustbin were it not for his sly elevation to the international arena, stretching the qualification rules to the absolute limit by earning a lawful call-up for the Cayman Islands. We're blessed with serving internationals these days, but in 1998 it was Wood and the two Jamaicans who were receiving their papers and adding their names to a short, concise list, never to be removed.

These four players all did the same thing - went to Old Trafford with dreams of superstardom, and ended up playing for Hull City with dreams of, erm, still being in the team the next week. McShane is the latest incumbent and reservations notwithstanding, he may just be, finally, a Manchester United reject who could one day turn round to Sir Alex Ferguson and claim he was a tad hasty. Let's see how he copes with Cristano Ronaldo first though...

Thursday, 30 October 2008

10: Hull City 0 - 3 Chelsea - 29/10/2008

There's no harm in being taught the odd lesson. The achievement surrounding City's fixture against Chelsea was more summed up by the position each club was in prior to kick-off, rather than the result 90 minutes later.

That's the positive spin. The less cynical would claim that Chelsea were utterly brilliant and City chased shadows for the majority of the match.

Little can spark complaint, given the amazing feats of the Tigers thus far. It has been beyond everybody's expectations, and at least the expression "reality check" can be applied only half-heartedly, as Chelsea are as capable of doing this to any club in the Premier League if they fancy it. This was no Wigan Mk II.

The only mild slice of disappointment was that although the two teams were equal going into the match, there was next to no chance of City trying to match their illustrious opposition as equals once the action started - thanks to a piece of undisputed genius from a fine footballer after a mere two minutes.

Frank Lampard's goal may have been a fluke. It may also have been simply stunning vision and improvisation. I go for the latter, as although the ball reached him on the left corner of the penalty area fortuitously - his initial ball to the chasing Florent Malouda had been deflected straight back to him - the breathtaking, left-footed chip which he instantly dispatched across the box and over Boaz Myhill was a work of top-drawer artistry that only the sublimely gifted footballer can attempt and execute.

Immediately, City were on the back foot. This was hardly fair, but it was Chelsea, after all. They'd been stung at the weekend and the last thing they wanted was to be made to feel awkward by a team of northern upstarts with little history for anything other than being laughed at. They had their wish. The goal not only earned them a priceless early lead, it knocked the stuffing out of City for a good 20 minutes.

Phil Brown had written this game off, sneakily, in his post-match interviews following the West Brom game. We had 20 points from nine games, and he announced that 20 from ten would be an excellent return. Clever man. It was clear that City weren't going to get 23 points from ten, or probably even 21. Chelsea proceeded to utterly dominate the ball, play simple and effective passing sequences and occasionally deliver an eye-catching pass of fizz and precision which reminded every optimist in black and amber why they were who they were.

City, with the same XI as had become the norm (Andy Dawson made a remarkably quick recovery from a dead leg when he had been entirely ruled out 48 hours ago), did make a few bits happen. A corner was forced and, with the knowledge that our success at set-pieces was largely the way forward against Chelsea, hopes were raised. Dawson delivered and Michael Turner climbed impressively above John Terry but the header landed on the roof of Petr Cech's net.

Geovanni then got his best sniff of a spectacular response but inexplicably chose not to shoot when Chelsea showed him inside on to his trusty right. Instead, he tried to beat one man too many - and ended up diving, in as unconvincing a manner as it is possible to display. Even Joe Cole, on the opposite side and prone to the odd spot of flying fakery himself, must have found the gall to protest at that one.

Myhill, nervous after losing a goal so early (one awfully sliced clearance proved this), pouched a shot from Joe Cole with conviction after Nicolas Anelka's cross deflected back to the England man, then Lampard bashed a swerving, unpredictable free-kick from 30 yards only just wide.

City had begun to up their game, as if the realisation that they were playing mere humans had just hit home (though Jonathan Pearce's typically-melodramatic claim, in both meaning and tone, that they were "starstruck" was one of the most nauseating and patronising things I've heard - why do the BBC employ this man?), and the quiet Marlon King was very unlucky to be flagged offside as he seemed to time a run on to Kamil Zayatte's searching ball with expert precision.

Malouda, whose contribution to Chelsea seems to consist entirely of fluffing straightforward chances, contrived to miss the first of many when he headed well off-target from a Deco cross, getting his angles severely wrong. The industrious Anelka, wearing gloves on a night far less chilly than the Hull public had hoped for (see also Deco and Jon Obi Mikel for this), then struck a shot just wide when Deco, again, had supplied the ammunition.

On 21 minutes, City came the closest they would ever come. Daniel Cousin, the third part of a three-pronged strikerforce and easily the most overshadowed, came into his own with a strong, purposeful run across Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. He wasn't even distracted by Cech's flourescent orange strip, the sort that would guarantee a nocturnal cyclist a high degree of safety against even the most myopic of drivers, as he drove a low, curling shot beyond the high-calibre keeper and, so unluckily, away off the foot of a post.

A 1-1 scoreline at this point would have been delicious and, without any doubt at all, would have made it extremely interesting. But it was not to be. City barely troubled Cech again.

Geovanni, ludicrously but without protest from his manager or captain, then smacked a free kick at Cech which was closer to the centre circle than the penalty area. We were looking at 40 yards or so. It's a confident (or perhaps reckless, or perhaps deluded) chap who believes he can outfox the world's best goalkeeper from such a range, but the luminous custodian did nevertheless was required to perform an inelegant beating away motion to keep the ball from his net.

Time for Malouda to miss again. His snapshot went high over the bar after Zayatte's poor clearance, and then he did likewise a few minutes later; this time he got a toe-end to a cross from a sharp counter attack but again missed the target.

Chelsea looked like they could score again anytime. They weren't quite playing with City, not teasing them as such, but they certainly had that air of taking everything in their stride and maintaining their professionalism until the time was right to punish their hosts again. Anelka thought he'd done it when he hit a vicious drive after exquisite build-up involving Lampard and the two Coles, but Myhill got a deft fingertip to the ball and it was enough to send it above the bar.

Malouda then shot wide. Again. Although his time would ultimately come, it is clear that he is a weak link in a super-strength Chelsea unit. He has his uses away from goal, but ultimately his finishing is poor for a man so obviously primed by the Chelsea tactical plan to get into these far-flung positions on the field.

City had two late goes before half-time; Geovanni's hit a free kick more within range which Cech spilled and Carvalho cleared; then King headed Dawson's sweeping cross straight at the vividly-clothed stopper.

So, just the one goal conceded as the players trooped off at the break. A glorious, unpreventable goal it was too. So City were just one piece of world-class football adrift of their world-class footballing opponents. It seemed healthy enough.

Sadly, the game plan for the second half was shattered by some dreadful incommunicado from Myhill and his centre backs just five minutes into the second half. A long, low ball towards the edge of the box; both Zayatte and Turner try to shepherd it to the keeper, believing Myhill would be haring from his goal-line to kick it clear. Or perhaps they misjudged the pace of the ball and expected it to drift into the area for Myhill to collect. Neither applied in the end, as Anelka nipped between them all and, although his touch which thieved the ball took him mildly wide, his instant left-foot shot was never going to go anywhere but the net.

Who was to blame? Myhill certainly could have put his boot through it, but equally the central defenders were both in a position to stop Anelka sniffing around it. They can all take a share. Utterly crestfallen now. Two goals down, thanks to the unplayable and the unspeakable. In both halves of the match City had started with the wobblies, and Chelsea are the last side one should be wobbly against.

Still, hope remained that a goal for the Tigers could at least arouse interest in the rest of the match. For as long as Malouda was getting the bulk of Chelsea's chances, a third goal for the visitors looked less likely. He soon missed again after some divine, slick interplay between Deco, Lampard and Anelka gave him a chance not just on a plate, but with knife and fork, napkin and choice of condiments.

Brown made a change, opting for width as he withdrew the overrun George Boateng and threw Peter Halmosi on, clearly allowing the Hungarian a chance to earn himself a start at Manchester United on Saturday with a midfield reshuffle in order thanks to Ian Ashbee's suspension. Halmosi instantly pleaded for the ball and showed some bits of mild sparkle within a side clearly demoralised by their own misfortune.

A free-kick. Dean Marney takes and Turner wins the header but it strikes a Chelsea shoulder and flies over. Richard Garcia, presumably with the same brief as Halmosi, is then introduced for Marney, who was given the supporters' man of the match despite a rather humdrum display, an assessment you could levy at the whole midfield and pretty much the rest of the team.

Chelsea fancy a third now. Ashley Cole, booed throughout due to a mixture of tiresome fan trends and the player's own odiousness, crossed dangerously for Lampard to gently guide down into an Anelka's path, but the ball gets trapped a little beneath his studs and the shot is half-hit enough for Myhill to save.

But the third soon comes and, gadzooks, it's Malouda who scores it. As players remain upfield after a Chelsea corner, the second attack allows Ashley Cole to feed Carvalho down the left - that's Carvalho, centre back, down the left - and he bends a cross with the outside of his right foot in a way which totally belies his usual task on the field. Malouda is there to steer it past an exposed Myhill from six yards. He finally has his goal, but boy, is he wasteful. Chelsea must never rely on him to score in tighter games when only one goal might win it.

Cousin, probably City's real man of the match on a night when glory didn't shower itself on anyone dressed in stripes, headed a decent chance over from Garcia's clever overlap after Geovanni had been initially unable to bring the ball down into a shooting position. With little to play for other than the rule that games must last at least 90 minutes, Brown decided that Dean Windass might raise the crowd's deflated spirit, chucking him on for the surprisingly despondent King. It's only his second Premier League appearance, but the decision to give him a place on the bench instead of Caleb Folan might be significant. It also might not be, of course.

Windass got a few touches and City had some reasonable possession as the final minutes ticked on by. Chelsea had done their job and done it devastatingly. They merely wished now to maintain a clean sheet, although a consolation should have come City's way when Dawson delivered a typically accurate injury-time corner on to the free head of Garcia, who promptly put it wide.

Full time, and anyone who suggests a bubble has been popped should be flayed publicly. This wasn't Wigan, it was Chelsea. Despite the bravado of the chairman on national media outlets prior to the game, it was clearly a no-go game. Saturday probably will be too, and that factor, along with Ashbee's suspension, suggests Brown can do a spot of tinkering with the team to provide hope for the peripheral figures. The goal difference is at least neutral, not negative again, and after Old Trafford there then comes a serious sequence of back-to-business fixtures, with Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Stoke City all providing the opposition in November.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Marney (Garcia 71), Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 62), Geovanni, King (Windass 84), Cousin. Subs not used: Duke, Hughes, Mendy, Ricketts.

Chelsea: Cech, Bosingwa (Ivanovic 86), Carvalho, Terry, Ashley Cole, Deco (Kalou 78), Mikel, Lampard, Joe Cole (Belletti 54), Anelka, Malouda. Subs not used: Cudicini, Di Santo, Bridge, Alex.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Chelsea and the pensioners

Beyond all the nostalgia of City's win over tonight's opponents Chelsea 20 years ago, and the various Cup ties since, the wonderful Tigers side under Cliff Britton which won the old Third Division title in 1966 have their specific reasons for wanting tonight to go well for City.

It's not about bearing grudges, of course. But the fact remains that Andy Davidson, our record appearance maker, still thinks the referee cheated City out of a penalty which would have won the FA Cup quarter final at Stamford Bridge (assuming it was scored). He has been known to use the actual word "cheat", which is particularly pejorative to this day as the official was Jack Taylor, distinguished 1974 World Cup final referee and still very much alive.

The game ended 2-2, when Ken Wagstaff scored twice, and Chelsea won the replay at Boothferry Park 3-1, thanks largely to the return of the mercurial Peter Osgood, who had been injured for the first game. Chris Simpkin, an unfussy midfielder of the enforcement type, scored City's goal.

Chelsea promptly lost the semi-final to Sheffield Wednesday, who in turn were famously clawed back from 2-0 by Everton, who won the final 3-2. City have only been in the quarter finals once since - losing 3-2 to Stoke in 1971 from 2-0 up, with Waggy again getting both City goals - and even the fifth round hasn't been visited since 1989. It's just as well that we have as reasonable a record in League games against Chelsea as a 20 year gap can supply, as we're plainly useless in accounting for them in any other competition.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Sensible over captain

After four rounds of Premier League invincibility, a change to the Hull City starting XI is on the way for tomorrow's game against Chelsea.

It's a straightforward alteration. Andy Dawson suffered a dead leg at West Bromwich Albion and was subbed after just ten minutes. Sam Ricketts had a fine match as his natural replacement and will begin at left back - his international position but never before his Hull City position - against Luiz Felipe Scolari's side.

However, might there be more changes? Brown, who has surreptitiously written off the Chelsea match as far as points are concerned, may use the hefty points tally and the insurance it supplies to give Ian Ashbee, the captain, a breather. Ashbee is suspended for the visit to Manchester United on Saturday after accumulating five yellow cards, so maybe an opportunity to give him a fortnight's respite from games is a temptation.

George Boateng and Dean Marney have been tremendous alongside their leader in that three-man midfield. Fluidity, determination and no little quality has trademarked their performances. A chance to rest Ashbee shouldn't affect their places, but it will be interesting to see how Brown alters the dynamics, as only Boateng provides a serious option for the role of enforcer - and he's already in the team.

Bryan Hughes replaced Ashbee at the Hawthorns, with Brown sensibly deciding that the skipper had merited a longer rest, with the game won and risks unnecessary. This withdrawal of Ashbee, however, lends credence to the idea that he may not play at all against Chelsea, a game for which he is eligible as the suspension law needs seven clear days before activation. It would be harsh on Ashbee, from a sentimental viewpoint, to deny him a match against Chelsea in a week when he has already sacrificed his place at Old Trafford, but Brown doesn't do sentimentality, as Dean Windass, Nick Barmby and Ryan France would all attest.

If Brown drops Ashbee, then the next question is whether Hughes is the obvious candidate to come into the midfield. Although he has considerable Premier League experience, Hughes has been underwhelming, and occasionally very bad indeed, as a Hull City performer. He has a nice touch and extensive vision of the pitch, but does seem to display the odd air of apathy when taking an active part in a game. His acute lack of pace - not to mention match fitness - suggests that he would also not suit a stretched three man midfield, so if he does play, it may only be with an extra midfielder deployed.

But would this be Geovanni, or would a naturally wider player like Bernard Mendy or Peter Halmosi be summoned? If so, then either the Brazilian or one of the two grafting strikers - Marlon King and Daniel Cousin - would be at risk. Again, none of these deserve to be dropped - or rested - but that may not stop Brown from doing so. King's place seems secure, but Cousin does let his head drop and has barely found a scoring position since his winner at Arsenal. Geovanni is a diamond, but ominously Brown took him off at West Brom as soon as he started doing his tricks and, consequently, losing the ball. Even with the game won, Brown frowns on that kind of disrespect to the opposition and creation of needless work for his own defenders.

All of this may be academic, as Ashbee might still partake - he's the player Brown has shown more loyalty to than any other - and the XI would be essentially the same, on a tactical front. But Brown is full of surprises and the identity of the opposition, plus the ballast provided by four straight wins, suggests he won't be afraid to issue a couple more surprises this week.

Monday, 27 October 2008

I do wanna go to Chelsea

Although the victory at West Bromwich Albion is still fresh in my head, already attention has to switch to the visit of Chelsea to the KC on Wednesday night.

It's our first night game of the season in the Premier League - and there never are too many of those - and the situations of both clubs plus, from a Tigers point of view, a relatively prolific recent history between the two due to Cup ties, makes it all the more fascinating.

Even though the two sides start the game entirely level on points, there is no doubt, of course, that Chelsea will start as massive favourites. Ultimately, the Tigers' season has been about surprises and a sense of the unexpected, but even Phil Brown knows that you can't really plan for those. For example, he took a chance at Arsenal by playing an attacking formation instead of the standard 4-5-1, and bamboozled the Gunners so much by it that we won the game.

Chelsea will be different, very different. They represent genuine experience, of football and of winning, which Arsenal's gifted youngsters do not. They know more than most how to cope with enthusiastic newbies playing beyond their skin. They are also patient, not letting trifling matters such as a goalless first half concern them. Their pace, unshakeable pass-and-move ethos introduced by the marvellous Luiz Felipe Scolari, and their ruthlessness in front of goal (Arsenal's finishing was, lest we forget, very poor against us) will mean that luck - the one thing Brown has had that he hasn't planned for - will remain the Tigers' main source of hope for a share of the spoils at the KC.

There's also an additional worry attached to this game - the one that claims Chelsea will be badly stung by losing their four-year run of Premier League invincibility at Stamford Bridge to Liverpool at the weekend and use that hurt to give someone (ie, us) a severe trampling as a form of redemption. Again, the luck will need to be on City's side for that not to happen.

Luck comes in all forms and City have, of course, taken their share since Wigan eviscerated us back in August. In the four consecutive victories, all City's opponents hit the woodwork in their quest for a goal. Spurs did so twice, while Arsenal, West Ham and West Brom also managed to find the frame as they bore down on us. It's not as if the chances haven't been created. But you make your own luck, of course, and City's daredevil brand of defending - from Andy Dawson's photogenic challenge on Theo Walcott through the astonishing body-blocks of Kamil Zayatte and Michael Turner - has perhaps earned the Tigers the right, assuming some mythical beast hands out the rights, to an extra bucket of fortune.

The last time City hosted a League game against Chelsea was in 1988-89; indeed, it was October 25th 1988, making it within four days of a 20-year anniversary match. Again it was a midweek match, Hull Fair put paid to a quarter of the expected attendance, and although Chelsea, newly-relegated and still featuring stars like Kerry Dixon, were clear title favourites, Eddie Gray's City utterly crushed them with a 3-0 win. Keith Edwards got the first in front of Bunkers with a stirring shot on the turn, then added the third with a late penalty. The match was also significant for the only goal in a City shirt of Mike Smith, a mulleted youngster who emerged from the ranks but rarely showed his worth in a mere couple of years in the first team picture. It was a smart goal, however, as he ran on to an Alex Dyer pass and placed the ball inside the keeper's near post early in the second half.

Dixon missed an open goal with a four-yard volley and, as Bunkers gave him the expected verbal what-for, he responded with a huge grin. One hopes that something similar happens involving the South Stand at the KC and Nicolas Anelka (not that Anelka is prone to grinning, even when he scores) as the Cup ties involving the two clubs since - all of which City hosted - have gone substantially in Chelsea's favour.

In 1992, an industrial Chelsea side won 2-0 in the third round of the FA Cup, with goals from Vinny Jones and Dennis Wise, easily the two individuals you least wanted to score against you. Eight seasons on, the cosmopolitan Chelsea overturned a bottom-of-the-pile City 6-1 in the same competition, a game most notable for a glorious Gus Poyet goal, David Brown's beautifully chipped consolation and, hilariously, Chris Sutton going totally mental in front of Bunkers after he'd scored, due to a combination of his own inability to fit in at Chelsea and the Tiger Nation's merciless ribbing of him for such.

Then there was last season, when Chelsea turned up in the third round of the Carling Cup and sauntered back south with a 4-0 win, courtesy of a largely second-string side. City coped for most of the first half but once the first went in, the floodgates opened. Little more than a year later, and a very different Hull City, in quality, strength and League position, faces a largely similar Chelsea, albeit one playing brighter football than the extremely effective yet highly methodical stuff preferred by Mourinho and Grant.

Of course, we can on this occasion not find ourselves insulted or even bothered by the inevitable predictions of a Chelsea landslide, or at least a Chelsea win which will signal the start of our decline into the more bowel-like reaches of the Premier League, especially as we then face Manchester United on Saturday at Old Trafford. Yet Phil Brown, if his words are to be taken at face value, seems to have written off the Chelsea match, as he talked about 20 points from nine games becoming, after Chelsea, 20 points from ten. This was no slip of the tongue, but he did it subtly enough to make it not sound like he expected to lose. Clever man.

While no negativity is allowed around Hull City right now, nor is it warranted, we'd forgive the manager if he really was already looking at Manchester United, or even at the very-winnable home game with Bolton Wanderers a week later. Although he won't do so, he's earned the right to kick off his shoes this week. The rest of us can turn up at the KC on Wednesday evening, preferably a cold, sleety and blustery Wednesday evening, and just wonder if it is possible to stir up trouble among the status quo again...

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.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Another deBagging?

Last season's game at West Bromwich Albion was more important than any other during that history-making campaign. Put simply, it was the game that inspired Hull City into becoming a Premier League club.

It was in February, coming as City were on a good run of favourable results and making a slow but conclusive climb up the Championship table. But these opponents represented the pinnacle of City's ambitions, well-heeled, experienced, easy-on-the-eye distributors of a football who, at the KC a month earlier, had inflicted the Tigers' one solitary defeat of the calendar year thus far in a roaringly splendid 90 minutes of sporting entertainment.

On that evening, City had played as well as they could expect, but the Baggies were hat-throwingly brilliant. They triumphed 3-1, played the Tigers off the park in a cultured and fair manner, and this was the level we needed to aspire to if our Premier League dream was to be realised.

And so it came to pass. At the Hawthorns, both teams had their spells of dominance. Both scored in the first half - City through a stunningly selfish curler from distance by Fraizer Campbell; Albion through Roman Bednar's well-timed run and header - and we steeled ourselves for a second period of make or break proportions. A draw would be spiffing, a win not unthinkable but certainly less predictable, a loss a mere addition to a long list of City failing just when the riches of a higher plain are within grasp.

I remember that second half with a similar measure of recollection as I remember Wembley - almost non-existent. The game was ebb and flow, end to end, exciting and petrifying, enlightening and frustrating. It was a great advert for the Championship, should that division ever feel like it needs to prove itself to the greater exponents of the game than those within England's second tier.

The winning goal came eight minutes from time and we can pinpoint this specific moment as the one which told us that a Premier League place was ours if we fancied it. Caleb Folan drifted wide, collected the ball in not the most dangerous of positions, was allowed to saunter forward and suddenly, he cut inside and stroked a classy, placed shot past the goalkeeper and into the far corner. A deflection was evident in replays but not anywhere enough was the ball's course altered to suggest it was key to finding the net.

That goal was the single most important of Hull City's regular 46-match season. It instigated a citywide belief in its football team that this season was, at last, the one where all the hoodoos, disappointments and tragedies of past efforts would be allowed to rest in peace. The club and the management reacted to this expectation accordingly.

The wider media too peered from behind their Baggies-obsessed tinted bins and noticed us. The coverage of the game, as the match of the day, by ITV's The Championship was laughably angled entirely at the procession of West Bromwich Albion to greatness and the Premier League. The lack of knowledge and respect of the commentator, the estimable John Rawling, of Hull City's players, form and general situation was starkly evident in both his commentary and his post-match interviews.

For all the joy, we lost at fellow promotion rivals Bristol City the following week and defeats against Sheffield United and Ipswich Town in two of the last three matches ruined the automatic promotion dream. West Brom were still the best team in the division but they nearly cocked it up before finally clinching the title, and Stoke City also stuttered and hobbled over the promotion line. We did it the harder - yet considerably more glamorous - way.

This weekend, City return to the Hawthorns, and this time we'll start as favourites. While I've never had a single reason to hold candles towards Stoke (either the club or the city as a whole), the delightful football and off-pitch decorum of West Bromwich Albion last year leads me to wish for their progress at this level at a similar rate to ours - though naturally another late winner against them becomes the main point of focus first. It probably won't be from the benched Folan, but it needs to be from someone, anyone. After all, four successive wins is a handy bit of ballast when it comes to fending off Chelsea and Manchester United over the subsequent seven days.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

John Welsh - overlooked, overawed and (still) over here

One of the the last significant moments of John Welsh's bizarre Hull City career came against this weekend's opponents, West Bromwich Albion, a whole two seasons ago.

The future had looked good for Welsh. New manager Phil Parkinson had paired him up in the centre of midfield with fresh signing Dean Marney, making a bright young English pairing from two of the biggest academies in football.

City were outfoxed for periods of the game, but played superbly at times. Positive, vibrant, committed attacking football at the Hawthorns heralded, it seemed, a new era.

We'd failed to score but come close frequently. The Baggies, under Bryan Robson, were 1-0 up but clinging on as injury time approached. Then Welsh made a late run into the box and was clearly felled. It was as clear-cut a foul as you could ever see.

No penalty was given. Unhelpfully, a supporter ran on to the pitch to attempt a physical remonstration with the referee and he was stupendously rugby tackled by Craig Fagan as he neared his target.

That was in August 2006. More than two years on, Welsh is still on Hull City's books, but as forgotten and as peripheral a member that any squad player could be. Only his presence on the back of the match programme ever reminds people he remains under contract at his club.

And yet he is a clear talent. A Liverpudlian who emerged from the Anfield academy, he was heralded, perhaps dangerously, as "the next Steven Gerrard". He made occasional appearances in lesser games for the Liverpool first team but it was clear that being the next Steven Gerrard was not going to make him anything like the actual Steven Gerrard. So, conscious of the player's worth to his England under 21 squads, Peter Taylor was allowed to take the lad on loan during City's first season back in English football's second tier.

Welsh was excellent at times, frustrating at others. His crowning moment at Hull City remains a great victory at Coventry City at their (then) newly-opened, part-finished and (still) architecturally unconvincing Ricoh Arena. City won 2-0 and Welsh scored both. The first was a cross which took a deflection and turned into a shot as a result; the second a memorable piece of individuality which took him beyond two players with quick feet before steering a curling, chipped effort round the goalkeeper and in at the far post. It was one of those shots that seemed to take forever to find its target.

City had just lost Ian Ashbee to his career-threatening bone complaint and Welsh's presence as a ballwinner who happened to be able to play, really play, proved ample consolation in the skipper's absence. Yet Taylor, in his charmingly unpredictable and sometimes pig-headed way, soon dropped him as City went through the Christmas period in peculiar form. There seemed to be no explanation for it at all; Taylor just preferred other candidates for the City engine room and only when City travelled to Stoke early in the New Year was Welsh restored. Perhaps there was only coincidence to blame when City duly won 3-0 at the Britannia, a tremendously satisfying result which also saw Boaz Myhill save two penalties and Stoke fans start fighting each other in the home end.

Welsh was in and out thanks to knocks for the rest of the season, although his move was crucially made permanent when Liverpool decided they liked the look of 17 year old protégé Paul Anderson and offered Welsh as bait. Gleefully, City took it.

Taylor's departure and Parkinson's arrival seemed, initially, to re-invigorate Welsh. He played in the aforementioned opener at West Brom and played well. A decision different to the one actually given by the referee when the player was dumped to the ground may have produced a different result and different fortunes for Welsh. But once City lost the next game against Barnsley at the KC, after taking a 2-0 lead too, Parkinson began to panic. His experiments, his desire to change stuff to quickly and confusingly, got up everyone's noses, on and off the pitch, and Welsh was frequently dropped or substituted. More often than not, his omission before the game or removal during it was greeted with incredulity, certainly until Ashbee's return after a year's treatment and new signing David Livermore's eventual settlement, and all Welsh could show for it was a solitary goal - a consolation at that - in a dreadful 3-1 defeat at Preston.

Parkinson's dismissal and Phil Brown's arrival allowed Welsh a little more leeway, although Ashbee's welcome return - for leadership reasons, mainly - meant that Welsh's nose was occasionally out of joint, not helped further by the dogged belief shown in the expensive but underperforming Marney. Then, when Welsh went two-footed into a tackle on his fellow Liverpool academy alumnus Neil Mellor, breaking his own leg, his season was instantly over. He was carried off while Mellor luckily emerged unscathed. It remains quite astonishing to think that he didn't have a red card waved in his face to rub further salt in to the fresh, self-inflicted wound.

That was in March 2007. A whole 18 months - and a tad more - have since passed and Welsh has not figured on a first team pitch since, but here he remains. A lad of his obvious promise seems to have been a victim twice over; of his own occasional unreliability and of at least one, possibly two, managers' prejudices against him. City's success since he gave up playing - survival in 2007, promotion last season, Premier League entertainers now - suggests that he hasn't been missed and, of course, he hasn't. Brown didn't even pick him for the "do we have to play these games?" Cup ties last season at Crewe and Plymouth, while other participants on the cusp like Sam Collins, Ryan France, Stuart Elliott, Michael Bridges and Nathan Doyle all got their chance. Welsh featured on the bench in the Championship at Norwich City last season when the injury crisis was so bad that Brown was wholly lacking in choice, but even then everyone knew that his hopes for getting on to the pitch were precisely nil.

Welsh will be given a free transfer in the summer, undoubtedly. This is assuming he doesn't move before then, although a short loan spell at Chester last season was cut short, allegedly due to Welsh's own poor attitude. He has done a lot of spectating in the last 18 months and seen his team-mates become eternal heroes to the city of Hull, the like of which the club had never produced before. For a man of his obvious ability, it's a crying shame that he didn't play even the tiniest of roles in this success. That's down purely to him, the forgotten man under Parkinson, the ignored man under Brown. And for all that Parkinson could have treated him better, Brown was certainly proved right.

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

Saturday, 18 October 2008

High calibre Caleb

Caleb Folan will be staying at Hull City after an offer from Queens Park Rangers to take the City centre forward on loan with a view to a permanent move was abruptly turned down.

Quite right.

Folan is still enigmatic, but Phil Brown thinks he's a fabulous player and a high-quality part of his Premier League squad. It beggars belief that City would let Folan go, even though he isn't in the starting XI, as he is the next on the list for when changes to the forward line need to be made.

It also beggars belief that Folan would wish to go. He may be as disappointed as any player should be that he isn't playing more often, but he's sensible. His time will come, his chance will come and to sacrifice Premier League football for a regular role in a Championship side would be folly.

The irony is that, of course, this is precisely what he did in August last year. He left Wigan Athletic of the Premier League to join Hull City of the Championship, for a cool £1million, the Tigers' first-ever seven-figure outlay. What is different now? Well, he was only a Carling Cup player with Wigan, as proved by playing against us in that competition mere days before switching clubs. He wasn't starting Premier League matches and rarely getting off the bench.

He had also been at Wigan at that level long enough for the club to be able to make an open-minded decision about his future. The money was good for a player who was scarcely making an impact and it seemed good business all round. Now it's a different matter, as Folan has yet to have a proper chance of proving his Premier League credentials again and seeing whether his season in the Championship with us has made him a player more suited to the highest echelon.

There were initial doubts about his finishing when he joined, as it took him until December (albeit partly because of a head injury he suffered on his debut) to get his first goal for the club. Thereafter he became a reliable, if infrequent getter of goals and acquired a dubious reputation as a supersub, which no player really wants to be as it implies that you are less effective if given a starting role. Nine goals came from Folan in total, including his contribution to the 4-1 win over Watford in the second leg of the play-offs, and that goal, along with a good few others, came after he was sent on as a sub.

He scored an equaliser against Stoke and a winner against West Brom, both away from home. These were the two clubs who beat us to the automatic promotion spots, proving that Folan had the stomach for the biggest occasions available. Crucial clinchers at Colchester United and Leicester City - clubs who were relegated - also proved that he focussed as much on the supposedly less strenuous occasions.

His first touch needs work, as does his awareness of what's around him. Against his old club - his only Premier League start for us - he was off the pace, head slumped and starved of help and service. His capacity to be caught offside, as proved when he came on as a sub at Tottenham, is staggering. He needs to work on that a lot. But he is quick, possesses a good attitude and seems pretty chilled about the whole thing. He is not a panicker. He'll take scoring chances when they come - see his goal which won us the opening game this season against Fulham. When he was a sub, of course.

There is much to come still from Folan and his international debut for the Republic of Ireland in midweek will also be a key reason why he should want to stay in the Premier League as much as his manager intends to keep him there. Marlon King has a back problem, so maybe tomorrow represents the chance Folan has waited for.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Home comforts

It will be good to be back at the KC Stadium again this weekend. With an international break, preceded by two trips to London, it really is ages since our last home game (the 2-2 with Everton) and, of course, we haven't won at home since the opening day against Fulham.

I wonder whether, perversely, our away form is already the key to our survival? Teams like ours always rise to the Premier League parroting the old "win your home games" cliché before a ball has been kicked. Despite the tiredness of the phrase, it maintains its ring of truth. A smart, consistent home record usually is 75% of the route to Premier League survival when you are a club feeling your way around the top tier like us.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "Aren't you defying the odds already and not any longer concerned by relegation?" is one such thing in your mind. And you're right, kind of. While we're grateful for and receptive to the plaudits (few of which, as a bonus, have patronised us) we're not fools, and neither is Phil Brown. There will almost certainly be a month - could be November, more likely December - where we'll hit a wall. As long as we can attain some points at home during this period then we'll still, utter disasters beyond the wit of any great thriller writer aside, be in a semi-strong position by the time the January transfer window emerges.

"Isn't a bit early to be concerned about home form?" is the other thing you may be thinking. True, we've only played three. And so far it's one each on the win, draw, lose front. You could swap Everton and Wigan around too - we got hammered by Wigan but drew with Everton, whereas a reversal of those results would have been deemed more acceptable (barring the actual hammering; maybe a close defeat instead - 3-2 instead of 5-0). But you get my point. West Ham United at home represents a crucial time for City's home form as much as it does for general expectation following the wins at Arsenal and Tottenham.

I'm glad we're back at home for all these reasons. We need a home win for the supporters; a home win for the team; a home win for the ambition; and a home win, now, for the expectation.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Kamil full strength

Utterly brilliant news that Hull City have decided to make Kamil Zayatte a permanent signing at the KC Stadium when the window re-opens in January.

It also sounds like a shrewd bit of business by the club to get an exclusive buy-up option for the Guinean defender from his Swiss club Young Boys when he arrived on loan at the end of August.

And for £2.5million, the same record fee as Anthony Gardner, the man he is currently keeping out of the side, Zayatte will represent an amazing bargain, judging by his first four matches in a City shirt.

He and Michael Turner have been unbreakable at the heart of our defence. Zayatte's star turn was in the 2-1 win at Arsenal, where he bullied and broke and intercepted everything that the pretty possession-freaks at the Emirates tried to pass around him.

He seems to be brave as a lion, evoking memories of hard-as-nails defenders of City's less salubrious past, such as Peter Skipper, Russ Wilcox and Jon Whitney. Brick walls were no match for these men, and Zayatte seems to come from the same school.

It means we have two £2.5million central defenders in the squad, plus Turner, whose worth to the side is currently incalculable. If and when a darker day or two comes this season for Hull City, I'd still feel safe in the knowledge that the defence will see us through. Zayatte's acquisition is a crucial step in making sure that the sneerers who claim we're in a false position don't get too many days to prove it.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Please Hammer and hurt 'em

There is another glut of international fixtures to come this week, some involving Hull City players, but already I'm thinking about the return to Premier League action at the weekend.

We're back at the KC after two glorious days out in north London. The ovation that the side will receive when the Tigers take to the field will be atomic. West Ham United are the visitors - another team with one of those wretched 'continental' hierarchies which pushed Alan Curbishley's nose enough out of joint to prompt his resignation - and we're in a position to beat them.

There's no real history between City and the Hammers. We last played them in the League in the 1990-91 season, where we were relegated from what was then the Second Division and they were promoted. At Boothferry Park, it was an awful 0-0 draw. When we go to Upton Park in January, memories will be revived of the corresponding fixture in that 1991 season, as City were given a 7-1 trampling. Such was our poverty of ideas that our goal was a fluke, scored by David Hockaday, an ageing right back whose looping header caught Phil Parkes unawares. It was one of numerous tonkings we took under Stan Ternent, who was dumped on New Year's Day by the chairman as he protested his innocence and claimed a hypocritical boardroom promising him everything and giving him nothing.

That was garbage - Ternent bought a glut of seasoned but expensive pros, not feeling they had anything to prove within a club which had still to prove itself. Hockaday was less culpable, as were David Mail, Malcolm Shotton, Russ Wilcox and the mercurial Leigh Palin, but any supporter from that era who hears the names Tony Finnegan, Gwyn Thomas and, more than any other, Dave Bamber will recall dreadful, unmotivated players taking the money without accepting the responsibility. Bamber, who infamously spent the generous relocation allowance proffered by the Tigers on a house in Blackpool, remains one of the biggest hate figures on Hull City's long rollcall of past professionals. Richard Chetham, the chairman, gave Ternent a fortune to sign these players - their wages were among the largest ever paid by the club - and City were relegated because of them, not despite them.

The defeat at West Ham was, on scoreline alone, the nadir, but the high concession of goals that year at Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth Argyle, Bristol City and Portsmouth also represented the start of a decade which grew steadily worse and almost ended in the club's death. Ternent still has his apologists, and nobody can blame a manager for spending money a chairman gives him, but he had a lot to answer for as the club spiralled into more debt and depression under charmless, nervous leadership thereafter in both boardroom and dressing room.

Still, it's something of a different Hull City which plays West Ham United this weekend. Given that the Hammers got done over by Bolton Wanderers last time round and have the infamous continental managerial system - with their first ever continental manager - it bodes well. Plus they're in appalling shtuck over their ownership and have a shocking reputation to spin round following the decision to award compensation to Sheffield United (itself hardly a club to sympathise with) over the Carlos Tevez shambles.

Meanwhile, we've beaten three out of three London teams so far this season, just done over Arsenal and Spurs on their own manors, have a squad almost unblemished by injury, the newly-crowned Manager of the Month and a team drizzled in confidence and belief. We'd better watch our step, as soon we may even be tipped to win matches before we actually do so.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Turner for the better

Michael Turner is currently the ultimate Hull City hero. And those of us determined to pre-empt Fabio Capello's decisions remain convinced he will make Hull City history as our first ever England international.

We've never had an England player represent his country while at Hull City. We've never really come close, owing entirely to our lack of top-flight history. Chris Chilton, statistically our greatest goalscorer, received representative honours from the FA while bashing in goals in the old Second Division, but even in an era not averse to picking players outside the top flight, never received a call-up. He was the closest we ever came, and even then he wasn't that close.

Stuart Pearson played for England three years after leaving City; it took Brian Marwood five years after departing Boothferry Park and a further move from Sheffield Wednesday to Arsenal before getting his infamous nine minutes against Saudi Arabia. Since then, Garry Parker and Richard Jobson have left City and made subsequent England squads, but neither received a cap.

Jobson certainly could have played for England had the Hull City and Oldham Athletic teams he played for been as good as a player of his calibre needed them to be. This is where Turner, the only better central defender than Jobson I've ever seen play for the Tigers, could have the advantage.

Of course, England are blessed with centre backs. Beyond the wildly talented (if often difficult to like) default pairing of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, there then follows a lengthy enough list of worthwhile replacements. Matthew Upson got the nod in Terry's absence against Kazakhstan; the likes of Jonathan Woodgate and Joleon Lescott maintain sturdy claims. Steven Taylor and David Wheater represent the future, and no-one should rule out the claims of Sol Campbell, probably my favourite ever England defender, on the basis of his experience and continued form with Portsmouth.

But there is spin in Turner's favour with that list. Woodgate is injury prone. Lescott can be seen as an emergency left back by Capello as much as he can a standard central defensive back-up. Taylor and Wheater are not distributors of the ball. Campbell is 34 and has the type of personality which could see him quit all football without a moment's notice. Upson's main strength seems to be his natural left-sidedness, as opposed to any standout defensive attribute which gives him obvious prominence above the others.

If Capello saw Michael Turner put in as good a performance as City fans now expect when we play West Ham United next weekend, would he be prepared to select a Hull City player? Sniffier edges of the media would claim that his club alone is a stepping stone Turner, last season's unanimous player of the year, would have to overcome prior to selection. A Hull City player in the national side? Perish the thought. Wigan Athletic had a similar issue when one of their charges received a summons, but at least Emile Heskey had a long international career already next to his name when he became the Latics' first (and to date, only) serving England representative. A call-up for Turner would therefore become even more impressive due to his emergence from pretty much out of nowhere.

Of course, the spectacles can be rose-coloured and maybe Turner's current situation is as much down to his own form right now rather than any long-term class. He was rejected by his adolescent club, Charlton Athletic, and had to carve out a career initially at Brentford where even then no Premier League club rendered him a worthy recruit, despite extensive scouting. But his impact on Hull City has been tremendous and beyond the dewy-eyed, parochial stuff about Dean Windass and Nick Barmby, you have really to put Turner top of the pile if forced to pick one solitary player without whom Wembley and promotion would have remained a dream.

Turner is one third of the reason why the Phil Parkinson legacy remains a quirky one; an abject failure as a manager, but three of his summer recruits upon getting Adam Pearson's mandate flourished wonderfully at the club. However, a way of tarnishing the gloss is evident in Turner's initial form; playing at Championship level for the first time, he initially cut a clumsy, nervous and disorganised figure, struggling especially on the ground and reaching a nadir few defenders would ever reach when being somehow culpable for most of Colchester's goals in a 5-1 pummelling at Layer Road. Parkinson may have bought Turner, but it was only after a managerial change that we really saw why.

Phil Brown's patient breed of management helped bring the best out of Turner almost instantly. Certainly after Christmas of what would remain a relegation battle, Turner livened up and toughened up. For the first time, his predecessor Leon Cort and his defensive power was not being missed. Turner, alongside usually Damien Delaney, began a happy habit which continues to this day of not missing, mistiming or misreading a thing. His tackling was immense; his aerial power unplayable; his facility to inspire others as visible as you'd dare expect. He wasn't - yet - a goalscoring centre back, but he did begin another happy habit of finding the net remarkably late in games, earning crucial draws at home to Crystal Palace and away at Norwich as City began to fight back from the crestfallen position Parkinson had left behind.

Turner volleyed the goal of the season at Luton Town as City won 2-1; he also became notable for his absence when Brown dropped him for a home game with Ipswich Town and then proceeded to regret what was a stark error when Danny Coles, a flawed figure at Hull City, put in the sort of inept, confidence-shorn defensive performance Turner had himself displayed at Colchester. Coles was responsible for most of Ipswich's five goals; Turner was cheered as he warmed up in the second half and ultimately was called upon, damage already done, to prevent the goal difference being mutilated even further.

The season concluded with City's safety memorably assured after beating Cardiff and hearing of Leeds United's delicious concession of a late goal against Ipswich which at the very least would mean the Tigers would survive due to a colossal goal difference advantage (despite Coles' train wreck performance previously). It appeared that Brown, having done the job required of him, now had a chance to rebuild the defence around a splendid young centre back, whose demeanour was unassuming but whose performances had become ruthless, combining the defensive savagery required of this level with a brand of artistry in doing so, making defending entertaining. Jobson could do this 20 years earlier. Turner had at last become a worthy successor to the great man.

But Brown needed convincing even more, on the evidence of his selection for the new season's opener against Plymouth at the KC. With new hundred-percenter Wayne Brown now in place, the manager made the bizarre decision to pair him with Coles, and leave Turner benched. How he came to this even heaven still is to find out, and Coles failed to repay an amazing showcase of faith by being just as abject as when he came off the rails against Ipswich. Plymouth won 3-2, Coles was at fault throughout, and Turner returned for the next League game, never to be dropped for Coles again - indeed, his pretender to the throne was shunted off quickly, soon to depart Hull City for good.

City were slow starters but already Turner was imperious, clearly having the personality and belief to use a random exclusion from the side as a way of extending his own will to succeed. The manager knew he'd cocked up, and barring a suspension in March, Turner would not be seen anywhere other than on the pitch on a matchday again. He became the cornerstone of a growing team, combining with the more industrial Brown and an exceptional pair of full backs to help City establish a vital meanness to their defence, a trait which would be epitomised in the final, all-purpose match of the season. Turner continued, briefly, his last-orders scoring habit too, burying a 93rd minute header to earn the Tigers a 1-0 win at Burnley, though this would prove for some time to be his only goal of the season, a fact not lost on assistant manager Brian Horton, Jobson's mentor of 20 years earlier, who was constantly telling the star centre back that he needed to get more goals. This was the one aspect of his game on which Cort, now not remotely missed for all his popularity, remained ahead.

As City got into the New Year and the form suggested a promotion push may be in the offing, Turner got meaner and ruder. Discipline has always been a strong point, but ultimately lummox strikers dragged his yellow card level upwards and upon a fifth booking, he had to serve a one-match ban, immediately after helping City to a season-defining 2-1 win at West Bromwich Albion. Bristol City away was the game and the manager, who had sold natural replacement Damien Delaney to QPR in January, recruited Neil Clement on loan from the Baggies to maintain an element of strength while Turner was out. City found themselves, however, in the odd position of having two left-footed centre backs, and Clement, replacing Turner on the right side, got confused with his angles which allowed the home side an early goal, ultimately resulting in a 2-1 win. Turner was back immediately afterwards.

At this point, Turner also began scoring goals, almost for fun. Just the late, late show at Burnley was on his record, but then suddenly he was heading in goals against Scunthorpe United and Southampton - 2-0 and 5-0 wins respectively - before opening the scoring in the very first minute of a massive top six game against Watford. Even then he wasn't done, as he proceeded to revert to old habits, scoring an injury time equaliser against QPR at the KC on a day when City failed to show up. Four goals in four consecutive home games, ten points from 12, and now promotion was on course.

The injury to Wayne Brown and the sly recall by West Brom of Clement was ultimately City's downfall as far as automatic promotion was concerned, as Turner had no obvious defensive partner left and so the emergency game left in David Livermore's contract was activated by his manager. Livermore was left-footed but not ideal centre back material for a team looking to get to the Premier League - he'd played there for Millwall but never in two seasons at the KC - and Sheffield United coasted past the Tigers, even when going down to ten men. Turner, however, had Brown back with him for the play-offs and, in a first-choice back four flanked by Sam Ricketts and Andy Dawson, City proceeded to score seven goals, concede just one and clinch promotion from their three games.

Beyond Turner's early achievements this season - the way he has dealt so far with Michael Owen, Yakubu, Emmanuel Adebayor and Darren Bent so far has been beyond mere words of praise - it will be one piece of fearless defending at Wembley which will define him. In the final moments of normal time, Boaz Myhill punched under pressure from Dele Adebola on to the cultured left foot of faux-Welsh panto villain Lee Trundle, he controlled, shot for goal - and Turner's speed of thought and sheer courage was enough to get a thigh in the way of the ball and deflect it over the bar. That moment defined a whole season of flawless, iconic defending for the Hull City devotee, and how appropriate that it was almost as crucial a factor in success at Wembley as the solitary goal scored by Windass in the first half.

If Capello does come to watch Turner and pick him, then maybe playing for England and setting a Hull City first no player could take away from him will be as fitting an accolade for Michael Turner, Hull City's finest ever defender, as it is possible to have. Let's see.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Manager of the Month

Not many managers can come into a month on the back of a 5-0 monstering at home and end it with the Manager of the Month champers, but Phil Brown's done just that.

Clearly the 2-1 win at Arsenal alone should have earned him the award, especially as it was almost a unique achievement and came via the further handicap of a 1-0 deficit, but the victory at Newcastle United by the same margin and a draw against Everton at the KC had something of a bearing too. Maybe now the severe kicking administered by Wigan at the end of August can now be regarded as a freak rather than the norm. We'll see.

Fortunately, a 1-0 win at Tottenham has begun October in the same style, meaning that hopefully Brown will avoid the alleged 'curse' which comes with such awards - the one which dictates that the recipient's team will immediately be unable to beat a carpet, let alone a football team.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

International rescue

Marlon King has joined up with the Jamaica squad for matches against Mexico and Honduras in the CONCACAF section of the World Cup qualifiers, under the tutelage of former City midfielder Theodore Whitmore.

With Richard Garcia now regularly in the Australia squad, plus a good fistful of European international players, it means the Hull City training ground at Cottingham is getting quieter during international weeks.

It's a doubled-edged sword, of course. International players become so because they are playing well for an in-form, successful, progressive club. That does a club credit. But such success also poses the risk of players being called up for meaningless friendlies which involve long-haul flights and coming back with injuries or fatigue.

This weekend, there could be two City players starting for Wales, plus one for Hungary, one for the Republic of Ireland, and King's role for Jamaica. Australia have a game next week. Only Garcia currently does not start matches for City, but could do so at any moment given Phil Brown's propensity to shuffle and alter as he sees fit. But it's a risk we should welcome, more so when City finally gets an England player.

Hull City has had a lot of ex-England internationals (Neil Franklin, Emlyn Hughes, Peter Barnes, David Rocastle, Mark Hateley, Nick Barmby, Danny Mills, Ray Parlour) and a couple of future internationals (Stuart Pearson, Brian Marwood) but no player has ever pulled on an England shirt at full international level while on the books of Hull City. Michael Turner is on course to change that, we'd like to think, though given Nicky Shorey got a chance on form alone when at Reading, it may yet be not too late for Andy Dawson. Fabio Capello has yet to watch us play, but I rather hope he'll take a trip to the KC Stadium when West Ham United come up a week on Sunday.

In recent years, only Northern Ireland's Stuart Elliott was a regular absentee from training due to international commitments. Before that, we used to see the Reggae Boyz disappear every so often to team up with Jamaica (Whitmore's buddy Ian Goodison remains our most capped player). More perversely, the very English (and very suspect, ability-wise) Jamie Wood, as unprolific as any centre forward in a City shirt could be, was given a call-up by the Cayman Islands.

In the 1980s, Tony Norman was always in the Wales squad but Neville Southall's presence always prevented him from actually playing, and striker Nick Deacy was too a Wales international on City's books before the club's receivership prompted his departure. I can't think of a serving Scotland international to have played for City, as Billy Bremner had been banned for life from the Scottish side by the time he came to Boothferry Park.

It's not a distinguished international record but as Hull City improve and improve, it will improve with it. It's the England player we want, but meanwhile we'll enjoy supporting Boaz Myhill, Sam Ricketts, Paul McShane, Peter Halmosi, King and Garcia as they proudly represent their nations - and pray for their safe and healthy return.