Sunday, 19 April 2009

33: Sunderland 1 - 0 Hull City - 18/04/2009

As is often the case, Phil Brown was the last to leave the field of play after the final whistle at the Stadium of Light. Having offered handshakes and encouraging pats to his players as they trooped away, he turned to the 4,000 members of the Tiger Nation and applauded long.

And noises of dissent could be heard in response. Proper ones.

It's hard not to feel sympathy with Brown. His plan for Premier League settlement, which was going so smoothly in the autumn, has slowly been dismantled before his very eyes since the turn of the year and only so much of it has been preventable. The issue now that people with empty wallets have with him is that with the final month of games approaching, he seems to be making the oddest of team and tactical selections.

Some things he can do only so much about, of course. We had nobody who could hit the target in possession of the requisite fitness for a relegation scrap against a Sunderland side who are always ripe and ready when backed by the awesome Stadium of Light crowd. Daniel Cousin is the obvious answer to this, but his back trouble had healed only enough for a place on the bench, from where he was summoned to do no more than stretch on the touchline and exchange pleasantries with Paul McShane, on the bench for Sunderland when he should have been at right back for City.

If Cousin is fit enough to be among the subs, then why isn't he deemed fit enough for a 20 minute cameo when the Tigers are 1-0 down? The question was asked even more profoundly when Caleb Folan, a man whose endeavour has been as questionable as his ability all season, was instead pitched into action when an additional attacking option was patently required. Folan responded with one of his better shifts, in actual fact, but in this climate City need a goalscorer who will score goals, and Folan is not a goalscorer and nor will he score goals.

Brown was criticised openly for Folan's early introduction but beyond that, Nick Barmby's continued stationary status on the same bench as Cousin was even more baffling. Barmby’s initial removal from the starting XI was already causing consternation, especially as the confidence-free Dean Marney was restored in his place, but at least eventually Barmby was called into the fray as the third and final throw of the dice. He had nowhere near enough time to make an impact on a game which City lost simply because they cannot put the ball into the net.

was out there during all this, the player whose thumping header had given us our one brief bit of hope during last week’s abattoir-like showing at Middlesbrough. This time, we got the Manucho we all seem to recognise – immensely hard-working, always willing, clever with his touches and runs, and beyond dreadful when trying to find the goal.

The gawky Angolan was the sole centre forward in a 4-5-1 selected by Brown which inspired so little that everyone listened longingly to the names of Cousin and Barmby on the bench and wondered why neither were starting. Kevin Kilbane played a central role in the absence of the suspended Ian Ashbee (whose leadership qualities were more sorely missed than they ever have been before) with Geovanni and Craig Fagan theoretically providing the legs and creativity respectively that would assist Manucho in his lone furrow. And, joyfully, Boaz Myhill was back in goal.

It was a tense and quite enjoyable first half. Fairly quickly it was established that the public criticism of his players which Brown had administered during the week had sunk in, and the application and desire seemed to have returned. Quality was still missing, especially as Geovanni doesn’t look like he is interested in us any more, but within a largely formless and erratic first half, befitting of the status of the two sides, a football match sporadically threatened to break out.

Fagan instigated an early attack down the left, spreading the ball smartly for Geovanni to cross, but the ball was ever so slightly too high for a flying Manucho. Myhill's long free kick upfield bounced back from opposite number Craig Gordon's punch, and Kilbane had a shot which was unluckily deflected wide.

They weren't clear as day chances but it was a start. We looked focussed and capable. Michael Turner, the colossus whose own form has almost threatened to be dragged down by the ineptitude of those around him, then managed an inspired tackle on Kenwyne Jones while sitting on his bottom in the penalty area. This was shortly after a brilliantly alert Myhill cleared the danger from Djibril Cisse with his head – figuratively and literally so.

It was pretty good without being fantastic. A series of set-pieces – initially a free kick and then three corners – finally ends with Geovanni's dipping shot going a little too high. Then Manucho wins an excellent 50-50 ball and feeds Fagan inside, who waits for Geovanni’s run. The Brazilian’s dash and cross is met by Kilbane's head and Craig Gordon has to make a good save.

It was all nearly undone by that old foe, the short corner. Grant Leadbitter was given time and room and whipped in a ball which went entirely through Kamil Zayatte and Manucho, leaving a sweating Andy Dawson as the last man on the line and, fortunately, he hacked clear.

The half progressed and Sunderland began to reacquaint themselves with the ball but chances were few and far between. Deep into time added on, Cisse and Jones combined intelligently to send the dangerous Carlos Edwards away, but a backpedalling Kilbane got in the way of his cross. The corner was half cleared, swung back in by Edwards and Cisse, later noted to be marginally offside, glanced a header beyond Myhill's left hand. It was as cruel a goal, for both its injustice and its timing, as City have conceded all season.

With Brown's dreams of a clean sheet yet again crushed, City needed to start at a hundred miles per hour in the second half. Instead, they nearly went two down immediately from the restart, when Myhill had to block a vicious Cisse shot and then also saved the follow-up header from Jones. Great goalkeeping.

It didn't, however, help the Tigers greatly. The half became a scrappier affair thereafter, with City's honesty not replicated by any great quality – especially as Geovanni decided to sit out the rest of his time on the pitch despite being there in body – and the home side sensing a second goal was more than possible.

Jones thought he'd got it when he headed home from close range after good work from Edwards and Andy Reid but a linesman's flag put paid to that idea. City's best chances, for what they were, both came courtesy of George Boateng, who twice had shooting chances which he put wide after set-pieces were half cleared his way.

Fagan gets down a flank, crosses to a defender who puts his clearance straight on to Marney's left foot. The volley is high and not so handsome. Kilbane hurls in a long throw which Sunderland deal with comfortably and Reid fires over from a sharp bit of counter-attacking.

Barmby and Cousin, along with the other substitutes, had been parading up and down the line for some time but it was Folan, to surprise and dismay, to whom Brown turned to freshen up the attack, withdrawing Marney who had the grace to applaud the fans despite the bile which has been aimed his way of late. Folan had moments to surprise us, not least when he climbed well to meet Sam Ricketts’ far post ball with a powerful header which landed just a foot wide. He simply isn't the answer though.

Geovanni was hauled off next and Bernard Mendy, and all his delights and frustrations, was brought on. Quickly he was involved in handbags with Sunderland sub Kieran Richardson – the two have recent form when Mendy physically shoved Richardson off the park at the KC in December when he took too long to exit proceedings upon being substituted. This time, The two got tangled, began arguing and Mendy, like an absolute idiot, seemed to aim a gesture headbutt at the Sunderland player, making no contact but simultaneously making his intentions clear. How he was not red-carded I'll never quite know.

Manucho, turning sweetly, shoots appallingly over the bar from distance. Mendy gets to the byline past two defenders, the cross is headed back across by Fagan to precisely nobody. Manucho shoots high and wide again. And upon the announcement of four minutes of added time, Mendy puts another ball in which Manucho heads well wide. It's close, it's not close enough. It's also not good enough.

Sunderland hit the post with the last attack of the match and their safety, while nowhere near assured, got visibly closer upon the shrill of the final whistle. There seems, however, to be no other place for the Tigers to head other than downwards. The mercy of the Premier League on us may yet come with the fixtures against top four sides which the sides above West Bromwich Albion have to face, but we have our own with Liverpool next week and Manchester United on the final day. Hope must be renewed that the spirit shown at Chelsea in February, if not the awesomeness of the whole autumn period, can be rediscovered by the time we head to Aston Villa and then, in a killer fixture, play Stoke City at the KC. We've done this last ditch escaping before but the difference this time is that we're not climbing out of it, we're disappearing into it. There is no sign of form, confidence or, more brutally, goals. Without the latter we are a bit stuffed, really.

Sunderland: Gordon, Bardsley, Davenport, Ferdinand, Collins, Edwards (Malbranque 78), Leadbitter, Tainio, Reid (Richardson 76), Cisse (Murphy 90), Jones. Subs not used: Fulop, Ben-Haim, Yorke, McShane.

Hull: Myhill, Ricketts, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Fagan, Geovanni (Mendy 74), Boateng (Barmby 77), Marney (Folan 68), Kilbane, Manucho. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Halmosi, Cousin.