Tuesday, 4 May 2010

37: Wigan Athletic 2 - 2 Hull City - 03/05/2010

Though it merely confirmed what we already knew, this single point was insufficient to at least prevent the big black 'R' from appearing next to the great name of Hull City for at least another week. Relegation is now rubberstamped, and although even the victory by ten goals that the Tiger Nation self-mockingly sang for throughout this game still wouldn't have done any good, it feels like a relief.

Galling, however, was that the Tigers didn't deserve to be relieved of two points in this game, and yet again it was an injury time goal that broke City's hearts. A team with a healthy and positive scattering of young talent therein had played Wigan off the park in the second half and taken a deserved lead, and only when the added time board went up did the Latics suddenly develop any sense of urgency, as if they felt being the only team to lose to Hull City on their own patch was a humiliation too awful to bear.

It was as typical as anything that has depressingly typified City over the generations that the last chance of a win on the road was swiped from their grasp in the closing seconds of the match. A win would also have completed an incongruous double, too. Steve Gohouri's spectacular but eminently preventable leveller after 92 minutes meant that the Tigers ended the season without a single away victory. Not even the really, really rubbish sides that were relegated in 1978 and twice in the 1990s could say that.

But it isn't a badge of honour. Deeply underperforming players on high wages have been our main problem this season, and such was their lack of bite on the road that this game represented the closest, even more so than Portsmouth a month or so ago, that the Tigers had come to ending a particularly bad run. And it was achieved, were a close-but-no-cigar game to be cast as any form of achievement, with two Premier League debutants whose rawness exudes pride and innocence and desire, the type that could have kept us in the Premier League had their well-reimbursed seniors shown even a modicum of it in the last six weeks.

Iain Dowie, not unexpectedly, gave Mark Cullen a start up front. Cullen is just 18 and therefore eligible to cast his vote on Thursday by a matter of mere weeks. He is tiny, slight and red-haired and will not be hard to recognise in the future, hopefully as much for his footballing promise as for his lack of physical stature. Will Atkinson also started a Premier League game for the first time, having enjoyed a good loan at Rochdale and previously been called into FA Cup and Carling Cup squads in the last three seasons without ever getting within even javelin-hurling distance of a chance at the highest level. Perhaps it patronises such players to essentially say to them that the game doesn't matter any more so they can play, but neither Atkinson nor Cullen showed signs of being talked down to. They were excellent. And, beyond that, they both had the nerve to score.

Dowie recalled Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink up front to give Cullen someone to look up to in every sense of the word. Kevin Kilbane earned - well, received - a recall to the left side of midfield and so did Tom Cairney, a peer of Cullen and Atkinson and yet already earmarked as possibly the player who could be the most influential on the team when life in the Championship returns in August.

Big names appeared on the bench but the biggest of the lot (salary, ego, level of expectation and disillusionment) in Jimmy Bullard did not even travel with the squad. There is hope yet.

City struggled to clear a pair of early balls into the area and Jordi Gomez hit a snapshot just wide, then both Anthony Gardner and Steven Mouyokolo threw themselves in the way of Hugo Rodallega after a neat tee-up from James McCarthy, blocking the drive bravely.

Cullen's first involvement came when he intercepted a terrible goal kick from Wigan's third string custodian Vladimir Stojkovic and exchanged passes with Atkinson before crossing towards Vennegoor of Hesselink, who got his head there first but could only guide it wide.

Andy Dawson then fed Kilbane's run down the left and a good pullback was met by a vigorous Atkinson shot which the keeper batted away. Atkinson and Vennegoor of Hesselink, continuing some good City pressure, each made fledgling runs through the Wigan backline and eventually the loose ball dropped to Kilbane, who got power into the shot but not quite the direction, hitting the side netting at Stojkovic's near post.

At the other end, Wigan came very close to opening the scoring when Rodallega found himself in the six yard box with just Matt Duke to beat, but Mouyokolo launched into a stunning block tackle of the type that makes good defenders into great ones, and the applause for this marvellous young player from the Tiger Nation was deservedly long and loud.

It didn't last as far as parity was concerned, however, as Wigan took the lead on the half hour. A set-piece was cleared to George Boateng whose ball down the flank was cut out, delivered into the feet of Victor Moses who exploited the City defence's belief that the danger was over by cutting into ample space around the edge of the box and belting a low shot beyond Duke and in via a post.

It could have been two soon afterwards when Moses missed his kick in front of goal after Ben Watson's corner was nodded back to him from the far post by Rodallega. City, however, re-found their attitude and an equaliser came just before the break.

Boateng broke down the right and crossed dangerously but Stojkovic got some purchase on his punch, though only finding Kilbane on the opposite side. He re-centred and Atkinson made a late and clever run to head firmly past the exposed keeper. Initially a flag went up for offside against Cullen, who had challenged for Boateng's initial ball, but referee Phil Dowd seemed inclined to overrule over the issue of not interfering with play and, after a quick check with his assistant, did just that. "We only want ten more," chanted the Tiger Nation...

So, all level at half time and with an away goal from a young debutant who has waited forever for a chance like this. It seemed promising.

City dominated the early part of the second half for possession but it was Wigan who were creating the opportunities. Duke saved with his feet as Rodallega hit a low one from distance, then both Rodallega and Gomez hit wide-angled snapshots just wide from well outside the box.

City then won a free kick, which Cairney swung in. A half clearance was nodded back in by Atkinson for Mouyokolo to turn and swipe wide, despite the promise of his position in the area. An offside flag gave him a little respite from the disbelief of all in the away end, and soon the Tigers had a genuine goal to savour anyway.

Another Cairney free kick, another clearance, and this time Boateng collected on the right. He delivered a second ball towards the far post and Cullen, showing terrific instinct and awareness that makes one believe he could succeed in the first team, ran beyond the last defender to nod in from five yards, before looking utterly bewildered by his achievement as the Tiger Nation celebrated before him and grown men jumped on his back.

There were 25 minutes left and the Tigers were by some range the better team now. Cairney, quiet in the first half but imperious in the second, pulled the strings in midfield and sent the new hero away after intercepting a bad clearance, but Cullen this time shot over. Caleb Folan came on and, after the customary offside decision against him and the usual search for blame away from his own wretched self, he managed to break clear once but was caught and robbed of the ball as he teed up a narrow-angled shot.

Wigan didn't look especially worried by the situation, which suggested they were either beach-bound or just shockingly arrogant. Then, when the board went up for three added minutes, they perked up. Stojkovic went forward for a corner, despite there being no value attached to garnering a point at all, and when City cleared to Cullen on halfway there seemed an opportunity. Cullen, inexperience aplenty, tried to do something urgent with the ball as he knew there was an unguarded net, slipped on the wet surface, and Gary Caldwell was able to clip it back into the box. It was nodded on at the far post for Gohouri to chest down with his back to Duke's goal and then smack an overhead kick beyond the keeper and into the roof of the net.

Wigan fans came on to the pitch to celebrate the least important goal of their season, which was as bemusing as it was gutting, and the final chance of chalking up an away win was gone. That we deserved to win will ultimately not be crucial when the table is examined at the end of the campaign, it will just show an embarrassing, horrid '0' under the away column headed with a 'W'.

The positives were plentiful in terms of the displays - and goals - of Atkinson and Cullen, while Cairney looks every inch a senior player now and Mouyokolo will benefit the Tigers much if recent performances are an accurate indication, in that he will either be the best defender in the Championship next season or will fetch a princely sum from a Premier League side that will help ease the huge financial burden that the club has to fend off over the summer. However, the overriding negative of yet again failing to win away, yet again conceding late on will remain. As good as City were, the match still showed plenty of reasons why, this season, we are not good enough.

Wigan Athletic: Stojkovic, Gohouri, Caldwell, Melchiot, Figueroa, Watson, McCarthy (Sinclair 65), Gomez (Scotland 79), Moses, Diame (Scharner 82), Rodallega. Subs not used: Pollitt, Boyce, Thomas, Mostoe.
Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Dawson, Gardner, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney, Kilbane, Atkinson, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Folan 70), Cullen. Subs not used: Myhill, Cooper, Olofinjana, Barmby, Geovanni, Fagan.