Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Year of the Tiger

Will it ever feel better than it did in 2008?

Let's see.

Happy new year.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

20: Hull City 0 - 1 Aston Villa - 30/12/2008

This was Hull City's seventh defeat of the season, and arguably the first one they simply have not deserved. This hurt, really hurt. By some distance the better side against a fluid, pacey, admirable but entirely out-thought Aston Villa, the lack of firepower from City's insightful new line-up, a chronic piece of poor luck at the other end and some spectacularly weak refereeing did for Phil Brown's side.

A superb, enchanted year has ended with three straight defeats and maybe 2009 will herald something connected with relegation, if not an actual relegation battle. Five more wins should be enough. But losing is a habit, as we know too well from our darkest days of the 1990s, and it can be tough at the top as well as the bottom.

As this blog accurately estimated, remarkably so given its historically abject record for reading Brown's mind, the manager decided to freshen his charges up. Out went the unlucky Marlon King, the pressured Geovanni, the pooped George Boateng, the wavering Dean Marney and the unusable Dean Windass (whose appearance to make the half time draw seemed to be as much about saying goodbye to the Tiger Nation as it was about earning someone a few quid or a bottle of champagne). Daniel Cousin, castigated for lax and lazy demeanour of late, spearheaded a line-up which had Nick Barmby hovering behind him, Richard Garcia providing vision in the very centre and, with Villa bereft of fit full backs, Bernard Mendy and Peter Halmosi were given natural wide positions and licence to charge.

And this was they key to City's success in spirit if not in scoreline. Halmosi and Mendy were the Tigers' prime source of attack, deliberately calculating that the two makeshift full backs in Villa's side, while not incompetent footballers, would have less of a tuxedo-wearing time if guys who have eaten better defenders for breakfast in their time were stampeding towards them. Halmosi is out-and-out, a dying breed of wideman whose sole purpose is to make full backs' lives a misery. Make him cut inside or go wandering away from the touchline and he is largely pointless. Force him to help defend and he may as well be off the pitch. But give him the ball and tell him to aim for the corner flag and he's utter dynamite.

Mendy, of course, is a law unto himself and this unpredictability is going to be vital if City are to embark upon a new sequence of progress in 2009. As he doesn't know what he's going to do, and his team-mates have given up trying to instruct him, it's obvious that defenders have no idea whatsoever.

So away we go, another capacity crowd despite the Sky cameras making the prospect of watching the game on a comfy settee rather than in -1c East Yorkshire ice quite tempting. Immediately, controversy struck. Mendy crossed, Cousin headed the ball straight up in the air and Barmby challenged Brad Friedel gamely (given the immense contrast in bulk between a diddy striker and a muscular American keeper in padded clothing) before forcing the ball over the line. Inevitably and wrongly, referee Steve Bennett assumed it was a foul because Friedel managed to fall into a heap. lest we forget that goalkeepers cannot even be looked at these days. No wonder Chris Chilton doesn't go to games any more.

Of course, Villa do wingplay well too. Ashley Young's pace and positivity is as watchable as his tendency to cry like a girl and stay grounded after being breathed upon is sickening. He gave Paul McShane a hard old time down the City right in the early stages, the first of which ending with a whipping cross that Michael Turner, pretty much unwittingly, blocked with a colder area of his anatomy, conceding the corner. The flag kick was dealt with, but Villa then got a free kick which was half-cleared to Gareth Barry whose volley could have been perilous, except it's on his standing right foot and we assumed it was going to miss. It did.

It doesn't pay to be too cocky about Barry's right foot. Last time Villa came to the KC he scored the only goal of the game with it, albeit via a deflection so great the magnetic field thought there was an emergency shift of gravity. That was an FA Cup third round tie three seasons ago.

City get a feel for the game, and Cousin is dividing folk. Some think he's lazy and egotistical; otherwise think he's a terrific player for maintaining the ball while awaiing assistance from deeper-lying players. I hold the latter opinion, I think he's ace. His work in fending off immeasurable attempts from Villa defenders to get the ball off him hile he waited for Halmosi was tremendous. In the end, he used the Hungarian as a decoy to get his own cross in. It's nodded out to Ian Ashbee, who goes down under a challenge; no appeal is made, and the loose ball finally gets to Mendy whose delicate chip is headed golwards but meekly by Halmosi. No real test of Friedel, but good stuff nonetheless.

Mendy then tortures Luke Young - an England right back having to play on the left - with a sly, excellent run and cross which evades Friedel but Halmosi's sliding effort to finish takes him to within inches of a decent touch, and the ball flies all the way across, undeflected.

Barry headed over a cross from the probing, impressive James Milner before City cause real panic thanks to - gasp - a penetrating, inviting cross from Ashbee which Curtis Davies hurriedly heads just wide of his own keeper and post as Cousin snarls behind him. Kamil Zayatte then fouls green-booted Gabriel Agbonlahor and, having already been booked, gets a stern lecture (which he won't have understood) from Bennett who correctly and refreshingly believes the foul wasn't bookable.

Half time, goalless, enticing, enjoyable. The restart maintains the motif of wingplay dominating both sets of attack, with Sam Ricketts and Halmosi making a mug of Nigel Reo-Coker and producing a corner. Barmby whips it in and Garcia wins the header but steers it wide.

Stilian Petrov, awarded as much possession as Milner but unable to be as creative, fires in a shot and then complains justifiably to Bennett when the ovious deflection isn't noticed and a goalkick is given. He gets a yellow card, with hoots of derision - via different viewpoints - sounding from all areas of the KC.

No matter. City return to the other end, with Davies courageously getting his chilly thighs in the way of a hefty Halmosi shot after fine tee-up play and tomfoolery from Mendy. Turner then plays a low clearance to Cousin and follows up his pass, eventually getting on the end of intricate wok through Mendy, Barmby and Cousin, but the centre back has to stretch a little too much and skies his shot.

There are 20 minutes to go and Cousin is freezing and floundering, so King is brought on to a big reception. He immediately panics Davies - again - as Turner heads Halmosi's dipping corner back across goal, forcing the Villa defender to clear from under his own bar.

City still pile it on, urged forward by an impressed Tiger Nation. This was the response we needed after Manchester City made us look eejits. King flies on to Mendy's inside ball, tidily works his way inside Zat Knight and feeds the onrushing Ashbee. We all knew where the ball would end up - yes, way over the bar - but the endeavour and craft was excellent. Surely it was coming?

Ricketts overlaps Halmosi, gets the ball and sweeps in a wicked cross which Barmby throws himself at; he connects but the header is deflected wide.

With five minutes left, despite the domination, percentages are called for and Brown slings on Bryan Hughes to provide stoic calm in the centre, withdrawing the engaging Garcia who, despite the odd misplaced pass, made the most of an important occasion for him. He may not be sold in January on the strength of this display.

Villa attack, for the first time in a while, as City respond to the substitution with some natural retreating. Ashley Young heads Barry's cross well wide, then Turner dives in the way, magnificently, of Petrov's humdinging low shot which Boaz Myhill may have struggled to paw out. Three minutes remain and Villa are turning the screw.

The wingers had ben sullied and restricted by City but, alas, for once Ashley Young got the room on Riketts - having swapped flanks from the first half - to get to the byline. Agbonlahor aimed his run for the near post and Zayatte got in the way as the cross came in, diverting the ball heartbreakingly beyond Myhill and into the net.

Bother and blast. We didn't deserve that. We deserved to lose - just - at Old Trafford, and the defeats at Manchester City and home to Wigan were certainly as merited as any guff we served up in the bottom division. But this was harsh. And it epitomised what the Premier League is based on - taking your hances. If you don't, your opponents will certainly take their. We only gave them one, and even scored it for them, though the gutted Zayatte can't be hard on himself. Myhill conceded a goal without having a shot from a Villa player to save.

But it still wasn't quite over. Brown slings on Craig Fagan, leaving Geovanni on the bench, and City go on the offensive. Villa repel the wave of long balls with panache as the board for three minutes of added time goes up. Then, a corner is forced.

Myhill goes up for it, Halmosi takes, Ashbee heads goalwards and the ball bounces away from around the crossbar area. The crowd holler for handball by Ashley Young and Bennett gives it. Penalty! Yet a heavy-duty protest from Villa's players leads Bennett, inexplicably, to chat to his assistant whose position was, seemingly, worse than the referee's when able to decide upon the source of the ball's blockade. It wasn't a hand, it was the crossbar, it seemed. TV replays proved this, but irrespective of the decision, no referee should make a decision and then double check it purely bcause big-name footballers tell him to. Bennett should take no consolation from getting the verdict techincally right, as in doing so he essentially admitted he was a) unsure of his authority and b) susceptible to pressure.

And so that was that. And that was 2008 too. It has ended with three straight defeats, but there is considerable solace in the performance which pushed Villa, wannabes for the Champions League, all the way. They'll be relieved and will even, privately, admit to luck. For all the realistic worries about a slump into the bottom half, especially with Everton and Arsenal due in January, there's no doubt that a handful of displays like this will see City right in 2009. And it'll be a joy to see it happen.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Mendy, Garcia (Fagan 89), Ashbee, Halmosi, Barmby (Hughes 85), Cousin (King 69). Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Geovanni, Giannakopoulos.

Aston Villa: Friedel, Reo-Coker, Knight, Davies, Luke Young, Milner, Sidwell (Gardner 86), Petrov, Barry, Ashley Young, Agbonlahor. Subs not used: Guzan, Harewood, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey, Osbourne.

Experimental strength

We end the year with Aston Villa at home tonight and, after such a spectacular capitulation at Manchester City, rumours are abound that Phil Brown is going to go all radical on us again.

The last time he did this - picked an XI in a formation that bamboozled everyone - it worked spectacularly. We won at Arsenal.

So, with Villa's terrific team appearing at the KC before another capacity crowd and the Sky cameras tonight, what has Brown, the great innovator and experimentalist, the man whose optimism has booted the Premier League up the arse, the man who conducts half-time bollockings on the pitch in front of the Tiger Nation, got up his sleeve?

The obvious changes first. Sam Ricketts will return after his ban to left back and Paul McShane will shift across, mercifully, to the right back position he occupies happily and competently. He should never play at left back for us, or indeed anyone, again. The restoration of these two will allow Bernard Mendy to get back into the right midfield slot which produces such incomprehensible brilliance from the madcap Frenchman.

Dean Windass will be unquestionably dropped after his no-show at Eastlands. However, conjecture suggests that Marlon King might get a rest too, even though he had no reason to feel ashamed of himself after Boxing Day. The endeavour of substitute Daniel Cousin, whose attitude off the pitch seems to have riled his manager of late, and the eagerness of fellow sub Craig Fagan after his long-anticipated return, may have convinced Brown that both can operate from the beginning against Villa - especially as those two supplied the combination which produced City's goal and maintained that amazing, if consolatory, record of scoring in all away games.

King would feel aggrieved at dropping to the bench but this has always been part of Brown's philosophy and maybe he's testing his chief striker's character by tempting the idea of removing him from the front line. King's workrate is excellent, but he's only scored one goal at the KC - and that from a penalty - and goals are as vital as ever given City's recent issues of leakage. King's future, of course, will come under scrutiny in two days' time as the window opens and maybe Brown can look into the striker's eyes and see whether he still fancies the job of permanent Hull City player after one game away from the limelight.

Geovanni may also lose his place, like he did after the 5-0 slapping by Wigan back in August, and this would be less shocking, despite his better scoring record and natural facility to alter a game's entire course. His effort has, admirably for a man not used to the climate or intensity, never been questioned but he is having less impact as opponents begin to predict his pathways and, worryingly, is making more and more incorrect decisions when in possession of the ball.

The return of Nick Barmby seems to be set in stone, especially if one of King or Geovanni (or both) is consigned to the bench. Barmby was superb against Sunderland and excellent the week before at Liverpool, and his withdrawal after little more than an hour of each - something Peter Taylor used to insist on, irrespective of the player's fitness or influence - took a little bit of sparkle out of City's performance in the remainder of each game. Barmby was on the bench, unused, at Eastlands - a decision deemed odd at the time - but perhaps there was no point in introducing him in the second half as the game was lost and, unlike Cousin and Fagan, he had nothing to prove by running around chasing a lost cause for half an hour. If he does start against Villa, he could operate behind Cousin or Fagan, or alongside one.

Stelios Giannakopoulos is still waiting for his first start in black and amber and, for as long as Mendy is able to rampage headlessly at left backs, he is unlikely to do so. This is unless he can operate more centrally, which seems unlikely, but is where Richard Garcia may, again, get his opportunity.

Garcia was phenomenally off the pace when he was dragged back from nowhere into the fold against Sunderland but maybe a central role, feeding Mendy and Barmby, might suit him. Mendy has to play because he is lightning quick, including from a standing position, and Villa currently have a right back in Luke Young playing on the left because of injury to their regular left back (despite occasional England left back Nicky Shorey being fit, oddly). Garcia, with an eye for a pass and one of the best first touches in the squad, may suit a complementary centralised role which relies more on vision and less on pace.

The issue of absent full backs, one which City felt so painfully at Eastlands, rears its head identically for Villa because, as well as Young playing on the left, they currently have midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker on the right side of defence to account for Young's relocation and other absences. So if there was ever a chance, finally, for Peter Halmosi to start a match and run like hell at a makeshift defender, then this is surely it.

If some (or all - yeah right) of these suggestions are replicated in the teamsheet tonight, it means that George Boateng (who looks totally shattered), Geovanni, Windass and King will all be rested. The keeper and back four remain set in stone (at least until Andy Dawson and Anthony Gardner are fit again, though Nathan Doyle must be due a start at some point, poor lad), as do the roles filled by Mendy and Ian Ashbee. The retention of Dean Marney may depend on where Barmby is positioned. Otherwise, it could be carnage on the teamsheet.

Maybe such experiments belong in a week's time, when Newcastle United come to the KC for the FA Cup third round tie. Brown likes filling his Cup sides with stiffs and seeing if he can get away with it. But something different is required after the tragic offering on Boxing Day and Brown has shown handsomely this season - and this calendar year - that radical can sometimes work brilliantly.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Dean and gone?

Back in January, Phil Brown made a final decision on the future of a club legend, a man who had scored a cupboardload of goals and was as instrumental as anyone as far as Hull City's recent progress was concerned.

The player was Stuart Elliott. Having been peripheral in the opening months of the season, he was given his chance at Plymouth Argyle in the third round of the FA Cup. He duly proceeded to play in as disinterested, half-hearted and isolated a manner as possible, and was substituted at half time with the Tigers 2-0 down. Such a vacant performance from a player so adored by the Tiger Nation for his activities over the previous half a dozen years was hard to stomach, but we knew the end of the line had been reached. And so did Brown. Elliott was packed off to Doncaster Rovers, on a loan to last the remainder of the season, with a permanent signing on a Bosman rubberstamped for the season's end.

It is sad to relate that, almost exactly 12 months later, the manager has made a similarly poignant and necessary decision on another club icon, this time someone whose God-like status with Hull City makes Elliott look merely superhuman by comparison.

Dean Windass was given a starting role at Manchester City on Boxing Day, the place in the side he has whined and blogged about not getting all season. With rumours abound that Daniel Cousin's attitude has been the dominant factor in Brown's decision to bench the Gabonese striker of late, and with Caleb Folan injured, the opportunity for Windass was gilt-edged.

He not only didn't take it, but he severely messed up. This wasn't just a player out of his depth, it was a player who looked capable of any kind of depth. It's as unpleasant a feeling as any when one looks at Windass and feels compelled to criticise, but for a man so anxious, publicly, to prove his worth as a footballer and competitor in the Premier League, to put in such a tepid, selfish, bedraggled shift, simply stinks.

Brown thought so too and, like Elliott, substituted him at half time. The whole team had played poorly at Manchester City but the ineptitude and indifference of Windass was the sore thumb.

It seems most unlikely that Windass will be involved as anything other than a suited spectator against Aston Villa tomorrow night. Even if he does make the teamsheet, one can't help but think that his departure from the KC is mere days away. Brown is as unsentimental a manager as I've ever known - see the way that popular, committed figures like Elliott, Damien Delaney, David Livermore, Wayne Brown and Ryan France have had their futures starkly mapped out by the boss - and while Windass will never see his reputation or status as a clubman corrode or gather dust, it will be only the absolutely correct decision if he goes in January. Ample clubs at a lower level will want his experience and infectious demeanour - not to mention his class and goalscoring prowess - but in these lofted times, he is simply no longer good enough or of the right mindset to be a Hull City player.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Ashbee: Adored by all football fans

Ian Ashbee has been voted the British Football Personality of the Year by Mail on Sunday readers, trousering 44% of the vote and seeing off the likes of Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard.

Now, it's hard to not be a little cynical about this. Firstly, newspaper polls are patently unrepresentative of national thinking; they are only representative of the readership's thinking. And, as we know, most newspapers are only interested in targetting one section of society when positioning itself.

Secondly, the poll was the brainchild of Piers Morgan, as vacuous, clueless and self-opinionated a journalist as this country has ever produced.

Thirdly, it is almost certain that Hull City fans have picked up on this and, enjoying the limelight for their club after decades of being a footballing turd, have block voted. Evidence of such appeals for votes can be found on a couple of fan websites. My suspicion is that only a small percentage of Ashbee's backers have voted for him for the good of football rather than the image of Hull City.

Fourthly, Ashbee is cast by Morgan as somehow more relevant, more representative, of Hull City's rise from the earth's core to the sunshine, than anyone else. Well, his bit of history-making as far as captaincy is concerned is, of course, something nobody within the KC or beyond can take from him. If he ever gets a Premier League goal he'll add to that a record of scoring for the same club in four divisions, something that Andy Dawson (scored in th Championship and League Two, but never in League One) and Boaz Myhill (uh, he's a goalkeeper) can't equal, even though they too have partaken in games in all four divisions for the Tigers. Ryan France can do it, but he needs to be picked for a game first, and that is looking ever more unlikely. For all Ashbee's specific statistical achievement, the rise to the top flight was very much a staff, team and squad effort, from Phil Brown's ruthless brand of man-management, Brian Horton's wizened prompting and the likes of Myhill, Dawson, Sam Ricketts and Michael Turner all extolling what Hull City can be and have a right to become. Ashbee, even at his snarling best last season, has never been greater than the sum of parts of which successful Tigers teams under Brown and Peter Taylor have comprised.

But apart from all that, well done Ash...

By the way, Morgan has used the result to contrast Ashbee's life and career with that of David Beckham, giving the latter an unoriginal and needless bashing in the process. So despite Ashbee's success, he still can't quite get the limelight which this poll result says he deserves. I doubt he's bothered. I doubt he'll even buy the paper.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

19: Manchester City 5 - 1 Hull City - 26/12/2008

"Welcome to the Premier League!" say all. Yada yada yada. We're halfway through the season and still seventh, y'know. Two consecutive batterings is not a pleasant experience, of course, but we were always aware that at some point, they would come.

Phil Brown took a mixture of brickbats and plaudits, not to mention a chunk of the media attention which should have been snaffled by the victorious home side, by holding some of his half-time team talk - team lecture, to be more exact - on the pitch in front of the dejected Hull City supporters. It was his way of making them appreciate the pride those in the seats held in the shirt, something which the annoyed City boss felt, for once, his charges hadn't shown at all on the field of play.

Brown, however, was at pains post-match to say that staff had erred too. Presumably this was his way of saying he cocked up the team selection, as there was no doubt he did. Dean Windass played when he has patently proved he is too old, slow, petulant and set in his ways to be relied upon as a Premier League performer. The left back problem remained so in the first half, as Paul McShane was asked to fill in for the banned Sam Ricketts and the injured Andy Dawson. He couldn't. Nathan Doyle was still not to be risked, as if risking a natural young defender of comfort on either flank was greater than putting a very right-sided player on the left against an England winger smelling blood. McShane's redeployment meant Bernard Mendy was again in a wasteful and perilous right back role, stifling his creativity and exacerbating his headlessness. And the almighty only knows why Nick Barmby wasn't playing.

Anyway, despite 4,000 eyebrows raising, a good away record and a knowledge that we were facing players and a manager under pressure meant that the match kicked off in good cheer. Mendy briefly lost his bearings in front of Boaz Myhill and gave the ball away, but two quick pases toward Robinho did not end the way the home side expected, with the Brazilian firing way over.

Marlon King ran on to a Geovanni through ball which Windass had feigned interest in, but Joe Hart did a good job in palming the ball aside. The game seemed to level itself out, but then Manchester City took a look at their visitors' dodgy defensive shape and cut right through it. Robinho was allowed to progress, with City's defence backing off and backing off, before clipping a glorious ball beyond McShane for Stephen Ireland to reach. His low ball did for everyone in black and amber and Felipe Caicedo will rarely have to score a goal so effortlessly.

Knife through butter. The home side were intelligent enough to realise that they were going to be able to do this again and again, and with City choosing to make no alterations instantly, did just that. It was carnage for the rest of the half.

Myhill swiped one Robinho curler over after Mendy had been outstripped, before Ireland galloped away from McShane again and delivered another impeccable centre for Caicedo to photocopy his first effort. It's 2-0, it's a cakewalk. Still there's no sign of McShane or Mendy being put out of their miseries or Doyle being given his chance. He cant do any worse, and there are plenty who know he will do a hell of a lot better.

George Boateng lost the ball rom the restart and the home side accepted the gift. It is the right time of year for such generosity too, but you can go too far. Ireland does the work again, heading bylinewards with barely a bye or leave, and Robinho this time gobbles up the close range tap-in.

At last, Doyle is summoned. Boateng goes, Mendy shifts forward into the midfield position where he can cause much damage to the opposition and far less to his own side. Doyle, mysteriously, goes straight to the right, with McShane staying put. McShane is dying a slow death in this position, but only when a fourth goal comes after Shaun Wright-Phillips beats the offside trap and delivers another pressie to Robinho does it look like, finlly, the formation change will come. Sadly, it's come on the half-time whistle, 4-0 down and with an on-pitch dressing-down to boot. Not a good afternoon's work so far.

Second half. Windass is absent, withdrawn for being a disgrace in spurning the chance he has spent the season bleating about, and a hearty welcome is offered to Craig Fagan, fit again after busting his leg in the win at Newcastle back in September. Doyle and McShane, mercifully, complete their swap of sides.

The home side now, frankly, aren't bothered. It's water treading for them, with the game won and another to ponder and save legs for within 48 hours. They're doing enough to keep their opponents at bay, though Fagan and Mendy are causing flank trouble and Daniel Cousin, when brought on for the luckless Geovanni, also makes an impact, as if he had seen his passageway back to a starting place unlocked by Windass' ineptitude.

But it wasn't eventful. City created next to nothing, the home side chose to maintain possession and the margin of yawning one-sidedness. Geovanni tested Hart with an awkward free kick prior to his departure and Michael Turner headed a Dean Marney corner over the bar. Elano hits the post with a deflected free kick at the other end after Ian Ashbee had committed the foul.

Then suddenly, an opening. Mendy sets Cousin free on the left with a delicious pass and the Gabonese striker puts an awkward one across goal which Nedum Onuoha can't do anything with other than get stuck. Fagan stabs the loose ball in.

We've scored in every away game, a record it's at least nice to continue in the face of such adversity. But even this mild consolation is soiled when from the restart, Robinho and Elano combine with ludicrous ease to give Ireland, who was fantastic throughout, a deserved goal courtesy of a left-footed lash into Myhill's roof.

Despite Mendy's late efforts to complete a stunning comeback on his own - cross after cross came in which nobody could reach or predict - the game was clearly a carcass now and everybody just wanted to go home. The selections were wrong, and Brown clearly can't afford to try to make cats bark again when putting players into their roles. One hopes that by the time Aston Villa pitch up at the KC for 2008's last game, he has realised that McShane belongs at right back, Mendy in midfield, Windass on the transfer list and Doyle somewhere away from the half-time teapot.

Meanwhile, let's just forget about this one, please.

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Dunne, Richards (Onuoha 46), Ball, Wright-Phillips, Ireland (Fernandes 85), Kompany, Elano, Robinho, Caicedo (Jo 46). Subs not used: Schmeichel, Vassell, Garrido, Sturridge.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Zayatte, Turner, McShane, Boateng (Doyle 34), Geovanni (Cousin 70), Ashbee, Marney, Windass (Fagan 46), King. Subs not used: Duke, Barmby, Hughes, Halmosi.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

"Ten! ... Nine! ... Eight! ..."

Good news reaches us this week that Hull City will, at last, be represented in the Masters indoor tournament which Sky Sports screens each year. City's mini-league - six teams in total - will be in July at the Sheffield Arena.

Criteria for qualification as a player dictates that each participant must be 35 or other at the time of the tournament. I'm not sure if the player is permitted to still be at the club in question, but if so then Dean Windass (who may have left the club by July anyway) and Nick Barmby would both be available.

Then who? Well, Justin Whittle has to be captain, obviously.

Jay Jay Okocha would be a brilliant sight on a five-a-side pitch, assuming he's still in England. Jon Whitney needs to be involved so that any hate figures of the past (and given that our opponents include both Sheffield clubs and Leeds United, there'll be a plethora of those) can be booted high in the air. I suspect the goalkeeping candidates are restricted to Steve Wilson, Alan Fettis or Paul Musselwhite. John Eyre will, I think, be 35 and able to play. Duane Darby would be useful in an indoor match. Of the 40+ players, Andy Payton would be a fab recruit, assuming he remembered to turn up.

The interesting thing about it will be that our Masters team will be a team of almost total unknowns, with only the odd exception, while our main team is currently a selection of new household names. The Masters tournament will be the starkest reminder yet of where Hull City used to be.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

On a sticky Ricketts

Phil Brown says Sam Ricketts was unlucky to be sent off against Sunderland on Saturday for two bookable offences. Having watched them again, I have to say I don't agree.

It pains a little, but I was always determined to offer credit where it was due elsewhere when I set this blog up, and also try to avoid viewing stuff through rose-coloured glasses. Partisanship is different to loyalty and can be an ugly thing sometimes.

The first of Ricketts' two fouls was late, but the Sunderland player in question made something of a meal of it - that is an understatement - and the faux-indignance of Kenwyne Jones probably didn't assist Ricketts' plight as Mike Riley strutted in our Welsh full back's direction and gave him a yellow card.

The second one is far more cut and dried as an out-and-out foul, more obvious than the previous one and yet less serious. I've read and heard numerous opinions about this tackle, predominantly saying that Ricketts got the ball and, again, the Sunderland player's overreaction was more paramount to Mr Riley's inevitable decision to show another yellow. Yet if you watch the television angle from behind the tackle, at the corner flag in the north east corner of the KC, the Sunderland player is the one who plays the ball and Ricketts arrives late and gets his ankle. This was not a tactical foul - if it was then it makes Ricketts an utter imbecile, and he isn't that - but it was a foul, a late challenge and although he did argue, as did his manager and the Tiger Nation, he can't really complain.

Ricketts' actions don't alter the view round these parts, which I share, that Mr Riley is a card-happy attention-seeker. He has form for this, as the debate for days and days which followed his officiating of our midweek Championship game against Burnley at the KC last season proves. But maybe the key question isn't whether Ricketts committed a foul, but whether the foul was serious enough to warrant a yellow card.

In these days of two strikes and you're off, any second foul by a booked player, no matter how innocuous, prompts derisive yells for the player's head from opposition players and fans, and often the opposition manager too. Yet one booking doesn't make a second foul automatically bookable, and Ricketts' second offence was less serious than the first, minutely mistimed and no more. If he had committed his second foul first, as an uncautioned player, I don't believe he would have been booked. It's an accumulative process, and I think Mr Riley decided to send Ricketts off as much for disrespect of his disciplinary position as for the foul itself. It was a case of "I've just booked you, how dare you undermine my authority by committing another foul? Be off with you." Ricketts was reckless but not spiteful, yet ultimately he has to be certain of winning a ball cleanly when he goes into a tackle like that as a carded player, and he let himself down.

Ricketts serves his suspension on Boxing Day and with Andy Dawson still struggling for fitness and confusion surrounding Paul McShane's availability after a head injury, City could struggle severely for full backs at Manchester City. Ricketts shoulders not all, but certainly some, of the blame for this.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

18: Hull City 1 - 4 Sunderland - 20/12/2008

Hull City's resolve and composure evaporated in the last ten minutes of a tight and edgy Premier League battle at the KC. Ultimately, the scoreline makes this look like a cakewalk for a well-drilled and patient Sunderland side but it could have gone either way.

It was 1-1 with 13 minutes to play and both sides fancied their chances. But when the Black Cats benefitted from a horrid deflected shot to reclaim the lead and then Mike Riley's annual mission to send Hull City players from the field, the spirit of the Tigers died a gruesome death.

It was an enjoyable and unpredictable occasion. Sunderland have flowered under Ricky Sbragia's calm, unshowbiz approach after all the laserbeams of Roy Keane and his players clearly know how to react to him. City had one marvellous spell of pressure in the first half but lacked a ruthlessness.

Phil Brown, a Mackem by birth and a candidate through this mere circumstantial accident for the vacancy at the Stadium of Light, had to make one crucial change. Paul McShane, double whammied by being a Sunderland loanee and the recipient of a blow to the head last week, sat this one out. Bernard Mendy, regrettably, had his idiosyncratic force sullied by being put in the right back role, and there was a surprise recall to midfield for Richard Garcia.

It didn't work. Mendy's unpredictability can lend itself to defensive ineptitude as it can to attacking resourcefulness, and Garcia's delightful first touch cannot shroud a lack of match fitness. Assuming the two-week role keeps McShane out on Boxing Day (it'll be a day short of the mandatory two-week rest period for head injuries), then Mendy needs to be re-freed quickly.

City attack early. A long punt panicks Nyron Nosworthy as Marlon King chases both defender and ball, and his wimpish attempt to backhead a clearance lands at Nick Barmby's feet, but he hacks a low shot a good few yards wide.

The bedding down period now associated with the Tigers in the Premier League at home means that this is the only chance City can carve out - and it wasn't that great a chance - prior to the visitors turning the screw and scoring a great goal.

Incisive work from the squat and industrious Andy Reid got him beyond Mendy and his ball to Steed Malbranque was controlled deftly and then crashed past Boaz Myhill from distance. A cracker, and an early blow for the Tigers.

It didn't take long for City to equalise, an emblematic quality for the Tigers in this division. As stewards tried to sort a standing "problem" in the Sunderland crowd, attentions were re-diverted to the pitch when a free kick was headed across goal by Kamil Zayatte for defensive partner Michael Turner to poke a shot goalwards. Marton Fulop blocked the shot but as Turner battled for the loose ball while on the deck, it broke kindly for Barmby to thump home with the left foot. Sunderland's travelling contingent suddenly had a dual reason to feel aggrieved.

Barmby last scored for Hull City in the play-offs against Watford. He last scored a standard League goal 16 months ago at Coventry in the Championship. His last Premier League goal was five and a half years ago. While he has always enjoyed his manager's approval, he has entirely justified his inclusion as a marauding wide midfielder of late, more so than he ever did in a play-off campaign where he emerged as an out-of-context hero. Barmby, at last, deserves the praise he currently gets; something which hasn't quite been the case since he spent the League One promotion season in his dinner jacket.

City were galvanised by this leveller. Barmby, King and a surprisingly sublime final ball from Ian Ashbee nearly combined to give Barmby an intricate and eyecatching second goal, but Anton Ferdinand got across to block well. Mendy and Geovanni then tested a short corner routine as Sunderland failed to mark up, but the Brazilian's left-footer is held competently by Fulop.

The pressure remains on the visitors. Geovanni swings in a corner which is momentarily cleared, but Mendy's return ball is met by the meat of Turner's forehead and the ball drops on to the net's roof. Barmby, in possession and somehow also possessed, shakes off Nosworthy's powdery challenge and gets King going, but the ball is bouncing oddly and the striker chooses not to try to bring it down, electing instead to hoof a first-time shot which goes high, wide and less than handsome.

Sunderland, having taken the lead, have suddenly been not only pegged back to 1-1 but then severely battered by a relentless, inspired City. Barmby is the fulcrum of it, but King's work at the helm and Ashbee's unfussy probing at the base is key to this spell of City dominance. Only once did they seem close to extending their lead, as Kenwyne Jones plunged his awkward frame at Phil Bardsley's unclearable ball, but got his angles all wrong and headed away from goal.

Bardsley, as impressive a defender as any that has faced City this season, then got himself sandwiched between two City players as he courageously headed behind a Garcia cross with both King and Geovanni hovering. City then get a free kick on the edge of the box, which Geovanni curls and dips beyond the wall, only for Fulop to tip over with real agility.

From the corner, Geovanni manages to swerve the delivery under the bar and a foul is called on Fulop as he flaps at the ball and Ashbee puts it away.

Half time approaches, and Malbranque has a bit too much room from a Djibril Cisse knockdown but the shot is scuffed wide. All square at the break, and a half that was hard to call. City made waves of chances but adequate finishing was at a premium and Sunderland's defending, as it needed to be, coped well.

The second half was a lifeless affair initially. Brown realised his error on recalling the talented but blunt Garcia and replaced him with Daniel Cousin just before the hour, allowing Geovanni to roam the flanks a little more as the big centre forward entered the fray. Sunderland began to emerge authoratative afterwards, with Kieran Richardson, hard to like but easy to appreciate, becoming the main influence.

His right foot shot was beaten out by Myhill, and Cisse missed the rebound as two defenders closed in and put the frighteners on. Cisse, complete with cretinous green mohican, was notably irritated by himself and the Sunderland fans weren't too enamoured with him either.

City briefly rally, and Ashbee hits a sweet volley which is blocked without much knowledge by Ferdinand. It's noticeable, however, that Sunderland were becoming the stronger outfit as the legs began to tire, and if a winner was coming, it was to be theirs.

Zayatte had his mad moment - there's one of these per game now - out on City's left and Cisse robbed him, reached the byline and crossed for Jones' run to the near post. Jones was noticeable angry at his failure to score, but Turner's interception and the awarding of a corner showcased the real reason the ball didn't end up in Myhill's net. Jones then went down like the proverbail sack of spuds as Sam Ricketts barged him off the ball and was told, curtly no doubt, to get back to his feet. Ricketts got away with this one, but it wouldn't be his lucky afternoon for much longer.

Barmby was withdrawn for Stelios Giannakopoulos with 20 minutes left. He managed the full whack at Liverpool last week and, despite being 34, one should be able to assume he can manage 90 minutes once a week. It was both a pity and a mystery to withdraw the Tigers' most industrious, creative force, and although one can't pin City's collapse on Barmby's withdrawal, it was easy to spot that a sparkle had gone from the Tigers' attack.

Ricketts takes a booking for a daft late tackle before King and Geovanni prompt City's latest - and by now, rare - attack and give Cousin a chance which he puts away, though the offside flag had long since gone up, correctly. Sunderland wipe their brows and Cisse gets Myhill working his fists again, as the City custodian double-punches away a vicious shot on the run. A minute later, and Sunderland had regained their advantage.

Their acquisition of possession in defence was a little fortuitous, but quickly it was presented to Richardson who, in the absence of a challenge, was able to get within range for his unerring left foot, and a chronically unfortunate Zayatte got a shin in the way of the shot and left Myhill entirely stranded.

It's a major blow, but it's not over. Memories of Middlesbrough taking the lead at the same stage a fortnight earlier immediately flooded back, and City went on to score twice and win. However, Ricketts plunges into a second daft tackle and gets the inevitable second yellow and consequent red from Mr Riley.

Mr Riley has well-recalled history with red cards at the KC, having overseen the madness which saw Caleb Folan and Jay Jay Okocha, plus two Burnley counterparts, all get their marching orders in a Championship match last season. It was a crazy situation but it was hard to argue, by law if not by spirit, against his decisions. On this occasion, there is little doubt that the Sunderland players involved in Ricketts' challenges were auditioning for repertory theatre in their reactions - illustrated by their jumping to their feet as soon as punishment was confirmed - but Ricketts was a fool to dive in on both occasions, not being in exceptionally dangerous territory for either incident and especially once the first had earned him yellow. He'll now serve a one-match ban, and with Andy Dawson still not quite ready to return, City have a left back issue to solve. Peter Taylor always wanted two left backs ahead of cover for any other position on the reasonable understanding that it's the hardest position on the pitch to fill if it's not naturally suited to you. If Dawson isn't ready, then maybe young Nathan Doyle will finally have his leash removed and be set on the Premier League.

City had no chance after going down to ten. Doyle was on the bench but with City a goal adrift, organising defensive cover was largely futile and Brown instead elected to send on Peter Halmosi for the tireless George Boateng. That said, Sunderland exploited their advantage magnificently, putting away two further goals and ruining City's manageable goal difference in the process. Malbranque broke clear to give Jones a simple headed finish and then as the injury time board went up, Mendy gave the ball away to Malbranque, who sent Cisse clear on Myhill's goal and this time he had no trouble finding the corner of the net.

City had two free kicks in injury time, both of which were wildly skewered wide by Geovanni and King respectively. They were a beaten, bruised team and Brown has some work to do in picking them up. Aston Villa's resurgence makes the next home game as arduous a task as any, meaning that Boxing Day's visit to Manchester City, with all their faux woes, delusions and Brazilian egos, is ever important.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Garcia (Cousin 57), Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 81), Geovanni, Barmby (Giannakopoulos 68), King. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Windass, Marney.

: Fulop, Bardsley, Nosworthy, Ferdinand, Collins, Malbranque, Tainio (Leadbitter 79), Richardson (Edwards 89), Reid (Whitehead 74), Jones, Cisse. Subs not used: Colgan, Murphy, Yorke, Healy.

Friday, 19 December 2008

One good Turner deserves another

Michael Turner is in the process of discussing a new contract with Hull City.

This is terrific news.

Turner has two and a half years on his current deal outstanding, but the club need to make sure he is rewarded for being utterly superhuman during the calendar year of 2008 and beyond. The vultures are circling, with both Liverpool and Manchester City apparently showing an interest, and so the wages need to be upped to a level where Turner can feel more loved and secure than ever.

We've been fortunate with Turner. He was courted by Championship clubs while playing for Brentford, but we were the ones who got him. Having made his dodgy start, he is now being spoken about for England honours (rightly, given the form of the player and his team, even though we have a negative goal difference and he's only played 17 Premier League games) and still appears to be unaffected, professionally and personally, by the adulation he gets from the Tiger Nation. He is a bashful, modest character and knows he's on to a good thing here.

Turner's success, along with those of Sam Ricketts and Dean Marney, contributes substantially to the lack of out-and-out vilification for Phil Parkinson, whose dreadful managerial spell did at least begin with the acquisition of these three players, all now regular Premier League starters. I suspect Charlton Athletic, languishing at the bottom of the Championship with Parkinson in caretaker charge, wonder how the hell they didn't see Turner's potential when they let him go for a song to Brentford without his making a single appearance for them.

So hopefully the contract will be drawn up and signed before Christmas, and City then have the security of quoting mad fortunes at clubs who dare to assume that Turner is sellable. He isn't. He's priceless, invaluable, irreplaceable. Our greatest central defender ever is set to be so for a long time to come.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Mackem suffer

The last time Sunderland visited the KC Stadium it was a hideous occasion. Both sides were at the wrong end of the Championship table, but while Niall Quinn had acknowledged his coaching shortcomings and persuaded Roy Keane to come along, the lack of progress for the Tigers under Phil Parkinson was as stark as ever, and getting worse.

The most remarkable thing about the game was that City very nearly got something from it. A goalless draw, as it looked like becoming, would have been daylight robbery against a Sunderland side who, reacting to the ferocity and calibre of their new manager, played the Tigers off the park thrice over.

That they couldn't score was nothing short of a miracle. Boaz Myhill made some saves, but generally Sunderland's finishing was as bleak and weak as you could never believe professional football players were capable of. But they were creating chances. City were merely creating fulsome rage on the terraces.

It was notable for the nadir of Parkinson's bizarre treatment of Damien Delaney, a rugged and long-serving defender of real effectiveness under Peter Taylor, but who had become a jack-of-all-trades without remotely mastering any under Parkinson. Well, he had mastered being a central defender as that's what he was, but Parkinson didn't want to play him there. He'd been in the centre of midfield, the position where he began his career at Leicester, but when Parkinson decided he should operate the left wing the incredulity and anger was obvious. None of the chagrin was aimed at Delaney as he blundered around the flank, unable to time runs, beat his full back or generally play anything resembling a wideman's game; it all went to Parkinson for forcing the lad to look a fool in front of thousands.

Finally, just as the added time was coming to an end and City seemed to have escaped footballing Alcatraz, the visitors scored thanks to a curling left-footer from Ross Wallace. The always-impressive travelling contingent went totally tonto, rightly, and Wallace removed his shirt, thereby tainting the moment for him as it was a bookable offence, and this was his second of the match. So, he scored the goal that won the game and got a ban for his trouble.

No member of the Tiger Nation could say we didn't deserve to lose, even though it was a tough way to take defeat - play as poorly as many could ever remember and not quite get away with it. But they could all say that Parkinson did deserve to lose for making such dreadful tactical and positional decisions and generally removing all the fight and will out of a more than capable team. We were bottom of the Championship and arguing about whether we merited such a position was a futile exercise.

Parkinson survived another six weeks or so before Phil Brown took over. Sunderland couldn't stop winning after this and took the Championship title and their place back in the Premier League. City did survive, but days like the defeat to Sunderland made us realise how lucky we were to stay up because, at times, we were the most abysmal team that level of football had seen.

Life and circumstances change, of course. Sunderland are now the ones scrabbling for points and purpose, awaiting a new manager's broom, while City are the freshest thing in football for decades. This weekend's match purveys a distinct shift in power and fortune since the two were last together at the KC, and the only way to wipe that awful memory of that previous meeting is to win, and win well. And then tell the Mackems afterwards that our manager isn't available.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Nathan Doyle, you've been out too long

Hull City's defence needs reshaping this weekend for Sunderland's visit to the KC, as the visitors are Paul McShane's parent club and he's disallowed from playing against them.

He's injured anyway, having been forced off at Liverpool with double vision, the sort of complaint which activates a mandatory rest period insisted upon by the PFA.

It means that Phil Brown needs to sort out the right back role and, experience issues aside, it surely opens the way for the great enigma figure of the first team squad, Nathan Doyle, to make his Premier League bow.

Doyle is someone the club talks about in glowing terms for his talent, attitude and potential. Yet he hardly ever plays. Brown brought him in from Derby in January 2007 as a great hope for the future and yet chooses to keep him in cotton wool constantly.

The youngster is a natural right back, although the evidence of his fistful of first team appearances suggests that he is a go-anywhere performer, capable of playing on the left of defence or anywhere in midfield.

After he joined, we didn't see him until the dead rubber of the last game of that season, a 2-1 home defeat by Plymouth Argyle. City had completed their escape from the drop a week before and so Brown could throw caution to the wind in his final-day selection. Doyle was at right back and looked a little pensive, but fine.

Brown played him in a League Cup win at Crewe early last season. Then off he went into the reserves again, to the extent that he did become literally a forgotten man among the supporters. Then, out of the blue, he was placed on the bench for the win-or-bust last home game against Crystal Palace. Brown slung him on with the game level, and he proceeded to dominate and delight, showing inventive touches and fabulous vision in a wide position, nearly scoring and generally livening up the game and his team-mates. City won 2-1 and were able to take the automatic promotion push to the final game as a result.

Of course, ultimately the play-offs were the Tigers' destiny, and Doyle's cameo against Palace was enough to re-earn him a substitute role at Watford in the first leg of the semi-finals. He came on as a midfielder in the second half and was incredibly exciting, using heel-toe control and feigns that turned opposing defenders inside out. He struck the post with one divine, curling shot - had that gone in it would have made it 3-0 to the Tigers with the home leg to come, and probably would have been enough to secure Doyle a starting role in the second leg and, maybe, Wembley.

As it was, Doyle again came on as a sub - a lot later this time - as the expectant KC bubbled and buzzed with Wembley getting closer. City were 2-1 up on the night and 4-1 on aggregate and so Brown threw him on, presumably with the basic, well-worn instruction to "go and enjoy yourself". He did just that - City had already scored a third on the night when Doyle took a ball down 18 yards from goal and hit a sturdy shot which deflected into the net, made it 6-1 on aggregate and prompted a second minor pitch invasion.

Doyle was on the bench at Wembley but didn't get on, yet his brief cameos at the end of an exhausting and exhilarating campaign made sure he was on people's radars again by the time the process of planning for the Premier League was allowed to become reality. Yet he hasn't been seen this season, aside from a night to forget at left back against Swansea City in the League Cup and a couple of seats on the bench while Anthony Gardner, Andy Dawson and Wayne Brown have been unavailable through injury or loan spells.

Doyle is clearly a fine young player, but is there something that keeps him back? The manager filled the bench at Liverpool with wide midfield players - Richard Garcia, Stelios Giannakopoulos, Peter Halmosi - but not a single natural defender, something which became more stark when McShane had to go off and Bernard Mendy's resourcefulness in midfield had to be sacrificed to fill the gap. Doyle is young but talent has always been able to override inexperience in good footballers, and he certainly fills the latter category.

Dawson is rumoured to be training well this week and if so, his return to left back will probably relieve the McShane-sized problem to its most satisfactory level, as Sam Ricketts can just shift from one flank to the other and restore Dawson to his role on the left.

If Dawson isn't fit though, what next? Will Brown really make Mendy, who forced Liverpool's left back to ring a therapist after the game, drop into defence and curtail all his brilliant attacking instincts? Or will he leave Mendy well alone and look to Doyle, his 21 year old secret weapon, and tell him that his time to be on the teamsheet for as long as he earns it, has finally come?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Norman conquest

It's Sunderland at the KC this weekend, and the first player that leaps to mind as a legend to both clubs is Tony Norman.

I don't know if the Mackems regard him as their greatest ever goalkeeper - as Jimmy Montgomery's longevity and legend still encircles the Stadium of Light, I doubt it - but he is ours. And while Boaz Myhill can still become our top catcher of all time, his fellow Welsh international is still the bees' knees as far as City keeping is concerned.

Norman was everything, just everything, you wanted in a goalkeeper. He was fit, brave, tall, agile, commanding, loyal, uncomplaining, disciplined, trustworthy and just the right side of eccentric. He spent eight years at Boothferry Park and barely missed a match, playing his part in two promotions along the way and being the recipient of those ultimate compliments for a keeper about being worth a fixed number of guaranteed points per season.

However, for all his worth and quality as a goalkeeper, for all his wonder saves and the sense of security he supplied to the back four and the adoring supporters, nothing quite became Norman's career with the Tigers as much as his odd, sudden exit.

Between Christmas and New Year 1988, Sunderland - in the same second tier as City - came in with a stack of cash for Norman. Eddie Gray, City's likeable but feeble manager, decided it wasn't right - not because he wanted Norman to stay, but because he wanted players as part of the deal too. Aside from anything else, only the teenaged Gavin Kelly - a keeper of promise but of continuing rawness as Norman never got injured or dropped his standards - would have been left at the club for the visit of Ipswich to Boothferry Park on New Year's Eve.

Back came Sunderland with another offer - the money, plus a goalkeeper. The goalkeeper was Iain Hesford, Zambia-born, not untalented, but less athletic, less reputable and generally underwhelming physically. In short, he was a bit on the podgy side. He could keep, Gray knew that, but he wasn't Norman. Why did Sunderland want Norman if they were claiming Hesford was a more than adequate replacement? There needed to be more sugar before the medicine could be ingested.

So, finally, Gray decided to stamp his foot and demand that Sunderland striker Billy Whitehurst became part of the deal or none of it would happen. The Mackems agreed instantly. Whitehurst's return to the club where he made his name as a goalscorer, his reputation as no shrinking violet and many thousands of terrace-bound admirers, proved an astute bit of business by Gray - firstly because his return was a success, and secondly because his homecoming very much calmed the indignation at the news that our brilliant keeper had gone.

Hesford, for his part, became something of a laughing stock in his three years with the club. For the first six months he was ace - indeed, he performed some Norman-esque point blank saves (which weren't noticed as Whitehurst scored at the other end) in that game against Ipswich and also for much of the season's remainder. He played his part in City's deceptive run to the fifth round of the FA Cup (although Norman would have saved at least two of Liverpool's goals which ultimately knocked us out) and generally kept goal with competence as the team's fortunes as a whole began to decline.

His subsequent two seasons saw his standards drop considerably, prompting Terry Dolan to bring in Alan Fettis and prepare the young Ulsterman for first team goalkeeping after the 1991 relegation. Fettis, despite local fame for madcap goalscoring rather than exceptional goalkeeping, became a fine custodian for City and eventually left, like Norman, for good money and with a city's sorrow and thanks ringing in his ears.

But he wasn't Norman. Our greatest keeper had been and gone, a keeper whose presence always allowed us a little positivity, a little optimism, that even mild underperformance elsewhere in the team could be alleviated by great goalkeeping at the base of the XI. Hesford soon became a parody of himself, then the 1990s became the decade of keepers whose promise quickly heralded their exit to bigger clubs who weren't skint - Fettis, Roy Carroll, Andy Oakes.

Norman came back to the KC as a VIP guest when Sunderland visited us in the Championship two seasons ago, and got an almighty ovation from all within the walls. He is employed by Sunderland as a goalkeeping coach in their Academy these days, and any youthful keeper from Wearside should feel exceptionally grateful for having this man as their mentor. He was, to a generation of Hull City supporters, the greatest thing in gloves we were ever likely to see.

Monday, 15 December 2008


We're doing well for own goals this season. Four have gone our way so far and it's only December.

Phil Neville headed a corner into his own net at the KC to put City two up against Everton; Noe Pamarot helped a late noser from Dean Windass into the net to earn the Tigers a late draw at Portsmouth; Middlesbrough keeper Ross Turnbull's head diverted a Bernard Mendy shot back into the net at the KC after it initially rebounded from a post; then Jamie Carragher scuffed Mendy's cross into the wrong net at Liverpool.

One more own goal will equal a joint club record of five in a single season. Hull City's iconic 1966 team that won the Third Division title were assisted by five own goals, two of which contributed to six-goal hauls. It's quite perverse to suggest that a team containing Ken Wagstaff, Chris Chilton and Ken Houghton (27, 25 and 22 goals respectively) somehow needed assistance, but on at least one occasion it was the case - a Christmas victory over Millwall at Boothferry Park, where the solitary goal of the game was scored by an embarrassed member of the opposition.

The other season with five own goals was the 2001 play-off campaign under Brian Little, two of which came in the same game against Cardiff City as City won thanks wholly to Danny Gabbidon and David Greene finding their own net.

The pre-war era seems to represent a dearth of own goals. The "best" was three in City's 1931 season, at the end of which City came sixth in the old Division Three (North).

My favourite own goal in City's favour came in Peter Taylor's final season, the 2006 Championship campaign. Ryan France crossed a little too deeply, and Wolves left back Rob Edwards, for reasons he'd never be able to explain, chose not to let the ball drift out of play but instead tried to clear the ball over his own head. He proceeded to spoon a horrific (but amusing) hook over both himself and his goalkeeper from an acute angle to get an underwhelming City level at 2-2, although Wolves ultimately still left the KC as 3-2 victors. The incident was as memorable for Glenn Hoddle's crazy reaction in the technical area as for the weirdness of the own goal itself.

I would suggest, without any science to back me up, that four own goals in our favour is another line of proof of City's worthiness in the Premier League. While Pamarot was just in the wrong place and Turnbull the victim of freakish circumstances, certainly the Neville and Carragher own goals were scored because of intense pressure each were put under by something good from the Tigers - a beastly, whipping corner kick and Mendy's glorious, flowing run and cross respectively - and that can be added to our list of applaudable virtues this season.

Hull City. Good at making Premier League defenders throw wobblers and find their own net. I like that.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

17: Liverpool 2 - 2 Hull City - 12/12/2008

An inexhaustible wave of attacks it may have been, but successful repellence is never quite afforded the attention or the congratulation of the floundered assault. And while other teams are being slaughtered in the media for putting ten men behind the ball on the more prestigious (and less winnable) Premier League occasions, Hull City are choosing to go on the attack at these places.

Somehow, oddly, the Tigers are still cast as naive, gung-ho, fortunate or irresponsible when such progressive tactics - ergo, to play football during a football match - appear to come off. That fur-coated Phil Brown is unhappy that Liverpool were permitted to come from two down by a mixture of brief concentration lapses from both his defenders and the referee is maybe an indication of how much he expects from a team doing the unexpectable, and how far he knows they've already blossomed.

Liverpool, designs more on the Premier League crown than ever, will be vilified for drawing a second half blank after clawing it all back in the first, but City are the ones who deserve to absorb the attention. It was a courageous rearguard, never negatively inviting the next wave of attacks while merely making sure each was sponged up and squeezed away efficiently, and sometimes heroically.

And those heroics were devised in the first half when two quick goals made the wannabe masters of the English game spend most of the match chasing, rescuing and, finally, trying desperately to prove none of it ever happened.

They failed.

Brown picked ten of the eleven who began against Middlesbrough last week, with Dean Marney - a little bereft lately - being asked to put his feet up on the bench and Bernard Mendy, that greatly gifted and engimatic loony, finally getting the starting role that his crazy cameos have deserved. There were no defenders on the bench at all, something which would prove a key factor in the game's topsy-turvy plot. Liverpool have no Fernando Torres at the moment, while Robbie Keane's troubled time earned him a mere sub's spot.

Liverpool, especially while Torres is crocked, are the most one-manned team I have ever watched. There is guile and energy within Dirk Kuyt and resourcefulness from Yossi Benayoun, but essentially the tactic involves getting the ball to Steven Gerrard and waiting to anticipate what he may try to do with it. Gerrard is such a phenomenon that against unmotivated sides who just want to escape Anfield without a crushed goal difference, he can literally do it all by himself. Against professional, engaging teams like Hull City, he needs the assistance of others. And for the most part he didn't get it.

Liverpool not unexpectedly stretched City in the opening ten minutes with powerful Gerrard-helmed attacks which Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte dismantled with aplomb, helped in no uncertain terms by captain Ian Ashbee, who was tremendous as a blocker, cajoler and manipulator. Within this barrage of red-shirted ball-hogging came the first of numerous controversial non-decisions.

Sam Ricketts
gave Nick Barmby running room down the left, and the ex-Liverpool player opted for an instant cross on the turn which a sliding Javier Mascherano blocked quite obviously with his hand. Alan Wiley, our Wembley and Arsenal referee, didn't give the penalty. It seemed a poor and flimsy decision on his behalf. Michael Turner reached the ball from Marlon King's corner but headed over.

Moot point #1 then. City should have had a penalty. Still, justice would not be far away, although Turner and Ashbee both had to throw themselves into meaty low drives from Benayoun and Albert Riera as Liverpool pressed towards the Kop. Eventually, however, all would be well.

Mendy was the architect, again, for City's grandest moments. Pace, power and an unreadable mind are his three major strengths and in full flow he gave Andrea Dossena the complete runaround. It was fantastic to watch a Hull City player giving a Liverpool full back a severe footballing telling-off. Not since Gary Ablett fell over in 1989 to allow Billy Whitehurst a goal has a Liverpool star been so conclusively rubbished by a City player. Mendy was fouled by Sami Hyypia after doing Dossena, and Geovanni swung in a slightly overhit free kick which King chased, collected and re-delivered for Paul McShane to climb skywards and nod the ball over Jose Reina.

City lead 1-0 at Liverpool. Crumbs.

Mendy then did Dossena even more laughably, crossing eventually for King to get on to his right and fire a shot which was deflected away. A second goal, madly, seemed to be likely. The Kop was silent and the rest of Anfield which wasn't decked in black and amber was like a cemetery throughout. Old Trafford and Anfield aren't as dissimilar as mawkish, red-sided Liverpudlians would have you believe. They were in trouble and knew it, but their reaction to being in trouble was to refuse to encourage their team.

So City had another go. Even the supremely gifted Geovanni was bowing to Mendy at this point. Any opportunity he had, he would feed th rampaging Frenchman and Dossena would steel himself for another act of ritual humiliation. So, on 21 minutes, Mendy receives the ball, sends Dossena to the turf and flies to the line, finally putting in a ball intended for Barmby's arrival but steered into his own net by a panic-stricken Jamie Carragher. City are two up.

Immediately, Liverpool pulled one back. They shouldn't have been allowed to, as Turner was evidently dragged to the ground as the ball was chipped in, leaving Gerrard with a tap-in. No decision given, except to award a goal. Moot point #2 then.

Gerrard had another crack three minutes later which Kuyt tried to deflect goalwards but only succeeded in altering the ball's course as far as any hope of beating Boaz Myhill was concerned. Instantly, McShane was substituted. He'd taken a facial whack which had affected his vision, but with Andy Dawson and Anthony Gardner injured, Wayne Brown as out of favour as any player could be and, most strangely, Nathan Doyle overlooked, City had no defender to bring on. Even Ryan France, a practised but not specialist right back, would have sufficed. But it was Marney who was introduced and Mendy who shifted backwards to adopt McShane's position. Our biggest threat had been snuffed out for tactical reasons, and City were not favoured by it.

By the half hour, all was square. Riera and Kuyt combined elegantly and swiftly to give Gerrard another chance on a plate, and Myhill was powerless to prevent the ball hitting the top of his net. But again, Turner was bundled to the ground and again Mr Wiley chose not to award the foul. Moot point #3.

The rest of the first half, aside from a wide-angled Geovanni shot which the cocky Reina collected at the second go, involved City in their own box. It seemed almost obvious that Liverpool would still lead at the break despite going two goals adrift. Riera fired a shot just wide, the excellent Xabi Alonso curled one peach inches away from the post, and Barmby got back to implement a stunning block on Benayoun as the winger homed in on Myhill's goal from a sharp counter attack.

City were shellshocked to the extent that the noisest Tiger Nation members were rendered almost wholly silent. Brown began waving at them to regenerate the atmosphere created solely by the travelling supporters. This canny operator knew that appreciating the fans when they weren't there - as silent fans seem to be - would get more out of them when they were. There was no more silence for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the break came and a breathless set of spectators mooched to the concourses at 2-2.

Not a great number of chances at the Kop end for City once the game restarted, really. What was created was promising, especially as Liverpool became more and more desperate to show that they can beat this group of overbearing gatecrashers with ideas above their station. They piled forward, we soaked it up then occasionally launched good, promising breaks. But in essence, the second half was almost exclusively about keeping Liverpool away.

Gerrard aimed a corner on to Hyypia's head, and the long-serving Fin aimed his header low to Myhill's right, ultimately touching the post with it. Myhill double-fisted away a cracking Riera drive while Turner, Zayatte and especially Ashbee called upon all their passion, masculinity and willpower to get in the way of everything and everyone whose purpose was to billow the Tigers' net. They were spectacularly good at it too.

George Boateng
, his usual quiet, personable midfield self, was withdrawn for Peter Halmosi as Brown looked to restore a wider element to City's possession play, previously absent since Mendy's forced transfer to the defence. Halmosi was disappointing though, and arguably for the first time in his cameo-ridden City career thus far. On at least three occasions he had room and time for his left foot to get a ball towards King or Geovanni on the edge of the Liverpool box but his conveyance of the ball was not good.

The Brazilian, as fruitful in possession as ever, had one hopeful counter attack across the middle but swung his shot way too high into the Kop. Liverpool regrouped and continued what was largely becoming a one-way passage of play. This usually involved giving it to Gerrard and seeing what he could do.

Alonso swerved one shot on to the roof of Myhill's net, and Gerrard put another corner on to Hyypia's head which this time caused fewer problems than the one which struck the woodwork. Brown brought Dean Windass on for Barmby - who had a superb match - but Rafael Benitez chose not to introduce Robbie Keane, instead preferring less tested substitutes as he decided extra width was the issue, not bodies in the box. He may have regretted this as Turner and Ashbee both put glorious, crunching tackles in on Gerrard, while the maligned Kuyt miscued one chance over the bar from a close enough range to suggest he was having a guff day.

Nabil El Zhar, one of the fledgling subs, hit a sturdy shot which Myhill spilled before re-grasping as Gerrard came close to committing himself to kicking a ball which would, in the split-second it takes to move one's foot back, would have instead morphed into Myhill's head.

Four minutes were added, and City delightfully maintained most of the possession for its duration. The draw was secure and was celebrated like a win, with a mild undercurrent of feeling a chance missed, when the whistle went.

That's another game undefeated away from home - only the 4-3 at Manchester United blots our travellers' copybook - and we are, simply, the most interesting, enlightening and exciting thing in English football right now; an exercise in togetherness, determination, skill, spirit and eagerness to enjoy the experience. We're still sixth, a position we've monopolised for some time now, and with managerless Sunderland and rudderless Manchester City up next, we've got some real bargains to grab this Christmas.

Liverpool should have won, of course. But they should also be grateful they got a point. That's how we feel, and we have every right to. This ride continues and anybody who wants to get off should be sent straight to the funny farm.

Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Carragher, Dossena, Mascherano (Leiva Lucas 87), Alonso, Benayoun (El Zhar 74), Gerrard, Riera (Babel 82), Kuyt. Subs not used: Cavalieri, Agger, Keane, Ngog.

Hull City
: Myhill, McShane (Marney 27), Zayatte, Turner, Ricketts, Mendy, Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 66), Geovanni, Barmby (Windass 77), King. Subs not sed: Warner, Garcia, Cousin, Giannakopoulos.

Friday, 12 December 2008

"Chubby, ginger, never-seen-again winger..."

Hull City go to Liverpool this weekend for a Premier League game. The clubs haven't been in the same division since 1960, so a smattering of Cup ties are all the clubs have in common over for almost 50 years. The last such occasion was nine seasons ago, when the League Cup pitched Warren Joyce's heroic escape actors with Gerard Houllier's squad of gifted underachievers. Boyhood Dreams asked JAMES RICHARDSON to reminisce...

It may have been mentioned elsewhere but City are in Liverpool this weekend and the last time the team strode out beyond the "This is Anfield" sign, some nine years ago, it was a game to remember for one crazy five-minute period of the second half.

Let me set the scene. September 1999 and City drew Liverpool in the second round of the League (then known as Worthington) Cup. It was the draw to get, as Liverpool had failed to qualify for Europe and therefore had to take part in the competition one round earlier than they'd normally expect. What was even better was that the game was played when the League Cup was still a two-legged affair in every round and we got the chance to travel to Anfield as well as host Michael Owen and Co at Boothferry Park.

Owen, making his return after the first of many hamstring injuries, was the star attraction for the first leg at home and more than 10,000 people, along with the Sky cameras, saw his comeback. They didn't see Owen score - he was marked superbly by Justin Whittle - but they did see City get comfortably beaten 5-1 by a mixture of Liverpool's occasional first team players and reserves. David Brown grabbed a toe-prodded close range consolation with City already 3-0 down. Ho hum.

So to the second leg and 5,000 members of the Tiger Nation crossed the Pennines and were shoehorned into the lower tier of the Anfield Road end, in attendance more for the sense of occasion than realistic hope of getting any kind of result. The ground itself was only just half full and as a result the fabled Kop wall of sound welcome was lacking the punch I suspect it'll have this weekend.

For the first thirty minutes City were dogged in defence and tried to utilise the three-pronged attack of Brown, Colin Alcide and Jamie Wood. Wood was included after an impressive showing in the previous league game against Swansea, scoring from 20 yards with his first touch after coming on as a substitute, although later showings that season would suggest he was attempting to trap the ball rather than shoot.

Unfortunately for Wood, he was to be withdrawn shortly after Danny Murphy opened the scoring for Liverpool. Rigobert Song's long pass caught the City defence out and Lee Bracey's cavalier-esque charge outside his area to clear the ball led to him handling it before knocking it away. Bracey was shown his second red card of the season, Wood was withdrawn and rookie keeper Matt Baker stood between the sticks. Down to ten men, at Anfield. Oh dear.

Chubby, ginger never-seen-again winger Layton Maxwell scored Liverpool's second immediately after half time and then things went a little bit odd. A City attack draw a foul and a penalty in front of a grinning away end. John Eyre runs up and lobs the ball straight down the middle of Brad Friedel's goal, it is the perfect penalty.

A man down, City have scored at Anfield and five minutes later, they did it again. A long punt from Baker finds Alcide running through on goal, a frantic Traore flattens Friedel and Alcide chips the ball over them both and into the net. Cue massive hysteria amongst the massed black and amber ranks. 2-2 at Anfield? With ten men? Yes, so we were 7-3 down in the tie but who cares, we'd drawn level on the night. Chants bellowed out as we gleefully reminded our hosts of our numerical disadvantage and a well-worn alternate version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" was sung heartily.

The level scoreline only lasted for another ten minutes, Karl Heinz Riedle scoring from close range and then right at the death adding a flattering fourth for Liverpool on the night and a crushing 9-3 aggregate win. It didn't matter. You can't ask for much more than pride and passion in such a game and City managed that. For ten surreal minutes it felt like we were on top of the world.

James Richardson is a contributor to Amber Nectar.