Thursday, 11 February 2010

26: Blackburn Rovers 1 - 0 Hull City - 10/02/2010

Ultimately, few people could leave Ewood Park proud of themselves. Blackburn Rovers won the game and maintain an impressive home record, but were wasteful and typically negative. Playing football for Sam Allardyce can rarely be thrilling.

Hull City were extremely poor in contrast to the sunny, vibrant displays at the KC Stadium in recent days and rarely looked like scoring, especially once George Boateng was issued with a straight red card just before half time.

And this is where we reach the figure who should be least proud of all - referee Lee Probert. How he could possibly believe that Boateng had committed an act of violent conduct is beyond anyone's comprehension. The Tigers players went completely potty with him. There was no retrospective view prompted by a later viewing of the incident on television, as it showed that Boateng, albeit with arms raised, went into an aerial 50-50 ball with Morten Gamst Pedersen only with intention of winning the header. No arms connected with the Blackburn player, and both men fell to the deck, grasping their heads.

Mr Probert had the red card out straightaway, although he didn't brandish it publicly at Boateng as the Dutchman had the temerity to be semi-conscious with his face down on the grass. But it was out of his pocket, only semi-hidden in his fist, and the City players saw it, as did the travelling Tiger Nation. There followed a minute of vehement, furious pleading from Boateng's teammates while the Tigers midfielder was given treatment. As he rose gingerly to his feet, even physio Simon Maltby took part in the protests as, finally, the red card was shown. Boateng was helped from the field while the players continued to vent collective spleens at Mr Probert, to the extent that skipper Anthony Gardner had to push them away, knowing that it would alter nothing but may give the authorities licence to hammer the club with another fine.

The decision was ghastly, scandalous, obscene. It must be appealed. It can no way be deemed frivolous by the FA. Even Allardyce himself said afterwards that Boateng was unlucky.

All of this anger and injustice does not, however, equate to an excuse for what was a miserable evening for the Tigers. Blackburn are distinctly unpretty but extremely effective and strong, as is their wont and right. They were dominant before the red card and remained so afterwards. Their stranglehold on the game was tight from the off and City, while occasionally given plenty of possession, rarely looked like the productive, forward-thinking team that had harvested five points from the the previous nine on offer.

Phil Brown picked the same starting XI for the third game in a row after Boateng and Andy Dawson were passed fit following weekend knocks. The bench was identical from Saturday's win over Manchester City too.

Blackburn had the first chance when Boateng conceded a soft free kick which Pedersen swung into the six yard area and Ryan Nelsen won cleanly in the air, only for Boaz Myhill to tip it over from pretty much point blank range. City responded with Stephen Hunt trying an off-ground volley which went over the bar after Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink headed Paul McShane's free kick into his path.

Myhill then pushed away a Pedersen free kick which lad to chaotic scenes in the Tigers area, culminating in Steven Nzonzi spooning a decent chance wide. Again the Tigers had a response, with Hunt playing some smart keepie-up to get the ball under control before feeding Vennegoor of Hesselink, whose low left foot drive was well pushed aside by Paul Robinson.

The breakthrough was deeply unflattering to McShane, who was caught out of position, and ultimately Myhill. A ball down the left allowed Martin Olsson to shuffle free of the covering Craig Fagan and put a low ball in from the byline which clipped the inside of Myhill's heel just enough to divert itself into the far corner. The angle would have been impossible, especially at the pace Olsson was running, for a goal to be scored without the City keeper's help, and so it goes down as an own goal. Olsson's perseverance should allow him to claim the chance. Irrespective of the scorer's identity though, it was a woeful piece of play all round from the Tigers.

There followed a long period of nothingness. Blackburn sat tight, City had little appetite for getting forward. It was a freezing Lancashire evening. It doesn't show much class to have a pop at a team for protecting leads at home, and the Tigers have been victim of many a bitter, unwarranted stab from supporters of teams who couldn't break us down - Tottenham fans after the goalless game at White Hart Lane were especially unkind and charmless. But it can't do the soul good to be paying to watch this sort of football week on week. Be cautious and stoic away from home, by all means. But at home, there has to be something more for the supporters. Allardyce is, and has always been, one of those managers who doesn't equate football with entertainment, merely with results. It's hard to argue with the sentiment, but easy as a romantic to confront his approach.

Myhill held a long range volley from Olsson and then Gardner made a tremendous block as El-Hadji Diouf ran on to a Brett Emerton - Mr Probert gave a goal kick as a bonus, which albeit in our favour, was another wrong decision and would soon not be remotely his worst. Blackburn embarked upon another scramble in the Tigers box afterwards with both Gael Givet and Nzonzi having efforts charged down before Myhill could fall gratefully on to the ball.

Boateng's red card and his colleagues' red mist then followed, and Brown slung on Seyi Olofinjana to fill the gaping hole left in the midfield, withdrawing the crestfallen Vennegoor of Hesselink, who nonetheless left the field the understanding professional, applauding the fans as he exited.

Nikola Kalinic flicked an injury time corner from Diouf just wide at the near post which Myhill seemed to lose all ends up, before a half time whistle offered the players a chance to calm themselves and the City fans ample opportunity to aim vocal brickbats the way of the referee. Boy had he got it wrong.

The second half was threatening to be a total non-event. The life and spirit had been sucked from City via the unjust dismissal of a major influence, while Blackburn's life and spirit was on hold thanks to their desire to maintain the status quo of one strike and you're out. Brown eventually got fed up with this and, in an admirable show of optimism, withdrew both full backs - in the case of McShane it was as much a mercy withdrawal as anything as he had stunk the place out - and threw on Amr Zaki up front and Kamil Zayatte at the back. This made for a 3-4-2 formation which would probably require Fagan and Hunt to play, at times, as wing backs. This was evident within seconds of the restart as Emerton was freed on the right of the area with Hunt nowhere to be seen and belted a shot goalwards which Myhill did brilliantly to keep out.

Myhill then superbly palmed a Givet header from Diouf's corner on to the bar before the Tigers, led by the blatantly unfit but eager to please Zaki, began to look the correct way. The squarely-built Egyptian was fouled on the edge of the box but rushed the free kick, lifting it on to the roof of the net. When a corner was forced soon afterwards, Zaki crossed in a terrific second ball but Steven Mouyokolo failed to play to the whistle and headed the ball half-heartedly at Robinson while waiting for a signal for offside that never came, either via flag or whistle.

Another free kick was then forced by Tom Cairney, quiet but not majorly culpable all evening, and the youngster chipped it diagonally for Zayatte to win but the header was weak and straight to Robinson. Four minutes were added and soon went. The game was lost, the performance was terribly disappointing after all that had gone before.

Boateng's red card didn't lose City the match - the Tigers were already behind and any reply against Blackburn on their own patch is hard-earned with even the full quota of contributors on show - but it certainly played games with the focus and spirit of the City players that remained, and little followed to suggest that an equaliser was possible. Boateng can appeal and should appeal, but beyond his personal battle ahead, Brown needs to decide whether a team that can play so well against big names and then so badly against a smaller outfit needs altering, or whether it counts as a blip mitigated by the referee's hapless decision to reduce the numbers to ten.

Fortunately, he has ten days to figure it out as there is no fixture this weekend. And by the time the Tigers venture to London for the final time this season with the trip to West Ham United, a certain Jimmy Bullard should also be in a position to give the manager a further cause for change.

Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Givet, Nelsen, Olsson, Salgado, Pedersen, Emerton (Roberts 70), Nzonzi, Andrews, Diouf, Kalinic (Reid 90). Subs not used: Brown, Chimbonda, Jones, Di Santo, Hoilett.
Hull City: Myhill, McShane (Zayatte 67), Dawson (Zaki 67), Gardner, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney, Hunt, Fagan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Olofinjana 44), Altidore. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Barmby, Garcia.