Saturday, 9 May 2009

36: Hull City 1 - 2 Stoke City - 09/05/2009

Well, we were warned. Mainly by ourselves. Far too much scope was placed on the prospect of beating Stoke City at the KC Stadium in order to satisfy our belief that Hull City could not possibly go down.

Well, we lost. We were absolutely awful. And we probably will go down now.

If we don't, if that miracle occurs, then it will be solely because the three teams below us - all of whom have got closer to the Tigers now - will be too inept to take advantage of the situation. Nobody will expect us to get anything from Bolton Wanderers next week while we remain so disorganised, shredded of confidence and tactically bewildered. Then it's Manchester United at home - well, if they are already champions, they may just put out their third string in order to rest the Champions League side that will play in Rome three days later. And to that end, we may just escape with a 1-0 defeat.

City won't get another point this season. That's how it feels right now. Only a free kick in the 95th minute from Andy Dawson got us a goal in this match, by which time Stoke had won it, patiently yet mercilessly. They barely needed to break sweat in doing so.

Geovanni was dropped - a moot point to some, but surely correct given the matchwinner was not looking remotely capable of winning us a match - and Nick Barmby was restored to the attack. Kevin Kilbane, as expected and hoped, was chosen to replace the kneecapped Ian Ashbee in the middle ahead of Dean Marney, while Craig Fagan returned to the left flank. Stoke picked heroic ex-City central defender Leon Cort for the first time in a while.

The attacks are mixed and initially it's the Tigers who have the possession. However, rarely do we look dangerous, whereas Stoke's chances are fewer in number but greater in danger.

A quick free kick gives Matthew Etherington room to shoot but he does so wide of Boaz Myhill's goal. This represents Stoke's best opportunity, while a heavy-breathing City side contrive to create pasable opportunities without coming very close at all. Daniel Cousin's header from Fagan's cross is tipped over by Thomas Sorensen and Kilbane spears one wide from Barmby's knockdown, not aided by a last-ditch challenge which was enough to put the Irishman off.

Possession remains City's, but the sparkle still evades them. A long passing sequence of aesthetic pleasure but minor penetrative quality eventually forces a corner, which Kilbane swipes across and Michael Turner heads over. Sam Ricketts then aims another ball at Barmby, and the industrious Richard Garcia benefits from the knockdown this time, having plenty of time to line up his drive which Sorensen deals with low down.

Stoke soaked it up. High balls were a gimme for the tallest defence in football and they gobbled up almost everything City tried. Their work ethic and general attitude was laudable, and has been all season. That a team with such an abject away record, however, can waltz off with three points from the KC Stadium is a damning indictment of how pathetic and badly marshalled our team has become.

Liam Lawrence, who has risen from the depths of football at much the same rate as the Tigers did, hit an angled shot that mildly surprised Myhill, who motionlessly watched it on to the roof of his net. It was a sign of things to come.

City plodded on. George Boateng's cross flew beyond the targetted Cousin forehead and Barmby threw himself ballwards, making no contact at all. Kamil Zayatte, staying up after a set-piece, then crossed for Cousin to make enough room for a shot that he slices high and ugly.

A typical and worrying Stoke counter attack. Ricardo Fuller, odious and talented in equal measure, sets Etherington away and his long cross finds Lawrence, whose shot is goalbound but for a deflection. Corner given, Lawrence swings it to the near post and Fuller takes advantage of nobody wishing to clear it by stabbing a hurtfully loose ball past Myhill and in.

It was a rotten goal, rottenly defended, preventable in the extreme, but it typifies how much City seem to have forgotten lately. For all our relative success at our own set-pieces this season, we've also been beyond contempt at times at defending them. Few of the goals conceded by the Tigers have been the type where you hold your hands up at Premier League quality shining through - they've been disdainfully avoidable, like this one.

Half time. Stoke are playing to their strengths and winning. We are still wondering where our strength is.

The second half. Improvement is required with urgency, but it doesn't arrive. Kilbane forces a near post Sorensen save and Garcia's header is well plucked from the sky by the keeper before Stoke fight back, the impressive Glenn Whelan dipping one on to Myhill's roof with, again, the keeper unaware to track the ball's progress and standing alarmingly still.

Garcia is becoming City's main threat, a player of obvious ability and heart, but then he is inexplicably substituted, with the effervescent and irritating Bernard Mendy on in his place. Cousin, starved of service and support, wanders off and Manucho gallops on to spend the remaining 20 minutes not touching the ball at all.

Stoke win a corner. It's cleared to Whelan, who again leaves Myhill stranded with a distant hit that manages to touch the inside of the post and bounce mercifully out. Yet the second goal for a side evidently yanking black and amber chains is clearly imminent. Zayatte takes a second whack on the head - he was already in a numberless shirt and large bandage from an earlier thwack - and is replaced by Geovanni, with Kilbane dropping back.

Before any new formation prompted by Zayatte's unwell departure can be established, the second goal arrives and the Tigers feel the daggers go through their weakened hearts. It's a brilliant counter attack, orchestrated by Fuller's powerful run and sideways ball to Lawrence who, with everyone in existence expecting a cross, puts a superb, winding shot beyond a statuesque Myhill and into the far corner with absolute authority and style. An exceptional goal. And a gutting one.

Any togetherness and spirit evaporates among the City camp at that precise point, and the fans know the game is up too. Stoke are not the favourite team of folk round East Riding's greeneries, and with justification, but right now they are easy to envy - a club that knew its strengths, ignored the snipers and invested astutely in the transfer window rather than blithely assuming that strengthening was unnecessary as safety was assured. Spot the difference.

City's remaining involvement in the game involved playing high, directionless balls which Cort and co took a greath joy in nodding away. Playing such balls to the tallest defence in the division ranked of stupidity and apathy. The game was up, figuratively and literally.

Dawson's divine 95th minute free kick - the stricken Zayatte prompted the injury time - gave him a first Premier League goal in what may turn into his only Premier League season, and there's personal cheer to be had from such an exemplary club servant getting that on his statistic sheet. But it was a hollow moment for the Hull City collective, and had Geovanni's deflected shot upon the restart gone two inches inside the post and instead of outside, then the most ludicrous example of papering over the cracks would have been achieved. In a way, it's probably best that it didn't, as hope is far harder to control than anguish.

So then, a victor in the Tyne Tees derby and City are either in the bottom three on goal difference, or out of it purely by the same path. A draw would still offer hope in theory, but in practise the season and the Premier League adventure looks dead. If we stay up, it'll be simply and only because three teams continue to be even worse than us, and that would make us the luckiest football team on earth.