Monday, 10 May 2010

38: Hull City 0 - 0 Liverpool - 09/05/2010

Celebration in defeat and in relegation. Two years in the top tier remains two years more than we had ever managed previously, and despite the poor season and poorer finances, Hull City used the final Premier League game of the season as a cue to remember just how fortunate we have been.

That said, the many who sang unkind words about the experience of top tier have a point. It feels like as much of a relief to go down as it is a disappointment; indeed, a season in the Championship with a team reconstructed on an austere, back to basics policy, filled with exuberant youngsters and older stagers and not riddled with mercenaries who exploited an irresponsible chairman's starstruck ambition to almost bankrupt the club.

It'll start straightaway, with rumours circulating about various players leaving for pastures new, and Adam Pearson claiming in his programme notes that some early business in the summer with both the debts and the squad could give the Tigers a proper footing as far as the start of the new campaign is concerned. The players who wandered slowly, some gingerly, around the pitch to wave to the supporters were saying a real goodbye, not offering meagre wishes for a good summer.

The game? Goalless, obviously, but not guileless. City, unchanged, were very good, Liverpool played like a team who were more anxious than most to get this irritant of a fixture out of the way and think about the future. Liverpool should still have won but City had their moments and thanks to the adolescent triumvirate of Mark Cullen, Tom Cairney and Will Atkinson, the fans had reason to keep alert and maintain their interest and encouragement.

Cairney was fabulous. Cullen also played marvellously. These two will be so important next season. But fortunately there were other good displays from City's establishment too, with Andy Dawson playing his best game of the season and Bernard Mendy having one of those eccentric romps that make you wish, one more time, that he wasn't such an inconsistent waster and headcase.

Liverpool had the first chance in crazy circumstances when Ryan Babel's low ball across the edge of the box was cut out by a backtracking Cairney, whose spooned clearance very nearly beat Matt Duke, striking the stanchion behind the goal and making Liverpool's full compliment of travelling fans believe, momentarily, that it was a rather spectacular own goal. Nabil El Zhar then hit a shot from distance that Duke reached only via a fingertip stretch.

From the corner, El Zhar volleyed a clearance goalwards into the ground and Dirk Kuyt got a flick which beat Duke but was headed over by the bar by George Boateng, sturdy and heroic as the last line of defence. Alberto Aquiliani then hit a low volley inches wide on what was a disappointing day for Liverpool's big enigma.

City made an opportunity when Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink headed a Dawson free kick straight at Jose Reina. Dawson then followed up his delivery with a stunning bit of touchline ballwinning, with his cross cleared to Cairney. His shot took a deflection and went straight at Cullen who, despite his brilliant position in front of goal, couldn't get the ball under proper control and it ricocheted through to Reina. Atkinson then crossed from the right for Cullen to head just wide.

So, chances traded and possession traded equally too. It wasn't amazing football, and neither team were drizzled in enthusiasm, but it was a jolly, spirited occasion nonetheless. Aquilani hit the crossbar from a melee in the City box with Daniel Agger spannering the rebound high and wide as the half petered out. Liverpool had the chances but City matched them for possession and spirit.

City were dominant after the restart, with Vennegoor of Hesselink touching on a wicked Mendy cross and Cullen was a stud's length from sliding the ball in at the far post. Mendy then chose to hit a shot from probably 40 yards out that was bending and well-aimed and would have been the goal of the season had Reina not seen it late and got a full glove on it. It was an extraordinary shot and a fine save.

Aquilani and Kuyt boh missed with distant snapshots and then Geovanni, on for the resourceful Kevin Kilbane, swiped a free kick into the wall, with Dawson also not managing to defeat a wall when another kick was given two minutes later in a similarly dangerous position.

Craig Fagan came on for Vennegoor of Hesselink as City looked to use more pace on the tiring Liverpool defence but afterwards City could create little more as a result, with Cairney slapping one goalwards from long range that Reina chose to double fist away.

Liverpool turned it on in the last ten minutes. Substitute Dani Pacheco's cross was pawed out by Duke and the superb Steven Mouyokolo cleared before a Liverpool boot could finish the job. Steven Gerrard, quiet and yet influential, then put a shot just wide from the edge of the area.

City were distracted by a cloud of pink smoke from some contraption released by a Liverpool supporter as Gerrard broke away but Boateng and Mouyokolo combined with timing and no little desperation to stop him shooting. Cullen then fed off Geovanni's wide ball and hit a fine drive over Reina and also just over the bar, with real confidence and instinct that we should enjoy next season.

Three minutes were added and Gerrard hit the post in that time, with Pacheco also having a cross shot palmed clear by Duke. The woodwork aside, it felt like a goalless draw throughout and that's exactly what it became.

So, season over and the fun and games behind the scenes begin. The chairman has to sort out the finances, attract investment, reduce the asphyxiating wage bill and appoint a manager. He needs to call all of these things correctly to give Hull City the chance to return to the Championship on something close to an even keel.

For the Premier League and all its attractions, there will be plenty who will prefer the more authentic, less cynical world of the Championship, a division that can provide a club with ambitions sprinkled with glory rather than just trying to hold one's own in mid-table in a division that is riddled with cliques, mini-leagues and only entertains those who are neutral or seeking trophies. That rules out a lot of sides. Of course Hull City want to go back there, but next time we will do so in a manner that allows us to progress and glow gradually, sensibly, cautiously.

It has been the best trip we've ever been on. The next one will be even better though. And wiser.

Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Dawson, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Boateng, Cairney, Kilbane (Geovanni 76), Atkinson, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Fagan 84), Cullen. Subs not used: Myhill, Cooper, McShane, Olofinjana, Barmby.
Liverpool: Reina, Agger, Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Aquilani (Pacheco 73), Mascherano, Gerrard, Lucas, Kuyt, Babel (Robinson 87), El Zhar (Ngog 62). Subs not used: Cavalieri, Skrtel, Degen, Ayala.