Wednesday, 29 April 2009

"City's coach driver got lost on his way to Villa Park..."

The final match of the latest round of Premier League fixtures will be Hull City's trip to Aston Villa on Monday night. For all the difference between the two teams' positions in the Premier League, the form book for each has been rather similar of late. However, the last time the Tigers went to Villa Park, the difference between the two in terms of position and form couldn't - literally - have been any different. Boyhood Dreams asked JAMES RICHARDSON to recall that day a decade ago...

The FA Cup is, some say, a pleasant distraction from the weekly grind of the league. The relative lack of pressure as opposed to the seeming ever increasing need to pick up points and the chance of causing an upset against a higher ranked side, the tired (although still valid) cliche of David versus Goliath. As 1998 became 1999, City found themselves stranded at the bottom of the entire Football League. A horrific start under the hopeless Mark Hateley had seen the club anchor themselves to the foot of the table and while the takeover of the Tom Belton consortium in November and the appointment of Warren Joyce as player-manager (he is pictured above) and John McGovern as his assistant had yielded some green shoots of a revival, City remained at the bottom of the table. The signs of a revival there were though. Joyce's first game against Brighton and Hove Albion was a disaster, a 2-0 defeat at home to a team that played a full half hour with only nine men, but performances did improve. A late, roof-lifting goal from loanee Craig Dudley saw City win their first game at home since September and a gritty 2-0 win at Salisbury saw City into the 2nd round of the Cup. The draw gave City a rather daunting looking tie against higher division opposition in Luton Town and a tie that saw the squad decimated by injuries and cup-tied players. City's 2-1 victory in that game, despite what was to happen later in the months that followed, remained one of the most thrilling victories that season. 18 year old full back Ben Morley, pressed into service as a pacey foil for David Brown, swept home the opener after Brown turned the ball back across goal and Rob Dewhurst's towering header that crept in the far post (his final hurrah as a City player) saw City home in a gutsy, heartening performance. It was the first time City had qualified for the third Round of the FA Cup since God was boy. Pleasant distraction? You bet.

The draw on took place on the following Sunday and saw us land a tie that made a few tabloid hacks salivate. Aston Villa, then top of the Premiership, drawn at home to Hull City, bottom of the entire Football League. A superb draw and the local media, rather predictably, suddenly took an interest in City. The Hull Daily Mail, in full cringeworthy, vomit-inducing mode, billed the game as the "Thriller at the Villa" and distributed hundreds of free, custard coloured baseball caps with said phrase emblazoned upon them. Oh dear, oh dear. Thankfully, the majority of the 5,900 men, women and children in the City end at Villa Park didn't wear them. The same 5,900 men, women and children that failed to recreate the 'wall of sound' that travelled to Newcastle the season previous although that was more due to the high roof of the North Stand allowing noise to drift into the Birmingham air, rather than those in attendance sitting in silence.

Like the second round tie at Kenilworth Road, City's squad was weakened from the team that was being fielded in league games. Five new signings were cup-tied and Dudley had returned to Oldham Athletic. Gregor Rioch, Mark Greaves and Mike Edwards, who hadn't been involved in the first team for weeks, were pressed into action. City were also faced with a potential goalkeeper crisis in the week prior to the game. Andy Oakes had featured for Winsford United in an earlier round, ruling out the chance to face his cousin Michael, the then first choice at Villa, while Steve Wilson had a hand injury. There was some talk about City re-loaning Paul Gibson from Manchester United after his original loan spell was cut short due to a broken finger although eventually Wilson had recovered from his injury and played. Not the most ideal preparation in the world and this was exacerbated on the day of the game when City's coach driver got lost on his way to Villa Park and the team arrived half an hour late.

Villa, managed by one man Brylcreem advert John Gregory, rested a few of their first XI, including recent signings Paul Merson and Dion Dublin, although still boasted a team with several internationals and a wealth of Premiership experience. Gareth Southgate lined up as captain alongside the soon to be capped Ugo Ehiogu and while the experienced Alan Wright, Mark Draper and Steve Watson were complemented by the emerging talents of Julian Joachim, Lee Hendrie, Riccardo Scimeca and a then pre-pubescent Gareth Barry. However, the name that drew most raised eyebrows in the Villa line up was one Stanley Victor Collymore. Collymore was then in his second season during his ill-fated spell at his boyhood team. Dogged (pun intended...) by injury, poor form , bad discipline and a scandal-laden private life, Collymore's sojourn at Villa was proving to be an acceleration in his well-documented decline. Not that the City fans cared about this of course, Collymore was the target for most of the chants that day having practised his punching technique on then girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson during the summer.

Onto the game and Villa kicked off, attacking the Holte End. Within the first eight seconds, Rioch found himself booked for a wild challenge on Watson. This was the only highlight of Rioch's season, he drifted into the reserves for good and then moved to Macclesfield Town to haunt us the following season. The bastard.

Unsurpisingly, Villa dominated possession although Edwards, Justin Whittle and Matt Hocking kept Joachim and Collymore fairly quiet and Joyce, Brown and David D'Auria battled hard against their talented opponents. Up front, Morley and Craig Faulconbridge were a good shout for the most lightweight forward line in City's history and despite some game pressing, barely troubled the Villa back line. City grew in confidence and toward the end of the half did manage to carve out a half chance. A free-kick from close to the left touchline was whipped in by Joyce and found Morley at the far post. He had to stretch to get the ball but just about managed to send a header looping toward the near post. The City masses held their breath and the ball curled toward the far post although the excellent Ehiogu read the flight and as the ball dropped in the 6 yard box hacked it away. Oakes flapped at the corner but it amounted to nothing.

It would be the closest City would come to scoring and it served to be a wake up call for Villa. On the stroke of half time, the ball broke down the Villa left, a cross whipped in and Collymore's early movement took him away from Hocking and he poked the ball home from close range. Harsh on City, very harsh.

Villa started the second half like a train, clearly wishing to finish off the tie and six minutes in they got another goal; Joachim finding space between Whittle and Edwards to head past the diving Wilson.

Game over and the City fans turned their attention to Collymore and asking the current whereabouts of his Swedish ex.

Well, I say game over, City did fashion another half chance. A lofted D'Auria through ball found Faulconbridge with a bit of space although he misjudged the bounce of the ball and meekly poked the ball straight at Oakes. With still half an hour remaining, Villa added a third and Collymore won his personal battle against the City fans with another unchallenged close range finish from a cross and celebrated by cupping his ears in front of the City end.

It definitely was game over now and Villa immediately reduced the pace of the game and never really threatened to score again. City gave a good account of themselves, they battled hard and did fleetingly worry Villa although as the game drifted to a close, so did thoughts and the prospect of returning to our struggle in the league.

The match was a welcome break from the still daunting prospect of hauling the club away from the foot of the table, although Villa game did actually prove to be a major factor in our survival that season. It gave the initial opportunity for Greaves and Edwards, who had previously been struggling for form, to re-establish themselves and both went on to be vital players in the run-in and for the next few seasons. More importantly, the share of the gate money the club received paved the way for the transfers of both Gary Brabin and Colin Alcide, who added further muscle and backbone to a team that kicked, battled and grafted its way off the bottom of the Football League and probably gave us more cult heroes than at any other time in our history. Not bad for a pleasant distraction.

James Richardson is a contributor to Amber Nectar.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

On his Wayne

Thanks Wayne, and best of luck. The image of you leaping on Boaz Myhill when he caught Bristol City's final cross at Wembley will live with us forever.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Where the big names play the big games

The most simplistic, not to mention the most positive, view to adopt after Saturday's performance against Liverpool is that if Hull City play like that for long enough over the next three matches, we'll stay up.

This is, of course, far easier said than it is done. The team is still trying to get its genuinely Premier League quality players back - or at least, the ones who have a hope of coming back, so we'll still leave Jimmy Bullard and Anthony Gardner to one side - and this applies in two manners. We want back the Premier League quality players who have lately been unfit, and we want back the Premier League quality players who have lately been unimpressive.

The tremendous Daniel Cousin is the only player who fits the former category but, after the abomination that is Caleb Folan crowned an industrious but technically inept performance with a sending off indiscretion of which an amateur player would be ashamed, Cousin was finally slung into action. His dodgy back was apparently now worthy of risk due to a) having no centre forward on the park; b) being a goal down already; and c) being up against the most decorated club in English football history.

And although Liverpool scored their second within seconds of Cousin's introduction, soon he showed why he, and only he, is the player in our semi-fit ranks who can make a difference up front, taking on two defenders with the sort of ease that Folan would have struggled to muster against third tier defences in his Chesterfield days, before sliding a ball into an open six yard box for Geovanni to score. Ten men on the park, but some of those ten men were good enough. Cousin had already made the removal of Folan, if not quite the self-removal of Folan, worthwhile.

Cousin is still cast by some City fans as lazy. This just emphasises how ignorant football supporters are, and the right to say what you like because you have paid your money does not excuse invective that is wrong, or unhelpful, or both. Cousin is languid in his manner, but he has the class of 50 Folans and this class means that he can come up with something special, immediate or timely (or all three) against very good defences in a way that Folan, himself something of a chilled character on the pitch (to put it politely), will never have the nerve, ability or intelligence to attempt or achieve.

As for the Premier League quality players who need to start performing again, we got evidence of this against Liverpool too. Bernard Mendy, introduced simultaneously to Cousin, played the divine crossfield as City countered, which allowed Cousin to take possession and plot his destruction of the opposition defence to create the goal. We know so many things about Mendy - he is quick, he is positive, he is very skilled and has an enthusiasm which, channeled within a set-up prepared to indulge his enthusiasms, can be very effective indeed. We also know that he can disappear from games if things are going awry and so maybe his usefulness in the run-in, as with this game against Liverpool and a couple of minor flashes of brilliance at Sunderland the week before, is best as the impact substitute.

Geovanni scored the goal, albeit a goal no played should miss, but there was an edge and a liveliness to his play which we haven't seen for some time on any consistent level from the Brazilian. Like Mendy, he is a player who can easily swing a game back his side's way after one moment of magic, and he has brought out a lot of patience from the Tiger Nation of late because they know that just one bit of genius from him could emerge from him at any point in any game, even those in which he has stunk. There have been too many of those lately, and one wonders if had the opposition been anyone but Liverpool, a team against whom ace cards could be held back, the Brazilian may have found himself benched. We'll never know and we don't need to know - what we do know is that Geovanni was constantly seeking the ball and making frequent inroads into Liverpool's back four with it glued to his feet. The goal was straightforward as far his own contribution was concerned but it was also crucial, and one also considers the fizzing first half shot from an awkward height which was minimally too high but did at least keep everyone roaring their approval that Geovanni might just be back. It's a crass assumption to make, but given the rebirth of his countryman Robinho at Manchester City of late, maybe it really could be something to do with the upturn in climate.

One other figure whose vitality upon restoration to the team has been obvious is George Boateng. His role as anchor and leader in the centre of the field has been telegraphed more while Ian Ashbee has been banned, but there is no doubt that a midfield containing Boateng just makes the whole occasion of watching Hull City's fight a little easier to bear. His passing is sound and his organisation skills are plain for all to observe, while it's notable how he often just seems to be in the right place when the ball is not in his possession, or more urgently, not in his team's possession. He is as experienced as Ashbee in playing football; but he adds authentic, credible Premier League knowhow to the midfield which Ashbee cannot do, and with or without the skipper, Boateng proved against Liverpool that he will be as important a cog in the Hull City machine as any of the more resourceful, eye-catching players around him.

Let's look through this again - Cousin up front, with Geovanni behind him, and Boateng shoring up the base of the midfield. With the immortal Michael Turner and the resuscitated Boaz Myhill further behind, suddenly there is a proper, Premier League standard spine to the team, the type which coaches and distinguished football writers claim is needed in any type of team at any level if it aims to be successful. Other players - Nick Barmby, Kamil Zayatte - need to be at the top of their games to enhance the hope provided by this spine, but if success for Hull City really does constitute survival in the first Premier League season, as so many after Wembley claimed it would, then we seem to have given ourselves half a chance.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

34: Hull City 1 - 3 Liverpool - 25/04/2009

This doesn't look like a relegated team to me. The spirit, the upsurge in quality and the determination of Hull City to pull off a shock result when all had, justifiably, written them off, suggests the points required for Premier League safety will come from somewhere.

A long shot it may have been to expect something against a Liverpool side still aiming for top spot, but the Tigers had a go nonetheless and, until a bit of idiocy from one player made an already hard job touch the boundaries of impossibility, the chance to upset an understrength and underwhelming Liverpool was certainly there.

Phil Brown asked for commitment rather a lot in his programme notes. This is precisely what he got. Perhaps this was most telling in the way that Fernando Torres was reduced to the role of spectator, taking the odd distant snap shot, for much of the proceedings. The best centre forward in the world didn't seem to be interested. Attitude on his part aside, this does Hull City's defence a great credit.

Liverpool tend to rely heavily on Steven Gerrard and Torres, but with one injured and the other playing like he may as well have been, there was little to suggest they were a team who could capture their first title in 19 long seasons. Xabi Alonso is a wonderful midfield leader, but the rest didn't seem at the races.

Brown picked Nick Barmby, mercifully, to play behind Caleb Folan up front, with Daniel Cousin still only able to cameo if required and Manucho, all silky skills and clanging finishes, forced to sit beside him on the bench. Andy Dawson's training injury meant that Kevin Kilbane dropped back into defence.

City enjoyed the early possession in brilliant East Yorkshire sunshine but it was Liverpool, and the inventive Yossi Benayoun, who created the first chance, with the Israeli weaving through the centre with the ball tied to his toes prior to finding Torres on the edge of the box, whose shot was tipped over comfortably by Boaz Myhill.

Benayoun then showed willing again, cutting inside Sam Ricketts and curling a right footer over Myhill and on to the roof. Both were reasonable chances but their distance encapsulated City's willingness to squeeze the opposition attack, reduce the available killer balls and prompt potshots of little substance instead.

City's first mild sniff of goal came when the maligned Dean Marney, enjoying himself more than usual, hit a low left footer which Jose Reina carefully watched wide. Soon afterwards, a Ricketts long throw was headed partially clear to Geovanni, with the Brazilian's technique in glorious slow motion as he got his foot over the bouncing ball and crashed a superb dipping volley inches over Reina's crossbar.

The Brazilian then swung in a dangerous corner which Marney won to head goalwards, only for the ricochet to favour Liverpool, and Jamie Carragher managed to hack it away as both Kamil Zayatte thundered in for the scraps. Michael Turner won another Ricketts chucker shortly afterwards but the header dropped just too close to Reina for anyone in black and amber to benefit.

This was good stuff from City. Endeavour, combined with enough quality to make an underperforming Liverpool backtrack, allowed them to dominate the rest of the half, although Lucas Leiva had time to put a half-chance wide from 20 yards, without any real danger to the Tigers, and the excellent Dirk Kuyt hit a shot from the corner of the area which was deflected for a corner that came to nothing.

As half time approached, the axe was swung down on City, initially by refereeing confusion, then by Spanish brilliance. Martin Atkinson played advantage after Marney's foul on benayoun - for which he later booked the Tigers midfielder - but then gave a free kick for a lesser challenge by George Boateng on Javier Mascherano in a much more dangerous position. As we contemplated the possibility that Liverpool got rather too much advantage, given the softness of the free kick eventually given, Alonso was hitting his shot into a well constructed City wall. We were still applauding the rearguard as the ball flew back to the Spaniard, who promptly sent a fizzing and undoubtedly exceptional volley past Myhill before the keeper could blink.

For the second week in a row we had conceded a highly dubious goal right on half time.

Kilbane swung in an injury time free kick at which Reina flapped, earning himself a dubious free kick in the process. Despite the feeling of injustice, the ovation was long, loud and upright as the Tigers sauntered from the field, a goal down but heads up. Getting anything from Liverpool was only ever going to be a tall order, and perhaps more so now that a goal had gone into Myhill's net. But there was hope, purely from the resourcefulness and commitment - Brown's word of the day - in the performance.

The second half started brighter for the visitors, but Torres was remarkably profligate. He fired high and wide, from distance again, after excellent work from Benayoun and didn't look entirely bothered all day. Mascherano then had another dip from distance which whizzed over the bar as Liverpool again seemed content to bide their time and just take the odd speculative dig at Myhill.

Alvaro Arbeloa then found room after fantastic work in a tight corner from Kuyt to give Torres something more presentable, but again he swatted the shot way too high.

So as the hour approached, City were again restricting their illustrious visitors to distance shooting. It just needed some becalming, influential football from the attack to get the Tigers back on course.

Instead, they got a Folan brainstorm.

Mr Atkinson was crucified verbally by all when he issued the red card at the City striker. But at closer quarters, it was clear that Folan had, beyond all brainlessness, had a kick at Martin Skrtel as the centre back tried to block his path to the ball. Skrtel went down as if he had dropped dead, but overreaction notwithstanding, the red card was correct. It was also stupid, and given the paucity of strikers already at City's disposal, a three match ban with only four games left for one of the few available reeks of careless, petulant selfishness on Folan's part.

Craig Fagan, as peripheral as he had ever been, then had a chop at Skrtel the moment the defender returned to the fray and was booked. Brown sensibly substituted him without a second thought. Fagan's chippiness is - along with his appalling first touch - his own worst enemy and the last thing City needed was two attacking players suspended. Folan had played relatively well without ever being a serious goal threat, and the crueller breed of City fan would suggest that ten men on the park counts for as much as eleven men if one of the eleven is Folan.

Fagan was replaced by Bernard Mendy and, gratifyingly, Cousin finally returned to action, replacing the unhappy Barmby. Before either could prepare to make an impact, Liverpool had inflicted further punishment when Benayoun crossed from the right and Skrtel, of all people directed a header goalwards which Kuyt's forehead finished off deftly.

The seething Tiger Nation became, now, incandescent with rage. However, the response from the players was more productive, to the extent that they had soon pulled one back, and in a most artistic manner too. Mendy hit a swinging crossfield ball on to the toe of Cousin, who used all his strength to power past two Liverpool defenders and pull the ball across Reina's reach for Geovanni to put into a net very empty. Hope was reignited, even bereft of a man, and City seemed more than willing to just have a right go at Liverpool.

Liverpool maintained a level of calm, and Lucas had a half-chance on his left foot which he promptly ruined by trying to scoop it with his right. Torres then came close - the only time he did so - when he climbed highest on to Kuyt's cross and smacked the header against the crossbar.

Brown went for broke, slinging on Manucho for the tireless Boateng, and the nearest City would come to equalising was when Geovanni swerved in a smart free kick from the left which Reina, under severe pressure from the Angolan, managed to punch semi-clear prior to his outfield colleagues getting rid properly.

For all City's possession, the opportunities to score were scarce for the Tigers and soon it became clear that Liverpool were closing the game down entirely. This they did as effectively as they ever could when Myhill could only beat away an Arbeloa drive and Kuyt finished the task with his second, capping a fine personal performance.

Nobody expected a thing from the game, and while those expectations bore fruit as far as points were concerned, the desire and commitment which Brown demanded in his notes was there in abundance. A fraction of this, with a good dollop of discipline, should be enough to add to the quality and show and find the points necessary to maintain a Premier League place. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Kilbane, Fagan (Mendy 62), Marney, Boateng (Manucho 79), Barmby (Cousin 62), Geovanni, Folan. Subs not used: Duke, Hughes, Halmosi, Garcia.

Liverpool: Reina, Torres, Alonso, Benayoun (Agger 87), Arbeloa, Kuyt (Dossena 90), Mascherano (El Zhar 85), Leiva, Insua, Carragher, Skrtel. Subs not used: Cavalieri, Riera, Aurelio, Ngog.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Down down, deeper and down

With five games to go, there are a lot of teams still trying to fight off the spectre of relegation from the Premier League. Aside from Hull City, you can count eight others who would say they need more points than they currently have.

The media's attention to this season's relegation battle has been focussed largely on the north east. In one way this is understandable, as the possibility of all three clubs dropping into the Championship is a mega sports news story. The inevitable drop of West Bromwich Albion, thereby leaving at least one of the trio around Tyne, Wear and Tees safe, doesn't seem to have occurred to these feature reporters, who have used a theme of doom and gloom for all three.

For all that, the general tone of these reports has been that losing all three north east clubs would be A Bad Thing. Geography matters when it comes to choosing the team you support, but it has no relevance whatsoever when it comes to analysing where clubs have and haven't got it right. The expression "hotbed" and "passion" seems to get used to a level beyond parody when describing Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, and as a consequence their demise, as a trio or duo or even as just one, is somehow projected as more terrible a prospect than that of any other troubled side going down.

This, of course, is absolute garbage. Newcastle United are in the position they're in because they have a dreadful owner and have appointed comedy managers either to appease the fans (Keegan, Shearer) or because they literally could get nobody else (Kinnear). The expectation up there is ridiculous and is made more so by the utter lack of history. Whine on about Jackie Milburn all you like, but 40 years without a trophy represents the bald fact that Newcastle are an underachieving, panicky, impatient football club, a club its fans deserve. It won't be a tragedy if they go down, it may just be a wake-up call.

Sunderland are a club more deserving of sympathy, given the likeability of their owner, someone who played successfully for the club and felt at first hand what it meant for those seated in the Stadium of Light. Sunderland fans have won more than Newcastle United in the last two generations but, conversely, expect less. Where empathy may fall short lies in the crazy money spent by Roy Keane on second-class players prior to his act of toy throwing back in December. Ricky Sbragia seems to have had his head screwed on and may just be able to make Keane's excesses into a team just in time.

Middlesbrough is another club for which it is easier to empathise, though it's notable that due to being the alleged "poor relations" in the north east, due to their historic Yorkshireness and the Tyne-Tees or Wear-Tees derby not existing as a soundbite like the Tyne-Wear derby, they have had fewer apologists arguing their case. Like Sbragia, they have a manager in Gareth Southgate who is easy to like and who tends to open his heart and ultimately, aside from their unspeakable attitude towards noise at their stadium (telling fans to shut up during the game while playing abhorrent, ear-splitting music after goals), it's tough to find anything to dislike about them.

So despite Sunderland and Middlesbrough being the more deserving cases - or at least having more pros and fewer cons than their Tyneside neighbours - it's the Newcastle United factor that makes the emphasis on the north east viable. Newcastle United plus one other would have still been a story; Sunderland and Middlesbrough in trouble but Newcastle United safe would not. Somehow this badly-run, arrogant, egotistical club who appoint joke managers and execrable characters to unworkable jobs keep getting the headlines and the media support.

Where does that leave the rest of us? From Hull City's point of view, it's perhaps a blessing, given that our chairman and manager were happy to extol our virtues in public frequently when we were surprising everyone in the autumn, that we're not taking more of a media hammering as we scrap like billyo for what's left right now. Brown certainly gets some attention but it's all retrospective cobblers from pundits who don't understand hindsight and are claiming with glee and smugness that the Tigers' demise can be traced back to the on-pitch team talk at Manchester City on Boxing Day.

Any reasonably close assessment of City's performances since the dressing down at Eastlands would show that City largely played well, and only the irritating concentration issue or some hellish bad luck prevented more points coming our way. Four days after Boxing Day, we took a rampant Aston Villa team to the last minute with all players equal, only for Kamil Zayatte's stray foot and then the infamous U-turn by Steve Bennett ruining our night. In the initial weeks of the New Year, only the Everton away game saw us outdone entirely. We knocked that huge club Newcastle United out of the FA Cup - on their own turf, our second win there of the season - and took Arsenal level to the last ten minutes at the KC before succumbing to their class in the latest stages. With the odd bad day thrown in, we continued to show willing and count our blessings when getting a goalless draw at Chelsea, losing late on to Tottenham Hotspur at the KC and then get the much-needed win, dramatically, at Fulham. Only in the last five Premier League games have we looked less than likely to win.

I get the feeling that the media are a little torn on what they hope for regarding Hull City's fate. On the one hand, they'd like to see the upstarts from a city they are told to hate (even though they've likely never been) sent back down to the division from whence they came; yet we'll also take the semi-patronising but still more preferable argument that our pluckiness and positivity back in the autumn should be enough, both emotionally and mathematically, to earn us a second go next season. Meanwhile, irrespective of our fate, the north east will maintain the attention and, consequently, the national pressure and whether that can be translated into favouritism or not, I'd be happy for them to absorb it. Despite our media-friendliness through great results and helpful personnel earlier in the season, I suspect our best chance of staying up is to work hard on the pitch and keep away from the notebooks and cameras.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Important jobs four all

Assessing the chances of Hull City when Liverpool turn up at the KC this weekend has become more difficult - and more dangerous - thanks to our opponents' last two results.

Two 4-4 draws in the space of seven days are freakish and, for Liverpool themselves, detrimental. The first one, at Chelsea, ended their Champions League interest; the second one, at home to Arsenal, handed a greater advantage to Manchester United in the Premier League.

Too many people are making wild assumptions following that Arsenal game. The first is that Liverpool have lost the title already. They haven't. They still went top, albeit on goal difference only, upon getting their late equaliser against Arsenal, and Manchester United have proved recently that wobbles are well within their make-up. Any notion that they consequently won't be bothered about their remaining five games is bunkum and extremely dangerous to assume.

The second is that Liverpool are now suddenly weak and derelict in defence. This may have looked the case against Chelsea and Arsenal, but at Stamford Bridge they had to rely on an all-out attack policy thanks to their first leg deficit, and this left them more susceptible at the back. The crumbly rearguard against Arsenal is harder to forgive or understand, but it doesn't equate with a collapse in defensive structure or discipline that will affect them in every single match. You can bet any wayward dollars near your bottom that the defence will have been reshaped and replenished by the time the game kicks off on Saturday.

So where does all this really leave City's chances of causing any kind of upset - ie, stealing a point - against Liverpool this weekend? Well, any psychological advantage in the possible absence of Steven Gerrard needs to be exploited. At Anfield, it was obvious that Gerrard made up a one-man team, especially because Fernando Torres was injured. If Gerrard really is unavailable this weekend, City need to pack the midfield and push forward as much as possbile, as there simply is no player within Liverpool's ranks who is like Gerrard or can act like Gerrard.

Michael Turner
's credentials will be tested to their very limit against Fernando Torres. If our ace defender, ever-present and iconic, really does have pretensions for England honours over the next few months, then this is the sort of game which will prove it. Torres is as outstanding as any lithe, athletic and confident centre forward has ever been and Turner will need to concentrate on him more than he has on any worldly-wise striker this season.

The City team, irrespective of form, will always feel like a better place for as long as Turner is in it. If he can do even three quarters of a job on Torres, then - at the risk of mixing up my fractions - we may be halfway there.

As for the Liverpool defence and its alleged leakiness - well, we'd be also in more of a position to exploit that if we had any A-list striking options available. As industrious as Manucho is, the game is ready for Daniel Cousin and Nick Barmby. One hopes they are ready for the game.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Defenders of the faith

Although Hull City are currently unable to win, and the clean sheet mentality which has always been preached has gone haywire, the Tigers defence still seems to have a pleasing solidity to it.

We miss Anthony Gardner, of that there is no doubt. He never really got to have anything beyond a burgeoning partnership with the immortal Michael Turner due to the before, during and after status of his injury troubles, but beyond that it's hard to level great criticism at a back four which generally puts in a performance week on week.

Certainly the form of Andy Dawson on the left side, galvanised by that single challenge on Theo Walcott back in September, has remained relatively consistent through the season, though injury worries have also blighted his campaign. Dawson's ability to adapt yet again to a higher echelon of football without too many nightmares or false starts depicts a footballer who is utterly at home with his own ability, whose experience and calmness allows him to raise his game when needed, and who his manager has always spoken highly of.

On the right, Sam Ricketts can be more of a worry. A more athletic full back than Dawson, he is therefore prone to be caught out of position a little more often and some of the counter attacks which have hurt City so much - or had the potential to - of late have come down his side of the field. Ricketts only goes forward in open play, and his pace and willingness to take on a fellow full back has always been one of his virtues, but this style of play has meant that he has been caught out far more often than Dawson, who isn't the sort of wide player who tries to take men on. Dawson's crosses come from deep and dead situations, whereas Ricketts prefers to head for the byline with an opponent on his shoulders.

Alongside Turner, whose class and style makes him more than ever the single best defender ever to wear black and amber, Kamil Zayatte appears to have established an understanding, irrespective of where his language limitations cannot take him. Zayatte is very brave, unnecessarily so at times, and a powerful and potent presence in the air at both ends of the field. With the ball at his feet and space ahead, he can go on exciting, flowing, vigorous runs; but with the ball at his feet and no space ahead, he can panic. Zayatte has, through error of judgement or natural misfortune, cost Hull City more goals than any other defender this season and for all his obvious dismay at mistakes, it's the one part of his game - the facility to ruin good displays with one moment of amateurish idiocy - which needs working on. He needs to learn the percentage game more deeply.

With Gardner out, we have no natural centre back replacement if, horror upon horrors, we lose Zayatte or Turner before the season is done. When Zayatte hobbled off in obvious pain at Wigan Athletic last month, we were thanking our lucky stars that an international break was imminent and therefore Zayatte did at least have longer than the norm to recover - not that we knew, of course, the nature or seriousness of the injury at that time anyway. As there are only five games to go, Ricketts can do a worthwhile fill-in job in the middle if utterly necessary - beyond that it's the youngster Liam Cooper, who played with promise at Swansea City back in August but has had a long injury issue since. There's no hope of recalling Wayne Brown, and given the way he was jettisoned so easily this season, one suspects even a hardy professional like himself would not wish ever to wear Hull City's colours again. He has another promotion success at Leicester to enjoy instead.

The full backs can be replaced, again only if necessary, by Nathan Doyle (assuming he remembers defenders need to defend, not try daft step-overs) or by relocating Bernard Mendy or Kevin Kilbane from their respective midfield positions. Again, one cannot see these as a better option, with Mendy's headless chicken act doing less harm from a midfield role and Kilbane currently required to shore up the centre thanks to Ian Ashbee's suspension and George Boateng's lack of match fitness. All this knowledge makes the memory of Paul McShane, jogging up the touchline as an unused sub at Sunderland when he could have been a permanent recruit for Hull City, all the more vivid.

So the back four as we have it is not only the best currently available, but also our most consistent and hopeful element within the team. This sounds perverse for a side that currently concedes more goals than it scores, but little work needs doing on them beyond what they already know. With the more reliable Boaz Myhill behind them again, a keeper less likely to make life needlessly hard for defenders, then maybe the defence can settle easier for the remaining matches.

So, that just leaves the midfield (too slow, too directionless) and the attack (too profligate) to sort out. Any ideas?

Monday, 20 April 2009

All Daniel's

If one man surely is in a position to rescue Hull City from what feels like certain relegation right now, it's Daniel Cousin.

Hull City cannot score goals, and Cousin is a goalscorer. Ergo, now that he appears by dint of our own eyesight to be fit again, he should be playing. A question mark must remain over his fitness, however, as he wasn't even risked for 20 minutes against Sunderland at the weekend, when the Tigers were a goal down but dominating possession.

Each time Manucho turned sweetly and then shot chronically, an involuntary glance was offered towards the bench by 4,000 members of the Tiger Nation, wondering if the Gabonese hitman was close to making an entrance. Nick Barmby's eventual introduction as the third sub, welcome as it was (though also far too late), put paid to that idea.

Why on earth, when the situation was crying out so forcefully for Cousin's precise brand of finishing, was he not brought on? Caleb Folan instead emerged as the first sub, sidling up alongside Manucho to concoct a crack strike partnership with the least potential for goals since Peter Taylor picked any two from Aaron Wilbraham, Jon Walters and Delroy Facey in 2005, and somehow still got us promoted. Manucho has two this season, Folan one. And while Manucho can at least claim credit for a work ethic that Folan certainly can not, ultimately laziness is as forgivable as endeavour is irrelevant if, at the end of either, the player puts the ball away.

Manucho's finishing was beyond contemptible at the Stadium of Light. Folan, in his half hour or so, got on the end of one decent cross and aimed the header wide. To his credit, it was his most productive game for the Tigers since the opening day winner against Fulham, in that he had evidently re-learned the basics of the game - how to control a football, how to stay onside and how to anticipate where the best position for a scoring chance may yet be.

But he isn't going to score the goals that keep City in the Premier League. Manucho isn't either, though he may at least make a telling contribution on the application front. Geovanni has lost all interest (and should be dropped) and Craig Fagan's technical prowess and composure in the final third is as dire as it has always been, so the secondary attacking options are hardly going to provide back up.

Our midfield doesn't score at all - of all the City players who you would tattoo with the word 'midfielder' ahead of any other, only Bernard Mendy, Ian Ashbee and Richard Garcia have scored Premier League goals for the Tigers. Mendy has two, while Ashbee and Garcia have, like Folan, a grand total of one. City didn't win any of the games in which those three scored.

Barmby is a cross between midfielder and striker, depending on whether his own considerable resources are put to use in a central role or wasted down a flank, but he too only has one Premier League goal. Dean Marney has played a lot of football this season but in terms of scoring chances, only his connection with the post at Tottenham Hotspur and his agonising miss at Chelsea have brought him even semi-close to opening his account. George Boateng has rarely scored wherever he has gone and will never do so for City. Kevin Kilbane came closest at the Stadium of Light and hit a post at Chelsea but also scores scarcely.

So, if our strikers can't score, and our midfielders don't score, then it seems we're rather in shtuck. Certainly it's too much to rely on Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte to get on the end of set-pieces all the time, although it's noticeable just how much the roar goes up when City do earn a corner or dangerously graphed free kick, as there will always be genuine hope that our central defenders can saunter forward and do something. But they're not goalscorers, and it's unfair to weigh expectation on them to provide at one end as proficiently as they can prevent at the other.

So we return to the issue of Cousin. He is renowned, not always flatteringly, for scoring mainly on the biggest occasions. One hopes he has got it into his head that Aston Villa away, Stoke City at home and Bolton Wanderers away are just as big, if not bigger, occasions than the visits of Liverpool and Manchester United to the KC which sandwich them, and that his mission to save Hull City's season begins right here. Assuming he is fit enough.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

33: Sunderland 1 - 0 Hull City - 18/04/2009

As is often the case, Phil Brown was the last to leave the field of play after the final whistle at the Stadium of Light. Having offered handshakes and encouraging pats to his players as they trooped away, he turned to the 4,000 members of the Tiger Nation and applauded long.

And noises of dissent could be heard in response. Proper ones.

It's hard not to feel sympathy with Brown. His plan for Premier League settlement, which was going so smoothly in the autumn, has slowly been dismantled before his very eyes since the turn of the year and only so much of it has been preventable. The issue now that people with empty wallets have with him is that with the final month of games approaching, he seems to be making the oddest of team and tactical selections.

Some things he can do only so much about, of course. We had nobody who could hit the target in possession of the requisite fitness for a relegation scrap against a Sunderland side who are always ripe and ready when backed by the awesome Stadium of Light crowd. Daniel Cousin is the obvious answer to this, but his back trouble had healed only enough for a place on the bench, from where he was summoned to do no more than stretch on the touchline and exchange pleasantries with Paul McShane, on the bench for Sunderland when he should have been at right back for City.

If Cousin is fit enough to be among the subs, then why isn't he deemed fit enough for a 20 minute cameo when the Tigers are 1-0 down? The question was asked even more profoundly when Caleb Folan, a man whose endeavour has been as questionable as his ability all season, was instead pitched into action when an additional attacking option was patently required. Folan responded with one of his better shifts, in actual fact, but in this climate City need a goalscorer who will score goals, and Folan is not a goalscorer and nor will he score goals.

Brown was criticised openly for Folan's early introduction but beyond that, Nick Barmby's continued stationary status on the same bench as Cousin was even more baffling. Barmby’s initial removal from the starting XI was already causing consternation, especially as the confidence-free Dean Marney was restored in his place, but at least eventually Barmby was called into the fray as the third and final throw of the dice. He had nowhere near enough time to make an impact on a game which City lost simply because they cannot put the ball into the net.

was out there during all this, the player whose thumping header had given us our one brief bit of hope during last week’s abattoir-like showing at Middlesbrough. This time, we got the Manucho we all seem to recognise – immensely hard-working, always willing, clever with his touches and runs, and beyond dreadful when trying to find the goal.

The gawky Angolan was the sole centre forward in a 4-5-1 selected by Brown which inspired so little that everyone listened longingly to the names of Cousin and Barmby on the bench and wondered why neither were starting. Kevin Kilbane played a central role in the absence of the suspended Ian Ashbee (whose leadership qualities were more sorely missed than they ever have been before) with Geovanni and Craig Fagan theoretically providing the legs and creativity respectively that would assist Manucho in his lone furrow. And, joyfully, Boaz Myhill was back in goal.

It was a tense and quite enjoyable first half. Fairly quickly it was established that the public criticism of his players which Brown had administered during the week had sunk in, and the application and desire seemed to have returned. Quality was still missing, especially as Geovanni doesn’t look like he is interested in us any more, but within a largely formless and erratic first half, befitting of the status of the two sides, a football match sporadically threatened to break out.

Fagan instigated an early attack down the left, spreading the ball smartly for Geovanni to cross, but the ball was ever so slightly too high for a flying Manucho. Myhill's long free kick upfield bounced back from opposite number Craig Gordon's punch, and Kilbane had a shot which was unluckily deflected wide.

They weren't clear as day chances but it was a start. We looked focussed and capable. Michael Turner, the colossus whose own form has almost threatened to be dragged down by the ineptitude of those around him, then managed an inspired tackle on Kenwyne Jones while sitting on his bottom in the penalty area. This was shortly after a brilliantly alert Myhill cleared the danger from Djibril Cisse with his head – figuratively and literally so.

It was pretty good without being fantastic. A series of set-pieces – initially a free kick and then three corners – finally ends with Geovanni's dipping shot going a little too high. Then Manucho wins an excellent 50-50 ball and feeds Fagan inside, who waits for Geovanni’s run. The Brazilian’s dash and cross is met by Kilbane's head and Craig Gordon has to make a good save.

It was all nearly undone by that old foe, the short corner. Grant Leadbitter was given time and room and whipped in a ball which went entirely through Kamil Zayatte and Manucho, leaving a sweating Andy Dawson as the last man on the line and, fortunately, he hacked clear.

The half progressed and Sunderland began to reacquaint themselves with the ball but chances were few and far between. Deep into time added on, Cisse and Jones combined intelligently to send the dangerous Carlos Edwards away, but a backpedalling Kilbane got in the way of his cross. The corner was half cleared, swung back in by Edwards and Cisse, later noted to be marginally offside, glanced a header beyond Myhill's left hand. It was as cruel a goal, for both its injustice and its timing, as City have conceded all season.

With Brown's dreams of a clean sheet yet again crushed, City needed to start at a hundred miles per hour in the second half. Instead, they nearly went two down immediately from the restart, when Myhill had to block a vicious Cisse shot and then also saved the follow-up header from Jones. Great goalkeeping.

It didn't, however, help the Tigers greatly. The half became a scrappier affair thereafter, with City's honesty not replicated by any great quality – especially as Geovanni decided to sit out the rest of his time on the pitch despite being there in body – and the home side sensing a second goal was more than possible.

Jones thought he'd got it when he headed home from close range after good work from Edwards and Andy Reid but a linesman's flag put paid to that idea. City's best chances, for what they were, both came courtesy of George Boateng, who twice had shooting chances which he put wide after set-pieces were half cleared his way.

Fagan gets down a flank, crosses to a defender who puts his clearance straight on to Marney's left foot. The volley is high and not so handsome. Kilbane hurls in a long throw which Sunderland deal with comfortably and Reid fires over from a sharp bit of counter-attacking.

Barmby and Cousin, along with the other substitutes, had been parading up and down the line for some time but it was Folan, to surprise and dismay, to whom Brown turned to freshen up the attack, withdrawing Marney who had the grace to applaud the fans despite the bile which has been aimed his way of late. Folan had moments to surprise us, not least when he climbed well to meet Sam Ricketts’ far post ball with a powerful header which landed just a foot wide. He simply isn't the answer though.

Geovanni was hauled off next and Bernard Mendy, and all his delights and frustrations, was brought on. Quickly he was involved in handbags with Sunderland sub Kieran Richardson – the two have recent form when Mendy physically shoved Richardson off the park at the KC in December when he took too long to exit proceedings upon being substituted. This time, The two got tangled, began arguing and Mendy, like an absolute idiot, seemed to aim a gesture headbutt at the Sunderland player, making no contact but simultaneously making his intentions clear. How he was not red-carded I'll never quite know.

Manucho, turning sweetly, shoots appallingly over the bar from distance. Mendy gets to the byline past two defenders, the cross is headed back across by Fagan to precisely nobody. Manucho shoots high and wide again. And upon the announcement of four minutes of added time, Mendy puts another ball in which Manucho heads well wide. It's close, it's not close enough. It's also not good enough.

Sunderland hit the post with the last attack of the match and their safety, while nowhere near assured, got visibly closer upon the shrill of the final whistle. There seems, however, to be no other place for the Tigers to head other than downwards. The mercy of the Premier League on us may yet come with the fixtures against top four sides which the sides above West Bromwich Albion have to face, but we have our own with Liverpool next week and Manchester United on the final day. Hope must be renewed that the spirit shown at Chelsea in February, if not the awesomeness of the whole autumn period, can be rediscovered by the time we head to Aston Villa and then, in a killer fixture, play Stoke City at the KC. We've done this last ditch escaping before but the difference this time is that we're not climbing out of it, we're disappearing into it. There is no sign of form, confidence or, more brutally, goals. Without the latter we are a bit stuffed, really.

Sunderland: Gordon, Bardsley, Davenport, Ferdinand, Collins, Edwards (Malbranque 78), Leadbitter, Tainio, Reid (Richardson 76), Cisse (Murphy 90), Jones. Subs not used: Fulop, Ben-Haim, Yorke, McShane.

Hull: Myhill, Ricketts, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Fagan, Geovanni (Mendy 74), Boateng (Barmby 77), Marney (Folan 68), Kilbane, Manucho. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Halmosi, Cousin.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Back to Boaz

Boaz Myhill's return to the Hull City goalkeeping role is a must. As the final half a dozen games hove into view and the Tigers find themselves still struggling for confidence and cohesion, the restoration of our best custodian seems inevitable.

Matt Duke has done a sterling job since his elevation from the bench back in January, but his error-strewn, comical performance at Middlesbrough, just at a time when more than ever we needed a sound pair of hands, must surely return him to the substitute's role he has taken with such good humour in his five seasons at the club.

Myhill was dropped, it would appear, because of some doubt about his future - rumours were ablaze that Newcastle United fancied him after selling Shay Given - and so Phil Brown took him out of the firing line, as it were, while making no comment whatsoever as to whether a bid had come in.

Duke, who had only appeared in his Carling Cup and FA Cup leg-stretching roles thus far, was an eyebrow-raising choice when Brown put him in the team for a Tuesday night clash at West Ham United. Once the selection filtered through to the Tiger Nation, initial expressions of surprise were followed by a content acceptance of the situation. The rumour mill about Myhill was turning quite heavily, and while nobody wanted him to leave, we knew that Newcastle had some proper cash available after selling Given and would typically pay over-the-odds for a replacement. In the short term, therefore, Duke needed some football in case he found himself playing more often as no longer the heir to Myhill's throne.

Unfortunately, while Duke generally has played as well as one can expect of a goalkeeper whose defence is growing a little leakier by the week, he will never quite convince enough people brought up on Myhill's clear excellence. Myhill was a product of Aston Villa who ruled the nets conclusively during the two promotions prior to Brown's arrival, and had a terrific season in the Championship up to and including the last moments of Wembley and the joy it brought. Duke failed to make the grade as a youthful goalkeeper and was in the non-league pyramid with Burton Albion when the Tigers took a punt on him.

Only Brown has ever picked Duke for a league match when both goalkeepers have been ready and available. Peter Taylor only ever selected him for Cup ties and when Myhill was injured (rarely) or suspended (occasionally). Phil Parkinson barely knew Duke existed. Brown, however, gave Duke a short but convincing chance in the early part of last season while Myhill was stalling on a new deal, and has now given the affable keeper a long spell in the Premier League.

Duke had a shocker at Middlesbrough - misfielding shots, bad positioning, truly dreadful kicking - and unfortunately for him, the prejudices of those who think a non-league goalkeeper is always a non-league goalkeeper come flying out upon a solitary day like this. While that is an extreme viewpoint, and Duke is certainly a far better keeper than anyone the Blue Square Premier (or the two divisions above it, frankly) has to offer, the fact remains that we need our strongest and most agile, big-game goalkeeper in situ as we attempt to stay afloat in the Premier League through these last six matches. And that goalkeeper, very simply, is Myhill.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Circumstances leading into the next two Hull City games have come at just the right time for George Boateng, our experienced midfielder who is finally fit again after knee trouble.

Perhaps the effective unfussiness with which Boateng went about his play was easily unnoticed by the Tiger Nation until he hurt his knee in the FA Cup third round replay win at Newcastle United, rendering him crocked until his impressive - in context, at least - return as a second half substitute at Middlesbrough last weekend (notwithstanding his slip at the end).

But it was obvious that Boateng is unnoticeable no more. Such was the paucity of quality in City's play at the Riverside that his brand of careful, concise and admirably calm midfield anchoring earned him many disgruntled supporters' man of the match award for a mere half hour or so of action.

And while to receive this unofficial accolade may serve to damn him with faint praise, his timing couldn't have been better.

For now, we have no skipper.

Ian Ashbee picked up his tenth booking of the season and now has to miss two games - this weekend's beyond describable clash at Sunderland, followed by Liverpool's visit to the KC a week later.

Ashbee's enforced absence will smooth over Boateng's inevitable path back into a starting position. I suspect he would have started anyway, even if Ashbee had been eligible, but the lack of a ratter and leader in the middle of the park at Wigan Athletic recently, when both Ashbee and Boateng were injured, was as clear as the clearest day.

We should also bear in mind that our wonderful purple patch in the autumn, which saw Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur fall on black and amber swords and the Tigers manage three straight clean sheets and four straight wins, had Boateng playing alongside Ashbee at its heart. Ashbee isn't hurt, merely banned, so the quicker the two can be selected to play together the better. And, given Dean Marney's chronic lack of confidence right now, a return for his two protectors of the autumn as a midfield partnership may go some way into helping him regain the immense personal form he showed during the same period. Marney needs to keep playing, either as a starter or sub, because City simply haven't the squad size to justify his exclusion, so maybe Boateng's restoration to fitness and a place in the side could be the re-making of Marney, and he sure as hell needs it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Gameplan schmameplan

Phil Brown has been using the word "gameplan" a lot lately (assuming it is a word, and not two words crudely grafted together into one bluff cliché). We have had a lot of these gameplans lately, and they seem to have consisted of maintaining clean sheets rather than setting out to win the games.

Now, there are acceptable reasons for Brown to go for this more defensively based tactic. A clean sheet will, after all, guarantee at least a point, and a point a game for the rest of the season will be enough to maintain Hull City's status in the Premier League. A clean sheet was the last thing City achieved this season and is something towards which Brown has had a mild obsession ever since he became manager. Even after winning the opening game against Fulham, beating Newcastle United away and achieving the result of the season at Arsenal, Brown was still telling interviewers he wanted a clean sheet. We eventually got one upon our return to north London a week later with the 1-0 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur.

We kept a clean sheet at Cardiff City in April 2007, won the game, stayed up and deliciously condemned Leeds United to relegation. We kept a clean sheet at Watford, won the game and went into the second leg off the play-off semi with a two-goal cushion. We kept a clean sheet at Wembley and won promotion. We rarely do goalless draws - Portsmouth at home the other week was the first in a League game at the KC for well over a year - so using the theory that we're more likely to score than not, the defensive gameplan is understandable.

The second, more urgent, reason why this defensive mindset dominates Brown's tactical thinking is that at the moment, on paper at least, we have far more available assets in defence than we do in attack. Anthony Gardner's latest injury setback was a tremendous disappointment, but a back four containing Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte, flanked by Sam Ricketts and Andy Dawson, is still a strong enough unit. Ricketts has had better days than the Middlesbrough game but has rediscovered an element of consistency since losing his place in the autumn (and still we should have signed Paul McShane permanently when we had the chance) but certainly Turner and Dawson - the former especially - have had excellent seasons and Zayatte, for his handful of brainstorms, had adapted to a new club and footballing culture very well.

Contrast this with the state of the attack, where Manucho is our best goalscoring hope, even though his header at the Riverside was only his second for the club since joining at the end of the January transfer window. The attack used to be this fantastic three-pronged, multi-directional humdinger but now Marlon King has flounced out, helped by Brown's boot and cutting words, Daniel Cousin has a back problem that seems to be taking forever to heal, and Geovanni is playing on the misguided understanding that games only last half an hour.

Craig Fagan's industry and belief is worthy, but the lad is too hot-headed and has never managed to cure the abysmal first touch and woeful finishing which has blighted his eventful City career since he joined for his first spell back in the League One days. Bernard Mendy's head has gone (not that it was ever fully there in the first place) and when Caleb Folan, a player whose lack of touch and ability to stay onside has become the stuff of legend, is the best available option from the bench, then we know we have problems. Meanwhile, Stoke City have James Beattie, purchased in January, getting them slowly and firmly away from danger.

So with defence strong, at face value, and attacking options somewhat limited, at any value you care to apply, the gameplan becomes clear and Brown is using it. Unfortunately, such gameplans cannot allow for mistakes by an experienced skipper after fewer than three minutes and a powderpuff save from a former non-league goalkeeper handing the opening goal on a plate. The gameplan goes out of the window right there as caution cannot be justified when your opponent has a goal headstart.

To City's credit, they exploited Middlesbrough's own nerves quickly and Manucho restored the gameplan with his fine header. But ultimately a draw is the hardest thing in the world to play for, especially if your opponents are in no mood whatsoever to play for it too. Against a team desperate for a win, City needed to go at them rather than exercise a gameplan which permitted them ample opportunity to venture forward, get a feel of the ball and make chances. Relying on the defence is an incredibly risky business when the opposition has, by dint of its poor position in the table, no choice but to throw the kitchen sink and all into attack.

If you play for a win, you may get the draw you want, not to mention the win itself. If you play for a draw, you're risking errors and a bad defeat by asking natural footballers - Nick Barmby, Geovanni, even Dean Marney when he came on at the break - to not play the game that suits them.

Fortunately for Brown, although not for the fingernails of the Tiger Nation, he has an identical fixture this weekend to put it right. City travel to Sunderland, again beneath the Tigers in the table, and need to put the right gameplan into action. There is little wrong with the team of players Brown is picking - given that Gardner, Cousin and Jimmy Bullard are all crucially absent, he's left with little choice, and there's no Ashbee this weekend either - but he has to adapt the gameplan so that they're allowed to play. If again City's mentality is to stop the opposition playing, then the slope will get ever more slippery - and as it's Liverpool and then Aston Villa to come after this weekend, I hold great fear for just how slippery it may become.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

32: Middlesbrough 3 – 1 Hull City – 11/04/2009

For the first time this season, chillingly, relegation seems to be a likely prospect. Such a chronic, toothless, panicky display against a side in the deepest of trouble suggests it’s genuinely tough to decipher where the next point is coming from.

City have experience of battles at the top and bottom of late, but talent and nerve has been present at each to make sure the appropriate destiny was reached. This time, we simply don’t look good enough. The bolt is shot.

The gaps in midfield were horrendous. The lack of support in attack obvious. And the terror felt by the goalkeeper was in no doubt whatsoever.

There is no doubt that Matt Duke earned the right to a stab in goal when Boaz Myhill’s future and demeanour was called into question at the turn of the year. And although he has done well, stopping shots and dominating his box, as well as saving the odd penalty, there has been always the nagging doubt that a performance showcasing his general lack of sharpness and non-league heritage would come to the fore. And this was the day for it.

Duke held little, kicked badly and generally looked overawed. All goalkeepers can have bad days. But Duke’s was almost expected, as if we’ve never quite been able to accept that he is entirely worthwhile of being nothing more to Myhill than a reliable understudy. He needs to become that again.

Phil Brown picked Duke behind an unchanged starting XI, with Bernard Mendy still in the team despite a stream of headless, direction-free displays of late. Nick Barmby got the expected stick from the fans of a club he quit more than a decade, while Marlon King’s inevitable presence in the Middlesbrough side prompted some rather unkind, contempt-of-court busting chants from the Tiger Nation. Rather more edifying a selection was George Boateng as a substitute after three months out injured.

It started badly. Ian Ashbee's dilly-dallying on the ball put Kamil Zayatte in trouble and allowed the home side to rob the ball when they had no right. King quickly sent Afonso Alves away, and upon charging down on goal he got a low shot across Duke which the keeper palmed straight ino Tuncay’s path. The Turkish international, a fine footballer, doesn’t miss those.

It was a rotten start, exactly what Brown would have warned against, and it was also wholly preventable, the kind of daft, careless gaffe that will contribute more than most shortcomings to City’s downfall.

Geovanni, now playing his usual roaming role which starts brightly and fades badly, has a double effort at goal – the first blocked, the second deflected over. However, it leads indirectly to City’s lifeline.

The corner is half cleared to a wide position and Barmby collects, duly swerving in a peach of a ball which is attacked with great panache in determination by the rising Manucho, who powers the header in. A great goal, the sort Manucho was borrowed to score, and a great response from City with fewer than ten minutes still gone.

And now we could go on and take Middlesbrough apart. Their build-up had been all about the nerves of the occasion, the back of the camel begging for no more straws, and having clawed back the lead and nullified their early euphoria, City could now make sure the home side were put in their place.

It didn’t happen. Alves had the next chance, blasting over after King had teed him up nicely via a long ball, then City began to exercise influence while showing contemptible finishing skills. Mendy won a free kick which Geovanni swiped profligately over, then the mega-frustrating Craig Fagan went clean through on a defender and took an anvil-subtle touch which allowed Brad Jones to put him off. Manucho had an open goal as the ball spun free, but also a narrow angle and a challenge coming in, and he belted it high and wide.

In the midst of all this, Duke had his first flap, coming for a Stewart Downing free kick which he couldn’t get, and David Wheater won the header cleanly, sending it just beyond the bar.

Middlesbrough recovered from the possession dearth and began to re-assert themselves. Their second goal was greatly aided by the visionary skills of referee Phil Dowd, who decided that Ashbee had taken the ball out of play when working his way out of a tight corner, despite the linesman standing next to Ashbee at the time not raising his flag. It was a controversial decision, given that Dowd was in the penalty area at the time, made all the more controversial when Downing curled a dangerous ball in and Matthew Bates stabbed it beyond an exposed, motionless Duke. Considering how much sway he holds on set-pieces, for and against, this goal will have angered Brown considerably.

The rest of the half was a shabby, featureless encounter with neither side coming close to a scoring chance. Middlesbrough went in at the break happy and with a loud, two-for-one offer crowd applauding them vociferously. City went in for a severe admonishment.

Mendy came out for the second half but then trotted gingerly back in again before it began, obviously changing his mind about his fitness. Dean Marney replaced him, and proceeded to emphasise all that was wrong and lacking about City right now.

Marney is a trier and never hides, but his confidence is so shot right now that when he makes an error, be it with possession or position, it is somehow magnified ten times over and currently he is taking much of the individual stick which the team is earning as a whole. Marney isn’t the most culpable out there – he hasn’t played enough lately to be so – but he is easy to notice when it goes wrong for him. The counter-productivity of slagging off a player who relies on confidence to play doesn’t seem to have registered with the Tiger Nation, mind.

Middlesbrough win a corner. Downing again curls it viciously and Robert Huth gets across it to flick beyond the far post as red-socked boots fly in to try for the final, crucial touch. No joy this time. Michael Turner then gives away a free kick which Downing again delivers with aplomb to the far post. King gets it back across goal and again the feet fly in but nobody gets on it.

Barmby is replaced by Caleb Folan and then Boateng, to nice applause from all quarters, replaces Fagan. At the point Boateng comes on, City begin to return to the action. The Dutchman’s experience and calmness seems to buck up, if not fully inspire, the rest of the team, a team which has Marney doing his headless chicken act and Geovanni carefully avoiding any involvement whatseoever.

A bit of pressure. Sam Ricketts sends in a deflected cross which Manucho reaches ahead of the Australian gloves of Jones, but the header is powerless and Wheater manages a simple, if vital, clearance off the line. Boateng then finds room at the corner of the box and feeds Marney’s run. The cross is low and only half-cleared and returns to Boateng who shoots over.

City continue to press, leaving the standard gaps at the back which Downing nearly exploits on the counter, eventually cutting in on to his weaker right foot and hitting his shot right at Duke. City get back to the other end and Marney heads just over from Ricketts’ onrushing centre.

Still City try, but they’re having little effect and Jones doesn’t need to make a save. Ashbee feeds Marney who crosses well to the near post where Turner, still up after a set-piece, heads across goal and just beyond the crucial touch Geovanni attempts. Manucho then aims a looping header from Boateng’s cross which lands harmlessly on the roof.

As the last minute approaches, it seems Ciy have one last opportunity when a free kick is earned. The centre backs go forward but Andy Dawson’s inswinger is dealt with and a counter attack is on. Ricketts gets it back to Duke but, typifying his horrific afternoon, the keeper misplaces yet another clearance. Boateng can’t get it under control, Tunay robs him and – of all people – King has the freest of free runs at Duke, casually and easily stroking the ball inside the keeper’s left hand and sealing the points.

That was that. A shocking display at just the wrong time, and 4,000 travelling fans can feel angry that such an important occasion was too much for the players. Brown can talk about cutting out errors as much as he likes, but the clean sheet mentality is pointless when you go a goal down after three minutes, and it’s time we started attacking teams again. Goalscoring is going to be as important as goal preventing, and currently we are incapable of both. This is going to go to the wire, and it’s Sunderland away next week; a game so similar to this, one would hope City will have at least learned how not to perform in a Premier League relegation six-pointer and will be able to put it right. If not, then it's hard to imagine the Tigers going anywhere but down.

Middlesbrough: Jones, McMahon, Wheater, Huth, Taylor, Bates, Aliadiere (Emnes 90), Downing, Sanli, Alves (Adam Johnson 77), King. Subs not used: Turnbull, Hoyte, Shawky, Riggott, Walker.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Fagan (Boateng 71), Mendy (Marney 46), Ashbee, Barmby (Folan 62), Geovanni, Manucho. Subs not used: Myhill, Halmosi, Featherstone, Kilbane.

Friday, 10 April 2009

"It's over! It's over!"

One of the most famous quotations of Hull City's season, spoken by a man who now, with some irony, could find himself on the receiving end of the same sentence this weekend.

Marlon King was heard and lipread shouting it in celebration to the Tiger Nation after scoring the third and final goal in City's 3-0 win at West Bromwich Albion back in October. It was a mesmerising fourth consecutive win as City began their inaugural Premier League season at a hundred miles per hour and are still, mercifully, able to live off that exceptional start to this day.

King is now a Middlesbrough player and will face the Tigers at the Riverside Stadium this weekend. Talented but complex, he burned a bridge too many at the KC Stadium despite a selfless and occasionally superb contribution on the field, with incidents involving Dean Windass and a casino leading him towards his slippery slope.

The final straw for Phil Brown came when King was left out of the team against Arsenal at the KC in January and reacted in a manner which displeased his manager. We never saw him again and his parent club Wigan Athletic allowed him to start a fresh loan at Middlesbrough. It's maybe as notable that Steve Bruce has had no inclination to bring King back to his parent club, even after selling Emile Heskey.

King cuts a strained, intense figure on the football field. He's skilful and industrious but a level of arrogance beyond even his considerable capabilities seemed to envelop his whole persona on the park. The eyeballing and yelling at the front row of Tigers fans at the Hawthorns was one incident; his purposeful strutting and finger pointing after getting his second goal at Newcastle United back in September was another.

Another irony is that King's final goal for the Tigers came against the club for whom he now plays. He scored a late penalty against Middlesbrough at the KC in December - after a foul that all sportspersons acknowledge should not have been allowed to happen - and City won it 2-1 as a consequence. Nobody could foresee King's forthcoming arrival at Middlesbrough, of course, but having bitten a hand which would later feed him, he is now in a position this weekend to take the more traditional route of biting the hand that used to feed.

There's absolutely no doubt that King will get some stick from the City fans. Rucks with other players and bragging about a £19,000 watch all form part of the King legend, a legend which is distinctly unlikeable but will bother him not in the slightest. If he scores at the end where the Tiger Nation is seated, one can't begin to imagine the wind-up tactics he will employ in a dual act of celebration and provocation.

It will be a good test of his general professionalism this weekend, with the chippier characters like Ian Ashbee and Craig Fagan undoubtedly hoping to rile their former colleague. Ashbee, the great captain and gamesman, managed to send Danny Mills gloriously over the edge at Charlton two seasons ago after objecting to his disruptiveness at the KC, but King isn't so much of a loose cannon on the pitch and, whatever unsavouriness exists away from the field of play, he is usually a disciplined figure when playing.

He hasn't been a roaring success at Middlesbrough, who in turn are in trouble almost beyond rescue, but he is still a useful and matchwinning player and City need to make sure that if they can't stop him being an active participant, they must at least stop him being an influence. If they manage this and take the points, then King's outburst of joy and disrespect at West Bromwich Albion will contain an ironic, important truth.