Sunday, 25 January 2009

FA Cup fourth round: Hull City 2 - 0 Millwall - 24/01/2009

The headlines following this game had, of course, little to do with football. The return of Millwall as a force for hooliganism in an era where such neanderthal behaviour seemed to have been eradicated has swept aside any mention of on-pitch action barring the cursory 'wrap up' paragraph.

Hypocrisy is never slow to appear in a cell next to a drunken football supporter with blood on his face. The sound of Millwall fans bleating on radio phone-ins last night about how they were as much the victims as villains and were being cast by their past reputation was as humorous as it was pathetic. One in particular didn't see the self-incrimination which came with the statement: "And they were throwing the seats back at us."

The Tiger Nation has never shaken off its unattractive splinter groups and weren't blameless. But the crying and protesting of visiting supporters about how they were provoked by some harsh words is hysterical. At every football ground in the country there is chanting which is not designed to flatter the visiting fans. It's part of the game's fabric. And when these fans travel to away games, they get as good as previously given. Yet not one set of supporters from a Premier League club has kicked off at the KC Stadium due to unflattering comments. This makes the Millwall fans who did a) immature, and b) hypocritical. As well as thick.

For those of us at a reasonably safe distance, it was a faintly amusing sight to see these imbeciles get so worked up and yet not quite have the nerve, even before the riot police turned up, to try to cross the short divide between the north and east. Occasionally it got a bit more vociferous but until the seats began flying into the City fans in the second half, was well contained by the stewards while we waited for the narks and their truncheons to join us. It's good to see that Millwall FC have condemned the supporters involved via an official statement on their website, and they can probably expect a bill from Paul Duffen before long.

Nothing can be condoned, but it did mean we had a spectacle to grab your attention because the game wasn't up to much. The idea with playing a League One side in an FA Cup tie is to win it as comfortably as possible and not pick up injuries. Millwall's players and their sharpened elbows did their best to inflict superficial injuries on City's players but the job was largely carried out to plan.

Jimmy Bullard was paraded to an enormous welcome prior to the match - illness stopped him from partaking - and after he took his seat to watch his new pals in action, the teams emerged. Phil Brown had elected to field an authentic, unfussy 4-4-2, with Tony Warner featuring for the first time in goal (against his former club) and Andy Dawson a heartwarming sight at left back after 11 long weeks of Achilles bother. Manucho partnered Daniel Cousin up front and there were further chances for Peter Halmosi and Richard Garcia in the wide positions and Dean Marney in the centre. Millwall didn't select ex-City striker Gary Alexander, who was a sub.

Halmosi had the first chance of what was a personally frustrating showing for him, hitting a low shot from distance which Millwall custodian David Forde spilled and then held. The early stages showcased the Millwall players' own willingness to use violence to promote their needs, with Kamil Zayatte taking an elbow in the face early on and needing a dressing and a fresh shirt, while niggly challenges were commonplace as the desire to stop the Premier League side getting comfortable on the ball took priority.

No matter, as the ball was soon in their net anyway. Sam Ricketts was fouled near the right corner flag, and Dawson whipped in one of those electrifying free kicks which we've so missed. Michael Turner's head was first to connect and although Forde got a paw on the ball, it was heading only for the visitors' net.

This early fillip didn't quite settle City down, and the game as a whole was still proving something of a sideshow as the war of words continued in the crowd. The visitors had half an opportunity when Izale McLeod, as much by luck as by touch, weaved through three challenges but let his nerves crush him as he shaped to shoot, scuffing the chance badly wide.

Most of the half was subsequently a non-event as far as footballing prowess was concerned. One remarkable gaffe came courtesy of Warner, whose studs gave way as he prepared to put his boot through a simple Ian Ashbee backwards ball. He fell to the deck and McLeod seemed set to find an empty net but the keeper managed to leap across and grasp the ball from the striker's toes and hold it to his chest, giving away a free kick within the box in the process. They wasted it when Lewis Grabban scooped the chance well wide.

When Cousin was savagely sliced down near the touchline, a free kick was given. As the hoots of derision regarding yet another act of thuggery on a City players sounded menacingly from the paying audience, attention switched to Dawson, who had taken a shrouded and sneaky elbow to the face seconds earlier and was face down on the edge of the penalty area. That he wasn't exaggerating was obvious when he got to his feet and charged towards the assistant referee with a puddle of his own blood covering his forehead and nose. It was a deep head wound and had gone unnoticed and unpunished. Such was the anger and debate on the pitch that the referee, Stuart Attwell, felt it necessary to get the captains together and instruct them to restore calm among their charges.

Millwall could have equalised - entirely undeservedly - right on half time when McLeod headed down David Martin's cross into the gloriously-paved path of Marc Laird, but he miskicked.

The second half was even less attractive to watch, both because the Millwall fans were feeling braver - sort of - and the players were struggling to feign interest. Marney was the best player on show in the second half, making plenty of runs and declaring his availability for possession in all corners of the field. Cousin's workrate was exceptional and, albeit against League One defenders, he proved he possessed a silky touch and incisive possessional skills as well as his obvious strength and aerial threat.

Manucho, with telescopic limbs that made one recall Ricardo Vaz Te (let's hope the similarity ends there), hooked one volley too high and then Marney charged through four tackles with real heart and determination before a last-ditch toe took the chance away as he shaped to shoot.

Brown did what he always does in Cup ties when he threw on Nicky Featherstone for some welcome first-team action, withdrawing the deeply disappointing Halmosi. Even against lower division opposition, Halmosi couldn't get into the game, with his touch poor and his decision-making as far as timing and direction very much off the boil. He has a long contract and maybe Brown is close to deciding he is one summer investment which hasn't worked. Do not expect to see him anywhere near West Ham United on Wednesday evening.

Featherstone, however, looked resourceful upon his introduction, curling one very tidy cross on to Manucho's head at the far post, but the angle was very tight and he could only aim it straight at Forde. Millwall then introduced Alexander to generous applause, while Brown threw on a hyper Caleb Folan who committed two bookable fouls in his first five minutes and was the luckiest man alive when Mr Attwell chose only to give him a lecture for the second, having waved yellow for the first.

Still just one goal separated two sides of vastly disparate abilities, so the fear that a freak equaliser may make us go through utter hell down in south London was still extremely real. Up steps the captain to soothe our nerves. Marney made the break, Cousin took the pass and made up the ground before laying the ball back for Ashbee to slam a curling, distinctly unAshbee-like shot past Forde and in via the woodwork. A tremendous goal not befitting of the game, but certainly a fabulous way to guarantee fifth round activity for Hull City for the first time in 20 years.

Four minutes were added and little happened, and the fallout was all about the altercations and bluster on the terraces. Reports seeped through later about Millwall fans rampaging through a couple of nearby pubs and bits of the town centre, and late night news bulletins reported 12 arrests. It's the sort of game which should make the authorities impose a travelling ban on Millwall fans, but presumably the pro-liberty organisations will kick up a stink were it to be suggested as a serious solution. For all that football seemed a secondary issue, we can be grateful that these toerags didn't leave Hull with a victory and a giant-killing on their hands as well as paint from their seats and bruises from the truncheons.

Hull City: Warner, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Garcia, Ashbee, Marney, Halmosi (Featherstone 66), Cousin, Manucho (Folan 75). Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Geovanni, France, Mendy.

Millwall: Forde, Dunne, Robinson, Craig, Frampton, Grabban (Hackett 77), Laird, Abdou, Martin (Grimes 77), Harris, McLeod (Alexander 74). Subs not used: Pidgeley, Kandol, O'Connor, Fuseini.