Monday, 30 November 2009

"Another all Premier League tie!"

Why do sports presenters announce "an all Premier League tie" during the FA Cup draw in such an excitable tone, as if it was a game anyone would have wanted? We play these teams all the time. The FA Cup is supposed to provide a change of scenery, a break from the norm. But, like last season, we begin our FA Cup campaign against a side playing at our level.

Wigan Athletic away in the third round is as bland a draw as we could have feared. Those seeking a return to old lower league haunts, or a convenient home tie to accommodate the lingering New Year hangover were disappointed. Those desperate to get to Nottingham Forest (not played at the City Ground competitively since 1977) or one of the clubs recently elevated from the non-league pyramid were gutted. Ground ticks, you see. Important stuff.

But it's not a banana skin tie, nor is it a waste of City's time. When we get to the DW Stadium on January 2nd (the chances of this being switched to January 3rd for telly is very remote) the game will look very winnable. In terms of strength and ambition the two clubs are very similar and Phil Brown, in his black shirt reserved for all cup matches, will send out a team capable of winning.

It remains to be seen whether he will make the second string do the work again this season. If so, it would mean Tony Warner in goal, Peter Halmosi at left back (even though he isn't a left back any more than Brian Horton is a nuclear physicist), Steven Mouyokolo in defence and the thrilling Tom Cairney reminding his manager that he's really damned good in midfield. Assuming he isn't sold the moment the transfer window opens the day before, there may well be a disinterested jog offered to Daniel Cousin.

Last season marked the Tigers' first FA Cup run for 20 years. It had everything; winning a replay in a previous season's kit, a stand-up row between two managers on the touchline, a set of visiting supporters trying to wreck the KC Stadium, a goal that never crossed the line and even the only strike in a City shirt of Halmosi's career. We reached the semi final draw without actually reaching the semi finals, courtesy of Arsenal's wretched brand of gamesmanship and Mike Riley's myopia. Then the fun and games really started and, sadly, nothing quite became the FA Cup run as much as the club's reaction upon exiting.

Hell, even Jimmy Bullard appeared on the KC pitch during the run. He may have been in civvies, holding up a scarf and suffering from a sniffle, but we saw proof of his purchase nonetheless. We didn't see him on the KC pitch again until this month, but all good things come to those who wait. With the FA Cup, City do very little but wait.

We've beaten Wigan once already this season and our trip in the Premier League over there isn't until the penultimate weekend. They did the double over us last season but an available omen remains that City beat Wigan in the last cup trip we made there, when Stuart Elliott's last of many awesome goals for the Tigers earned us a Carling Cup win two seasons ago. In the FA Cup, the longer-toothed supporter will cringe at the thought of the capitulation at Springfield Park in 1987, when Horton's City lost out on a quarter final game against the much despised Leeds United. The fixture may not be glamorous in football's corporate existence today, but to the Tigers fan it has history.

So, let us decamp in our Christmas sweaters to the half-empty DW Stadium two days into a new decade. The reward for winning may just be a trip to Forest in the fourth round...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

15: Manchester City 1 - 1 Hull City - 28/11/2009

It's simply the greatest goal celebration in history. Forget all your duck walks, shirt reversals, Mars bars in socks, corner flag singalongs - to satirise your own manager's indulgences of a year earlier while proving once and for all that the attention paid to it was beyond any sane context simply will not be bettered.

It did seem for a long time that, although deserved, the goal that needed to provoke such a celebration would not come. The Tigers dominated the last 20 minutes of a very even occasion at Eastlands but had not been able to make the breakthrough to level up Manchester City's fortunate goal just before half time.

Then another ball was swung towards the penalty area and substitute Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink crashed to the deck under pressure from Kolo Touré. The referee gave the penalty immediately. The protests were vehement and indeed the award did look slightly soft. But it still had to be put away and Jimmy Bullard, via a Shay Given fingertip, did just that.

For the celebration to work, the goal also had to be at the end of the stadium where the Tiger Nation was housed. Luckily, this was the case and the players promptly sat in a circle while Bullard wagged a finger of mock admonishment their way.

Now, please let this be a lesson to our detractors in the national media. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Phil Brown's actions on Boxing Day - and this blogger, for what it's worth, thinks Brown was within his rights as a coach of a team being trampled on to try something different to instil some fight in them - it's over now. Brown has been criticised to high heaven for one single action that the players have always maintained did not dissolve their respect for the manager. Now the players have had their say in the most fantastic way possible. Let it be the final say.

The goal was deserved and was just reward for a collection of players who could teach any disparate bunch of individuals masquerading as a team exactly what togetherness is about. Manchester City are rich beyond their dreams and have invested in big names and big salaries accordingly. But they're not a team. And it showed.

Brown made just one change from the midweek win over Everton, allowing Bullard's return in place of George Boateng. It was a very positive alteration, with Bullard's inevitable comeback not forcing Brown to compromise on another attacking outlet, allowing Stephen Hunt, Dean Marney and Richard Garcia to remain in the side.

The home side were dominant and, of course, very dangerous in attack but there was a soullessness and arrogance about their play that suggested that a tight, focussed Tigers rearguard should be able to keep them out.

An early free kick was conceded, but the bandana-wearing Carlos Tevez hit it into the wall. Another free kick found Touré in unlikely space on the right, his clip back to Micah Richards allowed England's forgotten defender to swing in a cross that Stephen Ireland flicked over the bar. Good football on this occasion, notably not including any of the vastly expensive attacking talents.

One of Manchester City's former attacking talents, Geovanni, smacked a shot over the bar after Bullard's free kick was cleared his way. City were tidy on the ball without creating great things in front of goal and Jozy Altidore had a quiet and frustrating time essentially leading the line alone, relying on Geovanni and Garcia to support him when duties in wider positions weren't taking them elsewhere.

Robinho, back in the side with a fanfare but playing like a bloke who believes football matches to be an occupational hazard, did some fancy dan stuff against Paul McShane before steering a left foot shot wide. The home side then made quick progress from a deep free kick and Emmanuel Adebayor, another one barely worth the hype, sent the tireless Tevez on the overlap with a shooting chance but Matt Duke did the job required with his feet.

Robinho fired over the bar from a corner cleared his way, then Richards headed another one too high. In a genuinely goodmove, Tevez and Robinho swept the ball expertly from left to right and eventually gave Shaun Wright-Phillips a far post opportunity which he struck into the side netting.

The Tigers regrouped and McShane, trying to show he can emulate Bernard Mendy's obvious uses as an attacker while being able to defend better, started and ended a lovely move on the right side which allowed Geovanni and Garcia to combine, and the rampaging Irish full back put the final headed chance just wide. Geovanni then shot just wide from a good counter attack as the Tigers maintained a proper influence on the match.

As the half time whistle approached it seemed the Tigers had done what was required. The hosts were dominant but frustrated, creative but wasteful, and were lacking the sort of spirit and togetherness that Hull City carry by the lorryload. Then Wright-Phillips, in added time, wriggled free of a challenge and belted a shot goalwards. Duke probably had it covered but then Anthony Gardner threw his head at it and deflected it past his keeper. A sickener.

So, a goal adrift at the break but much to encourage the Tigers. Bullard was his usual orchestrative self with Garcia and Marney running like billyo and Hunt putting in his usual chippy, indefatigable shift. The defence had been stretched but not entirely tested, with McShane and Andy Dawson coping well on the flanks. Despite the goal deficit, Hull City's afternoon of work had so far been most encouraging.

Almost immediately after the restart, the Tigers made a super chance to level up. Bullard's exquisite ball allowed Altidore to release Garcia on the corner of the six yard box. The Australian lifted the ball gaily over Given but Joleon Lescott managed to scramble back and thwack the ball off the line. As close as close could get.

Duke batted out another distant Wright-Phillips shot and Bullard hit one just wide from the edge of the are as the two teams traded chances without coming as close to scoring again. Brown freshened things up by bringing on Boateng for Marney while Nick Barmby replaced Geovanni. Boateng's brand of expert screening in the deep midfiled role gave Hunt, Garcia and Bullard extra licence to attack as the Tigers sought the reward their endeavour had deserved.

Robinho missed two chances, the first a free kick which went a long way wide and then another from similar distance in open play, and with an identical result. Altidore, honest but limited on this occasion, withdrew for the more immobile but more aware Vennegoor of Hesselink, and soon the Dutchman had won the penalty that earned Bullard a goal, the Tigers a deserved equaliser and, through the players' collective reaction, a spot of closure for the club and manager.

There were eight minutes left and, frankly, the Tigers seemed happy to end the game there and take a point. The defence still had work to do, however, as the home side suddenly rediscovered their urgency, but couldn't capture any real bond within their team at all. It doesn't exist. They are individuals and the spirit at Manchester City needs to improve if their ambitions for the game's highest honours are ever to be reached.

Four minutes of injury time passed by nonchalantly and the Tigers took a terrific point. Something similar at Aston Villa next week is now eminently possible. It is fun, interesting and a laugh a minute being a Hull City supporter right now. Those three factors cannot be attributed to being a Manchester City supporter though. Money doesn't buy you everything. And a goal celebration like that led by Bullard is beyond priceless.

Manchester City: Given, Richards, Touré, Lescott, Bridge, De Jong, Ireland, Wright-Phillips, Robinho (Bellamy 75), Adebayor (Santa Cruz 67), Tevez. Subs not used: Taylor, Onuoha, Johnson, Kompany, Weiss.

Hull City: Duke, McShane, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson, Marney (Boateng 61), Bullard, Hunt, Garcia, Geovanni (Barmby 62), Altidore (Vennegoor of Hesselink 73). Subs not used: Myhill, Mouyokolo, Kilbane, Ghilas.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Dare he?

Irrespective of the half time score at Eastlands later today, I want Phil Brown to hold his team talk on the pitch again.

He won't, but it's a cracking thought nonetheless. His alfresco lecture on Boxing Day has received so much unwarranted attention that it'd be a fantastic one in the eye for the national media who have, as ever, chosen one bit of wood and obscured all the trees with it for nearly 12 months now.

At the very least, it'd be nice to believe that the players might all sit in a circle in celebration if and when the Tigers score a goal today.

That's more doable, though under the new regime of Adam Pearson which dictates that individuals within the club should stop looking foolish, again it's unlikely.

Friday, 27 November 2009

It's Myhill versus Duke - again

Boaz Myhill needs to come back into the Hull City team this weekend.

It's always a pity to tell Matt Duke that yet another period of sturdy deputising must come to an end, but it's also always necessary.

Myhill's hamstring injury, suffered in the last seconds of the turgid goalless draw against Portsmouth, has kept him out for the subsequent four games. Hull City have lost just one of those games and, more to the point, won two. But the victories have come via a policy to thrill in attack in order to protect a rearguard that isn't absolutely watertight. While much can be said about the back four and where it could be altered, ultimately a defence of any description can only do so much before its confidence in the goalkeeper behind it has to take over.

And Duke simply does not inspire the same confidence as Myhill. Duke is fine - indeed, the club and supporters should feel grateful that such an able stand-in is around to wear the gloves when absolutely necessary - but he simply isn't as good as Myhill. He fumbles the ball more, his shot-stopping is not as emphatic and, most oddly, his catching above a crowd of players has looked decidedly suspect, even though he has some height advantage over Myhill.

Myhill and Duke have been the senior goalkeepers at Hull City for a long time now. They have been through much together, not least two promotions and Premier League survival. Recently, spoiled members of the Tiger Nation have taken it upon themselves to scorn Myhill, even though his only absolute weakness, obvious to the naked eye, is his distribution; and as long as he doesn't miskick the ball to an opposing striker every time he needs to clear his lines, its hardly the most serious of goalkeeping flaws. Duke chooses to fling the ball to the flanks a lot more, which gets cheers from the crowd and, on the rare occasions Myhill does this, earns cheers of a more ironic nature from the same people. Ultimately, however, a goalkeeper is there to save shots, catch dangerous crosses and position himself ideally in accordance with the movement of the ball. Myhill is simply far better at this stuff than Duke.

Duke kept goal for ten Premier League games last season and though at times he performed well (saving a penalty at West Ham United on his Premier League debut springs to mind) ultimately Phil Brown realised that in the slump of form the Tigers were suffering, he needed his best people on the park, and Myhill returned after one Duke howler too many at Middlesbrough. Duke has not been eccentric or awful in this short spell of games, but he has dropped a cross too many already and with Myhill fit again, his return to the side at Manchester City is simply essential.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

14: Hull City 3 - 2 Everton - 25/11/2009

And the thrills continue. To conclusively outplay one of the great club sides of Europe to the tune of a three-goal lead at the break, and then use the last 25 minutes for an effective rearguard as they threatened to level up made for one of the finest matches at the KC Stadium in a long time.

Everton's route back into the game was wholly down to one Hull City player's capacity to panic or lose concentration. Kamil Zayatte will feel bad today. But he shouldn't, given that his qualities still made a telling contribution to a City victory, with his indiscretions ultimately proving harmless.

Phil Brown
had one big decision to make about Jimmy Bullard, and make it he did. He left him out. It was patiently explained afterwards that after ten months out, it was a lot to ask Bullard to do his scampering act for another 90 minutes and essentially put in three big shifts in eight days. He'll be back when the Tigers go to Manchester City this weekend.

George Boateng returned, and Dean Marney was given more of the ball. Geovanni was back, both necessarily and predictably, a decision made easier by Craig Fagan's late withdrawal with shoulder trouble. Paul McShane made his return to the defence to replace the banned Bernard Mendy.

Everton have whopping injury troubles but this should be less of an issue when one scans the team they were still capable of fielding at the KC. Quality players. And the Tigers made them look decidedly ordinary.

The opening goal after ten minutes was started and finished by the magnificent Stephen Hunt. Ignoring Geovanni's overlap, the Irishman clipped a cross towards Jozy Altidore at the far post, and the heavy American shrugged off two defenders to batter a vicious shot right at Tim Howard, his international colleague. Hunt, following up his own pass, got to the rebound first to steer in the shot. And the Tigers had no cause to look back.

Richard Garcia climbed well to head an Andy Dawson cross back into the danger area and Geovanni controlled the loose ball before hitting a shot right into Howard's midriff. Then the Brazilian was fouled 25 yards out, and Dawson bent in simply the best free kick anyone will see this season for 2-0.

There were just 20 minutes gone, and this was dreamland. The two flank pairings were combining excellently, especially Hunt and Dawson on the left, while Boateng was the rock we know he is and Marney, feeling the influence of Bullard even in his absence, was finding room and time to spray the ball around with genuine aplomb. The third goal, unbelievably, was imminent, as Hunt strayed to the right flank and guided a ball into Marney's path and the shot, via Tim Cahill's shin, coasted into the net. Marney's reaction at scoring his first goal in 18 months suggested that he has had many a sleepless night of worry. No more.

Remarkably, it nearly became four when Hunt swung in one of his vicious free kicks and Zayatte's long leg only just failed to make a meaningful connection from merely four yards. Altidore, still desperate for his first Premier League goal, bullied his way into space on the right edge of the box but hit the shot a little too high.

The half time whistle sounded and the response mixed hearty applause with looks of sheer bewilderment. Given that the Tigers had never scored three goals at home in the Premier League until the weekend, and now done so twice in four days (and in the first half of each game in doing so) such looks and such applause was more than merited.

Of course, there is always the nagging doubt that such illustrious opponents will react in the way their fans would expect. Everton did just that upon the restart, although their comeback was, in the end, gifted to them by the bonkers Zayatte.

The Guinean star is a super footballer. Strong in the air, brave as they come and, for a defender, in possession of real touch and composure on the ball. But he also has a devil on his shoulders that makes him commit howlers usually reserved for the parks on a Sunday.

A largely directionless cross from Johnny Heitinga was ripe for Zayatte's sumptuous clearing boot to send far away from danger, but instead he miskicked it behind him, over Matt Duke's head and in via the post. Oddly, the trajectory of the ball and its deflection was not dissimilar to Bullard's free kick against West Ham United.

So, it's 3-1 and there's a glimmer for the visitors. This became a proper glare when Zayatte chopped into Louis Saha as the Frenchman shaped to shoot, and was lucky to see only a yellow card. Saha sent Duke in the wrong direction from the penalty spot and now there were 25 minutes for the Tigers to hang on.

As important as City's first half domination was the way the Tigers killed the next 15 minutes of the game, and Everton's control of the ball produced next to nothing in terms of real opportunity. Boateng was at the helm of this, reminding us of just how useful a good, fuss-free holding player can be when opposition enthusiasm needs to be dampened down.

Garcia had a good chance to re-create a two goal advantage when he chested down Anthony Gardner's free kick, worked his way inside and hit a tremendous drive goalwards on which Howard risked the structure of his fingers to keep out. McShane then went on a totally curious run down his flank, displaying abilities to maintain total control of the ball while weaving in and out of players that we assumed never existed. The final ball didn't quite drop for Altidore.

As the game wandered into its final ten minutes, Everton began to squeeze City tighter and tighter but achieved little. Cahill shot high from a long way out, the kind of chance a team defending a slender lead is happy to see created. City threw on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for the marvellous Altidore, and then Nick Barmby and Kevin Kilbane replaced Garcia and Geovanni respectively. The two former Evertonians shored things up even more, and all Everton had left was a Leighton Baines free kick late in injury time which the England wannabe could only hit into the wall.

So, another three points. Statistics ahoy - the 14 points acquired at home has already surpassed the whole of last season's tally at the KC. In three consecutive home matches City have scored eight goals, and now the Tigers are unbeaten in the last five. The fortress at home that Brown has always wanted, with half an eye cast enviously towards Stoke on Trent, seems to be on schedule for construction.

Only one more game at the KC before Christmas, with Blackburn Rovers turning up in just under three weeks, and trips to Manchester City and Aston Villa beckon next. Frankly, the way the Tigers are playing, one hopes for their sakes that both of those teams don't make any blithe assumptions about little Hull City. If they do, they're in for a shock.

Hull City: Duke, McShane, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Marney, Boateng, Hunt, Garcia (Barmby 75), Geovanni (Kilbane 87), Altidore (Vennegoor of Hesselink 75). Subs not used: Myhill, Mouyokolo, Cairney, Ghilas.

Everton: Howard, Neill, Baines, Distin, Yobo, Heitinga, Pienaar, Cahill, Rodwell (Jo 60), Yakubu (Gosling 46), Saha. Subs not used: Nash, Hibbert, Baxter, Duffy, Coleman.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

McShane warned

A fresh opportunity has been presented to Paul McShane tonight. He starts the game because of Bernard Mendy's one-match ban, and he needs to use it to remind everyone of the player he can be.

McShane was brutally superb when he came to the KC on loan last season. The spell didn't last as long as it should have done once Sunderland realised one of their players was helping a direct relegation rival and hoiked him back to Wearside, but for the period he was occupying the Tigers' right back spot, he was effective and excellent and we all wanted him back soon.

His return became more urgent once Sam Ricketts had his summer fallout with Phil Brown and signed for Bolton Wanderers in a huff, but we didn't - or couldn't - get McShane until the dreaded deal to sell off the London-born family silver to Sunderland was completed. McShane was not a makeweight or a condition of Michael Turner's departure, but he did return to us, quite cheaply too, within the same week.

And, well, it hasn't gone well for him. Not helped by being given the captaincy as a mere token by Brown when his second debut for us (and Turner's first for Sunderland) came at the Stadium of Light, the red-haired full back has flattered to deceive. He tackles for fun, which is his main strength - but it is more his saviour right now, as positionally and in possession he has been unremittingly awful.

Sunderland fans did warn us about this, of course. Their beef with him was that he was an aggressor who couldn't actually play much football, and he was prone to brainstorms. There was an own goal against West Bromwich Albion which Mackems use as the main stick with which to beat McShane. For the Tigers, he scored an own goal at Arsenal but, well, there was no blame attached and the subsequent reaction of the team removed any remaining stigma from McShane's person.

His stooping, looping header at Liverpool last season (and strange double-fingered celebration) was one of the most memorable goals of the campaign, but it was just his simple brand of uncompromising defending that endeared the Tiger Nation to him. That element of controlled clogging still remains within this season's McShane, but control in other areas has been absent.

Brown shook up the side with substitutions when the Tigers were chasing the game at Burnley and McShane was taken off. He responded by throwing his drinks bottle angrily across the shale area near the dugout and even though Brown didn't see it, there is no hiding place when the cameras are around. McShane has not started a game since - until tonight.

Mendy hasn't an ounce of McShane's defensive ability, and lacks greatly in common sense when playing at right back. But he is dynamite going forward, unlike McShane. A hybrid of the two would be almost ideal, which is possibly why another right back may yet be in Brown's sights when January comes round. In the meantime, with Mendy in his suit and tie on the sidelines, McShane's mission to regain form and faith gets underway against Everton tonight. He needs to grab it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Keep on keeping on

So, the next hurdle in the one-man rescue mission currently being undertaken by Jimmy Bullard will, hopefully, be leapt tomorrow night.

Hull City are at home to Everton and it will show us if Bullard is fit enough to play a full 90 minutes in midweek after a strenuous weekend match.

The gut instinct here is that he is, simply because he hasn't looked completely shattered after either the Stoke City victory, or the draw three days ago against West Ham United. The fortnight's break after Stoke will also have helped him too and maybe City can force two big displays from him while making sure there is enough cotton wool for him in between.

It's not just the Everton game we have to consider, of course; the Tigers go to Manchester City on Saturday and with the (very) recent history of fixtures and events at Eastlands, every important player needs to be available to Phil Brown.

The ideal scenario is that City, buoyed by recent upturns in form and fortune, get into a winning position against an off-message, injury-hit Everton and Bullard can be sacrificed with 20 minutes to go. However, in a tighter match, there needs to be enough in Bullard's tank to get him through the full match.

Bullard mustn't overdo it, but only Bullard himself can decide just how much work he is able to put in. Judging by the gleeful, high-speed way he dashed to the bench in celebration of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink's 91st minute winning goal against Stoke, he is in a physical position to run himself into the ground for the cause, and if he can last a frenetic 90 minutes against Stoke after barely no football for ten months, then he can probably manage a second 90 against Everton merely four days after doing the full shift against West Ham.

His natural enthusiasm and burning desire to make up for lost time will also aid his cause to keep playing. And that is very handy - and very timely.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Show us your Marney

And so the debate about the enigma of Dean Marney takes a new twist.

Very quietly, Marney has worked his way towards senior status in the Tigers squad, with this his fourth season at the club and yet still he has not convinced the majority of Hull City supporters.

Marney isn't a figure of out-and-out hate at all; but he does frustrate and bemuse vast quantities of the Tiger Nation. Yet now, with Jimmy Bullard finally fit to take on the creative responsibilities previously laid at Marney's door, there could be a breakthrough for the talented ex-Spurs player.

The workrate of Marney has always been his saviour. Once it became apparent that the famous goal he scored as a teenager for Tottenham Hotspur against Everton was more of a rod for his back than a sign of things to come, his energy became his main contribution to the team's cause.

Yet with his running and eternal willingness to take the ball came a disappointing lack of accuracy, sometimes with his passing but almost always with his shooting.

Marney hasn't scored a goal for the Tigers for 18 months. And that was a penalty. He has only really come close to a Premier League goal twice since promotion - when he hit the post at, of all places, Tottenham in October last year; and when he put a one-on-one chance inches wide at Chelsea in the New Year.

For as long as Marney had to fill a role of craft as well as graft, the Tiger Nation ended up being disappointed by his achievements. Rarely is his effort questioned, regularly is his effectiveness. He has supporters on his back at times, yet for 90 per cent of a match he is collecting the ball, playing it simple and maintaining possession. It's when he shoots from distance or tries a slightly ambitious ball that he comes unstuck, and with the patience for which all tunnel-visioned fans are not renowned, the previous good work means nothing and the one bad effort incurs all their venom.

And so enter Bullard.

Once again, the return of this fantastic footballer seems to have galvanised team-mates on both a collective and individual basis. The wide players have someone able to feed them on the overlap; Geovanni can spread his runs without having to drop back; the centre forwards can feed off good slide rule passes and balls from deep with their back to goal.

And Marney can concentrate on what he does best. Against West Ham United, he did just that.

With Bullard now doing the resourceful stuff, Marney's role as an energiser and a bit of hard-running glue that links midfield to attack can flourish. He is good at this, and every team needs someone of this ilk.

Marney still got a fair bit of the ball and yes, sometimes a harder pass didn't quite make it, and there was one shot in the first half that flew its usual few feet wide. But the player's confidence - aided by his recall after Seyi Olofinjana came back from international duty with a sore hamstring - seemed to have grown and flowered, thanks entirely to the presence of Bullard alongside him.

The brilliance of Bullard might just be the catalyst for Marney's long-awaited growth into the midfield battler role. Every team needs one, and for a while when City were beating all and sundry in the autumn of 2008, Marney was doing just that. As long as he keeps the passes simple and the shooting to a minimum (or, preferably, spends hours and hours on distant shooting practice after training each day) then he would appear to be Bullard's best available partner right now.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

13: Hull City 3 - 3 West Ham United - 21/11/2009

This was one of the craziest games for a long time. Early on, Phil Brown looked doomed, then his players dragged him from the mess before the break before clinging on to a point after going down to ten men. Entertaining, compelling stuff, yet one suspects neither manager will be happy.

West Ham United, below City in the table, were two up in the first quarter of an hour and will be both livid and bewildered by their inability to hang on to that lead. But from that emerges a story of players really feeling for their manager, and though the 3-2 lead the Tigers acquired by the interval was improbable, it detailed the utter commitment felt by the players and Brown should be proud and flattered by that.

He made one change thanks to Seyi Olofinjana's hamstring injury, preferring the industry and distributive skills of Dean Marney to the slightly more one-dimensional spoiling habits of George Boateng. Otherwise, it was as you were, meaning Geovanni had to be content with the bench while the argument continued between the need to accommodate your form player (and top scorer) and the necessity to keep a winning team together.

Valon Behrami had the first chance, putting an eight yard effort straight into Matt Duke's hands after a sluggish Tigers defence allowed too much space for a Hammers attack down the left. That chance was good; the next one was as spacious and, this time, taken well. Andy Dawson deflected a Carlton Cole shot out for a corner, from which a criminally unmarked Guillermo Franco headed in at the near post.

It was a shock, but City found a response. Jimmy Bullard volleyed goalwards from a cleared Stephen Hunt corner and after the drive was blocked, Jozy Altidore and Craig Fagan both had stabs at goal which were deflected and sent wide respectively. It was a cluster of chances that needed through one avenue to find the net, as the visitors were two up shortly afterwards.

Franco, wide and deep on the left, sent a speculative cross to the edge of the area where Jack Collison managed to get a head on it, and the looping ball foxed Duke entirely, arching over the advanced keeper's head and into the net. Unsurprisingly, the well-stocked away end went potty with this goal and Brown, frankly, was out of a job.

But something changed, and Brown helped by keeping his nerve and not making any tactical switches to try to alleviate the situation. The players maintained their composure and, after Richard Garcia's header from Marney's cross was pushed out by Robert Green, the game became a little tepid. Then, finally, City got back into it via the slice of fortune that a team usually doesn't get when it is really necessary.

A free kick was forced at an angle which Bullard chose to drive at goal. The ball hit one defender and spun into the ground before looping high over most of the throng of players, flicking another head and dropping into the West Ham net at the far corner. It was a comical free kick, with the extra touches making the effort go almost into slow motion, but those deflections took it to the one area Green couldn't reach, and City were back in it. Bullard's first goal for the club, assuming he has enough gall to claim it, and the first by an Englishman for the Tigers this season.

Marney then had a shot from distance which, as Marney shots do, flew wide; then the same player chipped a smartly angled ball to Altidore but Green smothered the chance at the American's feet. Bullard aimed a gorgeous ball to the overlapping Bernard Mendy which released the Frenchman with perfection, but Matthew Upson got across to block as he shaped to shoot.

Both centre backs then aimed headers wide from set-pieces - Kamil Zayatte from Bullard's free kick, then Anthony Gardner from Hunt's corner - before the anticipated equaliser arrived. Mendy won the free kick that Hunt swerved in deliciously, and Zayatte got goalside of his marker to thunder a near post volleyt home.

It's 2-2 and Brown seems secure again. There's work to be done still, but to be lvel after sucj a chronic beginning was satisfying enough as the break approached. However, we didn't reckon without Upson getting too friendly on Fagan's shoulders just inside the area and referee Mark Clattenburg giving a probably correct but certainly soft penalty. Bullard slammed home the kick, City's first for more than a year, and the half time whistle shrilled with City 3-2 to the good, having been 2-0 down, and the Tiger Nation making sure the stunned West Ham support were well aware of how they had rather spoiled a winning position.

The second half was made into a West Ham show within fewer than ten minutes after Mendy, dashing across to cover for the prostrate Zayatte, was a fraction too late with his tackle on the advancing Scott Parker and was rightly shown a red card. Junior Stanislas wasted the free kick but the dynamics of the game had evidently changed. Brown slung on Paul McShane for Garcia to make sure the hole in the defence vacated by a gutted Mendy was filled properly, and the Hammers took on a larger share of the possession.

Duke held at the second attempt a shot from Stanislas which took the keeper a bit by surprise, before Franco was scandalously allowed to stay on the park after chopping down Altidore when already on a booking, even though Clattenburg gave a free kick. West Ham forced a corner within a minute and Manuel Da Costa swiped in a far post shot after lame covering presented him with the chance; and quickly Franco was subbed, as if his manager knew he was playing with fire.

So, 3-3 and now the visitors looked more likely to win again. Brown took off the tiring but impressive Altidore - the lad is getting there but just needs a goal - and sent on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. But with Fagan forced wide by Mendy's dismissal, the Dutchman was alone at the top and given little opportunity to make an impact.

Gardner nearly let sub Luis Jimenez in when unaware of danger on the edge of his own box, and was lucky not to be punished as the shot hit the side netting. Brown let Geovanni loose in the final stages, withdrawing Hunt, but the Brazilian could do little as West Ham continued to put the squeeze on the Tigers, sensing victory was a real possibility. Cole headed a Julien Faubert cross over, then Collison's header via the same source was palmed away by Duke, who then was able to scramble to his feet and collect. The four minutes of added time petered out, with Geovanni trying one ridiculously long-range free kick which cannoned off a well assembled West Ham wall.

So, a 3-3 draw and everyone was exhausted. It wasn't a win but the nature of the comeback and the resilience shown upon losing a man showed all, but especially Adam Pearson, that there was life in Brown's regime yet. Draws are rarely pleasing, but given the calamitous start to the game and the disadvantage caused by Mendy's red card, it was a draw worth taking. And, of course, the madness was entertaining madness. Everton's visit on Wednesday night may not be so kindly, and Brown has big decisions to make yet again.

Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Marney, Bullard, Garcia (McShane 57), Hunt (Geovanni 85), Altidore (Vennegoor of Hesslink 73), Fagan. Subs not used: Myhill, Kilbane, Boateng, Barmby.

West Ham United
: Green, Faubert, Gabbidon, Upson, Da Costa, Parker, Stanislas, Behrami (Hines 60), Collison, Franco (Jimenez 70), Cole. Subs not used: Kurucz, Spector, Ilunga, Kovac, Nouble.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Geovanni for the bench?

As we return to Premier League action this weekend with West Ham United's visit to the KC, only one real team selection issue seems to be on everyone's mind.

Will there be room for both Geovanni and Jimmy Bullard in the Hull City team?

The simple answer has to be yes, but it would also be neither a surprise nor a great injustice if Phil Brown opts to maintain the attacking line-up that began the victory against Stoke City, and therefore the superskilled Brazilian ends up on the bench.

This would be roaringly harsh on Geovanni, who missed the Stoke game through a suspension meticulously timed with Bullard's long-awaited full debut for the Tigers. We lost one sparkling imp of creativity but gained another.

And this is where the dilemma grasps the manager. Bullard can do all of Geovanni's visionary stuff and more. It's hard to separate the two of them as mercurial talents, so maybe the prospect of two of them - especially in what is essentially an early-season relegation six-pointer - starting the game seems a little far-fetched.

However, although Geovanni's last game was in an unusually deep position, he is best suited to being further forward than Bullard, playing as a schemer and roamer behind a main centre forward. If Brown were to maintain Geovanni's licence to do as he pleases but try to keep the Brazilian further forward, there should be a place for him.

Bullard's inclusion is a no-brainer. Yet because of this, Geovanni's role is somehow threatened. And yet you could look back to January, when Bullard signed on the dotted line, and simply lick your lips at the prospect of the two of them playing together. Such a likelihood seems a little more unsure now.

Aside from the compatibility of the two, the question would also arise as to which of Craig Fagan and Jozy Altidore would need to make way, especially as both played their best games of the season and, by definition in Altidore's case, his best game for the club so far. To drop either, even when informed that it's to accommodate City's finest performer of the season so far, would be a riotous injustice. Fagan's relationship with his manager is already strained, whereas Altidore's continued need to come to terms with the English game and build his confidence can only be achieved through selection from the start. We can rule out Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink - seven minutes on the park doesn't earn him the right to replace either striker, even though he did score the winning goal against Stoke during that brief time on show.

Brown probably has to make one change, as Seyi Olofinjana returned from duty with Nigeria with a tight hamstring. It could herald a remarkable return for George Boateng, who was turning down a loan to a Championship club a mere three weeks ago, or the prospect of Dean Marney's energy, industry, heart and total paucity of end product accompanying Bullard down the middle.

Of the gutted Irish trio, two aren't in the starting XI right now anyway, and although other Premier League managers claim they will assess their Irish squad members' "mental state" before deciding whether to pick their charges who performed in Paris, somehow it doesn't seem feasible that a character like Stephen Hunt will have allowed the upset that to affect his club focus. He'll play.

The big question is about Geovanni though. Keep him off the teamsheet and the best player in City's side through the season is suddenly in danger of being frozen out after just one match of absence. But reinstate him and the two performers most in danger of losing out find themselves wondering what on earth they have to do in order to play football for Hull City.

We're sure that Brown is somehow relishing the niceness of the problem, as it's not often so many form players are available at once. His man-management talents need to be right on the button to get through this one. It's all that Bullard bloke's fault - and thank goodness for that.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Tigers in SA

No serving Hull City player has ever played at a World Cup finals. However, in these highfalutin, cosmopolitan times, a chance has come for a member of the current squad to make history.

The countries represented regularly by Richard Garcia, Kamel Ghilas and Seyi Olofinjana have all qualified. The presence of Australia, Algeria and Nigeria in next summer's finals gives one of these chaps, depending on selection and the order of fixtures, the chance to go on the club's record books forever.

And it really is about time. Until elevation to the Premier League, City's international involvement was restricted to players representing the home countries that rarely achieved anything - Wales and Northern Ireland have especially had their share of City stars over the years - and the odd colony, minuscule island group or Commonwealth nation.

It could have been more next summer but for the chronic bad luck suffered by the Republic of Ireland, robbing Kevin Kilbane, Paul McShane and Stephen Hunt of an opportunity. Other members of the City squad could go depending on an upsurge in their club form or, in the case of Jozy Altidore, a rubberstamping of a long term future at the KC.

Meanwhile, it's up to the players whose nations have qualified to make sure they stay fit and on form, but, initially, only for their club. The last thing we need is Olofinjana ducking out of 50-50s against Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City in case it ruins his World Cup dream...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

As good as your last game

Every game currently feels like it could be Phil Brown's last in charge. With another struggler visiting the KC Stadium this weekend, it represents another opportunity for the beleaguered but battle-hardened City boss to prolong his welcome.

This blog called for Brown's head recently but is open to a rethink thanks to the new circumstances. Those circumstances can be summed up by three surnames - Duffen, Pearson and Bullard. They have, actively or passively, contributed to Brown's current status of a "wait and see" manager.

Had Paul Duffen still been here, Brown's future would have been rock solid but City would not have played against Stoke City as they did, as Brown would have been able to maintain his stand-off with a number of senior players and select the same old same old.

Adam Pearson's arrival and the instant, consequent rumours around Brown's future removed that safety net with quite a swish. Brown immediately picked a squad for the Stoke game that contained two of his three enemies within the playing staff. But, of course, he also got to pick Jimmy Bullard.

And ultimately, winning matches will be Brown's only saviour in the long term, and City look capable of doing that only if Bullard is fit and playing a part. It is a remarkable thing to conclude when the player has managed just one 90-minute performance thus far, but the evidence of that performance was concrete. City are a different side with him pressing the buttons. The win against Stoke was achieved rather late but still entirely on merit.

Duffen is still bleating in the press about his self-proclaimed achievements at the KC rather than acknowledging that he is now part of the club's history and moving on. Pearson, Brown and Bullard, however, are very much with the club, and the performances of one will largely dictate the actions of another in establishing the future of third. It feels almost like a soap opera, with the next edition against West Ham United this weekend.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Garcia's got it

The two headers that Richard Garcia aimed into the back of Atalanta's net in last night's friendly in Italy looked superb on the television. It was a mere friendly, a tool to keep a semblance of match practice within the players who hadn't been called away by their national squads, but for Garcia it may prove most important.

Garcia has both fans and detractors, and this blog is a fan. A big fan, actually. The Australian midfielder is in possession of a fine touch, good passing ability and can unleash vicious shots from distance and swing in dangerous crosses. His detractors claim he isn't as good as he may think he is, and that he doesn't fulfil the potential he had when given a ticket across the globe to join West Ham United's academy.

After his performance against Stoke City at the weekend, he was criticised for laziness by some supporters; a criticism that hasn't previously been labelled against him in his three years at the club. This stems from his deep-lying position when City were on the attack, when fans are expecting to see him hugging the right flank. The abuse was fairly mild but it was still misguided, as Craig Fagan shifted out to the right hand side as much as he could during the first half and Garcia's more central and more reserved place on the park was evidently a deliberate tactic.

He still played some killer balls down the flank and got into advanced positions, and although he had little luck in the penalty area, he was one of the stronger performances in a half dominated by the Tigers but which ended with Stoke in front. Garcia's early substitution in the second half as Nick Barmby was brought on should not be seen as detrimental to his contribution on the day, even though City went on to score twice and win without his help.

Garcia is, first and foremost, a right sided midfielder. The other main candidates for this role are Kamel Ghilas, Bernard Mendy and Fagan. Oddly, none of them seem to have stamped their authority on the position, although Ghilas seems to have the fewest flaws of the quartet and yet is being held a lot in reserve right now.

Garcia's touch, distribution and shooting is better than Fagan's but Fagan has the edge on stamina and on facility to frighten opponents. In bootstrap-pulling adversity, Fagan is more preferable. Garcia can't beat a man as well as either Ghilas or Mendy but doesn't make cock-ups of the atrociousness to which Mendy seems all too prone. Ghilas evidently has flaws, as he keeps being substituted or dropped, but perhaps his main problem is that we don't yet really know if he is better as a wide man or as central striker. If he proves to be more useful in the latter role, then this is where Garcia could step in. On a pure footballing basis - ie, doing the good things often and the bad things seldom - Garcia is a better bet than either Mendy or Fagan.

Garcia was also played on the left flank and up front last season, with satisfaction rarely coming from either. When given the odd mega chance to score as a centre forward he failed, while on the left he showed too much of the ball to his natural right side and defenders got wind of him. His only goal last season came via his least likely of methods - a looping header at Blackburn in the second match of the campaign. And it's still open to question whether he was aiming for goal or just trying to return an overhit Fagan cross back to the danger area. Not that it should matter now.

He's still playing catch up after suffering a knee injury in pre-season, and this will provide as much of an explanation for his replacement by Barmby as anything, given that he was starting a Premier League game for the first time. His fitness continues to improve, and the smart goals he aimed into the Atalanta net this week will help his claims for a starting place improve too.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ash is rising

His history at the club means that he could never be the forgotten man of Hull City, even in his current injury crisis, but nonetheless it is gratifying to see Ian Ashbee thrust back into the spotlight today with the offer of a new contract.

Despite his age, his injury record and the continued rigours of a Premier League career that only began for him a year ago, it is without doubt that the news of Ashbee's extended deal with the Tigers will be treated with unanimous approval.

It seems to hint that Ashbee will be given full opportunity to regain and renew his place in the team and utter authority in the dressing room once he recovers from the knee injury that he suffered against Aston Villa in May and had subsequently labelled with a season-long healing calendar in the summer.

It's not impossible, but certainly improbable, that Ashbee will feature in the Hull City team this season. However, nobody should doubt that his presence behind closed doors is being felt by all, and the respect he commands goes to the very top.

Peter Taylor swore by him, Phil Parkinson got on his wrong side and was soon on his way (poor results were Parkinson's undoing, but plenty of stories remain about Ashbee disapproving of the manager near Adam Pearson's shell-like) and Phil Brown soon made it plain that a fit Ashbee would be the first name on every teamsheet he drew up in the Championship and Premier League. Pearson himself has every moment for Ashbee and Paul Duffen regularly waxed lyrical about the influence and inspiration of this exceptional captain.

Ashbee is the great storybook hero of the Tigers, the history-making skipper who rose through the divisions with City and earned himself a national following as someone who had made it to the top of club football the hard way - en route to the Premier League, he had to cope with unambitious previous clubs, awful injuries and loan spells in Scandinavia's foggiest outposts, among other things. It's been clear for a while that City has a plan in place for Ashbee when he chooses to retire from playing, and handing him a contract that will expire when the great man is pushing 35 proves it just a little more.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Jimmy Jimmy

What a difference Jimmy Bullard makes.

No, really, what a difference Jimmy Bullard makes.

You probably saw the game, on television if not at the ground. This was the day when Bullard finally got a place in the starting XI and proceeded to run the game and inspire the team in a way no individual player has done for years. And did so for 90 minutes, despite playing for a mere hour at first team level all year.

This is what we've been waiting for. Phil Brown must be a relieved man but also a rather irked one. His mega signing of January has had ten months of rehab and setbacks and during that time the achievement of the team and the reputation of the manager has been in steady decline.

Imagine what could have happened if Bullard had been fit throughout his time with the Tigers. It's very easy, and by no means scientific, to use his performance against Stoke City as a yardstick for a hypothetical guess on how 2009 may have turned out, but nonetheless it's doubtful that we'd have gone quite so long without a Premier League win. It's also consequently doubtful that we'd have gone into the final game of last season still fighting to survive.

Bullard was influential in a way even Geovanni has never been. The two are similarly skilled, but Geovanni tends to win matches through individual brilliance. Though a team player when necessary, the Brazilian is the type of self-promoting footballer whose personal glory is often the key to that of his team.

If Bullard's display against Stoke is a true indication of how he plays the game, then we have got ourselves a chap who constantly wants the ball and then always looks to give an opponent room and time. He involves the whole team, yet dictates the pace and direction of the game with ease and class. Bullard's creativity opens the way for others, whereas Geovanni's creativity tends to open the way for himself.

This isn't a criticism of Geovanni; heaven knows we need him to be back in the team for West Ham United's visit to the KC after the international break. And think of the mouth-watering prospect of Bullard and Geovanni playing together. Indeed, is it viable? Bullard played in a 4-4-2 thanks to his ethic as a provider for the team; Geovanni is never picked within a four-man midfield because of his natural tendency to roam the field and do as he pleases. Can Brown pick a midfield containing Bullard and still have room for Geovanni up front?

We'll see. The selection problem for Brown has suddenly turned from choosing between devils and deep blue seas to opting for either angels or saints. He won't pick two forward players because the previous two didn't perform; he now has to pick two forward players from at least four who have performed. Jozy Altidore and Craig Fagan put in their best performances of the season, but then on came Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink late on to score the winner, then Geovanni's freedom from suspension complicates the equation further. And do throw in Nick Barmby, whose cameo against Stoke was more than useful.

Whoever Brown picks up front, they will at least know that they have a genuinely forward-looking midfielder trying to set them free of their markers with killer balls, or freeing the wide players sufficiently to make room and time for the crosses that strikers love. Everything, even in these earliest of early days, has slotted into place. What an amazing impact on us all Bullard has had. And long may it continue.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

12: Hull City 2 - 1 Stoke City - 08/11/2009

Adam Pearson
made it clear via a national broadcasting outlet that a victory against Stoke City would keep Phil Brown in a job for a little longer. This doesn't mean that a draw or defeat would have seen him ushered out of the KC Stadium, but certainly his position was precarious as the injury time board went up.

The step forward Jimmy Bullard. Brown's stay of execution, were it to be confirmed over the fixtureless fortnight now ahead of us, was pretty much orchestrated by the one player who has been unable to have any influence, good or bad, on the destiny of the Tigers. Finally, however, the scampering midfielder made his home debut, his starting bow, and ruled the game entirely. That he lasted for 90 minutes was miraculous; that he went beyond 90 minutes to set up a winning goal which will be talked about for years defies all logic.

Bullard, with fewer than 60 minutes of real football in 2009 in the tank, was introduced as one of five changes from the shambles at Burnley eight days before. Bernard Mendy started at right back, while Jozy Altidore got a rare start up front and Craig Fagan returned to the starting line-up after, presumably, a heart-to-heart with the manager who had flung him aside two months earlier. Richard Garcia also got a welcome start after knee problems.

Geovanni's absence through suspension paved a more obvious path for Bullard to begin the game, while also allowing an orthodox 4-4-2 to be used. And it instantly looked better for City, although the defence was shaky against the muscly, ruthless, enormous Stoke presence. City dominated the opening exchanges but Stoke looked more dangerous when applying pressure in attack.

The visitors could have had a penalty in the first 30 seconds when Mendy handled a Matthew Etherington volley in the box but Mike Dean waved the appeals away. It was a fair shout. City's first attack involved a smart run from Garcia which allowed Altidore a turning opportunity in the box, but the burly American went too easily to the deck and rightly got nothing.

Fagan then flicked on Andy Dawson's ball into Altidore's path, and the striker laid it back for Bullard who lashed over. Welcomed to the KC with ear-splitting appreciation from the Tiger Nation, Bullard was soon making himself the chief source of City's dominance in possession, and no pass was wasted, few options taken were backwards. Other players limitations remained, but Bullard had already made City look a totally different team.

Stoke had a chance when Seyi Olofinjana, against the club that sold him to City in the summer, was relieved of the ball by Ricardo Fuller whose drive was beaten out by Matt Duke. Altidore shot wide from distance from Mendy's good approach work.

It wasn't exactly end to end, even though Stoke made the next chance when Etherington was put through in a promising position but Kamil Zayatte got a shin in the way to good effect. The Tigers had the lion's share of the ball but Stoke looked more capable of fashioning a proper opening when they had possession. It was tough to predict which team would take the lead.

It should have been City when Bullard and Mendy combined nicely to send Garcia through via a lucky deflection, but the Australian's cross was deflected and went out for a corner. Garcia then headed a Stephen Hunt centre on target but without adequate force and Thomas Sorensen pouched it easily.

It was City in the ascendancy, and it was Stoke who took the lead. The goal was ugly from the Tigers' point of view as Mendy let a ball past him way too easily. Etherington had time and room to charge down the left flank and find the net with a precise drive at Duke's near post.

Horrible. And it took a good while for City to rediscover the composure required in such adversity. Passes were misplaced, options were limited, desire seemed dulled. Eventually Garcia took some control from a deep-lying position and fashioned one crossing chance for Fagan which Altidore couldn't reach, then headed a Hunt fizzer back across goal before getting a second chance which was blocked for a corner.

Olofinjana, as maligned as anyone in the Tigers side, repeated his irritating trick of refusing to shoot in a goalscoring position when he squared the ball to absolutely nobody with just the goalkeeper to beat, to howls of chagrin from the Tiger Nation. Half time came and it looked bleak. Better, but still lacking in real strength at the back and proper ideas and, most importantly, a goal adrift.

Rory Delap's long throws caused the inevitable problems in the first half but only when he launched his first after the break did City look in trouble, with Mendy hacking one away in the six yard box as James Beattie closed in. Etherington then crossed dangerously for Anthony Gardner to intercept with a goalbound deflection, but luckily for the big central defender Duke got in the way via his forehead and elbow and the ball inched just wide.

By now, Nick Barmby had replaced Garcia and hugged the right touchline, a ready outlet for Bullard's eagerly spread balls and, refreshingly, some diligent running by Mendy. After a couple of let-offs, City were beginning to fight it out.

The hour mark had just passed when an array of simple possession balls from City made some room for the shot-shy Olofinjana some 25 yards out. With the memory of the City fans imploring him to shoot earlier in the game, he had a go from a range you'd never expect him to score from - and duly curled a gorgeous effort round Sorensen and into the net. Bedlam in the crowd, and Olofinjana was soon at the bottom of a pile of amber-clad bodies as he celebrated to full effect a goal against his ex-employers.

Fagan nearly got another when he got ahead of Sorensen with the ball rolling towards goal, but couldn't get enough of a final touch to stop Abdoulaye Faye blocking it on the line. Dawson then fed Altidore for a shot that he dragged wide, before the hardworking and luckless American was replaced by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink with seven minutes remaining. In this time Stoke had been firing poorly, but had notably created one big chance which Ryan Shawcross headed on to the top of the crossbar.

In the last five minutes, the tide turned entirely City's way. They had looked more likely winners but without the real authority to their play that suggested Stoke were troubled. Then Faye, already on a yellow, went through Barmby on the touchline in as stupid a manner as you could fathom, was sent off and Stoke fell into all-out panic. Tuncay, on as a sub a few minutes earlier, was re-withdrawn to great amusement from the home ends as Stoke tried a reinforcement job, but their organisation and poise had gone.

Bullard had one shot which Vennegoor of Hesselink tried to help on its way but couldn't quite get enough purchase to take it away from Sorensen's gloves, but then in injury time the same two combined to the greatest of great effects. Bullard had another go from distance, Sorensen failed to hold and the tall Dutchman tucked home the rebound to prompt celebrations as wild as those after any of the Tigers' triumphs in the Premier League.

The rest of injury time was played out with a few nails bitten as Delap sent in throw after throw but nothing was forthcoming from the beaten visitors. The final whistle was a truly joyous thing to hear.

Bullard was exceptional, showing in 90 minutes exactly what could have kept City a good distance from the relegation scrap last season had his knee stayed the course. Other players - Zayatte, Mendy, Altidore - had their best games for a while. But the credit belongs to Brown. Knowing he had to do whatever it takes to keep in work, he offered olive branches, took gambles and relied on the players' trust, and it came off. It was bumpy stuff, against a team with real history for mucking up the Tigers' plans, but it worked an absolute treat. Questions will still be asked, and very rightly, yet the biggest question Brown had to answer was that about himself and his suitability to stay at the helm. His response was there for all to see.

Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Olofinjana, Bullard, Hunt, Garcia (Barmby 52), Fagan (Boateng 90), Altidore (Vennegoor of Hesselink 83). Subs not used: Warner, Kilbane, McShane, Ghilas.

Stoke City: Sorensen, Shawcross, Collins, Huth, Abdoulaye Faye, Whelan, Delap, Etherington, Whitehead, Fuller (Tuncay 81, Wilkinson 87), Beattie (Kitson 61). Subs not used: Simonsen, Cort, Higginbotham, Lawrence.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Let the Bullard loose...

Phil Brown may already know whether he will have a job after this weekend, come win, lose or draw against Stoke City. Alternatively, however, he may have been told straight by Adam Pearson that a win will keep him in work a little longer. So the team selection for Sunday becomes more crucial than ever.

The defence doesn't need changing, despite Andy Dawson's worrying dip in form and Paul McShane's histrionics with the water bottle. But the midfield needs major surgery and, assuming he has at least 60 per cent fitness to give, Jimmy Bullard has to start the game.

If Brown leaves next week, then he will always have the fact that he never got to play Bullard from the start as a stick with which to beat the club. Bullard's health certificate seems a little more clear, as do many other things, since Pearson's return to the throne and so now there is an avenue open to Brown to get him on the KC pitch for the first time. The only glimpse the stadium has had of him so far involved a warm mac, a Hull City scarf and a soundtrack of derisory chants from visiting Millwall fans..

Bullard's role is made all the more urgent by Geovanni's suspension, as it's simply not viable to hope that Dean Marney can provide craft and guile. That said, Marney's true strength in offering endless energy and yardage to the team makes his retention a necessity, even though he remains more maligned than most. The other change in the midfield needs to be at its base.

Seyi Olofinjana's form has been harrowing to observe. He needs to be removed forthwith and Brown needs to bury the first of three hatchets by giving George Boateng the opportunity to stamp his qualities as a stopper, protector and leader on the team. His place at the base of midfield with Bullard at the helm, either side of Marney and Stephen Hunt's endeavour, will give the mixture of bite and subtlety that we've lacked.

And with Bullard in the side, Brown can pick two proper centre forwards. Kamel Ghilas, all pace and heart, is a must for one role, and though Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink has his critics, his continued uncomplaining shiftwork as main centre forward without anything approaching adequate support, permits him an opportunity to see what he can do with a proper partner, not one in a deep lying and largely free role.

Two more hatchets need to be buried in order to back this up, with Daniel Cousin and Craig Fagan genuine new options via the bench if only their manager can ditch the pride and let them do their jobs.

Whatever Brown does, he must know that the one team who would take personal pleasure in hammering in the last nail of his coffin would be Stoke City. For his long term pride, as well as his Premier League career, he has to make sure they don't get that chance. That means picking a team that can win, not a team merely with whom he is on speaking terms. And it also means that if it represents nothing bigger than a daring risk, throwing Bullard right into the starting XI.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The dreaded Stoke

Stoke City are this weekend's visitors to the KC Stadium, making the soap opera surrounding Phil Brown's fragile future all the more interesting. This is because Stoke fans, as a people, hate our manager more than any other faction in football.

The glee in their voices when they went one goal and then two goals up in this game last season as they shouted "Tango, what's the score?" at a hapless Brown was plain for all to hear. Despite this unpleasant line of inquiry, they were by some distance the best fans to visit the KC during the campaign. Loud, incessant, passionate and always positive.

Stoke don't like us and we don't like them. But for all the mutual hatred, certainly from this side of the argument it is hard not to envy, but most of all just admire, what Stoke have done. There was little to choose between the two clubs in the Championship when we were both promoted (our games were both 1-1 draws) and ultimately only two defeats in our last three games sent Stoke up, deservedly, and left us in the play-offs.

However, despite our showbiz start last season, by New Year it was evident that Stoke were better equipped to continue as a Premier League club. They didn't make as hard a job of it as us, although that game at the KC was their survival clincher and there were only two games remaining thereafter. Their success in the transfer window in January was made all the more sour for us by Paul Duffen claiming the hopeless Manucho was a better investment than James Beattie. Beattie scored loads for Stoke while Manucho struggled to locate his own buttocks.

The hatred among older fans goes back to that FA Cup quarter final in 1971. Among the younger element, it refers to the 2007 clash at the Britannia Stadium when Stoke were on the cusp of the play-offs and the Tigers were on the cusp of relegation. Stoke were leading 1-0 until the third minute of injury time when Nick Barmby shinned a volley in from distance.

Well, we went totally haywire in the away end. It was one of the more intensely celebrated Hull City goals this blog can recall in almost three decades of watching the Tigers. Barmby wheeled off to the touchline in celebration and, as the TV footage shows, stewards had to prevent raging Stoke fans, loosened from the seating and heading for the pitch, from physically attacking him. In a way I still wish a little that the leading assailant-in-waiting had reached Barmby, because Ian Ashbee was alongside him and would have happily kicked the barmy invader into next week.

This point ended Stoke's play-off hopes and their fans were not happy with us. We were kept in the concourses and then sealed inside the away end parking area by police while they tried to disperse Stoke's angrier element. Coins and mud and anything else they could find was hurled over the meshing and actually struck people, including children. Then, when all seemed to have quietened down, we were allowed to leave the stadium but were soon ambushed further along the business park where Stoke's ground is based.

The point that day not only robbed Stoke of the play-offs, but gave us a real chance of sealing safety the following week, which we duly did by beating Cardiff City away from home, sending the hated Leeds United down in the process. Even Stoke fans would admit we did football a great service that particular day. But their hatred for us was clear.

The following season, which ended with both of us going up, was free of any spats or trouble between the two clubs. Indeed, there was an element of kindred spirituality going on as Stoke realised, just as we had, that Jon Parkin was a tubby waste of space and needed to be sold on. (Maybe they got their revenge for that by lending us Ibrahima Sonko this season, and thank goodness the rules dictate he plays no part this weekend). But it seemed that Tony Pulis, the becapped Stoke manager, and Brown did not have a great relationship. Criticism of Stoke's brutal but effective playing style was heard from the direction of East Yorkshire and the fans took it upon themselves to monster Brown.

Of course, Brown's own reputation with all footballing parties crashed as City struggled through the second half of the Premier League season, but it was from Stoke where the dislike was aired most keenly. Indeed, the last nail in the relegation coffin seemed to be malleted in by Stoke when Ricardo Fuller and then Liam Lawrence, with a fine shot, scored the goals that earned a 2-1 win and a second Premier League season for the visitors. At that point, we felt we would go down and, crucially, felt we deserved to go down. Sent down by Stoke, on our patch, with their fans taunting our manager all the way to obscurity? It felt rotten.

But the point at Bolton and the considerable ineptitude of clubs further north than City rescued us, and so still Stoke haven't managed to break our hearts since 1971 (though we also went out of the FA Cup to them in 1972, though more conclusively and less controversially). They stayed up last season, but so did we. Yet when we stayed up in 2007 with the aid of Barmby's late goal, we stopped them from going up in the process. Their record against us in recent times is better (we've only won one of our last eight meetings, while they've won three; oddly the home team has never been the winner in any of these games) but they've never in that time condemned us to anything, despite believing they'd done so in two of the last three seasons. Unless you count mild hilarity at our expense, but ultimately we could cope with being teased and criticised as we didn't go back down.

This Sunday, with Brown's job on the knife's edge, they may get their wish to inflict harm on us, or specifically our manager - indeed, they may still get their wish even if they lose the game. If Brown were to go next week, then he could verily take even the most minuscule of consolations from beating the team, and the set of fans, that have had it in for him the most. And even if things were settled and solvent round our way, it's still about time we beat the dreaded Stoke at the KC.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Olive branches all round

One thing we hope Adam Pearson has told his manager this week in their meetings of re-acquaintance is that he has to end his spats with various members of the first team squad.

City are understrength and playing poorly, and at least one (and maybe as many as three) of the fit and able footballers currently taking no part in matches because of a disagreement with Phil Brown could yet make a difference.

Bygones have to be bygones. It'll give us a genuine measure of Brown's stubbornness and sense of his own self-worth if he goes into his personal win or bust game with the dreaded Stoke City this weekend still insisting he was right to isolate players who dared to argue with him.

The one who absolutely could make a difference is Daniel Cousin, a centre forward who can both bruise opposing defenders and score proper goals. He carries an eternally unfair image of laziness but does know where the goal is and, more pertinently, knows where natural providers are aiming to place the ball and is willing and ready to aim directly for that area. He has an instinct and real ability and the longtime row with Brown which has prevented him playing a real part in the Premier League season needs to end instantly. It was noted by many that when he came on, surprisingly, at Liverpool when the game was long gone, that he won everything in the air and utilised his strength when given possession with his back to goal.

Who else? Well, George Boateng is also out in the cold and deserving of an opportunity to get warm again, not least because the player currently occupying the holding midfield position, Seyi Olofinjana, is chronically out of form. Boateng is believed to be the player Brown most referred to when the manager publicly complained of senior players not doing what was required of them, and we haven't seen him for a while. Having recently turned down a loan move to the Championship, the experienced Dutchman evidently feels he has some Premier League life left in him, and even if his current fitness issues mean he only plays every other game, he has still to be regarded as a proper asset. If nothing else, he is a far better leader than anyone out there right now.

Then there's Craig Fagan. This is a harder one to call, as Fagan is easily the most frustrating and divisive figure in the squad. Sometimes he is awesome, a grafting, chasing, persistent irritant down the flanks who gives no defender a moment's peace. More often, however, he is a peripheral figure, rarely able to get the ball under any control and distribute it in a positive manner while committing pointless offences and getting in trouble with referees and opponents. He has not been seen since his appalling brainstorm at Sunderland, when his early handball gave away a penalty and his later substitution began the row which smoulders to this day. Fagan deserved to be punished but maybe it has gone too far and at least the bench should be offered as a proper option. Still wouldn't pick him on pure ability for the right flank, not when the more gifted Kamel Ghilas (quicker, more disciplined) and Richard Garcia (better control and far better crosses) are around, but fire burns in Fagan's belly for the club that doesn't affect the digestive system of most others, and for that he needs to be hovering around the squad.

Of course, recruitment of any or all of these three players doesn't guarantee anything, and that includes their own professionalism. They may want Brown out and could see their selection as a direct, if deeply undesirable and eminently dishonest, way to get their wish. For the sake of every supporter who pays real money to watch the team each week, you'd hope that they'd never consider this. But Brown needs to take any kind of risk open to him. Caution on this occasion could be his last act as City boss.

Brown can't please everyone, but he can appease everyone now. He may have no choice. Pride and politics have always played a part in his assembly of squads and teams but right now he can see the clock ticking on his career at the KC Stadium and, with a job he intends to keep very much at stake this weekend, there simply isn't room for principle ahead of survival - his own survival, that is. Whatever happens against Stoke and immediately afterwards, there is plenty of time for City to stay up. This weekend is more about Brown than ever before, which is how he seems to like it, and so in order to give himself the best chance to have more such weekends, he needs to rebuild some very crumbled bridges. Even if he doesn't believe this, it's pretty certain his chairman will, and will tell him so.