Sunday, 24 May 2009

38: Hull City 0 - 1 Manchester United - 24/05/2009

Phil Brown loves the media attention, even when it's negative. There was something distinctly Delia-esque about his decision, no doubt less than spontaneous, to nick the PA mic as soon as results elsewhere had confirmed Hull City's safety and lead the Tiger Nation in a last, rousing chorus of "This is the best trip I've ever been on".

He'll get hammered for that, but he won't care. he got hammered for stating that he was off to the south of France on his Harley Davidson as soon as the game was over, but he won't care. He got pilloried beyond all context for the team talk on the pitch at Manchester City - the attention to which in the six months since has been really baffling - but he won't care a jot.

His immediate ambition as he surveyed the scene of the last round of Premier League fixtures was to be a Premier League manager still when he turned 50 on May 30th. His ambition was realised, and boy are we all grateful for it.

The poetry surrounding City's escape from the drop - a drop which would have come after just five solitary days in the relegation zone all season - is several fold. Going down were Newcastle United, who in Alan Shearer have a (temporary) manager who City fans dislike intensely for the way he disrespected the saintly Justin Whittle all those years ago. And Brown, of course, is a Sunderland fan, and they also stayed up. Paul McShane, a terrific asset in defence for a while after the Black Cats loaned him to us, stayed up, while Marlon King, a liability and dubious in character, went down with Middlesbrough.

It's not churlish, however, to point out that the way the Tigers secured their safety was distinctly dangerous. Manchester United, champions and with Rome correctly on their minds, still entirely outplayed the Tigers despite picking a side with an average age of 20, with the 34 year old Gary Neville stopping it from being somewhere closer to 18. That it was meagrely a one goal victory for Sir Alex Ferguson's team was far more down to their profligacy in front of goal - the one that did go in was a 25 yard wonder strike - than any degree of tightness in the City ranks. As the game dragged on, it became obvious that we were all relying on Aston Villa to hang on to their lead, the acquisition of which we had joyously celebrated in the first half. A goal for us, and Newcastle would have had to score twice. No goal for us, and just one Newcastle goal would have been enough to save their deluded skins.

Creatively, the Tigers were not on any form that suggested a goal was forthcoming. Tomasz Kuszczak, the third choice Manchester United keeper, batted away a couple of efforts and caught what he needed to, but rarely did City show that they looked capable of making sure their fate didn't slip closer to hands on the end of black and white sleeves.

Brown had to make one change, as Manucho's loan effectively ended with his farcical display at Bolton last week, though technically it was because as a Manchester United player, he was naturally ineligible. Surprisingly, there was no starting role for Daniel Cousin or Caleb Folan (back from his three-match ban), with Dean Marney instead taking his central midfield role and Craig Fagan pushing more centrally, backed by Nick Barmby and Geovanni as best they could.

The atmosphere was white-hot, caused not by the infantile inflatable drumsticks foisted on the Tiger Nation, but by people who cared being able to turn their nerves into a quite deafening human noise. The travelling contingent seemed caught twixt support for their team and a mutual desire to see Shearer, a player who turned Manchester United down twice in his playing career, drop into the Championship.

Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher started - two players with injury issues and one with a Champions League suspension respectively - but otherwise it was the wannabe sector of the squad which Ferguson threw into the blazing hot KC Stadium cooker. And, from their point of view, they didn't disappoint. Inexperience is only a factor when ability is lacking, and this bunch of youngsters can play.

City started calmly enough, and Fagan had a sniff of a chance when Michael Turner's long ball caught Neville out over the offside trap, but Fagan's attempt to trap the ball with the outside of his foot took it slightly too far, and Kuzsczak collected.

Geovanni, who scored at Old Trafford this season and also notched the winner in the Manchester derby last season, made room for a cross on the left which Neville cleared. George Boateng's perseverance won the ball back from Rafael Da Silva, and this allowed Marney to re-feed Geovanni from the same position. His cross with the outside of his foot was unconvincingly punched clear by Kuzsczak.

The visitors' first look at Boaz Myhill's goal came when Nani slapped a free kick down the keeper's throat. They settled down, and Rafael's cross bamboozled every City defender, with a lunging Lee Martin a stud length away from getting a touch and a certain goal.

It was a nervous occasion for one, and an experimental occasion for the other. Perhaps the gulf in quality was most readily illustrated when Marney's floating shot was comfortably clutched by Kuzsczak, followed soon by Darron Gibson's magnificent 25 yard angled shot which beat Myhill all ends up.

It was a goal which would have been appreciated by a sporting Tiger Nation, but sporting behaviour goes out of the window when your very survival depends on long-range digs like this flying over the bar. This one didn't. It was hit with pace, grace and immaculate trajectory. It was a wonderful goal. And at that point, it was sending us down.

Ritchie De Laet put a good chance too close to Myhill soon after, and it seemed a safe bet that these terrific young talents would be happy to put on a show. City dug in a bit, reacting to crowd encouragement, and Turner headed over from Andy Dawson's cross after staying upfield when a set-piece was cleared.

Danny Welbeck then embarked on a solo run that started in his own half and zigzagged in various directions before putting a left foot shot across Myhill and wide. The run was admirable but was also as much about City backing off too much as it was about Welbeck's own skill and endeavour.

City win a free kick and Geovanni, from a distance even he shouldn't have considered, predictably fired it miles over. That was an annoying one, and felt selfish on a day when individual glory was simply not part of the equation.

Federico Macheda, a player who looked less impressive than his explosive introduction to this level would suggest, managed to wriggle free of two defenders but then shot badly wide with a good sight of goal. Galvanised briefly, City rallied and went their closest to scoring when Fagan fed Geovanni with a crossfield ball, and the Brazilian laid it back to Dawson, whose rasping drive with his famous left foot made Kuzsczak tip it over.

News then seeped through of Aston Villa's goal against Newcastle and the cheers around the KC were, again, deafening. They nearly got louder when Neville backheaded over Kuzsczak, with the Polish keeper having to do a mighty scrambling act to retrieve the rogue ball.

Barmby hit a shot into the ground and at Kuzsczak as two minutes of added time came and went. The applause was generous for a team which was losing and showing only mild signs of restoring parity and saving 20,000 sets of fingernails.

Early in the second half, changes to the Sunderland and Middlesbrough scorelines came through but we were less concerned by those. It was events at the KC and Villa Park that mattered, and not necessarily in that order, to be honest. Progress in the second half lacked probability the longer it went on - indeed, the only probability was that Manchester United would increase their lead.

Turner spooned a dangerous Rafael cross over his own bar as Macheda closed in for the kill before a fortuitous Kevin Kilbane ball unwittingly set Sam Ricketts free down the right. His cross was well-flighted but the angle was too tight for Barmby's flying header and Kuzsczak blocked the effort. Turner duly headed Marney's corner at the keeper.

Folan was brought on for Geovanni, and sod's law then awarded City a free kick in ideal Geovanni position, certainly more so than the one he whacked into Hymers Avenue in the first half. On the edge, ripe for a curling right footer, and it was Marney who had a go instead, bending his effort on target but not testing Kuzsczak as Turner got in the way. Marney then put in his second late tackle in five minutes and collected a yellow card.

Richard Garcia then fashioned a rare breakaway and the shot was certainly on for the Aussie, who proved last season he was more than capable of pinging one in from distance. yet inexplicably he declined the obvious shot when reaching the area and fed Folan to his right, who couldn't get his shot away and had to be content with a corner. Kuzsczak punched it clear.

Dawson swung a free kick straight at the keeper, then as Bernard Mendy replaced Barmby, the visitors attacked with panache and substitute Richard Eckersley dug out a smart shot after a fine one-two with Gibson, only for the shot to fly wide.

Fagan volleyed a Ricketts long throw over the crossbar, then a corner gave Mendy some run for a good cross which Turner just failed to connect with despite throwing himself headlong at the ball. Turner seemed to spend more time up than back by this late stage, and sent a looping header towards goal from another Ricketts howitzer, but Kuzsczak backpedalled and clung on.

Nani put one wide from 25 yards as City chucked on the final option with Cousin replacing Garcia. The four minutes of added time were a non-event as we waited for a whistle elsewhere. It didn't come until a good minute after our own final whistle, but eventually the cheers rang out and safety was confirmed.

Brown must have learned a lot this season, especially about thinking too far too quickly, although the dreams of Europe were more those of the chairman than the manager when we sat sixth in the table on Boxing Day. No more on-pitch team talks - if only because it avoids six months of stick, not because it was wrong - and fewer media soundbiting. He needs to invest heavily in the squad too, because although Jimmy Bullard and Anthony Gardner will dramatically alter the quality of the existing squad, too many players were - by the manager's own admission - of a Championship standard striving to step up. You could select at least six players who will go this summer purely for quality reasons, and that's notwithstanding the more divisive figures like Geovanni, whose strutting and general underwhelm since the turn of the year has got backs up.

Ultimately, the proof that Hull City could stay in the Premier League is evident by the final league table. The table doesn't tell us about one win in 2009, nor does it detail a squad who could win at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, scare Manchester United from their wits and make everyone, albeit briefly, fall in love with the Tigers just a bit. Nobody expected us ever to get here, then they switched to expecting us to sink straight back down, and once Brown opened his mouth once too often, the media joined in by making their expectation into a direct wish. Judging by the goodwill from the numerous anti-Newcastle factions all over English football before and after the final game, we might just be lovable again. In the city of Hull we certainly are.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Kilbane, Dawson, Garcia (Cousin 81), Marney, Boateng, Barmby (Mendy 68), Geovanni (Folan 54), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Hughes, Halmosi, Zayatte.

Manchester United: Kuszczak, Rafael Da Silva (Eckersley 60), Neville, Brown, De Laet (Possebon 79), Nani, Fletcher, Gibson, Welbeck (Tosic 87), Martin, Macheda. Subs not used: Amos, Corry Evans, Drinkwater, James.

Barmby more (2)

It was set to be the hot debate at the end of the season - irrespective of how it ended - but this week Hull City have punctured the potential for debate by tying Nick Barmby up to a new one-year deal.

Barmby has had something of an Indian summer this year after missing most of last year's campaign before gatecrashing the play-offs, scoring in both legs of the semi final. Although he is 35, it's hard to remember that Barmby is a veteran due to his impish style, boyish looks and even due to his speaking voice's lack of gruffness.

This season there have been occasions where Barmby's endeavour has shown the rest of the squad - be they growing talents or established stars - how it should be done. Certainly he has looked close to Michael Turner and Richard Garcia as our single most impressive performer of 2009, which is a poisoned chalice due to the dramatic collapse in form but has nevertheless highlighted where Barmby's attitude has been carefully positioned.

There are cynics of course, and Barmby has had them rallying against him ever since he joined Hull City when we were fresh to League One in 2004. The latest brand of cynicism is the familiar old story of suddenly being able to play - and play well - when a new deal is needed at the end of the season. Barmby isn't perfect - he has a poor injury record, a rather sullen disposition at times and has felt the benefit of a blinded national media assuming he has played a bigger role in City's rise and rise than he really has - but even the locals who wondered whether this Hull-born lad really felt any empathy towards his hometown club (the one he refused to join as a schoolboy as Lilleshall and Tottenham Hotspur beckoned) when he pitched up from a bankrupt Leeds United and took our breath away must now have let their fears rest.

A season in the Premier League can do wonders for a player's reputation, and whether it's Premier League or Championship football for the Tigers next season, there will be a distinct comfort in knowing Barmby will be involved in it once more.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

It's all about winning games, stupid

My nerves are shot to bits enough at the thought of this week's so-called Survival Sunday (so-called by Sky, natch, who have to give a name to everything) without all the conjecture in the newspapers about whether our game against Manchester United will be conducted in the spirit of the game.

Hacks are filling much space with allegations that United, while thinking about Rome in midweek, will field an understrength side. Without foundation whatsoever, they then suggest that the three north east clubs are poised to commence legal action if they lose their Premier League status as an indirect consequence of such a team of rookies being turned over by the Tigers.

What is interesting, as well as mightily unnerving, is that the stories are continuing despite flat denials from Middlesbrough, Newcastle United and Sunderland that they will consider suing someone if they go down this weekend (and Boro's inclusion in the whole non-saga is moronic anyway, as their abject goal difference means they will still go down if we lose 3-0 and they win by a lesser scoreline). It's the classic Fleet Street mantra - if there is no story, invent one.

Assuming Boro will go, it will be the fault of not Hull City, nor Manchester United, if one of the other two north east sides fall by the wayside with them. They have played dreadfully by the standards their fans and their budgets set for them, and Newcastle players and decision-makers especially should not be able to look anyone in the eye after such a woeful season. If one of them goes down, it will be their fault entirely. Whichever one stays up will do so purely because someone contrived to be even worse than they were.

While there is lineage in the collapse of biblical proportions which the Tiger Nation has witnessed since the turn of the year, the bigger story is just how bad Newcastle United have been when one considers the greater resources at their disposal. Concocting rubbish about whining in a lawyer's office because the best team in the land may choose to rest one or two distinguished superstars a few days before a game infinitely more important than a trip to the KC Stadium shows a craven desire to whip up controversy that will shroud the real issue of the incompetence of north east football.

And, as has been pointed out regularly, many would prefer Manchester United not to play the stiffs and kids as they will be keen, hungry and anxious for a performance that may prove the difference between a place on the bench in Rome and a seat in the stands. Any team selected by Sir Alex Ferguson will be good enough to beat us. The fate of Newcastle United in particular, as the one team in the must-not-lose position, lies first and foremost with themselves. And this means, weirdly, the fate of Hull City lies as much with Aston Villa as it does with either of the teams which take to the stage at the KC.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

And the winner is...

Hull City's end of season awards take place tonight. Boyhood Dreams has carefully considered the Player and Goal of the season awards for approximately five seconds, and the conclusions are thus:

Player Of The Season: Michael Turner

It is perhaps gratifying that despite all the established stars who have become part of the Tigers' first Premier League jaunt, the runaway winner of this award should be a chap who has been at the club for three eventful seasons.

Michael Turner's campaign has been nothing short of magnificent. Already a highly-prized asset whose performance at Wembley summed up his commitment to the cause as player and man, the unassuming central defender has taken on the best strikers the world has to offer and never fallen short, even though the Tigers have occasionally taken hammerings via both scoreline and performance. Turner has spent the whole season meticulously timing tackles and organising a defence which has managed to maintain a degree of settlement despite all the turmoil elsewhere. The Hull City team is very simply a better place with Turner in it, although we're fortunate to have known nothing else this season as he featured in every minute of every Premier League game, avoiding serious knocks and suspension while the rest of the defence have suffered.

Noticed nationally and praised widely, it seems possible that Turner will get his chance for his country soon, although one hopes that it isn't via the crushing inevitability of a call-up the moment he is sold by Hull City. Wherever the Tigers are next season, Turner will attract lots of summer interest and with his long-term contract signed, at the worst City can rake in an absolute fortune for him - for which, incidentally, he will be worth every penny.

Highly commended: Ian Ashbee - captaincy and maturity par excellence while also playing a steadying midfield role and proving yet more doubters wrong about his ability to ste up another level. Richard Garcia - not expected to rise to the occasion all the time, but a dogged and worthwhile example of what effort and a desire to never give up can do.

Goal of the Season: Geovanni, v Arsenal (a)

Shortly after going behind to Paul McShane's unavoidable own goal, City began a tentative attack upon the Arsenal defence at the Emirates. A long ball was flicked down to Geovanni wide on the left, and the Brazilian took advantage of Arsenal's blithe assumption that nobody would dare shoot against them from distance by cutting inside and swiping a phenomenal 30-yard shot beyond Manuel Almunia and into the top corner, sealing an equaliser that was as euphoric as it was unlikely. It says a lot for the goal's quality that Daniel Cousin's historic winner for the Tigers just minutes later is almost forgotten by comparison, despite setting the seal on the most famous three points ever gained by a Hull City side.

It was Geovanni's second goal for the club. His form, goal threat and attitude fluctuated after the New Year but it will take thousands more misdemeanours before this goal will become a mere statistic on his career as far as the Tiger Nation are concerned. A runaway goal of the season for the Tigers and certain to be close to top marks for the Premier League as a whole too.

Highly commended: Geovanni, v Tottenham (a) - a stunning, swerving free kick which earned a second North London scalp. Craig Fagan, v West Bromwich Albion (h) - a fine diving header from an awkward angle.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

37: Bolton Wanderers 1 - 1 Hull City - 16/05/2009

So, it's back in our hands again.

That this achievement is down to Newcastle United's total incompetence as it is about the Tigers' own fortunes is merely technical. This performance at the Reebok Stadium against a Bolton Wanderers team that gave credibility to the Premier League by making a real game of it should entitle us to a go at staying up on the last day.

Upon the announcement of the fixture list last summer, barely three weeks after the play-off victory at Wembley, the Tiger Nation as one copped a look at the visit of Manchester United for the final day and thought: "Crikey, hope we don't need anything that day."

Well, we don't, for as long as Aston Villa hold a lead against Newcastle. More pertinently, Manchester United need nothing from the match apart from to get through it unscathed. They are the champions and now have Rome on their mind. We're not even on their radar.

A win at the Reebok would have been the most fitting result for the gutsy, resourceful, all-for-one display which City put in. It very nearly happened too, but our chief nemesis of the season Jussi Jaaskelainen, denied us again.

When Bolton won at the KC back in November, it was the Finnish keeper who did all the damage, keeping out chance after chance in a Tomaszewski-esque display that had everyone rubbing their eyes in disbelief, including the Bolton fans who had seen how good he was over ten years at the club.

On this occasion, he made fewer saves - mainly because City's let down again was their finishing - but the two saves of note he did make were agonising for the Tiger Nation who could see two thumping headers flying into the Bolton net and three points heading our way. Jaaskelainen had other ideas.

Phil Brown was forced into a dubious-looking defensive alteration as Kamil Zayatte, who has been in the wars all season, was unable to play after taking a double clout to his head against Stoke City last week. With no specialist centre backs of experience available, Brown plumped for Kevin Kilbane to partner Michael Turner, but added the insurance of the youthful Liam Cooper to the bench, whom City fans glimpsed with some admiration at Swansea City in the Carling Cup back in August.

Manucho started the game instead of Daniel Cousin, when many were hoping he would start alongside his fellow gangly marksman. However, such was the comic value of the awkward Angolan's display that he could have started against any great centre forward of the world and still looked out of his depth. Given that he can't play next week, it wasn't exactly a fulfilling way for Manucho to end his stint with City.

Almost 5,000 members of the Tiger Nation made the straightfoward cross-country trip to Horwich, where the Reebok remains one of the better examples of the initial swathe of nu-stadia that began sprouting up around the country in the early 1990s. Nobody took a tennis ball this time, though.

Bolton attacked hungrily from the off, with Matthew Taylor hitting a long and dipping shot just too high over Boaz Myhill's goal. City responded with Manucho having a dig from distance and Jasskelainen collecting without trouble above his head.

This was Manucho's best effort. Future goes would become the subject of derision, scorn and disbelief and while it was obvious the player was trying - which still makes him better than a hell of a lot of awful City strikers down the years - the composure and quality was entirely absent. Given he is a Manchester United player, it's possible to assume it was just a bad day, but he has rarely had anything better than a mediocre day - especially when starting games, he has improved when on as a sub - since joining City at the end of the January window.

The first sign of his personal train wreck came when George Boateng put in a sharp, well-directed cross and the swinging Angolan leg connected only with fresh air from a decent scoring position. By now, he was wearing a thick bandage on his bonce after a clash of heads with Danny Shittu - also wearing head strapping - and one couldn't help but wonder if it had dropped over his eyes.

City's pressure was excellent, with Richard Garcia and Sam Ricketts putting in a vintage performance as a duo on the right flank which brought back memories of their best days of last season. Ricketts, especially, had finally become the marauding full back of old, the one which elevated him with some ease to the status of best right back in the club's history. Garcia's skill gave Bolton so many problems, especially once they realised that Ricketts was arriving as a support act, from deep, ready to overlap and cause damage.

Sadly for both of them, it was Manucho who was on the end of most of their endeavours. He'd done a defensive job a moment before - blocking Taylor's vicious free kick with his protected forehead - but his efforts to do a proper job in his supposed natural position were severely wanting.

Garcia used Ricketts as a decoy to guide a fine cross on Manucho's head, but he aimed it at Jaaskelainen. Worse came when, from a corner, Manucho took a touch too many when trying to set up a chance, was robbed, and ten seconds later Bolton had scored thanks to a low drive from Gretar Steinsson, following up after good work from Kevin Davies and a blocked shot from Taylor. It was typical City, conceding a breakaway goal directly from their own attacking inabilities.

It got worse for Manucho, when Garcia and Ricketts' superb duality allowed the Welsh full back to lay a chance on a plate for the centre forward, but he swung at the ball wildly and ballooned it over the bar. This was his nadir. For the rest of his time he chased and harried and tried, but had no discernible contribution to make, and judging by the number of headers he half-heartedly challenged for, his bandaged self was clearly causing him some problems. It's a harsh but correct summation that, at the Reebok and permanently, the Tiger Nation couldn't wait to see the back of him.

Unbelievably, the referee gave a corner following Manucho's big miss, and Andy Dawson's kick was flicked by the Angolan to the far post where Nick Barmby, arriving late, could only throw himself at the ball in hope, sending his untimeable header well wide. Myhill then had to beat away a Kevin Davies shot from distance but it was City who ruled the possession and chances. The problem was that their striker couldn't strike and they were a goal down as a consequence.

Ricketts again worked himself some room from Garcia's service and aimed a cross at the late-arriving Geovanni, whose header went straight to Jaaskelainen. As four minutes of added time were signalled, Barmby looped another speculative far post header on to the roof from Dawson's arcing centre.

Half time, a goal down. The news had come through about Newcastle losing in identical manner and Middlesbrough taking the lead against Aston Villa. It was as close as closeness could be. We had seen enough to suggest we could earn something from the match. The question was whether we could make the most of the opportunities we were creating; a question which we have answered in the negative far too often this season.

From the restart, Muamba miskicked a very good chance into the air but soon we were punishing this profligacy and Craig Fagan, with shades of the opening day of the season, was robbing a defender who shouldn't have needed to feel any pressure, prior to sliding a confident past a totally exposed and surprised Jaaskelainen. Only his third goal of the season but what a vital one it could prove to be. Another bit of coincidence was that Shittu was the defender in question, whose brainstorm while playing for Watford last season kicked off City's perfect play-off campaign, allowing Fraizer Campbell to set up Barmby and set City on their way.

We were level, and we were ecstatic. So was Phil Brown, who ran halfway on to the Reebok turf in celebration. This was a place where he had been on the payroll for 15 years as player, skipper, coach and assistant manager, and now he was trying to do them over in order to rescue his club from the drop and a chunk of his own reputation. Fagan, showing rare composure, had scored a sublime opportunist's goal and now there was a game to win. How the news was greeted in the north east one can only imagine.

The work was almost undone by that man Manucho, however. Taylor hit a volley just wide as Bolton regrouped, then forced a corner which Mark Davies swung in and Shittu headed away from goal, harmlessly. However, it struck Manucho's shins and bobbled towards goal with Myhill beaten, only for Fagan to hack it clear. The fact that we escaped from this bought of near self-destruction prompted dark laughter from the Tiger Nation as well as continued barracking, some of it less than pleasant, of Manucho. He needed to be removed from the field for the good of everybody.

It gave Bolton a short period of regeneration, and Myhill did very well to hold a Gavin McCann snapshot despite being slightly unsighted. City regained some of the momentum and the remainder of the game was about when, rather than if, they would score.

We all forgot about Jaaskelainen though. The keeper was powerless as Barmby smacked a low far post volley against the base of the post but then actively affected the outcome of the game with two stunning pieces of goalkeeping. Barmby had been replaced by Dean Marney by the time Jaaskelainen beat out a Geovanni stinger and then watched helplessly as Marney tried to score from the rebound from the tightest of angles and put the ball right across goal.

Cousin then stripped for action, but to everyone's surprise (and probably not least his own) Manucho stayed on the pitch and the Brazilian was taken off, having had a quietly influential time of it without pulling up any of the Horwich countryside's trees. Marney hit a low left footer from diatnce down Jaaskelainen's throat as City pressed more and more, using the presence of two very tall and bulky strikers - albeit that only one of whom was able or willing to reach high balls - to deploy Garcia and Ricketts even more. With the wingplay proving so potent down one side, it seemed only a matter of time before Peter Halmosi was given a rare outing from the bench as the last throw of the dice.

Then came the save of the match and one comparable to the masterclass of goalkeeping which Jaaskelainen displayed at the KC. City win a free kick wide on the right, which Dawson inswings with his usual aplomb. Cousin gets a meaty header on it and Jaaskelainen shows contortionistic ability to tip the ball against the bar and then bat it away as it bounced down, denying an easy follow-up. It fell in a wider position to Fagan who, like Marney before him, bashed the rebound right across goal with nobody having a prayer of getting on the end of it.

A crazy, brilliant, frustrating, laudable save. Grrr. Well done. What a keeper. What a keeper.

Halmosi was then introduced and Manucho got some generous applause as well as resounding cheers for the decision as he lolloped away from his time at Hull City. Instantly, the underachieveing Hungarian got free of two markers on the left and swerved in a peach of a cross which Fagan's head met, but Jaaskelainen's acrobatics did the job again, beating away the goalbound ball wide to his left. It was a good save again, albeit maybe a little for the photographers in its execution, but it needed to be made and it was made well.

Marney sliced a long distance shot yards wide as the clock ticked to a conclusion and the game seemed to die once we'd heard Newcastle's result. A draw was good enough and was celebrated, by supporters and club staff alike, like a victory. Certainly the manager seemed happy with the result and the reception from the crowd; he should have been, as it was City's best performance since taking a point off Chelsea back in February.

So, with Middlesbrough needing an equivalent of last season's 8-1 defeat of Manchester City on the last day to stand any chance, and West Bromwich Albion gone - heroically so - after losing to Liverpool, it's between two for definite, and three possibly (depending on how Sunderland do on Monday night) for the last relegation spot. And as long as Villa do what is expected of them, we could take a 6-0 thumping from Manchester United's third string next weekend and still find ourselves celebrating, exactly one year after we were celebrating our historic elevation to this crazy division. It really is a mad old time to be a Hull City fan. Some preferred the days of mediocrity and underachievement, even the endless days of being a laughing stock. Ask us again which we prefer once all the final whistles have shrilled next Sunday.

Bolton Wanderers: Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Cahill, Shittu, Samuel, K Davies, Muamba (Basham 82), McCann, M Davies, Taylor (Riga 82), Elmander (Makukula 89). Subs not used: Al Habsi, Hunt, Puygrenier, Cohen.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Dawson, Kilbane, Fagan, Boateng, Garcia, Barmby (Marney 72), Geovanni (Cousin 77), Manucho (Halmosi 83). Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Hughes, Cooper.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A wanted Manucho?

Manucho will make the last appearance of his loan period with Hull City this weekend at Bolton Wanderers, assuming he is picked at all. One would hope that with the game being an irrefutable win-or-bust occasion, he might start alongside Daniel Cousin up front and give an attacking City midfield two proper targets to aim for.

The awkward, industrious Angolan does seem to divide the opinions of Tigers fans. The main statistic which has to be examined when looking at centre forwards is their goal ratio, and Manucho's isn't good. He got off the mark with the joyous 94th minute winner at Fulham, but has since scored just one more.

Beyond that, if a striker's overall contribution to the team is deemed important enough to make decisions on him, then it fares a lot better for the player. There is little room for doubt about his endeavour and also his willingness to make himself a total nuisance for opposing defenders to deal with - his appearance as a last throw of the dice at Aston Villa proving a recent case in point. Whatever his flaws regarding the introduction of a ball to a net, he causes enough strife to at least make you hope someone else may be able to take advantage.

Manucho suffers from a triple negative. He isn't Fraizer Campbell, he isn't Marlon King and he isn't James Beattie. Of the strikers associated with Hull City's rise and fall who don't belong to the club, Manucho is fourth of four. We tried to get Campbell back in August after his bit of extra quality helped us win promotion, and couldn't get him. We had King, but his temperament and off-pitch influence was deemed undesirable. We knew Beattie was proven and available, but didn't go for him and then watched in horror as he joined Stoke and instantly started to bang in the goals that would contribute vastly to their survival. So, in a last ditch effort to get another centre forward on the payroll before January was out, the cap was held out to Manchester United again and we got Manucho.

He's only made one substitute appearance for his parent club in the Premier League, so why is Manucho still a Manchester United player? He is 26 after all - by that time of life, the production line at Manchester United has long sussed out whether you're cut out to be in their squad or not. He's not a child prodigy, though he sometimes displays the rawness normally associated with a gifted but unfinished kid. There is clearly something Sir Alex Ferguson sees in him and that ought to be good enough for all of us, though if that something amounts to little more than a presence for the commercial arm of the club in Angola, then all of us - Manucho included - can feel we've been had.

The word is that Manucho could be available for £750,000 in the summer. It's a lot of money in most walks of life we have heard of, but not in football - and certainly not to Manchester United. While it's only still recently that Hull City could start to prevent such a fee provoking an involuntary coughing fit, it's small change to Manchester United, thereby suggesting that whatever talent Manucho has, it isn't a talent worth anything to his employers.

The chairman is a fan of Manucho, although his claim that he would be a better long-term acquisition than Beattie last week - prior to Beattie and Stoke coming to the KC and turning us over - takes some beating as the most ill-observed comment of the season. Some would buy Manucho, claiming that work on his game and more of a chance of properly testing first team football would produce a better player. He has skill, a reasonable touch, a good attitude and is unknown enough to induce a level of fear in opponents through his appearance and exuberance, until they realise that he is unlikely to convert many of the chances put his way. But being worth just £750,000 to Manchester United is the equivalent of being of just a five figure value to Hull City - we'd be signing a taller, gawkier version of Ryan France or Nicky Featherstone, essentially. It would be a risk and distinctly underwhelming if he were to pitch up permanently, especially if we survive in this division.

This weekend represents the Manucho swansong as he cannot play against his parent club on the final day of the season, so one assumes he'll be a Manchester United player, back from his loan, on the day they turn up. If, as hoped in these quarters, the United team fielded on the day is a weakened one, with the Premier League title secure and protection of stars for the Champions League final three days later on the agenda, it wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility to see him in red, rather than black and amber. Surely it would be beyond the realms of possibility for him to score against us though - imagine trying to buy him after that!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Sold on City

The news has come as a surprise but provides a warming poultice for the heart in a week of bad news - a huge 19,000 season tickets have been sold for next season.

This is an amazing feat, considering a lot of new fans hooked up with the club after Wembley and were only expected by the cynical, browbeaten veteran supporters to hang around for one season, irrespective of how it ended.

It truly is an astonishing number, and deadlines have still to be met for applications so it could turn into more, a figure beyond 20,000. For a stadium that holds a few shy of 25,000, it's clear that a footballing bug, as opposed to a Premier League bug, has bitten into the East Riding public.

Talk of an emptying bandwagon has been prolonged and bitter of late following the catastrophic demise of the team, culminating in a fortnight where a minor miracle is required to even give the Tigers a meagre sniff of survival. Yet the applications and re-applications for fresh passes in 2009-10, when we don't know if it's going to be Liverpool or Leicester providing the opposition, suggest that the bandwagon that clearly was multiply boarded last summer is not ready to shed any percentage of its passengers.

Why have the newcomers done this? There is a danger that they may believe that one season of Premier League notoriety - and we are notorious now, make no mistake about it - should make a season in the Championship a formality and watching City win loads, score loads and generally swat aside all that appear before them is in the offing. If we do go down, then the experienced supporters (as well as manager and team) will know that an instant re-elevation to the Premier League will not be simple. It's nicer to think that they've enjoyed the season and the attention so much that, even despite the ending, it's become a distinctly fun and pleasant way to spend part of the weekend. And one likes to think that even the newbies have renewed for next season in a firm belief that we are still capable of surviving. And maybe a few of them have done it simply because they think a fit, focussed Jimmy Bullard running our midfield will be worth the layout alone.

Given that fans have, at times, been mistreated or not considered this season, from the partial scrapping of the popular Away Direct scheme to the recent refusal of Phil Brown to give post-match interviews via the local BBC station, it is a stirring piece of loyalty and one which, hopefully, will be felt through every annal of the club, including a bedraggled, shellshocked first team squad.

Could this demonstration of outstanding backing for the club that employs them do anything for the players' confidence in time for the remaining two matches of the season? It's win or bust at Bolton on Saturday, something that everyone knew already. One hopes that this bit of glowing news, at a time when gloom has threatened to envelop the club, stadium and city, might yet help the players appreciate what they have and find a last scrap of endeavour and heart to reward us with a glorious leap from danger.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Keep that fat lady out of our sight

The result of the Newcastle United v Middlesbrough game couldn't have been more ghastly for Hull City's survival prospects, but ultimately a team with a record in this calendar year as poor as ours doesn't need other teams to experience an upsurge in form in order to rubberstamp our fate.

Yet it's not impolite to point out to the joyous Geordies that they're not safe yet.

I don't expect us to get another point for the rest of the season. But the last fortnight of a season can do queer things to clubs in the brown stuff, and maybe the sight of us finally in the relegation zone might permit the players to free up, relax and play with the monkey subconsciously removed from their collective backs. And if that does happen, I'd back us to get a point, at least, at Bolton Wanderers. I look at the games involving the teams around us and I wouldn't back any of them to get a thing, relaxed or not.

It's a strange old situation that we could still go down if we collect all six of the remaining points available, or stay up with just one. Many a straw has been grabbed in the online lobbies, where the Tiger Nation seem to believe that if Manchester United have won the title by this weekend, which they probably will, then Sir Alex Ferguson will field his third string - plus Darren Fletcher - when they visit the KC on the final day. Of course, a Manchester United third string may still be skilled enough to beat a first string Hull City, although it may help our cause if they've recalled Manucho by then and stuck him in a red shirt for the day...

It will, theoretically, go to the last day of the season, although a defeat for us and a victory for Newcastle and at least a mere draw for Sunderland will send us down on goal difference. Any more helpful combinations of results could keep us in the loop and with Newcastle playing a resurgent Fulham, a draw could well be enough to remove us from the bottom three again. Then all we have to do is beat Manchester United...

I want to try to forget about it until this weekend, but I can't. Everyone now expects us to go down, as if Newcastle United will somehow end the season with three straight wins as a result of finally managing one. The difference between being the establishment, copy-inducing club and the upstarts with the over-talkative manager, I suppose. My heart and head say different things, but I don't actually know which one claims we can still stay up.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

36: Hull City 1 - 2 Stoke City - 09/05/2009

Well, we were warned. Mainly by ourselves. Far too much scope was placed on the prospect of beating Stoke City at the KC Stadium in order to satisfy our belief that Hull City could not possibly go down.

Well, we lost. We were absolutely awful. And we probably will go down now.

If we don't, if that miracle occurs, then it will be solely because the three teams below us - all of whom have got closer to the Tigers now - will be too inept to take advantage of the situation. Nobody will expect us to get anything from Bolton Wanderers next week while we remain so disorganised, shredded of confidence and tactically bewildered. Then it's Manchester United at home - well, if they are already champions, they may just put out their third string in order to rest the Champions League side that will play in Rome three days later. And to that end, we may just escape with a 1-0 defeat.

City won't get another point this season. That's how it feels right now. Only a free kick in the 95th minute from Andy Dawson got us a goal in this match, by which time Stoke had won it, patiently yet mercilessly. They barely needed to break sweat in doing so.

Geovanni was dropped - a moot point to some, but surely correct given the matchwinner was not looking remotely capable of winning us a match - and Nick Barmby was restored to the attack. Kevin Kilbane, as expected and hoped, was chosen to replace the kneecapped Ian Ashbee in the middle ahead of Dean Marney, while Craig Fagan returned to the left flank. Stoke picked heroic ex-City central defender Leon Cort for the first time in a while.

The attacks are mixed and initially it's the Tigers who have the possession. However, rarely do we look dangerous, whereas Stoke's chances are fewer in number but greater in danger.

A quick free kick gives Matthew Etherington room to shoot but he does so wide of Boaz Myhill's goal. This represents Stoke's best opportunity, while a heavy-breathing City side contrive to create pasable opportunities without coming very close at all. Daniel Cousin's header from Fagan's cross is tipped over by Thomas Sorensen and Kilbane spears one wide from Barmby's knockdown, not aided by a last-ditch challenge which was enough to put the Irishman off.

Possession remains City's, but the sparkle still evades them. A long passing sequence of aesthetic pleasure but minor penetrative quality eventually forces a corner, which Kilbane swipes across and Michael Turner heads over. Sam Ricketts then aims another ball at Barmby, and the industrious Richard Garcia benefits from the knockdown this time, having plenty of time to line up his drive which Sorensen deals with low down.

Stoke soaked it up. High balls were a gimme for the tallest defence in football and they gobbled up almost everything City tried. Their work ethic and general attitude was laudable, and has been all season. That a team with such an abject away record, however, can waltz off with three points from the KC Stadium is a damning indictment of how pathetic and badly marshalled our team has become.

Liam Lawrence, who has risen from the depths of football at much the same rate as the Tigers did, hit an angled shot that mildly surprised Myhill, who motionlessly watched it on to the roof of his net. It was a sign of things to come.

City plodded on. George Boateng's cross flew beyond the targetted Cousin forehead and Barmby threw himself ballwards, making no contact at all. Kamil Zayatte, staying up after a set-piece, then crossed for Cousin to make enough room for a shot that he slices high and ugly.

A typical and worrying Stoke counter attack. Ricardo Fuller, odious and talented in equal measure, sets Etherington away and his long cross finds Lawrence, whose shot is goalbound but for a deflection. Corner given, Lawrence swings it to the near post and Fuller takes advantage of nobody wishing to clear it by stabbing a hurtfully loose ball past Myhill and in.

It was a rotten goal, rottenly defended, preventable in the extreme, but it typifies how much City seem to have forgotten lately. For all our relative success at our own set-pieces this season, we've also been beyond contempt at times at defending them. Few of the goals conceded by the Tigers have been the type where you hold your hands up at Premier League quality shining through - they've been disdainfully avoidable, like this one.

Half time. Stoke are playing to their strengths and winning. We are still wondering where our strength is.

The second half. Improvement is required with urgency, but it doesn't arrive. Kilbane forces a near post Sorensen save and Garcia's header is well plucked from the sky by the keeper before Stoke fight back, the impressive Glenn Whelan dipping one on to Myhill's roof with, again, the keeper unaware to track the ball's progress and standing alarmingly still.

Garcia is becoming City's main threat, a player of obvious ability and heart, but then he is inexplicably substituted, with the effervescent and irritating Bernard Mendy on in his place. Cousin, starved of service and support, wanders off and Manucho gallops on to spend the remaining 20 minutes not touching the ball at all.

Stoke win a corner. It's cleared to Whelan, who again leaves Myhill stranded with a distant hit that manages to touch the inside of the post and bounce mercifully out. Yet the second goal for a side evidently yanking black and amber chains is clearly imminent. Zayatte takes a second whack on the head - he was already in a numberless shirt and large bandage from an earlier thwack - and is replaced by Geovanni, with Kilbane dropping back.

Before any new formation prompted by Zayatte's unwell departure can be established, the second goal arrives and the Tigers feel the daggers go through their weakened hearts. It's a brilliant counter attack, orchestrated by Fuller's powerful run and sideways ball to Lawrence who, with everyone in existence expecting a cross, puts a superb, winding shot beyond a statuesque Myhill and into the far corner with absolute authority and style. An exceptional goal. And a gutting one.

Any togetherness and spirit evaporates among the City camp at that precise point, and the fans know the game is up too. Stoke are not the favourite team of folk round East Riding's greeneries, and with justification, but right now they are easy to envy - a club that knew its strengths, ignored the snipers and invested astutely in the transfer window rather than blithely assuming that strengthening was unnecessary as safety was assured. Spot the difference.

City's remaining involvement in the game involved playing high, directionless balls which Cort and co took a greath joy in nodding away. Playing such balls to the tallest defence in the division ranked of stupidity and apathy. The game was up, figuratively and literally.

Dawson's divine 95th minute free kick - the stricken Zayatte prompted the injury time - gave him a first Premier League goal in what may turn into his only Premier League season, and there's personal cheer to be had from such an exemplary club servant getting that on his statistic sheet. But it was a hollow moment for the Hull City collective, and had Geovanni's deflected shot upon the restart gone two inches inside the post and instead of outside, then the most ludicrous example of papering over the cracks would have been achieved. In a way, it's probably best that it didn't, as hope is far harder to control than anguish.

So then, a victor in the Tyne Tees derby and City are either in the bottom three on goal difference, or out of it purely by the same path. A draw would still offer hope in theory, but in practise the season and the Premier League adventure looks dead. If we stay up, it'll be simply and only because three teams continue to be even worse than us, and that would make us the luckiest football team on earth.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Kilbane's time has come

Experience is a greatly praised quality which, by definition, can only be levelled at a certain generation of professional footballer. It is currently the attribute which most keeps Kevin Kilbane in the Hull City picture, and more than ever now do we need it.

Kilbane is likely to shift from the left flank to the heart of the team for the visit of Stoke City after the horrible but not unexpected news that the industrial strength whack Ian Ashbee took across his knee at Aston Villa on Monday night has ended his season. The prognosis is a ruptured posterior cruciate ligament.

Ashbee's return after suspension lasted nine minutes, and now we've lost him for these crucial, all-compassing, do or die three games which remain. However, for all his game experience, he was still learning as a Premier League player, using his leadership and human nous as much as his ability to get through the type of matches which he, at the age of 32, had not encountered before.

For all the disappointment and worry which will come from losing the Tigers captain, the movement of Kilbane to partner George Boateng in the centre will at least create a midfield of every kind of experience. They are seasoned international performers, longtime Premier League players and in their 30s. Ashbee only has age and personal characteristics on his side; these two have actual big games on their CVs. Both have played for their countries (although Boateng is a novice compared to the highly becapped Kilbane) while they have also played for very big clubs (Aston Villa, Everton) with European qualification or domestic success a real ambition. Ashbee has played big games in context with a long Hull City career - relegation dogfights, promotion clinchers, a certain game at Wembley - but more comes from being in the top games within the top of the game.

It must also be Kilbane who replaces Ashbee as the other alternative is Dean Marney, a player who while clearly skilled, is shorn of every ounce of confidence which he displayed so triumphantly when playing his rampaging role in the glorious 4-3-3 of the autumn. The vacancy Kilbane will create on the left can allow a return for Nick Barmby, whose presence will create a three-man midfield of considerable experience, and again of the type most craved in a situation like that of the Tigers.

Kilbane has, furthermore, proven far more effective as a central midfielder than he has a wide one since joining the Tigers in January.

The absence of the mighty Ashbee will be mourned, not least by his manager, who believes him to be a captain of class and genuine influence. But losing him as a player isn't the end providing the main attributes he leaves behind are reproduced by the very men chosen to replace him.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

35: Aston Villa 1 - 0 Hull City - 04/05/2009

It's getting crazy now. Another 1-0 defeat thanks to another offside goal (albeit more borderline than the one which Sunderland got just over a fortnight ago) and Hull City don't take another opportunity to pull away from the spectre of relegation.

With all those results going the way of the Tigers over the weekend, and the knowledge that Aston Villa were going through a severely dodgy spell of results but had their European spot sewn up and boxed off, it was such a good chance. So good. You could almost touch the prospect of safety.

And we didn't take it.

We didn't really look close.

That's not casting any cruel or unflattering aspersions on City's players. They tried. But we aren't good enough, and more obvious than ever is it that if we do stay up, it'll because of the bad attitude of the teams below us, rather than any quality on our part.

Some tweaks to the team were very welcome when they buzzed on to the mobile phones of the Tiger Nation pre-match - Daniel Cousin was, at last, starting a game again. We had a goalscorer on the pitch. Ian Ashbee was back, not unexpectedly, after his suspension. Andy Dawson was there to add solidity to the defence again after missing the Liverpool game with a training injury. Richard Garcia was back in midfield after being surprisingly missing for the last three weeks.

City got underway before a throaty away support, enjoying an exceptional view from the side of the wonderful Villa Park arena that remains vastly underrated as a ground because it doesn't host a 'top four' team. Things were bright from the off when Kevin Kilbane launched a long throw with which Zat Knight's clearing header only partially dealt, and Ashbee thundered a low volley just a yard or so wide.

This was Ashbee's last contribution. Tragically, and chillingly, he stayed down when going into a legitimate 50-50 challenge with James Milner. No foul was committed by either, and both were hurt, but while Milner managed to get some life back into his leg and continue, Ashbee was hobbling beyond even superficial repair and, a minute after returning to the action, he was replaced by Dean Marney.

This was a hefty blow for City; not just because Ashbee's brand of leadership is so crucial to a cause such as this, but also because Marney, while the only clear replacement available on the bench, is still lacking any type of confidence whatsoever. The unforgiving Tiger Nation don't tend to treat confidence players with sympathy, despite the obvious counter-productivity of barracking, but Marney soon had the crowd on his back when his first pass was negative, and especially when a clearance fell to his left boot at 20 yards from goal and he only made contact with fresh air. Marney's abilities are stifled by his own self-doubt, and this makes him as useful on the ball as a ratter like Ashbee is, but without anything like the extra virtues the skipper does bring to the team.

Play continues, and City are doing okay. Cousin aims a volley too high and Geovanni miskicks a reasonable opportunity at the far post from Kilbane's delivery. In between, Michael Turner concedes a free kick and Milner, by some distance the best performer on the field, whips a curler around the wall which Boaz Myhill, back at the club that let him go to a bottom division City for peppercorns six seasons ago, tips nicely over the bar.

Villa broke the deadlock, unexpectedly but perhaps not undeservedly, when George Boateng - also on old territory - mislaid the ball near the opposition box and allowed Gareth Barry to send the nimble Ashley Young on a mission down the left. His inside ball was met - just - the instep of John Carew whose touch was minimal but nonetheless enough to divert the ball past Myhill.

Television replays were inconclusive. You could probably split the number of people who thought it onside and who thought it not, for either team, right down the middle.

City try to rally. Geovanni gets everyone excited when he lines up a 30-yard free kick. Perhaps the excitement is rather premature, as he proceeds to perform a horrid slice of the ball not seen in a City game since Neil Aspin struck the corner flag when playing for Leeds United at Boothferry Park in early 1988. Geovanni could at least say his chance was more difficult - Aspin was in the penalty area when his madness occurred - but for a player of such talent, of such capability for the brilliant, to commit an act of such unspeakable horror with a football is unforgivable. It's Geovanni's nadir. His only way is up now, assuming he is actually picked again.

That is only half a joke, as once Geovanni wriggled smartly away from Barry and Milner only to then opt to shoot - with unflailing inaccuracy - from distance instead of giving an unshepherded Cousin an opportunity, the red mist descended. Cousin and Geovanni argued for the remaining few minutes of the half (in heaven only knows what language) and were on the brink of fisticuffs as the players trooped down the tunnel at the break. Evidence of who was deemed the culprit was obvious when Cousin returned for the second half but the fallen Brazilian didn't, with Nick Barmby taking his place. During all this handbaggy nonsense, Myhill had made a fine save from the exciting but currently formless Gabriel Agbonlahor, though the criticism of him by Villa fans is beyond any pale - if you don't want him, we could certainly make use of him.

The second half, then. It was a bit better, though again this was as much about Villa's policy of maintaining rather than creating, and even then only when Manucho came on to replace Kilbane in the last 20 minutes did we look like an authentic, equaliser-seeking side. Ahead of this final throw of the dice, Myhill had made three excellent saves; tipping round the post Barry's long-distance shot, beating away Milner's fizzing low drive and, best of all, slapping Carew's point blank header on to the roof of the net while everyone of a black and amber persuasion was appealing for another offside that never arrived. Such was the anger at this non-decision that nobody got round to noticing the quality of the save until much later, and Myhill was, unfortunately, not heralded for it.

City had a bizarre and embarrassing free kick which Cousin and Kilbane got so confused over that neither made room for the other to shoot before a Villa foot was, lawfully, getting in the way. Fortunately, it got in the way of Cousin's shin rather than the ball and so another set-piece was proffered, and this time Dawson, with the aid of an indignant travelling support who have wondered aloud all season why our proficient free-kick taker has been so rarely used on them this season, shoved the others out the way and prepared his own attempt, which deflected off the wall for a corner.

Cousin shot at the keeper after a cross from Sam Ricketts which had been pretty much his first successful foray to the byline, then a Dawson free kick, whipped in low, had both Manucho and Kamil Zayatte lunging at it, but only the latter got a touch and it wasn't so meaningful as to trouble Brad Friedel, who clutched the ball on his line.

City forced three corners in succession during the four added minutes, the first of which produced a Boateng shot which was heading goalwards but rebounded wide by a desperate Villa leg. Myhill went up for the second and stayed there for the third, and was in possession of the ball on the left wing upon the final whistle's knell.

Another defeat, and another one to chalk off and forget. The advantage remains ours and gets a little stronger as the games, slowly but visibly, begin to run out. We're still three clear of the drop and Stoke City, a team easy to despise but who we would kill to be right now (apart from the bit about being based in Stoke on Trent), come to the KC on Saturday. It's too easy to say we should win, given their lamentable away record, as we are next to useless at home too. But we'd rather have Stoke at home than any other fixture whatsoever this weekend, and with two of the teams chasing us playing each other and being most frightened of the prospect, it is still in our hands. It's up to us whether we elect to spill it or not.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Up to us

The weekend could not have gone better - West Bromwich Albion lost with a fight, Middlesbrough lost due to being outclassed, Newcastle United lost and proved what a joke of a team they really are, Sunderland lost with an an attitude problem, Blackburn Rovers lost, Portsmouth lost, Stoke City lost.

A win at Aston Villa tonight will take the Tigers six points clear of relegation with nine left for all teams to compete for. A draw will create a four point margin, which would require Newcastle or Middlesbrough to get at least one win from their remaining games, plus something from another. And we have Stoke City at home on Saturday, the worst travellers in football.

It's in our hands. Those boys will know it. Villa are a scary prospect, but they haven't won for two months and are in form not dissimilar to ours. We must grab this chance. We must.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The captain of our hearts

Ian Ashbee
will be free of suspension and returns to the Hull City side for the game at Aston Villa on Monday night. When Ashbee is available, Ashbee plays. It is a default position for the Tigers captain, and a privileged one too, especially in a Premier League climate.

Phil Brown sees a player in his own image in Ashbee, a late achiever who has earned a level of respect through graft and bloody-mindedness. Brown was the lower league full back who earned late appreciation in a fledgling Bolton Wanderers side when he was in his early 30s; Ashbee, similarly, lifted the play-off trophy at Wembley at the age 31. Brown's token ex-club that now languishes in the non-league pyramid is Halifax Town; and few will forget that Ashbee ummed and aahed over a proposed move to Hull City from Cambridge United back in 2002.

Ashbee's contribution this season has encapsulated the general feeling about Ashbee the player as a whole. As a captain, he is flawless; he leads through encouragement as much as admonishment, he plays a simple game and permits the better players to be better, and he is quick to leap in to protect hyper or angry players from themselves. Brown also makes it clear that Ashbee's ability to lead when off the park - at functions, community events, official duties - is that of an expert. As a player, however, he has peaks and troughs which are somehow easier to spot than they would be on more refined footballers. He isn't renowned for passing, but at times has played some marvellous spreading balls that have earned generous applause; yet equally he is also adept at giving away possession in the daftest of areas, often to great cost.

The simple truth is, however, that the Hull City team is a better unit when Ashbee is around, just for the level of leadership his presence brings. When the fans are screaming blue murder at the luckless Dean Marney or the headstrong Bernard Mendy, it's Ashbee who is keeping their feet grounded, gently but urgently telling them they can and will do better. This isn't as an instruction, an order, but as an example of his belief in them, a belief he passes on through the manager that selects them.

It is probably Marney that Ashbee will replace at Villa Park, which is a pity in one way as it's easy to argue that Marney's purple patch of the autumn was down to having both Ashbee and the excellent George Boateng, essentially two captains, backing him up in the centre of the field. Boateng's recent return after a knee injury coincided with Ashbee's ban for a stack of yellow cards - his second of the season - and while it was a relief to see Boateng's rehabilitation just in time for Ashbee's forcible removal, it would have been terrific to see those three in midfield again.

However, we are no longer the untried, unheralded and underrated newbies on the block, and a sturdier, stronger midfield, based on width and work, is required behind a front two. Marney may yet fit the bill, especially as he didn't play shabbily against Liverpool, but whether it's for the nerves of a promotion campaign or a strive to fight the drop, you send for Ashbee if Ashbee is there to be sent for.