Friday, 27 February 2009

FA Cup fifth round replay: Hull City 2 - 1 Sheffield United - 26/02/2009

If truth be told, Hull City could probably have done without the FA Cup this season. As heart-sinking as the claim of a "distraction" is when referring to this grand old lady of footballing competitions, there is an educated theory that fewer extra games could have helped the Tigers as they struggled to rediscover Premier League form.

But not now. A jaunt to or even beyond the quarter finals, however fortuitously or half-interestedly, might just be the season's saviour. This is because it's a first for so many Hull City supporters, with almost four decades having passed since the last time the Tigers bothered the last eight.

The confidence that a Cup run can bring to a club and a squad cannot be underestimated. yes it brings extra games, extra pressure, extra toll on fotness, but ultimately football is about competitive action with silverware awaiting iof you happen to be good enough.

Victory over Sheffield United - an expression itself heard infrequently even by veteran supporters of the Tigers, irrespctive of the nature of the fixture - in this less than compelling replay has taken the club somewhere few people have ever seen it before. If Wembley last May was a genuine club first, then an FA Cup quarter final certainly feels like one.

The defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night made tonight's replay almost irritating by its very presence, with the desire to rest and recuperate before the next gargantuan Premier League task this weekend, but at the same time Phil Brown has never been afraid to let squad players infiltrate his thinking when changes seem inevitable and a Cup tie proves an excellent stage on which the fringe players can audition for the bigger occasions to come.

To that end, Brown made ample changes to the team that was suckerpunched by Spurs. As teased by the manager on the fans' forum, Caleb Folan got his opportunity up front and had the unshakeable presence of Nick Barmby alongside him. Peter Halmosi and Ryan France were in midfield, with Bernard Mendy returning, while Nathan Doyle started at right back, with Kamil Zayatte returning to defence and Sam Ricketts swapping full back roles. Boaz Myhill, now consigned to the role of Cup keeping relief, duly played in goal. Dean Marney, like the initial game at Bramall Lane, wore the captain's armband.

The opening 20 minutes proved to be City's brightest. Barmby clearly felt he could halt the slide on his own, chasing lost causes with vigour and showing, as always, that his touch is exquisite and his vision immeasurable. Marney, meanwhile, wanted more ball than he has ever wanted in his City career, and utterly dominated the midfield. Chances came, although the first went to the visitors when Brian Howard scampered after a bouncing ball and hooked it across, where Greg Halford climbed highest but, gratifyingly not carbon copying his goal from the first game, headed too high.

A fine ball by Marney to the left set Halmosi clear of his marker, and his pull back was half volleyed a foot too high by a well-positioned Barmby. Pressure stayed on the Blades, and after forcing a corner, Halmosi duly swung it in for Zayatte to flick wide of the near post - this meant both scorers from the first game had spurned early chances to score identical goals.

Undeterred, City went at them again. Marney sprayed a gorgeous ball for Mendy to chase, and the cross was again cleared for a corner. Marney took it and Folan saw his goalbound header unluckily deflected wide.

Marney was in his element. When he is on form, he seems unstoppable and certainly irrepressible. His energy and endeavour has been his saving grace when product has lacked, but when his obvious craft is working he is an extremely effective footballer. This was, in the early stages, his night.

A counter attack is led by Halmosi, whose deftly heeled flick finds the supporting Marney whose return ball gives the Hungarian some space on the edge of the area where he is brought down by Kyle Naughton. Cries for a red card are ignored as the defender gets yellow - the question of a goalscoring position is irrelevant more because Halmosi had never scored for City than any other reason - and Marney belts the free kick into the wall.

Still the pressure tries to tell. Folan does well to chase a ball to the corner flag and squeeze a pass into Doyle's path. The full back's swerving centre is headed wide by Halmosi.

For all the chances being created, nothing's going City's way. In recent weeks luck has been notable by its absence and cursed for it, and so it is with incredulity and relief that the visitors become architects of the goal that will finally break the deadlock in the Tigers' favour.

Doyle's swinging cross seems too high and too long but Naughton, panicking and totally unaware of where he was, blasted a header towards his own goal on the presumption that he thought he was about to be clobbered by a City player (there was nobody close enough) and got his bearings spectacularly wrong. The ball hit the bar, bounced down and out and it was the assistant referee who signalled that it had crossed the line.

Someone with no sense whatsoever at the KC Stadium chose to show the replay in slow motion from the one angle which allowed the ball's landing spot to be less conclusive. The Sheffield United supporters were livid and both managers - for differing reasons - also egestured their displeasure; presumably Kevin Blackwell was angry about the goal being given, whereas Brown would have been infuriated by the decision to show it. Such controversial moments are always barred from replay on stadium screens for fear of causing ill-feeling. Imagine if this had been Millwall in the last round...

Still, a goal was given and claims were later made that any number of differing angles proved it was correct. The officials thought so and that's ultimately the opinion that matters. Yet with a mixture of perversion and inevitability, it seemed to galvanise the visitors and mute the Tigers.

Stephen Quinn had Myhill scrambling with a dipping shot from distance before Halford's race down the line resulted in Lee Hendrie being left distressingly free on the far post to head across the six yard box for Billy Sharp to touch home. Again, City had removed their throttle foot and been devastatingly punished for it. The trouble was they then had real trouble getting it back on.

There were fewer than 15 minutes remaining of the half and, barring a near post shot from Mendy which Paddy Kenny beat out, Sheffield United were entirely in charge of them. Sharp, Hendrie and the impressive - again - David Cotterill all had half opportunities during one comical scramble which showcased terrible attempts at marking and clearing by the Tigers. That no goal resulted was a minor miracle.

Sharp broke a tight offside trap to control a Hendrie through ball and while the baying for a flag hit peak pitch, he went flying under a Zayatte challenge. It looked a certain penalty and, indeed, the whistle went - but Sharp was booked for diving. Very harsh.

Half time came and little had changed. It was 1-1, like it was at half time at the first attempt a dozen days ago, and City had gone from bright and effective to stunted and dishevelled. The prospect of extra time had gone from being dreaded to being, to some, the best hope. Fortunately, City's second half display allowed confidence to return just as quickly to the seats as it had to the field.

Mendy broke thrillingly down the flank and fed Doyle's overlap, with the cross headed goalwards by Barmby, but Kenny just sneaked in before Halmosi could connect. No matter. Before long Doyle had again found room on the right to feed the tireless Barmby's supporting run, and the cross was impeccably aimed on to Halmosi's studs, and the ball trudged past Kenny and into the corner.

Halmosi has flattered to deceive, at best, since joining City. But this - his first goal for the club - may just give him the shot in the arm he clearly and desperately needs. He has pace and talent but has struggled to adapt to life with the Tigers but the relief on his face and the joy of his team-mates on his behalf suggests there may be more life in the Hungarian yet.

A third goal would be most welcome now, just to slow our heart rates a little. Ricketts found room to cross from the left for Mendy to head wide, then Kenny and his defenders got all a dither as Barmby tried to muscle in on a loose ball.

Michael Turner headed a Marney corner wide prior to the luckless, industrious Folan leaving the pitch with an injury, looking very upset. Manucho replaced him.

Cotterill curled a shot high and wide in a rare Blades attack as Myhill remonstrated with the referee for not giving a free kick when Halford stuck his backside into him. With 20 minutes to go, the visitors began to squeeze the Tigers a little more, but chances of a reasonably grabbable nature were negligible. The last 20 minutes was grafting and slow and incident-free. And, frankly, entertainment-free too.

Kenny went up for a corner in injury time and nearly got done at the other end when Marney counter attacked, but the acting skipper sensibly chose to run for the corner rather than try a showbiz shot from distance. The final whistle was greeted with relief and no little pleasure at such a rare Hull City achievement in this era of rare and unique Hull City achievements. The fact it was achieved without the need to bring priceless performers like Geovanni, Daniel Cousin or Anthony Gardner off the bench was a splendid bonus.

Barmby should certainly keep his place on Sunday when Blackburn Rovers come to the KC Stadium, but there are others who could also feel confident of staying on the sheet, beyond the shoo-ins of Turner, Mendy, Marney and Ricketts. Whether the progress in the FA Cup shapes a change in Premier League fortune remains to be seen, but it can't do any harm. Arsenal or Burnley away next, and even if it's the Gunners in the last eight, why not dream of Wembley again now?

Hull City: Myhill, Doyle, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Mendy, France, Marney, Halmosi, Barmby (Garcia 73), Folan (Manucho 65). Subs not used: Warner, Geovanni, Cousin, Featherstone, Gardner.

Sheffield Utd: Kenny, Naughton, Morgan, Walker, Naysmith (Jihai 88), Cotterill, Howard, Stephen Quinn, Hendrie (Tahar 90), Halford, Sharp. Subs not used: Bennett, Keith Quinn, Starosta.