Monday, 2 March 2009

27: Hull City 1 - 2 Blackburn Rovers - 01/03/2009

If Hull City get relegated, then this is the game people will point to when establishing where the Tigers began to resemble a doomed team. A slipshod, disorganised performance, exacerbated by pettiness among the ranks and some crazy decision-making from the dugout.

The reaction after the game tells as much about the Tigers' dire frame of mind as the display on the field. Phil Brown, feeling the strain of keeping his chairman's promise of survival, verbally lashed out at Geovanni to the extent that the Brazilian's very future at the KC seems in doubt.

City were two down and looking toothless in attack when Brown, fewer than ten minutes into the second half, chose to freshen up an attack beset by rigor mortis. Daniel Cousin and Nick Barmby came on - and the question of why they weren't in the starting XI is another one entirely - and Kevin Kilbane and Geovanni were hauled off.

The reaction of the crowd to Geovanni's withdrawal was startling. Booing rang out, the type frequently heard from the much smaller crowds who were used to lunatic decisions by some of Brown's predecessors in the lowest divisions. It's rare that booing is ever justified, and certainly it is unhelpful. Brown's record and achievement means he can feel hard done by, should he care at all, when he considers the barracking he got. But for all this, it is certainly a substitution which bamboozled even the more lateral thinking Tiger Nation member.

Geovanni hasn't had a good time of it lately. His shooting has been chronic, his passing muted, his overall impact stifled by wizened back fours. But ultimately the team were two down in a must-win (or, by now, a rebranded must-not-lose game) and therefore players capable of changing things in the blink of an eye were required. Taking off an effervescent and gifted Brazilian, albeit an off-colour one, seemed dim in the extreme.

Brown had already prompted some pate scratching with his original starting XI. Richard Garcia was up front, still trying to prove Brown's claim that he can play as an orthodox centre forward with no help directly alongside him. He can't. Garcia is a good footballer but he isn't a striker and never will be, certainly not at this level. Cousin and Barmby, along with Craig Fagan and even Manucho, could look at this selection and feel hard done by.

Nathan Doyle stayed at right back. His performance there on Thursday was tidy, even if it relied more on his attacking qualities than it did on his positional sense when on the retreat. His tackling is very suspect. Yet Sam Ricketts, back on form and the default right back, was jettisoned entirely. Most confusing.

Kamil Zayatte, a likeable, emotional character, was back in defence and Michael Turner consequently spent the whole match having kittens. Anthony Gardner was on the bench, mystified and undoubtedly cross that after a very strong two matches since his return to the fray he was suddenly out of the manager's plans again. Zayatte may well come good again, but for the moment he represents the panic and worry emblazoned across the whole team and support, all sliced clearances, wayward passes and mistimed challenges.

A strange team, one which the most astute of predictionists could never have concocted. Blackburn Rovers, a team with an incessant work ethic and a touch of class when absolutely required, were ready to exploit all the doubts which such decisions create.

A sunny and fresh Hull lunchtime greeted the teams and quickly Stephen Warnock picked up a booking for fouling Bernard Mendy. That City failed to make Warnock work and risk a second booking was disappointing, and Mendy's footwork and optimism was confounded too much by his regular questioning of refereeing decisions.

Geovanni struck a 25 yard effort well wide, but the turn from Doyle's throw that made the space at least suggested he had his resourceful head on. We were hasty.

Zayatte's first blunder of the day allowed El-Hadji Diouf to head goalwards but Matt Duke collected above his head. This was Blackburn's first chance, demonstrating their patience as City went at them relentlessly, combining decent possession with some dreadful finishing or control. Geovanni epitomised this when he took a fine Mendy crossfield pass but a heavy first touch ruined the opportunity and Paul Robinson fell on the ball.

A free kick. Dean Marney takes, Turner heads and Robinson tips over. Simple, effective and nearly productive, but it is a worrying sign that Turner's prowess from set-piece deliveries is becoming the Tigers' best hope of scoring a goal right now.

Let off a little, Blackburn then take the lead. Keith Andrews - bless him for his progress after enduring a season at the KC where too many people moaned at him - set up some nice link-ups between Roque Santa Cruz and Morten Gamst Pedersen and as the latter shot, Duke spilled under pressure from the chasing Santa Cruz. The ball was laid back to Warnock who, from a tight angle, steered home a fine shot.

It was mildly against the run of play but shoddy attacking deserves punishment as much as lapse defending, and there's far more wrong with the Tigers' attack than there is with their defence.

Normally the scoring team is the most vulnerable one when the game restarts. However, the Tigers are still dazed by the deficit before them when action reconvenes, and Blackburn ruthlessly exploit this. Warnock gets to the byline and crosses for Andrews to steer home and bite the hand that once fed him.

The only further action of the half, with Blackburn following the Allardyce guidebook to the letter and closing shop, and City too shellshocked to try to reduce the margin, was a challenge between Robinson and Turner which saw the Beverley-born keeper receive treatment for an injury and the City centre back given a default booking by a referee who saw nothing but made a crazy assumption that an injured goalkeeper equalled a malicious outfielder. Scandalous.

The second half began with Robinson's withdrawal in favour of Jason Brown but there were no substitutions forthcoming from City. It took eight minutes of scrappy, eventless football - during which Duke made a terrific save from Vincenza Grella's vicious volley - before Brown summoned his big-hitters.

Throwing on Cousin and Barmby made sense. Cousin is a goalscorer and Barmby was by far the best performer on show in the FA Cup win over Sheffield United. The question of why they didn't start the game probably will never garner an answer. The question of why one of the players withdrawn was Geovanni - listless, unfocussed, but still more capable of reviving the team than anyone else on display - has already been answered; the slow, sluggish way the Brazilian left the field, milking the booing to make his point to Brown through the fans, has already been dealt with by a bizarre Brown rant about drug tests. Let's see if he's involved on Wednesday night at Fulham.

Diouf then nodded an Andrews ball back across goal for Santa Cruz to get beyond Turner's leap and aim his header just wide of Duke's post. Soon after, Marney and Pedersen went into a straightforward block tackle, but Pedersen was slightly late and Marney idiotically reacted, earning himself a straight red while Pedersen saw yellow.

So we're two nil down, the crowd is in hateful mood and City are down to ten. Fagan was sent on for the ineffectual Doyle, with Mendy dropping back, and City seemed set to kitchen sink the opposition. However, the daft reduction of personnel spoiled this valiant intention entirely, although Pedersen chivalrously evened this up when he went in late on Zayatte and earned his own red card via a second yellow.

Finally City got a break. From a short corner routine Mendy almost sets up Barmby but the shot is deflected wide; yet the second set-piece discomforts the visiting defence and Ian Ashbee smacks in a far post volley.

Ashbee's goal means he has scored in all four divisions for the club, the first to do so and, unless Ryan France manages a tap-in at some point before June, likely to be the last too, for some time. Let's not think about dropping back down again, mind...

The goal from the skipper - plainly City's best performer - offers a chance for the Tigers to lay siege to the visiting net and grab a late equaliser, something to which Blackburn have been prone lately. But nothing happens at all. The game is there to be levelled but aside from an injury time Andy Dawson drive which Brown beats out, there's no spark or bite or desire. It's a spent force we're witnessing. It's so worrying.

Brown let us down with a bad selection and a dreadful decision when making his substitution. That Geovanni didn't cover himself in glory either is not the issue, and we want to avoid direct conflict between player and manager.

So now our position looks morbidly perilous. Little is changing in terms of the place, but the points margin is tightening up more and more. City could be in the bottom three by the time Newcastle United turn up at the KC a week on Saturday and have to go to Fulham, a team very good at home, on Wednesday night. heaven only knows what team Brown will pick for that one, but one hopes that personal prejudices and a clenched fist attitude towards braying fans doesn't cloud his judgment. Just pick the best players, in their best positions and tell them they're fab before they go out there. Please.