Sunday, 24 May 2009

38: Hull City 0 - 1 Manchester United - 24/05/2009

Phil Brown loves the media attention, even when it's negative. There was something distinctly Delia-esque about his decision, no doubt less than spontaneous, to nick the PA mic as soon as results elsewhere had confirmed Hull City's safety and lead the Tiger Nation in a last, rousing chorus of "This is the best trip I've ever been on".

He'll get hammered for that, but he won't care. he got hammered for stating that he was off to the south of France on his Harley Davidson as soon as the game was over, but he won't care. He got pilloried beyond all context for the team talk on the pitch at Manchester City - the attention to which in the six months since has been really baffling - but he won't care a jot.

His immediate ambition as he surveyed the scene of the last round of Premier League fixtures was to be a Premier League manager still when he turned 50 on May 30th. His ambition was realised, and boy are we all grateful for it.

The poetry surrounding City's escape from the drop - a drop which would have come after just five solitary days in the relegation zone all season - is several fold. Going down were Newcastle United, who in Alan Shearer have a (temporary) manager who City fans dislike intensely for the way he disrespected the saintly Justin Whittle all those years ago. And Brown, of course, is a Sunderland fan, and they also stayed up. Paul McShane, a terrific asset in defence for a while after the Black Cats loaned him to us, stayed up, while Marlon King, a liability and dubious in character, went down with Middlesbrough.

It's not churlish, however, to point out that the way the Tigers secured their safety was distinctly dangerous. Manchester United, champions and with Rome correctly on their minds, still entirely outplayed the Tigers despite picking a side with an average age of 20, with the 34 year old Gary Neville stopping it from being somewhere closer to 18. That it was meagrely a one goal victory for Sir Alex Ferguson's team was far more down to their profligacy in front of goal - the one that did go in was a 25 yard wonder strike - than any degree of tightness in the City ranks. As the game dragged on, it became obvious that we were all relying on Aston Villa to hang on to their lead, the acquisition of which we had joyously celebrated in the first half. A goal for us, and Newcastle would have had to score twice. No goal for us, and just one Newcastle goal would have been enough to save their deluded skins.

Creatively, the Tigers were not on any form that suggested a goal was forthcoming. Tomasz Kuszczak, the third choice Manchester United keeper, batted away a couple of efforts and caught what he needed to, but rarely did City show that they looked capable of making sure their fate didn't slip closer to hands on the end of black and white sleeves.

Brown had to make one change, as Manucho's loan effectively ended with his farcical display at Bolton last week, though technically it was because as a Manchester United player, he was naturally ineligible. Surprisingly, there was no starting role for Daniel Cousin or Caleb Folan (back from his three-match ban), with Dean Marney instead taking his central midfield role and Craig Fagan pushing more centrally, backed by Nick Barmby and Geovanni as best they could.

The atmosphere was white-hot, caused not by the infantile inflatable drumsticks foisted on the Tiger Nation, but by people who cared being able to turn their nerves into a quite deafening human noise. The travelling contingent seemed caught twixt support for their team and a mutual desire to see Shearer, a player who turned Manchester United down twice in his playing career, drop into the Championship.

Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher started - two players with injury issues and one with a Champions League suspension respectively - but otherwise it was the wannabe sector of the squad which Ferguson threw into the blazing hot KC Stadium cooker. And, from their point of view, they didn't disappoint. Inexperience is only a factor when ability is lacking, and this bunch of youngsters can play.

City started calmly enough, and Fagan had a sniff of a chance when Michael Turner's long ball caught Neville out over the offside trap, but Fagan's attempt to trap the ball with the outside of his foot took it slightly too far, and Kuzsczak collected.

Geovanni, who scored at Old Trafford this season and also notched the winner in the Manchester derby last season, made room for a cross on the left which Neville cleared. George Boateng's perseverance won the ball back from Rafael Da Silva, and this allowed Marney to re-feed Geovanni from the same position. His cross with the outside of his foot was unconvincingly punched clear by Kuzsczak.

The visitors' first look at Boaz Myhill's goal came when Nani slapped a free kick down the keeper's throat. They settled down, and Rafael's cross bamboozled every City defender, with a lunging Lee Martin a stud length away from getting a touch and a certain goal.

It was a nervous occasion for one, and an experimental occasion for the other. Perhaps the gulf in quality was most readily illustrated when Marney's floating shot was comfortably clutched by Kuzsczak, followed soon by Darron Gibson's magnificent 25 yard angled shot which beat Myhill all ends up.

It was a goal which would have been appreciated by a sporting Tiger Nation, but sporting behaviour goes out of the window when your very survival depends on long-range digs like this flying over the bar. This one didn't. It was hit with pace, grace and immaculate trajectory. It was a wonderful goal. And at that point, it was sending us down.

Ritchie De Laet put a good chance too close to Myhill soon after, and it seemed a safe bet that these terrific young talents would be happy to put on a show. City dug in a bit, reacting to crowd encouragement, and Turner headed over from Andy Dawson's cross after staying upfield when a set-piece was cleared.

Danny Welbeck then embarked on a solo run that started in his own half and zigzagged in various directions before putting a left foot shot across Myhill and wide. The run was admirable but was also as much about City backing off too much as it was about Welbeck's own skill and endeavour.

City win a free kick and Geovanni, from a distance even he shouldn't have considered, predictably fired it miles over. That was an annoying one, and felt selfish on a day when individual glory was simply not part of the equation.

Federico Macheda, a player who looked less impressive than his explosive introduction to this level would suggest, managed to wriggle free of two defenders but then shot badly wide with a good sight of goal. Galvanised briefly, City rallied and went their closest to scoring when Fagan fed Geovanni with a crossfield ball, and the Brazilian laid it back to Dawson, whose rasping drive with his famous left foot made Kuzsczak tip it over.

News then seeped through of Aston Villa's goal against Newcastle and the cheers around the KC were, again, deafening. They nearly got louder when Neville backheaded over Kuzsczak, with the Polish keeper having to do a mighty scrambling act to retrieve the rogue ball.

Barmby hit a shot into the ground and at Kuzsczak as two minutes of added time came and went. The applause was generous for a team which was losing and showing only mild signs of restoring parity and saving 20,000 sets of fingernails.

Early in the second half, changes to the Sunderland and Middlesbrough scorelines came through but we were less concerned by those. It was events at the KC and Villa Park that mattered, and not necessarily in that order, to be honest. Progress in the second half lacked probability the longer it went on - indeed, the only probability was that Manchester United would increase their lead.

Turner spooned a dangerous Rafael cross over his own bar as Macheda closed in for the kill before a fortuitous Kevin Kilbane ball unwittingly set Sam Ricketts free down the right. His cross was well-flighted but the angle was too tight for Barmby's flying header and Kuzsczak blocked the effort. Turner duly headed Marney's corner at the keeper.

Folan was brought on for Geovanni, and sod's law then awarded City a free kick in ideal Geovanni position, certainly more so than the one he whacked into Hymers Avenue in the first half. On the edge, ripe for a curling right footer, and it was Marney who had a go instead, bending his effort on target but not testing Kuzsczak as Turner got in the way. Marney then put in his second late tackle in five minutes and collected a yellow card.

Richard Garcia then fashioned a rare breakaway and the shot was certainly on for the Aussie, who proved last season he was more than capable of pinging one in from distance. yet inexplicably he declined the obvious shot when reaching the area and fed Folan to his right, who couldn't get his shot away and had to be content with a corner. Kuzsczak punched it clear.

Dawson swung a free kick straight at the keeper, then as Bernard Mendy replaced Barmby, the visitors attacked with panache and substitute Richard Eckersley dug out a smart shot after a fine one-two with Gibson, only for the shot to fly wide.

Fagan volleyed a Ricketts long throw over the crossbar, then a corner gave Mendy some run for a good cross which Turner just failed to connect with despite throwing himself headlong at the ball. Turner seemed to spend more time up than back by this late stage, and sent a looping header towards goal from another Ricketts howitzer, but Kuzsczak backpedalled and clung on.

Nani put one wide from 25 yards as City chucked on the final option with Cousin replacing Garcia. The four minutes of added time were a non-event as we waited for a whistle elsewhere. It didn't come until a good minute after our own final whistle, but eventually the cheers rang out and safety was confirmed.

Brown must have learned a lot this season, especially about thinking too far too quickly, although the dreams of Europe were more those of the chairman than the manager when we sat sixth in the table on Boxing Day. No more on-pitch team talks - if only because it avoids six months of stick, not because it was wrong - and fewer media soundbiting. He needs to invest heavily in the squad too, because although Jimmy Bullard and Anthony Gardner will dramatically alter the quality of the existing squad, too many players were - by the manager's own admission - of a Championship standard striving to step up. You could select at least six players who will go this summer purely for quality reasons, and that's notwithstanding the more divisive figures like Geovanni, whose strutting and general underwhelm since the turn of the year has got backs up.

Ultimately, the proof that Hull City could stay in the Premier League is evident by the final league table. The table doesn't tell us about one win in 2009, nor does it detail a squad who could win at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, scare Manchester United from their wits and make everyone, albeit briefly, fall in love with the Tigers just a bit. Nobody expected us ever to get here, then they switched to expecting us to sink straight back down, and once Brown opened his mouth once too often, the media joined in by making their expectation into a direct wish. Judging by the goodwill from the numerous anti-Newcastle factions all over English football before and after the final game, we might just be lovable again. In the city of Hull we certainly are.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Kilbane, Dawson, Garcia (Cousin 81), Marney, Boateng, Barmby (Mendy 68), Geovanni (Folan 54), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Hughes, Halmosi, Zayatte.

Manchester United: Kuszczak, Rafael Da Silva (Eckersley 60), Neville, Brown, De Laet (Possebon 79), Nani, Fletcher, Gibson, Welbeck (Tosic 87), Martin, Macheda. Subs not used: Amos, Corry Evans, Drinkwater, James.