Saturday, 31 January 2009

Throttle the Throstles

I hate the phrase 'six-pointer' but it is relevant today. West Bromwich Albion visit the KC Stadium and both sides urgently need the points. They were on a semblance of form prior to their midweek humping by Manchester United, having been endangered earlier in the season by playing some very naive football. We were once the saviours of football, but at the moment it's tough to say we could beat a carpet, let alone another team.

A point would be satisfactory to the extent that it would stop the rot - six straight Premier League defeats with 17 goals conceded and just three scored is a horrendous recent record, the worst in the division, so anything that doesn't constitute defeat would be a start.

What we can expect, even with the associated tension, is a cracking game, because that's what these two sides tend to produce. Last season, with both sides gunning for promotion, the Baggies won 3-1 at the KC in January, live on television, in a wonderfully flowing, competitive, fair and fast occasion. Despite the defeat, it was one of City's best displays of the season, with Richard Garcia scoring a superb goal for the Tigers.

The trip to the Hawthorns two months later, where Caleb Folan's late goal sealed a definitive 2-1 win, removed the last gram of doubt that the Tigers really could go up, and was as memorable and edifying and significant a day as any in recent Tigers history, made all the more satisfying by the way City's display ruined ITV's biased approach to the game on their highlights package, assuming as they did that Albion would win and therefore they only need concentrate on them. The commentator left lots of gaps when City were in possession because he hadn't bothered to find out who they were.

The Baggies will be smarting still from the 0-3 they received from us back in October, when Kamil Zayatte, Geovanni and Marlon King scored second half goals in a mesmeric short spell and secured a fourth consecutive win while maintaining an unbeaten away record. Much has altered since then. Zayatte and Geovanni are not playing well, King has had one altercation too many and gone, and City have only won once at any venue, while also taking travelling defeats at Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and West Ham United.

Albion have begun to toughen up, winning a gaggle of home matches before Manchester United gave them hell this week, and the peril of being marooned has gone, although they are still bottom of the table. Today they turn up without their influential midfield general and also with the assertion that any defenders they select represent a fitness risk. One hopes that with both sides going through bad times it doesn't halt the tradition of a free-flowing, enjoyable, end-to-end game, though right now a fan of either club would happily spectate a scruffy, dreadful match and take a 1-0 win.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Myhill or Duke?

It's a simple question: Boaz Myhill or Matt Duke?

It's Myhill every time for most. But now Duke has responded to his unexpected summons by essentially keeping an anaemic Hull City alive for far longer than they deserved at West Ham United in midweek. His excellent penalty save was the obvious show-stopper, but he made abundant further saves of quality which rescued a listless outfield from a severe and deserved beating.

But why was he picked? Myhill hasn't played poorly of late; he wasn't at fault in the defeat to Arsenal in the last Premier League game, and has generally performed extremely well this season. He and Duke have been working and training together for five years now, ever since Peter Taylor found Duke at Burton Albion and brought him in as Myhill's understudy for the League One season of 2004/5. In all that time, Myhill has been the undisputed number one; Duke the faithful, patient deputy, always ready to be called upon in the event of a Myhill injury, suspension or brainstorm, while also stepping in regularly for Cup games.

Phil Brown told the club's official website that he picked Duke because he was a good goalkeeper, and chose not to elaborate further. Quotations elsewhere in the media claimed that he wanted a clean sheet. Now, if that means Brown believes a clean sheet is more likely to come with Duke in goal than Myhill, does this not signify a clear shift in the pecking order? You can talk as much as you like about a goalkeeper's ability to organise, to kick, to punch, to reach crosses, to frighten attackers, to be courageous, but ultimately he is measured by how little or otherwise he lets the ball into his net.

Duke is regarded, universally I suspect, as the better keeper when it comes to taking crosses and dominating the box, but Myhill has more than an edge on his buddy when it comes to shot-stopping, surely the most important attribute a custodian can possess. Myhill has let a good few in lately - 15 goals in the five Premier League defeats prior to West Ham - but few, if any, laid bare culpability at his door. Even the goals conceded from crosses - a couple at Manchester City, the late own goal against Aston Villa, Marouane Fellaini's header at Everton, Emmanuel Adebayor's header for Arsenal - did not instantly demand Myhill to exercise aerial command of the situation. At worst, he probably could have done better with the corner which Adebayor headed in. That's it.

Duke is a good goalkeeper, of course, as his manager says, and we can believe Brown's explanation. He also could have made this alteration at any time of the season, using the same explanation, and we would have only batted our collective eyelids in the same way. However, the decision to select Duke after a sequence of five straight Premier League defeats - there have been three FA Cup clean sheets in that time too, but Myhill didn't appear in any of those - does raise questions about Myhill's status and future.

Nothing has come from the club, and indeed I'm not sure if anyone has been asked, but there have been strong rumours that Myhill - our most saleable asset after Michael Turner - will leave before February 2nd to reclaim some of the massive, unprecedented outlay in fees and wages to which the Tigers committed themselves in securing the signature of Jimmy Bullard. Newcastle United need a goalkeeper as Shay Given's protracted exit from St James' Park gets ever closer, and Myhill would, as an example, be ideal for them.

Up to a point, the key indication as to if Myhill is headed for new horizons will be the teamsheet which Brown fills in on Saturday for the visit of West Bromwich Albion, a game of considerable magnitude when the positions of each club are analysed. However, as Duke played a blinder at Upton Park, his selection again could merely be interpreted as an endorsement of his performance, shrouding any sub-plot about Myhill being on his last legs. If Myhill is picked, then it'll be because Brown still sees him as the number one and just wanted to keep him on his toes, something he did in the early stages of last season when Duke got a gloveful of games and played well. It would be harsh on Duke, a player whose ability to be patient has sometimes drawn criticism from supporters about a perceived absence of ambition, but unless he really is off elsewhere, Myhill has to play against West Brom.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

23: West Ham United 2 - 0 Hull City - 28/01/2009

Altogether now... it's a relegation battle. The fact that it's a relegation battle that is being fought from tenth spot in the Premier League and therefore contains ten more teams is neither here nor there. If Hull City continue in this vein of form then eventually the handy and fortunate propensity for other teams not to take advantage will cease, and the Tigers will plummet right down the table.

Through this appalling sequence of defeats, there has been mitigation and some light at the end of the tunnel. City were excellent for large parts of the defeat to Arsenal two weeks ago, and only lost in the last ten minutes to a couple of classy touches. The defeat to Aston Villa was demonstrably unlucky. Yet two of the defeats - away to Manchester City and Everton - were bleak, crass examples of the little side going into a game feeling and playing as such. Now this latest setback at Upton Park was probably the worst of the lot. Lord knows what the television audience made of it.

Phil Brown will need to ask himself the searching questions which many members of the Tiger Nation were asking when the teams were announced, and certainly when a truly terrible, unforgivable first half display was not alleviated by making changes at the interval. Matt Duke is a fine goalkeeper, and proved it as he pulled on Premier League gloves for the first time, but ultimately there has to be a sinister reason for not picking Boaz Myhill beyond the unconvincing line that Duke was good and just deserved a go. Duke has now done more than enough to start the next match, but that could be as much about Myhill's long-term future as it is about Duke's credibility for the job.

Jimmy Bullard didn't start, which was acceptable given the viral condition which has vastly curtailed his training regime in the days either side of his transfer. But given that he is a matchwinner, a showbiz player of extra zest and zing, why was he not introduced until the team was on its knees, beaten and waving a white flag? That Bullard did come on and achieved more in half an hour than the rest of the outfield put together is testament to the quality of signing he will hopefully prove, but it's pointless unless you give him half a chance to earn a share of the game. City were 2-0 down and playing awfully when he was summoned.

It's a long old slog ahead now. West Ham are a polished side under Gianfranco Zola, pacey and resourceful, with a hardworking midfield and in Carlton Cole, a striker who has a lengthy list of detractors but currently stands proud as the form goalscorer in the division. But for Duke and some woodwork intervention, they would have been clear and lighting the post-match Cuban cigar by half time.

With Bullard on the bench, Brown opted to play Dean Marney and Geovanni in midfield behind a strikeforce of the blustering, lanky Manucho and the blustering, lanky Daniel Cousin. Cousin is a workhorse and forgivable on a bad day where Manucho is clearly not and not, but irrespective of their varying capacities for industry, they were way too similar and leaden-footed to cause much strife to West Ham's back four. They weren't helped by a lacklustre midfield, for whom Ian Ashbee was a disaster and Marney, for all his willingness, not much further ahead.

The game took a while to settle, even though it was the home side who were claiming the best of the possession. Ex-City loanee Mark Noble swung in an early corner from which David Di Michele shot at Duke, then the same player tried an outrageous curling shot from long range which did Duke all ends up and cannoned back off the post.

These early opportunities, though not resulting in goals, did epitomise how the game was going to go. West Ham were allowed unspeakably high quantities of possession while City had next to no response - other than to lose the ball cheaply - when it did come their way. Andy Dawson made a good clearance from in his own box from the ever-dangerous Di Michele after he made a fine weaving run through semi-interested challenges, then James Collins sent a free header from a Noble corner wide.

The cracks eventually had to force a collapse, and it seemed to do just that when Sam Ricketts fouled Cole in the box as he tried to find room following a set-piece melee. Noble - whose penalty record is very good indeed - stepped up but Duke repeated his heroics at Swansea City by guessing correctly and batting the ball out high to his left. A tremendous save.

It should, beyond that, have been inspirational too. A penalty save, live on television, from your former cancer patient reserve goalkeeper making his first ever Premier League appearance? If you aren't inspired to do well after that then you're not worth the shirt.

City weren't inspired to do well after that.

Di Michele screwed a ridiculously bad shot wide of Duke's post after Noble's deflected through ball fortuitously sent him clear, but soon afterwards got his reward when Cole's angled shot was pushed aside by Duke but pretty much hit the Italian as he diligently followed up, forcing the ball in.

It's 1-0 to the Hammers, and the only surprise is how long it's taken so to be. The Tigers can thank Duke and the woodwork for that. As if to prove they were on the pitch, City pressed forward and Cousin crossed for Manucho to head straight at Robert Green. A cursory chance, worthy of just a cursory mention here.

West Ham fancy another. Di Michele's neat run and cross is met by Jack Collison who just misses the target by hitting the near post. City win a throw-in which Ricketts, rarely for him or his team, hurls long. Michael Turner manages a flick and Cousin's hooked volley is on target but, again, it's straight at Green.

There isn't a shred of confidence or positivity in the Hull City side. Marney is getting plenty of ball but can't find his targets, and is roundly turned upon by the away support when he fails to track back. Ashbee's tracking back remains sound, only the timing of his tackling and distribution - even in the simplest of Ashbee terms - is weak. Geovanni and Kevin Kilbane are strangers to the game, especially Kilbane, whose lack of involvement was noticeable to even the casual observer. Too many players are wearing a shirt which demands endeavour, spirit and fight, especially when they've worked so hard to reach this level, and they are unable to respond.

Except for Duke, that is. When Cole is put through one on one with him, the expectation from all is for a 2-0 half time scoreline. Cole hits a powerful shot goalwards, Duke responds with a fantastic parry with a meaty gloved hand and as the ball trundles away to safety, Cole is holding his head tight with both hands, totally mortified that he didn't score from such a gimme of a position. For all his form right now, inability to wrap up chances such as this will be what marks him out as an average striker rather than an international class one.

The half time whistle and it's only 1-0. City will actually be happier at this, given the luck they've had, the form of their alleged reserve keeper and the talent they have a-waiting on the bench. Aside from Bullard, there's also Bernard Mendy waiting for a call-up, a renowned game changer. We confidently expect both to be introduced for the start of the second half.

They aren't. And although City create the first chance of the half when Cousin gets a firm header on to Ricketts' long throw but - again, tiresomely - aims it right at Green, we pay for our lack of willingness to accept when it's all gone wrong.

West Ham surge forward again and Collison has room to fly by Ricketts and shoot at Duke's near post. It hits the inside and rolls angularly across the six yard box for Cole to tap home with comfort. It's 2-0 with still 40 minutes left, and only now is Bullard introduced. Craig Fagan is summoned too, but not Mendy. Geovanni (invisible) and Manucho (disgraceful) are given the shepherd's crook.

In five minutes, we see the evidence as to why Bullard should have been involved from half time (or better still, from the beginning). Dawson and Fagan pass intelligently between one another on the left edge of the box for the latter to lay back to his fellow sub, who hit a considered, powerful low drive which Green stretched every sinew to reach and tip away. Immediate class from the new player.

Marney, whose presence on the pitch after two substitutions did surprise people, picked up his game a little and hit one elegant shot goalwards which a deflection took further wide of Green's grasp, forcing a corner. Shortly afterwards, Marney has room to look for a run into the box and the cross seems ideal for Kilbane to hurl himself at, but the Irishman decides he won't be able to reach it and so leaves it entirely, much to the Tiger Nation's chagrin.

With 20 minutes left, after Cole had been given a clear run on goal but seen his shot deflected off Turner for a corner, Brown introduced Mendy for Marney. Despite the stick he took, Marney is afforded a generous ovation off the park as he at least had the class, unlike the previous two withdrawn players, to applaud the travelling fans while he made his way to the bench. On came Mendy, presumably with a brief to cause a nuisance to the opposition, something he does with aplomb whether told to or not.

Duke backpedalled furiously to tip a sublime Noble lob over the bar, prior to West Ham's introduction of Luis Boa Morte, a player barracked on to the pitch by the Tiger Nation for turning down a move to the KC earlier this month. He is probably quite relieved at his decision.

Julien Faubert tried a late shot which Duke saved well prior to a meaningless bit of injury time and a final whistle greeted with apathy by both sets of fans. West Ham are on a fine run but their supporters had little more than professionalism to cheer due to the appalling performance of their opponents. City were, with the exception of Duke, as dire as we feared we may be when all the sniping about Derby County Mk II was being aimed at us following Wembley.

The grumbles overheard as we joined the 62-mile long police-cordoned queue at Upton Park tube station mainly declared that the team which ended the game - Bullard, Fagan and Mendy on; Geovanni, Manucho and Marney off - was the one which should have started. It certainly should be the team when West Bromwich Albion come to the KC at the weekend - any my God, how wretched and scared and ridiculed we will feel if we lose that one.

West Ham United: Green, Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Collison (Faubert 71), Noble (Boa Morte 84), Di Michele (Nsereko 86), Cole. Subs not used: Lastuvka, Tristan, Tomkins, Sears.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Marney (Mendy 73), Ashbee, Kilbane, Geovanni (Bullard 53), Cousin, Manucho (Fagan 53). Subs not used: Myhill, Garcia, Halmosi, Folan.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Hammers time

The last time Hull City paid a visit to Upton Park was in 1990/91 and the game ended 7-1 to the home side. West Ham United were promoted from Division Two at the end of that season, and the Tigers were relegated, bottom and bloodless. It took us 14 years to play at that level again.

The scorer that day for City, via a fortunate looping header, was David Hockaday, an ageing but semi-reliable right back who was one of the big-wage purchases via whom Stan Ternent nearly bankrupted the club. A good chunk of these acquisitions - particularly Dave Bamber, Tony Finnegan and Gwyn Thomas - possessed no little experience but very little heart.

And if I recall correctly, Hockaday's goal was a false dawn as it was an equaliser. If Sam Ricketts scores tonight then the omen is clear...

That 7-1 debacle is also Russell Brand's favourite ever West Ham game, according to the interview he gives to Four Four Two for their latest Sing When You're Winning piece. If ever there was an incentive to win tonight - preferably by 7-1, but a 1-0 would do - then it's right there in black and white. For those of you less enamoured by history and fate, then the incentive lies in the chance to win for the first time in six Premier League games and do our first double ever at this level. Enough?

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Back to Brazilian basics

For the punters and armchair viewers, the best performer for Hull City this season has been Geovanni. While undoubtedly the most gifted player on the books, the assumption that he has been the top player in the team is slightly misguided.

Sure, when he is on song he is untouchable, and the rest of the midfield can enjoy an afternoon of giving him the ball and seeing what science-defying things he can do with it. However, the dip in team form since November has been epitomised by a downturn of his own.

The change in formation from the fabled 4-3-3 of September and October has changed Geovanni's role and impact on games. It was a necessary change, given the issues with impact and injury which had put the roles of a number of players - particularly Daniel Cousin, Dean Marney and George Boateng - under threat. The question mark against the 4-3-3, even when it was being used to win at Arsenal and scare Manchester United, was the lack of width, and eventually Phil Brown realised that the abundant wide players he had at his disposal needed to be utilised.

Geovanni, in the 4-3-3, was playing in a creative hole behind Cousin and Marlon King. He was semi-midfielder, semi-forward, if you like, and had Marney providing running space for him and Boateng protecting him and offering a route back if he got stuck in possession. The only time attacking width was used was when either Marney's considerable engine took him to a flank, or either of the full backs joined the fray having noted Ian Ashbee hanging back to provide cover for a counter attack.

Once the results of the team began to wane - losing to Chelsea was an acceptance of our limitations and to Manchester United covered in glory, but losing to Bolton Wanderers was a shock - then the answer to the riddle was to fill the midfield up and broaden it. This took Geovanni out of his showbiz role and put him wide left, allowing Bernard Mendy the chance to exploit his own mad brand of football on the other side. His role is still essentially free, but the extra discipline which applies to a wide role - being always available, off the ball running, tracking back - has rather nullified his effect.

Of course, even wildly talented Brazilians need to be team players and Geovanni has a better workrate than the stereotype of his type of performer would dictate. But he is really only useful - and that's very useful, of course - when he is possession of the ball and heading towards the opposition's byline or goal. A place in a wider area of the field means he is heading for the byline more and the net less, which more often than not rules out a chance for him to test a goalkeeper from distance.

His danger as a goalscorer is, of course, affected greatly by this. He was in a wide position when he received the ball at the Emirates, but was quickly allowed to come inside by a defence unfamiliar with him and lacking respect for the team, and he memorably punished them. Since going wider, he has not scored at all, and some of his shooting has been remarkably wayward for a player so dangerous.

Geovanni is now not set in stone as a first-team starter for the Tigers. He will, of course, be there more often than not, but as the team evolves and targets change, his brand of glittering showmanship will only be best served in a team which is on form and showing optimism. The arrival of Jimmy Bullard, a visionary player with a secondary ability to chase and graft, will also prompt further questions of Geovanni. His best hope for reclaiming the role of inspirer of men will be realised if City resume the 4-3-3 formation and restore him to that glamorous central position behind Cousin and another striker, with Bullard enjoying a deeper, surveying role behind him. However, if Brown sees Bullard as someone who poses a direct threat to Geovanni, the Brazilian may need to rethink his game.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Time to blunt the Blades

While the fallout continued over the deselection of Millwall fans from the human race as we knocked them out of the FA Cup at the weekend, Hull City acquired a tasty and distinctly winnable fifth round fixture at Sheffield United.

Bramall Lane is not a favoured venue of the Tiger Nation if one looks solely at results. We haven't won there ... well, almost forever. Fans of slipper-wearing vintage will recall, eyes misting over, the infamous Battle of Bramall Lane back in 1971, a fixture renowned for its sporting ferocity as the Tigers came from a goal down to win 2-1, thanks to Chris Simpkin and Ken Wagstaff, and briefly go joint top of the Division Two table with promotion firmly in their sights. The significance of this win was immense, as it gave City fans genuine hope of elevation to the top flight, and also came three days after the demoralising and unjust FA Cup defeat against Stoke City which denied the Tigers a semi-final spot. The character of the team which Terry Neill had instilled came through superbly.

Most games at Bramall Lane since then have been, certainly by comparison but even without the 1971 fixture as a yardstick, something of an anti-climax. Sheffield United were the most regular Yorkshire-based opponents in the mad, bad days of the 1980s and frequently it would kick off more on the terraces than it ever did on the field. Recently, City have had two dramatic days at Bramall Lane, both of which ended in defeat when victory was either vital or expected.

In 2006, Peter Taylor's team - already safe from the drop and basking in the glory of a home win over Leeds United - were two goals down and out for the count when our sullen but skilled manager simultaneously threw on two substitutes. Immediately, one of them made it 2-1 when Stuart Elliott found himself free at the far post from Alton Thelwell's searching cross to fire in a simple shot and restore some hope, even turning his usual cartwheel of acknowledgement (if not quite celebration) as the players trotted back for the restart and hope was replenished.

Within five minutes, it was level and the pandemonium among the travelling fans exemplified why one goes to football matches. Stuart Green, playing the game of his life in midfield, found room to sneak a diagonal ball across the six yard box and Darryl Duffy, the other sub, glided it home and slid triumphantly on his knees before the Tiger Nation.

Taylor then complained about Sheffield United timewasting by picking up the fourth official's electronic substitute board and waving it about, endearing himself to the City fans in a way he rarely ever did. City were then denied a clear penalty when Green was hauled down by Paddy Kenny, then suffered the indignity of Kenny taking the rise out of the away support over the decision. This provoked some obvious rage among the Tiger Nation, rage which transmogrified into heartbreak when David Unsworth rifled in the winner from a half-cleared corner deep into injury time, prompting Kenny to take another gleeful look at the away fans, finger to lips. A 3-2 defeat, but with safety assured, it was one of those losses which was worth every penny shelled out.

The Blades were promoted that season, so the next trip came after their inevitable relegation a year later. Three games from the end of last season and automatic promotion was in our sights.

However, a combination of odd refereeing, toothless attacking and a makeshift defence which forced Phil Brown to pick political victim David Livermore as a centre back allowed Sheffield United as straightforward a 2-0 win as they will ever have, even after they were reduced to ten men. Still, as ignominious and deflating as it was, there was always the play-offs...

To go back to Bramall Lane for an FA Cup fifth round tie against a side now below us in the footballing pyramid is as mouth-watering a prospect as any winnable game the draw could have awarded us. The chairman wants to go back to Wembley, and maybe this sort of tie might just make the manager start thinking about it too.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

FA Cup fourth round: Hull City 2 - 0 Millwall - 24/01/2009

The headlines following this game had, of course, little to do with football. The return of Millwall as a force for hooliganism in an era where such neanderthal behaviour seemed to have been eradicated has swept aside any mention of on-pitch action barring the cursory 'wrap up' paragraph.

Hypocrisy is never slow to appear in a cell next to a drunken football supporter with blood on his face. The sound of Millwall fans bleating on radio phone-ins last night about how they were as much the victims as villains and were being cast by their past reputation was as humorous as it was pathetic. One in particular didn't see the self-incrimination which came with the statement: "And they were throwing the seats back at us."

The Tiger Nation has never shaken off its unattractive splinter groups and weren't blameless. But the crying and protesting of visiting supporters about how they were provoked by some harsh words is hysterical. At every football ground in the country there is chanting which is not designed to flatter the visiting fans. It's part of the game's fabric. And when these fans travel to away games, they get as good as previously given. Yet not one set of supporters from a Premier League club has kicked off at the KC Stadium due to unflattering comments. This makes the Millwall fans who did a) immature, and b) hypocritical. As well as thick.

For those of us at a reasonably safe distance, it was a faintly amusing sight to see these imbeciles get so worked up and yet not quite have the nerve, even before the riot police turned up, to try to cross the short divide between the north and east. Occasionally it got a bit more vociferous but until the seats began flying into the City fans in the second half, was well contained by the stewards while we waited for the narks and their truncheons to join us. It's good to see that Millwall FC have condemned the supporters involved via an official statement on their website, and they can probably expect a bill from Paul Duffen before long.

Nothing can be condoned, but it did mean we had a spectacle to grab your attention because the game wasn't up to much. The idea with playing a League One side in an FA Cup tie is to win it as comfortably as possible and not pick up injuries. Millwall's players and their sharpened elbows did their best to inflict superficial injuries on City's players but the job was largely carried out to plan.

Jimmy Bullard was paraded to an enormous welcome prior to the match - illness stopped him from partaking - and after he took his seat to watch his new pals in action, the teams emerged. Phil Brown had elected to field an authentic, unfussy 4-4-2, with Tony Warner featuring for the first time in goal (against his former club) and Andy Dawson a heartwarming sight at left back after 11 long weeks of Achilles bother. Manucho partnered Daniel Cousin up front and there were further chances for Peter Halmosi and Richard Garcia in the wide positions and Dean Marney in the centre. Millwall didn't select ex-City striker Gary Alexander, who was a sub.

Halmosi had the first chance of what was a personally frustrating showing for him, hitting a low shot from distance which Millwall custodian David Forde spilled and then held. The early stages showcased the Millwall players' own willingness to use violence to promote their needs, with Kamil Zayatte taking an elbow in the face early on and needing a dressing and a fresh shirt, while niggly challenges were commonplace as the desire to stop the Premier League side getting comfortable on the ball took priority.

No matter, as the ball was soon in their net anyway. Sam Ricketts was fouled near the right corner flag, and Dawson whipped in one of those electrifying free kicks which we've so missed. Michael Turner's head was first to connect and although Forde got a paw on the ball, it was heading only for the visitors' net.

This early fillip didn't quite settle City down, and the game as a whole was still proving something of a sideshow as the war of words continued in the crowd. The visitors had half an opportunity when Izale McLeod, as much by luck as by touch, weaved through three challenges but let his nerves crush him as he shaped to shoot, scuffing the chance badly wide.

Most of the half was subsequently a non-event as far as footballing prowess was concerned. One remarkable gaffe came courtesy of Warner, whose studs gave way as he prepared to put his boot through a simple Ian Ashbee backwards ball. He fell to the deck and McLeod seemed set to find an empty net but the keeper managed to leap across and grasp the ball from the striker's toes and hold it to his chest, giving away a free kick within the box in the process. They wasted it when Lewis Grabban scooped the chance well wide.

When Cousin was savagely sliced down near the touchline, a free kick was given. As the hoots of derision regarding yet another act of thuggery on a City players sounded menacingly from the paying audience, attention switched to Dawson, who had taken a shrouded and sneaky elbow to the face seconds earlier and was face down on the edge of the penalty area. That he wasn't exaggerating was obvious when he got to his feet and charged towards the assistant referee with a puddle of his own blood covering his forehead and nose. It was a deep head wound and had gone unnoticed and unpunished. Such was the anger and debate on the pitch that the referee, Stuart Attwell, felt it necessary to get the captains together and instruct them to restore calm among their charges.

Millwall could have equalised - entirely undeservedly - right on half time when McLeod headed down David Martin's cross into the gloriously-paved path of Marc Laird, but he miskicked.

The second half was even less attractive to watch, both because the Millwall fans were feeling braver - sort of - and the players were struggling to feign interest. Marney was the best player on show in the second half, making plenty of runs and declaring his availability for possession in all corners of the field. Cousin's workrate was exceptional and, albeit against League One defenders, he proved he possessed a silky touch and incisive possessional skills as well as his obvious strength and aerial threat.

Manucho, with telescopic limbs that made one recall Ricardo Vaz Te (let's hope the similarity ends there), hooked one volley too high and then Marney charged through four tackles with real heart and determination before a last-ditch toe took the chance away as he shaped to shoot.

Brown did what he always does in Cup ties when he threw on Nicky Featherstone for some welcome first-team action, withdrawing the deeply disappointing Halmosi. Even against lower division opposition, Halmosi couldn't get into the game, with his touch poor and his decision-making as far as timing and direction very much off the boil. He has a long contract and maybe Brown is close to deciding he is one summer investment which hasn't worked. Do not expect to see him anywhere near West Ham United on Wednesday evening.

Featherstone, however, looked resourceful upon his introduction, curling one very tidy cross on to Manucho's head at the far post, but the angle was very tight and he could only aim it straight at Forde. Millwall then introduced Alexander to generous applause, while Brown threw on a hyper Caleb Folan who committed two bookable fouls in his first five minutes and was the luckiest man alive when Mr Attwell chose only to give him a lecture for the second, having waved yellow for the first.

Still just one goal separated two sides of vastly disparate abilities, so the fear that a freak equaliser may make us go through utter hell down in south London was still extremely real. Up steps the captain to soothe our nerves. Marney made the break, Cousin took the pass and made up the ground before laying the ball back for Ashbee to slam a curling, distinctly unAshbee-like shot past Forde and in via the woodwork. A tremendous goal not befitting of the game, but certainly a fabulous way to guarantee fifth round activity for Hull City for the first time in 20 years.

Four minutes were added and little happened, and the fallout was all about the altercations and bluster on the terraces. Reports seeped through later about Millwall fans rampaging through a couple of nearby pubs and bits of the town centre, and late night news bulletins reported 12 arrests. It's the sort of game which should make the authorities impose a travelling ban on Millwall fans, but presumably the pro-liberty organisations will kick up a stink were it to be suggested as a serious solution. For all that football seemed a secondary issue, we can be grateful that these toerags didn't leave Hull with a victory and a giant-killing on their hands as well as paint from their seats and bruises from the truncheons.

Hull City: Warner, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Garcia, Ashbee, Marney, Halmosi (Featherstone 66), Cousin, Manucho (Folan 75). Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Geovanni, France, Mendy.

Millwall: Forde, Dunne, Robinson, Craig, Frampton, Grabban (Hackett 77), Laird, Abdou, Martin (Grimes 77), Harris, McLeod (Alexander 74). Subs not used: Pidgeley, Kandol, O'Connor, Fuseini.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Alexander the ... Adequate

Millwall's trip to the KC Stadium this weekend for the FA Cup fourth round tie brings with it a return to an old haunt for striker Gary Alexander, who formed one half of a rejuvenated Hull City strikeforce after, finally, the club was rescued from oblivion and transfer funds became available. Boyhood Dreams asked ANDY DALTON to recall the pilferer of goals who had the potential to score, score and score some more...

"Oh Alexander
Lend me your sander
To shave my panda
It’s from Uganda"

Future generations of Hull City fans will wonder quite how this was allowed to develop as our terrace tribute to Gary Alexander – his only one, too. It didn't make much sense. But then the Kempton stand in which it was born often made little sense. And when Alexander was plying his trade in East Yorkshire, going to City didn’t make any sense at all.

Alexander arrived at City in 2001 from Swindon Town. He turned up at Boothferry Park with the Tigers seemingly destined to spend the rest of eternity, and possibly longer, marooned in the barren wastelands of English football's bottom division, doomed to provide endless cup final style amusement for the likes of Scunthorpe and Rochdale. With the benefit of late 2000s Premier League hindsight, his arrival was in so many ways typical of the early 2000s incarnation of Hull City.

He arrived with a heady reputation, caused tremors of excitement with a beginning of pulsating promise, and ultimately faded away in rancour and disappointment. He was, in short, Typical City.

He only spent two years at City before going back to his London origins to Leyton Orient, but they were far from poor ones. He scored 23 goals in his first season, including one hat-trick – this against Leigh RMI, as they were then, in whatever the Johnstone's Paint Trophy was called back then. Did you know they are now the fabulously named Leigh Genesis? I didn't know that until I began researching this piece, but I'm enormously glad I did.

Anyway, he also collected 12 cautions, but even more memorable than those, and the goals, was the partnership with Lawrie Dudfield. Alexander was the archetypal striker, the goal-getting powerhouse up front, with the more cerebral Dudfield playing slightly behind him. For just a short time, it was a joy to behold.

City had started that season as favourites for promotion, and as we stormed up the table it looked like we were not only going up, but going up as champions, perhaps with 120 points to our name. Dudfield and Alexander were unplayable up front, Ryan Williams and David Beresford the suppliers on the flanks, Julian Johnsson the central enforcer, Theodore Whitmore’s shimmering brilliance in midfield – how could we fail?

Fail we did. It’s what happened back then. City stumbled and fell, Brian Little was sacked, and Alexander scored just once in his final twelve appearances. This was one of the main reasons a season of glittering promise ended in the customary despair.

Looking back, we should not blame Alexander too much for 2001/2's abysmal end. He was a young man playing a long way from home, but he never recovered from his terrible run of form at the back end of the 2001/2 season. The following season brought just nine goals – and not all for City, as he moved to Leyton Orient midway through it. He had one final hurrah in a City shirt, collecting his second Boothferry Park match ball during a 4-0 crushing of Carlisle United. I wonder if he kept it.

This was one of the vanishingly small number of happy moments during Jan Molby's reign of terror. The portly Dane was swiftly ushered out of the exit door by a horrified Adam Pearson, and in came Alexander’s fellow southerner Peter Taylor.

Sadly the latter didn’t much fancy the former, whose form had now gone for good. In January 2003, shortly after City swapped the Ark for the Circle, Alexander left for Orient. He played just three times at our new home, scoring once. And that was that.

That statistics of his time here are far from poor. Thirty goals in a season and a half is much better than most of those who preceded him. But ultimately…a sense of disappointment lingers. Alexander has tools to be a player capable of scoring at Championship level, yet he has rarely threatened to make this breakthrough. He turns 30 this year and his chances would appear to be diminishing rapidly.

He’s now scoring at Millwall though, and presumably older and wiser than the player whose eventual underachievement at City owed more to mental fragility and inconsistency than skill on the field. However, for just a while, he provided a lot of fun at City at a time when fun was in desperately short supply. For that, I hope that when we entertain Millwall at the KC, we collectively remember our roots and give a respectful hand to Alexander – if only for the fact we never devised a proper song for him.

Andy Dalton is the co-editor of Amber Nectar.

Friday, 23 January 2009

"He's better than Steven Gerrard, he's thinner than Frank Lampard..."

Jimmy Bullard!

Crumbs. We've just bought Jimmy Bullard. A bonafide, top of the range creative midfielder with many an admirer, a killer set-piece delivery and visionary skills to make Specsavers envious.

Bullard has cost £5m from Fulham, for whom he played gloriously on the opening day of the season at the KC, and it's already tempting to say he'll be worth every penny. Beyond the obvious shot in the arm for the squad and the city, it proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the Tigers mean business; that Paul Duffen and Phil Brown are determined to pull off transfer coups which will, once and for all, expose their enormous ambition for the club.

Symbolically, a previous record arrival, Lawrie Dudfield, also was subject to a transfer window deal this week. He has joined non-league Chelmsford City, having bummed around at Northampton Town (twice), Southend United, Boston United and Notts County, plus Irish club football, since he left the KC. That Brian Little paid £250,000 for him as a bright, youthful starlet-in-the-making nigh on a decade ago is a signal of a) how far we've come in both finance and reputation, and b) how far he has declined since failing to live up to his price tag.

And, as if getting Bullard wasn't enough, Brown has managed to alleviate the whining noises emanating from Kamil Zayatte's agent by securing the Guinean defender on a full-time deal for £2.5m. This eases the immediate need to acquire another central defender substantially.

And from the superstar buys to the reward of our most loyal servants - Andy Dawson, now 30, decent and respectable - and, of course, with appearances in all four divisions under his belt - has been given a new three-year deal. In many ways, that's the most heartwarming bit of business we've concluded today.

Bullard, although not cup-tied, is expected to sit out the Millwall game this weekend and be paraded around the KC Stadium beforehand. A debut at his boyhood club, West Ham United, beckons on Wednesday night instead. What a week it's going to be, and what a day it has already been for Hull City.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Lions tamed

The visit of Millwall to the KC Stadium this weekend for the FA Cup fourth round tie is not even an eighth of the scary prospect which would previously follow the Lions wherever they want.

Millwall's only profile in the game was prompted by their notorious hooligan element. This has largely gone now - any rogueish followers that may remain have no worse a reputation than any other team's - but such was the extremity of Millwall-based violence in the bad old days that still the name of Millwall sends a mild shiver down the spine.

This shiver is as much nowadays of anticipation as it is of trepidation. Round our way, Millwall and their ample bunch of hardy perennials last turned up three seasons ago, in our first season in the Championship and our last under Peter Taylor. The game was a Friday night affair due to Hull Fair's annual strangling of the car parking facility at the KC Stadium beginning the next day, and the unconventional timing helped make sure the game wasn't a classic and the atmosphere was somewhat nullified. A Ben Burgess goal gave City a 1-1 draw.

Before that the most memorable occasion - for both sides - was a rip-roaring, tense and massively-policed encounter on the penultimate day of the 1988 season. City had shown some promise but had, since New Year's Day, been on the infamous 14-match winless streak which had seen the club sink into the bottom half, cost Brian Horton his job and begun - in retrospect - a decline which would snowball into a crisis and a coma for the next decade and more. Millwall, however, had enjoyed a splendid season, with promotion almost secured, and a win at Boothferry Park would guarantee them both elevation to the top flight and the Second Division title.

The importance of the occasion could, therefore, never be underestimated. Naturally, it was declared an all-ticket game and thousands of Millwall fans journeyed up on the railways and the M1 from south east London to see their side try to generate rare headlines for footballing reasons. The city centre was awash with chaps in blue football shirts, with Anlaby Road almost pedestrianised by the mix of football supporters on show, many of whom had travelled ticketless, despite the utterly futile warnings that no ticket should mean no travel. For all the fear one could feel at such a vast number of notorious fans wandering the streets of Hull, the football supporter mentality could easily understand their motivation.

Millwall deserved to be on top. Their now-iconic strike partnership of Teddy Sheringham and Tony Cascarino took the goalscoring glory, with expert wingplay from Jimmy Carter and Kevin O'Callaghan providing plentiful opportunities. Controlled nastiness was provided down the middle by Terry Hurlock, while Brian Horne was a good, agile goalkeeper. City were blooding a few youngsters as Dennis Booth continued in temporary charge and began the game as far outsiders.

Boothferry Park seemed to be creaking under the weight of both bodies and expectation as the away support piled into the North Stand, the normally-disused corner between the wretched Kwik Save and the closed Kempton also bursting at the seams. It was a white-hot atmosphere, intimidating but friendly, something which was received with gratitude by the City fans in the supposedly safest area - the West Stand - where a number of Millwall fans had legitimately taken seats. As Millwall needed to win to achieve something magnificent, rather than win to avoid something appalling, we could feel grateful that the tension was based on optimism. That said, we all wanted City to win and to hell with the consequences...

The 90 minutes were largely forgettable from Tigers viewpoint. The team were still shellshocked from their unpalatable snatching of mediocrity from the jaws of promise, which had seen Horton hastily pushed out by chairman Don Robinson. The players picked up their performance for Booth, who was Horton's affable assistant and really wanted the job, but they were in a mindset of wanting to write the season off and start afresh.

Millwall scored very early and the old place shook with the euphoria when O'Callaghan sent Tony Norman the wrong way from the penalty spot. City, even with more than 80 minutes to play, had no response, with only Richard Jobson's flowing runs from defence giving any hope to the home crowd. Carter had a superb game on the right wing, and the subtleties of Sheringham were obvious too, yet few goalscoring chances were concocted by either team. Millwall knew the game was on early, and the title was theirs.

Had they lost and missed out on promotion - the eventual four-point gap at the top meant that they'd have gone up as champions even in defeat - I dread to think what North Road and Askew Avenue would have resembled as the stampede got under way. Devastation in defeat would have transferred to devastation of the property and people of west Hull. That they celebrated victory mostly in good humour - although there were some arrests in the West Stand - was both a credit to their supporters and a massive relief for the rest of us.

Millwall FC and football as a culture has changed substantially, of course. It's right to be grateful for the lack of fear attached to football, but there was something about those immensely tense occasions which made football supporting as enjoyable because it was fearful, even to the large majority who never got involved in strife on the terraces at all.

Judging by their brisk ticket sales, Millwall fans will number almost 3,000 when they come to the KC Stadium this weekend. The atmosphere won't be as charged as the past, but they'll be welcome - providing this time they don't go back with a 1-0 victory and another reason to celebrate on our doorsteps.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

In the Brown stuff

Phil Brown is in bother with the FA again. This time, he and Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear have been jointly summoned for 'improper conduct' after the two managers indulged in a few tasty verbals at the FA Cup replay last week.

Brown was, rightly, seething that no foul was given when Daniel Cousin took a painful slicing through his ankles from the Whitesnake-haired defender Fabio Coloccini. Kinnear stepped in and the two did some savage eyeballing before the fourth official stepped in. Each went to the stands, though whether they were ordered to or just chose to do so is not clear.

Kinnear cuts a sympathetic character with the awful slagging he took when he accepted his troubleshooting job at St James' Park back in September, but he has a right gob on him too and is his own worst enemy. However, Brown has shown of late he too is capable of losing his composure a little too much, especially when you consider his frequent complaints about refereeing decisions of late to the waiting media. Those who say such complaints are justified are forgetting that they don't get decisions altered, nor do they get referees demoted or reprimanded. They do, however, earn managers ill-needed reputations for moaning.

With City's star waning and sequence of results looking deeply unimpressive, the manager needs to be cooler in public. As the players strive to return to form and flavour, the last thing they need is their manager absent from the improvement process. 'Improper conduct' may, like the last incident, result in just a fine and a wrist-slapping, but eventually a touchline ban will be imminent if Brown can't keep his counsel. Part of Kinnear's shtick has always been to rile the opposition anyway.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Don't get caught, get Cort

There are two weeks of the transfer window left and still there has been no speculation linking Hull City with the central defender we so desperately need.

This is not to say Phil Brown isn't trying to acquire one, of course - sometimes the best deals are the ones which escape the antennae of hovering journalists. But the news on this front is alarmingly quiet.

The signings made so far - Kevin Kilbane and Manucho - have been eminently sensible. The gangly yet burly Manucho gives us another option up front which Caleb Folan seems just a little short of supplying, and with the unsteady Marlon King now beginning to mouth his way out of contention, a further target man to give Daniel Cousin some assistance is most worthwhile. Kilbane's excellent debut in the game against Arsenal quickly showcased the shrewdness of his purchase - experience, versatility and a much-needed extra left-footed choice for the midfield while Peter Halmosi's appetite for the biggest division continues to wane.

We've been linked with an attacking midfielder in Luis Boa Morte, and a full back in Steve Finnan, and both have fallen through. We can't fetch Paul McShane back from Sunderland unless we buy him, as Manucho has taken the final loanee slot which McShane had vacated, and the very fact that Sunderland recalled him and immediately stuck him in the team suggests they actually need him to play. There's an upcoming French striker called Danny N'Guessan - currently of Lincoln City, formerly of Glasgow Rangers - who we are being linked with.

This is all very well, but against Arsenal we had just one selectable specialist centre back. Gratifyingly, that was Michael Turner, the best of the bunch, but the others were either injured (Anthony Gardner), suspended (Kamil Zayatte) or simply off the radar for reasons of quality (Wayne Brown). Gardner's recovery keeps being put back an extra week (we haven't seen him since September, and he did arrive from Spurs with this sicknote reputation) while Zayatte, a revelation since his arrival, has lobbed in some unnecessary drama with an alleged claim that he wants more money from the club or he won't agree to a permanent signing, making his necessary return for the FA Cup tie against Millwall this weekend slightly tarnished. Wayne Brown is a total non-starter, and given that this heroic defender from last year's promotion season was overlooked as Zayatte's replacement in favour of Sam Ricketts - a full back who has never played in the centre - means that his namesake manager believes this too.

As it picked at the carcass of Saturday's defeat, the local BBC speculated - briefly - that Leon Cort could be a possible target. Given that he has Premier League experience with Stoke City, is currently not a stone-set choice for the Potters and, most appealingly, is a former Tigers hero who adored playing for us (something the gaffer isn't afraid of, given his decision to bring back both Dean Windass and Craig Fagan), then his recruitment surely represents a smart bit of business. If we don't start chasing a reasonably qualified and competent central defender soon, then we could be relying on Gardner staying fit or Zayatte staying mature for the rest of this campaign, and I wouldn't wish to place a wager on either.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Ryan blessed

Ryan France is now deservedly in the Immortal column, to the right of this blog, after finally appearing for the Tigers in the Premier League to go with his appearances in the other three divisions.

That's the quartet completed. And with France in the first team picture again at last, it means he could now be the favourite to become City's first ever goalscorer in all four divisions. It's either him or Ian Ashbee, after all...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

22: Hull City 1 - 3 Arsenal - 17/01/2009

It feels like we're worthy of the Premier League again. A fifth straight defeat it may have been, but any downcast feelings in recent weeks can be tossed aside after a fine performance which, with a little more luck and some less wayward officiating, could have garnered a valuable point.

Arsenal are absolutely superb. What an utter joy it was to view this team at the KC Stadium, qualifiable by the manner in which the Tigers went at them. It resulted in a sometimes exceptional game of football. City emerged with nothing but pride, and pride can go some way if it can be converted into similar performances in the more winnable games on the horizon.

Phil Brown left a collection of big guns on the bench and picked a 4-5-1 which handed a full debut to Kevin Kilbane at left back, though ultimately the temporary defensive shortages will ease and Kilbane will be cast as the new left-sided midfielder after another disappointing display from Peter Halmosi. With only Michael Turner available among the credible choices for central defence, Sam Ricketts shifted across to play alongside him and Nathan Doyle, pleasingly, started at right back. Meanwhile, Ryan France was finally presented with his moment of history, completing the quartet of players to have represented the Tigers in all four divisions of the game, and deservedly so after a steady turnout at Newcastle in the Cup, aided also by the lack of clout proffered by the players ahead of him in the pecking order.

With the air reassuringly chilled and the TV cameras getting in everyone's way, the game got going. Instantly City forced a pair of corners. Geovanni whipped in each with pace and bite and Manuel Almunia, somehow not perceived as the most awe-inspiring goalkeeper for such a major footballing force, caught the second as Daniel Cousin gave him shoulder-led hell. Memories of Arsenal's early season profligacy at set-pieces were instantly recalled, though it's worth pointing out that since Cousin flicked in City's winner at the Emirates in September, they haven't conceded such a goal since.

Quickly, the multiply begloved Arsenal began to settle down. The passing was magnificent - simple at face value but the space they found against a City side determined to afford them none was an exercise in pass-and-move interplay which the best sides have always endorsed and practised. In Samir Nasri they have a fulcrum, a ticker, a player capable of going anywhere with the ball and turning up somewhere else when without it. These individuals are all blessed, of course, but given their multi-nationalism, in a country represented by so few within their squad (and none on the KC pitch, as Theo Walcott is still crocked), their level of communication and spirit is nothing but admirable.

City began less calmly, electing to try the 100mph approach while the Gunners were still familiarising themselves with new surroundings. Doyle intercepted Denilson's pass and found room to test Almunia from 25 yards, but the ball was too low and visible to trouble the keeper and he collected.

Arsenal's first chance came when a shove on Robin Van Persie - what a player this fellow is - allowed the Dutchman to hit a venomous free kick which spun off the wall's edge and bounced no more than a foot wide of Boaz Myhill's post with the City custodian scrambling. Van Persie's influence was obvious throughout, and his first touch and exceptional vision - as well as a completely savage left foot - reminded everyone why, even in defeat, the Premier League is such a tremendous place to be.

If Arsenal were going to be matched in ny way, it would be through commitment. This is the trait which Arsène Wenger claimed was missing from his charges when the Tigers turned his and the Premier League's world upside down. Such levels of commitment against a talented, clever side are rather labour-intensive, with the likes of France and Ian Ashbee spending a greater percentage of their pitch-time than normal merely chasing, closing down and reducing options for the opposition, rather than getting their toes on the ball. For this brand of unflinching donkey work, both can be commended.

Cousin sliced a shot high, wide and handsome after his initial effort from Geovanni's pass rebounded back to him, then the Brazilian delivered a curling, exploring free kick which Almunia held well as Cousin and Turner came in for scraps.

Good stuff from City. The chances weren't clear as day, but the build-ups were restricing Arsenal's capacity to dominate possession and for as long as the Gunners didn't have the ball, the feeling that something was gettable from a fascinating first half increased. Then Arsenal went down the other end, hit the woodwork, and then scored.

This is why the Premier League is as frustrating as it is exciting. The lesser teams in encounters like these can have all the possession and half-chances they like, but if one doesn't go in, you can bet any of your major financial investments that your distinguished opponents will punish you.

Ashbee conceded a free kick in Van Persie territory, and the Dutchman's brutal curling drive was fingernailed, fabulously, by Myhill on to the underside of the bar. A corner is frantically conceded, which Van Persie swings in and Emmanuel Adebayor heads home, unchallenged and unworried.

After such terrific effort and industry, to concede a soft goal from a set-piece will leave Brown raging. Who was meant to restrict Adebayor's leaping potential is unclear, but maybe this is the main risk one takes when only one specialist central defender is selectable. Adebayor, as both a goalscorer and a tall chap, should have been the priority target for extra-zealous marking but in the end he climbed freely to bury the header.

Arsenal then concoted a superb move involving Denilson, Nasri and Adebayor which left City's rearguard seeking its own bearings, but gratifyingly, the less cultured Emmanuel Eboué - not the favourite with the Arsenal faithful - was the player applying the finishing touch and he scooped the ball wide and looked very daft indeed.

Half time, and despite the scoreline and the irritating airheadedness of the defending which allowed it to be scored, there was a marked improvement in City's performance and a noticeable optimism around the KC concourses. The Tigers needed a little more up front, where Cousin was doing his usual chase-everything, reach-little shtick which makes the lamer brains within the Tiger Nation claim he is idle. Bernard Mendy, playing in his kamikaze wide right role, had not received enough of the ball while Halmosi, judging by his lack of control and direction, had received too much of it.

No obvious alterations showed themselves as the second half got underway but shortly after Myhill beat out an Adebayor drive, Brown decided he'd seen enough of Halmosi and took the shepherd's crook to him, allowing Manucho his much-anticipated debut. Dreadlocked and imposing, he went up alongside Cousin, forming a particularly tall front line partnership which gave Mendy something more to aim at. Halmosi's departure shifted Geovanni along more to the left, supported by the eager Kilbane. The change seemed to work as City's positivity levels felt an upsurge.

Manucho's first impact was to his own face, in an incident which, unfortunately but necessarily, meant Brown had to complain about a referee's decision afterwards yet again. Alan Wiley, hero when he officiated at Wembley and the Emirates, had turned villain with those two scandalous failures to spot fouls as Steven Gerrard hit two quick goals to bring Liverpool level last month. Rob Styles was, according to the match programme and Brown's own information, supposed to be in charge but it was Mr Wiley who stepped into the centre circle and, merely four minutes after Manucho's grand entrance, failed to protect the striker entirely.

The ball was bouncing high in the area and the big Angolan, eyes firmly on it, leapt highest and quickest to nod it goalwards. Johan Djourou, the Arsenal centre back, also leapt high to connect with his head and arrived two second too late, butting Manucho square in the face with the ball already long gone. Manucho, practically decapitated, lay motionless and in agony on the deck but the referee, with remarkable incompetence, chose not to give a penalty. The bad luck, about which most of us right-thinkers try not to bleat too much, ongoes but this time - as with Marouane Fellaini's flying elbow on Turner at Everton a week ago - the referee simply lost his nerve. Mauncho's swollen eye will hurt, but his sense of injustice will smart even more.

On we soldiered, grumbling and stung by the whole ridiculousness of the situation, and an glorious equaliser was due. It happened when Mendy, who had enjoyed far more possession and enjoyed charging at Gael Clichy in that impossibly headless way of his, got past the full back again and clipped in a cross which, with an element of rare fortune, took a deflection which wrongfooted the Gunners back four and gave Cousin, the big game striker, his moment to nip ahead of his marker and crash a scrummy header past Almunia.

The explosion of noise was well-deserved, with Cousin again applying a sharp thorn to Arsenal's side and giving the Tigers the sort of hope which form and the gulf in class would have been non-existent, especially after going a goal down. For the next ten minutes the game was all about Hull City, with crosses raining in from Mendy - who also tempted Clichy into a foul for which a yellow card was waved - and Kilbane's intelligent assistance of Geovanni on the other flank. Manucho and Cousin were a real handful and Djourou had to work especially hard.

Wenger withdrew the stinky Eboué and sent on Nicklas Bendtner as Arsenal re-thought their strategy. Bendtner's willingness and extra strength aksed new questions of the makeshift Ricketts but he answered them. However, there was little doubt that Bendtner's introduction was the key to Arsenal's recovery from Cousin's leveller.

Abou Diaby took the sub's knockdown before slicing a shot well over, before Bendtner got on Kilbane's outside and hit a narrow-angled drive that Myhill beat out well. A collective, nervous tightening of buttocks could almost be felt round the stadium as Arsenal found that extra gear they always keep reserved for such occasions, and home hearts were bust when Van Persie released Nasri down the left and the classy Frenchman, allowed space by the drawn-in Doyle, drilled a low left footer in at Myhill's far post. Eight minutes left and City's resolve had finally gone.

Instantly, Craig Fagan was sent on for the workaholic France and the message seemed to be to get Mendy working the cautioned Clichy again as the Tigers' best chance of rescuing a point. Mendy was duly given plenty of ball but the strength at the Gunners' base was as galvanised by the goal as the craft up front. Mendy forced one corner which prompted mass confusion and a mix-up of legs in the box but Arsenal cleared.

With such last-resort tactics, City were always running the risk of leaving themselves short at the back, and Bendtner combined deliciously with Van Persie to score a clincher with four minutes left. Offside calls were later found to be correct but ultimately the game was going to be beyond City's grasp.

In injury time, Bendtner struck the post with a low header from Clichy's cross, preventing a totally skewiff scoreline of 4-1. Arsenal got the points they deserved and City, though so close to more than just pride in their performance, could at least feel redeemed after the no-show at Everton.

The squashed nature of the Premier League table means that the Tigers remain in relegation trouble while also close to occupying a UEFA Cup spot. It really is as peculiar a season as anyone could predict. However, with Millwall due in the FA Cup, another opportunity is afoot to use the Cup as a springboard for a better showing in the bread and butter football, and the next premier League task is a Wednesday night humdinger at West Ham United. They are more than beatable, especially if the City that played Arsenal elect to turn up in east London.

Hull City: Myhill, Doyle, Turner, Ricketts, Kilbane, Mendy, France (Fagan 83), Ashbee, Halmosi (Manucho 53), Geovanni (Garcia 87), Cousin. Subs not used: Duke, Dawson, Folan, Giannakopoulos.

Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Touré, Djourou, Clichy, Eboué (Bendtner 69), Diaby, Denilson, Nasri, Adebayor (Song Billong 87), Van Persie. Subs not used: Fabianski, Vela, Ramsey, Gibbs, Merida.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Yore Arsenal

Arsenal visit us today. Now, before this season, there hadn't been a League clash between these two since World War I. Despite this lack of history, the breathtaking victory the Tigers pulled off back in September at the Emirates makes this arguably the top fixture of the weekend - well, certainly until Liverpool and Everton square up on Monday night, that is.

For all this unfamiliarity with one another, you don't have to be a centenarian to recall a good Hull City game against the Gunners, as we had one 20 seasons ago. That fabled 1988-89 season, the one which threw up the Liverpool tie in the FA Cup fifth round, also managed to pair us with Arsenal in the League Cup earlier in the season.

Given that Arsenal and Liverpool would ultimately contest the closest and most dramatic finish to a League season, for Hull City to play against each, competitively, was quite an achievement. Especially as, like with Liverpool later, we gave Arsenal quite a fright.

A warm September evening at Boothferry Park heralded the first leg of this tie, back in the days when the League Cup's opening round was always a home and away affair. City had enjoyed a mixed start to the season, with two wins, two draws and three defeats on the Division Two board by the time Arsenal turned up.

There was no skimping on the team sheet in those days - apologies for the Hovis-esque, cobbled-roads-are-bad-for-your-bike nature of that comment - as the fixture pile-up didn't exist. English clubs were banned from Europe - and even if they weren't, playing European ties in any of the three competitions didn't consist of ludicrous, deceptive group stages anyway - so the League Cup was domestically a target for every club, not shirking on importance even though clubs would make it third in the pecking order of three.

The upshot of this was that Arsenal arrived at full strength. John Lukic was in goal behind that back four which Ron Atkinson would later label as Dad's Army - Dixon, Bould, Adams and Winterburn. Alan Smith led the line up front, but most intriguingly of all, there was a first return to Boothferry Park of Brian Marwood.

Marwood had settled well into his opening season at Highbury, having joined in the spring of 1988 from Sheffield Wednesday. He'd had four years at Hillsborough, his star having increased sufficiently there for George Graham, needing some more natural width to complement future City winger David Rocastle, to invest in him.

It was back in 1984 that Marwood decided that the grass was greener in South Yorkshire than further east. He was, unquestionably, a superb natural wide player, capable down either flank (he played mainly on the right for City, despite later featuring entirely on the left for Arsenal and getting his fabled nine minutes for England there too) and set up countless goals for the Hull City's striker, 1980s-style, such as Billy Whitehurst, Les Mutrie and Andy Flounders. He'd been spotted playing kids' football in his native north east, where the alleged footballing hotbed had no discernible scouting system, so instead of heading for Middlesbrough or Newcastle United, he began his career in Hull.

Marwood spent four seasons in the first team, skinning full backs and centring balls on which strikers based their dreams the night before. An accomplished penalty taker, he top-scored in one of City's strugglesome campaigns thanks to his proficiency from the spot. It was clear that he was the jewel in a tarnished Hull City crown, and it was with some surprise that he wasn't sold in 1981 (because of relegation) or 1982 (because of receivership).

There were claims that Marwood wasn't a robust enough character around the dressing room and his more aesthetic approach and slighter build made him the butt of jokes and prompted some more meatheaded figures to question his attitude. After Colin Appleton rescued the club on the pitch with a superb promotion in 1983, Marwood flowered that year and the eyes began to watch. In 1984, Hull City agonisingly missed out on a second promotion by - wait for it - one solitary goal. That was all that separated the side from a phenomenal consecutive elevation. Marwood took it on his conscience after the 3-0 victory required at Burnley emerged only as a 2-0 by pondering the pair of penalties he'd missed earlier in the season and decided it was time to go. So did Appleton, whose decision to walk out of the club for Swansea shrouded Marwood's inevitable sale a few weeks later.

Fast forward four years, and Marwood is back at Boothferry Park, wearing Arsenal's familiar red and white. He was faced by old team mates Tony Norman, Garreth Roberts and Keith Edwards (who'd left and come back) and was marked by rampaging, uncompromising full back Charlie Palmer. A surprisingly paltry 11,000 came through the turnstiles (we got the 18,000 capacity for Liverpool later in the year) and soon Edwards, 31 and with almost a decade on the two centre backs either side of him, completely outpaced each of them to fire a splendid low shot past Lukic.

City led Arsenal. The great young things of football, winners of this competition two years earlier and beaten finalists of the previous season, were behind to a lower division club with no history whatsoever in the League Cup. For a short while City, with Alex Dyer giving Dixon problems down the flank and young Andy Payton running elf-like around the cumbersome Bould, were in total charge. Marwood was rarely given any space by Palmer. Smith was having little luck up front.

Then Winterburn put in a low cross on the overlap which got a mild deflection and sneaked in. A fluke, credited to Winterburn, gave Arsenal a route back. Half time arrived quickly afterwards, and Arsenal dominated the second period. Yet it wasn't until the last ten minutes when Marwood, taking advantage of tiring Tigers legs, took a flick from Smith and steered the ball past Norman in front of the travelling Gooners in the unsheltered North Stand.

What got some goats was Marwood's needless over-celebration. He milked the Arsenal applause, with the fans beginning their "Brian Marwood on the wing" song instantly. This was an early-round game of the third most important competition against the club which brought him up and on their turf. At the final whistle, he did applaud the West Stand as he reached the tunnel, but general reaction to him was muted, compared to the appreciative applause he got from the crowd prior to the match starting.

Arsenal won the second leg 3-0 and - symmetry at work again here - were knocked out by Liverpool in the next round in a tie which needed a second replay at neutral Villa Park to find a victor. Little more than a month after coming back to Boothferry Park, Marwood was making his first and last England appearance with a nine-minute cameo against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. He remains the last player to go on to an England career (albeit the second-shortest England career ever) after leaving Hull City.

When he was wrapping up his career at Barnet, Marwood came back to Boothferry Park once more for a crazy 4-4 draw in which a certain Dean Windass scored a hat-trick for the Tigers. He is now, of course, a high-profile summariser for Sky, with some Hull City fans still claiming he has rather airbrushed his early career with the club from his CV, though this didn't prevent the supporters declaring him one of the club's ten greatest ever players when the Top 100 Tigers was announced for the centenary season.

The visit of Arsenal today represents their first since that game in 1988. While some would see it as a write-off fixture, with City's poor form stifling the optimism from the psychological advantage which supposedly exists from the win at the Emirates, others would say that a similar game to 1988, in which City open the scoring but then lose 2-1, would be inexcusable. Oddly, that's the reverse of what happened at the Emirates.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Window shopping

Hull City have been in obvious need of strengthening lately, and the arrivals of both Kevin Kilbane and Manucho represent some astute business by Phil Brown.

Kilbane is a fine footballer, if not necessarily highly gifted, and his level-headed approach down our left flank will be a sharp contrast to the slightly tunnel-visioned style of Peter Halmosi, who is not taking the chances he has recently been offered.

Manucho, meanwhile, is an Angolan centre forward who hasn't been able to earn enough faith from Sir Alex Ferguson to pull on a Manchester United strip with anything resembling regularity. At 25, he needs to playing more often, and given our excellent recent record for taking fringe Manchester United strikers and developing their talents, one hopes the benefit felt by Manucho's arrival will be three-fold, just as it was when Fraizer Campbell did the business for the Tigers last season.

Manucho's arrival does rule out a return to the KC Stadium for Paul McShane, unless Brown feels the ginger-haired defender is worth a punt as a permanent acquisition. Manucho has taken McShane's place on the loan list, and the presence of Kamil Zayatte and Marlon King means the quota is again complete. The pursual of Steve Finnan, which the manager says is still alive despite worries regarding his medical, could put paid to any lingering interest in McShane, temporary or otherwise.

We still need a central defender and one hopes we get one quickly, as McShane has gone, Zayatte is suspended and Anthony Gardner remains forever crocked. This is unless Wayne Brown is our secret weapon for the visit of Arsenal...