Sunday, 30 November 2008

15: Stoke City 1 - 1 Hull City 1 - 29/11/2008

What an objectionable game of football this was. Appalling weather, to begin with. Pea soup is something even miracle workers like Phil Brown can do nothing about, however. The fog was as dense as the football, and provided only a partial excuse for the drab, guileless, limited and hilariously awful affair Stoke City and Hull City served up.

Stoke dominated the game, but their domination is based on one thing - that notorious Rory Delap long throw. It is a freakishly effective weapon, and purism can't deal with it, as Arsenal, Aston Villa and Everton have all discovered to their cost. Almost everything this team of uncultured enforcers did was designed to force the opposition into conceding a throw-in anywhere within their own half. Then Delap would get his grip right while the gangly, elbow-happy lummoxes all made their way towards the penalty spot.

Happily, City were prepared to accept this tactic and stifle it. This they did effectively, with Boaz Myhill never troubled by air-punches and only once needing to make an out-and-out save from a Delap howitzer. Stoke, for the rest of the time, were in control of the ball without really being in control of their destiny.

Brown finally dispensed with 'tradition' and jettisoned the 4-3-3 system which had been in operation, with largely the same personnel, since the win at Arsenal more than two months ago. In that time, only Ian Ashbee's one-match ban and Andy Dawson's recent Achilles trouble has prompted personnel alterations. But now a 4-2-2 was proffered, though it still only involved one actual teamsheet change - Daniel Cousin dropping to the bench and Nick Barmby replacing him, a little surprisingly, as a wide midfield option. Dawson was still crocked and so Sam Ricketts continued at left back. Otherwise it was the team to which we've all become accustomed.

Off we went then, with the Britannia Stadium still not made any more attractive by having a full and loud audience packed within. The gaps in the corners which allow freeloaders to watch the game from the grassbanks are unflattering within a stadium with as few redeeming features as it is possible to have; the disappearance of the electronic scoreboard providing extra space for non-payers to get a free gawp at Premier League football, albeit of a limited standard.

I'll keep this as brief and as painless as possible. Stoke had more chances, but City took the lead, then the long throws and reaction thereto became the mainspring of the game prior to a questionable equaliser and another stalemate.

Ricketts, who had an unconventionally dodgy game, lost the ball in the left back position, allowing a Stoke charge which saw Michael Turner half-clear the cross to Salif Diao, who belted his shot wide.

Barmby had City's first chance almost half an hour in when he got to the back post to head down Dean Marney's free kick, but missed the target. It seemed to hit a Stoke player on its way but a goal kick was given.

George Boateng then played Ricketts into trouble on his own byline and Stoke nicked possession. Ricardo Fuller had the final chance from the low cross but poked it wide. A let-off, and a big one at that.

The long throw had become Stoke's focal point already, but Delap had been offered few chances thanks to a mixture of heavy duty City clearances and a total unwillingness to find touch, even when in danger. Myhill, under pressure from a backpass, even preferred to concede a corner rather than a throw on the grounds that it would be less dangerous. Meanwhile, sub Dean Windass did some enthusiastic warming-up exercises right in front of Delap as he shaped his run-up, and the referee chose (rightly, to be honest) to give him a yellow card the second time it happened.

A board went up for added time and staring at a urinal seemed almost like a passable alternative to this drivel. But then Ricketts aims a long free kick, Turner and Marney both contribute headers and Marlon King turns and fires a fine shot into Thomas Sorensen's net with aplomb and style. A lead at the break from the first proper shot at goal. Excellent.

Second half. Still foggy. Still hard to watch. Delap chucks one in and Fuller wins the header which Myhill saves superbly to his right, low down and awkward. Then the erratic Kamil Zayatte and blameless Paul McShane collide in mid-air, allowing Fuller to cross low for Tom Soares to just miss his connection at the far post.

City's one bit of watchable football came via Barmby's deft touch and the combined awareness of Geovanni and King, whose intelligence opened the way for Marney to shoot sidefootedly, but Sorensen was equal to the low drive and held on. Barmby then goes off, to good applause, to be replaced by Peter Halmosi's more natural width.

The clock - well, our own watches, given that someone has half-inched the scoreboard - says a mere 20 minutes remain when Fuller is sent through between Turner and Myhill. City's keeper comes out, misses the ball but also misses the man, with Fuller clearly devising the keeper's infringement himself by leaving a trailing leg which could then propel him to the ground. The referee predictably pointed to the spot, Myhill got booked, then Fuller made it worse by not only scoring, but frustrating Myhill by putting the ball close enough to his left for the keeper to get half a hand to it. It plopped over the line, robbing Myhill of a third penalty save against Stoke in his Tigers career. 1-1, and while technically there was everything to play for, nobody was quite sure what the teams would be playing to get it. In Stoke's case, it wasn't really football.

Geovanni swiped a narrow-angled left-footer over the bar, and sub Cousin, introduced late, had a left foot shot blocked by ex-City defender Leon Cort late on. The remainder of the game was drizzled in farce, as Delap's towelling habits round the ball were replicated, deliberately, by both Ricketts and McShane, to emphasise the timewasting policy Stoke naturally use in their game. It was a relief when the whistle went and the Tigers had emerged with a creditable, if ugly, point.

Be grateful we won't be coming back here this season. What an abominable experience that was - and we have played Stoke more than most in our division lately. I can honestly not remember the 1-1 draws of the last two seasons being as dreadful and embarrassing to the game of football as this one.

Stoke City: Sorensen, Griffin, Abdoulaye Faye, Cort, Higginbotham, Soares (Tonge 62), Amdy Faye, Diao, Delap, Sidibe, Fuller. Subs not used: Simonsen, Olofinjana, Whelan, Cresswell, Dickinson, Sonko.

Hull City
: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Marney, Boateng (Cousin 78), Ashbee, Barmby (Halmosi 69), Geovanni (Garcia 90), King. Subs not used: Duke, Windass, Mendy, Giannakopoulos.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Bring on the Cup

I want to win the FA Cup. I've decided. Hull City should now have the ambition to claim one of the domestic competitions, now that we are a Premier League club and have made, so far, a good job of establishing ourselves.

I hope Paul Duffen, our chairman, realises this too. Achieving a settlement in the top tier is a wonderful ambition in itself but merely maintaining a standard should not be enough. As the draw for the third round of the FA Cup looms after the weekend, we can start to believe that we are capable of reaching Wembley and grabbing that trophy.

We need a good draw, of course. That now, thanks to progress, means a lower division side at home, or even away - it'd be nice to return to some classic old lower level grounds after finding ourselves gawping at heated padded seats and electronic turnstiles this year. Prior to progress, in the last decade a good draw has involved getting a top flight club, a few quid and some headlines. We had that with Aston Villa and Middlesbrough in two of our three Championship seasons, and Chelsea paid a visit to Boothferry Park a few years earlier. In the Great Escape season, we went to Villa for a 1st v 92nd clash. Needless to say, we lost all these ties, though Boro are still having nightmares about our comeback at the Riverside. But we've next to no history in the competition - one pre-war semi final is our best bit of progress. We made the quarter finals in 1949 and 1971 and last reached the final 16 - indeed, make that the final 32 too - in 1989.

Phil Brown's attitude to the domestic cups seems seems to be a case of "what will be, will be". It was hard to blame him for picking a team of stiffs - including a last-ever appearance for declining Tigers icon Stuart Elliott - when we were handed a rotten draw at Plymouth Argyle in last year's third round. A 700+ mile round trip and we lost 3-2, despite the best efforts of Dean Windass and Richard Garcia, on as half-time subs, to earn us a replay. One would hope that he daren't risk that this time when the draw is made, irrespective of who we get and where, as there are still more headlines to be had from a third round FA Cup shock than a second round Carling Cup defeat. Everton's manager David Moyes picked a half-arsed side when Oldham came to Goodison last season and the League One side won it, leaving Everton fans deeply embarrassed and very angry.

Surely, beyond the alleged Big Four, there is still a desire for silverware among the other clubs? It astonishes me that some players and even fans can express relief at departing the Cups because they need to concentrate on finishing 16th (or 7th, with a UEFA Cup spot, if they're feeling really positive). Portsmouth fans were blessed by their team last season, giving them a day out and a moment of success which they can never have removed, even though at times I was convinced that Harry Redknapp only became interested in winning the thing once the semi-finalists were decided and the rest were from the Championship.

I certainly want silverware. We sing "no silverware, but we don't care; we'll follow Hull City everywhere" at matches (winning the play-offs was about the long-term prize, and anyway, the trophy is largely incidental, shouldn't exist in the first place and appears to be not silver). It'd be nice if we had reason, like the "up the Football League we go" song, to cease singing it. I hope, as the bag of balls is emptied for the third round draw, that Messrs Duffen and Brown feel likewise.

I have hopes for the chairman on this, as in his post-match interview on Sky Sports after winning the play-off final, he said "...maybe [Hull City] can make Wembley its home." Assuming he's not planning to franchise us, that says he now fancies some Cup finals. I hope he's bending his manager's ear about this as the draw approaches.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

"In the middle of our goal!"

Boaz Myhill is almost - almost - Hull City's greatest ever goalkeeper. While it can be infuriating to make comparisons between different generations of footballers given how much the game has changed, it is surely easier to do it when looking at a rollcall of great custodians.

A good goalkeeper needs to be agile, alert, focussed and courageous. He needs to be dominant of both his own defence and the opposition attack, be able to read the match and command his area. And, of course, he needs to be able to catch cleanly, punch distantly, parry effectively and - especially since the advent of the backpass rule - kick the ball strongly and with both feet.

Myhill's perceived weakness is his command of his box and ability to make his defence aware of where he is and what he intends to do. All keepers make errors, of course, and in doing so can often cost their team far more dearly than any misfiring striker finding Row Z on a constant basis. Myhill has made two errors this season, both regarding his command of the box.

Against Chelsea, he made the wrong decision in informing Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte that he was coming for a through-ball, and Nicolas Anelka nipped in between to score. Then, against Manchester City, he didn't make himself clear enough to the linguistically-deficient Zayatte, and his subsequent heavy touch presented a tap-in to Stephen Ireland.

Of course, the defenders were at fault too - the onus has to remain on them to make the right decision when the ball is outside of the box. Turner or Zayatte should have put their right instep through the ball rather than risking the intervention of Anelka, while Zayatte could have been more aware of the lack of danger around him and the positioning of his keeper when he decided, inexplicably, to miscontrol a needless ball and giftwrap it for Ireland. But a commanding goalkeeper with good reading of the game and communication skills would have anticipated those situations better.

This is Myhill's sole weakness. His agility, positioning when facing an attacker and actual willingness to chuck himself at flying balls is exceptional - witness his terrific clinching save from Cesc Fàbregas at Arsenal which preserved City's 2-1 lead and made Phil Brown celebrate as if we'd scored one rather than prevented one. On this, he is the equal of the benchmark of Hull City goalkeepers, the immortal Tony Norman, who was between the sticks from 1980 to 1988 and once went five whole years without missing any first team game. Norman had the command and communicative combination which often single-handedly rescued dullard City sides from worse fates, and keeps him idolised at the club.

Myhill is in the history books, of course, installed instantly as City's No.1 when he joined from Aston Villa in 2003 after Peter Taylor interrupted his proposed acquisition by Stockport County, where he had just spent a short spell on loan. Villa were his apprenticeship club but opportunities there looked slim, and a drop of three divisions was quite a risk for someone with obvious high calibre to take. He seemed to be a typical Taylor signing - ie, one for the future - but his future began immediately as he was shoved straight into the side ahead of the experienced but ageing Paul Musselwhite. He has never looked back.

A tip-top keeper was key to City's two promotions under Taylor, even though Myhill's contribution was sometimes minimal due to an awesome defensive presence ahead of him in Damien Delaney and Leon Cort. In the Championship, however, he began to exert his authority, and all that potential which Taylor bought into began to show itself.

Which brings us to this weekend's opponents. early in 2006, City travelled to Stoke and proceeded to walk off with, three points, three goals and some isolated moments of hilarity which will be revisited by the Tiger Nation as they gee themselves up for a Premier League visit to the Potteries on Saturday. Leading thanks to an early own goal, City then conceded a penalty which a petrified Paul Gallagher put to Myhill's right, and he duly lurched in the correct direction and batted it away. City then got a second before, crikey, another penalty goes Stoke's way. Gallagher gives way to Luke Chadwick, who manages to do even worse than his team-mate by plopping the ball straight down the middle. Myhill, unlike goalkeepers who dive out of the way of such penalties, somehow read Chadwick's intentions and pouched the ball as if it had been thrown to him by a ball boy. City went on to win 3-0.

Saving two penalties in one match may be freakish, and certainly not an indication of a fully-rounded goalkeeper, but it showed Myhill for one of his major strengths - a real ability to read, estimate and plan the path an attacker's mind is taking. He couldn't anticipate Joey Gudjonsson's successful attempt to lob him from halfway at Leicester a few weeks later, mind, but freakish stuff happens to outfield players too, and it didn't prevent Myhill walking away with all the Player of the Year gongs.

In the last two seasons, Myhill's value has been incalculable. The cries of "Myhill for England" were not wholly ambitious from the supporters, given the terrible form of Paul Robinson and declining years of David James. If a keeper from Peterborough can be noticed by Fabio Capello, then so can one in Hull. As City staved off the drop in 2007, Myhill was crucial and occasionally spectacular, despite miskicking one straight to Stern John for Sunderland's clincher at the Stadium of Light.

In the promotion season, Myhill briefly found himself - to everyone's shock and surprise - out of favour. Matt Duke, his faithful ex-Conference deputy signed by Taylor in League One, was given his usual glove-warmer in the Carling Cup - a 3-0 win at Crewe - and then maintained his place for a handful of Championship matches, having previously only served City at that level when Myhill had been suspended following a dodgy red card at QPR.

Duke is a good goalkeeper and very popular with the fans for his smiling, accepting presence as the understudy, the warm-up helper, to the main custodian. The likes of Eddie Blackburn, John Davies and Gavin Kelly all remember that feeling while working with Norman, though unlike them, Duke does at least get a place on the bench every week. Myhill's contract renewal was ongoing at the time, and it was notable that he was back in the side as soon as it was resolved.

Clever mind games by Brown? Probably. He proved with David Livermore last season that political situations with contracts have to be noticed and remedied. Myhill returned, buoyed by the new deal but chastened by his apparent dispensibility, and played blinder after blinder as City reached the play-offs. His save at Watford in the first leg of the semi-final, a ludicrous angled leap and fisted diversion of an unreachable shot, rocketed him higher into City folklore. At Wembley, he was kept busy without having to make outstanding saves (largely thanks to the City back four), but his improveable command of the box held up, thank goodness, as he punched away or caught the high balls aimed for Dele Adebola. No wonder Wayne Brown jumped on his back as he clutched the final, desperate Bristol City ball to fly in prior to the final whistle and utopia.

And here we are now, a few extra catches and shouts away from giving Norman one final run for his money as City's finest ever goalkeeper. The England chants stopped, of course, once he elected to represent Wales last season, yet one wonders if Mr Capello would have given him his go by now given the way that Joe Hart, Robert Green and even the overrated Scott Carson have all found their way into squads and teams. No matter. Myhill is (sometimes) Wales' No.1, but way more importantly, he is Hull City's No.1 and for as long as he remains so, the club will feel just that little bit safer and stronger.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

"The Cup Tie"

Hull City visit Stoke City this weekend, reviving memories not just of recent incidents of coin-throwing and penalty-saving, but of one of the most infamous games in the Tigers' history. Boyhood Dreams asked IAN THOMSON to recall a day which still makes a generation shiver with rage. Even if you were born after 1971, you may feel pangs of fury upon reading this:

Ask any supporter of Hull City AFC of a certain age for the first thing that comes into their heads when the words "Stoke City" are mentioned, and the response will be unanimous: "The Cup Tie". No further elaboration is necessary, even though there have been cup-ties between us since. No single game could ever stand out in the memory more (well, until the play-off final last season, anyway). No single game could ever be the source of more controversy, heartbreak and injustice. No single game could ever generate more hatred of a football team, a hatred which even now burns fiercely in the pit of the stomachs of the aggrieved with an intensity that actually seems to increase with the passage of the years.

For the uninitiated, "The Cup Tie" was an FA Cup sixth round encounter between City and Stoke played at the Tigers' former home, Boothferry Park, on 6th March 1971. The appointment of Arsenal centre-half Terry Neill as player-manager had roused the Tigers from the torpor that seemed to have set in after Ipswich beat us 5-4 in the autumn of 1966 and knocked us off the top spot in the old Division 2, and once more City were in the ascendancy, with the prospects of finally making it into the top flight and possibly even a maiden trip to Wembley in the Cup set fair. In the Cup, the Tigers had comfortably seen off Charlton and Blackpool, the latter a top flight side that season, and in the fifth round nervously overcame a determined Brentford side at the death in a very tense affair. Fortune smiled on us in the draw for the 6th Round with a fourth successive home tie, this time against the men from the Potteries, a middling top-flight side at the time noted, as now, for their physical ability as opposed to their flair, but boasting the greatest goalkeeper in the world at the time and possibly of all time, Gordon Banks, between the sticks. A tough proposition, but then they all ought to be at that stage, and equally Stoke almost certainly wouldn't have been fancying a trip to Boothferry to face Ken Wagstaff, Chris Chilton et al.

41,452 souls crammed into Boothferry that day: the last occasion on which a Hull City home fixture attracted a crowd of 40,000. The ground was seething: if you look at footage of the game even now the atmosphere seems to escape from the TV screen or computer and engulf you. Tiger and Potter (there were 10,000 of the latter in those far-off days when you had to give the away team 25% of the tickets), stood, jostled, swayed and surged shoulder to shoulder. And within 25 minutes of the start we were two up and coasting, both goals coming courtesy of the maestro himself, Waggy, showing great composure for the first and famously sending the great Banksie the wrong way for the second after a one-two with his equally-celebrated striking partner, Chillo, had opened up the Stoke defence as effortlessly as if it were an oiled zip-fastener.

It ought to have been three as well, when winger Ian Butler fed Waggy, who cut inside to go one-on-one with Banks, but fired his shot just past the far post. But that proved a turning point. Although gifted with some marvellous players, City were saddled with quite a few less accomplished ones as well, and you somehow felt that this game wasn't quite put to bed. And so it proved, when on the stroke of half time a through ball down the inside-left channel had Terry Conroy, by far the most pacy and skilful of the Stoke team (not a very strong field, admittedly) showing his marker a clean pair of heels, easily evading goalkeeper Ian McKechnie's rash challenge and slipping the ball just inside the post.

We gave it all we had in the second half, but seemed edgy and distracted while Stoke were composed, strong and direct. Would we hang on to our slender lead? Not a bit of it. Close to three-quarter time, and McKechnie flaps at a John Marsh free-kick, the ball is fired back in low and into the City net off the shin of lummox centre-forward John Ritchie.

OK, so 2-2 was about right at that stage in the game, but we were still in it - until referee John Homewood decided to put his grubby mark on the proceedings. Stoke hit the ball out of play some 30 yards from the City goal, a Stoke player audaciously picks up the ball and throws it in (although the inexperienced City left-back Roger de Vries was close enough by to have taken steps to prevent that particular piece of chicanery, it must be said)... and inexplicably play is allowed to carry on. The ball is crossed from the by-line, McKechnie - as good a shot-stopper as you would find on his day, but dangerously erratic in other aspects of his game - is caught woefully out of position, and Ritchie has a free header from about two yards. The Stokie soapdodgers cavort in delight, arses hanging out of their trousers, on the Boothferry terraces - a sight as nauseating as it was heartbreaking.

But it gets worse, and the felony of the Stoke goal-that-never-was is soon compounded. City pile forward with renewed energy in an endeavour to rescue the tie and force a replay back at the place that time forgot, and in the dying minutes Banks makes a superb save, diving to his right to claw away a Neill header... except that he didn't; the ball had clearly crossed the line, a fact clear to everyone except the officials.

And that was that. The history books show that we lost 3-2, but had the game - at least in its latter stages - been refereed according to the rules, that same history book would instead have recorded a City v Arsenal semi-final.

For almost 30 years - until the nakedly-biased refereeing of David Laws even more outrageously guided Hednesford to Cup victory against City at Boothferry - that Stoke game marked the greatest injustice ever perpetrated upon my beloved Hull City. I was ten years old at the time, and was beside myself with anger and grief, not trusting myself to speak as we left the ground for fear of shedding a tear. I was pushed to the limit on that front when a clearly-jubilant middle-aged woman wearing a red-and-white scarf stuck her face in between my mother and me from behind, and exclaimed, "Ee, you gave us a bit of a run for our money there". It took the passage of many years and the growth of my Christian faith finally to put a check on the agony and suffering that I wished on that woman. I wasn't the only one with murder in my heart either; the Stoke fans had a pretty rough time of it out on the streets surrounding the ground.

Even though I laughed out loud when Stoke themselves blew a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in the semis, and more recently gloated for all I was worth a couple of years ago when a late Nick Barmby equaliser at the Britannia denied Stoke a play-off place, my anger over what happened that fateful day when the cheating, malodorous scallies of Stoke robbed us of our semi-final will I fear never be assuaged. You see, every time I see or hear the name "Stoke City", The Cup Tie is the first thing that comes into my head.

Ian Thomson is a member of the Tiger Chat mailing list and a reporter for spin-off site On Cloud Seven.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Wayne, Wayne, won't go away

It's a silly pun, that's all. Wayne Brown is a fine professional and his place in Hull City's affections is secure, despite being obviously beyond his namesake manager's requirements this season.

However, I am a tad surprised he has chosen not to continue playing for Preston North End, where he has been on loan, preferring instead to return to the KC Stadium and fight for his place. Sadly for him, his place is in the reserve team's back four, especially once Anthony Gardner ceases to shatter like glass every time someone breathes on him during training.

Brown could have extended his loan, and certainly there would have been little objection from the Tigers had he desired so to do. Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte are set in stone as our central defence right now, with Gardner seemingly close to recovery - and as a £2.5 million investment, who wouldn't want his return? - and Paul McShane able to flip across from right back if required.

Brown is a good, solid, tough defender, but his lack of pace is crucial when assessing his worthiness. It's unfair and misleading to throw accusations about his unsuitability for the Premier League around on the strength of one game, but he did play against Wigan Athletic and he was culpable on more than one occasion as they rattled in their five goals.

Afterwards, Zayatte had arrived and, once Gardner got his injury, he slotted alongside Turner like he'd been there forever. A language barrier issue hasn't affected the defending unit (although communication with Boaz Myhill has twice left a little to be desired) but ultimately it's clear that there is simply no room for Brown and no plans to create some.

Of course, he may prove a handy stopgap option if two of the central defenders ahead of him get crocked. But that's all he'll be - a stopgap. The Championship suits him perfectly, as Preston have discovered as his stint at Deepdale coincided with a run of 10 points from five games, prior to tonight's match at Derby, his last.

He's now chosen to return. Preston have already said his wages are way beyond their means - this suggests that Brown was given a mighty pay rise under his contractual terms upon winning promotion, therefore becoming a Premier League earner with little chance of actually playing in the Premier League. He deserves his financial reward of course - he was superb alongside Turner all last season - but maybe his over-ambitious declaration that he wants to play regularly in the Premier League for Hull City is influenced ever so slightly by the wedge he'll continue to pick up for the odd stiffs game at Ferriby and a seat in the West Stand on a weekend.

Ultimately, if Nathan Doyle continues to be picked as the defensive substitute for as long Andy Dawson is unavailable, we'll know where Brown really stands. He reckons he'll be away permanently in January, and just as nobody is likely to argue with him, everybody is likely to thank him deeply for what he did do for the Tigers.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Stoke and mirrors

A joyless and desperate city, is Stoke-on-Trent. And being from Hull, perhaps the Tiger Nation knows what that feels like. Two maligned and unfashionable cities, providing two of the great Premier League stories of the season, and we meet this weekend.

I don't mind Stoke City. Well, that's not strictly true. I detest and despise Stoke City. Their stadium is a badly-designed, featureless victim of hasty stadia planning following the Taylor report. They should have razed it to the ground and started again. Their fans were upset with us for ending their play-off dream two seasons ago by scoring a 93rd minute equaliser, pelting us with coins and mud after the match. The local constabulary let them do so. Their football is terrible. Their manager is bald and wears a baseball cap. And, before I was born, they robbed us of an FA Cup semi-final place. But, well, I maintain some affection for the club - largely because we never lose there.

In our last three seasons, we've won one and drawn two at the Britannia Stadium. In 2005/6, Peter Taylor's side won 3-0 with an effortless display, thanks to an early own goal and then a glorious bit of heel-and-turn magic from Jon Parkin (oh, those heady days) and a first strike for the brief flame of hope that was Darryl Duffy. Boaz Myhill saved two - that's two - penalties. And Stoke's fans were so browned off by their side's ineptitude that they ignored us and began fighting each other.

In 2006/7, we went to Stoke with three games left, fighting the drop. It was serious stuff. Liam Lawrence scored thanks to a deflection off Andy Dawson which defied science, but that fabled 93rd minute moment sent the Tiger Nation mental, when Nick Barmby shinned one in from 25 yards. We left with bruises and anger but also pride in our team and, a goal from Dean Windass later in Cardiff, we were safe.

Last season, we arrived at the Britannia on New Year's Day feeling just a little buoyant. Unbeaten in four, we went behind thanks to one of those notorious long throw from Rory Delap but fashioned an equaliser through Caleb Folan and had enough chances to go and win prior to settling for another 1-1 draw. No arguments or missiles greeted us upon exit this time, and both teams obviously ended the season happy.

Once one considers and puts aside the financial benefits and status growth which comes with elevation to the Premier League, a lesser advantage of such a rise was to be that we wouldn't have to go to Stoke. Sadly for that ambition, Stoke went up with us, and indeed went up before us, so a further trip to the Britannia was a small price to pay for our own surge into the top tier for the first time ever.

The recent history between the two clubs is aided by the players we have in common. Leon Cort is a Stoke defender and a bonafide icon of Hull City's resuscitation under Taylor. I was crestfallen when I heard he was leaving Crystal Palace for Stoke. Of all the teams he could have joined, and it was Stoke. He also got an earlobe (and little more) on to that Delap throw last season to score against us. Michael Turner took Cort's legacy and built on it, and we don't miss him now, but he is still one of our most loved players of this decade. Even though he plays for Stoke.

Having scored against them under Taylor, Parkin, of course, soon blubbered up and was sent, tail between his fatty legs, to the Britannia on loan. He apparently liked it there and was unhappy when Phil Brown, having scraped all the other barrels, felt compelled to solve a striking crisis by recalling Parkin. Named as a sub, he joked with the Stoke fans as he warmed up on the touchline, then came on to play as disinterestedly as any player could against his new buddies. When Barmby's goal went in, he failed to join in the celebrations. Brown sold him to Stoke, where he quickly got bored and even fatter, and now he's at Preston, presumably promising yet again to shed the lard and knuckle down. Talented, and yet immensely disappointing. And stupid.

This weekend, Stoke's hurled missiles and difficult on the eye tactics will try to conquer us in the same way that the likes of Aston Villa and Arsenal were put asunder. However, we know them very well, almost too well. Even allowing for their publicity of late, Stoke were never an unknown quantity to Hull City. We have too much of a history. For all the lack of attraction there is in visiting either city or club, a journey to Stoke this weekend may prove most enlightening and pivotal. And I'm amazed I've said that.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

14: Portsmouth 2 - 2 Hull City - 23/11/2008

Linguistics enthusiasts will enjoy the number of superlatives which emerge from this game. Hull City, the highest placed team to score a goal, put in their worst away performance of the season at the shabbiest ground at the end of the longest trip. And that's where the word 'superlative' ceases to be relevant.

City weren't good, especially in the first half. The breadth of the side was again tested by a high-lined, squeezing Portsmouth side of pace and tenacity, and it seemingly took one of Phil Brown's half-time addresses akin to Gettysburg to get the players into the groove.

It was the standard 4-3-3, again. We should all stop speculating about injuries and formations and the like, as each week seemes to be the one where tactics are set to alter considerably, and each week the manager grins his most mischievous grin, fooling us all, as he jots out an identical teamsheet. Daniel Cousin was fit, Marlon King was not jetlagged and Dean Windass was not set to swoop in on a rescue mission, though he did make the bench. Sam Ricketts continued at left back, with Andy Dawson not yet ready after his Achilles bother.

Fratton Park is, frankly a tip. An endearing, compact, atmosphere-generating tip, but a tip nonetheless. While the decor and architecture issues are superficial and can be alleviated, there is no excuse for the monstrous circus act involving two blokes, a stupid hat and a large drum which slices into every eardrum for the whole game. It's not as if it provokes the fans into rhythmically chanting along, or inspired the players. The home crowd were quiet, possibly concerned at seeing a side devoid of Campbell, Diarra and Defoe take to the field against a Tigers team thriving on capitalising on opposition misfortune.

For all that, Portsmouth were miles better than City. Papa Bouba Diop hit the underside of the bar with a close-range header in the opening two minutes, and City's aimless, harried benchmark for the half had been set. Everyone assumed it was a goal. It mercifully wasn't, but it did indicate that one was imminent and it was a mere question of time.

The left-hand touchline as City looked at it seemed to be made of sheet ice, given the number of players from both sides who slipped and slid around, unable to maintain balance or posture. This affected City's width, what little there was, and neither flank was utilised in the way necessary. Ricketts, the more instinctive attacker of the two full backs. struggled to maintain his position while Paul McShane, whose shift in defence was excellent, was as reticent as ever to get forward at all.

Boaz Myhill got a fingertip to a Diop shot as Portsmouth maintained their relentless beginning, and Peter Crouch headed over from John Utaka's sublime cross.

By the time Crouch finally put the home side ahead on 20 minutes, City had still created little and were being perennially undone by the lack of width. It was clearly an issue which needed addressing. Meanwhile, Crouch was celebrating after heading in Younes Kaboul's cross.

At last, City wake up. It was as if they realised they had a football match to play and the last 20 minutes had been a deliberate gimme. Cousin, trying hard with little reward, gives King a fabulous chance on the edge of the area, but his shot is charged down excellently by Sylvain Distin.

George Boateng then makes room for a dig which ricochets complicatedly around the box to King, and this time the shot is unblocked but scuffed wide. Two chances, not taken, not good enough.

Still, as the half reaches its conclusion, it's the Tigers in command. Michael Turner swings a long one boxwards and Cousin clambers well to head across goal to King, whose volley is just wide. A better effort, but still David James has to be tested.

However, James is nowhere when City then come closest to an equaliser. Geovanni, less influential - even to the extent of being quite poor - than normal, appears on the right corner of the box and nonchalantly swipes a vicious, arching shot around the England keeper and back off his crossbar. So unlucky, so out of the blue. It remains 1-0 to Portsmouth as the half-time whistle shrills, but the hope of a share at least had been thoroughly restored after a lacklustre opening 20 minutes.

No changes to personnel by Brown, but something was instilled in the players as the second half got underway. The width issue was still apparent, but City were keeping the ball better and running at Porstmouth, making them think, work, make the hard decisions. City charged into the home side's faces much more and they didn't like it.

Snapshots, crosses, intricate passing ... all contributed to a much more promising opening spell, but still City needed a goal. It duly came when Dean Marney swung in a corner, Kamil Zayatte flicked on at the near post and Turner arrived late to bury his header past James.

Now there ewas one team in it, and they weren't dressed in blue. The indefatigable King chased a wide through ball and pulled a smart cross into Marney's range, and his low volley was tipped away impressively by James. From the corner, skipper Ian Ashbee has a free header which he sends towards the stars, wastefully.

Oh, we like this. The Tiger Nation, tucked away at the opposite end in the cowshed-esque visiting quarters, is in raucous and ebullient mood now. It's a one-way game, City are in the ascendancy, about to take apart another premier League mainstay who assume they just have to turn up. It feels good, proper and right.

Then Portsmouth score the best goal we've conceded this season.

A corner is half-cleared. The second ball is headed with distance away from immediate peril by Turner, but full back Glen Johnson collects on his chest and delivers a dipping, swerving and powerful volley which beats Myhill all ends up. It's a glorious goal, and a bitter experience when it comes against the run of play. Yet City should expect to conced goals at this level which are almost worth the entrance money alone.

It's 2-1, and the work has been undone by a touch of magic. This is irritating. It's also enlightening, and City react in the correct way. King has another go at defying James, with an unexpected snapshot from distance which the custodian, dressed in a kit which was not dissimilar to that of a South African cricketer's World Cup garb, spilled and then grasped.

Brown decides that guile is required up front and proper width, at last, down the flanks. Peter Halmosi supplies the latter, with George Boateng leaving the action, and simultaneously a handshake of sorts is exchanged between sworn rivals and gambling nemeses King and Windass, as the latter takes over from the former.

What can Windass do? He has no pace, mobility or match practice. But much remains in that footballing brain of his, and his patter can also pay dividends, inspiring others and deflating opponents. This is what we hope for - the classic instruction of "make a nuisance of yourself" (thank you to Terry Dolan and Alan Fettis for that) seems to apply as he struts on to partner the tireless Cousin.

Utaka puts a good chance too high after Crouch volleys a long corner back across goal, but Portsmouth still look less likely to get the next goal, despite leading the match. City's notorious ability to persevere and not let these fashionable teams have their wicked way, is maintained to the death. Two Geovanni-range free kicks are forced, one of which the Brazilian laughably slices high and wide; the other he curls goalwards for James to pluck from the air. We see our first glimpse of Stelios Giannakopoulos in the final ten minutes as the impressive Marney withdraws from the action.

Two minutes left, and finally the deserved point for the Tigers is earned. A scramble of almighty proportions allows Windass a lurching close-range header which hits Noe Pamarot and goes in. Windass is initially credited, but official accreditation goes to Paramot, something which irks Windass as he notices the scoreboard during the post-match salute of the City fans.

Neither side looked set to win it in the five minutes added, and City's second consecutive 2-2 draw is a most satisfcatory conclusion to a strange old game. Sometimes lethargic and uninspiring, City had pockets of possession which showcased them at their best - visionary, patient and respectful of the ball rather than the opposition. There were stinkier displays - Geovanni was off his game throughout, despite that mad shot on to the bar - but as a team City remain tough to beat, though their beatability is still apparent and that's something for Brown to work on prior to next week's jaunt to Stoke.

Portsmouth: James, Johnson, Kaboul, Distin, Pamarot, Diop, Davis, Hughes (Nugent 58), Belhadj (Armand Traore 58), Crouch, Utaka (Kanu 74). Subs not used: Ashdown, Hreidarsson, Mvuemba, Little.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Marney (Giannakopoulos 82), Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 72), Geovanni, King (Windass 72), Cousin. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Barmby, Garcia.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Gruesome twosome

There is a real prospect, thanks to a knee injury for Daniel Cousin, of Hull City's strike pairing for the visit to Portsmouth this weekend comprising of Dean Windass and Marlon King.

That's Windass and King, the disgruntled local hero and the bling-laden pretender to his throne.

More to the point, it's Windass and King, the two Hull City players who supposedly indulged in a bout of fisticuffs last week while gambling away their Premier League wages on a boys' night out in Scarborough's main casino.

This isn't Sheringham and Cole all over again. Those two didn't get on, but they never had a fight in public. Nor did they have one in private, one assumes. King has an attitude that exudes proper vanity and supreme self-confidence, while Windass has been put out substantially by King's arrival and his own consequent downfall.

It couldn't do any harm to play them together, surely? They are both experienced professionals, good footballers and proven strikers. Both also have the sort of high-maintenance characters which might prove advantageous to Hull City. King's got the Premier League role, Windass is suddenly the envious understudy. You'd get good odds - in a Scarborough casino or any other - that they'd spend their time on the pitch together trying to prove their worth to the other.

Of course, given that so many hints at team alterations have been made lately and yet barely one has been carried out, let's not be surprised if Cousin plays and Windass, again, is in his suit mumbling disconsolately while mentally sticking pins into a handknitted King effigy, complete with woollen-effect £19,000 timepiece.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Fine mess

Phil Brown has been fined £1,000 for that water-bottle kicking incident at home to Wigan Athletic back in August, after which he chose to sit in the stands for the rest of the game.

Why bother with such a paltry amount? He didn't aim the bottle at anyone, it just happened to go in the direction of the fourth official. Unintentional outcome, after a fit of pique which managers always have, especially when they're getting spanked by the opposition, as the Tigers were that day. They may as well have not bothered charging him if that's all the offence was worth.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

King of our castle

Marlon King is a fine footballer and is proving it time and again at Hull City. Given that he joined to take over the role set to be vacated, kicking and squealing, by Dean Windass, he has proved such a tough decision to be amply correct so far.

In some ways, King and Windass are similar - something which will undoubtedly irk both of them considering the spot of team bonding which went a little awry last week. The first touch, capacity to distract defenders, robust character, all are there. Each are finishers. But ultimately, Phil Brown went for King because he has two things on Windass - pace and age.

King hasn't been overly prolific as a goalscorer so far. He has half the goals Geovanni has achieved from a deeper position, for example, and he has yet to score at the KC Stadium. But he has three so far, all crucial, and his contribution to the team as a whole has been spellbinding. For all the headlines generated by Geovanni and by the team as a unit, King has been an unsung hero. For some, he would even offer a candidacy for the player of the season so far.

He was off the pace on the opening day against Fulham, although his brain was in top engagement mode and some of his touches and vision from stationary positions were excellent. By the time the Newcastle United game came around, he was ready to lead the line. Still lacking a settled partner - Daniel Cousin had just arrived with a suspension and Craig Fagan was playing wide in a 4-5-1 - King ruled the match with a performance of strength, cunning and guile. He kept his nerve for the the penalty to put City a goal up, then realised as he chased Dean Marney's through ball that he had to beat two covering defenders and the goalkeeper all on his own, and did just that with a sweet second goal which sent the travelling support doolalley.

The selflessness of King's play is obvious. Since the fabled 4-3-3 was concocted, he has been, predominantly, the sacrificial centre forward. He has been the one dropping deep to collect, or ambling wide to provide extra support for a full back who has no naturally wide midfielder to partner him. On some of City's goals, King has been away from the penalty area or directly involved in the build-up - witness Geovanni's glorious diving header at West Bromwich Albion, for example. That was King's expert sightseeing and delicate touch that gave the Brazilian his moment for the photographers. The goal he then scored himself was a great reward.

At the KC, King has been unlucky, not least against Bolton Wanderers when he improvised a beautiful flick of the heel on an awkward ball and deceived Jussi Jaaskelainen, hitting the angle of post and bar. The keeper then took over, of course, and King's deflected piledriver late on would have hit the back of the net against many a lesser custodian in the Premier League.

King's preening and yelling at the City crowd upon scoring has been a weird mixture of funny and slightly unnerving. At Newcastle, he strutted with a finger up and a stern expression on his face as the (elevated) crowd went crazy and the players rushed to catch him. He didn't snap at all, break into any sort of grin, even as one by one, the rest of the team jumped on him and congratulated him on what was a brilliant individual goal. At the Albion, he flayed his arms wide in front of the (ground floor) crowd shouting "IT'S OVER!" again and again. A fair reflection of our collective feelings, given that he'd just put us three up. This is our best indication of the sort of intense character King may be, and perhaps that has got the goat of Windass as much as the fact he's taken his place in the side and done it well.

King isn't ours, of course. He's on a season-long loan from Wigan but, like Fraizer Campbell last year, one hopes that plans are afoot to make that move permanent. He has a blemished history, of course, but he's paid his dues. As a footballer, he seems insular and keyed up, but maybe this is just his way of getting into the appropriate 'zone' which allows him the best display for his team and the paying public - and for himself - that he can muster. Long may he scowl and strut and brag about his expensive watch if it means he continues to play the way he does. The football has to come first.

Monday, 17 November 2008

13: Hull City 2 - 2 Manchester City 2 - 16/11/2008

The losing streak is over, the uncertainty curtailed, and it was all jolly entertaining to boot, which is a nice bonus.

Hull City versus the team ubiquitously known in the national media as 'City', which is slightly indecent of them. First meeting for 20 seasons, and worth waiting for.

For all the blabbing and pontificating about the need to adjust the tactics, formation and personnel, Phil Brown yet again kept the faith. His only change was to give Sam Ricketts his first start since the Wigan Athletic debacle, as Andy Dawson had a sore Achilles. Other than that, as you were again. Bernard Mendy was injured; Peter Halmosi was still waiting on the bench; and Nathan Doyle was allowed his first inclusion on a Premier League teamsheet as the defensive cover.

The opposition, similarly trying to screech to a halt a run of three straight losses, had skipper Richard Dunne among two suspensions. Robinho, surprisingly, was made captain for the day. The travelling fans, loud and fabulous, gave their one-season enigma Geovanni a hero's reception as his name was announced.

A chilly Sunday afternoon but a red-hot atmosphere at the KC Stadium. Early exchanges were cagey, with only an early free kick to the visitors providing real danger at either end. Robinho didn't get the connection he desired at all, and it flashed well wide.

Robinho versus Geovanni. The Brazilian battle, as the front of the match programme roughly put it. One assumes that in Brazil, there are levels of technical excellence. The A* versions are the internationals and galacticos like Robinho, the ones who pass with their heels, stand on the ball, and whap in free kicks as if they were penalties. Geovanni, due to his age, lesser profile and paucity of international caps, must a B version, made to look merely superhuman rather than God-like. The two had more of the ball than anyone else, unsurprisingly, and it was great to watch.

So, the Tigers get a chance. Ricketts curls a cross on to Dean Marney's instep, and he touches it back for Ian Ashbee to shoot, only for a last-ditch distracting challenge to force the ball wide. Progress. Both defences are ruling. They look solid, dependable and focussed.


On 13 minutes, Micah Richards plays the ball across his area to Tal Ben-Haim. Joe Hart awaits the pass back, and Richards advances ten yards to give his centre back partner an opportunity to return the ball as Daniel Cousin closes down. One brainstorm later, and the ball is in the net as Ben-Haim mishits his back pass and the Gabonese striker gets a toe to the ball to glide it under Hart. A gift, and it's 1-0, with Cousin opening his account at the KC Stadium.

Further cost to Manchester City comes when it's obvious after treatment that Hart, whose ankle was accidentally trodden on by Cousin, can play no further part. He collapses as he catches the ball after the restart and immediately Kasper Schmeichel is summoned from the bench. Hart, whose injury prompted his withdrawal from the England squad too, got a generous ripple of applause from the home crowd as he hobbled away.

The game refuses to settle down. Manchester City retain a good level of possession as they seek an equaliser, but Robinho is chased everywhere by George Boateng and Shaun Wright-Phillips, a proper danger, is being forced inside a great deal. It's dangerous at times, but intriguing. Cousin nearly gets a second when he aims a header at goal from Marlon King's nod back, but it goes wide.

Cousin's next contribution was to make the first of two grotesque errors which handed Manchester City, wrapped and ribboned, a leveller. His ambitious crossfield ball is underhit and an interception allows a break to be on. However, neither striker anticipates Robinho's through ball and Kamil Zayatte, the flawless, intercepts. He had no need to, as a trundle through to Boaz Myhill was on, but then he took a hideously heavy touch and presented an open goal to Stephen Ireland. Language barrier? Maybe. Zayatte needs to know exactly what "leave it" means from now on.

So, two goals, both via defensive howlers. This is the Premier League, the world's greatest, of course. Yeah. Now the visitors have the ascendancy, but a second goal does look unlikely unless it's achieved through a spot of football conjuring. Robinho duly offered top billing to Ireland, who took a smart crossfield pass down and swerved an exquisite half volley into the far corner beyond Myhill's flailing glove. Right on half time, and a glorious finish.

The Tigers were down and one can imagine Brown's wrath had been somewhat incurred. Geovanni had been able to go on a couple of darts but had not been influential. King was quiet. Marney was quiet. It needed a bit of old-fashioned geeing-up from Brown and a 100mph start in the second half.

City - that's the Hull version, not the national default version - were immediately on the front foot upon resumption. King beat off the attentions of Richards and bent in a great outswinger which set up the photographers' shot of the season. Geovanni hurled himself into the air and scissor kicked, with the connection meaty but the direction slightly off, as Schmeichel watched it go a foot or so over his bar.

It was a start. Geovanni now began to take over. He emerged on both flanks, constantly wanting the ball and perennially making defenders think when he had it. Marney began to exert himself too, popping up frequently on the left side to collect, deliver and harry, the sort of combative yet creative play which earned him his new three-year deal in midweek.

On the hour, and a Tigers free kick, in Geovanni territory. A dual foul on Marlon King is rightly punished, and the Brazilian thumps his shot into the wall, where it touches Vincent Kompany's shoulder enough to fox the moving Schmeichel, ho couldn't get back in time to prevent the ball bouncing home. 2-2, game back on, and Zayatte kissing the turf in thanks.

Ricketts then nutmegged Kompany superbly to make room for a gorgeous cross from the left which Cousin met with a soaring header, but Schmeichel's positioning made sure the ball was safely clasped.

Zayatte then decided one of his flowing, crazy runs was in order as he lurched forward before releasing Cousin down the left. He crossed, King played it back and Geovanni bashed his shot just wide.

Good stuff. The Tigers are in command. Cousin gets an ovation as he withdraws for Nick Barmby's guile, while Manchester City replace Benjani with Jo. Too many one-named players, really.

City then win another free kick within Geovanni range. The visitors' relentless unwillingness to obey the rules regarding ten yards come to the fore, as Geovanni slaps the first go into the wall, and referee Phil Dowd books Shaun Wright-Phillips for encroachment, ordering a re-take. Geovanni again hits a defender, and Ireland picks up the booking. Some would call it a farce, but everyone knows that players need to be ten yards from an opposing free kick up to and including the point wher initial connection with the ball is made. Dowd was doing his job. The Manchester City defenders were not doing theirs. Ultimately Geovanni eschewed power and went for curl at the third attempt, and the ball touched the wall and went for a corner. One can't help but think that a third go at power might have had an effect, as only illegal encroachment had stopped the first two stabs.

Halmosi's width is introduced for Boateng's battling qualities as the Tigers try to up the ante in the final ten minutes. But it's the visitors who nearly win it in injury time.

A long ball is met by Robinho, who proffers Darius Vassell, in worryingly roomy surroundings, a free run on goal. The ball is bouncing and the chance is brief, but Vassell is denied by the quick thinking of Myhill, who advances and manages to beat away the striker's attempt to clip the ball beyond him. A big, big chance.

Manchester City force two corners in the final seconds, one of which is headed wide by Richards. Another escape. The final whistle shrills, and an exhilarating game ends all square, and most fairly too.

Hull City remain sixth and although hardly draw specialists (the last one was against Everton almost two months ago), a few more shares of the spoils like this would come in most handy at the moment, as if to rubberstamp some calm after a three-match storm. It was a stern and sterling test and it was nice to see the Tigers react in the correct way, with industry, attitude and no little quality at times. Another spot of proof that the Premier League is very much a place where Hull City can feel they belong.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Boateng (Halmosi 85), Ashbee, Marney, Geovanni, Cousin (Barmby 76), King. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Garcia, Folan, Giannakopoulos.

Manchester City: Hart (Schmeichel 19), Zabaleta, Richards, Ben-Haim, Garrido, Wright-Phillips, Kompany, Ireland, Mwaruwari (Jo 76), Robinho, Vassell. Subs not used: Onuoha, Michael Ball, Hamann, Elano, Evans.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Brian bites back

Brian Horton's connections with Manchester City ceased long ago, but that is unlikely to stop him wanting more than anyone to put them to the sword this weekend.

Horton got fearful criticism for being the 'unshowbiz' appointment to the Manchester City manager's job under Peter Swales following Peter Reid's dismissal. As names and on-pitch achievements in the newfangled Premier League became more worthwhile, stupidly, than coaching qualifications or managerial experience, Horton never properly was allowed to settle at Maine Road.

During his tenure, the Swales Out campaign took a vice-like grip and the chairman with hair resembling a generous application of shoe-polish was forced out. Francis Lee, playing hero of the club in its 60s and 70s heyday, came in, spending his bog paper proceeds on a boardroom coup. And, immediately, everybody in the media assumed that Horton's days would be numbered.

This is something which has rankled with Horton ever since. He has managed numerous clubs in his 24 year association with the game since his first appointment (at Boothferry Park, of course) but this seemingly counted for nothing. He didn't play for England, won nothing with his club - hell, he even began as a non-league player. All this was apparently more significant than a wealth of experience with Hull City and Oxford United, from which his promotion tally was better than his relegation tally - put simply, he got promoted with the Tigers in his first season and very nearly made it two in a row the season after. Relegations? With either club? None.

Lee himself had no reason other than stamping his own mark on the club to dismiss Horton, given that the team were playing admirable football and making use of Horton's longtime love for wingplay. Peter Beagrie and Nicky Summerbee were giving full backs hell and Niall Quinn and Paul Walsh, later Uwe Rosler, were happily getting on the end of their wares. Despite proactive, entrancing football though, the media weren't happy that Horton was not Lee's appointment.

Horton did eventually go, of course, in unlucky circumstances. Lee appointed his old England mucker Alan Ball, a World Cup winner and one of the great English players of his or any generation, and - well, a Manchester City fan could remind us of the disaster that became. To this day, some clubs don't learn that an awe-inspiring, bemedalled playing career doesn't mean management will suit. Bobby Charlton was a poor manager. Bobby Moore was catastrophic. Bryan Robson benefitted from his playing career entirely when acquiring work, given that far better managers with 90 fewer England caps and four fewer FA Cup winners medals were available and rejected for the jobs he got. Ball, a qualified success elsewhere, profited from Lee's personal friendship with him but his club were relegated.

Horton developed a mistrust for the media for some time afterwards, and it was clear that the iciness he sometimes portrayed during subsequent spells at Huddersfield, Brighton & Hove Albion and Port Vale was a lingering symptom of the faithless treatment he received from Lee's pals in the press. This is a man who, while at Macclesfield Town, completed 1,000 matches in charge of football teams - a stat only a handful of gaffers, with Ferguson and Clough among them, had already achieved.

Manchester City was the pinnacle in terms of size and status of Horton's managerial career. Horton has it on his CV - a Premier League manager with an authentic English giant. However, ask him where he achieved most in his non-playing career and it would come as no surprise if he still opted for Hull City - from 1984 to 1988, and again from 2007 onwards. And if a team he now helps shape and encourage beats the team he left due to little more than pettiness and politics, that achievement will have gone just a little further.

Friday, 14 November 2008


As Manchester City's first visit to the KC Stadium nears, one man undoubtedly looking forward to the occasion will be Geovanni.

A peripheral, seemingly mistrusted figure at Eastlands last season, he's now Hull City's magical Brazilian playmaker, a nippy, pocket-sized player with typical Brazilian skill - great first touch, amazing vision, inveterate attacking instinct, confidence on the ball, accuracy in passing and shooting and, crucially, that little bit of sparkle, that facility to change a game which may otherwise be gently slipping from his team's grasp.

His goals have, of course, created most of the headlines about him. The unimaginable 30-yarder at Arsenal, the swerving free kick at Tottenham Hotspur, the flamboyant diving header at West Bromwich Albion, the unerring piece of history-making against Fulham. But now there is more to his Hull City contribution than those isolated bits of star quality.

After Fulham, Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, Phil Brown dropped Geovanni. Substituted against Wigan after an anonymous display, he didn't feature against Newcastle United, nor Everton.

City collected four points from the six available, suggesting that Brown had established Geovanni's specific worth to the team, to wit: if he's playing well, he's in. If he isn't, he's out unless it's the kind of game which might be impossible to win without him.

This means Geovanni represents a weekly risk to the manager, but at the moment it is a risk happily being taken. City have lost three in a row - albeit including two during the 'showbiz' week off - but Geovanni's contribution has not sullied, not declined. Brown has made it clear to the player and to the media that Geovanni is being coached the English way, to be able to make contributions off the ball with effort, backtracking and general teamplay, while never nullifying his capacity to do something extraordinary when on the ball. And, since his triumphant return against Arsenal, Geovanni has repaid his manager's qualified belief.

Geovanni's role in the 4-3-3 has generally been one of schemer and creator. Operating behind (or, more accurately,. hovering around) the front two of Marlon King and Daniel Cousin, he has covered considerable yardage to collect the ball, take potshots, fly wide, cut inside, seek Cousin's head or King's channel runs, or find the late bursts of Dean Marney or, when introduced from the bench, Bernard Mendy. Marney, like last season with Jay Jay Okocha, seems to have been especially inspired by the Brazilian. The structure has been flexible at certain times to make the system a 4-4-2 with Geovanni chasing the flanks more often. He has been a roaring success.

So why wasn't he the revelation at Manchester City that he surely should have been? One season, then a free transfer. That suggests not just a struggle to fit in, but almost a disruptive presence, though the quietly-spoken, churchgoing Geovanni doesn't come across as a divisive figure. Sven Goran Eriksson brought him off the bench in the Premier League no fewer than 17 times last season, but he only started two matches. He scored the only goal in the Manchester derby, which at least means he'll have the blue half of Manchester's eternal gratitude despite general lack of achievement on the whole. The stories have been bandied about concerning Geovanni's temperament, fitness and inability to communicate, while Eriksson's natural caution in midfield, plus the team's runaway start to the season which meant changes were initially unnecessary, will also have contributed to Geovanni's frustrations.

This weekend Geovanni comes face to face with another Brazilian midfielder in Robinho. He cost a lot more, has a higher profile and has courted far more headlines than his elder compatriot. Maybe the title of best Brazilian in England is up for grabs this weekend, and in the context of the game and the situation of the two clubs, there's little doubt that Geovanni represents better value right now - not just because of goals and magic, but because he has been anglicised by Hull City in exactly the way required for this country's top tier.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Halmosi on down

Peter Halmosi has started just one Premier League match for Hull City so far. He is not the only victim of Phil Brown's adventuresome 4-3-3 formation, but he is the one who has had the least chance to shine when changes have been necessary.

For the last two matches, it's Bernard Mendy whom Brown has summoned from the bench to provide the natural width lacking from the original line-up. City have been able to win games down the middle and from set-pieces, but when real, proper, authentic wideplay has been required in attack it's not been there.

Mendy's elevation has been also preferred to that of Halmosi because the width problems, when they have occurred, have come on the right flank. This is largely due to Paul McShane's unwillingness - or inability - to fortify City's attacking options, something which is desperately required of full backs when playing so narrowly. Sam Ricketts can do it on that side, as he can on the left, where Andy Dawson's revelatory form as both defensive lynchpin and offensive outlet has been one of the real highlights of a season crammed with them. Dawson's form has been as much a contributory factor in Halmosi's frustration as the fabled 4-3-3 to begin with.

For all this, Halmosi has looked very good when he has been involved. His one start was against Newcastle United, where he had a splendid day down the left flank and began the move which led to Marlon King's breakaway clincher. He has made telling substitute contributions, especially against Everton and at Tottenham. He did struggle to settle at first, which was natural after a massive money move from Plymouth Argyle, and the decision to alternate the right-sided Craig Fagan and Richard Garcia around the flanks rather than deploy Halmosi's natural left foot did not do him early favours.

But his day will come, and his international claims with Hungary haven't been affected, but he is a hell of an expensive talent not to be involved. One can assume that he is part of Brown's next tactical shuffle, and given the run of three straight defeats, such a shuffle may not be too far away.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Mills is no boon

It's astonishing to discover that Danny Mills is still on Manchester City's books. He hasn't played a League game for them since August 2006, when Stuart Pearce was manager. Since then, he has had loan spells at Charlton Athletic, Derby County and, of course, Hull City.

My word, what a rum old time we've had with Danny Mills, particularly since his loan ended prematurely through a foot injury. He is one of those characters who is easy to dislike until he plays for your club, then he becomes one of yours, irrespective of past reputation or misdemeanours.

Mills had been a Leeds United player during his peak period as a combative and mouthy right back. This combination of unlikeable man at hateable club was hardly going to endear him to Hull City fans. Yet when he arrived on loan at the KC, shortly after that final games for Manchester City, he was accepted straightaway by the Tiger Nation - because he was good.

His debut was on television and immediately a pair of ducks were broken. One, we got our first home win under Phil Parkinson thanks to a Jon Parkin brace, both of which were scored before half time and after our opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, had scored a very early penalty. Two, we won on television, something the Tigers had been notoriously unable to do over the years.

Mills had played his whole career at right back. It had got him his big-money moves to Leeds United and Manchester City and suitably whopping wages. It also got him into the England team at an optimum time, with the 2002 World Cup imminent and Gary Neville ruled out with injury. He had a good, disciplined tournament as England exited in the quarter final.

So what did Parkinson do? He stuck him in at centre back.

Immediately, it was wagered that Mills had broken the record, not that one had previously existed, for the smallest central defender ever to play for Hull City. He was no Peter Skipper, no Rob Dewhurst, no Leon Cort. The method in Parkinson's madness seemed to be that Mills' leadership qualities within a dishevelled squad would be easier to convey from a central position; that as an international defender, he should be able to adapt to any back four role, especially in a lower division, and that Sam Ricketts was doing fine at right back and further upheaval was unnecessary.

Mills was instantly involved against Wednesday. A set-piece, up goes a hand and a penalty is given. It was a clear handball. Mills was the City player making the challenge. The crowd were despondent but it seemed open and shut, yet the City players were notably ferocious in their protest. As the penalty hit the net, texts came through from television viewers that the hand was that of a Sheffield Wednesday player, not Mills.

Parkin's pair of goals - a glancing header and a smart volley on the turn - gave City the win. Mills, however, was not in a forgiving mood afterwards, using his post-match interview live on television to call for the referee to apologise for making the wrong decision in the City box. He did so in a matter-of-fact yet sinister tone, clearly wanting to stir up trouble, even though the game had been won and the penalty decision, while wrong, was not crucial.

For the remaining spell of Mills' stay at the KC Stadium, it was obvious that something did not quite ring true. In a City shirt, he was obviously still a splendid defender and demonic competitor, the kind which makes opposing fans despise him and lesser characters on the pitch react, stupidly, to his chatter and tricks. QPR fans, in particular, gave me hell.

But he lapped it up. He played the game required of him, irrespective of whether he was in the centre or in his familiar role on the right. He rarely played badly in a City side which was, at times, as disjointed and clueless as it had ever been.

Mills was on a fortune at Manchester City (and presumably still is) and his loan spell at City came through the club chairman's personal friendship with the player. Adam Pearson was commercial manager at Leeds when Mills was on the playing staff, and the two had a rapport and lived close to one another. In the same way that rumours persisted that Nick Barmby was Pearson's signing, there was little doubt that Mills definitely was, and Parkinson had either agreed with his chairman that it was a worthwhile option, or gone along with it because he felt he had to. The one piece of pleasant irony was that a chunk of his wages were still coming from Leeds United, even though he'd long split for Manchester City. The short-term jollity such information prompted was soon forgotten, however, as City continued to underwhelm.

Nine games for the Tigers in total came Mills' way. City won three of them and he picked up five yellow cards, so during his short spell with the club he served a one-match ban. A broken foot in training curtailed the loan, mere weeks before Parkinson followed him out of the door. For the rest of the season, under Phil Brown, regular rumblings were heard regarding the possible return, predicted return, rumoured return, of Mills, this time for good. It would never happen, and was never on the agenda for one crucial reason...

The players hated him.

The truth came out eventually, but it was obvious that Mills was a dictatorial, arrogant, critical and divisive figure in the dressing room. Team spirit was already low, relationships were already being frayed, and then along comes a high-calibre but high-maintenance personality with gob to match. Ian Ashbee, back from his career-threatening, mobility-threatening injury just a fortnight before Mills' arrival, was especially nonplussed with the attitude of this figure. Other senior pros despaired and objected. The injury to Mills - in training, remember - disappointed the fans who saw a performer of grit and character. Yet his premature departure from the KC to have his treatment administered by his parent club probably did as much to aid City's eventual recovery as anything Dean Windass (still at Bradford at this time) would come to do.

Fast forward roughly a year, and City are playing Charlton Athletic at the KC Stadium. Parkinson was back as assistant manager to Alan Pardew, but so was Mills, signed on loan again from Manchester City, this time by the club where he had truly established himself as a top flight player a decade or so earlier.

The 90 minutes were ugly, brutish, infantile and riddled with gamesmanship, arguments and spoiling tactics. Ashbee and Mills were picking at each other, mainly verbally, all evening. Well, not quite all evening, as Ashbee took delivery of a red card after a a knee-high challenge on Lloyd Sam, followed by a horizontal scuffle with the same player. Numerous others then joined in, either as mediators, protectors or manipulators. Sam's retaliation earned him instant red. The referee then gave Ashbee a long lecture but it appeared that the Tigers skipper had earned a yellow-coloured reprieve - until Mills walked over, opened his mouth and then withdrew. Ashbee was sent from the field, exchanging insults with the Charlton bench as he disappeared down the tunnel.

The return fixture at the Valley was just before Christmas and it was here that Mills finally succumbed to his own self-importance. His lip and his conduct seemed to frustrate the home fans as much as it infuriated the Tiger Nation, and his comeuppance came when a display of cynicism, petulance and general juvenility was crowned by a piece of play-acting which, when spotted and admonished by the referee, was followed by a barbed comment. Although he'd been booked, the red card was a straight one. And a joyous one too. One suspects that Ashbee, and numerous other players, felt a spot of redemption that afternoon, even though City couldn't gain revenge for the 2-1 defeat at the KC, drawing the match 1-1.

Mills, notably, didn't play for Charlton again. The loan was terminated and he went to Derby County. Perhaps introducing a destructive personality into a dressing room already devoid of life and confidence wasn't the wisest move made by Paul Jewell in that woebegone season for the Rams. Poetically, Mills lasted just three games - two of which were Premier League matches ending in the inevitable defeat - before an injury ended his season and sent him back, again, to Manchester City.

Mills hasn't played a competitive game of football for any club since January and even the mega-rich new owners of Manchester City must regard his large wage packet as rather profligate. All fans who have suffered through this cretinous, nasty, lordly, supercilious character have an image of him sitting in his luxurious Harrogate property telling himself that he is right and everyone else is wrong. It's gratifying and fitting that when Manchester City come to the KC Stadium for a Premier League game this weekend, the name of Danny Mills will be as far, far away from the teamsheet as possible.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

12: Hull City 0 - 1 Bolton Wanderers - 08/11/2008

The word 'watershed' never seems more appropriate after defeat to Bolton Wanderers at the KC Stadium. For all the glory, the attention, the faint ridiculousness of our spell in the Premier League sunshine, the autumn of the season is underway and we have much still to do. Anyone who thought the season was sewn up just because we caught Arsenal, Newcastle and Tottenham on bad days has little experience of the way seasons can fluctuate.

This wasn't a good game, by anyone's standards. A bitty, cautious affair which only sporadically provided excitement and drama, the majority of which came via the plunges and glovework of Jussi Jaaskelainen, the long-serving Bolton goalkeeper. Phil Brown remembers him well, rates him highly. Jasskelainen spent the majority of the second half reminding him exactly why.

Quite how City failed to score is something only the gods can answer. Jaaskelainen may himself decide he was a little lucky, but he can only do so much to prevent the ball hitting his net - anticipate, position and throw himself in the way as best he can. He did all of this and City's finishing, which wasn't especially casual or inaccurate, was simply not up to the Finnish stopper's standards.

The Tigers were the dominant side, but Bolton were suitably robust and dogged, qualities which have never left them despite Brown's right-hand and Sam Allardyce's much-measured presence being a rather distant memory. Gary Megson is not a popular figure, and there is something unappealing by the way he seems to continue bawling at his players without always purveying a decent reason for it, but he has instilled a work ethic and a resistance in a group of players for whom such attributes remain fundamental to their continuing survival as a top tier side.

Brown picked the standard XI. Ian Ashbee returned to the midfield after his suspension and Bryan Hughes, his replacement at Manchester United, was notably jettisoned from the whole teamsheet. It was as you were otherwise, with wider options like Bernard Mendy, Peter Halmosi and Richard Garcia still having to wait for the formation to crumble before their chance to shine as a starter comes along.

The edginess of the opening period was plain for all to see, and plain is also apt as a description of the football on offer. Bolton enjoyed using the height and shielding skills of the excellent, vastly underrated Kevin Davies as the classic centre forward role he portrays better than a lot proved crucial in their retention of the ball. The midfield structure allowed the more cultured Matthew Taylor and the industrious one-cap wonder Gavin McCann to make forays for Davies to find, though returning striker Johan Elmander was one visitor suffering an off-day.

Geovanni was in a deeper role, scheming, observing. His left foot strike after 14 minutes represented the first serious effort at either goal. Jaaskelainen saved, low down. The Brazilian then found space on the left to clip a clever ball towards the penalty area where Marlon King's improvisation nearly embarrassed Jaaskelainen when he moved his heel at the ball as it sailed behind him, only for it to get the connection all tricksters wish for, and the ball looped over the Fin and touched the angle of post and bar.

The goalkeeper would subsequently make sure that this was the only time he was beaten.

Elmander wastefully put one wide from Davies' insightful knockdown as Bolton cleared their lines, creating their first chance through the unfancied but effective route one manner. City, back at the other end, attacked with purpose again, but Daniel Cousin headed George Boateng's cross disappointingly too high.

It isn't pretty, this. But it is fascinating. The Tiger Nation are a little quiet. Perhaps the educated among them are understanding that after showbiz games against Manchester United and Chelsea, that sizing up less heralded opposition has to be part of the game plan prior to a frontier of all-out attacking. And Bolton are no mugs. They're streetwise, schooled well in this Premier League lark and were under no illusions about the sort of party-pooping policy they needed to adopt. They've done it many times before, be it against a club expecting to trample on them on their way to a Champions League place, or the newly-arrived upstart with ideas apparently above their station.

Boaz Myhill nearly ruins it by chasing an overhit cross he was never going to reach, and City were fortunate that the listless Elmander didn't anticipate Ricardo Gardner's return ball across an empty net. This was the last element of opportunity of the half, and 0-0 was reflective of a nervy, tactical spectacle which wasn't out-and-out thrilling, but certainly had intrigue.

The second half, and Bolton grab the opening goal. Sucker punch stuff. A corner on the left is swung in and two City defenders have separate goes at heading clear. Neither really make a good job of it, and the ball bounces in front of Taylor who guides a shot beyond the unsighted Myhill and in at his near post. Taylor's left peg has, famously, found the net from much longer distances than this, but the importance of the goal makes the tidiness of it entirely irrelevant. Bolton's large contingent of extremely bombastic support go rightly wild, and there's a new task ahead of the Tigers.

Brown makes a change quickly, withdrawing Cousin and introducing the unpredictable Mendy, whose entrance gets as large an ovation from the visiting support as it does from the Tiger Nation. Instantly, he's in the action, providing the width that a full back in a 4-3-3 can't provide, and with Paul McShane providing good support, the enigmatic Frenchman becomes City's main target when starting fresh assaults on the Bolton goal.

Dean Marney is fouled on the edge of the box and Geovanni wants this. After the stylish set-piece he swerved in at Tottenham, he should always be backed to make a keeper work. But Jaaskelainen has so much more on that clown in the Spurs net, and he flies across his goal to fist out the Brazilian's curling, placed and definitely goalbound effort. A fine save. Finer would come, still.

Mendy then takes a King flick and his persistence gets him to the byline. The clip back is gorgeous, but nobody is there to anticipate it. A waste, and a pity. Brown brings on Sam Ricketts in a straight swap for Andy Dawson, which could be for injury or for extra mobility down the other flank to complement Mendy's work. It may well be both.

City begin to put the squeeze on, and Bolton's rearguard responds. You have to admire them for it. Marney's free kick is fabulously delivered and Geovanni heads the equaliser. Like Peter Lorimer at Wembley in 1973, the players and supporters were celebrating a goal, such was the obviousness of the ball's destination. But Jaaskelainen had alternative ideas. He dived in anticipation and hope and judged the header immaculately as the ball struck his legs and bounced out; even then he had a moment to get up and deny Michael Turner the spoils from the rebound.

Unbelievable. But City were undeterred. There was surely a leveller to be had here. Brown takes off Boateng and slings on Caleb Folan, essentially making it a 4-2-4, with Mendy playing further forward than even his crazy, directionless habits would permit. Bolton have one counter attack, as sub Ebi Smolarek gets on the end of a Jaaskelainen punt, gets through Kamil Zayatte and across Turner before shooting over. It's brief respite.

Geovanni shoots at goal from a narrow but gettable angle, and the Fin saves again, and saves well. King then gets a yard as he cuts in and his shot is well struck and placed. Jaaskelainen gets across, palms the ball down and then, in a way Dave Beasant would have been proud, flings up a hand, at the risk of seeing it sliced clean off, as Geovanni charges in for the rebound. Unbelievable goalkeeping, Brilliant goalkeeping. The Bolton fans have just one chant now, consisting of the two syllables of their heroic custodian's first name. They are in awe, as are we all.

Four minutes are added, and City still lay siege. A last chance comes when Mendy again finds enough room to curl in a teasing ball. The clearing header drops to Ashbee, who hits a vicious shot inches too high. The game is up. A roar of delight and relief from Bolton's supporters rings across the city as they claim three precious points and leave City without anything from three matches. The entire Bolton outfield rushes to congratulate Jaaskelainen, as the vocal lauding of the Fin continues behind his goal.

Brown's faith in his 4-3-3 and the players therein is well-placed, of course. It won four in a row, earned plaudits and apologies and acquired clean sheets. But it's notable that the rescue package against Bolton was the same as the comeback package at Old Trafford - that is, only the introduction of natural width seems to allow City to be creative. Certainly Marney and Boateng can provide width from their narrower default position, but they're not natural exponents of it and Mendy's two cameos from the bench, and City's lack of cohesion or dominance prior to this, suggests that maybe a rethink is due.

Mendy awaits the chance to show he can do his act from the start, as does Halmosi, and indeed both did so when City won at Newcastle. Craig Fagan's return will be complete in the next month, and Garcia's close control and finishing skills make him a candidate too. Bolton were as resistant to pressure as you would expect them to be, and their goalkeeper's very presence makes them a most fortunate side. Jaaskelainen's singular brilliance robbed City of a share, but maybe Brown needs to look beyond a charmed stopper's lot for a reason why the Tigers lost.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson (Ricketts 64), Boateng (Folan 73), Ashbee, Marney, Geovanni, King, Cousin (Mendy 54). Subs not used: Duke, Barmby, Garcia, Halmosi.

Bolton Wanderers: Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Cahill, Andrew O'Brien, Samuel, Muamba, Gardner, McCann, Taylor, Elmander (Smolarek 77), Davies. Subs not used: Al Habsi, Helguson, Shittu, Basham, Sissons, Obadeyi.