Saturday, 5 December 2009

16: Aston Villa 3 - 0 Hull City - 05/12/2009

It's not a nice experience to lose 3-0 away from home, but on this occasion the defeat is entirely irrelevant. Only the health of Jimmy Bullard is worthy of discussion.

Bullard, our saviour and our creator supreme, hobbled off at 1-0 down in the first half with what was evidently a knee injury. He seemed totally crestfallen. Whether it is the same injury, or indeed the same knee, is yet to be ascertained. Bullard is an emotional and committed footballer and knows his body well, but one hope that tears upon his exit from the pitch don't equate to a gut instinct that his old, horrible injury that removed him from the reckoning for ten whole months hasn't resurfaced.

It happened so innocuously too, and such was the lack of brutality involved that Bullard was actually deemed by the referee Stuart Attwell to have committed the foul. Hoots of derision at this conclusion from the Tiger Nation soon transmogrified into worried whispers among each other as Bullard lay prone on the turf.

He was treated, led off the pitch, allowed back on and then, heartbreakingly, led off again to sympathetic applause from all, not to return. The same thing happened at Villa Park to Ian Ashbee last season. That was in May, and Ashbee still has a good three months of rehabilitation to go. Lightning is striking twice from all different angles.

Of course, we don't know yet how bad it is but we do pessimism well at Hull City because we can name a thousand things that have gone wrong for us with immaculately wretched timing. Bullard's possible return to a physio's room would simply be the latest in a long list. Yet we must hold on to the hope that the injury is not serious and this time he'll be back after an absence vastly shorter than ten months.

And we do look a shadow of a team without him. He inspires, cajoles, lifts and galvanises all around him and makes opponents fearful. None of the remaining players do such a thing, especially as Geovanni was on the bench and stayed there even when a replacement for Bullard was sought. Phil Brown called upon Craig Fagan instead.

The Tigers were already a goal down courtesy of some woeful defending from a half-cleared corner that allowed James Milner to find Richard Dunne in luxurious space. The centre back duly belted a shot past Matt Duke with the aid of the crossbar before a City defender realised he was there.

So, bad defending, then with Bullard gone, bad prospects. The game felt over, although the Tigers tried a spirited response and only some courageous hurling of bodies by Villa players prevented shots by Jozy Altidore and Dean Marney really testing Brad Friedel. Ahead of that, Anthony Gardner had headed a Stephen Hunt set-piece just over the bar.

But as if Bullard's departure wasn't bad enough, City's second string goalkeeper then self-destructed. Duke, whose position in the team ahead of a fit Boaz Myhill is a great mystery, chased needlessly out of his goal to head a ball into touch, but quick retrieval of the ball allowed the throw to be hurled to Milner, who artfully lobbed the two covering defenders with Duke still miles from his goal.

It was embarrassing. The position wasn't so dangerous to require Duke's intervention and his rush of blood cost City a fighting chance for the second half. Even without Bullard, a 1-0 deficit felt potentially recoverable, but 2-0 marked the death of the Tigers' chances. Ashley Young could have had a third but fired over and Stewart Downing also went close from distance. The half time whistle allowed every City fan to confirm to one another what they were all thinking - the result could go hang, it was all about Bullard.

For all that, City performed better in the second half, although nothing of note happened for 20 minutes aside from the blankfiring Altidore again trudging off, to be replaced by Nick Barmby. Still no sign of Geovanni, but maybe Brown decided that the Brazilian would be best preserved for the visit of Blackburn Rovers in a week, with Bullard now apparently out of the equation again.

City's closest effort came courtesy of a magnificent Fagan shot, hit with uncharacteristic accuracy from distance and beating Brad Friedel conclusively, but striking the inside the post and bouncing out, with Hunt unable to get the rebound under control. Had it gone in, then the glimmer of hope would have been illuminated and maybe Geovanni could have been introduced to lead the search for an equaliser. But it stayed out, and City seemed destined to end the day without a goal, a point and their best performer.

Milner had a shot blocked by Gardner and Stilyan Petrov smacked the rebound over as the game began to plead for its life. Brown slung on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for Marney, while John Carew came on for the home side. With three minutes to go, Duke took Young's ankles and got a booking, then picked Carew's penalty out of his net.

Barmby headed an injury time cross from Richard Garcia just wide but it was a moment of injury time insignificance on a horrible, horrible day. We await news on Bullard's injury, for footballing reasons and so much more. Any other drawbacks from this defeat remain incidental.

Aston Villa: Friedel, L.Young, Warnock, Cuellar, Dunne, Petrov, Downing, Milner, A.Young, Agbonlahor, Heskey (Carew 78). Sub not used: Guzan, Beye, Clarke, Sidwell, Delph, Reo-Coker.

Hull City: Duke, McShane, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Boateng, Marney (Vennegoor of Hesselink 77), Bullard (Fagan 19), Garcia, Hunt, Altidore (Barmby 54). Subs not used: Myhill, Mouyokolo, Kilbane, Geovanni.