Saturday, 10 April 2010
We need today's enormous game against Burnley to go without a hitch. Given that we are Hull City, a club that has made it a 106 year long habit not to do things straightforwardly, we should still expect something unexpected to happen. Hopefully it won't extend to Burnley actually taking anything from the match, and the unexpected can be good - a Jozy Altidore hat-trick, for example - as well as bad.
Last time we played Burnley at the KC it was a raucous old affair, characterised by a marvellous half of football from the Tigers that had the game won, and then a bizarre breakdown in discipline from both sides in the second half that saw three players sent off.
One of these players was Jay Jay Okocha, and this red card was the only statistic aside from the 18 Championship appearances he would eventually card up for the Tigers by the end of the season. That he never scored - and, in truth, rarely created - a goal for City during his brief time with the club makes the sending off all the more bizarre.
It was March 2008 and the Tigers were sniffing a play-off place at the very least under Phil Brown. Okocha had joined as a 34 year old free agent in the September and had sporadically contributed to a slowly growing side mainly by name alone, frightening opposition players via his very existence. Obviously though, there were still occasions when he did frighteningly amazing things with a football.
At Wolves, a mere fortnight after joining, he ran the show so effortlessly that he was applauded off by the whole of Molineux when substituted late on. His only error was trying to get the ball off Dean Windass when the penalty that won the match was awarded to City.
Okocha had made his debut as a substitute the week before in a 1-1 draw with Stoke City at the KC Stadium. City were a goal down when he came on, and he spent his time on the pitch hitting pinpoint passes, long and short, shooting from impossible angles and at unexpected moments, and generally being a total thrill as well as a ridiculous novelty for a team that had relied on Ray Parlour as its veteran creator the year before. City got a late equaliser which had nothing to do with Okocha, unless Stoke were worried in advance about whether he would get the ball and therefore didn't notice where else it could go. It was David Livermore who scored with a close range header.
The other notable occasion for Okocha came on a blustery February evening at Norwich City. Again the game ended 1-1, which at this stage of the campaign was a very useful point for a Tigers team starting to believe that climbing the table was possible, and Okocha's glorious touch, appreciation of where the ball and the target player was and general smoothness in possession prompted the Norwich manager Glenn Roeder to pay a tribute afterwards that bordered on the obsequious and got a lot of headlines.
The rest of Okocha's time saw him dragged down a little by the demands of a less silky brand of football than that to which he was used. Often Brown wouldn't play him at all, and sometimes he would be on the bench. He did have injuries too, not least at the end of the season when he missed the run-in and the eventual play-off glory, but ten starts and eight appearances via the bench doesn't sound very much for a player drizzling with such special ability. For all that, City won the play-offs without him, beating at Wembley a Bristol City side that had taken four points off the Tigers during the regular season. In those two games, Okocha had been involved, albeit as a sub midway through the second half on each occasion. He was there at Wembley, in his training gear supporting the team, and was the first on to the pitch in the sponsors' T-shirt to congratulate the players on promotion to the Premier League. Brown chose to release him afterwards, and was right to do so.
And so to the red card, the last and only non-playing stat against Okocha's name. It had been a brilliant evening. City had played their most dominant half of football in years, with goals from Fraizer Campbell and a 25 yard strike from Richard Garcia (the goal of the season, even allowing for volleys at Wembley) securing a 2-0 half time lead against a Burnley team lacking any discernible interest in the competition.
The second half had been equally City's but without any further goals. Then Caleb Folan gave Stephen Caldwell an elbow off the ball and walked, with Caldwell getting yellow for the niggliness that preceded it. Caldwell himself got a second yellow and left the field a few minutes later after fouling Campbell. So, it was ten versus ten.
And then it was nine versus ten. Okocha stood innocently over another Burnley player in a horizontal position, Joey Gudjonsson, and even though the referee (Mike Riley, later to endear himself even less to the Tiger Nation with his antics at Arsenal in the FA Cup) saw nothing and had to consult a linesman, whose lack of excessive flagging suggested he had been equally unsighted, the two of them somehow concluded that Okocha had committed a heinous enough crime to receive a straight red card. The KC Stadium had never raged more in its short life than on that evening. Gudjonsson's own dismissal afterwards, making it nine versus nine, merely confirmed the farce that had unfurled itself.
And, apart from an 89th minute substitute appearance at Colchester United immediately after his three match ban had expired, we never saw Okocha in a City shirt again as injury took over. It had ended rather unfavourably for him, and he didn't have the impact many would have expected from a man of his phenomenal talent and experience, but the very fact that he made a contribution, small but noticeable, to our most triumphant season will live with a generation of Tigers fans forever.
Meanwhile, today's game against Burnley is very different, even though Garcia and Folan remain in the squad, among others, from the last time these two met. It'd be nice if we could replicate the dominance and goals and not the red cards.
Posted by Boyhood Dreams