Sunday, 4 January 2009

FA Cup 3rd round: Hull City 0 - 0 Newcastle United - 03/01/2009

So, where did it all go wrong, then?

Maybe that's a bit harsh, but there are more than a few of us around - in years generally the wrong side of 35 – who can still remember when the third round of the Cup was without doubt one of the more stirring events of the season, especially if, like me, you cut your City-supporting teeth on a diet of mid-table Division 2 (that’s now the Championship, kids) obscurity, usually so firmly nailed-on by Christmas that the Cup was pretty much all there was to look forward to. But there was plenty of looking forward to be had: the excitement of going into the hat for round three, if you were lucky to get home from school for lunch the dry-mouthed excitement of Jimmy Young on the Light Programme (that’s now Radio 2, kids) being interrupted in order to go live to Bryon Butler in the ante-room, and finally the move into the committee room for the draw, conducted by dusty old men who just treated this momentous occasion as another item on the agenda, while if you weren't at home there were the false rumours sweeping the school, always put about by the kids who smelled of dried pee, until you got home and found out that Spurs at home was actually Stoke away. Yes, the third round of the Cup always brightened up that flat time after Christmas and the New Year were over and life returned to normal.

It isn't like that any more, sadly. The financial importance of the League – whether it be in terms of promotions, championships or survival – is so all-consuming these days that participation in the Cup is seen by clubs and players as a mere chore rather than an end in itself. Some of us wait in hope (in vain, more likely) for the day when the Cup winners are given a Champions League spot (ideally one of only two, the other going to the Premier League winners, but that really is fantasyland, one suspects) or some enterprising sponsor, realising what a marketable product the Cup actually is, bankrolls the prize money to such an extent that clubs have to take it seriously. Then, and only then, will the FA Cup be accorded the respect and gravitas - from within as well as without the footballing world – that that august competition so richly deserves.

This weekend's experience in many respects epitomised what the FA Cup has become. A less than full ground for the first time this season (albeit a crowd still north of 20,000, including about 3,000 Geordies, one of whom I took great delight in correcting when, as my train into Hull neared journey's end, he pointed out the Boothferry Park floodlight pylons and intoned confidently to his mates: "That's Hull Kingston Rovers' ground over there"), two palpably below-strength teams (Joe Kinnear citing a long injury list as the reason for his selection and Phil Brown not even bothering to make any excuses), and a game which, while passable enough, was distinctly short on the sort of intensity and passion that one can expect to witness when the Magpies come back to Hull for the League fixture. You were just sort of left with the feeling at the end that there was something lacking. The paradox in all this, of course, is that the players (probably the same ones) will, because nobody managed to score, have to go through the motions all again a week on Wednesday.

All in all, an undistinguished game involving two teams not as committed as they ought to have been. For all of that, City created the bulk of the chances and ought really to have killed the tie off.

It was a freezing cold day in Hull, although spirits were warmed by the return to first-team goalkeeping action of Matt Duke, and it was nice – in a sentimental sort of way - to see Nathan Doyle get a run-out and Stelios Giannakopoulos be given a start. In the absence of Ian Ashbee, it was George Boateng that took the captain’s armband. Biggest talking point in the Newcastle line-up was the presence of Scouse thug Danny Guthrie, roundly and deservedly booed by the home crowd whenever he got near the play.

The action was a little sparse, but here goes. City kicked off playing towards the North Stand as usual, but it was the visitors who had the best of the early stages, many of the better opportunities falling mercifully to the one-time City target Andy Carroll, a veritable model of ineptitude from beginning to end. He alone spawns four chances in the first twenty minutes, only one of which so much a vaguely threatens the City goal: firstly, he heads straight at Duke, then has a weak header cannon off a City defender, then shot wide after being set up by Guthrie and finally manages to force the Duke into a proper save with a header. In the midst of all of that, though, Newcastle should have gone in front after about a quarter of an hour when emergency centre-half Paul McShane, whose performance generally provided a graphic testimony to the absence of proper centre-back cover for Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte, which sorely needs to be addressed during the course of this month, turned a three yard start on Michael Owen into a one-yard deficit all within about five yards as the ball came bouncing up the middle, only the alertness of Duke as he came early off his line causing the man who once bought an entire street to rush his lob and slice it harmlessly wide.

As for City, Geovanni produces a save from the immaculate Shay Given about ten minutes in, and not long before half-time a superb run from the lively Craig Fagan (for my money our best player, and recipient of the loudest cheer of the afternoon when he sent Guthrie flying in the second half) set up Daniel Cousin whose low powerful drive forced Given into a fine diving stop.

Many would argue that the real talking point of the half was the display of referee Chris Foy, who seemed at times to be waging a bit of a vendetta against the City players, a succession of whose names found their way into the book for, it has to be said, a pretty innocuous array of alleged misdemeanours. Of particular interest was the cautioning of McShane for questioning the decision of a linesman – a stark contrast to the antics of the Aston Villa players last Tuesday when they thought they had conceded a penalty.

Into the second period, and whereas City were slightly the inferior of the two teams in the first half the final 45 minutes were well and truly ours. Not that we made it count, mind. We get off on a fairly anxious footing as the City crowd guffaws at the appearance in the North stand of the "Cockney Mafia Out" banner, when a dreadful miskick by Duke (whose kicking was pretty poor all afternoon) falls invitingly for Owen to chase. The Newcastle striker is clattered to the floor by the City netminder in circumstances in which one frequently sees 'em given, and a sigh of relief is breathed.

Boateng, under defensive pressure, fires tamely and his shot is saved, and Cousin then tests the keeper a little more searchingly but with the same end result and, you sense, nothing is going to get past Given this afternoon. Two incidents which occur in rapid succession around the 70-minute mark only serve to reinforce that view. First of all, a City free-kick out wide on the left is whipped viciously goalwards by Geovanni, but just as the leather looks destined to curl into the top far corner Given somehow claws it away. Two minutes later and finally Given is beaten, but sadly Nicky Butt gets just enough of a touch to Turner’s goalbound header from a corner to deflect it onto the inside of the post and down onto the line where it is duly flopped upon by a grateful keeper, amidst mild appeals from the South Stand that the ball has crossed the line.

And that proves to be as near as we are going to get. Marlon King comes on for Cousin, who has toiled in a difficult formation (notionally 4-4-2, but Fagan – himself by this time replaced by Peter Halmosi - didn’t seem to be operating as an out-and-out striker) and has little more success.

We continue to have the lion’s share of the ball, although less so than in the third quarter of the game, but don’t in truth look likely to do a lot with it. Relatively speaking, it’s pedestrian stuff by now, although in the two minutes of added time one final desperate attempt by City to avoid a replay is twice thwarted by the deeply-disappointing Giannakpoulous, who in the space of five seconds takes the ball off the toes of both Dean Marney and King, both of whom were in threatening positions at the time.

And that’s it. Nils each, as the away fans would have it, bringing with it the prospect of a trip to the North East that would, in the heyday of Bryon Butler, have promised an evening of Geordie passion. It’s hard on this showing from both teams to prepare oneself for anything other than more of the same, possibly culminating in a penalty shoot-out, but at least Newcastle races are on (so I am reliably informed) that day, so at least it’s chance for the Get Carter fans among us to dust off the Michael Caine impressions.

Hull City: Duke, Doyle, Turner, McShane, Ricketts, Fagan (Halmosi 73), Giannakopoulos, Boateng, Marney, Geovanni, Cousin (King 73). Subs not used: Ashbee, France, Zayatte, Warner, Featherstone.

Newcastle United: Given, Coloccini, Bassong, Taylor, Jose Enrique, Duff, Guthrie, Butt, N'Zogbia (Gutierrez 36), Owen, Carroll. Subs not used: Harper, Xisco, Geremi, Kadar, Edgar, LuaLua.