Sunday, 8 November 2009

12: Hull City 2 - 1 Stoke City - 08/11/2009

Adam Pearson
made it clear via a national broadcasting outlet that a victory against Stoke City would keep Phil Brown in a job for a little longer. This doesn't mean that a draw or defeat would have seen him ushered out of the KC Stadium, but certainly his position was precarious as the injury time board went up.

The step forward Jimmy Bullard. Brown's stay of execution, were it to be confirmed over the fixtureless fortnight now ahead of us, was pretty much orchestrated by the one player who has been unable to have any influence, good or bad, on the destiny of the Tigers. Finally, however, the scampering midfielder made his home debut, his starting bow, and ruled the game entirely. That he lasted for 90 minutes was miraculous; that he went beyond 90 minutes to set up a winning goal which will be talked about for years defies all logic.

Bullard, with fewer than 60 minutes of real football in 2009 in the tank, was introduced as one of five changes from the shambles at Burnley eight days before. Bernard Mendy started at right back, while Jozy Altidore got a rare start up front and Craig Fagan returned to the starting line-up after, presumably, a heart-to-heart with the manager who had flung him aside two months earlier. Richard Garcia also got a welcome start after knee problems.

Geovanni's absence through suspension paved a more obvious path for Bullard to begin the game, while also allowing an orthodox 4-4-2 to be used. And it instantly looked better for City, although the defence was shaky against the muscly, ruthless, enormous Stoke presence. City dominated the opening exchanges but Stoke looked more dangerous when applying pressure in attack.

The visitors could have had a penalty in the first 30 seconds when Mendy handled a Matthew Etherington volley in the box but Mike Dean waved the appeals away. It was a fair shout. City's first attack involved a smart run from Garcia which allowed Altidore a turning opportunity in the box, but the burly American went too easily to the deck and rightly got nothing.

Fagan then flicked on Andy Dawson's ball into Altidore's path, and the striker laid it back for Bullard who lashed over. Welcomed to the KC with ear-splitting appreciation from the Tiger Nation, Bullard was soon making himself the chief source of City's dominance in possession, and no pass was wasted, few options taken were backwards. Other players limitations remained, but Bullard had already made City look a totally different team.

Stoke had a chance when Seyi Olofinjana, against the club that sold him to City in the summer, was relieved of the ball by Ricardo Fuller whose drive was beaten out by Matt Duke. Altidore shot wide from distance from Mendy's good approach work.

It wasn't exactly end to end, even though Stoke made the next chance when Etherington was put through in a promising position but Kamil Zayatte got a shin in the way to good effect. The Tigers had the lion's share of the ball but Stoke looked more capable of fashioning a proper opening when they had possession. It was tough to predict which team would take the lead.

It should have been City when Bullard and Mendy combined nicely to send Garcia through via a lucky deflection, but the Australian's cross was deflected and went out for a corner. Garcia then headed a Stephen Hunt centre on target but without adequate force and Thomas Sorensen pouched it easily.

It was City in the ascendancy, and it was Stoke who took the lead. The goal was ugly from the Tigers' point of view as Mendy let a ball past him way too easily. Etherington had time and room to charge down the left flank and find the net with a precise drive at Duke's near post.

Horrible. And it took a good while for City to rediscover the composure required in such adversity. Passes were misplaced, options were limited, desire seemed dulled. Eventually Garcia took some control from a deep-lying position and fashioned one crossing chance for Fagan which Altidore couldn't reach, then headed a Hunt fizzer back across goal before getting a second chance which was blocked for a corner.

Olofinjana, as maligned as anyone in the Tigers side, repeated his irritating trick of refusing to shoot in a goalscoring position when he squared the ball to absolutely nobody with just the goalkeeper to beat, to howls of chagrin from the Tiger Nation. Half time came and it looked bleak. Better, but still lacking in real strength at the back and proper ideas and, most importantly, a goal adrift.

Rory Delap's long throws caused the inevitable problems in the first half but only when he launched his first after the break did City look in trouble, with Mendy hacking one away in the six yard box as James Beattie closed in. Etherington then crossed dangerously for Anthony Gardner to intercept with a goalbound deflection, but luckily for the big central defender Duke got in the way via his forehead and elbow and the ball inched just wide.

By now, Nick Barmby had replaced Garcia and hugged the right touchline, a ready outlet for Bullard's eagerly spread balls and, refreshingly, some diligent running by Mendy. After a couple of let-offs, City were beginning to fight it out.

The hour mark had just passed when an array of simple possession balls from City made some room for the shot-shy Olofinjana some 25 yards out. With the memory of the City fans imploring him to shoot earlier in the game, he had a go from a range you'd never expect him to score from - and duly curled a gorgeous effort round Sorensen and into the net. Bedlam in the crowd, and Olofinjana was soon at the bottom of a pile of amber-clad bodies as he celebrated to full effect a goal against his ex-employers.

Fagan nearly got another when he got ahead of Sorensen with the ball rolling towards goal, but couldn't get enough of a final touch to stop Abdoulaye Faye blocking it on the line. Dawson then fed Altidore for a shot that he dragged wide, before the hardworking and luckless American was replaced by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink with seven minutes remaining. In this time Stoke had been firing poorly, but had notably created one big chance which Ryan Shawcross headed on to the top of the crossbar.

In the last five minutes, the tide turned entirely City's way. They had looked more likely winners but without the real authority to their play that suggested Stoke were troubled. Then Faye, already on a yellow, went through Barmby on the touchline in as stupid a manner as you could fathom, was sent off and Stoke fell into all-out panic. Tuncay, on as a sub a few minutes earlier, was re-withdrawn to great amusement from the home ends as Stoke tried a reinforcement job, but their organisation and poise had gone.

Bullard had one shot which Vennegoor of Hesselink tried to help on its way but couldn't quite get enough purchase to take it away from Sorensen's gloves, but then in injury time the same two combined to the greatest of great effects. Bullard had another go from distance, Sorensen failed to hold and the tall Dutchman tucked home the rebound to prompt celebrations as wild as those after any of the Tigers' triumphs in the Premier League.

The rest of injury time was played out with a few nails bitten as Delap sent in throw after throw but nothing was forthcoming from the beaten visitors. The final whistle was a truly joyous thing to hear.

Bullard was exceptional, showing in 90 minutes exactly what could have kept City a good distance from the relegation scrap last season had his knee stayed the course. Other players - Zayatte, Mendy, Altidore - had their best games for a while. But the credit belongs to Brown. Knowing he had to do whatever it takes to keep in work, he offered olive branches, took gambles and relied on the players' trust, and it came off. It was bumpy stuff, against a team with real history for mucking up the Tigers' plans, but it worked an absolute treat. Questions will still be asked, and very rightly, yet the biggest question Brown had to answer was that about himself and his suitability to stay at the helm. His response was there for all to see.

Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Olofinjana, Bullard, Hunt, Garcia (Barmby 52), Fagan (Boateng 90), Altidore (Vennegoor of Hesselink 83). Subs not used: Warner, Kilbane, McShane, Ghilas.

Stoke City: Sorensen, Shawcross, Collins, Huth, Abdoulaye Faye, Whelan, Delap, Etherington, Whitehead, Fuller (Tuncay 81, Wilkinson 87), Beattie (Kitson 61). Subs not used: Simonsen, Cort, Higginbotham, Lawrence.