Wednesday, 29 April 2009

"City's coach driver got lost on his way to Villa Park..."

The final match of the latest round of Premier League fixtures will be Hull City's trip to Aston Villa on Monday night. For all the difference between the two teams' positions in the Premier League, the form book for each has been rather similar of late. However, the last time the Tigers went to Villa Park, the difference between the two in terms of position and form couldn't - literally - have been any different. Boyhood Dreams asked JAMES RICHARDSON to recall that day a decade ago...

The FA Cup is, some say, a pleasant distraction from the weekly grind of the league. The relative lack of pressure as opposed to the seeming ever increasing need to pick up points and the chance of causing an upset against a higher ranked side, the tired (although still valid) cliche of David versus Goliath. As 1998 became 1999, City found themselves stranded at the bottom of the entire Football League. A horrific start under the hopeless Mark Hateley had seen the club anchor themselves to the foot of the table and while the takeover of the Tom Belton consortium in November and the appointment of Warren Joyce as player-manager (he is pictured above) and John McGovern as his assistant had yielded some green shoots of a revival, City remained at the bottom of the table. The signs of a revival there were though. Joyce's first game against Brighton and Hove Albion was a disaster, a 2-0 defeat at home to a team that played a full half hour with only nine men, but performances did improve. A late, roof-lifting goal from loanee Craig Dudley saw City win their first game at home since September and a gritty 2-0 win at Salisbury saw City into the 2nd round of the Cup. The draw gave City a rather daunting looking tie against higher division opposition in Luton Town and a tie that saw the squad decimated by injuries and cup-tied players. City's 2-1 victory in that game, despite what was to happen later in the months that followed, remained one of the most thrilling victories that season. 18 year old full back Ben Morley, pressed into service as a pacey foil for David Brown, swept home the opener after Brown turned the ball back across goal and Rob Dewhurst's towering header that crept in the far post (his final hurrah as a City player) saw City home in a gutsy, heartening performance. It was the first time City had qualified for the third Round of the FA Cup since God was boy. Pleasant distraction? You bet.

The draw on took place on the following Sunday and saw us land a tie that made a few tabloid hacks salivate. Aston Villa, then top of the Premiership, drawn at home to Hull City, bottom of the entire Football League. A superb draw and the local media, rather predictably, suddenly took an interest in City. The Hull Daily Mail, in full cringeworthy, vomit-inducing mode, billed the game as the "Thriller at the Villa" and distributed hundreds of free, custard coloured baseball caps with said phrase emblazoned upon them. Oh dear, oh dear. Thankfully, the majority of the 5,900 men, women and children in the City end at Villa Park didn't wear them. The same 5,900 men, women and children that failed to recreate the 'wall of sound' that travelled to Newcastle the season previous although that was more due to the high roof of the North Stand allowing noise to drift into the Birmingham air, rather than those in attendance sitting in silence.

Like the second round tie at Kenilworth Road, City's squad was weakened from the team that was being fielded in league games. Five new signings were cup-tied and Dudley had returned to Oldham Athletic. Gregor Rioch, Mark Greaves and Mike Edwards, who hadn't been involved in the first team for weeks, were pressed into action. City were also faced with a potential goalkeeper crisis in the week prior to the game. Andy Oakes had featured for Winsford United in an earlier round, ruling out the chance to face his cousin Michael, the then first choice at Villa, while Steve Wilson had a hand injury. There was some talk about City re-loaning Paul Gibson from Manchester United after his original loan spell was cut short due to a broken finger although eventually Wilson had recovered from his injury and played. Not the most ideal preparation in the world and this was exacerbated on the day of the game when City's coach driver got lost on his way to Villa Park and the team arrived half an hour late.

Villa, managed by one man Brylcreem advert John Gregory, rested a few of their first XI, including recent signings Paul Merson and Dion Dublin, although still boasted a team with several internationals and a wealth of Premiership experience. Gareth Southgate lined up as captain alongside the soon to be capped Ugo Ehiogu and while the experienced Alan Wright, Mark Draper and Steve Watson were complemented by the emerging talents of Julian Joachim, Lee Hendrie, Riccardo Scimeca and a then pre-pubescent Gareth Barry. However, the name that drew most raised eyebrows in the Villa line up was one Stanley Victor Collymore. Collymore was then in his second season during his ill-fated spell at his boyhood team. Dogged (pun intended...) by injury, poor form , bad discipline and a scandal-laden private life, Collymore's sojourn at Villa was proving to be an acceleration in his well-documented decline. Not that the City fans cared about this of course, Collymore was the target for most of the chants that day having practised his punching technique on then girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson during the summer.

Onto the game and Villa kicked off, attacking the Holte End. Within the first eight seconds, Rioch found himself booked for a wild challenge on Watson. This was the only highlight of Rioch's season, he drifted into the reserves for good and then moved to Macclesfield Town to haunt us the following season. The bastard.

Unsurpisingly, Villa dominated possession although Edwards, Justin Whittle and Matt Hocking kept Joachim and Collymore fairly quiet and Joyce, Brown and David D'Auria battled hard against their talented opponents. Up front, Morley and Craig Faulconbridge were a good shout for the most lightweight forward line in City's history and despite some game pressing, barely troubled the Villa back line. City grew in confidence and toward the end of the half did manage to carve out a half chance. A free-kick from close to the left touchline was whipped in by Joyce and found Morley at the far post. He had to stretch to get the ball but just about managed to send a header looping toward the near post. The City masses held their breath and the ball curled toward the far post although the excellent Ehiogu read the flight and as the ball dropped in the 6 yard box hacked it away. Oakes flapped at the corner but it amounted to nothing.

It would be the closest City would come to scoring and it served to be a wake up call for Villa. On the stroke of half time, the ball broke down the Villa left, a cross whipped in and Collymore's early movement took him away from Hocking and he poked the ball home from close range. Harsh on City, very harsh.

Villa started the second half like a train, clearly wishing to finish off the tie and six minutes in they got another goal; Joachim finding space between Whittle and Edwards to head past the diving Wilson.

Game over and the City fans turned their attention to Collymore and asking the current whereabouts of his Swedish ex.

Well, I say game over, City did fashion another half chance. A lofted D'Auria through ball found Faulconbridge with a bit of space although he misjudged the bounce of the ball and meekly poked the ball straight at Oakes. With still half an hour remaining, Villa added a third and Collymore won his personal battle against the City fans with another unchallenged close range finish from a cross and celebrated by cupping his ears in front of the City end.

It definitely was game over now and Villa immediately reduced the pace of the game and never really threatened to score again. City gave a good account of themselves, they battled hard and did fleetingly worry Villa although as the game drifted to a close, so did thoughts and the prospect of returning to our struggle in the league.

The match was a welcome break from the still daunting prospect of hauling the club away from the foot of the table, although Villa game did actually prove to be a major factor in our survival that season. It gave the initial opportunity for Greaves and Edwards, who had previously been struggling for form, to re-establish themselves and both went on to be vital players in the run-in and for the next few seasons. More importantly, the share of the gate money the club received paved the way for the transfers of both Gary Brabin and Colin Alcide, who added further muscle and backbone to a team that kicked, battled and grafted its way off the bottom of the Football League and probably gave us more cult heroes than at any other time in our history. Not bad for a pleasant distraction.

James Richardson is a contributor to Amber Nectar.