Monday, 30 March 2009

Just for Marney

Phil Brown believes in Dean Marney. Here he differs with the supporters, who have still never quite been able to accept him entirely as a worthwhile Hull City player.

Marney's return to the side after suspension against Wigan Athletic typified his frustrating, brainstorming existence in a Tigers shirt. Clearly he is good enough and talented enough, but inconsistency and carelessness get in the way far too often.

It was Marney's lack of awareness and urgency in his own box in the last five minutes which allowed Ben Watson to thieve the ball and lob an out-of-position Matt Duke for Wigan's late winning goal. Prior to this, Marney had also been castigated by the fans - and highlighted by the pundits - for losing the ball in midfield when his defence were still up for a set-piece and allowing a dangerous counter attack which only failed to result in a goal through sheer fortune.

Marney had to return to the side. He was fit and fresh after his three matches away, and we'd lost Ian Ashbee's industry and leadership thanks to a dodgy hamstring. Marney cannot necessarily provide leadership, although he was given the captain's armband for the two FA Cup ties against Sheffield United while Ashbee rested and was certainly not disgraced, but he can do industry. Despite his obvious vision and ball skills, maybe it's his status as a workhorse which may yet salvage his Hull City existence.

Too often Marney has flattered to deceive by going from a superb, all-dominant spell in the side to supplying his own stick with which the fans may beat him. When the Tigers were playing 4-3-3 and earning 20 points from the first ten games, Marney was part of the central three and playing out of his skin. His energy, his vision and his unflappability were all plain to see and with both Ashbee and George Boateng providing a solidified back-up, he had licence to run, with and without the ball, supporting Geovanni's roams and finding himself alongside the two centre forwards.

Upon the abandonment of that system and City's own form, Marney began to flag. Rewarded with the new contract his early performances merited, the ex-Spurs midfielder became a little more withdrawn, and here the old Marney began to show its ugly head again. The misplaced passes, the soft concessions of possession, the total lack of positional sense, the indiscipline and occasionally the wayward set pieces (although his corner taking generally has been very good all season). He played well at Chelsea, as did the whole team, but the golden scoring chance he missed, which would have put City ahead deep into the second half, again was typical of the player's capacity to frustrate himself and all those around him when we all know he can do better. The acquisition of Jimmy Bullard looked to have put paid to Marney's own place in the side, but his stay of execution granted via Bullard's knee specialist didn't ultimately re-ignite Marney's worthiness to the cause.

As City's winless streak extended and extended, Marney became the first to snap truly with the frustration when he kicked the odious Morten Gamst Pedersen up in the air after a poor challenge from the Blackburn Rovers player and rightly was shown City's only straight red card of the campaign. Three games out followed where he wasn't greatly missed and he no doubt had food for thought while watching his team-mates beat Fulham, draw with Newcastle and come within one hateful referee of earning a replay in the FA Cup quarter final.

With Boateng returning soon and Ashbee's hamstring niggle thought to be no more than just that, Marney's role in Brown's plan for the season may become slightly more restricted. City need reliable performers more than anything right now, especially with our next three matches coming, definitively, against opponents all currently below us in the table. Marney is so obviously a confidence player and maybe that confidence is just as well served if he sat out another game or two, itching to come on.

Next season Marney's position will come under further scrutiny when Bullard is fit. There does seem to be goodwill for him to do well, given his amazing energy for the side when he shows a bit of form and his very good contribution to the early part of this season (not to mention a largely excellent campaign last year and his dreadfully unfortunate absence from the play-off campaign, aside from injury time at Wembley). But as the stakes get higher and the possible replacements look so much so better, that goodwill may soon evaporate forever.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Price is right

The emergency loan deadline for the lower leagues has been and gone and two heroic ex-Tigers have been farmed out from their parent clubs.

David Livermore, political victim amidst City's glorious promotion last season, has left one sinking ship (Brighton and Hove Albion) in order to join one already sunken (Luton Town). Then there's Jason Price, who has left Doncaster Rovers to give Millwall a bit of a hand.

Price was one of the most exciting talents brought into Hull City by Peter Taylor as the long-awaited resuscitation of the club got underway. A flamboyant, twinkletoed right sided midfielder, he had the measure of full backs as frequently as he encountered the frustration of his manager.

Recommended to Taylor by City striker Ben Burgess, Price had been at Tranmere Rovers and apprentice club Swansea City prior to joining the Tigers in 2003. His first season was excellent as City roared to League Two promotion, with a hat-trick against - of all clubs - Doncaster Rovers proving a worthy, if rather fortunate, highlight. Already it was clear that his mannerisms and laddish interviewing style marked him out as something of a character, and this helped contribute to his eventual downfall.

Price was injured towards the end of that season and was asked to undergo extra rehab on the tweaked hamstring over the summer but instead chose to honour his holiday booking. He subsequently, though nobody has ever confirmed it was also consequently, spent much of the following League One campaign on the bench, coming on as an impact substitute. Ryan France was now a preferred option for Taylor on the right hand side of midfield, a more industrious but less resourceful performer, and Price had to bite the bullet.

Upon promotion to the Championship after just one season, Price's future became even less clear. He had a year to go on his deal but seemed determined, even at a level he was unfamiliar with, to earn a fresh contract at the KC and for the opening three months of the season he played semi-regularly and pretty well, finding the net against both Sheffield clubs at the KC - a late, scuffed winner against Wednesday and a glorious curler against United which opened the scoring but still ended in defeat.

It was still a surprise, however, when Taylor opted to accept an offer for Price from Doncaster during the January transfer window and the Welshman with - by now - a substantial afro was heading down a division and along the M18. Ultimately it was the offer of a longer contract that seemed to seal the deal, and Taylor admitted at the fans' forum towards the end of that season that he agonised for quite some time about whether to give Price the deal he wanted.

Price wasn't quite mourned, or missed, upon his departure but he was certainly a talented and effervescent character and he still lives in the city to this day, albeit he'll be spending some work time in London for a while now. He was a clever footballer with a persona to match the insolent way he sometimes played the game, and his presence is crucial to reminding Taylor's lunatic detractors that our former manager was more capable than they will ever accredit him of purchasing, picking and getting the best out of creative footballers.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Returning Windass

Dean Windass is unexpectedly back at Hull City and has already done the business for the reserves this week, scoring a lovely free kick in a 2-0 canter against their stiff counterparts of Bolton Wanderers.

Sadly, for him at least, the terms of his loan at Oldham Athletic render him ineligible to play for the Tigers in a first team match again this season. It still therefore begs the question as to whether we will ever see this grand old man of our city and club turn out for City again.

Windass is 40 next Wednesday. He is out of contract a couple of months later. Just as his goal at Wembley seemed to simultaneously ruin his City future, the undoing of all that good work this season may be his salvation, as the only way Phil Brown will deploy Windass again is if it is away from the Premier League.

This means Windass is in the strangest possible position - relegation from the division he, like all City devotees, has waited all his life to see his club compete in, is all he can hope for.

Nobody hopes for this, of course. City have had enough good times in the first half of this season to be hungry for more. And wishing this least of all would be Windass himself. But it essentially gives him a choice - does he want to keep playing for Hull City, or does he want them to remain in the Premier League? He's not allowed both.

Windass will leave the club in the summer - as a player at least - if Premier League survival is achieved. He may just get the one year deal he craves, however, if the recent slump is matches by upsurges in form from a number of other teams and City drop into the bottom three.

If City do stay up, which still seems more likely, then Windass may well be asked to join the coaching staff. He has diligently taken the appropriate badges and would undoubtedly jump at the chance to represent the club he adores on a longer-term basis, even if it won't be on the field. Part of the reason it was claimed his loan at Oldham was cut short was due to an offer of coaching work. And if a bunch of 18 year old forwards in the making can't learn the goalscoring art from Windass, then they don't deserve to be playing football.

City fans with rose-coloured spectacles do, however, need to get something of a grip on reality. Too many unintelligent knee-jerkers ring the local radio station after defeats and claim that the team lacks heart and the recall of Windass is the plain and simple answer. Aside from the rules barring Windass from being allowed to play for City again, which these cretinous people don't bother to check, the return of a near-40 year old who evidently struggled with the pace and defensive aptitude of the Premier League and failed to maintain his counsel over it was the last thing City needed, and even an eligible Windass wouldn't get near the first team right now. Perhaps survival, a testimonial for the great man and a quiet retirement into City's back room is best for absolutely everybody.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Defensive lapse

The news that Anthony Gardner is out for the rest of the season is utterly heartbreaking for the player, and doesn't do a lot for the hopes of anyone else connected to the club either.

In the last moments of the FA Cup travesty at Arsenal, Gardner was sent forward by Phil Brown as an emergency striker as City sought a last-ditch equaliser. After one mid-air challenge, he slumped to the ground and was led very gingerly from the field for help. He did hobble back on, but as the final whistle sounded, he was on the deck again, stretched out in agony. A week on, we learn that he has suffered four fractured vertebrae, as painful an injury as any footballer could suffer.

Now, Gardner has not been blessed on the injury front in his career. Almost a decade at Tottenham Hotspur was interrupted consistently by knocks and tweaks and pulls and tears, and he never fully established himself, despite such a long period at the club which earned him England honours. Perhaps upon his arrival at the KC in the summer for a record £2.5 million a new door in his frustrating career could be pushed open.

Sadly, after a good start alongside Michael Turner, he suffered the thigh problem which would render him out for the longest two weeks in football history. The months of absence and false alarms finally ended when City travelled to Sheffield United for the FA Cup fifth round tie.

Gardner's return, though overdue, was still well-timed as his replacement, Kamil Zayatte, had started to become something of a liability on the park, albeit not one that earned him major derision. Gardner plays like Zayatte but without the brainstorms - the height above strikers is there, as is the timing in the tackle and the positional sensibility. Fortunately, Gardner does not possess the facility to dive into illegal challenges or lose communication with his team-mates to hand chances on a plate to opponents.

Gardner and Turner, settled and secure, seemed to be a partnership which could reduce the Tigers' leakage at the back and gently clear a path for our survival in the Premier League. With Gardner's appalling news this week, that hope is dashed.

But it's not the last of our woes. Turner was clearly not fully fit at Wigan Athletic and Zayatte hobbled off on the hour, still in pain following a multiple challenge with Sam Ricketts and Charles N'Zogbia which also saw the Frenchman subbed and Ricketts, the only one unhurt, given a caution. Certainly we can, unlike other Premier League teams, be grateful for the international break as these players have two weeks to sort themselves out and Zayatte is being assess by his country's medics as we breathe right now.

One assumes that both will be fit for the visit of Portsmouth on April 4th. If not, or even if just one has to sit it out, then Ricketts will have to perform his capable but inexperienced deputy shtick in the centre again, as he has done briefly before. There are no other specialist central defenders available, with the youthful Liam Cooper - impressive at Swansea City, lest we forget - still rehabilitating from his own bad injury (and chucking a boy in at this stage of a Premier League season would be seriously desperate) while Wayne Brown is unrecallable from his loan at Leicester City and one would have to ask how keen he would be to return in any event, given the tension between player and parent club this season.

We can all wish Gardner a speedy recovery. While the Jimmy Bullard situation hasn't affected the team as he wasn't in it to begin with, the absence of a very sound, capable and calm defender certainly will give us all pause for thought as we go into the next three games - games which are each against sides below us in the table and surely provide our gateway to a Premier League sequel in which Gardner can finally play the full and worthwhile part his ability merits.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

30: Wigan Athletic 1 - 0 Hull City - 22/03/2009

Yet again fate rather than form seems to be the key component in City's quest to confirm a second Premier League season. Sorry defeat to Wigan Athletic in certainly one of the more lifeless adventures of the campaign has, mercifully, done little harm in terms of position in the table.

What an abject game of football this was. Wigan were better, but only just, which sums up their ambition now that they have found themselves in an admirable top half position. It took a dual mistake from two City players late on to give them their goal, just when the fitting goalless draw looked set to be rubberstamped as the true valuation of a totally sparse encounter.

Phil Brown had no skipper, and boy did it show. Well, he did have a skipper - he chose Kevin Kilbane for the role on his return to the club who sold him to us two months ago - but he didn't have a leader. Ian Ashbee's hamstring strain which prompted his half time withdrawal at Arsenal in midweek, meant City lacked cohesion and organisation, not to mention spirit, in midfield.

Brown was also unable to call upon Anthony Gardner after his back whack in the final minutes at the Emirates, but at least Michael Turner was declared fit. Despite his heroics at Arsenal, there was no place for Nick Barmby, with Bernard Mendy and Dean Marney returning to midfield and Peter Halmosi dropping to the bench to allow for Kilbane's return.

Again the bench was devoid of Daniel Cousin, and again whispers began about whether we'd see him again this season.

The JJB is one of the easier on the eye nu-grounds of the 1990s, though it isn't helped well by the gaps in each corner and the fact that nobody in Wigan wants to watch football. The lack of atmosphere off the pitch and the lack of quality on it made it a deeply unappetising spectacle for the people who had chosen to tune in via the live Sky coverage, though unlike those in attendance, they could walk away and do something more stimulating at any time. We were stuck with it.

Had a fortuitous effort gone into City's net in the very first minute we have seen a different type of game, albeit one which still might not have done the Tigers any favours. Maynor Figueroa - all five vowels present and correct in that surname - attempted a cross from the right which swirled and swerved and left Matt Duke totally flat-footed, smacking the outside of post and crossbar on its way out.

From Charles N'Zogbia's corner, the same player headed just wide. An early escape for City, but not for the game itself.

Marney had a poor return to the fray after his three-match ban. His industry and willingness to stay involved will always be virtuous but today was one of those frustrating Marney days which puts the whole team in peril. When he's good he's excellent; when he isn't he's easy to scorn.

After six minutes he lost the ball on the halfway line and Wigan countered rapidly. Paul Scharner got to the byline where the good side of Marney, albeit one trying to clear up his own mess, did its job by blocking his cross; but a second ball did go in and avoid Duke, two attackers and Sam Ricketts all on the line. A touch, any touch would have sufficed.

Three minutes on and Scharner is again to the fore, nutmegging Kamil Zayatte on the byline but being deprived of further options by Turner's covering challenge.

City weren't doing much. Wigan were in possession, in command and looking far more likely to open the scoring Ben Watson hit a snapshot low from distance which Duke held easily enough, and only such untesting finishing from the home side was preventing them taking a lead which the game probably needed.

The Tigers went so far as to create nothing at all in the first half. Wigan kept the squeeze on but it was hardly the alamo, it was just dishwater stuff. Mido twice shot wildly over the bar, Hugo Rodallega swerved a free kick right into Duke's grip and then the same player forced a better, sprawling save from the Tigers custodian, who then got to his feet to block Scharner's follow up.

The only noteworthy thing from City was the withdrawal of Andy Dawson through injury and Richard Garcia's introduction. This prompted a shuffle involving Mendy and Ricketts, which surprised people assuming that Kilbane would just shift back into Dawson's role and disrupt the shape as little as possible. Perhaps the fact that the existing shape had done pretty much nothing of note led to the more convaluted change prompted by Dawson's knock.

The half time whistle was nothing but a boon. It meant Brown could sort out the tepidity of City's performance and we could find an alternative source of entertainment on the concourses.

And the second half was certainly better. City did crazy things like passing the ball, keeping it, attacking their opponents' end of the field. Given the first half vacuum of activity, it was certainly a step up. And, for a while, it looked like it could reap tangible reward.

The closest chance was the first. Craig Fagan forced a corner with a sharp, penetrating run and Marney delivered a wicked kick on to Manucho's head. It was on target and meaty enough but Chris Kirkland defied natural human reflex to fling up a hand and palm it over. Turner headed the second Marney corner over the bar.

City attacked, buoyed by this early upturn in fortune. Geovanni got to the edge of the area and played a ball towards Manucho which couldn't quite reach its target, but the clearance landed to Marney who skied the volley with his left foot.

Zayatte had taken a severe clout in the first half as he and Ricketts dually tackled Rodallega and the three of them all felt the impact. Ricketts had been deemed the culprit and had received a yellow card but Zayatte was hurt. His withdrawal on the hour brought Caleb Folan, curiously, into the play with Ricketts shifting into the middle of defence and Kilbane now, at last, dropping back.

Folan's introduction was curious because, well, he isn't cut out for this level. The absence of Cousin and the patience required over Manucho means he remains part of the scene but ultimately he is proving, as he did in his own spell with Wigan, that although a capable Championship performer and exceptional third tier player (as he was with Chesterfield before Wigan tried him for size) he simply hasn't the class to make the final step up. When he has been involved, his season has been about his rather lax attitude to chasing (he could learn so much from Cousin on this) and his propensity for getting caught offside a hell of a lot. Plus we'd lost a defender and Nathan Doyle, chastened by his experiences of starting games lately, was on the bench and ready.

Compare this with Garcia, like Folan thought to be maybe taking a step beyond the level his ability would carry him, but currently a genuine form player and one who absolutely should be knocking on his manager's door demanding a starting place. His industry and touch has never been in doubt, but in this second half of football he also showed a rare but pleasing grit on the ball, taking challenges with the force with which they were intended, maintaining control and possession while earning yards for City with some smart runs. He is looking as good as he has ever looked.

Duke had to block Watson's close range effort after a miscued shot from Mido fell conveniently into the redhead's path, then Scharner headed over after City can only half-clear a free kick.

As the midway point of the second half, Garcia is City's best player but the opportunities are dwindling. He manages one shot which goes too high but by now Wigan have regrasped the nettle, and City are starting to tire on one of the wider pitches in the Premier League.

Watson hits the side netting in one of those semi-comical moments which are celebrated as a goal from the blind side of the pitch. City try to respond with Garcia and Kilbane both raining in crosses which are cleared and then hit over by Marney respectively. Rodallega comes closest yet for Wigan with a header that smacks the woodwork. Goalless draws have certainly been better than this.

Brown slings on Halmosi for Fagan, clearly an effort to win the match, as always. But within four minutes of this last dice throw, the home side have broken the deadlock. Duke flaps Mario Melchiot's long throw but still the danger could have been cleared by Marney, to whom the ball lands. His attempted overhead clearance is charged down by Watson who then guides a raised shot over Duke and in, despite Ricketts' best efforts on the line.

The remaining few minutes, plus injury time, are only notable for Folan flicking a Mendy cross wide and the referee going off injured, leading to a literal cry of "you're not fit to referee" towards Mr Marriner. All very witty but this was a bad, bad day. City have played worse than this, but it was an occasion where they just didn't seem to do anything, within a game as a whole that will be unlikely to get a DVD release from either club shop.

Saving grace? The results around us have barely changed the table. We're still four points and five places clear of the drop. Our next three games are against sides all around us in that zone and yes, some proper spoils would be most welcome. Meanwhile, let's just forget about this one.

Wigan Athletic
: Kirkland, Melchiot, Bramble, Boyce, Figueroa, Watson, Brown, Scharner (Kapo 77), N'Zogbia (De Ridder 46), Rodallega, Mido (Zaki 72). Subs not used: Kingson, Pollitt, Edman, Cho.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Zayatte (Folan 61), Turner, Dawson (Garcia 38), Mendy, Marney, Kilbane, Geovanni, Manucho, Fagan (Halmosi 82). Subs not used: Myhill, Doyle, Barmby, France.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Jesus loved him more than he would know

Hull City go to the JJB Stadium tomorrow, home of Wigan Athletic, for a Premier League game. Last season we won there in the Carling Cup, a match which despite its status as the Tigers' first away win at a top-flight club for 36 seasons was largely forgotten as other definitive victories came and went. The time has come to remember just how significant and terrific this win was.

The Tigers were drawn away at Wigan in the second round of the competition after a comfortable beating of Crewe Alexandra 3-0 at Gresty Road at the previous stage. We went into the match at the JJB with three Championship matches behind us - a defeat, a draw and a victory, in that order.

The impact of football on the town of Wigan had barely changed, despite the elevation to the Premier League (and admirable facility to survive therein), the erection of the adequate JJB Stadium to replace Springfield Park's kneegrazing shale and quagmire pitch and the decline of the town's rugby league team from world dominators to also-rans. Still not enough people in Wigan were interested in Wigan Athletic.

This meant that the showbiz occasions in the Premier League could garner a reasonable crowd but when Hull City were due in town on a warm late summer evening for a second round game in a competition neither club was especially interested in, the noise of clicking turnstiles were at a bare minimum. City fans travelled in good numbers, as it was a new ground to many of them and even this most unglamorous of top flight clubs still represented a potential top flight scalp, but that was where the majority of real interest in the match lay.

Indeed, the player whom Tigers fans gossiped about most prior to the match - and, indeed, during it - was playing for the opposition. Caleb Folan was a reserve striker at Wigan, signed from Chesterfield, who had struggled to impact upon the Premier League and therefore an occasion like this - a non-Premier League game against non-Premier League opponents - was designed for him. City fans had very briefly seen him years earlier when he signed for the Tigers on loan from boyhood club Leeds United, but now rumours were strong that he was to be on his way to us permanently for a cool million pounds.

Wigan's hopeless manager-by-default Chris Hutchings categorically denied before the game that Folan was going anywhere. Folan duly started the match and proceeded to outplay the rest of his team, even though a player's role shouldn't necessarily include showing up the more well-known and well-paid people in the same kit as he. Wigan spent the whole game severely embarrassing themselves.

City played well, given that Phil Brown had chosen the weapons-gradedly left-footed Andy Dawson at right back (a necessity at the time but oh, how it would turn comical later) and had also offered starting roles to Nicky Featherstone, Stephen McPhee and Stuart Elliott, none of whom were deemed automatic choices at the time - Featherstone due to rawness and youth; the other two due to there simply being better alternatives available.

(Look at this photo by the way - how often do you capture the image of a player competing in a game against two future team-mates? Featherstone is challenging Folan while Kevin Kilbane looks on).

Elliott, our ultra-religious goalscoring wideman from Ulster, had been our finest player of the noughties but was in the last year of his contract at the KC and it was obvious, at the age of almost 30, that he had some serious work to do on his game and his demeanour if he were to be offered a new deal of any description.

One thing of many which had so thrilled us about Elliott was his capability of scoring great goals, as well as being a great goalscorer. Anyone who saw him chip the goalkeeper from the touchline at Plymouth Argyle in 2005/6 when we were down to ten men will back this up. That was probably his best goal for City, although there are so many to choose from. But I suspect his second best goal for City was the one which ultimately proved to be his 68th and last, and the one which beat a Premier League side on their own turf.

There was a misdirected clearance across the Wigan back four, about 30 yards out, and the ball was swirling in the air. Elliott charged towards it in competition with Mario Melchiot, and won the race cleanly to launch a flying toe-poke above and beyond Mike Pollitt from a good 30 yards. A strange, amazing goal, and yet typical of the sort of thing Elliott had always excelled at. For all Elliott's woes - illnesses had hampered him after Peter Taylor left to the extent that we wondered if he'd play again - it was obvious that he was still capable of making sudden impacts on games which were dying, and this was obvious here. The game was only half an hour old but it was already on its last legs as a contest. Few seemed interested, especially on the home side. Elliott kindled interest by scoring the sort of goal which made you proud you could be bothered to turn up.

City could have got more - prolific non-scorer McPhee missed, as ever, his array of one-on-ones as Wigan clearly had no interest in the match whatsoever. The chatter about Folan was forgotten as City defended stoutly in the second half and worked with ease towards the final whistle and a first top-division scalp away from home since Ken Wagstaff saw off Coventry City at Highfield Road in the FA Cup in 1972.

There were only three days left of the August transfer window, but during those three days Folan's move - for Hull City's first ever £1 million outlay - was confirmed. He promptly fractured his skull on his debut at Blackpool and it took a while for us to see his best form - or indeed a goal - from him, although it worked out splendidly in the end.

Elliott's decline couldn't be halted by this latest moment of magic. He barely got a second glance from Brown for the next three months, featuring in a League game for the last time when introduced as a late sub at Stoke City on New Year's Day 2008. His last opportunity came when he was picked to start at Plymouth in the FA Cup third round just days later, but he played so poorly in City's 3-2 defeat that Brown had seen enough and packed him off to Doncaster Rovers on loan, whom he joined permanently when his contract expired around the same time as his old team-mates were tasting play-off glory.

We go to Wigan tomorrow in entirely different circumstances. Barring a full-scale revenge scoreline after their 5-0 pummelling of us at the KC in August, the JJB Stadium will remain the place where Elliott, hero of two promotions and so much more, had his last glorious hurrah for the Tigers.

Friday, 20 March 2009

"How very, very City"

While previous visits to Wigan Athletic in the League, irrespective of division, have proved to be entirely featureless affairs, this weekend's prospect of travelling to this Greater Manchester town where the oval ball is king still throws up memories of a couple of contrasting occasions in the knockout competitions. Tomorrow we'll recall last season's heroic Carling Cup match, which acted as a last hurrah for one of this decade's great City heroes, but first we welcome back IAN THOMSON, who reminisces with Boyhood Dreams about an FA Cup 5th round tie in 1987 which arguably counts as the biggest missed opportunity of the Tigers' lifetime:

If ever a day in the long history of Hull City AFC encapsulated the underachievement, the eclipsing of false dawns, the scattering of hope to the cardinal extremities of the earth that served collectively as a paradigm for the Club until the Wembley triumph last May, that day was 21st February 1987.

Brian Horton's third season at the helm had been an undistinguished one in the League: granted, it was the inaugural season for the play-offs, and we very nearly made it into them - the only trouble being that it was at the wrong end of the table, for in that season the team that finished just above the relegation spots had to participate in the play-offs along with those who had just missed out on promotion from the League below. Only a draw at Grimsby Town (a very tense fixture which sent the home side down) and a win at home to Crystal Palace (who missed out on the promotion play-offs as a result) in the last two fixtures kept us out of the fray.

If there was solace, it was in the FA Cup. Not that the Cup run of 1986/7 was notable for stirring feats of Tiger derring-do, but even though we limped rather than stormed into the fifth round, at least it was a genuine run. In round three we gained hard-won revenge for our League Cup defeat at the hands of Shrewsbury Town – a Division Two outfit like us in those days - and this earned us a trip to Swansea City. The Welsh side were languishing in Division Four at the time, but in a typically seething bear-pit atmosphere City were under the cosh from the first whistle to the last, suffered the additional handicap of Frankie Bunn getting sent off, and yet remarkably held out for a rare Vetch win after a scrambled Richard Jobson effort had given us the lead early in the second half.

And so, as the fifth round draw was made, hopes were high that we might finally get some reward for our endeavours on the road with a decent home draw against a Division One (that’s the Premier League in old money, kids) team, there still being a good number of them left in the competition, although big guns Manchester United and Liverpool had succumbed in earlier rounds. On that front, we were to be disappointed, as we were despatched to Springfield Park to meet Wigan Athletic. Still, it wasn't a bad consolation prize: the Latics were having a decent season, but on paper this represented the best chance we had of reaching the quarter-finals since the infamous Stoke City game in 1971. The perennially-apathetic Hull public, who for most of the season had shown a marked reluctance to venture through the Boothferry Park turnstiles, were not slow to pick up on this, and demand for City’s 2,500 ticket allocation was high. I worked in the Boothferry Park boardroom on matchdays at that time, and well remember the tales from the club staff of the querulous bleatings of people who attended City games once every Sheffield flood on being told that no, they would have to wait their turn for tickets until the passholders had got theirs, and then queue up like everybody else.

Those whose knowledge of football does not extend back beyond the current era may be surprised to learn that Wigan Athletic was a very different set-up in those pre-JJB/Dave Whelan days. Unlike Hull, Wigan genuinely was a rugby town (and still is). The impressive stadium that stood before you smack bang in the town centre, reeking of affluence with its towering floodlight pylons, imposing stands and deep banks of concrete terracing was not – as many football fans discovered to their cost over the years - the home of Wigan Athletic, but rather Central Park, the headquarters of Wigan RLFC, aristocrats of the 13-a-side game and followed passionately by legions of fans renowned for their arrogance, their gracelessness – in victory as much as in defeat – and their general lack of understanding of the game. Back in 1987, the Club was on the very brink of its most sustained period ever of domination of the English game.

Wigan Athletic, on the other hand, a League side for a mere handful of seasons at that time, plied their trade in a seedy, ramshackle, rain-sodden, windswept, 11,000-capacity ellipsoid arena atop a hill on the northern outskirts of town, fully three miles distant from Central Park. It felt for all the world as though they had been banished there by the town's powerful Rugby lobby, to keep them out of sight like a troublesome relative. The only seating was on one side of the ground and extended a mere 20 yards or so either side of the half way line, while the away end – and this is only 20 years ago – consisted of a steep shale bank with a narrow cover across the back and a mere six or so steps of terracing at the front. In wet weather – not exactly a rarity in Greater Manchester – you could feel your feet sliding unnervingly out of control down the slope. The smattering of fans who followed them were a diverse mix of die-hards from non-league days with holes in the elbows of their cardigans, socially-inadequate freaks, and fat kids in National Health specs with a pink patch over one eye. The place exuded decrepitude, stagnation and sheer bloody hopelessness.

Thus it was an uninspiring sight that greeted two and a half thousand expectant Tigers as they descended on the place. The home fans gawped open mouthed at the procession of packed buses from Hull snaking across the car park behind the main stand. Tigers' chairman Don Robinson actually got on our bus to check that we all had tickets. The local constabulary were taking no chances, and ushered the away fans as they alighted from their transport straight onto the shale bank before they could disperse. Thankfully, the bus I was on had made a pre-arranged beer stop at a Working Men's Club in Rochdale, where we watched Football Focus over our pints, guffawing at the indecipherable diction of Wigan striker Bobby Campbell and listening aghast to the treachery of former City player and future director Emlyn Hughes as he forecast a Wigan victory.

At this juncture I shall not be forgiven if I neglect to relate the experience of a friend of mine that day, who on reaching the ground was ushered towards the player's gate by a member of the Wigan staff in the mistaken belief that he was taking part in the game. Not that outrageous a mistake, you might say – except that this particular friend very obviously walks on callipers and could not by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as athletic of physique, as he himself would be the first to admit.

You will note that so far there has been no mention of the actual game. Well, let me assure you that that is no accident. So monumental a wasted opportunity was it that, even after all this time, I can barely bring myself to talk about it.

To be fair, it all started very promisingly, in front of a full house comprising 2,500 City fans, 1,500 Wigan supporters, and 7,000 Wiganers notionally neutral and presumably there out of curiosity. In fact, we dominated the first half and, with Billy Askew controlling the centre of the park, should have been a couple of goals to the good by half-time. The photo shows a disbelieving Neil Williams (centre) after he had missed a gilt-edged chance, with strike pairing Andy Saville (left) and Alex Dyer (right) wondering why he didn't leave the opportunity to them.

In the second period surely we would make our superiority count?

Well, we might have done, had we managed to maintain it, but things started to go horribly awry after the break. We were caught inexcusably square at the back after about an hour and Chris Thompson raced through to score. Horton then promptly panicked, substituting Askew, by a country mile the game’s most effective player – a decision which, to his credit, he later publicly acknowledged was a mistake. It all fell apart majestically after that. Self-belief and composure went out of the window, and it was no surprise when the rotund Scouser Paul Jewell (yes, that Paul Jewell) fired a second home. And just to prove that, no matter how bad you think things have got, they are always capable of getting worse where City are concerned, the butt of our lampoonery back in Rochdale earlier in the day, Bobby Campbell, and one of those strikers who always seemed to score against us, added a third in the dying minutes.

On the approaches to the ground on the bus, we had been full of it, cockily sneering and gesturing at the downtrodden home support. On the way out, to a man we went out of our way to avoid catching their eye as the bus rumbled through the streets of terraced houses surrounding the ground. A day that had promised us so much had ended with a degree of humiliation that, even by the standards of the long-suffering City fan, was hard to take.

And just to prove that, no matter how bad you think things have got, they are always capable of getting worse where City are concerned. In the sixth round Leeds United – if anything a weaker team than City - went to Springfield Park and showed us exactly how it should be done, getting a couple of early goals and then shutting up shop, in the process earning a Hillsborough semi-final against Coventry City, a game they lost that they should have won. Coventry, of course, went on to win the Cup that season (on the same day that my dad and I went to Hampden to watch his team, St Mirren, lift the Scottish Cup).

But for once there was scant consolation to be derived from Leeds' chagrin. Opportunities to progress in the Cup such as the one that we had presented to us that season are a rare gift, and we blew it spectacularly. How very, very City.

Ian Thomson is a member of the Tiger Chat mailing list and a reporter for spin-off site On Cloud Seven.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

We have space to Phil

Phil Brown really needs to calm down. As justified as he may feel in complaining about the referee, the opposition manager and the alleged spitting incident after the FA Cup exit at Arsenal, he is doing himself and our club few favours.

Managers like to be popular, unless they are long in the tooth enough to know that it's often a double-edged sword to have people clapping you on the back and that's when they can create a siege mentality, a "stuff you" attitude to all who dare disagree with them. Brown is beginning to look like this sort of manager, as if the Premier League and the pressures it brings has made him re-think his own approach to surviving with his club and his job.

There have been a few mild contradictions between what Brown said immediately after the final whistle at the Emirates and what he has either said in unwise further interviews in the cold light of day, or via other sources. He got uppity on BBC 5 Live when quite rightly asked to comment on the denial made by Cesc Fabregas over the spitting allegation; he also claimed, exasperatedly, that he couldn't answer the question as to who else saw the spitting take place, even though he claimed to the post-match throng of hacks that he saw the incident himself.

His claim that Arsene Wenger didn't shake his hand is one thing; his claim that Wenger has never shaken his hand this season is another, given that a photograph exists online of their handshake at the Emirates back in September (though to be fair to Brown, it's not clear whether this handshake was before or after City's 2-1 win which embarrassed the Arsenal boss so much) while there is footage of smiles and welcoming taps on the shoulder during a pre-match handshake between the two when Arsenal visited the KC and won 3-1 in January.

Since his arrival at the club, Brown has been praised for his candour and positive disposition almost as much as for the way he transformed the fortunes of the team on the pitch. City earned unpatronising plaudits back in the autumn for unexpected, vibrant victories, and Brown earned a Manager of the Month award. Quickly it became obvious he was a chap who was not only comfortable chatting to hacks, be they cynical nationals or starstruck locals, but doing so as a matter of course, regarding it as a more enjoyable part of the job when some managers - Wenger, David Moyes, Rafa Benitez and especially Steve Coppell - always look frustrated at wasting valuable blackboard time when they are answering questions of varying banality.

Brown mainly only had to deal with the in-house magazine and website, the local newspaper and radio stations, plus ITV and Sky on match day, when City were in the Championship. He then started to highlight the name of the club a little more through City's wonderful progress up the Championship last season, rubberstamping it then with one or two feature-length interviews in the broadsheet pull-outs. The story of the ex-electrician, the man who went on the dole after Derby sacked him and the part-time racehorse owner all became familiar outside of the East Yorkshire boundary.

This season he has given Tony Livesey a tour around the remains of Boothferry Park and then a west Hull pub or two for Inside Sport and visited the children's ward at Hull Royal Infirmary with a News Of The World hack in tow. He has summarised other Premier League games for 5 Live and even was on A Question Of Sport the night before we were outplayed at Everton in January. There have been more such one-offs.

So it's not as if he's reluctant to let the media help with his propaganda. He enjoys it. It is part of the job and as long as he is comfortable with ubiquity then certainly nobody should complain about it. But the media's job is to report and research and analyse what he says and Brown seems, in the aftermath of all the kerfuffle at Arsenal, unable to accept or realise this. The word is that he has asked for recordings of all the broadcast interviews he gave after the FA Cup defeat - so Setanta, ITV, 5 Live and the local radio then. I'm not sure he will be pleased with what he hears. Similarly, I'm sure that he was retrospectively kicking himself after the alfresco team-talk at Manchester City, entertaining and demonstrative as it was at the time, and the crassly phrased comment about drugs tests aimed at Geovanni following the home defeat to Blackburn.

Media organisations striving for quotes will always acts as a sounding board for an angry or aggrieved manager. Brown can easily be one such manager but as much as he believes what he says, his harsher, stronger words can only come back to haunt him. More to the point, one will be interested to note how harshly they'll be felt by his team. The game at Wigan Athletic on Sunday may provide an indication as to whether Brown has allowed his emotional outbursts to seep into the players' minds.

Ultimately, as his chairman backs him and the fans maintain gratitude beyond comprehension for him, Brown may feel he can say what he likes as long as his team keep performing and survive the drop. This doesn't mean, however, that he should.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

FA Cup sixth round: Arsenal 2 - 1 Hull City - 18/03/2009

Robbed blind, but proud nonetheless. If Arsenal place so much importance and relevance on an FA Cup semi-final that they have to get there via a goal more blatantly offside than any of the awarded offside decisions, and then bleat gracelessly about their smaller opposition afterwards, they're welcome to it.

We feel like winners. We lost the game, and we have the referee we all loathe in Hull for that, but the feeling of pride is immeasurable.

Mike Riley's done this before to us. He sent off four players - two from each side - when City beat Burnley at the KC last season. Fortunately the game was already out of the opposition's reach so the damage to the Tigers' cause was minimal - pointless substitutions for Caleb Folan and Jay Jay Okocha aside - but he ruined the game entirely with decisions which acknowledged the law but trampled on the spirit.

This season, he stitched up Sam Ricketts against Sunderland with two yellow cards which were bookable more for the appalling dramatics deployed by the fouled players than they were for the tackles the full back had put in.

But try this one for size.

Arsenal take an 83rd minute free kick. It's flicked on as Boaz Myhill comes out to punch and William Gallas - positioned at least two yards beyond any opponent including the goalkeeper, back heads the ball into the net.

And the goal, unbelievably, scandalously, is given.

Riley and his assistant had managed to rule out a Nick Barmby effort in the first half from the same position and from a much less cut and dried offside position. Barmby was offside, just. So how come they can spot this one but not an infinitely more crowbarred one for the opposition at such a crucial stage in the game?

Gallas scored to make it 2-1, you see. Ten minutes earlier Arsenal finally made it 1-1 after a heroic Tigers rearguard that ensured that as much pride in the players was on show at the final whistle as their was vitriol towards the officials.

Phil Brown, later to claim that Arsenal's injured skipper Cesc Fabregas spat at City assistant boss Brian Horton as the post-match recriminations brewed up, picked a strong starting XI which even allowed for the late withdrawal of Michael Turner as a precautionary measure.

No problem there, as Kamil Zayatte dropped back into defence alongside Anthony Gardner. Andy Dawson replaced the cup-tied Kevin Kilbane, while Barmby, Manucho and Peter Halmosi all got starts. The bench looked very weak, with Daniel Cousin nowhere to be seen and fringe players like Bryan Hughes and Nicky Featherstone all getting a spot.

City got underway with some welcome urgency, and Manucho broke clear of Johan Djourou early on but chose not to shoot when the opportunity seemed to present itself. Arsenal were slow and, similarly to the Premier League encounter back in September, not taking their opponents greatly seriously.

So it was less of a surprise, though a most welcome and ecstatic moment, when City took a 13th minute lead. Dawson played a through ball to Barmby who, appreciating where Lukasz Fabianski was, opted to try a 25 yard lob which was aided over the Polish custodian via a Djourou deflection. Utter bedlam in the away end, and City lead. Crumbs.

It could have been two when, just five minutes later, Geovanni cracked a shot just over the bar after superb work in a tight corner by Manucho. Halmosi then went on a fabulous, gliding run through the Arsenal defence from his own half and was hacked down. The free kick was - finally - on target from Geovanni but Fabianski made a superb fingertip save.

From the corner, a half clearance reaches Dawson who fires goalwards. Barmby gets a touch and the flag goes up as the ball hits the net. Offside! You see, they can do it right sometimes, they can...

Arsenal began to emerge after the half hour mark. Andrey Arshavin looks a wonderful footballer and beyond the controversies, he was a privilege to watch. Sent down the left channel, he cut inside Ricketts with ease and hit a vicious goalbound shot which Gardner cleared from under Myhill's nose.

Theo Walcott, looked after so well by Dawson in September's immortal victory, galloped for the line but was robbed cleanly and vigorously by a fantastic Zayatte tackle, with more rearguard heroics following when Ricketts used his whole body as a barrier as Arshavin shot goalwards from Walcott's cross.

Arshavin then hit a crazy, narrow-angled volley which seemed destined for the top corner but arched just wide. The half time whistle shrilled and, crikey, we were ahead at Arsenal yet again, and had weathered their attacking storm yet again.

The second half introduces Bryan Hughes for the injured Ian Ashbee, hopefully just for precautionary reasons, and a whole new outlook for the Tigers. Attacking was less of an option, despite the continued willingness of Manucho, Barmby, Geovanni and especially Craig Fagan, who looked incredibly dangerous throughout. But Arsenal, with a rocket up their backsides, started to camp in the City penalty area and although every minute that ticked by was greeted with relief, it did seem a mere question of time.

Arshavin made room in the box for a clear shot but again Zayatte hurled himself into a resolute block. From the corner, Alex Song sent a swivelling left-foot volley inches wide.

Barmby fouled Abou Diaby as he charged boxwards, and Van Persie's curling free kick was batted aside brilliantly by a stretching Myhill. A great save. A continuing rearguard.

A corner, in the last 20 minutes. Arshavin swings it in and Gallas wins the header but it clips the bar on its way over. Still the Tigers cling on, again just like back in September. But then...

Substitute Nicklas Bendtner pulls Hughes away from a loose ball and crosses low. Arshavin could finish it, but instead calmly feeds the onrushing Van Persie who finish the task with expected aplomb. It's level at last and beyond the disappointment among the Tiger Nation, instantly we wonder if we can cling on for a replay.

City attack for the first time in the half. Fagan finds room to knock a ball Geovanni's way and the onrushing Brazilian cracks a shot inches wide of Fabianski's near post. Close, but not quite enough.

Bendtner flicks a Diaby ball into Van Persie's path but the volley goes straight to Myhill. Young full back Kieran Gibbs is then played through by Arshavin but pokes his panicky shot straight at the City goalkeeper.

The finally, the moment which ruined City's performance, whatever remained of Mr Riley's reputation and Arsene Wenger's own hopes of being able to complain about refs again. Oh, and our hopes of going back to Wembley and appearing in our first semi-final for 79 seasons.

Substitute Samir Nasri clips in a free kick which Myhill tries to collect. The keeper is beaten to the dipping ball by Djourou's nod, and the conclusively offside Gallas backheads in. It's a goal, according to the records. It's not a goal, according to the laws. This must mean Mr Riley either feels above the laws, or doesn't know them. You choose.

We did try to come back, but the stuffing was gone. Geovanni should have won a free kick on the edge of the box but didn't, and Gardner - sent up as an emergency striker - had a shot which could have been blocked by a hand. Neither decision, of course, went City's way. We were now merely awaiting the fireworks of post-match, and boy did we get some.

I don't know if Fabregas spat at Horton but while it's an abhorrent thing to do, I care more for how Mr Riley will be assessed for his performance. It was a scandalously inept, one-eyed, dishevelled, discrediting, shameful evening of officiating thanks to some of the most incident-free bookings ever handed out as well as the winning goal that plainly shouldn't have been.

I have no beef with Arsenal, though their manager is a slimy, humourless, Machiavellian piece of work. They can enjoy Wembley, where Chelsea will beat them. We can be proud of getting so far in the Cup for the first time in 38 years and, just like last time, know that defeat was more down to the incompetence of others rather than ourselves.

Arsenal: Fabianski, Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Gibbs, Walcott (Eboue 82), Song Billong (Bendtner 64), Diaby, Vela (Nasri 64), Van Persie, Arshavin. Subs not used: Mannone, Toure, Denilson, Silvestre.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Gardner, Zayatte, Dawson, Ashbee (Hughes 46), Barmby (France 76), Geovanni, Fagan, Manucho, Halmosi (Mendy 67). Subs not used: Duke, Garcia, Folan, Featherstone.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The big six?

We're in the last five of the FA Cup. Tonight, despite the strength of the opposition, we can reach the last four. Here are the six reasons Hull City can beat Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium tonight:-

1 - We've already won there once this season. Psychological advantage applies even to the biggest of footballing names.
2 - We've played all of the alleged 'Big Four' (how I loathe that phrase) already this season and our record is won one (Arsenal, where we also came from a goal down and even scored their goal ourselves); drawn two (Liverpool, where we went two up; and Chelsea, where we kept a clean sheet); and lost one (Manchester United, where we scored three goals).
3 - It took this club 104 years to get to Wembley for the first time. The players are 90 minutes away from making it less than one year on to get there a second time.
4 - Arsenal are still in the Champions League (how I whooped with joy when they won that shootout in Rome) and therefore will be less bothered about the FA Cup.
5 - We are far better away from home than we are at the KC; the naked eye has proved that, as well as the statistics. We'd be less confident if Arsenal were arriving at ours tonight.
6 - The entire media has ignored Hull City ever since the semi-final draw was made, prattling on with astonishing disrespect about how fabulous an Arsenal v Chelsea semi at Wembley will be.

C'mon City.

Monday, 16 March 2009

"Hull will be all right"

The post-match analysis on Match Of The Day - what little there was of it, given that we were the last game to be shown - focussed more on Newcastle United than it did on Hull City.

I'm happy with that, as all Alan Hansen needed to say about us was "Hull will be all right".

Then it was over to Alan Shearer to try to make excuses for the club that worships him, which he found difficult to do because nobody can make excuses for them, let alone an inarticulate pundit in a cardigan who Hull City fans will always associate with running scared from Justin Whittle.

We have nine games left, four of which are at home. There are still only four points between us and the bottom three, of course. Our goal difference is rubbish, but fortunately enough teams around or below us are enduring even rubbisher tallies in the for and against columns.

And there are five teams protecting us from that perilous trapdoor.

And they are starting to take shape.

West Bromwich Albion are down, irrespective of what they (don't) manage at West Ham United tonight. As admirable and gracious as Tony Mowbray is, his team are going only one way with no discernible defence.

Middlesbrough's ultra-late equaliser against Portsmouth - scored by Marlon King, who greeted his late goal for us against Middlesbrough with exaggerated glee - seemed to be greeted with similar hyperbole. Granted, a point is better than none, but such a listless display and the fact they are still three points adrift of safety means they should now be regarded as favourites to go down with the Baggies.

Despite their point, Newcastle United were atrocious at the KC Stadium. A world class strike force backed by a totally ineffectual, confidence-free, guileless midfield and a defence that has only one regularly decent protagonist. And they have to play Arsenal and Chelsea next.

They're my three to go down.

This means Stoke City and Portsmouth will probably stay up. I would struggle to find less entertainment value in consuming a bowl of Ronnie Corbett's pubic hair than watching football at the Britannia Stadium again next season, but their form at that very stadium has been good and should be enough. Good thing for them too, as they have still not won away from home. And signing James Beattie was a masterstroke.

Portsmouth shouldn't be where they are but fire sales caused by financial woes, plus an inability to select a reliable manager (either through talent or loyalty) have dragged them into it. A team with that central defensive pairing, that goalkeeper and Peter Crouch up front should drag themselves from it though.

Tottenham Hotspur are safe now, and Bolton Wanderers seem to be, like us, propping up a substantial enough number of teams to stay afloat. Sunderland also will benefit from this, despite clearly playing abysmally at the weekend, while Blackburn Rovers had two good wins - including one at ours - prior to an undisgraced pasting at Arsenal, and with Sam Allardyce in charge, their players wouldn't dare go down - unless they were Morten Gamst Pedersen, of course.

City go to Wigan Athletic next week, where away performances suggest a point is distinctly possible. There is a score - a 5-0 score, to be exact - to settle there too. After that it may be Portsmouth at home - we have to win again at some point, and this should be as good a time as any - although we'd still harbour hopes of postponing that match due to an FA Cup semi-final booking.

Then it's the two big north eastern jaunts in successive weeks to Middlesbrough and Sunderland. Hopefully, by the time Liverpool turn up at the KC at the end of April, enough will have been boxed off elsewhere for the Tigers to relax - and concentrate on the FA Cup final.

It really is that simple when you write it down. However, as a caveat to this wild spot of prediction, I am prepared to acknowledge that our penultimate game of the season at Bolton may be the one that keeps us up too. None of us are clairvoyant, so all angles and bases need to be covered...

Saturday, 14 March 2009

29: Hull City 1 - 1 Newcastle United - 14/03/2009

It was Newcastle United's supposed "Cup final" and, as a lot of Cup finals have drearily proved in recent years, there seemed unlikely to be a winner. If you wanted to see two sides more anxious not to lose than they were to win, this was as a good an exercise as any.

The win at Fulham was terrific but one wonders how inspirational it proved given that it was ten days ago and the Tigers have had the chance to go rusty if they weren't looked after in the right way. On the other hand, the game at Craven Cottage represented a fourth match in nine hectic, breathless days and the break was necessary.

Phil Brown resisted the temptation to make the heroes of that win, Richard Garcia and Manucho, into starters for the visit of the managerless and rudderless Newcastle, and for good measure he kept Andy Dawson on the bench after the flawless full back completed his one-match ban. The starting XI was precisely that of Craven Cottage and quickly it was evident it was the right thing to do.

Newcastle may have an England legend in Michael Owen and a World Cup Select XI player of the past in Nicky Butt, but they haven't a great deal more. Their quality in midfield is, frankly, a disgrace for this level and their defence, aside from the shaggy-haired Fabricio Coloccini, is more than penetrable. City can feel that while the game evened out as the nerves took hold, it should have been won by half time.

The Tigers took the lead after just nine minutes when a fine counter attack sent Craig Fagan racing down the left. Fagan has apologists and detractors alike, but one thing they've all generally agreed on is that for a frequently deployed wide man, his crossing has always been less than competent. However, on this occasion, he bent a pearler of a centre beyond Steve Harper's grasp for Geovanni to crane his neck muscles at and nod in at the far post. It was a smashing goal.

It should have been complemented with another. City were ascendant in the extreme and Newcastle were disorganised and had their fans, loyal and loud but also among the most deluded and fickle of them all, having a real pop at their defensive sluggishness. Yet it was the visitors who, eventually, began to create the better chances once the match re-settled.

Obafemi Martins - who, judging by the chants from the visiting support, seems more popular than strike partner Owen - made room for a shot which he blundered over the bar after Geremi and Butt had created the opening. Then, after Fagan hooked over the bar a chance he wasn't expecting and Geovanni swerved a free kick inches past the post after being fouled, an equaliser came.

It was all a bit pedestrian from the Tigers and Brown won't be happy. Butt had too much room to look up after a half-cleared set-piece and put in a ball which Steven Taylor swung his leg at. His shin made contact and the ball looped over and round Matt Duke and in the far corner.

So, 1-1 and City had chucked away the dominance that their early goal had seemingly handed them. Daniel Cousin, industrious but entirely luckless, beat off Coloccini's challenge for a slide rule pass and curled one high and wide while Newcastle waited for a whistle because Coloccini had stayed down.

City forced an injury time free kick after a foul on Geovanni, which Kevin Kilbane swung in and Michael Turner headed back across. Fagan chested it down but his overhead kick attempt was high and wide.

Half time came and went, as did Cousin. He managed fewer than ten minutes of unimpressive scampering across the visiting back line before Brown hauled him off and sent Manucho on. The cheer was great for the Angolan and presumably the expectation on him was too.

Instantly he got a half chance as a Newcastle free kick was cleared and a fine counter attack involving Sam Ricketts and Bernard Mendy offered the awkward centre forward a sight of goal, but after turning nicely he shot right at Harper.

Such opportunities became more scarce, at either end. Martins found space on the right to put a dangerous low ball in which went behind Owen and reached Jonas Gutierrez who blasted it wastefully over the bar and incurred the wrath of unforgiving away supporters in the process.

Martins then got between Ricketts and Turner - no mean feat - but was off balance in doing so and scuffed his shot a long way adrift from a reasonable position.

City's best chance of the half didn't really happen, in a way. Fagan swivelled elegantly and sent Mendy haring clear but the Frenchman is really out of sorts at the moment and the low cross which should have given the unmarked Manucho a simple tap-in was aimed too close to Harper, who fell on it with some gratitude.

Brown slung Garcia on for Fagan, and the Aussie sub nearly made a quick impact when he challenged Harper strongly for Kilbane's inswinging corner, but the ball fell dead on the turf and the Newcastle keeper managed to get a hold.

Mendy was replaced by Nick Barmby with 20 minutes to go but even with such a substantial chunk of playing time left, both teams seemed happy with a point and nothing of note was created. Garcia could have won a late free-kick in Geovanni range in injury time, but referee Howard Webb inexplicably booked him for diving instead.

So, a draw, but one which at least looks welcoming when judged against the results elsewhere in the bottom section of the Premier League. A trip to Wigan Athletic beckons next week and certainly we owe them one. Meanwhile, there's no harm in feeling a little comfort with the position in the table and thinking now solely about how to inflict FA Cup misery on Arsenal and gatecrash the big boys' semi-final jamboree. Don't anyone doubt for a moment that it's possible.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Kilbane, Mendy (Barmby 80), Ashbee, Zayatte, Geovanni, Fagan (Garcia 70), Cousin (Manucho 54). Subs not used: Myhill, Dawson, Hughes, Halmosi.

Newcastle United: Harper, Steven Taylor, Coloccini, Bassong, Jose Enrique, Smith (Ryan Taylor 75), Butt, Geremi, Gutierrez, Owen (Ameobi 73), Martins. Subs not used: Forster, Duff, Lovenkrands, Edgar, Carroll.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Stand by your Manucho

Maybe now, with the goal drought over, the time for Manucho to deliver for Hull City has come.

A school of thought has claimed, with reason, that the heroic, symbolic 92nd minute goal at Fulham which grasped City a terrific, long-overdue and heart-stopping win might be the making of the gawky Angolan striker. That goal will be the one which relieves the pressure on him and makes him into a vital and viable member of the Tigers squad.

An alternative school of thought may claim, also with reason, that the goal conversely piles extra pressure on his young, raw shoulders. The less far-sighted City fan may now expect such goals to arrive every week as we endeavour to keep our claws dug into a spot above the relegation zone. John Barnes beat the entire Brazil defence and was suddenly expected to work similar miracles each and every time he pulled on an England shirt. The comparison is relevant, even if the players and expectations are very different.

The goal scored by the young man born Mateus Alberto Contreiras Gonçalves was well-timed for another reason beyond the obvious. Until his 75th minute appearance at Craven Cottage, we had seen, frankly, next to nothing impressive from him since his arrival on loan from Manchester United. Comparisons were made, by this author and others, with Ricardo Vaz Te, the gangly, pogo-legged centre forward whom Phil Brown brought in from Bolton Wanderers to alleviate a relegation battle two seasons ago and quickly sent back again as an abject failure.

The one thing Manucho has had on his side is effort. He puts it in, but as so many players have found over the years in a City shirt, endeavour is often not enough to a) achieve the required end product; and b) win over the Tiger Nation. Manucho has been hampered by lack of starting opportunities, initially thanks to the more obvious presence of Daniel Cousin, and then thanks to his own lack of impact on matches which allowed non-striker Richard Garcia to get on to the teamsheet when Cousin went under the knife.

Manucho must know something about pressure, given that he has Manchester United's hallowed name next to his and therefore already is aware that anyone deemed good enough to be paid - if not played - by Sir Alex Ferguson is going to have wizardry expected of him if and when he goes somewhere lesser. Ultimately, he may just be a pawn within a bigger game being played by Brown as he spies another Manchester United centre forward currently seeking better fortune - a certain Fraizer Campbell.

Maybe that's what it's all about - taking on Manucho was a sweetening act designed to persuade United to send Campbell back to the KC, this time permanently, when the summer comes. True or not, one hopes that Manucho's remaining time with us is mutually productive and Campbell's time with us comes again soon.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Geordie dropping

The first time I ever saw Newcastle United visit Hull City was back in the 1989/90 season. The Tigers were on a slippery slope, though we didn't really know it then.

Eddie Gray had taken us to the FA Cup fifth round, a feat we've only subsequently equalled this season, but our League form in the second tier faltered in dramatic manner to the extent that we finished fourth bottom and he got the boot. Gray's sacking was sad but necessary, but the re-appointment of Colin Appleton seemed all the more bizarre.

Appleton came out with his famous pre-season quote that he was "on cloud seven" to be back at Boothferry Park, but his misquoted metaphor of joy didn't transfer to the team. We didn't win a match until the 17th game of the campaign, prior to which Don Robinson had quit as chairman and his replacement, Richard Chetham, had removed Appleton pretty much as soon as the hands were raised in the boardroom to confirm his elevation.

Newcastle United's visit to Boothferry Park was the ninth game of the season. City had not only failed to win a game, they had also failed to score in each of the previous three. So it wasn't exactly an ideal situation for the visit of the biggest club in the division, smarting from relegation the year before.

The old ground had become so dilapidated in places that it was rare that the north east corner - between the gruesome Kwik Save and the classic Kempton - was ever opened. If it was, this would be because the visiting team were bringing way too many fans for the one-tiered north stand to cope with. Newcastle United was on such occasion and the north east corner, uncovered and uncomfortable, was given to their fans and almost gave City a five-figure attendance.

When Billy Whitehurst's name was announced over the tannoy, it was greeted by some extremely loud booing and songs not designed to flatter from the visiting supporters. The beer-bellied centre forward had not been regarded as a success at St James' Park earlier in the decade. It was the last time they need catcall him, as Whitehurst was on the bench and never got on - indeed, he left midway through the season for Sheffield United.

The game got underway and early on, City scored. This was quite something, given the paucity of goals in recent games and the quality of the opposition. However, a goal it indeed was as a corner was swung in from the left and flicked on to the far post for Ian McParland, a talented but mainly underplayed big-money purchase by Gray, to send a flying header into the net. This was in front of the baying Geordie support, and McParland irritated them further by turning somersaults in front of them.

Newcastle equalised with a long range effort from full back John Anderson before half time. The noise from the away end was explosive as the ball trundled past an unsighted Gavin Kelly and into the far corner, silencing the south stand. Little more is memorable from a City point of view as the game predictably fell out of our reach and Newcastle scored twice in the second half. One was a header by Gary Brazil but I can't recall who got the other.

Stan Ternent's arrival saved City's bacon but times changed and by the time we hosted Newcastle again the following year, he was on his last legs and we were rooted to the bottom. Yet somehow we won, thanks to goals from Wayne Jacobs and Peter Swan. On the last day of that season, already relegated after an impossibly chronic campaign and with Ternent mercifully long gone, we went to St James' Park and won.

And we've continued to do well in League games ever since against the mighty Toon. Okay, so we didn't face them in the League again until this season, but a fact's a fact, isn't it? And if we do beat them, it'll be us staying up and maybe, just maybe, them on the way down. That'll teach them to boo Whitehurst.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Supporter friendly

So, having gone out of the FA Cup without kicking a ball (if the media slavering over an Arsenal v Chelsea semi-final over the last few days is anything to go by), we really can concentrate on the Premier League.

And you know what? I reckon if we win this weekend we're safe.

Newcastle United, our favourite opponents this season (played three, won two, drawn one, scored three, conceded one) come to the KC Stadium with not only a poor recent record against us, but also a relegation threat far more severe than ours, a manager convalescing from heart surgery and a main striker who refuses to sign a new deal while also claiming that their visit to us is their "cup final".

How the (high and) mighty can fall.

City's win at Fulham may have been dramatic and unexpected but it was still as good a three points as any other gained this season. However, there is a monkey on the backs of the Tigers squad - form at home. Specifically, it's the ability to transfer the raucous, all-in-it-together feeling of away fixtures into games at the KC where, sadly, a good chunk of fans are there for the occasion rather than the team and don't understand that moaning and barracking is distinctly unhelpful.

Bulletins report this morning that the game is a sell-out. This is good, of course, and with Newcastle's fans, admirable for their numbers if not for their delusions of grandeur, taking up a large section of the North Stand it was a predictable announcement to make. However, it also means that a lot of newer City supporters (many of whom will not bother next season, irrespective of which division we are in or even if Cup success takes us to Europe) will be turning up, arms folded, expecting to be impressed after forgetting all about the Fulham game until they flicked on Sky Sports News the following morning and saying: "Oh, did City win then?"

Those sort of fans are too prevalent and need to be brought into line, educated about how to support a football team. If they're here for rubbernecking, for occasions, then they're no better than all those Koreans we saw buying unofficial, misspelled tat outside Old Trafford and then taking photographs of Cristiano Ronaldo as he took a corner, rather than watching where he put the ball.

Fans, as Phil Brown himself has acknowledged, play mega roles in a team's success. Away from home, as proved at Fulham last week and other flagship occasions under this manager, the fans and the players are as one. If the newcomers - who we all wanted to come along when it was 3,500 for a defeat to Barnet at Boothferry Park - can embrace this style of supporting rather than turn up as a cynic and a customer, then a victory against Newcastle and a major stride towards safety should be ours.

With potential for safety, of course, comes a cleared pathway for a right go at the FA Cup.

Let's hope.