Saturday, 27 March 2010

31: Hull City 2 - 0 Fulham - 27/03/2010

The relief and euphoria could be felt all around a bouncing KC Stadium as Hull City notched up a crucial, deserved win and manager-in-essence Iain Dowie punched the air for the benefit of the delighted supporters.

Lest we forget that Dowie has a professional reputation to enhance and a seven-figure bonus to chase, but it was clear that he felt the joy of everyone whose desire for success is dictated purely by the heart. And a terrific victory it was too, all the more so via the injury issues and consequent team changes that were necessary after last week's sickener at Portsmouth.

The remainder of the relegation scrap will raise eyebrows at the Fulham XI sent out, with their Premier League position secure and a huge Europa League tie imminent, and the half a dozen changes looked precisely so, but this still was not about their priorities. City were excellent.

Dowie himself had to pick Ibrahima Sonko in defence thanks to the injuries to three other specialist central defenders, and given his hurtfully poor record as an expensive loanee earlier this season, it was greeted with some trepidation. He was immense. And so was Steven Mouyokolo alongside him. Neither of them missed a trick, a tackle, a clearance. It's almost a pity that Sonko is ineligible next week, and will definitely be a pity if none of the crocked centre backs are recovered.

Also back in the team was Jozy Altidore, whose restoration was welcomed although only confirmed after Caleb Folan was taken ill in midweek. The American led from the front with a classic centre forward's performance of power, speed and bloody-mindedness and it was a pleasure to watch how much this youngster has grown as a Premier League player. Richard Garcia and George Boateng also began the game after coming off the bench and being suspended respectively a week ago.

Fulham made the first chance with Zoltan Gera hitting a low shot that Boaz Myhill had to parry to his right, although generally the Tigers were the team with the lion's share of possession and certainly the majority of interest in getting something. Fulham were lethargic and disorganised and that played right into City's hands.

The first goal came when Jimmy Bullard, abused by the travelling supporters, played a tidy through ball into the path of Altidore, who turned sweetly and had a sight of goal before being chopped down by Brede Hangeland. The penalty was obvious although the path of the ball meant no card - of any colour - was necessary, and Bullard sent Mark Schwarzer the wrong way from the spot.

City settled down a little but Fulham did then enjoy a brief spell of dominance. Myhill had to keep out a free kick from Nicky Shorey after seeing a late before Sonko then got his head in the way of the vicious follow-up from Simon Davies. Hangeland then won a header at a corner to give Gera room to turn and shoot past Myhill, but Boateng was there to hack it off the line.

Altidore, fouled through the game more often than most City players in recent memory, then won a free kick at shooting distance, and Bullard swerved his shot round the wall and forced Schwarzer to tip it round the post. The keeper did well from the resulting corner, batting away a point blank Dean Marney shot after Hangeland got a half-clearing header on to Bullard's kick.

Fulham nearly equalised when a clever move down the right flank got Gera through and he slipped a goalbound shot under Myhill only for Mouyokolo to get back and clear heroically off the line. Gera then went down in the box under a challenge from Kevin Kilbane - who had been booked already - but the referee gave the Tigers the free kick and booked the Hungarian for simulation.

The half time whistle was greeted rapturously, with City in charge both of the scoreline and the possession, although Fulham's effort had grown through the half and there was still work to do. Very soon after the restart, that work was done.

Kilbane fed Garcia down the left and the Australian drew his man before passing to the supporting Marney, whose high cross to the far post was met by a looping Craig Fagan header, and the ball followed the one bit of trajectory that would clear the huge Schwarzer and find the bottom corner of the net. It took an age to go in but once it was there, the stadium erupted.

Altidore nearly created another for Fagan when he squirmed clear of the last man on the byline and played a low ball across the six yard box that Schwarzer managed to intercept before Fagan could get to it.

Fulham made changes and began to step up their interest as City simultaneously let the pace drop. Shorey, oddly playing on the right, played a low ball to the edge of the box which striker Stefano Okaka hit low and on target but straight at Myhill. City then enjoyed a breakaway via Marney and Fagan, with the final ball reaching the overlapping Bullard who sliced his shot wide.

A minor scramble in the box handed out the palpitations for a brief moment before Okaka's final backheel was blocked and then belted clear by the immovable Mouyokolo. Dowie gave Altidore some respite from the kicks and hacks and threw on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, and almost immediately the Dutchman forced a corner from which Garcia headed straight at the keeper.

Bullard, who was fouled a couple of times towards the end and briefly chose not to get up straightaway, causing a few frowns of worry, received the deserved ovation of the crowd as he was brought off the field late on, with Seyi Olofinjana taking his place. Fulham had died their death by this point, and City were fortunate to be playing a side who, in a rare occurrence, no longer needed League points to either chase something or prevent something, and their European priority gave the Tigers plenty to aim for.

West Ham's defeat to Stoke means the table looks very interesting indeed. City are behind West Ham only on goal difference and have a game in hand too. Ironically, the Tigers are Stoke's next opponents and despite the difficulty accepted by football in general that goes with a trip there, City have a fine recent record. With a hapless Burnley side to follow at the KC, the next two weeks could be the two that make the long-term future of a few clubs clear. And if any of the threatened clubs could choose a situation to be in, they'd choose ours. We must not waste it.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Kilbane, Mouyokolo, Sonko, Boateng, Marney, Garcia, Bullard (Olofinjana 85), Fagan, Altidore (Vennegoor of Hesselink 78). Subs not used: Duke, Mendy, Barmby, Cairney, Geovanni.
Fulham: Schwarzer, Baird, Hangeland, Shorey, Konchesky, Smalling, Gera, Riise (Okaka 53), Dempsey, Davies, Dikgacoi (Greening 59). Subs not used: Zuberbuhler, Hughes, Stoor, Etuhu, Nevland.