Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Ricketts to ride



What a roaring pity it would be if Sam Ricketts were to leave Hull City, even with a passable £2 million to cushion the blow.

Stories are circulating, each with slightly more evident conviction than its predecessor, that Ricketts has chosen not to extend his current contract and is therefore on the market.

The Welsh full back, signed by Phil Parkinson in the summer of 2006, has a year to run on his deal and Portsmouth, bathing in sterling after flogging Glen Johnson to Liverpool, see him as a reliable replacement who won't cost the earth. If they get him, they'll get a fine footballer.

However, for the Tiger Nation, it will represent a disappointing way to say goodbye to a performer who combined real aptitude with a sturdiness and dependability that, collectively, proves a rare commodity.

Ricketts has family by both blood and marriage with homes and business interests in the south of England and it seems he is looking at a move in that direction in order to make his domestic circumstances a little easier to control. If this is the case, nobody should try to stand in his way.

Maybe it's this which prevents commentators on the club from bleating a little about Ricketts. He has never come across as any sort of mercenary - indeed, his career once saw him sink into the non-league game in order to get pitch time, so he is aware of his fortunate situation more than many in his position - and so only the stoniest hearts would not wish him well if he were to leave the KC.

Although the three remaining players who have featured for the Tigers in all four divisions bring out the heftiest chest-beating tendencies within the supporters, Ricketts has, in a controlled and gentile manner, bolted his own place in club folklore by being, quite simply, the best player in his position ever to wear City colours. He is a shoo-in, a right back of class and distinction and was, crucially, as consistent and reliable in his first season with the club - the Parkinson farce in the Championship tightly salvaged by Phil Brown - as he was the following year when the Tigers rolled up in the play-off final and had the audacity to win the damn thing.

And, last season, his character was called into question by a slow, troubled beginning to top-flight life (the swiping own goal against Wigan Athletic early in the campaign was as horrific as any error committed during more hostile times later on) which saw his removal from the team for the first time, with fellow international Paul McShane arriving as a temporary replacement. Ricketts fidgeted on the bench, with occasional run-outs if Andy Dawson was unfit or when McShane was ineligible, and only found himself restored to the line-up when the Irishman's loan expired in the New Year. From here onwards, he re-established himself as defender, attack-minded and blessed with stamina, whose ability to overlap and rain in crosses was complemented by a new, more approachable brand of concentrated defending. He had a couple of superb games - which was rare for any player during the long spring of woe - down the flank as he and Richard Garcia dug up the spirit and connection they'd enjoyed so often during the promotion season, and ultimately he would emerge from the campaign bruised but vindicated by his personal upturn in form and the club's hair-breadth survival. A couple of excellent games in the centre of defence during a painful injury crisis helped him no end.

Ricketts is as good on one flank as he is on another - he has been always a club right back and a country left back - and this rare utility status is something the Tigers have been able to keep as a handy second option, although he has almost always been on the right when playing for City. His face value ability at right back and his kinetic ability at left back (plus now a useful last resort for the middle) means he will be hard to replace. Irrespective of the reasons he gives for rejecting fresh terms with the club, it would be nice to believe that serious effort is being made to persuade him into a change of mind. He really deserves it. But if he does go, he deserves the thanks and good wishes of every single person who saw him play.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

One of our Owen?

Bloody hell, Michael Owen?

City have declared an interest in him and a meeting is being set up.

This is crazy. It's outrageous. It's also fantastic, despite the many cautionary words offered by fans whose fingers still bear burn marks from the many false dawns of the recent past.

There are a good dozen reasons why we shouldn't sign Michael Owen. They are all sensible, unprejudiced, cogent reasons.

There is also one reason why we should sign Michael Owen.

He's Michael Owen.

That's why.

He has scored 40 goals for England in little more than twice that in appearances. He is still a feared, respected, liked footballer. He is not yet 30 years of age.

Anyone who wants to concentrate on his injury woes, his attitude, his wages and his general disposition should try to fill their glass a little more. If - and yes, it's a sizeable if - he can stay fit, he will score bagfuls of goals. He is a finisher, an exceptional one, a proven one, a natural one. When we consider just how dismal our goalscoring prowess was in the season just gone, and then find out our club is organising a meeting with England's best striker - statistically so, of course - for a generation, we have to be positive about it.

There are also obvious commercial benefits to signing one of the nation's most successful footballers, but what occurs on the pitch remains the most compelling argument.

Just think. Owen up front, playing ahead of Jimmy Bullard and inside players like Geovanni or Bernard Mendy, possibly yet alongside Fraizer Campbell, or the French lad Marc-Antoine Fortune who spent last season on loan at West Bromwich Albion. It's a line-up made to make your mouth water.

He didn't feature enough at Newcastle United, of course. But he still ended up as top scorer despite being absent for a good chunk of the campaign and also despite often playing in a more withdrawn role, not always by design, due to the total lack of craft on show in the positions around and behind that of a central striker.

A thousand hurdles need to be scaled before the Tigers get close to putting a pen in Owen's hand and showing him the dotted line. But there's no reason why we couldn't sign him and, really, there is also no reason why we shouldn't.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Masterful

The first ever Hull City IX to compete in the televised indoor Masters tournament has been confirmed and, as hoped by this very blog, the correct chap has been installed as captain, which bodes well for the event in Sheffield on July 18th.

The squad then:

Justin Whittle
Captain, defender and still the recipient of substantial hero-worship from the generation of twentysomething Tigers fans who cast him as their icon during the eventful last throes of lowest division life. Whittle is the ex-squaddie who joined City midway through the Great Escape campaign in a totally re-organised defence, and took on the captaincy and the on-pitch responsibility for some long-awaited progress as City avoided the Conference and began to fight back. He was treated shabbily and eventually let go by Peter Taylor, which has contributed as much to his post-Tigers allure as anything on the pitch he managed at Boothferry Park. He is now 38 and playing in local non-league football for North Ferriby United.

Steve Wilson
Ten years this talented keeper spent at City without ever really being first choice thanks to a succession of decent keepers (the club's one unproblematic position throughout the 1990s) all being in the squad to displace him at one point or another. A boy from the rougher end of the city's east ("he's Bransholme's number one!"), Wilson made his debut at 17 and finally left for Macclesfield Town at the age of 27, prior to a single year at Tranmere and then returning to the Hull area, donning his gloves in the non-league scene with Hall Road Rangers and now Ferriby. He should have been given a testimonial by the Tigers, and it remains a minor scandal to this day that he wasn't. Now 35.

Neil Allison
Another local lad who debuted at 17, Allison was a centre back who never really fulfilled his early potential but hung around for a good few years under Terry Dolan before drifting into foreign and non-league football. He is now 35 and is Whittle and Wilson's manager at Ferriby.

John Anderson
A one-season wonder, immense alongside Whittle at the back before injuries ruined his pre-season the next year and made it impossible for him to reclaim his spot. Now 36, he is Allison's assistant at Ferriby.

Lee Warren
Underrated, cool holding midfielder who played frequently for four managers in six seasons prior to joining Doncaster Rovers and being part of the team that got relegated into non-league. Now 40.

Garry Parker
The real catch of the squad and still one of the finest midfielders ever to wear a City shirt. Parker was already and England Under 21 player when his old skipper Brian Horton signed him from Luton Town, and he duly held court over the midfield for two seasons before some big money from Nottingham Forest prompted his sale in 1988, which Horton has since admitted he shouldn't have sanctioned. Won domestic honours with Forest and scored some highly memorable goals, and later won further medals with Aston Villa and Leicester. Now 43, he was last seen playing for non-league side Kidlington and running their stiffs team. One imagines he runs even less now than he used to at his peak, but can probably still out-pass anyone.

Leigh Jenkinson
Probably more famous for winning the Yorkshire heat of the Rumbelows Sprint Challenge (grotty tie-in athletics challenge coinciding with League Cup sponsorship) in 1992 than for his five years at Boothferry Park, Jenkinson was nevertheless an exciting left winger who came through the ranks and proved one of the rare useful performers in a declining side. Got a big money move to Coventry and then spent most of his remaining career in Scotland. Turns 40 a week before making his return for City in this tournament.

Duane Darby
Famously scored six in one FA Cup tie against Whitby Town, a feat which remains a competition record while also saving the Tigers single-handedly from what would have been the most humiliating match in the club's history (the game ended 8-4). Darby was a workhorse and a useful striker in all situations and remains fondly recalled in a mid-90s period that was almost exclusively made up of dross. Now 35.

John Eyre
Reliable, if not absolutely prolific, goalscorer under Joyce and then Brian Little who put away what had been City's only ever goal in the play-offs until the promotion campaign of 2008. His solitary strike against Leyton Orient in the 2001 semi-final at Boothferry Park remains his most famous goal for City, even though a 2-0 reversal in the return leg ruined hopes of the final and a stab at promotion. Eyre left the same summer, to many people's surprise, and he rejoined Oldham Athletic, who had been his first club despite being Hull born. Now 35.

These nine players will represent the Tigers against both Sheffield clubs, Barnsley, Doncaster Rovers and Leeds United. An odd coincidence is that City's pre-season friendly at Ferriby, which occurs every summer, is on the same day, with a noon kick off. The presence of Allison and Anderson, plus captain Whittle and keeper Wilson, makes the coincidence all the more odd as at least two of them - Allison and Anderson are players too, but rarely turn out - will be scheduled to play in that friendly prior to beetling down the M18 to Sheffield.

Nick Barmby will probably play some role on the day for City at Church Road, which presumably explains why he, as a Premier League player rather than a non-league player, isn't involved in the Masters team.

The prospect of seeing these players - especially Parker, Jenkinson and Whittle - representing Hull City again is simply mouth-watering.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Going for goals


It has been heartening to see Hull City being connected to some strikers this week, even though truth is often a secondary commodity within transfer gossip, behind that of intrigue.

If Phil Brown was told to name just one area of the squad to strengthen, he would immediately point to the need for firepower. Proper goalscorers. Chaps who are either proven at Premier League level or at least have real potential to show they are capable of mixing it with the best defenders and outwitting the best goalkeepers.

It's not rocket science. City could do with some extra brute force in the centre of midfield and some extra quality on the flanks, especially the left. The defence needs a right back (more so now that Sam Ricketts is apparently reluctant to extend his deal) and a spare centre back would be handy in case Kamil Zayatte proves too wayward, Anthony Gardner too unfit and deferred arrival Stephen Mouyokolo too slow to settle. But beyond any of this, they need hitmen. The real thing.

Our best finisher - assuming we restrict it to specialist centre forwards and therefore discount Geovanni - is Daniel Cousin, who is ageing, not always fit and has publicly cast his eye on a big payday in the Middle East before giving up the game. After that we have Caleb Folan and Craig Fagan, whose collective aptitude for composure, anticipation and ruthlessness in front of goal is, especially in Folan's case, beyond unimpressive. Manucho has gone back to Manchester United but had become not the most dedicated barn door enthusiast we'd ever seen. His predecessor on loan, Marlon King, is a fine finisher but has clear character flaws which tarnish his obvious ability. We did miss King for his marksmanship, if not his networking skills, when he flounced out of the KC Stadium in January, and only now are we able to really replace him to everyone's satisfaction.

Three players have so far been dangled, via the tabloids, in front of the City fans' collective nostrils, with the club confirming any interest in just one. That is Fraizer Campbell, hero of the promotion campaign when on loan from Manchester United. He has had a season of frustration at Tottenham Hotspur, borrowed by a manager heading helplessly for the exit and ignored by his successor who instead chose to re-acquire the two experienced forwards flogged by the club over the previous year. Campbell epitomises suitability for Hull City, providing we can envisage the risk which comes with signing a player who can outplay the entire Championship but still has no visible Premier League pedigree. He adores the club, has reasons to thank the manager, will get all the leeway he needs (and more) from the fans and will know that there will be no massive outlay on more proven (and expensive) superstars to dent his progress.

The talk is of a £45,000 a week deal for Campbell. Not being party to the club's wage structure, I'd nonetheless suppose that no other player - including Cousin, Geovanni or even Jimmy Bullard - is on this sort of money. To pay it to an unproven kid who is being signed on trust as much as anything else (as well as £6m to his club) is quite a bold step by the Tigers. But Campbell has to be worth it.

The other two names mentioned - Kevin Davies and Marlon Harewood - are longer in the tooth and will be purchased with their attitudes and reputations already set down for them. Davies in particular is a much-admired centre forward at this level and should be expected, in the event of his arrival, to just carry on with City where he left off with Bolton Wanderers. Harewood has been frozen out by Aston Villa but has distinct capabilities at this level. Neither of these established figures will get any settling time, despite being cheaper acquisitions in both fees and wages. Campbell will cost more but the paradox is that less will be expected of him, initially at least.

It's good that these connections are being made, but the club have made no comment and aired no confirmation or otherwise on Davies or Harewood. As far as I'm concerned, I'd sign all three of the blighters. The lack of goals last season was easily the most visible aspect of our demise. With two of these three feeding off any combination of Bullard, Geovanni, Bernard Mendy, Nick Barmby and Richard Garcia, goals would hopefully be far easier to come by.

Friday, 5 June 2009

So, farewell then...

Phil Brown's decision to release four big-name players will have been made months ago. All four were out of contract, two had been proven unworthy of Premier League football and the other two were hangers-on, perennially on loan and with no hope at all of being a first team player at the KC Stadium again.

There was no David Livermore figure this year. He was freed at the close of his contract last season for entirely political reasons and more because of the specific terms of his deal than anything else. Livermore garnered mega sympathy from the Tiger Nation as they recalled his excellent personal contribution to the Championship escape of 2007 when he had initially arrived at the club in the most underwhelming of fashions.

This time round, however, the quartet of departures leave without fanfare or a need for explanation. Ryan France has a secure place in City's history, having been quietly influential in Peter Taylor's two promotion campaigns and eventually added his name as the fourth player to represent the club in all four tiers of the English game.



France's release is no surprise but he should feel no shame in it either, and this level-headed, versatile and talented player deserves to be fondly regarded by the Tiger Nation for his honesty and professionalism over six years with the club, especially when you consider he cost peanuts from the non-league pyramid. He deserves to join another good club and continue an admirable career.

Michael Bridges and John Welsh were the most telegraphed in the departure stakes and will be recalled less easily. They draw parallels with one another in that they arrived with fantastic pedigrees and reputations and proceeded to throw it all away. Bridges was a nuisance in the dressing room, surly and confrontational despite obvious ability and Brown couldn't wait to send him to the other side of the world on loan. Welsh was less of a divisive figure but still a wasted talent, using an old Liverpudlian grudge on fellow academy graduate Neil Mellor to break his own leg more than two years ago and not remotely sniffing the scent of the first team since his recovery. His attitude has been further scrutinised by some deeply unimpressive loan spells at lower division clubs.



While we have brilliant solo goals to remember each by - Bridges' 30 yard curler at Leicester, Welsh's stunning mazy run and finish at Coventry - these were very much isolated reeds of quality within soggy marshes of mediocrity and neither player will be mourned. Each leave with a feeling of what might, or indeed should, have been.

Even the exodus of Dean Windass, the biggest Hull City hero of the modern era, is greeted with little more than a knowing shrug and a smile of recognition. Sentiment plays no part in football and the fans who love their heroes know that as well as any professional within the game. Windass is 40 and cannot play Premier League football. He is a freakish enough example of nature by being 40 and still being able to play and perform better than blokes half his age, but there is no way he could ever do that at the very highest level.



Windass leaves after two tremendous, iconic spells with the club. The first was about his superstardom in a dying team, his commitment to the cause as Terry Dolan's negative regime dragged the club ever downwards was one of the few laudable sights in a cauldron of ineptitude. The way he clung on to his City career until it was obvious that any further ruling of heart over head could leave him bankrupt was as admirable as any great goal he scored or any gesture of defiance he aimed at those who dared rubbish the Tigers as an existence. He remained a hero when he quit the club for Aberdeen at the end of 1995 as City finally succumbed to a bottom flight return and, like Andy Payton before him, he spent much of his subsequent career openly wishing that he would end his playing days back at the club that burst him on to the scene.

Windass had the chance to return once City's traumas had been overcome and Taylor was in charge, but Taylor decided that he was an unnecessary investment once he had acquired Nick Barmby for a stab at League One in the summer of 2004. Taylor stated he didn't think the two Hull lads could play together. He was wrong, and freely admits so. If a City fixture didn't clash with one involving Windass, he would be watching his team, his team in action. The love and respect that Windass maintained for the Tigers was evident when, in that same campaign, Bradford came to the KC and won 1-0 with a wonder goal, but Windass spent the majority of the game responding to the varied verbal appeals of the crowd. He and Wayne Jacobs, another ex-Tiger who should never have been in a position to leave, spent half an hour applauding the Tiger Nation at the end of that game.

Windass finally returned, on loan, under Brown in January 2007, to many people's surprise. There was obvious delight too, but he was still a bottom division player with Bradford - albeit a distinguished one - and while his desire for the cause and club would never be in doubt, one wondered whether a player pushing 38 who had not played at second-tier level for a bit would be good enough to help the Tigers avoid a drop that had begun to look likely under the brief and wretched Phil Parkinson regime.

Brown had only been in charge for a month but knew he needed more power and bite up front. Five centre forwards were at the club already but four of these five were out of sorts in a major way and for varying reasons. Nicky Forster was the exception, with his selfless endeavour and exceptional stamina proving a boon, but he didn't score enough goals. Windass came in and sorted that almost immediately. He settled in for a few games, then scored both goals in a 2-0 win over promotion-chasing Birmingham City, then followed it up with a brace against Ipswich Town (albeit still in defeat, a black mark will remain next to Danny Coles' name for life thanks to this game) and a stunning hat-trick against Southend United.

By the time City visited Cardiff City in the penultimate game of the season, the chance had materialised to earn safety by winning and, deliciously, praying for a Leeds United defeat. Windass scored the only goal of the game - an opportunist's strike after reacting quickest to a rebound from Stephen McPhee's drive - and provoked some of the wildest celebrations ever seen amongst the Tiger Nation. These celebrations got wilder when news of Leeds going behind filtered through. When the whistles went at both games, City had survived at the direct expense of their most hated rivals thanks to a goal from one of their own who had come back to the club for that very reason. Too far-fetched a script it seemed when he signed, but it's precisely what happened. And it was more than enough to earn him a two-year deal.

Of course, the activities of Windass in his first full season back home made for a different tale entirely. Aside from suddenly becoming rubbish at taking penalties (the only one he got was the clincher at Wolves - eventually Dean Marney took over the job), he had a mesmerising season, made all the more iconic by the recruitment of a supertalented lad almost half his age alongside him. Fraizer Campbell was raw but brilliant, and he added to his obvious skill and finishing prowess by learning the rougher, meatier, more devious side of the game from the grizzled pro playing alongside him. The two were in regular cahoots on the pitch and, with Caleb Folan's occasional help (he was the million pound man, yet the third choice of three strikers behind a 38 year old former hod carrier and a kid with no experience and barely on solids), scored the goals that made sure a play-off dream, at the very least, remained alive.

There were plenty of highlights for Windass that season. He scored both goals in a 2-1 win at Scunthorpe United, a wonderful free kick to see off Sheffield Wednesday at the KC and came off the bench to apply an instant finish at Barnsley late in the season, at which point it felt like promotion was almost inevitable. That we had to do it via the play-offs just allowed more stanzas to be added to the Windass legend, and he butted home the second goal at Watford in the first leg of the semi-final before, of course, cracking in the most famous of all Hull City volleys from Campbell's pull back in the final itself.

It's odd to think back to this time last year, in the aftermath of Wembley glory. As Windass climbed on to the city hall balcony and raised the golden play-off trophy to an adoring crowd, probably only he didn't know that by scoring the goal of all our lives, he had almost certainly curtailed his City career. His nous was enough at Championship level, but Premier League defenders were simply going to be too strong, too quick, too hard, too uncompromising, too experienced, too talented, too ruthless, too clever. Brown knew this, and with Folan similarly limited and Campbell back with his parental club, in came Marlon King, Geovanni and, at the end of the opening month, Daniel Cousin. Windass popped up on the bench every so often, got booked while warming up at Stoke and scored a fine goal at Swansea City in the Carling Cup, but we all knew what was eventually coming. That it happened so curtly and acrimoniously thanks to the ridiculous blog he was hired by ITV to write, and a bust-up with King during a team bonding trip to a Scarborough casino, places a stain, albeit only a slight one, on the memory of Windass as a City icon. He managed one goal - a goal he should never have been awarded in a million years, but a goal nonetheless - in the Premier League for his club, which earned him the status of the Tigers' oldest-ever goalscorer, before leaving on loan with no rights to come back and everyone wishing him well but not questioning the decision. For all his bleating, protesting and pleading for a chance, ultimately he proved us all disappointingly right when he started at Manchester City on Boxing Day and played so poorly that he was subbed off immediately after Brown's infamous grassbound half time lecture, and never played for the club again.

Windass is going to Darlington as assistant manager to his old Bradford gaffer Colin Todd. He has his coaching badges and, not for the first time, is prepared to start near the bottom. Time will tell whether he has the intelligence on the sidelines as he did in the penalty area, but it looks hopeful for him. He knows we wish him every success. We know where his heart is, as ours is in exactly the same place.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The stats of the season



Premier League:

Final Position:
17th

Home Record:
P19, W3, D5, L11, F18, A36, Pts14

Away Record:
P19, W5, D6, L8, F21, A28, Pts 21

Longest Unbeaten Sequence:
6 games

Longest Winless Sequence:
11 games

Longest Sequence of Victories:
4 games

Longest Sequence of Draws:
3 games

Longest Sequence of Defeats:
5 games

Appearances:
Turner 38, Geovanni 32 (2), Zayatte 31 (1), Ashbee 31, Myhill 28, Ricketts 27 (2), Marney 26 (5), Dawson 25, Boateng 21 (2), King 19 (1), Cousin 18 (9), McShane 17, Mendy 15 (13), Fagan 15 (7), Kilbane 15 (1), Garcia 13 (10), Barmby 13 (8), Duke 10, Manucho 6 (7), Gardner 6, Halmosi 4 (14), Folan 2 (13), Doyle 2 (1), Hughes 1 (5), Windass 1 (4), France 1 (1), Brown 1, Giannakopoulos 0 (2), Bullard 0 (1)

Goals:
Geovanni 8, King 5, Cousin 4, Turner 4, Fagan 3, own goals 3 (Neville, Turnbull, Carragher), Manucho 2, Mendy 2, Ashbee 1, Barmby 1, Dawson 1, Folan 1, Garcia 1, McShane 1, Windass 1, Zayatte 1

Red Cards:
Folan 1 (straight), Marney 1 (straight), Ricketts 1 (two yellows)

Yellow Cards: Ashbee 10, Dawson 7, Fagan 7, Zayatte 7, Boateng 5, Marney 5, Mendy 5, Ricketts 5 (plus 2 into red), Turner 3, Barmby 2, Garcia 2, Geovanni 2, Windass 2 (including one as a non-competitor), Cousin 1, Halmosi 1, Kilbane 1, Myhill 1

FA Cup:

Reached:
Quarter finals

Games Played:
Six (Third round tie plus replay, fourth round tie, fifth round tie plus replay, sixth round tie)

Appearances:
Ricketts 6, Zayatte 5, Halmosi 4+1, Marney 4, Turner 4, Garcia 3+1, Cousin 3, Dawson 3, Doyle 3, Fagan 3, Geovanni 3, Myhill 3, Folan 2+2, France 2+2, Manucho 2+2, Mendy 2+2, Ashbee 2+1, Barmby 2+1, Boateng 2, Duke 2, Gardner 2, McShane 2, Giannakopoulos 1, Warner 1, Featherstone 0+1, King 0+1

Goals:
Ashbee 1, Barmby 1, Cousin 1, Halmosi 1, own goal 1 (Naughton), Turner 1, Zayatte 1

Carling Cup:

Reached:
Second round

Games Played:
One

Appearances:
Barmby 1, Brown 1, Cooper 1, Doyle 1, Duke 1, Folan 1, France 1, Halmosi 1, Hughes 1, Mendy 1, Windass 1, Featherstone 0+1, King 0+1, Turner 0+1

Goals:
Windass 1

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

This is the best trip we've ever been on



Only in When Saturday Comes was 17th place mentioned. The two fanzine editors interviewed by the magazine about the Tigers' chances in their debut Premier League season claimed that "seventeenth is a realistic target and will do us nicely".

Everyone else claimed we would finish below 17th, some with an added sneer about beating Derby's record for lack of points, others were wildly optimistic. The Hull City chairman said on the Wembley pitch that we would finish higher than 17th.

But 17th it was.

By one point.

It all got a bit hairy, but we made it.

The emotions of the season are as varied as any self-respecting pic 'n' mix selection. Until Christmas, Hull City were commanding immense respect worldwide for their style of play, their nerve and, of course, for the points amassed as a consequence. Never lower than seventh, joint top for 24 hours, it was an incredible achievement. Supporters wandered out of away ends with expressions that were both gleeful and dumbfounded.


Phil Brown
was enjoying himself, charismatic and friendly when the microphones and cameras headed his way. He received plenty of praise about his attitude, his refreshing approach, his personality, his likeability. He and we could do no wrong.

City began stunningly, winning against Fulham at the KC Stadium when all attention was on them. That the team managed it after going a goal down in the first ten minutes was all the more special. Geovanni drilled home an excellent equaliser, then subs Craig Fagan and Caleb Folan combined late on for the latter to earn a magical three points.

Richard Garcia's contrived but impeccable looping header then added another point to the tally when City got a 1-1 draw at Blackburn Rovers. A second string went out of the Carling Cup at Swansea City in a rather limp manner, despite a heroic, bittersweet penalty save from Matt Duke, then the detractors quickly pointed fingers and laughed when a disjointed City, robbed of new signings through injury and ineligibility, fielded a Championship side and were thumped 5-0 at the KC by Wigan Athletic. The "I told you so" and "wake up call" clich├ęs were quickly grasped by the less articulate pundits. It was a horrific afternoon and one we would have probably expected at some point during the season, but it happened early enough to put it right, and thanks to the earlier brace of results, was well timed enough to not rob the team of belief.

The response was exceptional. An international break permitted the return to fitness of the absentees and City went up to Newcastle United and won 2-1, far more due to the quality of football and togetherness from the Tigers than any discontentment in the Geordie ranks. Marlon King opened his Tigers account by scoring both - a penalty and a fine breakaway goal - and the headlines were black and amber again, even though City were dressed predominantly in Newcastle's spare kit. Such was the frustration among the Newcastle ranks that Danny Guthrie savagely booted Fagan across the legs in injury time, leaving the chippy City striker with a broken leg.

The following weekend City defied more odds and even left the KC Stadium disappointed, thanks to a 2-0 lead being clawed back to 2-2 by an impressive Everton team. Michael Turner scored his first Premier League goal and a comic Phil Neville own goal made it two early in the second half. Tim Cahill and Leon Osman struck in the last 20 minutes as the Toffees recovered and ultimately City were hanging on for their share. But hang on they did, with a point definitely precious as a daunting trip to Arsenal was next.

The occasion at the Emirates Stadium will be discussed and reviewed around Hull City's portals for as long as the club exists. The teatime kick off and television audience added to the atmosphere and a tight occasion saw the deadlock eventually broken by loanee Paul McShane's unlucky own goal. The world kicked off its shoes in preparation for an Arsenal goalfest; instead, Geovanni hammered in a 30 yard shot of such beauty that the Gunners found themselves in shock. For all the glory of Daniel Cousin's clinching header soon afterwards, and the heroic defending and goalkeeping which prevented an Arsenal equaliser, it was that goal from the Brazilian which was discussed and rewatched countlessly afterwards. It simply had no equal in terms of glamour, importance and quality, and the globe adored the Tigers when the final whistle went.

September came to an end and only one gaffer was ever going to clutch the Manager of the Month award. As if to prove his effort at Arsenal was no fluke, Geovanni returned to North London the following weekend and swerved in a fine free kick in the opening ten minutes, which proved enough to beat Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. It was another confident, beautiful performance, combining skill and craft on the ball with real endeavour and fearlessness when defending and it earned the Tigers their first Premier League clean sheet, something which Brown was keen on achieving. Spurs were in freefall and their management team would soon change, but the reason they lost had nothing to do with their own incompetence.

A third London club in a row was put to the sword in more grafting circumstances when Turner's header was enough to see off West Ham United at the KC, though the visitors were impressive and found the Tigers' woodwork on a couple of occasions. Still, it meant four London sides had been beaten by City, heralding a spot of manipulation of a famous album cover, replacing Paul Heaton's finger-clicking pose with that of Geovanni's celebration at Arsenal.

Hull City were massive news. Every nation with an interest in the Premier League were telling their viewers about this new footballing phenomenon. Brown was enjoying the attention, doing features with broadsheet newspapers and any number of television appearances beyond his duties at press conferences. The sun was shining on City.

The momentum continued with a stunning win at West Bromwich Albion, the so-called "footballing" club of the three promoted the year before. Second half goals in quick succession from new signing Kamil Zayatte, Geovanni and King gave the Tigers a fourth straight win and a third straight clean sheet. With the two clubs ahead of City in the table not playing until the next day, for a short but glorious period the name of Hull City was, jointly, at the top of English football. Brown said the Tigers had achieved more than anyone expected in the opening ten games - cleverly discounting the tenth, which was still to come. It was Chelsea at home.

And didn't we know it. Some said it was a fluke and the game never got a chance to become a competition as a consequence, but Frank Lampard's gorgeous third-minute chip rendered City dead. Second half goals from Nicolas Anelka (via a hopeless miscommunication in City's defence) and Florent Malouda made it comprehensive and the Tigers felt chastened and schooled by such a defeat.

A visit to Manchester United three days later represented a further hiding to nothing - and had also been written off subtly by Brown in his media briefings - but it nearly turned into a most unlikely spot of banditry. The champions led early on, but after Cousin responded to the big occasion with another header to level up, Manchester United took it to 4-1. Instead of trying to avert a cricket score, City stepped up the pace and Bernard Mendy scored one, then won a penalty for Geovanni to convert, and the game ended with world superstars in red kicking the ball into the crowd to waste time as the Tigers pressed further.

A defeat, but it gained more plaudits than most Premier League victories ever would. What mattered now, however, that losing didn't become a habit when so-called lesser teams came within City's sights. Bolton Wanderers visited the KC and the Tigers battered them hard and true, only for Jussi Jaaskelainen to put in one of those goalkeeping performances of invincibility that all keepers dream of. Matt Taylor's scruffy goal early in the second half was both against the run of play and crucial to the outcome. The following weekend, City faced Manchester City at home and soon led when Cousin latched on to a weak backpass, yet Stephen Ireland's brace - one from an error, one a divine cornered shot - gave the visitors a half time lead. Geovanni scored a deflected free kick against his old club to equalise and earn a point, satisfactorily so.

The rot had been stopped, albeit to the tune of just a point, but there was a feeling that the rest of the division were beginning to cotton to City's endeavours. Throughout this purple patch Brown had selected the same formation - a fluid 4-3-3 - and the same players to fill each role wherever possible, aside from Ian Ashbee's enforced absence at Old Trafford due to suspension.

City travelled down to Portsmouth and in a display of real character, came back from a goal down twice to earn another 2-2 draw. Turner headed in his third of the season and then Dean Windass, peripheral and publicly scathing of being such, attained what would be his last goal for the club - and his only Premier League strike for the Tigers - in deeply suspect circumstances, with the initial issue of an own goal overturned by the dubious goals panel probably more on sentiment than anything else, as the veteran City striker blatantly got no worthwhile touch on the ball. Windass would contribute again at the Britannia Stadium a week later by receiving a booking while not actually partaking in the game by deliberately doing his stretching exercises in front of Stoke City's long throw exponent Rory Delap while he measured his run up. King's exquisite turn and shot was cancelled out by the dodgy penalty won and scored by Ricardo Fuller, and City had yet another draw.

December arrived and so did Middlesbrough to the KC. Though the sequence of games had produced three straight draws, there had been no win since the destruction of West Bromwich Albion. It got more daunting for City when Tuncay flicked home from close range late on, spectacularly against the run of play, but Mendy equalised via a post and the shoulder of keeper Ross Turnbull (who was credited with an own goal) and then Geovanni was fouled by David Wheater as he chased - from a baldly offside position - a long goalkick. Wheater got an undeserved red card and King put away the undeserved penalty, but City's victory certainly was deserved. It was also a relief. And despite it being the first maximum haul in six matches, it kept the Tigers fifth in the table.

A trip to Liverpool next, and with Arsenal beaten and Manchester United frightened on their own turfs, you'd expect the savvy Scousers to realise that there were no pushovers coming to play them at Anfield. These big clubs don't learn, really. McShane's tremendous stretching header and Jamie Carragher's panicky own goal earned the Tigers a stunning two-goal advantage, with Mendy's merciless treatment of Andrea Dossena proving one of the individual displays of the season. Sadly, it all fell to bits when McShane's double vision prompted a substitution that moved Mendy into defence, and two unnoticed fouls also added to the fraying of City's edges as Steven Gerrard took advantage to score twice before the break. The fact that it stayed 2-2 after a raucous and sporting second half endeared City to football even more. Another terrific point at a place where none could ever have been expected.

Sunderland came to the KC the following week, having just waved goodbye to Roy Keane, and waltzed off with the points after Kieran Richardson wildly deflected shot in the last ten minutes made it 2-1 and snapped the Tigers' spirit. Nick Barmby's first of the season had previously levelled Steed Malbranque's excellent opener, but a second comeback was beyond the Tigers this time, especially when the recalled Sam Ricketts was sent off for a second booking. Kenwyne Jones and Djibril Cisse scored one apiece - and celebrated each in the most abysmally rehearsed manner - as the Black Cats stole a 4-1 away win and earned Ricky Sbragia a permanent crack at the manager's job.

City were in the top half of the table at Christmas but needing to re-assert themselves. Eastlands seemed as good a place as any to do this, but it was a Boxing Day Massacre as the Tigers fell 4-0 behind to Manchester City at the break and Brown opted to reprimand the team in the glare of the public.

Ah, the notorious alfresco team talk. Everybody has expressed an opinion on it, and just about everybody who knows nothing about Hull City has chosen to suppose that City's rapid decline hails directly from this bit of wild motivation. Well, the facts don't back it up. City were far better in the second half - the game ended 5-1 - and given that seven goals had been shipped in 55 minutes of football, Brown had to do something. He certainly went overboard, but nobody can say with any certainty that the players were affected - four days later, City held and dominated a resurgent Aston Villa at the KC prior to Zayatte's 89th minute own goal out of nothing enabling the visitors to thieve the points. The performance that evening did not suggest that the players had been insulted or deflated by Brown's spot of stealth team bonding. The main gripe from all the ex-players now employed by broadcasting organisations and newspapers was that players don't respect managers who dare insult them in public. However, nobody knows his players better than the manager - and the players know how Brown works very well indeed. Should the temptation ever arise it's unlikely Brown would do it again, but more because of the negative publicity and concentration on an irrelevant issue, never because he would believe it to be useless.

The Villa game also opened up a new debate about City's players - whether they had the bite within them to surround a referee when a bad decision goes against them. We're told that officials are beyond influence from screaming footballers, but Steve Bennett seemed perfectly calm and happy about his decision to give the Tigers an injury time penalty when Ashley Young appeared to handle the ball as it headed goalwards. That the decision was reversed following crazy Villa protests and a consequent consultation with an assistant said as much about big name footballers as it did about the potential weakness of seemingly stoic referees. The decision eventually given was correct, but it was essentially forced by the Villa players. One hopes that City's own squad noted that a referee could be swayed if the arguments are vociferous enough.

Into 2009, and after a limp and listless goalless draw with Newcastle United in the FA Cup, the Tigers travelled to Everton. The game at Goodison Park was hideously one-sided and the home side rarely needed to get out of first gear. Marouane Fellaini was offside when he headed Everton ahead - and should have been sent off for a vicious pair of elbows on Turner as the Tigers defender marked him at a set-piece, but while irritating, these incidents would not have changed the pattern of the game. City looked disorganised and tired, and Mikel Arteta's stunning free kick made sure that a two goal advantage was in place before the break, making the second half a procession.

City defeated a wretched Newcastle at St James Park for the second time this season thanks to Cousin's late winner and earned a home tie with Millwall in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Bigger fish were ready to be fried, however.

Arsenal's visit to the KC was a splendid game, though it was only fleetingly that City looked capable of apeing the wonderful result at the Emirates. Cousin was again a goalscoring hero with his stooping header from Mendy's cross cancelling out Emmanuel Adebayor's headed opener, but late strikes from Samir Nasri and Nicklas Bendtner spared the Gunners' blushes. Another defeat, perhaps again not unexpected, but the vultures with an interest in form tables were beginning to form a circle. Ryan France's surprise starting role in midfield, having been entirely unused in the Premier League, enabled him to become the fourth City player to appear for the club in all four divisions of the game.

The circle didn't quite close when the Tigers, who had already acquired experienced Irish midfielder Kevin Kilbane from Wigan and Angolan centre forward Manucho on loan from Manchester United, announced their big January investment - Jimmy Bullard had been purchased at great expense, with no little risk and certainly no lack of excitement, from Fulham. He was unable to play in the Cup tie due to a cold but would be ready for when Premier League action returned to the agenda. Meanwhile, King had partaken in one bust up too many and, while the club cited a virus, was moved away from the KC and embarked instead on a fresh loan deal with Middlesbrough. Windass, too, was on his way, going to Oldham on loan after saying just a little too much to rile his manager.

Bullard was introduced to the KC faithful prior to the FA Cup tie, when Millwall's players went for shins and skulls and their fans ripped out seats and turned over pubs. Goals from Turner and Ashbee (whose strike was a blinder) were the main stats that mattered as City waltzed with comfort into the last 16 of the FA Cup for the first time in precisely 20 seasons. The draw sent us to Sheffield United, where our recent record in all competitions was terrible. But before all that, there was the prospect of a visit to West Ham United on a Tuesday night, and Brown sprung a surprise by dropping Boaz Myhill and putting Duke, who had only featured in cup competitions thus far, in goal. The alteration seemed to be heralding a move for Myhill to Newcastle before the window snapped shut, but Duke didn't need a reason to impress, brilliantly saving a penalty from ex-City midfielder Mark Noble. The performance was poor overall though, with the Hammers winning 2-0 and Bullard's debut as a sub not proving too eventful. Or so we thought.

West Bromwich Albion's visit to the KC at the weekend was overshadowed by news that Bullard needed to see the specialist in the USA who had treated his bad knee. The information from the club was mixed, contradictory and seemed to be hiding something. Bullard had been clattered on the knee at Upton Park by Scott Parker while trying to collect a bit of a hospital ball from Ashbee. He finished the game without struggle but, like Fagan at Newcastle, the later prognosis was far worse. the only problem was that nobody at the club seemed to want to admit to it.

Distracted, City let a glorious chance for three points slip by conceding two equalisers to West Brom, who were by now marooned at the foot of the table and certain for the drop. Mendy's terrific solo goal was cancelled out by Jay Simpson's crisp finish; then a lovely diving header from Fagan was almost instantly rendered meaningless when Zayatte conceded a penalty which Chris Brunt steered in. Another 2-2 draw, and easily the most unwelcome one so far, even though it had halted six losses on the spin.

A victory was also deemed to be vital as few held much hope regarding City's next foray. The trip to Chelsea, however, was a superb exercise in patience and industry and the Tigers very nearly took advantage of a rough Chelsea side that was unable to react to Luiz Felipe Scolari's tactical vacuum. Fagan, Kilbane and Dean Marney all came close, and the goalless draw was greeted, correctly, with the same exultation as the win at Arsenal four months and one lifetime earlier. Scolari was sacked the following week.

Buoyed by this performance, City travelled to bogey ground Bramall Lane for the Cup tie with Sheffield United but could only eke out a 1-1 draw, with Zayatte equalising Greg Halford's early header. The quick turnaround and television whims meant that three games in six days were now ahead. starting with the visit of a slowly recovering Tottenham Hotspur.

Aaron Lennon scored early on as City began a worrying habit of failing to spot potential short corners, and the England winger had time to pick his spot. But Turner got a hard-earned equaliser before the break, and a City-dominated second half provided no justice when, thanks to one brief lapse in concentration, Jonathan Woodgate was able to climb high and head home in the final ten minutes and earn Spurs the points.

It took Spurs further away from the relegation zone and dropped City a little closer to it. Respite of an emotional, if not physical, nature was available when Sheffield United were, semi-controversially, beaten 2-1 at the KC three days later, earning City a place in the quarter finals for the first time in 38 years, where Arsenal were deemed to be the likely opponents, depending on the way two further unplayed ties panned out. Soon it became obvious that the delay in these ties meant that City would be in the semi-final draw for the first time since 1930, simply because their tie with Arsenal would not have taken place by the time balls were emptied out again.

Another three days and it was back to the KC again, with Blackburn Rovers visiting. They were in as much trouble as the Tigers but reacted to the pressure splendidly, with lax marking allowing Stephen Warnock and ex-City midfielder Keith Andrews to score before half time. Each team traded red cards in the second half - City's came courtesy of Marney booting Morten Gamst Pedersen up the backside - before Ashbee reduced the deficit and gave the Tigers a fighting chance of rescuing a point. They never got it, and Ashbee's achievement in scoring for the club in all four divisions became notable but, in the grander scheme, merely incidental.

Now the times were tough. City had to go to Fulham, whose home record was almost impeccable, on the Wednesday night after an arduous, near-calamitous two months of gentle but visible slippage. The evening at Craven Cottage was a close and tense affair, rarely entertaining but nonetheless fascinating, and a hard-earned point seemed to have been earned when subs Garcia and Manucho combined for the latter to score a 94th minute winner, his first for the club, sending the travelling Tiger Nation loopy. It was the first win since early December and it was impossible to word how vital it was. Hope that it would spark a sturdy revival were nullified when Newcastle United came to the KC at the weekend and ground out a 1-1 draw - Geovanni's first goal in months, heading in Fagan's peach of a cross, cancelled out by a shinner from Steven Taylor.

The trip to Arsenal in the FA Cup followed, and Barmby's deflected shot made everyone wonder if another invaluable, outrageous win at the Emirates was on the cards. It didn't happen, largely due to some terrible refereeing which allowed a blatantly offside winner from William Gallas to stand after Robin van Persie had equalised. The after-match kerfuffle involving both managers, plus Brian Horton and Cesc Fabregas, stuck to the club's battered image like discarded gum for weeks afterwards.

Still, the performance was superb and it provided fresh hope that a conversion of such form into the Premier League programme could swat away the relegation fears. This hope was then trampled upon when a rotten City display almost produced a point at Wigan Athletic, until mistakes by Duke and Marney let Ben Watson loop in a sickening 84th minute winner.

Eight games remained, and City's only glimmer of light was that as they failed to gain points, so did the teams above and below them. One such team still scrabbling around for spoils was Portsmouth, whose visit to the KC produced a deeply uncompelling goalless draw, rendered watchable only thanks to Glen Johnson's one-man red card hunt, as a series of fouls earned him the most telegraphed dismissal of the season. Two more teams trying to avoid the drop loomed on the horizon, with City knowing that one win from the trips to Middlesbrough and Sunderland would be vital. They lost both, playing abjectly at the Riverside, despite Manucho's butted equaliser briefly offering hope, and seeing King bite the hand that once fed him with the third, clinching Boro goal. Duke was so appalling that day that Myhill was restored to nets, in a long overdue move, for the Sunderland game. At the Stadium of Light, City played better but chances were created with little hope of anyone, in the absence of the injured Cousin, being able to put them away. An offside Cisse scored the only goal and earned his side a double for the season.

The feeling now among the majority was that the Tigers would probably be relegated. The remaining fixtures didn't offer too much hope, and Liverpool duly confirmed this belief with a 3-1 win at the KC, although City weren't disgraced and Geovanni's goal offered proper hope at 2-1, considering Folan had been sent off. Ashbee's season-ending knee injury in the opening ten minutes at Aston Villa further dented the confidence, with John Carew's flicked finish from a borderline offside position earning the home side a win. The enemy of recent years, Stoke City, pitched up at the KC in bullish mood, having all but secured their safety with some hellishly effective displays that exploited their strengths, and they outplayed and outpsyched City, winning the game with Fuller's twist and shot and Liam Lawrence's tremendous counter-attacked drive. Andy Dawson's 95th minute free kick was always a mere consolation by the very nature of its timing, although Geovanni still had time to find the side netting from the restart. Stoke were now safe, and City were a game in hand away from the bottom three for the first time.

Newcastle duly overtook the Tigers with their win over Middlesbrough, and so with just two matches remaining it was now out of City's hands. Yet one overriding thought that maintained the last crumbs of belief was that the north east teams were capable of making a pig's ear of their chances, and Newcastle duly lost at home to Fulham while Fagan was robbing Danny Shittu of the ball at Bolton Wanderers to earn a 1-1 draw that would have been so much more but, yet again, for Jaaskelainen. The last day of the season arrived with City one point and one place above Newcastle and the drop, though their goal difference was infinitely worse. Only victory for City or defeat for Newcastle would do; at the very least City needed to better or equal Newcastle's result. West Brom were already down, Middlesbrough as good as. Sunderland were still in trouble though nevertheless the clear favourites to stay up. The rest had clambered to safety.

Manchester United, champions again and awaiting the Champions League final in Rome, arrived at the KC and fielded an allegedly understrength team full of the talented youngsters usually reserved for Carling Cup ties. City were as strong as they could be but ultimately the inexperience of the visitors was shrouded by their expertise as footballers, and they could have won by far more than the one glorious long-range goal struck by Darron Gibson. As it hit the net, Newcastle were still drawing 0-0 at Aston Villa and so City were in the bottom three. But it only took minutes for the news to filter through that Villa had scored, and two entirely uneventful second halves followed prior to confirmation that, despite a seventh defeat in ten matches, the Tigers were safe.

It's probably the least convincing escape from relegation in Premier League history, and it's certainly true that ultimately, status was preserved by three other teams being even worse than a team who won just once since the new year chimes, and collected only eight of their 35 points in that time. However, the other 27 were collected before Christmas and that side of the season needs to be recalled too. If ever a season could be split into halves, this was it, but you can bet that Phil Brown and his players learned as much about how to survive in this division from the bad half as they did from the good.

Next season, with some fortune, a fully fit Anthony Gardner, injured too much this season yet obviously a class defender when able to play, will be in cahoots with the flawless Turner, while Bullard will be able to come off the leash in midfield and do what £5million pays for. A major reworking of the squad elsewhere is required - proper full back cover, one more centre back, a midfield anchor and as many goalscorers as the budget can permit. Only two first team players who made contributions this season have been released by the club, so the other trimmings will have to come from selling off squad players with no real hope of reaching the required standards when the occasion demands it.

As for Brown, he took the praise and so needs to learn to take the stick too. Much of the criticism he got was deserved, though he was wrongly castigated for the team talk at Eastlands and daring to question the integrity of the major personalities at Arsenal, something which upstarts simply don't do to the establishment. Brown has charisma and a natural ease with the broadcast media but he needs to channel it correctly, lower his profile and do his celebrating in public - though preferably not by singing on the KC pitch again - and his crying in private.



He may have ruffled many feathers, but he's still the man who saved us from Championship relegation, took us to Wembley for the first time and promotion to the top flight for the first time via that route, and now he has kept us in the Premier League. Brown is ours and he'll do for us.

Monday, 1 June 2009

"Oh, what a strike!"

I do intend to review the season, having given the blog a week's holiday following the gasp for collective breath as the campaign ended. While I plot this, enjoy all of the Premier League goals (apart from Michael Turner's goal against Tottenham Hotspur, weirdly) scored by the Tigers in 2008-09...