Saturday, 20 March 2010

30: Portsmouth 3 - 2 Hull City - 20/03/2010

This one hurt like no other. To be a goal up with two minutes of normal time on the watch and still lose the game tells you everything you need to know about the heart, stomach and attitude of the Hull City first team squad.

Iain Dowie has so much work to do. His reputation suggests he is a noted disciplinarian; it is evident that this trait is one he is going to need to exercise on his inheritance substantially over the coming days and weeks. The players were disjointed, unmotivated and, with a notable exception or two, uncaring. And still they contrived to get within breathing distance of a first away win for more than a year.

Dowie picked Paul McShane to fill the Kamil Zayatte-sized gap in defence, and put Kevin Kilbane in midfield for the suspended George Boateng. Andy Dawson wore the captain's armband, while the bizarre sight of Caleb Folan back in the side took some getting used to.

Caleb Folan!

The laconic, preening, non-scoring centre forward who would be a half-decent player if he ever managed to master the offside laws. Only half-decent, mind. A facility to time his runs would only make up a fraction of the shortcomings he has as far as being a Premier League performer is concerned. And yet there he is, in the front line.

A new manager always has new ideas and it isn't unusual for a player frozen out under the previous regime to suddenly receive a lifeline from the following one. Ibrahima Sonko was the one we wondered about, especially given the defensive shortage and inexperience in the squad. Sonko, for which we can be grateful, was nowhere near Dowie's thinking, in the end. But Folan? It never occurred for a moment to anyone that he might be involved. He hadn't been seen for weeks, since returning from his spectacularly uneventful loan at Middlesbrough with an injury. But in hindsight, it made sense. Well, it did to Dowie, anyway. He had tried to sign him when he was manager at QPR. We, correctly at the time, said no.

So, with Folan playing alongside Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink up top, hopes weren't high. A double-edged consolation came through that Jozy Altidore was injured, so at least the skilled American hadn't been dropped for the lumbering Folan on a quality issue. And those hopes weren't exactly reaching for the clouds even before the Folan bombshell dropped. But City took to the field with the support of a whopping 1,100 travelling fans and began the brighter in a turgid game.

Vennegoor of Hesselink aimed a strong header just wide from a Kilbane cross as City created the first chance, but Portsmouth then settled in, with nothing to lose, and Marc Wilson put a free kick inches adrift of Boaz Myhill's post and then Quincy Owusu-Abeyie hit a shot straight at McShane. Steven Mouyokolo then similarly got in the road of Tommy Smith's after a rapid Portsmouth counter attack.

City regrouped a touch and Jimmy Bullard twice aimed curlers wide, the second of which took a slight deflection. From the consequent corner, the ball was cleared to Craig Fagan and his low goalbound volley was touched in, more by accident than design, by Folan.

So Folan had scored. Via a fluke, and without remotely justifying his sudden rebirth as a bonafide Hull City performer at this level, but he had scored. And City were winning. Away from home. It was a feeling seldom experienced and one the Tiger Nation was happy to exploit.

It didn't last long though. David James was booked for handball outside his area - a momentum handball via the slippery pitch, as opposed to a calculated act of cheating - and then Portsmouth charged upfield. Jamie O'Hara crossed for Smith whose chance was barricaded away by McShane, but defending of the corner was lame, to say the least, as no flick or clearance was offered and allowed Smith to pounce on the ball inside the six yard box and poke in.

City made one more chance before the break, with Bullard and Vennegoor of Hesselink showing tidy touches to give Dean Marney shooting room, and the drive was only a foot or so wide. The second half started in this manner, with Fagan battering a shot from distance just over and Vennegoor of Hesselink stretching, stretching, stretching that long frame of his but still not able to get on the end of Kilbane's driven cross.

McShane got in the way of a Smith shot on the counter attack before Dowie bit the bullet and slung a substitute on. The wrong sub for the wrong player, it seemed, as Nick Barmby's brand of low gravity immobilty was preferred to Vennegoor of Hesselink's brand of high gravity immobility. The Dutchman should have stayed on, or at the very least been replaced by Geovanni. Everyone was expecting Folan, by now reverting to type by being offside a lot and then blaming team-mates for it, to be the player hauled away. But he stayed on. And then he scored. Properly this time, too.

Richard Garcia had also been introduced for the injured Dawson - Kilbane dropped back as part of the shuffle - and the Australian exchanged a gorgeous sequence of balls with Bullard to feed Folan who got a break from a defensive stumble and steered a scruffy but well-angled shot beyond the advancing James to give the Tigers the lead with 17 minutes left.

Gulp. A win away from home was now really possible. City didn't try to increase the lead, but crucially also didn't try to nullify the inevitable Portsmouth backlash. It was luck and Portsmouth's own inadequacies that maintained the situation until Bullard gave away a free kick on the edge of the box - and we did this a lot, which Dowie bemoaned correctly - and O'Hara, a sublime footballer, curled an immaculate, scrummy shot around the wall and beyond a well beaten Myhill.

Instantly, City fell to bits. From the restart, Garcia received the ball deep on his own flank and tried to find Mouyokolo inside him but lost possession to a rampaging Nadir Belhadj, who galloped to the line and pulled the ball back for sub Kanu to finish with ease.

We would say it was unbelievable, but the heart-wrenching truth of the matter is that it was entirely believable. Not for Portsmouth to win 3-2 from 2-1 down in the 88th minute, but for City to lose 3-2 from 2-1 up in the 88th minute. Oh, that's quite believable.

Five minutes were added and City had nothing left. None of us did.

Given that we don't have any away form at all, it perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that we lost, and even that we lost from a gilt-edged winning position. There are home games ahead against Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland that could be the true shaper of our fate, but now we have to win them and make up five points on teams above us in doing so. A tall order indeed. And with the current lax attitude within the squad, not one anybody can feel confidence about.

Dowie will have learnt much about his squad after this game. Hopefully part of it is deciding exactly which of them are actually bothered at all about keepin our club afloat. By the time Fulham come to the KC next week, we'll know much more about what he knows.

Portsmouth: James, Rocha (Basinas 84), Hreidarsson, Belhadj, Mokoena (Kanu 57), O'Hara, Mullins, Owusu-Abeyie (Webber 82), Wilson, Piquionne, Smith. Subs not used: Ashdown, Finnan, Diop, Brown.
Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson (Garcia 70), Mouyokolo, McShane, Marney, Bullard, Kilbane, Fagan, Folan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Barmby 66). Subs not used: Duke, Cooper, Olofinjana, Cairney, Geovanni.