Saturday, 16 May 2009

37: Bolton Wanderers 1 - 1 Hull City - 16/05/2009

So, it's back in our hands again.

That this achievement is down to Newcastle United's total incompetence as it is about the Tigers' own fortunes is merely technical. This performance at the Reebok Stadium against a Bolton Wanderers team that gave credibility to the Premier League by making a real game of it should entitle us to a go at staying up on the last day.

Upon the announcement of the fixture list last summer, barely three weeks after the play-off victory at Wembley, the Tiger Nation as one copped a look at the visit of Manchester United for the final day and thought: "Crikey, hope we don't need anything that day."

Well, we don't, for as long as Aston Villa hold a lead against Newcastle. More pertinently, Manchester United need nothing from the match apart from to get through it unscathed. They are the champions and now have Rome on their mind. We're not even on their radar.

A win at the Reebok would have been the most fitting result for the gutsy, resourceful, all-for-one display which City put in. It very nearly happened too, but our chief nemesis of the season Jussi Jaaskelainen, denied us again.

When Bolton won at the KC back in November, it was the Finnish keeper who did all the damage, keeping out chance after chance in a Tomaszewski-esque display that had everyone rubbing their eyes in disbelief, including the Bolton fans who had seen how good he was over ten years at the club.

On this occasion, he made fewer saves - mainly because City's let down again was their finishing - but the two saves of note he did make were agonising for the Tiger Nation who could see two thumping headers flying into the Bolton net and three points heading our way. Jaaskelainen had other ideas.

Phil Brown was forced into a dubious-looking defensive alteration as Kamil Zayatte, who has been in the wars all season, was unable to play after taking a double clout to his head against Stoke City last week. With no specialist centre backs of experience available, Brown plumped for Kevin Kilbane to partner Michael Turner, but added the insurance of the youthful Liam Cooper to the bench, whom City fans glimpsed with some admiration at Swansea City in the Carling Cup back in August.

Manucho started the game instead of Daniel Cousin, when many were hoping he would start alongside his fellow gangly marksman. However, such was the comic value of the awkward Angolan's display that he could have started against any great centre forward of the world and still looked out of his depth. Given that he can't play next week, it wasn't exactly a fulfilling way for Manucho to end his stint with City.

Almost 5,000 members of the Tiger Nation made the straightfoward cross-country trip to Horwich, where the Reebok remains one of the better examples of the initial swathe of nu-stadia that began sprouting up around the country in the early 1990s. Nobody took a tennis ball this time, though.

Bolton attacked hungrily from the off, with Matthew Taylor hitting a long and dipping shot just too high over Boaz Myhill's goal. City responded with Manucho having a dig from distance and Jasskelainen collecting without trouble above his head.

This was Manucho's best effort. Future goes would become the subject of derision, scorn and disbelief and while it was obvious the player was trying - which still makes him better than a hell of a lot of awful City strikers down the years - the composure and quality was entirely absent. Given he is a Manchester United player, it's possible to assume it was just a bad day, but he has rarely had anything better than a mediocre day - especially when starting games, he has improved when on as a sub - since joining City at the end of the January window.

The first sign of his personal train wreck came when George Boateng put in a sharp, well-directed cross and the swinging Angolan leg connected only with fresh air from a decent scoring position. By now, he was wearing a thick bandage on his bonce after a clash of heads with Danny Shittu - also wearing head strapping - and one couldn't help but wonder if it had dropped over his eyes.

City's pressure was excellent, with Richard Garcia and Sam Ricketts putting in a vintage performance as a duo on the right flank which brought back memories of their best days of last season. Ricketts, especially, had finally become the marauding full back of old, the one which elevated him with some ease to the status of best right back in the club's history. Garcia's skill gave Bolton so many problems, especially once they realised that Ricketts was arriving as a support act, from deep, ready to overlap and cause damage.

Sadly for both of them, it was Manucho who was on the end of most of their endeavours. He'd done a defensive job a moment before - blocking Taylor's vicious free kick with his protected forehead - but his efforts to do a proper job in his supposed natural position were severely wanting.

Garcia used Ricketts as a decoy to guide a fine cross on Manucho's head, but he aimed it at Jaaskelainen. Worse came when, from a corner, Manucho took a touch too many when trying to set up a chance, was robbed, and ten seconds later Bolton had scored thanks to a low drive from Gretar Steinsson, following up after good work from Kevin Davies and a blocked shot from Taylor. It was typical City, conceding a breakaway goal directly from their own attacking inabilities.

It got worse for Manucho, when Garcia and Ricketts' superb duality allowed the Welsh full back to lay a chance on a plate for the centre forward, but he swung at the ball wildly and ballooned it over the bar. This was his nadir. For the rest of his time he chased and harried and tried, but had no discernible contribution to make, and judging by the number of headers he half-heartedly challenged for, his bandaged self was clearly causing him some problems. It's a harsh but correct summation that, at the Reebok and permanently, the Tiger Nation couldn't wait to see the back of him.

Unbelievably, the referee gave a corner following Manucho's big miss, and Andy Dawson's kick was flicked by the Angolan to the far post where Nick Barmby, arriving late, could only throw himself at the ball in hope, sending his untimeable header well wide. Myhill then had to beat away a Kevin Davies shot from distance but it was City who ruled the possession and chances. The problem was that their striker couldn't strike and they were a goal down as a consequence.

Ricketts again worked himself some room from Garcia's service and aimed a cross at the late-arriving Geovanni, whose header went straight to Jaaskelainen. As four minutes of added time were signalled, Barmby looped another speculative far post header on to the roof from Dawson's arcing centre.

Half time, a goal down. The news had come through about Newcastle losing in identical manner and Middlesbrough taking the lead against Aston Villa. It was as close as closeness could be. We had seen enough to suggest we could earn something from the match. The question was whether we could make the most of the opportunities we were creating; a question which we have answered in the negative far too often this season.

From the restart, Muamba miskicked a very good chance into the air but soon we were punishing this profligacy and Craig Fagan, with shades of the opening day of the season, was robbing a defender who shouldn't have needed to feel any pressure, prior to sliding a confident past a totally exposed and surprised Jaaskelainen. Only his third goal of the season but what a vital one it could prove to be. Another bit of coincidence was that Shittu was the defender in question, whose brainstorm while playing for Watford last season kicked off City's perfect play-off campaign, allowing Fraizer Campbell to set up Barmby and set City on their way.

We were level, and we were ecstatic. So was Phil Brown, who ran halfway on to the Reebok turf in celebration. This was a place where he had been on the payroll for 15 years as player, skipper, coach and assistant manager, and now he was trying to do them over in order to rescue his club from the drop and a chunk of his own reputation. Fagan, showing rare composure, had scored a sublime opportunist's goal and now there was a game to win. How the news was greeted in the north east one can only imagine.

The work was almost undone by that man Manucho, however. Taylor hit a volley just wide as Bolton regrouped, then forced a corner which Mark Davies swung in and Shittu headed away from goal, harmlessly. However, it struck Manucho's shins and bobbled towards goal with Myhill beaten, only for Fagan to hack it clear. The fact that we escaped from this bought of near self-destruction prompted dark laughter from the Tiger Nation as well as continued barracking, some of it less than pleasant, of Manucho. He needed to be removed from the field for the good of everybody.

It gave Bolton a short period of regeneration, and Myhill did very well to hold a Gavin McCann snapshot despite being slightly unsighted. City regained some of the momentum and the remainder of the game was about when, rather than if, they would score.

We all forgot about Jaaskelainen though. The keeper was powerless as Barmby smacked a low far post volley against the base of the post but then actively affected the outcome of the game with two stunning pieces of goalkeeping. Barmby had been replaced by Dean Marney by the time Jaaskelainen beat out a Geovanni stinger and then watched helplessly as Marney tried to score from the rebound from the tightest of angles and put the ball right across goal.

Cousin then stripped for action, but to everyone's surprise (and probably not least his own) Manucho stayed on the pitch and the Brazilian was taken off, having had a quietly influential time of it without pulling up any of the Horwich countryside's trees. Marney hit a low left footer from diatnce down Jaaskelainen's throat as City pressed more and more, using the presence of two very tall and bulky strikers - albeit that only one of whom was able or willing to reach high balls - to deploy Garcia and Ricketts even more. With the wingplay proving so potent down one side, it seemed only a matter of time before Peter Halmosi was given a rare outing from the bench as the last throw of the dice.

Then came the save of the match and one comparable to the masterclass of goalkeeping which Jaaskelainen displayed at the KC. City win a free kick wide on the right, which Dawson inswings with his usual aplomb. Cousin gets a meaty header on it and Jaaskelainen shows contortionistic ability to tip the ball against the bar and then bat it away as it bounced down, denying an easy follow-up. It fell in a wider position to Fagan who, like Marney before him, bashed the rebound right across goal with nobody having a prayer of getting on the end of it.

A crazy, brilliant, frustrating, laudable save. Grrr. Well done. What a keeper. What a keeper.

Halmosi was then introduced and Manucho got some generous applause as well as resounding cheers for the decision as he lolloped away from his time at Hull City. Instantly, the underachieveing Hungarian got free of two markers on the left and swerved in a peach of a cross which Fagan's head met, but Jaaskelainen's acrobatics did the job again, beating away the goalbound ball wide to his left. It was a good save again, albeit maybe a little for the photographers in its execution, but it needed to be made and it was made well.

Marney sliced a long distance shot yards wide as the clock ticked to a conclusion and the game seemed to die once we'd heard Newcastle's result. A draw was good enough and was celebrated, by supporters and club staff alike, like a victory. Certainly the manager seemed happy with the result and the reception from the crowd; he should have been, as it was City's best performance since taking a point off Chelsea back in February.

So, with Middlesbrough needing an equivalent of last season's 8-1 defeat of Manchester City on the last day to stand any chance, and West Bromwich Albion gone - heroically so - after losing to Liverpool, it's between two for definite, and three possibly (depending on how Sunderland do on Monday night) for the last relegation spot. And as long as Villa do what is expected of them, we could take a 6-0 thumping from Manchester United's third string next weekend and still find ourselves celebrating, exactly one year after we were celebrating our historic elevation to this crazy division. It really is a mad old time to be a Hull City fan. Some preferred the days of mediocrity and underachievement, even the endless days of being a laughing stock. Ask us again which we prefer once all the final whistles have shrilled next Sunday.

Bolton Wanderers: Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Cahill, Shittu, Samuel, K Davies, Muamba (Basham 82), McCann, M Davies, Taylor (Riga 82), Elmander (Makukula 89). Subs not used: Al Habsi, Hunt, Puygrenier, Cohen.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Dawson, Kilbane, Fagan, Boateng, Garcia, Barmby (Marney 72), Geovanni (Cousin 77), Manucho (Halmosi 83). Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Hughes, Cooper.