Friday, 27 February 2009

FA Cup fifth round replay: Hull City 2 - 1 Sheffield United - 26/02/2009



If truth be told, Hull City could probably have done without the FA Cup this season. As heart-sinking as the claim of a "distraction" is when referring to this grand old lady of footballing competitions, there is an educated theory that fewer extra games could have helped the Tigers as they struggled to rediscover Premier League form.

But not now. A jaunt to or even beyond the quarter finals, however fortuitously or half-interestedly, might just be the season's saviour. This is because it's a first for so many Hull City supporters, with almost four decades having passed since the last time the Tigers bothered the last eight.

The confidence that a Cup run can bring to a club and a squad cannot be underestimated. yes it brings extra games, extra pressure, extra toll on fotness, but ultimately football is about competitive action with silverware awaiting iof you happen to be good enough.

Victory over Sheffield United - an expression itself heard infrequently even by veteran supporters of the Tigers, irrespctive of the nature of the fixture - in this less than compelling replay has taken the club somewhere few people have ever seen it before. If Wembley last May was a genuine club first, then an FA Cup quarter final certainly feels like one.

The defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night made tonight's replay almost irritating by its very presence, with the desire to rest and recuperate before the next gargantuan Premier League task this weekend, but at the same time Phil Brown has never been afraid to let squad players infiltrate his thinking when changes seem inevitable and a Cup tie proves an excellent stage on which the fringe players can audition for the bigger occasions to come.

To that end, Brown made ample changes to the team that was suckerpunched by Spurs. As teased by the manager on the fans' forum, Caleb Folan got his opportunity up front and had the unshakeable presence of Nick Barmby alongside him. Peter Halmosi and Ryan France were in midfield, with Bernard Mendy returning, while Nathan Doyle started at right back, with Kamil Zayatte returning to defence and Sam Ricketts swapping full back roles. Boaz Myhill, now consigned to the role of Cup keeping relief, duly played in goal. Dean Marney, like the initial game at Bramall Lane, wore the captain's armband.

The opening 20 minutes proved to be City's brightest. Barmby clearly felt he could halt the slide on his own, chasing lost causes with vigour and showing, as always, that his touch is exquisite and his vision immeasurable. Marney, meanwhile, wanted more ball than he has ever wanted in his City career, and utterly dominated the midfield. Chances came, although the first went to the visitors when Brian Howard scampered after a bouncing ball and hooked it across, where Greg Halford climbed highest but, gratifyingly not carbon copying his goal from the first game, headed too high.

A fine ball by Marney to the left set Halmosi clear of his marker, and his pull back was half volleyed a foot too high by a well-positioned Barmby. Pressure stayed on the Blades, and after forcing a corner, Halmosi duly swung it in for Zayatte to flick wide of the near post - this meant both scorers from the first game had spurned early chances to score identical goals.

Undeterred, City went at them again. Marney sprayed a gorgeous ball for Mendy to chase, and the cross was again cleared for a corner. Marney took it and Folan saw his goalbound header unluckily deflected wide.

Marney was in his element. When he is on form, he seems unstoppable and certainly irrepressible. His energy and endeavour has been his saving grace when product has lacked, but when his obvious craft is working he is an extremely effective footballer. This was, in the early stages, his night.

A counter attack is led by Halmosi, whose deftly heeled flick finds the supporting Marney whose return ball gives the Hungarian some space on the edge of the area where he is brought down by Kyle Naughton. Cries for a red card are ignored as the defender gets yellow - the question of a goalscoring position is irrelevant more because Halmosi had never scored for City than any other reason - and Marney belts the free kick into the wall.

Still the pressure tries to tell. Folan does well to chase a ball to the corner flag and squeeze a pass into Doyle's path. The full back's swerving centre is headed wide by Halmosi.

For all the chances being created, nothing's going City's way. In recent weeks luck has been notable by its absence and cursed for it, and so it is with incredulity and relief that the visitors become architects of the goal that will finally break the deadlock in the Tigers' favour.

Doyle's swinging cross seems too high and too long but Naughton, panicking and totally unaware of where he was, blasted a header towards his own goal on the presumption that he thought he was about to be clobbered by a City player (there was nobody close enough) and got his bearings spectacularly wrong. The ball hit the bar, bounced down and out and it was the assistant referee who signalled that it had crossed the line.

Someone with no sense whatsoever at the KC Stadium chose to show the replay in slow motion from the one angle which allowed the ball's landing spot to be less conclusive. The Sheffield United supporters were livid and both managers - for differing reasons - also egestured their displeasure; presumably Kevin Blackwell was angry about the goal being given, whereas Brown would have been infuriated by the decision to show it. Such controversial moments are always barred from replay on stadium screens for fear of causing ill-feeling. Imagine if this had been Millwall in the last round...

Still, a goal was given and claims were later made that any number of differing angles proved it was correct. The officials thought so and that's ultimately the opinion that matters. Yet with a mixture of perversion and inevitability, it seemed to galvanise the visitors and mute the Tigers.

Stephen Quinn had Myhill scrambling with a dipping shot from distance before Halford's race down the line resulted in Lee Hendrie being left distressingly free on the far post to head across the six yard box for Billy Sharp to touch home. Again, City had removed their throttle foot and been devastatingly punished for it. The trouble was they then had real trouble getting it back on.

There were fewer than 15 minutes remaining of the half and, barring a near post shot from Mendy which Paddy Kenny beat out, Sheffield United were entirely in charge of them. Sharp, Hendrie and the impressive - again - David Cotterill all had half opportunities during one comical scramble which showcased terrible attempts at marking and clearing by the Tigers. That no goal resulted was a minor miracle.

Sharp broke a tight offside trap to control a Hendrie through ball and while the baying for a flag hit peak pitch, he went flying under a Zayatte challenge. It looked a certain penalty and, indeed, the whistle went - but Sharp was booked for diving. Very harsh.

Half time came and little had changed. It was 1-1, like it was at half time at the first attempt a dozen days ago, and City had gone from bright and effective to stunted and dishevelled. The prospect of extra time had gone from being dreaded to being, to some, the best hope. Fortunately, City's second half display allowed confidence to return just as quickly to the seats as it had to the field.

Mendy broke thrillingly down the flank and fed Doyle's overlap, with the cross headed goalwards by Barmby, but Kenny just sneaked in before Halmosi could connect. No matter. Before long Doyle had again found room on the right to feed the tireless Barmby's supporting run, and the cross was impeccably aimed on to Halmosi's studs, and the ball trudged past Kenny and into the corner.

Halmosi has flattered to deceive, at best, since joining City. But this - his first goal for the club - may just give him the shot in the arm he clearly and desperately needs. He has pace and talent but has struggled to adapt to life with the Tigers but the relief on his face and the joy of his team-mates on his behalf suggests there may be more life in the Hungarian yet.

A third goal would be most welcome now, just to slow our heart rates a little. Ricketts found room to cross from the left for Mendy to head wide, then Kenny and his defenders got all a dither as Barmby tried to muscle in on a loose ball.

Michael Turner headed a Marney corner wide prior to the luckless, industrious Folan leaving the pitch with an injury, looking very upset. Manucho replaced him.

Cotterill curled a shot high and wide in a rare Blades attack as Myhill remonstrated with the referee for not giving a free kick when Halford stuck his backside into him. With 20 minutes to go, the visitors began to squeeze the Tigers a little more, but chances of a reasonably grabbable nature were negligible. The last 20 minutes was grafting and slow and incident-free. And, frankly, entertainment-free too.

Kenny went up for a corner in injury time and nearly got done at the other end when Marney counter attacked, but the acting skipper sensibly chose to run for the corner rather than try a showbiz shot from distance. The final whistle was greeted with relief and no little pleasure at such a rare Hull City achievement in this era of rare and unique Hull City achievements. The fact it was achieved without the need to bring priceless performers like Geovanni, Daniel Cousin or Anthony Gardner off the bench was a splendid bonus.

Barmby should certainly keep his place on Sunday when Blackburn Rovers come to the KC Stadium, but there are others who could also feel confident of staying on the sheet, beyond the shoo-ins of Turner, Mendy, Marney and Ricketts. Whether the progress in the FA Cup shapes a change in Premier League fortune remains to be seen, but it can't do any harm. Arsenal or Burnley away next, and even if it's the Gunners in the last eight, why not dream of Wembley again now?

Hull City: Myhill, Doyle, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Mendy, France, Marney, Halmosi, Barmby (Garcia 73), Folan (Manucho 65). Subs not used: Warner, Geovanni, Cousin, Featherstone, Gardner.

Sheffield Utd: Kenny, Naughton, Morgan, Walker, Naysmith (Jihai 88), Cotterill, Howard, Stephen Quinn, Hendrie (Tahar 90), Halford, Sharp. Subs not used: Bennett, Keith Quinn, Starosta.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

"What's your question?"



The annual Hull City fans forum takes place tonight and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio Humberside. One assumes that Paul Duffen and Phil Brown, and probably Brian Horton, will be fending off the questions. The fact that they will need to do any fending at all is a sad indication of how much some Hull City fans currently expect.

Perspective is never easy, neither is satisfaction. After years of attaining and achieving nothing, it's sickening and depressing to hear some of the witless comments from impatient, humourless people who, one suspects, laughed at Hull City during the depressive decades and only became interested at Wembley time.

Rarely are these events used as a reason to offer support and thanks to a manager or chairman. In Hull City's case, we've had so many charlatans in each role down the yeas that it seems bred in each fan to view the good, successful ones with suspicion and get a kick out of knocking them. This is why I don't attend fans forums nor partake in phone-ins, as I find myself wanting to dissociate myself with those who do.

Tonight, Brown and Duffen will be required to maintain their cool as crazy, groundless accusations about Jimmy Bullard's fitness are thrown their way. Their communication has been clumsy over Bullard's availability, but some supporters are labelling the hierarchy "liars". Aside from the fact that supporters don't need to know everything, it seems that the loudest protestors are the ones with the least gumption, the lowest sense of realism and the greatest sense of their own importance. I suspect that while Brown accepts such loathsome individuals as part of the job, Duffen will be the one who is more inclined to shout back.

Since the last forum, we've been to Wembley and enjoyed the most magnificent, emotional and significant day of our lives. That may barely get a mention tonight. Neither will the euphoric day at Arsenal, the pride at Liverpool, the tenacity at Chelsea. No, we'll get lamebrains claiming Bullard is crocked and they should have known, plus guff about Geovanni being undroppable and that we should cash in on Michael Turner right now.

I'm daring myself not to tune in, but I probably will. The club isn't in crisis, but the team is not on form and Brown is feeling pressure, undeservedly, for the first time. Gratifyingly there is no sign of a strain between chairman and manager as the Tigers continue to plunge towards the drop zone, and my primary hope is that credit is offered for the amazing progress the club has made under these two men.

This is not blind apologism and there are queries to be answered. Duffen hasn't acted brilliantly when defending the membership schemes that have allowed hypercritical, clueless (but wealthy) nu-fans in (the type who attend games more to dine and then drool over the opposition) and stopped long-term devotees who saw Chris Hargreaves spectacularly fail to score a goal and Lee Bracey forget that goalkeeping involved catching the ball from getting in. The rumoured decision to scrap Away Direct - the automatic upfront away ticketing scheme for season ticket holders - is absolutely scandalous and I hope that he will be told so.

Brown, however, I find very hard to criticise. I suspect that Geovanni does need to be loved and cajoled more, as he remains our best individual hope for survival, but if he's disruptive or playing poorly, he has to be dropped. And, as much as Matt Duke is admirable, I still think Boaz Myhill is far better and defenders are more comfortable with him behind them. But given how much he has got right, the slack he deserves cutting in his direction is considerable. Whether he'll get that slack tonight from the crisis-lovers who can only see a one win in 17 Premier League games sequence is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

26: Hull City 1 - 2 Tottenham Hotspur 23/02/2009



Old habits die hard, including bad ones. Hull City are slowly becoming the sort of team everyone feared they'd end up, even in the headier days of the autumn - the team which dominates, fails to rubberstamp that domination with goals, and then loses.

Jonathan Woodgate's 86th minute winner for Tottenham Hotspur told an old story of the Tigers. On a number of occasions now, the Tigers have lost their shape or concentration in the closing minutes and been roundly, devastatingly punished in a way the Premier League always punishes. And yet Spurs will feel immsense relief at this haul of point in their own quest for survival as they often looked second best.

Phil Brown has to shuffle a shrunken pack this week, with three home matches in the space of six days with which to contend. Although one eye was unlikely to be on the FA Cup replay against Sheffield United 72 hours later, some of his options clearly were designed to give City a fighting chance of winning that replay and still being able to shuffle again for Blackburn Rovers. However, with hindsight but also an element of science, it was clear he got his selections wrong.

Daniel Cousin's return after a knee operation was welcome, especially as Craig Fagan's own surgery, Caleb Folan's blind spot with the offside rule and Manucho's total lack of impact meant that the Gabonese striker was Hobson's choice. However, despite msart touches and one vicious shot which Carlo Cudicini watched fly an inch over his bar, he was tremendously off the pace, especially as no natural partner was made available to him. Richard Garcia played the makeshift role and put in a good effort, but with Nick Barmby providing yet another more natural option from the wings, it was hard to understand why Cousin wasn't given more help.

Absent was Bernard Mendy, which we later discovered was due to a late return to the city after flying back to France for urgent family reasons. He made the bench, and was supposedly still getting his suit and tie off when the game kicked off. That's fine - football does just sometimes need to come second - but Geovanni's omission was the most bamboozling. His shooting boots have deserted him wholly, but his performance at Chelsea, plus the premature completion of Jimmy Bullard's season, seemed a pair of gimme reasons to have him in the side. He too, however, started from the bench.

Brown brought Ian Ashbee back but kept Kamil Zayatte in midfield, providing extra screen for Dean Marney to make his runs but there was a lack of real quality, especially as Zayatte's limitations on the ball in simple circumstances were, for the second game in a row, obvious to all. Tottenham, with their underperforming but still cultured internationals, were a stark contrast. And yet they began the game as the lower-placed side and were trying to avoid what they would regard as an embarrassing double defeat.

Garcia had the first chance, taking a Zayatte flick and running across Woodgate who got a sturdy block on the on-target shot. Andy Dawson swung in the corner, Garcia flicked across and Anthony Gardner, finally on show at the KC again after an eternity, managed to spoon the ball back into play as Spurs panicked. It came back to Dawson who had stars in the eyes but got the shot all wrong, conceding even a throw-in in the process.

Dawson's change in fortune since the visit to White Hart Lane is as clear as anyone's. He had a wondrous game against Aaron Lennon in October, a week after that tackle on Theo Walcott and a heroic game of such defensive prowess made him even more of an icon than his City history already permitted. This time, he was given such early runarounds by the rejuvenated Lennon that he had committed two fouls in the opening seven minutes and earned a booking. He never quite got the measure of the England winger for the rest of the game.

City continued to exert early pressure, and it was remarkable to see that even Cudicini, once an exceptional goalkeeper in the immediate pre-Abramovich era at Chelsea, is susffering from the epidemic of dodgy keeper syndrome engulfing Tottenham. Countless times he flapped at or dropped crosses and set-pieces, and nearly embarrassed Woodgate when the defender guided a gentle back header towards his keeper, only for Cudicini to be caught out of position and have to scramble back and pouch the ball a yard from goal.

So, a good start from City - therefore it was inevitable that Tottenham would score first. A short corner routine between Luka Mdric and Jermaine Jenas wasn't closed down, and Lennon had room to thump an excellent 20-yard drive beyond Matt Duke. He can miss from two yards for England in a World Cup quarter final, but score from 20 at the KC. Hmmm.

A setback, then. City react instantly and Zayatte is put through by Marney, using his electric pace to take him beyond the last defender, and his crowbar touch to take the ball way too close to Cudicini, spuring a good opportunity.

The game began to slow down, but the Tigers were still enjoying most of the possession. Marney was especially resourceful, while Garcia - maligned for not being a striker but having to pretend so - was having one of his more productive outings.

Controversy then came when Gardner seemed to batter into Cudicini as both challenged for a high set-piece. No free kick was awarded, and City got a corner which Dawson swerved over. Cudicini again suffered - this time legitimately in all ways - from Gardner's aerisal presence and the ball ricocheted towards goal where Michael Turner followed up to make sure it crossed the line.

An equaliser entirely justified.

Instantly, City nearly got a second. Duke's high punt was killed by Garcia who, visibly gaining in confidence, found Cousin whose lack of mobility hadn't blunted his instinct for goal, and the 25-yard drive was vicious and swift, and just a foot too high.

It was good stuff, this. City were clearly in charge, but Tottenham fans could be consoled by the knoweldge that they had players who were capable of pulling something from the hat, and it was obvious even to the casual watcher that one thing the Tigers lacked was finishing prowess. A second goal was predictable; it was just hard to predict which side would actually score it.

Woodgate stabbed a Modric cross over the bar before Sam Ricketts, playing probably the best attacking game of his mixed season, embarked on a flowing, athletic counter attack which seemed set to end with a shot, but instead he fed Marney's overlap before hurtling after the instant cross and flashing his header wide. Dawson then put a free kick over the bar after Modric fouled Kevin Kilbane, earning the Croat a booking.

The second half continued to the same pattern as the first, and indeed became more end-to-end, with midfields being bypassed more and defences working harder than ever. Darren Bent turned elegantly to dispatch a powerful shot goalwards which Duke held well; then Gardner twice had opportunities from Marney's corner to find the target, but the ball eventually diverted to Kilbane whose shot was blocked.

Gardner's effort at the other end remained unflinching too, taking a Wilson Palacios shot full in the stomach after a chronic pass by Zayatte put City under needless pressure. Modric then swung over a free kick and Vedran Corluka headed on to the bar and over.

Brown withdrew Cousin, regrettably but understandably, and chucked on Mendy. This meant that there was now no specialist centre forward on the park, with Garcia thanklessly poloughing a lone furrowq up front and hoping for help from Marney and Mendy wherever possible.

Zayatte, totally unconvincing on the deck, nonetheless nearly shrouded his struggles with the ball for the second game in a row when he won a header from Dawson's corner but, unlike at Sheffield United, the ball refused to enter the net, touching the post and bouncing away.

The last ten minutes approached and Manucho was slung on for Garcia as Brown, true to form, made a change aimed at grasping a winner. Instead, the majority of the closing period was all Spurs, with Jenas making room for a pulsating drive which Gardner blocked as Duke dived to smother.

The winner came when Gardner chose to follow Benoit Assou-Ekotto's run, leaving too much space in the box, and Woodgate clambered above Dawson to direct a firm, flying header beyond Duke's reach. City were caught out of position and slow on the uptake, and were roundly punished. Woodgate was instantly substituted with blood pouring from an eye wound, leaving the pitch a hero to one corner of the KC.

Geovanni immediately replaced Zayatte but there was nothing in the tank, and the final whistle heralded a thoroughly despondent mood among the Tiger Nation. This game was not only winnable, but to fail to do so in such dramatic fashion thanks to their own indiscipline is infuriating and frightening. That the defeat was to a side almost certain to prove that a relegation battle was not for them is scant consolation, and while some doom-merchants now claim City will not win again this season, all we can do is maintain some faith and hope Brown picks the next team correctly. And tell the morons claiming he's finished to keep quiet.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Dawson, Marney, Ashbee, Zayatte (Geovanni 87), Kilbane, Garcia (Manucho 79), Cousin (Mendy 67). Subs not used: Myhill, Doyle, Barmby, Halmosi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Cudicini, Corluka, Woodgate (Dawson 89), King, Assou-Ekotto, Lennon (Zokora 87), Jenas, Palacios, Modric, Keane, Bent (Pavlyuchenko 72). Subs not used: Gomes, Bentley, Huddlestone, Chimbonda.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Pivotal

This week could yet take Hull City to the cusp of Premier League survival, not to mention the quarter finals of the FA Cup, or it could leave us in serious bother and disillusioned at exiting the Cup to a lower division side.

The KC Stadium hosts three matches in six days - Tottenham Hotspur tonight, then Sheffield United in the Cup replay on Thursday, and Blackburn Rovers at Sunday lunchtime.

Six points and progress to the sixth round would be perfect. Four points and progress would be excellent. Four points without progress would be acceptable, if a little tainted. Three points, with or without progress, would not be the end of the world. Anything else points-wise would be worrying, and at this point progress in the FA Cup would become a mere sideline.

The fact that the results of the weekend means the likely survival threshold is now down to around 37 points makes this week all the more of a tempter. Get it right and we are one win away from guaranteeing safety for another season, barring freaks. The incentive is right there before the team's very nose.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Now raging *about* Bullard



The plot thickens, and not pleasantly either. The American surgeon who has looked over Jimmy Bullard's poorly knee in the past has decided that there has been fresh damage to the midfielder's anterior cruciate ligament and has operated on it, thereby ruling the £5m signing out for the rest of the season with the stroke of a scalpel.

It doesn't make the club look good at all. While there is every chance that the damage was caused by the challenge on Bullard at West Ham United, his only action for the club, the fact is that he managed to finish the game before any severe injury was suspected. Any player with a cruciate injury will tell you that as soon as it happens, you know it and you go straight off the pitch.

Therefore it seems surely more likely that the injury is the original one, so horrifically and publicly suffered early in his Fulham days. If so, then the medical procedures in assessing the fitness of potential new signings must be flawed at the KC. Either that, or the management and board took a calculated but still major risk by ignoring the advice or seeking best case scenarios prior to agreeing to Bullard's record transfer.

The fact is that we've paid £5m and committed to a whopping wage structure on top of it for a player who will be kicking no further balls in Hull City's season. The doom-mongers will say, cretinously, that this puts paid to City's hopes of survival, overlooking the bald facts that a) City are still only a skip and jump away from the top half of the Premier League; and b) all this season's achievements have been attained without Bullard so far and can be continued without him.

As painful as it may seem, the time has come to wish Bullard well but then make him as unimportant as John Welsh or Michael Bridges in the minds of the supporters, and concentrate on the performers who are available to keep the Tigers from the fire. Perhaps a start could be made on finding the Geovanni we had in September and October, as he is now, again, our best single hope for playing our way out of peril.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Raging Bullard



So it seems that Jimmy Bullard does need an operation on his troublesome right knee after all, and he is being sent to America for the specialist who has treated his knee before to do the honours.

This is news that will leave Hull City fans somewhat crestfallen, and also more than a little bamboozled. After all, the prognosis for Bullard has always been firmly positive from the club, stating with some conviction that the expensive midfielder did not need surgery, was not suffering from the same injury as that which nearly ended his career three years ago and was not representative of a bad bit of business.

The former is now shown to be untrue and certainly the amount of protestation which came from the club seemed to suggest that they were as much trying to convince themselves as they were the supporters. As for the latter two claims, the prediction is now an absence of three to eight weeks, depending on Bullard's personal healing capacity.

This isn't the end of the world, although it could prove as much a test of Bullard's commitment long term as well as short. If he returns from his arthroscopy in three weeks, then that's fine. However, an eight week absence - which, using Anthony Gardner's perennial "week away" as evidence, could yet turn out to be longer - would take us to the end of April and even then Bullard, lacking match fitness, could be deemed too fragile to take part in what may still be a relegation battle.

If City do go down, with Bullard unable to try to prevent this, will the club's faith in their star signing be replicated? Will Bullard see that he owes it to his new employers to restore the Tigers' position in the Premier League at the first attempt? Or will he, while thinking of his belated international ambitions and his own high profile, hanker for a move?

Of course, there is still more of a chance than not that City will survive this season and with an almost-certain trip to Arsenal denting burgeoning ambitions of FA Cup success, it is something on which focus will remain stringently. Bullard has only played 30 minutes of Premier League football for the Tigers so far - his sub appearance at West Ham United during which he suffered the injury - and has yet to appear at the KC Stadium as anything more than a spectator. The club may have been misled on Bullard's injury a touch, and the desire to get him well again should keep any recriminations between fans and club or club and medics to an absolute minimum.

Monday, 16 February 2009

London, Wales or Lancashire?



Well, we've got an FA Cup fifth round replay to worry about. That's nothing compared to what Arsenal, more than likely our opponents in the quarters if we win, now have to go through.

They still have to play their fourth round replay against Cardiff City after the weather put paid to its original scheduling last week. Once this tie finally produces a winner, then Burnley await the winners.

Cardiff won't win, as Arsenal will be to good for them. Cardiff also can't win as I hate the idea of going there in an FA Cup quarter final. I can handle going to Arsenal, despite the lack of likelihood that lightning will strike twice, but going to Cardiff is too absymal to contemplate, even though we would probably win there.

Then there's Burnley. They await Arsenal or Cardiff, and the chances of playing them are remote unless Cardiff beat Arsenal, which they won't. Once Arsenal are established as quarter finalists, the scheduling of the actual game will depend on internationals and their own Champions League commitments. It is possible that we will end up playing our quarter final during the affiliated semi-final weekend.

Perhaps we should just lose, as usual, to Sheffield United and relieve our worried minds about who, where and when.

I'm kidding.

Our own pressing urge involves three home matches in six days. The burden on the club, the players and the wallets of the supporters will be felt but my goodness me, two massive relegation clashes either side of a big FA Cup replay against one of our Yorkshire rivals - who it's about time we beat - makes for a fab week of football. Only philistines should complain about it.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

FA Cup fifth round: Sheffield United 1 - 1 Hull City



Given that we always, always, always lose at Sheffield United, this result was a blessed relief. It was also a chance missed. For once, the Tigers looked a class above their hosts at Bramall Lane but were unable to make second half chances count and an unwelcome replay now needs to be accommodated into a packed calendar.

If Hull City are to achieve a first FA Cup quarter final since 1971 or even a first semi-final since 1930 then they're going about it in precisely the wrong way. An exciting way, yes. An eventful way, definitely. But a complicated, expensive, risky way. This competition is allegedly a distraction to Premier League clubs, and the usual policy is either to sack it off in the third round or get through each round without fuss or hindrance. City are doing neither. The Blades will come to the KC for the replay feeling they can win; City will go into the same game adamant that they have to.

Phil Brown made some positive team selections while still deciding that Jimmy Bullard should wait until the occasion demands it, while other big-hitters like Daniel Cousin and Ian Ashbee were also absent. Bernard Mendy returned from his ban, Boaz Myhill got a blue-shirted stint in nets and Caleb Folan was installed up front. In the absence of Ashbee (and long-term injury victim George Boateng), the captaincy went to Dean Marney. Best sight of all was Anthony Gardner returing to the defence after 371 years out with a thigh injury, a resurrection which allowed Kamil Zayatte to move into Ashbee's spoiling role.

Bramall Lane, a tip on the outside but maintaining a fierce and fabulous atmosphere within, was not quite full although the away allocation had sold out easily and conclusively, despite the attractions of Valentines Day. And the home side, featuring plenty of household names despite pre-match complaints of a massive absentee list, started the game far better.

Maybe he was more lagged than others after the warm weather jolly in Dubai, but Andy Dawson was given a hard time, harder than he ever got from Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon, by David Cotterill on the right flank while Greg Halford, playing as a makeshift centre forward, made sure Gardner was given an ample test on his resuscitative return. Halford and the ever-lively Lee Hendrie made the first opening for the hosts after just two minutes, with Hendrie gliding a low ball through the entire City defence and with only poor luck stopping any red and white striped body getting on the end of it.

Within another five minutes, the lead had been snaffled as City still tried to work out their shape. Cotterill made more room on the unaware Dawson, and his high cross was nodded in at the far post by Halford with consummate ease. Claims of climbing were half-hearted and duly ignored. City had conceded a bad goal, and done so early. The same old story of Bramall Lane was beginning to be told again.

As if jolted by this shock, City began to play. It was soon clear, despite the reasonably even possessional ratio, which was the Premier League side on show. The work of the full backs, especially the excellent Sam Ricketts, was productive and incessant and the likes of Marney and Mendy got plenty of ball and saw plenty of options as a result. Marney likes games like this - he is allowed space to look up and spray the ball effectively. He knows that he has a brief chance to shine while Geovanni is off-form and Bullard still waits to be utterly, totally ready.

Marney fed Folan who went on something of a gallop in and out of defenders with great industry but little direction, yet forced a corner. Dawson took it, Zayatte headed it over. That combination would soon prove more lethal.



Halford then does something rarely accomplished by more feared individuals - he gets the better of Michael Turner for strength and reach as the Blades clear long towards him, but the shot his burl makes room for is weak and straight at Myhill.

Geovanni then has a shot which loops wide and high - typifying the awful time the Brazilian is currently having with his range - but an equaliser is forthcoming. Ricketts overlaps the influential Mendy, gets decked near the corner flag for a free kick, and Zayatte thunders a header past Paddy Kenny from Dawson's wicked inswinger.

So it's level and rightly so. Only the start was dire from City; now they were on top and displaying a proper appetite for the occasion. Chances to take the lead come and go - the clearest sees Mendy find the side netting from Folan's astute flick - but largely the half peters out and the evenness of the scoreline is disguised by the strength with which the Tigers end the half.

The second half was almost all City, although it wasn't replenished with gilt-edged chance after chance. Few of those clear-cut opportunities were crafted, but certainly the possession and desire categories were fulfilled by the Tigers, possibly horrified at the thought of a replay, for once.

Folan had an early penalty shout waved away as Halford sliced away at him from Geovanni's nicely flicked pass, then Richard Garcia - a player who does so much that nobody tends to notice - mistakenly opted for a low header from Ricketts peachily delivered cross and directed the ball right at Kenny.

Zayatte then went on a rampaging counter which was aided by Mendy's overlap. Breath was held fast as the Frenchman whipped in a dangerous ball towards Folan, but a defensive foot just got there first.

Mendy's got the bit now, and takes two players on at once, successfully of course, and then cracks a low drive which Kenny does well to block with his large feet.

It's good, if not exceptional, Cup tie stuff from City. Certainly ascendant but not all-compelling in their domination, and Sheffield United, mainly through the very impressive Cotterill, still make the defence work. Yet Myhill rarely has anything to do. With ten minutes left, Manucho comes on for Garcia and begins to show touches of pleasing deftness for a man so ungainly, but ultimately he robs City of their best chance when he takes Ricketts' cross off Marney's ideally placed foot and ruins everything. He needed a shout. He probably got one but didn't understand it.

Blades sub Brian Howard spooned one decent injury time chance wide for the home side but a stalemate seemed inevitable and was duly confirmed shortly afterwards by the final whistle.

So, a replay a week on Thursday, with mega-important Premier League fixtures at the KC three days either side. It's going to be a dear and busy time for all connected with Hull City. However, it isn't too much to ask for four points from six and a victory in the replay - we're good enough and capable enough, after all. Whether the Tigers see Cup glory as too much of a risk when Tottenham Hotspur and Blackburn Rovers are due in town too is something which remains to be seen. Still, we are in a sixth round draw for the first time in 38 years, and that feels really rather good.

Sheffield United: Kenny, Jihai (Naughton 60), Morgan (Webber 31), Kilgallon, Naysmith, Cotterill, Montgomery, Quinn, Hendrie (Howard 73), Halford, Sharp. Subs not used: Bennett, Walker.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Dawson, Mendy (France 88), Marney, Zayatte, Garcia (Manucho 79), Geovanni (Barmby 73), Folan. Subs not used: Warner, Doyle, Halmosi, Featherstone.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Dubai or not Dubai



Hull City's first team squad and coaching staff have arrived back on British soil after five days of warm weather training in Dubai. Now, this was something the chairman happily shelled out for, as he did last season, and we'll all be hoping that a five-day training and leisure schedule in the UAE has the same effect as the much longer break did last season.

The Tigers' rather limp exit from the FA Cup in the third round at Plymouth Argyle last year created a 17-day gap between matches. City followed that Cup exit by losing at home to West Bromwich Albion at the KC, then exploiting the yawning chasm of inactivity ahead by jetting away. Though many factors contributed to the Tigers' eventual elevation to the Premier League - belief, fitness, ability, fortune - the fact that they suddenly looked unbeatable after a long break in the sun was not coincidental. The defeat to West Bromwich Albion was the last at the KC that season.

This time, no such gap exists due to City's continued involvement in the FA Cup, something which we usually tend to see as often as Halley's comet. However, with the snow due and lethargy beginning to show its beastly self within a poor run of defeats, City booked their flights for their bit of middle eastern paradise and headed for the departure lounge fewer than 24 hours after drawing at Chelsea.

It's still to be seen whether a mere five days of warm weather training can have the same effect as the much longer period that City enjoyed last season. But it can't do any harm and seems to have been impeccably timed, given that the few inches of snow we've endured round these parts this week would have curtailed and maybe even prevented proper training sessions. City's squad will have trained hard and rested even harder in their luxurious surroundings this week, and the effect of this will hopefully be obvious when they take to the field at Bramall Lane this weekend.

Warm weather training is rather scorned by the more cynical, pessimistic observers of modern-day football, but Paul Duffen and Phil Brown, by financing and organising the jaunt respectively, will have made sure the players have benefitted professionally as well as personally. Last season's break did wonders for the squad's spirit, togetherness, ambition and focus, as well as fitness, and with supposedly a good number of Hull City exiles in Dubai these days, the public image of the club will have taken a shot in the arm too.

It shows how far we've come too. The Hull City squad of 1971 which was the last to win an FA Cup fifth round tie talks fondly to this day of Cliff Britton and Terry Neill taking them to the same hotel in Scarborough before each round. If the City of 2009 gets to the quarters or even beyond, it could cost the chairman quite a wedge. However, as Duffen is the chairman who said after the play-off final that he wants to make Wembley a home for Hull City, he'll certainly believe it'd be worth it.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

It's uphill for Gardner



Anthony Gardner started the season as one of the snazzy new signings for Hull City's snazzy new existence. Now, six months later, he finds himself totally left behind in the great Tigers adventure.

Gardner was initially signed on loan but soon the parties came to a permanent arrangement and he ultimately cost £2.5m when he joined from Tottenham Hotspur in August. Pretty much all we've had to show for this substantial investment is a long period on the treatment table. To be frank, this is not a new experience for the imposing central defender, whose near-decade at White Hart Lane was ravaged by injuries, curtailing the progress of a player whose precociousness as a Port Vale teenager made a Spurs regime, with one eye on the future, shell out very big money for him.

The last time Gardner played for Hull City was back in September when the Tigers won 2-1 at Newcastle United. He played the full match, but later we learned he had suffered an injury, the complications from which he is only just beginning to recuperate now. Kamil Zayatte made his debut, as a late sub for double goalscorer Marlon King, the same day and ended up starting the next game and forming a key partnership with Michael Turner at the back while Gardner watched, frustrated and riddled with setbacks, from the sidelines.

Gardner was the expensive new signing but his status in terms of worth has been wildly crushed by the form of Turner and the permanent acquisition for another £2.5m of Zayatte. With Turner now signed up on the sort of deal which only a mega bid from a very wealthy club can break, and Zayatte settled as his slightly madcap but certainly effective partner, Gardner is now the third man, the back up, the locom.

The club has given little away about Gardner's progress during his months in the wilderness. He seems to have been "a week away" from recommencing training rather a lot, and his continued absence despite these vague assurances has led to one or two whispers of worry that the thigh injury is far worse than anyone dare claim. However, he has been on the warm-weather jaunt to Dubai this week and seems set to feature in some capacity during the FA Cup fifth round tie at Sheffield United this weekend.

If he does play, then irrespective of his or the team's performance, the best he should hope for when Tottenham Hotspur visit the KC little more than a week later would be a place on the bench. Turner and Zayatte have to be where it's at. The investment in Gardner has now been matched by heavy investment in the other two centre backs and so, now, Gardner has to extend his patience from the physio's room to the subs bench.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

"Hullo Premiership!"



There were 14 players in action at Wembley on May 24th last year as Hull City achieved promotion to the top flight for the very first time. Where are these heroes in their careers now?

Boaz Myhill - flawless goalkeeper on the day at Wembley, despite a number of strong challenges from Dele Adebola designed to rough him up, Myhill is still probably Hull City's number one, even though Matt Duke, his faithful deputy since the League One days, currently curries favour on the teamsheet.

Sam Ricketts - solid and superb right back all last season, he was expected to adapt to the Premier League quickly this campaign, but has largely struggled. After a handful of nervous, error-strewn displays, he dropped to the bench as Brown brought in Paul McShane and only returned, on the opposite flank, when Andy Dawson picked up his injury. Now re-established at right back after McShane's recall by Sunderland and slowly getting back to his old self.

Andy Dawson - assured and dependable left back who is wonderfully comfortable in the Premier League despite his long history in the lowest divisions. Dawson's form has been superb all season and he was missed greatly when a nagging Achilles injury kept him out for 11 matches. His stunning tackle on Theo Walcott at Arsenal remains one of the most enduring images of the season.

Wayne Brown - robust, mouthy and vital defender who has only had one chance to play in the Premier League, a chance he failed so dismally to take that his manager decided he had seen enough. Now on loan for the remainder of the season at Leicester, where he will be exceptional, prior to a permanent move in the summer.

Michael Turner - player of the year for the last two seasons, the elegant and immaculate centre back is well on the way to getting a third gong from the supporters in a row. The only player to appear in every Premier League minute of the Tigers' season, his strength and unwillingness to be bettered by bruising international forwards has seen him tipped for England honours, something which even Fabio Capello himself seems to have acknowledged is possible.

Ian Ashbee - the leader of men is still just that, and despite occasionally looking completely out of touch when trying to pass the ball, is still as committed and as energetic as ever in a spoiling midfield role, and although the team could cope without him, it's hard to imagine it ever happening, nor would we want to.

Bryan Hughes - a secondarily effective midfield performer last season who was fortunate to play at Wembley, he has been very much peripheral this season, despite his previous Premier League experience, and his only start has been as Ashbee's replacement when the skipper was suspended at Manchester United. Has had little chance to be effective when appearing as a sub but may still prove useful for his nous at this level.

Richard Garcia - seemed more equipped than most to shine at Premier League level after a resourceful and exciting campaign last season, but has found himself wanting on most of the occasions he has been selected to play. His wide right role has been conclusively snatched away by Bernard Mendy, and he has had to be content with bit-part roles as a sub or as an out-of-position striker. Worth holding on to, though, given Mendy's facility to go insane and the rebirth of Craig Fagan as a centre forward.

Nick Barmby - gatecrashed the promotion party after an injury-hit season, he has again been a mixture of crocked and influential this season, playing some blinders on the strength of his reputation as much as his ability, but still struggling with annoying strains and knocks which render him unavailable. Out of contract in the summer and worth wondering if he'll be allowed to leave.

Fraizer Campbell - the glorious Wembley day was his last appearance in a City shirt but it's no secret that the club want him back from Manchester United, permanently, and it seemed more than possible that this could happen in the August transfer window before Spurs hijacked the deal as a condition of letting Berbatov go. Played poorly against the Tigers in October and seems destined for the bench at White Hart Lane after Harry Redknapp re-signed two established strikers of yore. Expect City to chase him again in the summer.

Dean Windass - hoisted by his own petard by scoring the winning goal at Wembley and securing the promotion to the Premier League to which he would simply be not good enough to contribute. Has at least achieved the feat of becoming the Tigers' oldest ever goalscorer after dodgily being awarded a goal at Portsmouth in November, but his season has been about complaining and bleating on his ITV blog about his poor treatment, and his departure on loan to Oldham has restored the serenity of the place. Don't be surprised if he is recalled for some late season cameos though, especially if and when security for another year is confirmed.

Craig Fagan
- on a sub at Wembley, the decision to re-sign Fagan on loan from Derby last season was a surprise which became an apparent clanger when he steadfastly managed not to impress a soul. However, he was duly brought back permanently in the summer, and news of an injury during his loan spell, plus a particularly good range of pre-season displays gave fresh hope that the League One superstar could yet be a Premier League stalwart. Started well before busting his leg at Newcastle, and is now back in the groove and playing his heart out, though his finishing is still as suspect as ever.

Caleb Folan - on as a sub at Wembley, Folan made history as the scorer of the winning goal in City's first ever Premier League match (and, to wit, first ever Premier League victory) but has been unable to contribute since. He has had injury troubles but his season has been defined by being remarkably off the pace, forever offside and being shown conclusively by Daniel Cousin how to play as a tall marksman against world-class defenders. Interest from QPR was laughed off but if they or anyone else came back for him now, it seems likely he will be permitted to leave.

Dean Marney - on as an injury time sub at Wembley after being unluckily injured in training before the play-offs began, Marney had a fine season, littered with his usual array of spectacular performances and utter stinkers, and he has maintained this in the Premier League. Part of the fabled 4-3-3 formation which made the Tigers everyone's friend, Marney's form dropped after (coincidentally) he signed a new contract and has found himself dipping in and out of the side. Lately he has rediscovered his appetite for strong midfield runs and clever distribution, and just needs a goal now.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Too big a Hull to climb


Steve Cotterill, Paul Simpson and our own Peter Taylor find themselves in World Cup winning company today after Chelsea chose to dispense with the services of Luiz Felipe Scolari.

All four of these men have been sacked by their clubs in the last 18 months due to their employers believing the last result was the last straw. In each of their cases, the last result was against Hull City.

This means that the directors of Burnley, Preston North End and Crystal Palace all believed that dropping two or all three points against mere Hull City was unacceptable, belittling, a stick with which the manager should be heavily beaten all the way to the jobseeker's allowance application form. Chelsea clearly now feel likewise.

Chelsea must be nuts to sack their manager just ahead of the Champions League's resumption, but that's a debate which interests me only mildly and is certainly not for discussion here. Somehow, even the most partisan member of the Tiger Nation should be able to understand how Chelsea's supporters and aloof owner must feel. Hull City? Who the hell...? If we can't beat them at our own gaff, something's clearly amiss. Heads must roll!

However, it was a mixture of faintly amusing and deeply, deeply patronising for the Tigers to be seen as the final straw for clubs as insignificant as Burnley, Preston and Palace last season. Each may have a grander history than us but they were certainly no grander in the present last season, and to assume that past glories somehow make you better than a team with next to no history at all before a ball has been kicked is deeply flawed.

Palace were first to act, dispensing with Taylor after Dean Marney's injury time penalty earned City a 1-1 draw at Selhurst Park in October. Palace were pedestrian and predictable, and given that Taylor was our manager of magnificence for three and a half years prior to joining the club where his playing name was made, it was easier for us than any other adversary that season to make those predictions. Nevertheless, the Tigers weren't much better and it brought joy to nobody in Hull except one minuscule pocket of imbecilic City fans when the next day Palace announced on their website, curtly and blankly, that Taylor had left the club. Not beating Hull City on their own turf was the last nail in the coffin for Taylor.

One month later, Burnley were in a bad run of form but still seemed to have faith in their exuberant, likeable manager in Steve Cotterill. The game wasn't thrilling though City were again the dominant outfit, and once more an injury time goal - a memorable header from Michael Turner - did the dirty on Cotterill as the Tigers went back across the Pennines with a 1-0 win. Despite no audible clamour from the home support for action to be taken (unlike at Palace, where the regulars were not shrinking violets in levelling their disgust at Taylor's existence), Cotterill's departure was confirmed within 48 hours.

Within another 48 hours, Preston North End visited the KC Stadium. This was probably the most predictable sacking of the lot, given that Preston fans were already making it plain through various media sources that their manager had shot his bolt and the club was in deepening trouble for as long as he was retained.

Preston were absolutely dreadful and City attained a 3-0 win without breaking sweat, with a close-range header from Dean Windass, a smart turn and shot from Fraizer Campbell and a peach of a free kick from Andy Dawson. The "sacked in the morning" chant rose in volume from the East Stand at the wretched, spotlit Simpson, whose spirit seemed to visibly evaporate before everyone's eyes when the Preston fans, humiliated and furious, joined in. There was another 48-hour period of avoidable agony before the inevitable cull of Simpson was made public. Hull City had, directly and indirectly, forced two Lancashire clubs to change their management personnel.

All three of these dismissals last season appeared to dictate that dropping all or some of the points available to Hull City, a club that counted one Associate Members Cup final appearance and a couple of sixth-placed positions in the second tier as its finest moments, was simply unacceptable and punishable by removal of livelihood instantly. By not wishing to sound too much like a victim in all this, it seemed to only briefly hurt the Tiger Nation, as quickly this sense of wronging transformed itself into tuneful amusement. Each time City looked set to win a match, the "sacked in the morning" song began and on a few occasions there seemed to be potential for the song to prove prophetic - the likes of Brian Laws at Sheffield Wednesday and Iain Dowie at Coventry City seemed vulnerable after each lost at the KC, but clung on. Unfortunately, attempts to oust Nigel Adkins from the Scunthorpe United job also fell on deaf ears. Still, promotion in the most glorious of fashions seemed, perversely, to provide some consolation to the ousted managers in question that perhaps his team was simply out-thought by a better team and his directors were too blinkered to see this.

This season, the song has been playfully sung at Arsene Wenger during and after the 2-1 win at Arsenal, and more vociferously at the hapless Juande Ramos on the occasion of City's 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur. Ramos could easily have gone after losing to the Tigers, though ultimately managed three further weeks in the job.

So now Scolari has left his role after failing to attain the required number of points - ie, all three of them - against Hull City. The problems at Chelsea go beyond a meagre goalless draw with the Tigers though, and certainly there has been a paucity - though not a total absence - of opinion from the columnists and pundits which claimed that not defeating tiny Hull City was the final straw. If a goalless draw with Hull City is seen as worse as a defeat against some other clubs, then imagine if either Marney or Craig Fagan had taken one of those big, big chances created by the Tigers at Stamford Bridge. Scolari could have been packing his bags and collecting his pay-off cheque while the players were still in the bath.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Craig



If Craig Fagan could score a few more goals, he could end up being Hull City's most crucial player for the rest of this season.

Finally, we are seeing the renaissance of Fagan in black and amber and the very reason why Phil Brown, to our collective surprises, chose not only to bring him back on loan from Derby County last spring, but then make the move permanent in the summer upon promotion.

Fagan's tireless, unselfish and occasionally explosive performance as a lone striker at Chelsea at the weekend was one of the great individual displays of this season. It makes one feel sorrier that he was kicked so brutishly out of the autumnal section of the campaign by Danny Guthrie, as maybe he could have made more a difference as things began to get uglier.

Until Guthrie sent a size 10 through the back of Fagan's leg at Newcastle United in September, breaking a bone and earning a red card, the talented but eternally frustrating Fagan was showing his worth. Whether playing as a striker, his preferred role, or on the right hand side of midfield, his more regular role, his ability to irritate opponents just by never leaving things be, plus his pace, was beginning to reap real rewards for City. He was exceptional in that win at Newcastle, despite Marlon King getting the glory with both of City's goals, and had played a good, secondary role to the A-listers like Geovanni in the early period leading up to St James' Park and his injury.

Fagan has been around and about ever since his recovery, still predominantly operating down the right but now earning a freer, central role - the type he loves - thanks to a combination of Bernard Mendy's mercurial ways and the removal of the disruptive King from the changing room. He scored his first goal since returning to City in the 5-1 thrashing by Manchester City on Boxing Day, and despite the uselessness of the goal and the performance as a whole, this landmark did him the world of good. He is one of a sturdy fistful of players to have scored in three divisions for the Tigers and since the turn of the year has never looked back.

His goal against West Bromwich Albion - a flying header from Mendy's inviting cross - was most unFagan-like. By this, I mean he doesn't really have any reputation for great heading of the ball; his harshest critics would say that it was unlike him because it went in. This is Fagan's problem now - he has to start justifying his selection with goals as well as sweat.

King was a better footballer and better finisher, but he has gone now and Fagan finds himself with an opportunity to make the nippy striker's role his for the rest of the campaign and forge a partnership with the stronger, burlier Daniel Cousin when the Gabonese marksman returns from injury for the Tottenham game a week on Monday. Paucity of strikers has given Fagan his chance, but his own willingness to up his game has contributed to Brown's decision to declare his faith in the chippy Brummie.

This belief in Fagan was repaid ten-fold by the striker's performance, largely while ploughing a lone furrow, at Chelsea. John Terry will rarely have a harder time than when Fagan was running at him, fighting shoulder to shoulder for channelled balls, and not to mention Fagan's decision to issue regular verbals at the England skipper in an effort to put him off or make him crack. Terry's probably heard it all before so words won't hurt him greatly, though as a defender renowned for a lack of pace, he certainly was made to feel concerned when he and Fagan were after the same ball. Fagan's energetic working of the flanks too, when City were relying mainly on counter attacks to ease Chelsea's pressure, earned him major kudos from all observing.

Sadly though, when it came to goalscoring, he was found wanting, and this is where Fagan's problem has always been in his two spells with the Tigers. He miscued one half-decent first half chance wide, then was put through on goal with only the mistrusted Hilario to beat and in assessing how best to take the chance, chose badly. His chipped effort was plucked from the sky by the luminous keeper, with television footage later showing that the chip was going to be off target anyway. using his unselfish pass to Caleb Folan on the opening day as a benchmark, Fagan shouldn't have been going for goal anyway, as Dean Marney was unmarked and waiting to his right with an empty net ahead.

Still, it's easy from up here, of course, and with Cousin alongside him soon, Fagan will get the support he needs both in terms of bodily presence up front and as a target for the midfield's through balls and crosses. He won't have to do it all on his own but while he is, the fist he is making of it is more than good enough. Considering how maligned he has been over the years, by this author and others, it's refreshing to be able to say that Fagan is now a bonafide Premier League footballer who is doing his Premier League team proud.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

25: Chelsea 0 - 0 Hull City - 07/02/2009



Is it September again? The feeling that we'd been here before was a delicious one, as the Tigers proceeded to match the mighty Chelsea on their own turf for the full 90 minutes and proved, yet again, that we belong in this division. And frankly, had we converted one of three fantastic goalscoring opportunities then victory would have been both sweet and deserved.

Naturally, the home side were in possession of the ball more often and created a little more in terms of goalscoring opportunities. They were helped by a weak refereeing performance which seemed to be crafted on the basis that £120,000 a week football players don't trip up or make errors, therefore the upstart opposition must have committed an infringement. However, the display of City - dogged and yet resourceful, committed yet clean, industrial yet crafty - was very simply the main reason why Chelsea failed to win a game that the world and his rabbit assumed would be a walkover.

Phil Brown
didn't have a great deal of room to alter his team selections from last week's rot-stopping draw with West Bromwich Albion, thanks to the injuries to Daniel Cousin and Jimmy Bullard. The suspension of Bernard Mendy - and oh, how a focussed madman like Mendy would have loved this match - meant Geovanni got his place back, with Richard Garcia spreading wide and Craig Fagan ploughing a lone furrow up front. Which, by the way, he did superbly.

The fact that the game ended goalless and one of the tightest occasions of Chelsea's season could have been so different had the home side scored what turned out to be their best opportunity after just two minutes. City conceded a free kick which Frank Lampard swung dangerously into the six yard area. Michael Ballack's flick is blocked by Matt Duke straight to John Terry, but the England captain (on a permanent banner which says 'JT - CAPTAIN, LEADER, LEGEND' at the other end - this is despite him being only one of these, and not fit to lace Ron Harris' boots) contrived to hook his hurried left-foot effort over the top from just a yard or so out.

Phew. An early let off which, if it had gone in, could have opened the floodgates, just as it did when Lampard scored that irritatingly superb chip after just three minutes of the game at the KC back in October. The error by Terry meant City could begin to settle and get a good feel of the ball, but beyond that, they could show Chelsea what they were made of, something they did with aplomb and pride.

Geovanni, back to some kind of impish, dangerous form (despite losing his range from set-pieces quite dreadfully since those free kicks against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City) made room for a cracking, wide-angled snapshot which Henrique Hilario - playing because Petr Cech was injured and a keeper in whom the outfield Chelsea players clearly display no trust) watched just beyond the post with some relief.

Fagan, full of running and full of chippy comments towards Terry and later Jose Bosingwa, took a chase down the left and fed the Brazilian - now in receipt of his excellent new anthem from the Tiger Nation, to the tune of The Runaway Train - sized up the opening before unleashing a shot which would have tested Hilario but for Terry's outstretched leg.

This was fantastic stuff, aided by a raucous way support appreciating a first visit to Stamford Bridge in 20 years, during which time both stadium and club has become totally unrecognisable from the old Chelsea, not least because the viewing area for away fans - in the upper seating, at least - was the best of the season; on top of the action at one end while still able to establish exactly what was going on at the other end. Few football matches will be ever worth the 47 notes that Chelsea fleece from travelling watchers, but for entertainment and facilities we (almost) got our money's worth. A City goal and victory would have been worth the ticket money, the three quid for a pasty (albeit a gristle-free one which went down a storm) and the travelling costs. And, right now, it looks likely.

Michael Turner surges late on to Dean Marney's corner and heads goalwards, only for a Chelsea head to clear. From near-euphoria to panic, as Kevin Kilbane miscontrols the clearance and Chelsea counter attack at pace, with Salomon Kalou feeding new signing Ricardo Quaresma. Duke is equal, however, to the curling effort from the Portuguese wideman, tipping the shot tidily beyond his far post.

From the corner, City manage a counter of their own, as Fagan gets into a handy central position but - and this is what prevents him really reaching into the upper echelon of Tiger Nation hearts - his finish is weak, straight at Hilario, a keeper who really needs to be made to work.

It's as end to end as it sounds. Chelsea look more likely to score, and yet somehow City are as stout in defence as they have ever been, heroically throwing themselves at shots and crosses and frustrating the life out of the glittery opposition. This is epitomised little more than when Ian Ashbee gets his whole being in front of Michael Ballack's goalbound effort, before Kamil Zayatte sturdily heads out Kalou's follow up ball towards the danger zone. Alex, the oddly begloved but short-sleeved defender, nuts the corner over the bar.

From the corner, Lampard shapes up a volley but Ashbee's there again, risking cold thigh pains to stop the ball troubling Duke too muh. It's the sort of performance we love from our captain - it showcases his heart and spirit, his leadership qualities and also, crucially, means he is not in possession of the ball looking for a pass any more than strictly necessary. It's when Ashbee wants to spread the ball around that he worries us.



It's a tremendous spectacle, edge-of-seat stuff with a miture of hope for the players that their performance will be rewarded, with the sinking knowledge that Chelsea could and probably will score at any moment. While this was a constant nagging fear, the regularity and vitality of City's own attacks suggested they were capable of holding their own in such supposedly illustrious company.

Geovanni fancied this occasion too. Just before the half hour he went on a gorgeous, flowing, weaving run which left numerous defenders in his wake before he was stopped, crudely and illegally, on the edge of the box. The magic of the Brazilian was snuffed out by the bad free kick he aimed at goal, however, something which has become apparent more and more since the bad turn of form began at Christmas. Andy Dawson stood beside him, waiting for his rare chance to remind us what a devillish free kick he can take. Maybe now he'll get his go.

Another free kick, this time at the other end. Zayatte fouls Ballack, and the German's effort was swiped over the bar. Chelsea pick up the pace, and Turner makes a superb clearance from in front of his own goal-line after Kalou's twisting run makes room for a dangerous centre. Dawson is then laughably penalised for a foul when it's clear that Kalou is holding his shirt, but referees simply can't see great players needing to cheat and so make that assumption. Dawson and his team-mates are livid - good, as we've been too accepting of situations this season - but the free kick is given nevertheless. For good measure, Lampard's vicious drive is blocked by Zayatte's nether regions, causing him to writhe in utter agony and a fair few thousand fellows involunatrily squeeze their knees together and wince. Treating genital bruising is not, one presupposes, a physio's favourite part of the job. Zayatte is, however, de-watering his eyes and returning to the action shortly after.

Marney, putting in one of his most impressive shifts in City colours, delivered a splendid through ball for Fagan to scamper after, but the shot went wide. But there is a sense that City are progressing, a sense made into reality when Sam Ricketts swings a smashing cross to the far edge of the box where Kilbane meets it with a firm header that beats Hilario but touches the post. Injury time comes, and Marney puts another excellent set-piece on to Turner's head, but the effort is deflected to safety. The whistle shrills and the adulation from the Tiger Nation is appreciably and appreciatively loud.

It was one of the best halves of football City had played this season, though there had been no tangible reward in terms of goals. Can the energy and demeanour be maintained? This is Chelsea, after all. The only alleged Big Four club to have given the Tigers a battering this season, capable of doing so again if their minds and hearts are in it. However, the way City had applied themselves gave everyone on the concourses a spring in their steps as they queued for the kiosks and conveniences. Winnable possibly, defeat avoidable, definitely.

Attacking the Tiger Nation's end in the second half seemed to galvanise City even further too. There is something quite special about a noisy, joyful away support garnering a reaction in performance from the men in Hull City shirts they are there to encourage. Blair and Bush have nothing on this in terms of a 'special relationship'. As Marney prepared to take the first corner of the half, right in front of the City fans, the noise was magnificent and explosive. The delivery was good but Geovanni's header was right at Hilario.

Chelsea, again, counter attack from a Tigers set-piece and Jon Obi Mikel - or Jon Mikel Obi, depending on whether you believed the scoreboard or the PA announcer - miskicked in front of goal after City had struggled to clear their lines on two separate occasions.

Mikel then nearly ruined it for Chelsea by getting all a-fluster with Bosingwa, allowing Fagan to run through on the left side towards goal. Alas, Fagan's left foot isn't great and the combination of that with his suspect finishing meant his chipped effort was clutched high to his left by Hilario. A decent save, but a gilt-edged chance. The was the 'one'. Would there be a better chance than that?

Yes. It came with just over 20 minutes remaining, when Marney and Kilbane combined superbly on the left to give Geovanni room for a killer final ball to meet Marney's astute run down the inside left channel. The shot beat Hilario and seemed netbound from our angle but it trickled agonisingly wide by little more than an inch or two. A few thousand heads were enveloped by hands, not least by Marney himself, whose mortification at not scoring was only alleviated by the cultured way in which the chance was crafted. Still, however, we hadn't broken the deadlock and still Chelsea could see themselves as favourites to take the spoils.

Luiz Felipe Scolari - a World Cup winner who was densely told by a small gathering of Chelsea fans "you don't know what you're doing" - chucked on three quick subs but the shape and desire of Chelsea seemed to have gone, certainly when Didier Drogba came on and didn't seem to appreciate that chasing the ball and doing a spot of work may actually be in the terms of his unspeakably large contract. Turner's rarely had an easier 20 minutes.

Kalou was given a little too much room for comfort when he got to the edge of the box but wasted the shooting opportunity by sliding the left-footed drive too close to the underworked but alert Duke. As the last minutes ticked by, Drogba swerved a free kick amusingly wide and Fagan, all heart and work ethic, almost got a second go at beating Hilario but Terry got an emergency foot in. Marney's corner was longer than the norm and found Ashbee at the far post, whose swinger was a yard or so wide.

The cheer for the final whistle was reminiscent of the one which greeted the last blasts at Arsenal, and we didn't even win this game. Yet it felt like a win, the point in real terms will be useful as few would have expected it was attainable, and the effort and sheer bloody-mindedness of the team, as well as the genuine skill and imagination and optimism on show, offers such hope for the vital matches ahead. Tottenham Hotspur are in disarray and Blackburn Rovers still gasping for air, and once the FA Cup tie at Sheffield United is out of the way (and what a boon it would be if Brown could pick this team and this tactic to blow the Blades away), we have those two coming to the KC. It is, as ever, poised beautifully. What a remarkable season this is proving to be.

Chelsea: Hilario, Cole, Lampard, Mikel (Belletti 57), Ballack (Deco 73), Bosingwa, Quaresma (Drogba 63), Kalou, Terry, Alex, Anelka. Subs not used: Taylor, Ivanovic, Di Santo, Stoch.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Garcia, Ashbee, Marney, Kilbane, Geovanni (France 81), Fagan. Subs not used: Myhill, Doyle, Hughes, Halmosi, Barmby, Manucho.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Looking daggers at Chelsea



Hull City go to Chelsea this weekend. For a generation of City fans now approaching the veteran stage, there is only one trip to Chelsea to recall - and it's another of those controversial FA Cup quarter finals.

Back in 1966, the Tigers were rocking and rolling in the old Third Division, gliding to the title with ease, sumptuous football and a staggering quantity of goals. Cliff Britton's killer recruitment over the previous two years had, finally, developed a team to fear and to achieve.

Aside from the exceptional League campaign - to this day the only time the Tigers have finished top of an unregionalised division in 105 years - the FA Cup provided some extra coverage in days when publicity rarely traversed beyond the local paper. As a third tier team, the Tigers embarked on a very long run indeed, doing over Bradford Park Avenue in the first round back in November 1965 before accounting for Gateshead, Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Southport. An exhausting but thrilling run in the premier Cup contest then saw them paired with Chelsea in the quarter finals, away from home.

The game became the making of Ken Wagstaff and almost of Hull City as a whole. Despite the equivalent run to the last eight of 1971, Hull City's best post-war chance to reach Wembley was, until last season, this FA Cup run of 1966 (the 2001 play-off final would have been in Cardiff had City won the semi against Leyton Orient). For Wagstaff, the burly and skilful striker purchased 18 months earlier from Mansfield Town, a Tigers legend was created at Stamford Bridge.

City, two divisions inferior to their opponents, were 2-0 down with eight minutes remaining when Wagstaff took over. First, he tapped in an Ian Butler cross from a narrow angle which the Chelsea defence had assumed was going out of play, prior to celebrating by swinging round the goalpost in front of the baying Chelsea support. Then the most celebrated of all City players chased Dennis Butler's long pass with Ron Harris and received the ball via a deflection from the notorious defender's attempted clearance, prior to rounding Peter Bonetti and scoring.

The Shed was already silenced when infamously, a nailed-on penalty for handball was also denied to the Tigers, which could have helped afford City the most astounding and heroic of victories - not to mention a serious chance of getting to the FA Cup final as a Third Division side. Jack Taylor, later to referee the 1974 World Cup final, incongruously chose not to give a spot kick when Harris punched away Ken Houghton's goalbound header. To this day Andy Davidson, veteran skipper of gruff disposition and the man who has featured in Hull City colours more than any other player, refuses to forgive Taylor for this oversight.

Five days later, Chelsea won the replay at a bursting Boothferry Park thanks to the return of the mercurial Peter Osgood, who had been absent through tonsillitis first time round. Chris Simpkin gave the Tigers some second half hope with a superb long-range goal that brought the score back to 2-1 but eventually the Blues won 3-1 and reached the semi finals.



The penalty non-decision still rankles with everyone connected to Hull City who experienced Taylor's foolhardiness. The man himself officiated another Hull City game just a fortnight later at Boothferry Park, and allowed a Wagstaff goal from an obviously offside position to count. As they trotted back to the centre circle, Wagstaff asked the official: "Was that to make up for Chelsea then, Jack?". Taylor himself was heard to inform anyone connected with Hull City that his decision earned City a replay and the funds from 45,000 people paying at the turnstiles, and that should have been enough.

Given that City knew that they'd be facing Sheffield Wednesday, a Second Division side at the time, in the semis if they won, then this seemed to represent the best chance of Wembley the Tigers had ever had in a Cup competition. Nothing was set in stone, of course, a fact given more credence by the knowledge that City might yet have missed the penalty, and that Wednesday were victorious over the fancied Chelsea in that very semi, eventually losing at Wembley to Everton. However, victory over Stoke in 1971 - in which Wagstaff again scored twice - would have pitched the Tigers up against either Arsenal, Liverpool or Everton, three of the game's genuine giants, and on neutral territory at that. Beating any of those on such a grand occasion would have been Herculean in its achievement. The Stoke game rankles with City fans because of the injustice over Stoke's winner; but maybe the chagrin of Chelsea in 1966 should be felt just as keenly, as a correct refereeing decision wouldn't have just stopped City losing - it could have actually helped them win.