Thursday, 31 December 2009

Ten of the greatest

With a decade of life-changing significance for Hull City coming to an end, here are the ten most important figures to have pulled on the shirt in these ten astonishing years. All are vital figures, though the list is very much in order of most vital first.

1 - Ian Ashbee
The greatest skipper, the greatest leader. Implicitly trusted by all the managers he played for, there has been much to appreciate from a player who joined on a free transfer from Cambridge United in 2002. His game involves simple passing, tenacious tackling and a stunning will to win that inspires, cajoles and frightens better players but lesser people into giving their all alongside him. And when he is out injured, such as right now, he is missed beyond all comprehension.

2 - Michael Turner
Simply the most talented player in City's history. His brand of defending was based on solidity, bravery, positional acumen and a general brilliance that often made him stand entirely alone in defying scavenging centre forwards, especially in the play-off winning season of 2008. Sold in dubious circumstances for far too little money and will be mourned and missed forever - or until City buy him back.

3 - Boaz Myhill
Some bemoan him to this day, yet Myhill has been far more crucial than sometimes given credit for. Signed as a talented Aston Villa reserve, he has made the rise from division to division more effortless than anyone else and, the odd howler and bad kicking aside, remains as good a goalkeeper as City could ever wish to have.

4 - Andy Dawson
He struggles a little right now, but for consistency, decency and ability there is little to fault about City's long serving left back. Like Ashbee, he made the rise through the divisions look easier than initially anticipated and still earns extra brownie points for his wizard free kicks and the fact that he let his contract run out at Scunthorpe so he could join us.

5 - Justin Whittle
From inspiring the Great Escape under Warren Joyce to leading a hard-as-nails defence to unlikely play-off glory while gates were being slammed shut around him, Whittle remains an icon of harder and more austere times and it is notable that the club has realised how much he still means to the fans by getting him involved with the club's latest publication and giving him a programme column. An example of footballing pride, honesty and raw passion, and Peter Taylor probably regrets letting him go so soon.

6 - Dean Windass
Scored the goal that prevented relegation from the Championship, then a year later scored the Wembley goal that ensured promotion from it. And all while fulfilling the most far-fetched of fairytales by returning to his hometown club in the twilight of his career and doing exactly what a century's worth of players had been unable to achieve before him. The brevity of his return and the unseemly nature of his exit prevents him, perhaps cruelly, from being higher in the table.

7 - Stuart Elliott
A complex and unorthodox figure but a fine footballer who scored bucketloads of goals without ever playing as a centre forward and just adored the club and the city. Phil Brown struggled to understand him and let him go, but only after half a dozen spectacular years and some of the finest scoring sequences ever seen at the club.

8 - Leon Cort
Won every header he needed to win, was as prolific a goalscorer as any defender could be and fetched a million quid in profit after just two years. Also never booked and never in bother.

9 - Nick Barmby
Never as amazing in a Tigers strip as the national media would have you believe, but always committed, influential and impossible to fault when he gets it right. As crucial a peripheral figure now as it possible to be, having arrived at the club in the third tier in circumstances that seemed implausible, promptly lording it over the rest of the division.

10 - Fraizer Campbell
Now not especially liked following his cat-and-mouse nonsense in the summer, and then his gesture to the Tiger Nation during this season's game at Sunderland, but in that promotion season when he came to us on loan, he was dynamite. Quick, strong, confident and a sublime finisher whether he was shooting from distance or poaching at close range. Given his struggles in the Premier League elsewhere, perhaps it's best we remember him this way.

Happy new year.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

20: Bolton Wanderers 2 - 2 Hull City - 29/12/2009

Disappointed with the prospect of a meagre point before the game, relieved to have snatched one after it. The single winnable game within a batch of no-brainers didn't produce three precious points but so abject was it until a rather incongruous fightback that getting a draw will do fine.

City were very poor. The weather was vile and so were the Tigers as Bolton took a half time lead, scored a very soft goal and seemed comfortable beyond all doubt. Bolton fans will point to the deeply unpopular withdrawal of Ivan Klasnić, scorer of the first goal, which reduced Bolton's natural attacking threat, but City can happily point out that their game upped itself in the final 20 minutes.

Phil Brown picked the same starting XI that began against Manchester United but the similarity ended right there. The lack of purposeful running, aimed passes and general creation of chances was obvious and worrying. The odd set-piece aside, little trouble was posed to last season's chief nemesis, Jussi Jaaskelainen, who had a quiet and cold evening on the whole. His outfield team-mates were in the ascendancy as the Tigers really fell backwards.

Matthew Taylor hit one shot on the volley after being given time to chest the ball down, but it sailed high over. Chung-Yong Lee then similarly fired over from a reasonable position and then swung in a free kick which Tamir Cohen nearly managed to touch home.

A Bolton counter attack then gave Fabrice Muamba an opportunity after Andy Dawson could only half clear an initial cross, but the snapshot went too high. The chances were all the home side's, and the inevitable goal came when Dawson could only get a mild clearance on a free kick and Klasnić controlled nicely before drilling a precise low shot past Boaz Myhill, of whom there were question marks about how quickly he got down.

Dawson was blameless and nearly got City back into it when George Boateng, putting in a phenomenal second shift in three days, won a free kick on the edge of the box which the left back swung on target around the wall but too close to Jaaskelainen, who double-fisted it away.

Jozy Altidore
then took a clearance down in space and played a through ball to Craig Fagan but he shanked his touch, an all too frequent occurrence, and Jaaskelainen smothered the chance. Stephen Hunt then headed goalwards from a Bernard Mendy cross but a deflection on the line took the ball out for a corner.

So the chances were coming, though few of them were absolutely clear, and Bolton re-established their authority and should have been further ahead when Gary Cahill aimed a completely free header wide from Cohen's corner, and took a boot in the face for his trouble. Kevin Davies, the most admirable target man in football, then won a less gilt-edged header from another Cohen corner and aimed it wide.

A minute was added for injuries and soon the half was over. Utterly abject stuff from the Tigers. So bad was it, and in a game marked up as such a good prospect for points, that Brown probably found himself 45 minutes from the sack.

Bolton had the first chance after the break when Taylor smashed a free kick high over Myhill's bar, but City began to exercise more authority on the match. Kamil Zayatte won Mendy's delivery and headed back to Boateng whose shot was ricocheted wide. Brown withdrew the out-of-sorts Altidore and slung on Nick Barmby, who parked himself on the right wing and allowed Fagan to work down the centre a little more. It worked better for Barmby than it did for Fagan as the lack of a burrowing centre forward was a worry.

Taylor shot a long way over from a Davies flick back before City made their first proper chance, courtesy of Fagan's persistence which earned a corner. Hunt swung it in and Zayatte had a free connection but didn't get enough meat on the ball, arrowing it a long way wide.

It was a big moment, especially as a Myhill clanger then earned Bolton their second goal. Paul Robinson chipped in a free kick from halfway and the City keeper inexplicably came to collect but was beaten by the head of Davies with some ease, and the lack of cover allowed the ball to trundle over the line. It was a thoroughly dreadful goal to concede and Myhill, a fine goalkeeper, needs to hold his gloved hands up.

City looked beaten for a while, and Fagan's workrate was not matched, as is often the case, by his finishing as he made room for a shot with some flamboyant dummies but then smashed it over. Brown threw on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and issued orders for the ball to be sent long.

Chaos reigned in Myhill's goalmouth from a free kick but the Tigers keeper eventually made a good save from Cahill's close range header and then watched yet another Taylor shot go too high. City needed to get back into this right away if any chance of rescuing a rotten situation was to come the Tigers' way. And that's what happened.

Hunt made the running on the left and gave Vennegoor of Hesselink possession on the edge of the box. The big Dutchman fed Fagan whose cross was headed in from a couple of yards out by the supporting Hunt. A chance had come at last. And it seemed it was enhanced further when Bolton manager Gary Megson withdrew the influential Klasnić for the more prosaic Gavin McCann, and the uppity home support made it clear what they felt about that decision.

As if buoyed by this change in atmosphere, City battered the Bolton goal. Anthony Gardner headed a chance at Jaaskelainen and Brown made his final change, bringing Geovanni into the action.

A corner could have earned City a penalty for handball, and eventually Barmby's overhead kick had the direction but not the power to beat Jaaskelainen. It seemed to be getting closer to parity and City certainly deserved it.

It finally came when Zayatte centred from deep, Vennegoor of Hesselink won the header and Hunt's shot was only helped in by Jaaskelainen, though Cahill's clearance meant the assistant referee had to give the goal. But a goal it was, a second for Hunt, and now just one team seemed odds on to win this one.

In actual fact, Bolton made the late chances with Davies getting a shot in after fighting off Zayatte and then Gretar Steinsson had a late drive deflected inches wide. City had one more go, courtesy of Barmby nodding back Dawson's cross for Vennegoor of Hesselink but, under pressure, he aimed his volley high over the bar.

So a 2-2 draw, a handy result considering the way City had to earn it, and although January looks almost entirely a non-starter, there needs to be hope and confidence in the way the Tigers approach the matches against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United - two of which are away from home - so that everyone is ready for the real deal that everyone has their eye on when Wolves come to the KC at the end of that month.

Bolton Wanderers: Jaaskelainen, Robinson, Cahill, Knight, Steinsson, Muamba, Taylor, Cohen, Lee, K.Davies, Klasnić (McCann 75). Subs not used: Al Habsi, Ricketts, O'Brien, R.Gardner, M.Davies, Elmander.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson, A.Gardner, Zayatte, Boateng, Hunt, Garcia (Vennegoor of Hesselink 64), Olofinjana (Geovanni 75), Fagan, Altidore (Barmby 54). Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Mouyokolo, Ghilas.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

On the offensive again

The nature of Hull City's performance against Manchester United suggests that attack really is City's best form of defence.

Phil Brown
picked a 4-4-2, put pace and power up front real strength in the centre. And this against the supertalented Premier League champions. Surely another formation based on offence has to be on the cards at Bolton Wanderers, comparatively a less strenuous breed of opponent?

There may still be changes in personnel, not least because it is unlikely that George Boateng can manage two games in three days. Paul McShane may be fit again and may be more conducive a right back for a tight away game than the more forward-thinking - and gap-leaving - Bernard Mendy.

Given that Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and then Manchester United again represent our next hidings to nothing on the Premier League stage after the visit to the Reebok, one would not just hope but actively expect Brown to pick a team designed to attack, pressurise and damned well win. If he plays the cautious card that has blighted too many awaydays already this season, he can expect to have his future called into question. Up to him now.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Zayatte the exit

During the game against Manchester United, word began to spread that Hull City had declared that they would listen to offers for Kamil Zayatte.

Now, it's evident the club needs money, and the wage bill is too horrendous for words. But Zayatte has been the club's player of the season. The Guinean defender is hard as nails and king in the tackle, while also possessing a rampaging tendency when in possession which allows him to play also in central midfield.

He has been a major part of the reason why we have only missed Michael Turner as a mere superhuman, not as a God-like figure. And his partnership at the back with Anthony Gardner has been a triumph, thanks also in no small measure to a rare ability on Gardner's part to stay fit.

If the wires state the truth and Zayatte can go next month, then it is worrying for a dual reason. One, it lets others know that City's fiscal situation is serious enough to regard the best players as bankable. However, more worryingly, it means that the players who we really need to sell - Peter Halmosi, Nathan Doyle, Bryan Hughes, Caleb Folan, maybe Daniel Cousin - are either garnering no interest from other clubs or are, at best, only attracting a fraction of the fee the Tigers want for them. And therefore we're having to look at selling players who we'd certainly prefer to keep.

Much of this depends on whether the reduction in wages can alone save the right amount of money or whether transfer fees are also required. Adam Pearson's analysis of the books should now be complete, and he should be ready to tell us exactly what we need to do through January to bring costs down to manageable levels while also, hopefully, maintaining a realistic Premier League ambition.

Selling currently the best defender in the squad seems a rather odd way of proving to the supporters that the club intends to do both. If Zayatte goes then, like Turner before him, someone will need to explain why - and properly this time.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

19: Hull City 1 - 3 Manchester United - 27/12/2009

This was a brilliant game of football, won by the right team but if Hull City can reproduce such commitment and creativity in more winnable fixtures then the future should be bright.

The problem is, the Tigers often can't do that. We'll soon see evidence of whether this applies again as Phil Brown's men venture to Bolton Wanderers on Tuesday night for a game that stands alone for the next month as one where three points are as vital as any during the course of the season.

Simple talent eventually made the difference as the Premier League champions weathered 70 minutes worth of amber-tinted storms before sealing a well-earned and hard-fought three points. The Tigers, however, were proud in defeat. And a spot of luck and composure was all that stood between City and at least a share of the spoils.

Brown made three changes, one of which was enforced when Paul McShane picked up a training injury and missed out on facing the club where he served his apprenticeship. Bernard Mendy was recalled at right back, while Jozy Altidore - not considered for the whole squad at Arsenal - was put into the team in place of the feckless Geovanni, and Seyi Olofinjana beefed up the midfield with Nick Barmby reverting to the bench. Gallingly, the defensive crisis that has hit United recently cleared up just enough for four specialists to return to the team, including the colossus Nemanja Vidic.

The champions made the first chance courtesy of a strong run down the right by Antonio Valencia, whose eventual cross was volleyed on to the roof of the net by Ryan Giggs. The United skipper then swerved a free kick into the side netting after a rather soft foul on Wayne Rooney by Kamil Zayatte.

This foul was one of many such that Alan Wiley gave the visitors' way, leading to some members of the Tiger Nation suggesting in forceful song that he was too scared of Sir Alex Ferguson after their very public disagreement earlier this season to give middling decisions the way of United's opponents. Certainly Wiley hasn't been a favourite of Brown either, though ultimately the criticisms were overblown and unfair for what was one of the more fearless refereeing performances at the KC this season.

Stephen Hunt, as willing and as niggly as ever, sent a rather unconvincing low volley the way Tomasz Kuszczak as City began to find some belief in themselves. This was helped by defending that was desperate and heroic but also awe-inspiring, especially when Zayatte chucked himself whole at Darren Fletcher's shot, deflecting the chance to Rooney who was foiled by an equally brave Mendy.

The referee could have given City a penalty when Richard Garcia, suddenly playing at the sort of level that galvanised some of his performances in the latter part of last season, was sent through the inside left channel and was caught by Wes Brown. Contact with the ball was distinctly unproven but the protests from City's players weren't over vociferous, although replays later showed it was a clear foul.

Olofinjana forced a good save from Kuszczak from distance and then Boaz Myhill had to be alert to tip a Rooney drive over the bar after Dimitar Berbatov had put his strike partner through. Trading chances, although thus far the real opportunities had been crafted by the champions.

Then Garcia broke through two challenges in style and sent Craig Fagan scampering clear. Rarely does Fagan deliver first time crosses with panache and accuracy - this is an understatement - but on this occasion the curling ball was exceptionally delivered on to the boot of the late-arriving Olofinjana, whose volley into the ground was well kept out by an exposed Kuszczak. Easily the best chance of the game, and one that City need to capitalise upon when they come round.

Myhill collected Rooney's low curler without too much strife but then miskicked a straightforward back pass while entirely unchallenged. Giggs found Rooney with the suddenly loose ball but although chaos ensued for a short while afterwards, the Tigers defence was back in place quickly enough to ensure no shot was aimed at goal. The City keeper looked suitably relieved.

Another good chance came City's way when Olofinjana shook off a protesting Rooney and fed Hunt to the left, with the Irishman trying to guide a low shot in at Kuszczak's far post, missing by inches. Again a big, big chance had gone begging as the half time whistle approached.

Berbatov hit the side netting from a tight angle and then Myhill saved miraculously from Rafael as the youthful full back started and ended a bright passing move but, befitting an inexperienced defender in a forward position, hurried his shot when served with the chance. Anthony Gardner then kept his wits about him to deny Berbatov a shot from a counter attack, but from the corner the ball was cleared to Fletcher wide on the right, and his centre was touched on by Giggs and steered in by Rooney.

Two minutes of added time had elapsed and it was a total sickener. Altidore still had time to tee up a distant shot which stung Kuszczak's fingertips but the whistle sounded with City feeling hard done by and the champions in the ascendancy.

The early part of the second half was most memorable for the unkind chants aimed Wiley's way as he gave a cluster of half and half decisions in favour of United, although few of them were as dubious as the Tiger Nation claimed. Eventually City's spell of mini-pressure told as Rooney played a chronically underhit back pass which Fagan intercepted and, having been forced wide by Kuszczak, chipped to Altidore at the far post, with the American being clattered to the ground by Rafael. The penalty was given, Rafael was booked and Fagan coolly sent the Polish keeper the wrong way in precisely the manner Geovanni abjectly failed to execute a week before at Arsenal.

Now there was a game on. Michael Carrick aimed a fizzing drive from long range which Myhill had to fingertip wide, then Brown flicked Giggs' corner goalwards and the City keeper needed more fingertips to deny Rooney underneath his own bar.

City rallied after United made their first change - Ji Sung Park coming on for Valencia - and Hunt's persistence won a corner which he swung in himself, and Garcia won the header strongly but aimed it inches wide.

It was all happening in a breathlessly open and exciting match. Patrice Evra avoided a second yellow card - he'd been booked in the first half for tripping Garcia - when he caught Fagan's ankles on a counter attack, instead getting a stern lecture which Wiley requested his skipper Giggs witnessed. Berbatov then headed wide from Park's cross as United turned the screw.

They retook the lead in devastating fashion, clearing a Tigers corner which allowed Berbatov to set Giggs going on the right. Rooney made the run down the inside right channel and aimed the low ball for Park, and a desperate Andy Dawson turned the ball into his own net as he tried to prevent the Korean tapping into an open goal. Rooney's leap towards the travelling United faithful suggested one very relieved player.

Brown slung on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for the excellent Garcia as City threw a bigger presence into attack but soon it was dead as a contest when Myhill's goal kick was headed a long way clear for Rooney to chase into the box, and his exquisite low ball nutmegged Gardner, rendered Myhill a spectator and gave Berbatov one of the simplest finishes of his career.

As the ball hit the net, Kamel Ghilas and Geovanni were both waiting to come on, and Brown still gave them their minutes on the park, even though they were now essentially facing a dead rubber instead of a salvageable game. George Boateng and Altidore made way for them.

City nearly set up an onslaught to finish when Mendy and Vennegoor of Hesselink combined superbly - the big Dutchman's backheel was divine - but Mendy's final effort went wide. Fagan hit a vicious shot past Kuszczak's post after a free kick was cleared high into the air towards him, and City were in possession, seeking a goal for the more respectable scoreline when the final whistle shrilled.

United will be grateful for the points and will know they have been in a game. For the Tigers, it immediately asks questions about whether they have the motivation, energy and desire to replicate such a spirited and indefatigable display when taking to the Reebok Stadium pitch in 48 hours against a major rival at the foot of the table. One would really like to think so, as it would make this game hold some relevance beyond merely gaining a few extra admirers. Ultimately, no points were gained and when your team is second bottom, they are somewhat crucial. But it was a cracking match from beginning to end.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Boateng (Geovanni 83), Olofinjana, Hunt, Garcia (Vennegoor of Hesselink 77), Altidore (Ghilas 83), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Cairney, Barmby.

Manchester United: Kuszczak, Rafael, Evra, Vidic, Brown, Fletcher, Carrick, Valencia (Park 63), Giggs (Obertan 78), Berbatov, Rooney. Subs not used: Foster, Fabio, De Laet, Owen, Welbeck.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Getting FA from the FA

The decision not to charge Samir Nasri with violent conduct after his stamping attack on Richard Garcia smacks of another spot of pandering to the big clubs by the FA.

It also doesn't reflect well on Steve Bennett, the referee for the game at the Emirates who didn't see the incident at the time but has still been consulted by the authorities upon their re-examination of Nasri's horrid act. He claimed he would not have punished Nasri for the stamp had he seen it, and so the Arsenal player got off scot free.

City have, however, been charged with failing to control their players, essentially because Nick Barmby and Stephen Hunt, backed by others, went completely potty with Nasri. How on earth were they meant to react? It was off the ball, the game was inactive as Arsenal were preparing to take a free kick - it was as wanton, cynical and unnecessary a moment of thuggery as any you can recall and naturally it is going to anger the victim's pals.

Some claimed Garcia made a meal of it, and it's fairly clear that he may have done, though I challenge anyone not to feel some pain when stamped upon by the studs of a footballer on a cold night in December. But that simply isn't a part of the argument anyway. Garcia could have been unhurt and skipped gaily round the border of the Emirates and through the exit to Finsbury Park tube station for all that it mattered. Nasri's act is not exacerbated nor mitigated by the reaction or injury suffered as a consequence by his target.

Arsenal have also been charged with a collective lack of control of their players as a free-for-all ensued. Hunt and Barmby were booked and the latter was withdrawn at half time, officially with calf trouble but probably also as much because he was seething and his mental state was in doubt. Hunt spent the second half being booed by the Arsenal crowd.

City say they will challenge the charge but as we've seen so many times, any club or player with the temerity to question the FA's disciplinary proceedings often end up with a greater punishment than that they would have received if they'd just bowed, scraped and sat on the naughty step at Soho Square. It will end up as a futile attempt, again, to get a spot of justice. And yet again Arsenal are involved.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

United in history

Timing and circumstance prevented a proper look back at past games between Hull City and Manchester United when the two met on May 24th. It was the last day of the season and the Tigers were striving to stay up. We all know what happened next.

The next visit of United to the KC is the day after Boxing Day and we'll see a different Manchester United side to the team of fringe players and kids whom turned out on the final day of last season. The Premier League was won and so Sir Alex Ferguson protected all of his first-choice players for the imminent Champions League final, despite hollow threats and advanced excuses from City's relegation rivals in the north east of what may happen were he to do so.

In a way, it turned out best for all concerned. United won, so Ferguson couldn't be declared culpable at all for someone else's fate, and the north east clubs below City in the table each lost, meaning they had the opportunity to climb above the Tigers and save themselves and couldn't take it. It was a way to end the season that weighed heavy on the nerves but the Tigers' task was complete.

It was the first time Ferguson had brought a team to Hull City since the autumn of 1987. The clubs were drawn to face one another in the second round of the League Cup, then sponsored by Littlewoods, having been given the usual bye in the first round. The photo shows England captain Bryan Robson and City striker Andy Saville.

The Tigers were in good form in the Second Division under Brian Horton, having beaten Oldham Athletic at Boothferry Park four days before journeying with confidence to Old Trafford. Ferguson was in his first full season and was still building, slowly, his first decent team. Trophies of any type were absolutely essential and the League Cup was highly prized in the days when there was no European cash cow for the biggest names while the ban on English club prolonged.

Horton picked his strongest available side, with men now regarded as club legends featuring in the starting XI - Tony Norman, Peter Skipper, Richard Jobson, Garry Parker and Garreth Roberts were all in the side. Frozen by the occasion, however, City were thumped 5-0 and now, with the tie lost, had to restore some respectability to the scoreline when United came along to Boothferry Park a fortnight later.

Ferguson picked a similarly strong side again, only making concessions by putting youthful peripheral figures like Billy Garton and Liam O'Brien on the bench. Horton's team had beaten Manchester City in style at Boothferry Park and lost at Sheffield United before United pitched up. In a game befitting of the total dead rubber the occasion had become (though 4,000 more people came to watch such a pointless event, than saw fit to attend the big Manchester City game) Brian McClair scored the only goal with a second half close range effort. It ended 6-0 on aggregate. United eventually lost to Oxford in the last eight.

Older supporters will tell you that the previous visit of Manchester United in 1974/5, when the visitors were briefly a Second Division club, was far more enjoyable. The two teams were performing essentially as equals and City won 2-0. The first of these goals became the penultimate League goal of the great Ken Wagstaff's career, while another old head, Malcolm Lord, put away the other. The photo shows City left winger Roy Greenwood taking on Martin Buchan of Manchester United.

And even more aged fans will talk about the extraordinary, precedent-setting Watney Cup game of the early 1970/1 season, when the two sides fought out a 1-1 draw and ended up partaking in the first ever penalty shoot out in competitive football. This was Ian McKechnie's moment of history, with the courageous City keeper of almost a decade's service becoming the first custodian to save a penalty in a shoot out, making Denis Law simultaneously the first player to fail to score. Being a proper limelight hogger, McKechnie went on moments later to become the first keeper to take a penalty in a shoot out. And for good measure, he duly became the first to miss one.

In a way, it made him famous for footballing reasons as all this marvellous servant and brave keeper otherwise achieved was a reputation for having oranges lobbed at him by City fans before matches. United won the tie 4-3 on penalties, lost the final to Derby County, and City wouldn't win a shoot out for another 36 years.

And of course, the most arcane of City supporters will point to Raich Carter's side reaching an FA Cup quarter final in 1949, which saw more than 55,000 people squash into Boothferry Park. United, in the early years of Matt Busby's reign, won 1-0 thanks to a dubious Stan Pearson goal and went on to lose in the semi-finals to Wolverhampton Wanderers. A larger crowd has never seen a Hull City home game before or since, and never will.

On Sunday, the current Manchester United incarnation turns up at the KC, notably short of healthy defenders. Maybe it's time for another occasion for a game between these two clubs to become the stuff of legend.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Defending our honour

Given that the finest defender in the history of our club was spirited away from us in August, it's remarkable that the current Hull City back four is the section of the team under the least scrutiny.

Michael Turner
will remain irreplaceable unless one day we find the next Rio Ferdinand, Franco Baresi or, indeed, the next Michael Turner. But at least the defence shorn of his considerable presence remains relatively tight and unified.

We still conceded three at Arsenal, but that was Arsenal. For the most part since the back four of Anthony Gardner and Kamil Zayatte in between Andy Dawson and Paul McShane was first constructed (after Bernard Mendy was sent off against West Ham United, prompting Phil Brown to pick a right back at right back), it has caused the fewest concerns and the fewest suggestions for change.

If anyone does have a preference away from the current set-up, it is to drop the gamely but limited Dawson for the, er, gamely but limited Kevin Kilbane. Kilbane has more top flight experience and 100 international caps but Dawson is also in his 30s and no fool, plus he swerves in a mean set-piece. It'd be essentially replacing like for like, and to many Dawson wins on a tie-breaker decided via sentiment when the evidence claims that the two are alike as peas in an overtly left-sided pod.

McShane is finally beginning to add some footballing astuteness to his crunching tackles and capacity to relieve skilful opponents of the skin on their shins, while the centre back partnership of Gardner and Zayatte, brainstorm moments aside, is as good as we're likely to have.

Zayatte especially has been the Tigers' player of the season, arguably. And Gardner's new-found ability to stay for for more than three games in a row has been both timely and handy. Only the sprogs Steven Mouyokolo and Liam Cooper, plus the versatile Kilbane, are available as replacements so the continued fitness and form of these two is paramount to City's ambitions - unless Brown has someone who is both brilliant and affordable in mind next month. It's also a matter of great relief to read tales of Ibrahima Sonko, the panicky panic buy in the aftermath of Turner's exit, being informed that he is too woeful to be considered again.

The debate will rage on about our best midfield while Jimmy Bullard remains sidelined, while the discussion on strikers is tantamount to applying one's forehead to the nearest brickwork construction with substantial force. At least we know that the defence is actually okay right now, results notwithstanding. It is the only bit of real reassurance as one ponders the fixture list over the next half dozen matches.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Sorry Craig, but you have to go

Surely it isn't a crazy idea to have an authentic centre forward on the pitch at the start of a Premier League game?

Hull City have chosen not to bother for the last two matches, and it shows. For all Craig Fagan's qualities as a worker and irritant, his capabilities on the ball are vastly limited. There is something not at all comprehensible about trusting exclusively a forward player who lacks the ability to shoot, pass, cross or bring a ball under full control with one touch.

This blog doesn't intend to ambush Fagan over his shortcomings, nor does it question his effort or honesty. But in the Premier League there are qualities that are absolutely necessary, and Fagan does not have any of those. If a role is to be found for him, he needs to be in a harrying position wide on a flank, using his pace and admirable stamina to badger the opposition. Yet even that doesn't require him to have any special skills with a ball.

Fagan has ploughed a lonely and rather harrowing furrow over the last two games. He had one golden chance to score against Blackburn Rovers and flunked it, to the surprise of nobody. Against Arsenal he was on a hiding to nothing but still looked hopelessly out of his depth, something more apparent when Daniel Cousin came on and proceeded to dominate the air with ease and strength. Fagan's industry and dedication are never in question, but they are merely a smokescreen to a proper lack of talent at this level.

One hopes that Phil Brown has the gumption to realise this before Manchester United visit the KC Stadium on Sunday, especially as their defence is totally ripped apart by injuries and midfielders with little tackling or marking experience are having to step in. Others have exploited these deficiencies and it's City's turn next.

Brown has to look at using two of the proper strikers in the team. Cousin, Jozy Altidore, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Kamel Ghilas - all deserve to be there ahead of the man currently holding on to the role. The game may still be unwinnable in City's current mindset, but there is barely any point in trying if there isn't a single proven goalscorer to be seen; indeed, it becomes close to conning the supporters.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

18: Arsenal 3 - 0 Hull City - 19/12/2009

Phil Brown bottled this. he didn't park the bus in front of goal, and he didn't go for an all-out assault. He went for a rather limp combination of the two that achieved the intentions of neither, and Arsenal steamrollered Hull City aside.

The Tigers learned to the shock of the globe last season that the way to take on Arsenal within their own backyard was to hassle and harass and really go at them. Brown this year decided he didn't want to do this. After the lifelessness of last week's goalless draw against Blackburn Rovers he made just one alteration to the team, thereby suggesting that a team that couldn't beat - or score against - Blackburn at home could now get something at the Emirates.

The change involved Nick Barmby replacing Dean Marney. Otherwise, hardworking lesser beings like Craig Fagan and Richard Garcia were still in the team, ahead of big signings and proven players like Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Kamel Ghilas, Daniel Cousin - poor Jozy Altidore didn't even make the bench.

It's perplexing. What was Brown hoping to gain from picking such a line-up against such a prodigiously talented team? A defensive solidarity was only going to last so long. If City weren't giving something to the game in the Arsenal danger zone then the concession of the first goal and the points was just a question of time.

Solidity in defence did serve City well for much of the first half, but clearly Arsenal were ascendant from the off, even allowing for their lack of bigger names through injury. Samir Nasri, a pivotal figure of the half, had the best effort with a low drive which tested a frozen Boaz Myhill, but the Tigers custodian saw it safely into his clutches.

City were largely preipheral but kept possession with reasonable aplomb and forced the home side into some slightly urgent defending, but didn't create anything of note. Yet this dogged performance and quiet resistance was ruined when referee Steve Bennett refused to send off Nasri for a cynical off-the-ball incident, and the incensed City players never regained their composure in time.

Geovanni tackled Andrey Arshavin around the edge of the box and Bennett deemed it an unfair challenge, awarding a free kick. With the ref occupied with pointing to wall positions, Nasri trod on Garcia's foot and while the Australian's reaction seemed overdone as he lay on the floor in pain, the reaction of his team-mates was one of real anger and a mini-brawl broke out. Upon the situation's becalming, Nasri saw yellow and so did Stephen Hunt for leading the shoving and brawling in response. Therefore Hunt's actions in expressing shock at a vile bit of gamesmanship was deemed equal to the sly cynicism from Nasri himself. A disgrace.

The free kick, when it was finally taken, came to nothing. But City were rattled and soon George Boateng was bringing down Abou Diaby in a similar position. Boateng was unhappy with the decision and Arsenal exploited it devastatingly, with Denilson curling in a totally beautiful shot from 25 yards and giving the home side an iffy half time lead.

Barmby didn't emerge for the second half as rumours spread that there had been an altercation in the tunnel during the players' retreat to the dressing rooms. The rumour initially reckoned Hunt had received a second yellow and was off, but this was not the case. However, the incensed (not to mention ineffective) Barmby was removed for his own good and Seyi Olofinjana, possibly for the last time until the end of January, took to the field.

Hunt hit a low cross shot which evaded everyone after good work down the left from Fagan and Andy Dawson as City tried to re-acquaint themselves with a successful second half at the Emirates. There was little pazazz in their efforts though, even though Arsenal's side was weaker than the one beaten last September, and Eduardo should have made it simple and safe when put through on goal but clanged an embarrassing right foot shot well wide. Diaby then had a shot blocked by the heroic Kamil Zayatte as the Tigers held on for dear life.

Then, the rather soft incident which should have restored parity. Hunt crossed from the left and Fagan, seeing the ball go behind him, turned his back on marker Mikael Silvestre and then fell to the ground. Bennett unexpectedly awarded a penalty and made it very clear through his own gesture (tugging away at his black uniform) that Fagan had been pulled to the ground by Silvestre. It was possible, but rather soft. Still, these opportunities at the biggest venues emerge rarely and so it was a golden opportunity for the Tigers to level up.

How Geovanni can slap in a 35-yard shot in open play without hesitation at the Emirates but make a total cock-up of a free 12-yard go in the same ground, at the same end and against the same goalkeeper is anyone's guess. The Brazilian, normally a consummate penalty taker, stuttered his run-up and never looked confident. Manuel Almunia still had to guess right but upon doing so, the lack of power and reasonable height in the shot made the save easy. Hunt got in Geovanni's way for the follow-up and headed it a long way wide.

And that was that. City chose not to get involved again.

Instantly, Arsenal cut a dash through the City defence thanks to a wonderful combination of Diaby and Alex Song. Diaby in the end rolled a gimme into the path of Eduardo for 2-0.

Brown sent on Cousin - a proper centre forward at last - for Garcia but there was no hope for anyone, not least the Gabonese striker himself who proceeded to win every single high ball aimed his way but was on a hiding to nothing at the very ground where he wrote his name into City's history books last season. Soon afterwards, Bernard Mendy replaced the appalling Geovanni.

It was now about the goal difference, really. City had to dig deep and keep the score down. Arsenal could have got as many as they could be bothered aiming for, and the chances came one after the other. Denilson was exquisitely put through by Eduardo but shot wide, before Diaby, a player maligned by the Arsenal support but in masterly form here, got on the end of a sublime passing move which featured Arshavin as creator-in-chief and thumped a third past the exposed, blameless and undoubtedly livid Myhill.

And so that was that. While it would be foolish to say a chance had been lost - this was Arsenal away and even the blinkered City fan accepts last season's achievement was a freakish affair - certainly there was a chance to at least put the frighteners on a good but worried team and Brown's selection of players who should be bit-parters at best did nobody any good. It was a waste of an occasion, a waste of matchwinners for days like this, the type that Fagan, Garcia and Barmby will never be. Altidore and Ghilas are, all being well, going to the World Cup next summer and yet cannot get into a rather poor club side right now. Yet on enthusiasm, as well as footballing ability, they should be on the list. Cousin too, a player destined for the January bargain bonanza but still clearly the best centre forward we have in our ranks, yet Brown chose - again - not to play any authentic centre forward at all.

We thought we'd seen the last of Brown the cautious manager. The upturn in form and the return of Adam Pearson seemed to blow away the cobwebs and set a new agenda for a battle-hardened and distracted manager of still evident coaching talent. Of course much of that was also down to Jimmy Bullard's brief return, but even without him again it cannot make the most positive team into the most negative one while hoping to achieve the same results.

For all the excuses about Arsenal away being a doozy, there still has to be reason and purpose in the manager's tactics and selection, and right now Brown is showing no ambition, no courage and no reason in his choices.

And it's Manchester United next.

Arsenal: Almunia, Eboue, Vermaelen, Gallas, Silvestre, Song, Denilson, Nasri (Ramsey 68), Diaby, Eduardo (Walcott 75), Arshavin (Vela 83). Subs not used: Fabianski, Sagna, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Gardner, Zayatte, Boateng, Garcia (Cousin 61), Barmby (Olofinjana 46), Hunt, Geovanni (Mendy 69), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Ghilas, Vennegoor of Hesselink.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Give them Hull

There is absolutely no reason why Phil Brown shouldn't approach tomorrow's game against Arsenal in precisely the same way he did last season.

Pick a 4-3-3, based on skill, pace and energy.

Geovanni roaming around behind a duo of Jozy Altidore and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. A midfield that sees George Boateng, Dean Marney and Stephen Hunt offering workrate, determination and a large enough lung capacity to switch them from box to box.

The back four and goalkeeper remain as before.

Arsenal couldn't cope with a team daring to have a right go at them last season. The willingness of their opponents to attack until they dropped dead was something entirely alien to them at the Emirates and they had no idea how to deal with it.

This year they will be more aware, but some of their more influential figures are out injured and the comments made by Arsène Wenger about fixture congestion suggests that, if not running scared, they are certainly not treating this weekend as the home banker that most of the uneducated in the game will.

Brown should also fill his bench with attackers. Kamel Ghilas, Bernard Mendy, Nick Barmby, even Peter Halmosi and Daniel Cousin all should be available. Use the energy of one starting player to rob an Arsenal defender of his spirit, then send on another to finish him off.

Of course, there is every chance that Brown will pick a cautious 4-4-2 or even an ultra-defensive 4-5-1 and park the bus in front of goal.

But he really shouldn't. It will do nobody any good, including himself. He has history in this fixture. He should exploit it.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Gunning for Gunners

There were, of course, two trips to Arsenal last season and major headlines were generated by both. Having won there in the Premier League and shaken the hierarchy of English football to its very foundations, there was later to be an FA Cup quarter final.

The news that Cesc Fàbregas will be absent on Saturday after suffering a hamstring injury at Burnley last night takes away one potential headline maker for this weekend, given that the Arsenal captain was at the forefront of the controversy which followed the Tigers' 2-1 defeat and denial of a semi-final place or, at the very least, a replay at the KC Stadium.

Yet Fàbregas wasn't playing that night; he was dressed in a zipped-up jacket and jeans, injured, and had access to the technical area and pitch. Phil Brown suggested that the Spaniard spat at Brian Horton after the game as arguments were raised and tempers flared. No satisfactory proof of this was provided and Brown ended up looking a little foolish, at a time when his capacity to self-promote had already begun to grate with the wider football world.

It's hard to know if Fàbregas may have been targeted by a Hull City player this weekend had he been fit to play, especially when one examines the midfield options open to Brown and their lack of reputation for taking out influential opponents or administering a spot of revenge. But at least his absence removes one factor that could have made this game yet again less about the football on show.

I'm sure that if Arsène Wenger had been asked to pick one victory from a Premier League game and an FA Cup quarter final, he'd have taken the former, especially as Aston Villa were still challenging for the final Champions League spot by the time our Cup tie came round and every point was vital. He is worried this week, evidently, as he has complained about the number of fixtures in six days his side have to fulfil (and, as all of them are Premier League games, he can't play his cup tie kids) and has now lost Fàbregas, his leader and creator, for the game.

Does all this add up to the Tigers having a chance to repeat last season's evening of immortality at the Emirates? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But it's fun seeing Arsenal's composure just waver slightly. They may not be scared, but it sure looks like they might be.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A piece of Parlour

Connections between Hull City and this weekend's opponents Arsenal are few and far between, but one name of recent seasons sticks out like a sore thumb.

Ray Parlour, one of Arsenal's favourite sons, had a short spell as a Hull City player in 2006/7 when he was winding down his career and, frankly, had nobody else seemingly interested in him. Having spent his formative and peak years with the Gunners, he had been released on a free transfer by Middlesbrough when the Tigers invited him to come to the KC.

It was an odd old time for everyone. Parlour, the Romford Pele, had won numerous domestic and European honours, plus a handful of England caps. He had also made a very good living but a rather notorious divorce settlement had forced him to continue working for real financial reasons. He was pushing 34 and had yet to experience football outside of the top flight.

He joined up with the Tigers on a pay-as-you-play basis, only meeting up with the team on match days while training with Arsenal during the week. Perhaps it was this ultimate lack of familiarity that meant he never quite surged into any great form for the Tigers, but perhaps individual excellence wasn't necessarily what Phil Brown was seeking. And it was genuinely exciting to have such a decorated player, albeit one in the twilight of his career, pulling on the City shirt, especially as he had joined in a time of real crisis.

Brown was less than one month into the job after taking over from Phil Parkinson and had a young, shellshocked squad. Parlour arrived and played 14 matches as City scrabbled around for points, eventually going from relegation certainties to survival possibilities. He began in a 2-2 draw at Derby County and, although some bad defeats were still to come, he contributed to crucial wins against Birmingham City, Preston North End, Luton Town and Southend United as City got their first shot of self-belief.

Parlour didn't have the pace he once possessed to scamper down the right touchline but played a very basic, withdrawn central role, delivering passes of both simplicity and incisiveness and generally providing a cooler, more grown up approach when it was most needed. A backseat participant though he seemed to be most of the time, the ultimate success of that season - survival in the penultimate game with the added bonus of sending the hated Leeds United down - allowed all to consider Parlour a success. And indeed he was.

There was never the prospect of a proper contract and Parlour didn't play another game - for anyone - after completing the season with the Tigers in a 2-1 defeat by Plymouth Argyle at the KC. As he waved to the fans along with the rest of the squad, he was in essence waving goodbye to a distinguished football career, and it was the Tiger Nation that benefitted from the last brief adventure within it.

An Arsenal legend, a popular character within football as a whole and a player whose maturity helped his last club escape a relegation that had seemed a surefire bet a month before he arrived. Parlour must be pretty happy with his lot, and Hull City were certainly happy to have him around, even though it was only a temporary arrangement.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Seyi Olofinjana could yet prove to be a fine signing for Hull City. However, right now there is still doubt as to exactly what type of central midfielder he is expected to be.

Such midfielders can usually be pigeonholed. There are the creators, the forward thinkers, like Jimmy Bullard. There are the hard-running, maligned box to box players, like Dean Marney. There are what recent trends have monikered as the holding players, those who provide a protective screen for the defence and only venture far beyond halfway if in actual possession of the ball, like George Boateng.

Then there's Olofinjana. Some days he looks like he can do all of these things. Other days he looks like he can do none of them.

The Nigerian made a tremendous debut for the Tigers on the opening day of the campaign at Chelsea, robbing his opponent of time on the ball and, very often, possession of it. He was a nuisance midfielder, strong and composed and utterly brilliant. Yet he has not played even close to that level since.

Although he cuts a brooding, imposing figure, Olofinjana seems to be a confidence player like most others. This is particularly visible when he finds himself in a shooting position, and on at least two occasions this season he has found himself with a glorious goalscoring opportunity but has chosen each time to try to set up someone else. Whether this is passing the buck, a feeling that he somehow has no right to try scoring goals when others are selected to do that, or just general lack of self-esteem is not clear. But boy is it frustrating.

The first of those opportunities came in the second half at Burnley, when he tried to give Kamel Ghilas the chance when the Algerian was in a wider and less promising shooting position. The chance went begging. The second was against Stoke City, in the first half, when he cut into the penalty area and tried to lay the ball back to someone when only the keeper stood before him.

Of course, he complicated the issue further by scoring later in the same game from a crazy position. It was a turn and shot of real quality, and within the celebration of what was a crucial equaliser was a sense of further bewilderment as to why he should keep choosing not to attempt to score when we'd just seen spectacular evidence that he could do it.

But beyond all this, Olofinjana seems a complex figure. Evidently he is both hard and skilful, and yet has occasions whereby his brains and feet both seem to desert him. His appearance as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers at the weekend provided the latest evidence of this as he failed to clear a dangerous ball, dallied in his own area and lost possession as the visitors went for a late winner. He does do this a bit, it seems. Maybe he is as uncomfortable being a defender as he is being an attacker. If he could sit in the midfield and merely stop and spread the play without all the offensive or defensive tasks that come with the job, he might be okay. But football can't carry passengers.

Olofinjana left the field against Stoke a hero, went off to play for Nigeria and promptly did a hamstring. He has only just returned to fitness and although Marney was underwhelming against Blackburn, it seems unlikely that Olofinjana will return to the starting line-up at Arsenal. If Nigeria get their selfish way and drag Olofinjana away for the African Nations Cup on December 27th (a whole, ludicrous two weeks before the competition begins) then not playing him now might be a good idea, as we'd certainly need to be used to life without him by the time he boards his plane to serve his country.

It's all a bit unfortunate for player and club, but the club comes first and so the head-turning goal against Stoke may prove to be the last telling contribution Olofinjana makes for quite a long time.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Robbing Cousin

Of the autumnal fall-outs between manager and players at Hull City under the previous regime, the only one that a cleansed club hasn't seemed to heal is that between Phil Brown and Daniel Cousin.

This is a waste, a pity and wholly unnecessary. But it seems almost definite that Cousin will not play for the Tigers again and has the suitcases down from the loft ready for when January ticks into the calendar.

Yet as we approach games against Arsenal and Manchester United, it is hard not to wonder how the big game performer like the Gabonese centre forward might make a telling contribution to these seemingly unwinnable encounters. After all, last season these occasions brought out the best in him.

His first goal for the club was the winner at the Emirates at the end of September, a goal which will keep his name alive in the annals of City history long after he has trousered his final mega payday in the Middle East and retired with his savings.

He also scored against Manchester United at Old Trafford and then Arsenal again at the KC Stadium. The Tigers still lost these games but heroically so. Cousin's aptitude for hitting the target against the best defenders available was both handy and vital. We seemed to have found a centre forward who, if not absolutely prolific, certainly was able to pick his moments.

Cousin scored only two other goals - against Manchester City in a 2-2 draw at the KC and the winner in the FA Cup third round replay win at Newcastle United - before injuries and accusations of troublemaking began to dominate his existence at the KC. He didn't have a great summer, with moves to Qatar (and then Burnley) regularly bandied about but not being sealed, and this season he fell out with Brown quite quickly.

Of course, George Boateng and Craig Fagan also had differences with Brown and were removed from the first team picture but, upon the return of Adam Pearson, wielding a large broom designed to sweep away egos, each were restored to the reckoning and both have started games in the last half-dozen. Cousin hasn't been seen since coming on as a substitute at Liverpool late on, where he happened to demonstrate exactly how to shrug off defenders in aerial duels and win plenty of the ball.

The arguments may continue about Cousin's willingness to chase everything, which seems to be the main stick the Tiger Nation's less forgiving element still use to beat him, but the lad can score goals and has done so at the top club level. Jozy Altidore might do so, but hasn't yet. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink might, but hasn't yet. Fagan simply never will and, after his diabolical display against Blackburn Rovers, shouldn't play centrally for the club again. But if we now have a situation where a failed centre forward like Fagan is regarded as a better tactical option in the Premier League than someone like Cousin, then it seems Brown hasn't learned after all.

Caleb Folan is coming back from his loan at Middlesbrough soon, which is as futile an action as any the club could take when goals are needed. So four players - Altidore, Vennegoor of Hesselink, Fagan and Folan - seem to be more preferable to a centre forward who has actually proved he can score the biggest of big goals in the City shirt. The first two have hope and make worthwhile contributions, of course, but the other two are being deluded by themselves and others.

Arsenal away, Manchester United at home. Oh, then in January, throw in Chelsea at home, Tottenham Hotspur away and Manchester United away. The one centre forward who would put away the odd solitary chance City will create in each of these games simply isn't any of those currently being allocated match day pegs in the dressing room. And yet his manager seems to have forgotten he exists.

Cousin will go in January. Pearson needs to cut costs and there's no doubt Cousin is a high earner. But given that he is the most likely to do the unlikely when the elite of the Premier League show their faces, he might still be worth the wedge - especially when one considers the alternatives.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

17: Hull City 0 - 0 Blackburn Rovers - 12/12/2009

Just add 'entertainment nil' to the scoreline and we're pretty much there.

A poor game, shorn of creativity as two managers from the same school of prevention aimed predominantly for a clean sheet and both duly got their wish.

Blackburn Rovers have a reputation for hoofball, courtesy of their percentage-obsessed manager, and that reputation is well merited. That said, it was a strong finish from the visitors and it was a rather desperate act of clinging on for dear life that City carried out to protect a point.

For the Tigers' part, chances were few but still obvious when they did come, and Craig Fagan will rue a gilt-edged opportunity which he squandered in the first half that just about any other centre forward available to Phil Brown would have put away.

Fagan was picked as a lone striker in place of the unfortunate Jozy Altidore, with Geovanni charged to play behind him as Brown tried to fill the creative ravine that cracked itself open when Jimmy Bullard hurt his knee last week. How City can expect to win home games at this level while relying on the entirely unreliable Fagan to lead the line is anybody's guess, and he duly confirmed that worry when a glorious chance came his way midway through the first half.

It was the combative and very impressive Paul McShane that put him through and Fagan got the ball under proper control as Paul Robinson came out. There was no angle to narrow as the chance was very central, and Fagan fell into Robinson's trap and placed a low shot to the keeper's left which the ex-England stopper managed to claw into the air and then catch. Fagan can't score from these openings, openings which require a player to seize up the chance and make a conscious decision as to where the best place for the ball should be. City wouldn't come as close again.

It was City's first chance of the game, with Blackburn making the early running. David Hoilett was fouled on the brink of the box by Richard Garcia, and Benni McCarthy swiped the free kick over the bar. Christopher Samba hit a bouncing shot just wide after a long Robinson clearance was headed his way, then McCarthy sent in a stunning low cross that foxed everyone except Andy Dawson, who cleared conclusively as everyone else tried to judge the ball's path.

McCarthy scored at the far post from Hoilett's cross but was flagged offside before City, through Fagan's chance and some composed possession, emerged into the match. Geovanni hit a free kick into the wall after George Boateng was fouled, duly volleying the rebound right at Robinson.

Blackburn were still dominant, with Vince Grella shooting over while two City players lay hurt on the turf and Hoilett headed at recalled City keeper Boaz Myhill after a second ball caused all sorts of trouble.

City countered through Dean Marney's run and he released Stephen Hunt to the left but Robinson parried the Irishman's shot and then grasped the loose ball as Marney closed in. The injured Grella then made way for ex-Tiger Keith Andrews, whose appearance produced a predictably underwhelming response from the home support.

Myhill saved a Hoilett shot from Pascal Chimbonda's cross but as half time approached, the game was falling to bits. A victory would only come for either team with a change of attitude, and certainly City needed someone more dependable as a target, an outlet and as a finisher playing up front.

Hunt's early second half corner was cleared and City dithered in midfield, allowing an instant Blackburn counter to earn their own corner, which Myhill punched impressively clear. Franco Di Santo, dangerous suddenly after a quiet first half, shot on the turn straight from a goalkick but Myhill clasped the ball with little to worry him.

Robinson collected a weak Boateng shot with ease before City created a proper opportunity thanks to Anthony Gardner winning McShane's free kick in the air and allowing Garcia a shooting chance. The Australian chose, oddly, to cut in on to his weaker left foot and hit the ball low and way too close to the eager Robinson.

Di Santo fooled everyone with a shot into the side netting that looked goalbound before Brown decided that some bonafide striking presence was needed, withdrawing Garcia for Altidore and shifting Fagan wide. Still it was Blackburn who attacked though, and Di Santo hit a low shot to Myhill's near post which the keeper blocked first with his feet, then with his backside before it was hacked clear. The same player then screwed a stretching shot across goal after McCarthy headed a Chimbonda cross into his path.

Altidore, with something to prove, made a sly run into the box but found himself penalised when he went down in the box while the Tiger Nation screamed for a penalty. Encouraged, Brown slung on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for Fagan to introduce more brute strength and aerial power to the front line, while also withdrawing Marney for the fit-again Seyi Olofinjana.

Instantly, Vennegoor of Hesselink clipped a bouncing ball past the last man but got his bearings wrong as Robinson dashed towards him, touching the ball straight into the keeper's hands, though a whistle had already sounded for the Dutchman's raised feet. Shortly afterwards, a fine cross from Altidore gave the gangly Vennegoor of Hesselink the type of chance he prefers, but he aimed a brilliantly won header inches wide.

Blackburn sub Jason Roberts caused late trouble, studding one shot into the ground from a good position, then curling in a dangerous ball that deflected past Myhill but was cleared bravely by Kamil Zayatte as Di Santo dived in.

Andrews hit an injury time free kick into the wall, and panic ensued when a corner was then forced before City got the ball away, but a largely poor game between two sides willing to sacrifice winning for not losing had run out of steam. Goalless, largely guileless and certainly classless. Yet a point isn't the worst outcome in the world, even though this was one of two games in the next half dozen when City needed to perform.

Who knows if the next two matches - Arsenal away and then Manchester United's visit to the KC - will be the write-offs we expect them to be? Brown still has much to encourage him, despite Bullard's latest leave of absence, and all of the biggest teams know from last season's escapades that the smaller clubs should be patronised at their peril. At the very least, City can hope to give good accounts, avoid further injuries and try to reduce the impact on the goal difference. Anything further is a bonus, but many of us get a bonus at Christmas...

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Gardner, Zayatte, Boateng, Marney (Olofinjana 77), Hunt, Garcia (Altidore 66), Geovanni, Fagan (Vennegoor of Hesselink 77). Subs
not used: Duke, Kilbane, Mendy, Barmby.

Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Chimbonda, Samba, Givet, Nelson, Emerton, Grella (Andrews 40), Nzonzi, McCarthy (Kalinic 59), Hoilett, Di Santo (Roberts 76). Subs not used: Brown, Salgado, Pedersen, Diouf.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Side with Jozy

It's not clear whether Jozy Altidore has already had his final chance, for the moment, of proving his worth as a Premier League striker. But for tomorrow's visit of Blackburn Rovers he should be given another opportunity.

Alitdore has largely impressed in his short run of starts in recent weeks, but ultimately the American is a centre forward, and the ability and success of players in his position is calculated on goals, almost entirely if not exclusively.

And still his only goal for the Tigers was in the Carling Cup against Southend United.

There are mitigating factors for Altidore. Firstly, he is still just a lad. His size and his bravado disguise his immaturity. He is only just 20 years old, and experience counts for a lot in the Premier League if you are imported into it from a lesser or different footballing culture. Altidore learned the game in a fledgling USA and is currently on loan from Villareal, a Spanish team who have European aspirations each year but win little.

Secondly, he has proved himself in every other area of his game away from actual scoring. He is what colloquialists choose to label a "big unit", and his square-shaped frame causes countless problems for lesser built defenders, allowing him to create room on the ball and make opponents think twice about getting too involved.

Thirdly, he has been fantastically unlucky with the chances he has been offered. Maybe there remains a mild doubt about his finishing, but some of his efforts have been thwarted by wonder saves or fortunate goalkeeping, and he has gained confidence to have pops from distance which have missed the target very narrowly. It's odd to say this about a player who hasn't scored in the Premier League yet, but there does seem to be proper finishing talent within him. Perhaps the adage about the first goal being followed quickly by a good deal more applies to Altidore.

It also helps Altidore, though this time not through his own actions, that the other centre forwards vying for a role have not especially endeared themselves either to Brown or the supporters. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink has scored two crucial goals but seems to have become an impact substitute figure, and has largely been a spectator in the games he has started. Craig Fagan simply will not convince anyone entirely of his finishing credentials and evidently there's an issue - one which needs sorting swiftly - with Kamel Ghilas which precludes him from being even on the bench right now. Daniel Cousin already has tied a handkerchief to a stick and is waiting for January. Caleb Folan, the epitome of non-scoring centre forwards, is set to return from his loan spell at Middlesbrough before long, which is a real sign of desperation.

Altidore should play tomorrow against Blackburn because his performances have contributed positively, noticeably and selflessly to City's recent successes at the KC Stadium. The only thing he needs is a goal. And the only way he will get that goal is to be on the pitch.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

That keeper issue, again

It was after a couple of howlers at Middlesbrough last season that Matt Duke was forced to hand back the Hull City goalkeeper's shirt to Boaz Myhill.

His performance against Aston Villa suggests that time has surely come once again.

This blog, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, believes that Myhill should have been restored between the posts as soon as he was fit to do so. But Duke has been maintained within some good team form, as if even altering the goalkeeper can somehow prove detrimental to the dynamic of a winning team.

This cannot be the case, as Myhill is the indisputably the main Hull City custodian. Defenders look and feel happier with him behind them than they do with Duke.

After racing out of goal needlessly at Aston Villa, leaving an open goal behind for the home side to place the ball, and then conceding a late penalty, Duke surely heard the last rites for his latest mini-stint in the sunshine, just as he did when a bad parry and then a terribly mishit clearance gave Middlesbrough two of their three goals in beating the Tigers towards the end of last season.

When Blackburn Rovers visit the KC this weekend, it simply has to be Myhill they face. It's not even hard on Duke to say this, it's just fair.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Time for Tom

The opportunity has finally arisen for outstanding youngster Tom Cairney to be given his Premier League debut.

It remains a surprise, in actual fact, that this hasn't happened already. We only have two Carling Cup ties to go on, but there is absolutely no doubt that this young midfielder is a special talent.

We are renowned at Hull City for a generation gap as far as players graduating through the ranks are concerned. Mike Edwards was the last to become a regular first teamer more than a decade ago, when City were skint, in the bottom division and as reliant on decent local lads coming through the ranks than anything else. He was 17 when he made his bow; he is now approaching 30 and playing for Notts County. To proud locals, Edwards still casts a shadow over the club despite all its achievements elsewhere.

In Phil Brown's era, token appearances have been made by a tiny handful of players, with Nicky Featherstone the most prominent, yet still a million miles away from Premier League football; indeed, few City supporters know exactly what his best position is. Currently on loan at Grimsby, he is out of contract this summer and will unquestionably be released, branded as another youngster who briefly threatened to graduate but missed out at the final stage.

But now, this season, a breakthrough from the workhouse seems really possible.

We've already seen it with central defender Liam Cooper, who made his Premier League debut at Liverpool in September and, despite the 6-1 defeat and the hat-trick from Fernando Torres, he made a good fist of it. He has, however, yet to feature again. Now, with Jimmy Bullard out and a winnable game against Blackburn Rovers approaching, the time seems ideal for Cairney to make the step up.

Cairney showcased speed, positional nous, enthusiasm and a terrific touch in his two Carling Cup outings which, as they constituted a cakewalk against Southend United (in which he scored a glorious goal from distance) and a mauling by Everton, proved to be the highlight of both games. Moreover, he has vision on the ball, not Bullard-esque but certainly he'd be backed to spray a good 40-yard pass to an overlapping full back more than, for example, Kevin Kilbane or Seyi Olofinjana would.

Cairney's enthusiasm seems to be controlled properly too, meaning he wouldn't be overawed by the occasion or appear too keen to impress, thereby leaving him prone to headstrong moments that experienced Premier League opponents could exploit. However, equally he appears capable of looking after himself too when battles heat up, which is probably one of the main things perennial wannabes like Featherstone seem to lack.

Of course, Bullard's most obvious replacement is Geovanni, and this would also necessitate a return to 4-4-2, a system that has worked wonders in recent weeks prior to the switch to 4-5-1 at Aston Villa that barely had an opportunity to settle in before Bullard's tumble prompted a change of formation and attitude.

But Cairney, who has merely experienced a Premier League bench and no more at this level, has to be considered, even if it is to replace one of the existing central midfielders like George Boateng or Dean Marney. Something new, fresh, talented, visionary and enthusiastic? After all, that's what Bullard was, and look at the effect he had. There's no reason a smart, gifted kid with discipline and confidence shouldn't be able to do the same, especially against a genuinely beatable team. It's time he got his chance.