Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Gardner's world

Anthony Gardner has broken no bones, but it looks like a two-month absence for the ex-England defender with ankle ligament damage.

This is clearly a big setback for Gardner, a defender of ability, but his phenomenal injury record suggests that nobody should be surprised that he is on the treatment table again.

Gardner suffered the injury in a typically unfortunate manner, landing awkwardly after challenging Matthew Upson in the Tigers penalty area at West Ham United on Saturday. His awful back injury last season was suffered in similar post-impact circumstances at Arsenal, and generally his promising career has been affected and stalled by one daft or luckless knock after another.

Yet despite his presence as an experienced defender, as well as team captain, his absence may not be sorely felt. Defensive cover is available and champing at the bit in the shape of Kamil Zayatte, who is the best centre back at the club anyway, while Gardner simply isn't a captain of substance and has only had the job through a mixture of politics and default. Worthier candidates are already in the starting XI and George Boateng's re-appointment to the role is a shoo-in.

Even as a defender, Gardner somehow doesn't convince everyone. His big strength seems to be positional play, to go with the advantage in the air that a 6ft 4in frame naturally provides. But he is quiet and sometimes panicky in possession of the ball. Confidence evidently plays a part in his game, and he operates best with a ball-playing defender alongside him, hence why the presence of Zayatte seemed to work best for him.

Since Zayatte's injury, Gardner has struggled to be the senior defender. Steven Mouyokolo's emergence has been tremendous for the young Frenchman but has knocked Gardner a little. Mouyokolo came in for the home game against Wolves and played well, but Gardner was distracted too often, as if he felt his game mainly consisted of seeing his new, raw defensive partner through the match. He was slipshod in possession and conceded a calamitous, comical own goal. He has not looked right since Mouyokolo came in, and yet Mouyokolo is not to blame at all.

Zayatte has been fit again for a while and he and Mouyokolo will partner one another when City return to action a week on Sunday and maybe this will be the partnership that rings truest. Precociousness overtakes experience a little, though Zayatte is no defensive fool (despite being something of a wildcard at times) and while the investment in Gardner means he would rarely be out of the side if entirely fit, there is every opportunity for the two defenders he leaves behind to make his recovery all the more agonising. There is something about the prospect of a Zayatte/Mouyokolo partnership that just feels right already, even though it has yet to feature in a Hull City team and it has taken the sad sight of Gardner being stretchered off yet again to realise this.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Fagan's final felony

Once again, the debate about Craig Fagan reopens. And it is only ever Fagan's fault that it does. Another brainstorm, another self-thinking bit of red mist, and the hopes of those around him disappear. That it was against a relegation rival, and therefore, in a game with a big tick next to it on the survival blueprint, makes his actions even more heinous.

Fagan was sent off for two bookable offences at West Ham United on Saturday, but beyond the actual offences, he didn't seem to be up for the scrap with the occasion anywhere near as much as he wanted to scrap with the opposition. The moment he caved into Scott Parker in the first half it was clear he was having one of his mad days, even though it is only wisdom after the event that brings us to this conclusion.

Many have suggested, via forums and chat pages, that Phil Brown should have substituted Fagan at half time. Maybe so. But anyone who has heard Fagan speak will know that he is a peaceable, calm and articulate person who doesn't convey the image of a mad dog at all. Brown may have taken him to one side at the break to check Fagan's mental state and been as fooled as the rest of us.

Fagan's abilities as a footballer, to sound like a broken record for a moment, do not come up to scratch enough to justify the continued indulgence of his darker side. He is honest and his effort is not in question. But he is a player who is full of negative energy, and it's heads or tails as to whether he is going to direct that negative energy positively, such as when he chips around the wing chasing the ball and giving defenders kittens, or in the negative manner seen at Upton Park, which made him believe the world was against him and anyone who had the nerve to take the ball from him or get in his way was going to suffer.

Fagan, in the end, suffered. His team-mates too. City had created little but were still only one down and enjoying a propitious spell with the ball. That died the instant Fagan was dismissed. He wandered down the tunnel, cursing himself, but notably was not acknowledged by his manager or anyone else on the bench as he made his way past the technical zones and towards the changing room.

As there is no game for nearly a fortnight, the dust over Fagan's latest bout of lunacy has ample time to settle. Brown needs to decide if Fagan's contribution to matches on his best days - and there have been enough to make the argument stand up - outweighs the risk of having games ripped from you when he decides he isn't going to act maturely.

This is the Premier League, and therefore risks have to be calculated more and more. Fagan, who will be banned for the match at Everton on March 7th, may never play for Hull City again afterwards. Brown would have had Paul Duffen's support in taking this stand, whereas that of Adam Pearson, a pragmatist who isn't starstruck by football people, would be on the condition that Brown doesn't resort to playing someone horribly out of position in an injury crisis rather than restore Fagan to the team. The most obvious conclusion, however, is that Fagan should be sold in the summer if the Tigers stay up. His bridges simply cannot keep being rebuilt when there are points to be earned, and only a full team with the correct focus can earn them.

Meanwhile, Bernard Mendy or Richard Garcia should now be restored to the team in his place and told they have their best ever chance to keep it for the rest of the campaign.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

27: West Ham United 3 - 0 Hull City - 20/02/2010

This was as poor a day as Hull City has ever had in the Premier League. A bad team performance, some awful discipline, individual horror shows and at least one bad injury. The fortnight's break ahead is, for once, well timed as everyone involved needs to get their heads right.

Yet again, we find ourselves deciding exactly what worth Craig Fagan truly brings to the team. On his day he can be a useful workaholic, but too often he resorts to the childish, the daft, the red mist, and doesn't offset such peccadilloes with footballing prowess. His sending off was the work of a complete idiot and although the Tigers weren't pulling up trees even before he received his second yellow, the deficit was only 1-0 at the time and an equal number of players per side had preserved the opportunity.

Fagan's only consolation, lukewarm though it may be, is that pretty much nobody could emerge with credit. Phil Brown should include himself in this for dropping Jozy Altidore and giving the still-unfit Amr Zaki his first starting place. There was no justification for this decision. Altidore wasn't injured, Zaki is not ready and picking a player because he was a high-profile signing and might start kicking up a stink if he doesn't play is no way to go about shaping a Premier League team. And now Altidore, who was beginning to show real promise and heart as a Tigers centre forward, will need to have his confidence rebuilt.

No other changes were forthcoming, but you can bet anything you like that there will be ample by the time we play again. Fagan's sending off, Anthony Gardner's nasty looking injury, Jimmy Bullard's expected return (which, despite endless mooting, didn't happen at Upton Park) and a host of wretched displays should prompt a whole new outlook.

West Ham, ahead of the Tigers only on goal difference before the match, started as brightly as City began sheepishly. Boaz Myhill had to change direction to scramble away a ball in from Alessandro Diamanti, but was powerless a minute later when a bad pass from Andy Dawson put Tom Cairney under pressure, and Valon Behrami robbed the youngster of the ball, fortuitously exchanged passes with Guille Franco and slid it home. Three minutes had not quite elapsed, and already it felt like it wouldn't be a good day.

Dawson's gaffe was not his first. Even this most likeable of footballers is not immune to searing criticism and while context is always an issue, there's no doubt that the stuff being thrown his way as he committed error after error was justified. It was a horrid day for a great servant and professional.

He wasn't alone, though. His fellow full back Paul McShane was a distribution and possessional nightmare. Zaki up front showed willing but aside from his lack of shape, his default position upon receiving the ball seemed to be to throw himself on to the turf each time. Cairney was startled, as if he had been suddenly reminded of his inexperience. Stephen Hunt was guilty of his worst performance in a Tigers shirt ever. Fagan was beyond inhuman. Others struggled for room or ideas or composure. Only Myhill, George Boateng and Steven Mouyokolo could say they had done their jobs well.

City did make a chance courtesy of a Cairney free kic, which Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink headed towards the far corner, forcing Robert Green into a good, stretching save. But it was the Irons who were in charge, and a rapid throw-in gave Julien Faubert a crossing opportunity which beat Myhill but was a little too long for Diamanti to divert back towards goal.

Gardner then cut out a through ball to feed Dawson but the pressured full back was quickly relieved of possession by Behrami, but his drive was well beaten out by Myhill.

Fagan was then booked for a late challenge on Scott Parker. Retribution could have been an issue, given that Parker's tackles have played a role in two of Bullard's last three knee injuries. But it was a shockingly timed challenge and the yellow card was deserved. Fagan's focus and professionalism was plummeting very quickly.

Myhill made a wonderful save from Behrami's far post header as the City keeper found himself travelling in the opposite direction to the ball. This briefly inspired the rest of the team, and Cairney miskicked a half chance wide before Boateng made room for a thumping left-footer which Green tipped over acrobatically. Half time and though a poor performance, the damage was reversible.

Then, after a good spell of early second half pressure, the damage was done. Not by a second West Ham goal, but by Fagan's stupidity. Robbed of the ball on the flank by Jonathan Spector, he tripped him up. Not malicious, but dense, as well as pointless. Spector was going nowhere but backwards. Fagan felt a fool, but didn't look more so like one as when he saw the red card brandished before him and had to walk the breadth of the pitch to the tunnel, cursing.

Ten men, and even though it was only Fagan who had gone - and the brand of Fagan who is useless to any team effort anyway - the chance to claw back into the match went with him. City couldn't reshape themselves and West Ham soon took advantage, with Faubert's sublime through ball missing Gardner's last-ditch stretch and allowing Carlton Cole an easy opportunity to place his shot beneath Myhill for 2-0.

Brown made three substitutions at once, withdrawing Cairney, Hunt and Zaki, all of whom had flattered to deceive, to be kind. Of the three who replaced them, Nick Barmby took over as unofficial organiser and Altidore made himself a chance from a Vennegoor of Hesselink flick, but steered the opportunity just wide. Diamanti then had two goes, one of which was from halfway, but each were just off target, though Myhill did help the distant effort out to make sure.

A West Ham corner was met by Matthew Upson, but his header was cleared by Barmby. More tellingly, and worryingly, Gardner landed very badly after challenging Upson and was stretchered off with what was initially diagnosed as a problem with two separate sections of his leg. Dawson was already limping on a bad ankle knock so essentially City were dying with eight men. The final whistle couldn't come quickly enough, though the entertainin Faubert had time in the added minutes to batter a swerving shot past Myhill and make the scoreline ultra-conclusive for the home side..

A totally chronic afternoon for the Tigers, succumbing to a relegation rival with barely a whimper and a whole host of recriminations to dig out. Fagan will deservedly get the brunt of it but too many ineptitudes were on show on and off the pitch, and the Tiger Nation should also feel disappointed with a very quiet show of support in their corner of the ground. A day to forget on so many levels, but the absence of a game next week will make it hard for a bit.

West Ham United: Green, Faubert, Spector, Tomkins, Upson, Parker, Kovac, Behrami, Diamanti (Collison 85), Franco (Ilan 63), Cole (Mido 79). Subs not used: Stech, Da Costa, Noble, Stanislas.
Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Gardner, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney (Barmby 65), Hunt (Olofinjana 65), Fagan, Zaki (Altidore 64), Vennegoor of Hesselink. Subs not used: Duke, Zayatte, Kilbane, Garcia.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Jimmy riddle

Phil Brown may only be trying to play mind games over Jimmy Bullard's possible return to the Hull City team this weekend, but they're merely making him look a little foolish.

Earlier this week, this blog suggested Bullard's mooted return would be a fantastic boost for the Tigers. However, since then we have learned that he did not play in the midweek reserve fixture and has not indulged in even one full training session with the squad. This surely means that he cannot and should not play at West Ham United tomorrow.

If Bullard does play a part, Brown will be criticised heavily for risking his star player's health on a game that is not only winnable without him, but expendable when the rest of the season is taken into account.

If it is just mind games, and Brown has no intention of playing Bullard at all but wants West Ham to think it is feasible, then that's the lesser of the evils. But again, professional football is not run by stupid people - not all of the time, anyway - and the hosts of tomorrow's game will suppose that Bullard simply is too unfit to be given any time on the pitch. They'll know as well as anyone that a player who hasn't had a run-out and hasn't trained properly is not going to be effective if he takes part, if he takes part at all. Even if he is the super-talented Bullard, the player who inspired a Tigers comeback against the Hammers at the KC back in November, scoring twice.

The Tiger Nation will warmly welcome Bullard, of course, if he does get a game at Upton Park. But the applause will be cautious and with eyes partly covered. Given Bullard's history since joining City, it will feel like an accident waiting to happen, especially as West Ham was the venue last season where he made his debut as a substitute and took a boot on the knee that ruled him out for nine months. If he plays and it pays off, fine. It will be deemed worth the risk. If he plays and, at worst, is crocked again, then his manager will never be forgiven. Bullard himself needs to be telling Brown the absolute truth about how fit he feels.

As the Tigers aren't playing next week now - the Carling Cup final has scuppered Aston Villa's scheduled visit to the KC - it gives Bullard a whole extra fortnight to train properly, get a match or two in (including the friendly in Galway arranged for next Friday) and be completely ready for the trip to Everton on March 7th. Brown should be aiming for that and, hopefully, that's what he actually is doing. But if so, he is really fooling nobody by saying that Bullard could be ready to play again, as plainly he isn't.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Hello Taylor

There is no love lost between Bradford City and Hull City, but if wishing Peter Taylor well today also means wishing Bradford City well, then so be it.

Bradford have appointed Taylor as their manager until the end of the season. They have picked absolutely the right man, providing their board of directors have the requisite faith in Taylor to do the job he needs to do. He was appointed by Adam Pearson to the same role at Hull City almost eight years ago and entirely transformed the side.

The Tigers were 18th in the bottom division when Taylor arrived as a replacement for the unprepared Jan Molby, who had been given the job in the summer but quickly acknowledged as a mistake by Pearson. Taylor's immediate promotion record with Gillingham and Brighton was excellent and he was very highly thought of at the FA too, maintaining his control of the England under 21s.

There followed three and a half seasons of tough decision-making, spirit building and no little money spent, especially for a club in the lower reaches. Taylor steadied Molby's ship and then started the regeneration process that took the Tigers out of the bottom division after seven lonely seasons. He then, to everyone's shock and absolute delight, repeated the feat a year later to get the Tigers into the Championship. And perhaps the most memorable game, for footballing and emotional reasons, was the win at Bradford City.

It was a Sunday lunchtime fixture and, poetically, the travelling Tiger Nation had been given an enormous allocation that allowed them to fill one side of the ground as well as the regular away end. It didn't please Bradford fans, but the memories of Martin Fish, one of Pearson's dubious predecessors, giving play-off chasing Bradford the South Stand at Boothferry Park in 1996 were still raw. Bradford won the game, got promoted and City were relegated. Inevitably, scuffles broke out. It was a nadir few thought would be matchable, though subsequent High Court appearances and winding up orders soon put it to shame. But there were fewer occasions in the awful 1990s when Hull City fans felt so useless and unloved.

So the turnaround was quite remarkable to observe, especially as it was a late season game and City were on the brink of a second successive promotion. The game started perfectly, with Stuart Elliott ramming home a goal in the opening five minutes. The noise when that goal hit the net was beyond explosive.

Nick Barmby sealed it midway through the second half and the 2-0 win was crafted by an awesome team display, with career-defining outings from Damien Delaney, Craig Fagan and even the much-maligned Junior Lewis, and it typified Taylor's tactical policy - play pretty when it suits, and play percentages the rest of the time. Many bemoaned Taylor's style of football when it got ugly, but at times the Tigers were capable of some fantastic stuff and Taylor deservedly got the credit, especially as either way, he got results.

There was real joy in seeing the Tigers do over a fierce Yorkshire rival (a rival that included Dean Windass in their ranks, who spent the game bantering with the Tiger Nation) in spring sunshine while on their own turf, filling their stadium and doing so as part of a promotion campaign which was sealed as successful a fortnight or so later. Bradford were a club in decline, having been in the Premier League and lost all their money, and City would soon be a top-flight club as the Bantams sunk to the bottom. It was a mirror image of the contrasting progress of the two clubs in the 1990s.

Taylor left the Tigers a year later, but the upward-mobility he started was maintained enough to give Phil Brown the tools he needed to earn promotion to the Premier League, for which he and countless others offered Taylor a good chunk of credit.

Now Taylor is charged with getting Bradford's ambition up and running again. It would be no surprise if he did exactly the same job there as he did with the Tigers and, even though it is Bradford City, many will hope he succeeds. Meanwhile, Bradford fans whose eyes de-misted as playing hero Stuart McCall failed as a manager should now realise they have got a proper boss in charge.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Jimmy'll fix it

Jimmy Bullard's return to Hull City is currently three weeks overdue, both medically and emotionally.

After he hurt his knee at Aston Villa in November, Phil Brown stated that he could be ready to return by the end of January, with the game against Wolves at the KC being the target.

It didn't happen, but fortunately it seems to have been just through a slightly off-beam estimation of Bullard's recovery. There has been no setback, no relapse, no complication.

And, for the most part, there has been no emergency in his absence either. Certainly there have been games in the super-skilled midfielder's absence which one feels the Tigers could have won with his input - the aforementioned Wolves game, Bolton Wanderers away, Blackburn Rovers home and away - but the rest of the Bullard-free encounters were against sides of such ability that it was hard to imagine him being able to influence them greatly. The draws with Tottenham Hotspur and especially Chelsea were fantastic results but it's most likely that they would not have altered much in Bullard's presence. And Manchester United would still have beaten us twice even if Bullard had been there, at his most mercurial.

This weekend, poetically, sees City go to West Ham United, the place where Bullard did his original knee injury while making his debut for the Tigers as a substitute in the second half. It is also his first professional club. And, with a spot of luck, it is also the place where Bullard may make his latest comeback.

Three weeks have passed since the initial date of guesswork from Brown came and went, but we've got used to not having Bullard around when the team is announced each week. One suspects, however, that he has been giving encouragement and advice to Tom Cairney as the young midfielder continues to fill some quite sizeable boots. If Bullard does return this weekend, almost certainly as a substitute if so, then the boost it will give everyone, as individuals and as a team, will be enormous.

It will also be timely, given that the Tigers are taking on a relegation rival and, despite the farcical evening at Blackburn, have lately put themselves in a position, even without the prompting of their best player, to avoid the drop.

Bullard is having an influence on things still, make no mistake about it. For as long as he is unable to be inspirational on the pitch, he will be making sure he plays a key part off it. Maybe this weekend will start another period - hopefully a more lengthy one - when he will be doing both. And we can all reap the rewards.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

By George, they got it right

The three lost points from Ewood Park in midweek will stick in the craw for a good while, especially as we don't have a match this weekend and can therefore brood on it for longer, but at least the controversy over George Boateng's red card has been nipped in the bud.

The decision to send the Dutchman off for what was little more than an accidental clash of heads was met with anger and utter disbelief at the time, criticised by both managers immediately afterwards and termed as "unfortunate" by pundits commenting upon television pictures.

The Tigers appealed instantly and fair play to the disciplinary committee at the FA who took one look at the incident, in which Boateng raised his arms in an aerial duel with Morten Gamst Pedersen but connected only with his head, and rescinded the red card immediately.

Boateng's three match ban no longer applies, and the break he clearly needed will now again be just the ten days dictated by the fixture list. He many not have played again for more than a month had the suspension stood, given the further gap in our fixture list caused by Aston Villa's presence in the Carling Cup final in a fortnight, originally earmarked as the weekend of their visit to the KC.

The Tigers don't always get the rub of the green from the FA, with this week also seeing us handed a sterner financial penalty than Arsenal after the Samir Nasri-Richard Garcia kerfuffle in December at the Emirates in the Premier League.

The punishments meted out suggest that City were the sore-losing perpetrators instead of the victims. Exactly why the Tigers were deemed twice as culpable as Arsenal (the Gunners were fined £20,000 and City £40,000) remains a mystery, which one can only conclude was down to simply favouring the bigger, more powerful, more influential club.

Looking through patient eyes at the incident again, Nasri was the violent aggressor while City's players merely protested and protected. Later, upon the issue of charges, the Gunners denied everything but were found guilty, whereas City accepted their role straightaway and didn't waste anyone's time. Yet we get the beefier sanction from the authorities. It simply doesn't add up.

Friday, 12 February 2010

And now we can move on

Paul Duffen has reportedly handed over "millions of pounds" as part of the out-of-court settlement finally confirmed yesterday by Hull City in their legal dispute with the ex-chairman.

Millions of pounds? That's a lot of money, obviously. And given that Adam Pearson uncovered millions of pounds worth of debt upon scouring the accounts that Duffen left behind, it is quite an achievement to get this unspecified but sizeable sum back from a man who, for all his business savvy, must have known his creaming of club cash would be unearthed by a diligent successor.

Duffen could still be subject to an FA inquiry but meanwhile it is another feather in the cap of Pearson. Perhaps Duffen thought that a successor other than Pearson wouldn't have had the bottle or sensed enough goodwill from the staff and supporters to make a go of taking him to court. Duffen left the Tigers, only officially, on the Friday and Pearson arrived, again only officially, on the Monday. We were told Duffen had resigned when he was, in fact, sacked; we were not told about Pearson's arrival until the man himself walked into a swathe of flashing bulbs on the Monday, despite his presence at the Burnley game mid-shuffle and quick transmission among supporters and media of one of football's worst kept secrets.

Pearson took a calculated risk when it came to suing Duffen and it worked better than he could have imagined. Of course, a court case could have doomed Duffen further but maybe his offer, made away from prying eyes, was all he could afford and the club felt it right to quit while substantially ahead. Duffen would have been ripped apart in a court of law but would have given as good as he got too. And given his obvious annoyance at not being credited more for his role in the promotion to the Premier League and subsequent survival, he wouldn't have shirked in trying to ruin the club's name entirely, even if he went down with it.

Anyway, the millions of pounds now returned to City coffers can ease some of the instant financial woes that Pearson gravely revealed within days of returning to the hotseat. His belief that this money would return to the club could also explain his insistence that Wolves' ever-rising offer for Stephen Hunt, which peaked at £5 million on the last day of the January window, would be rejected. After all, who needs another club's money when you're due to get back your own? Contrast that Duffen's absolute insistence that Michael Turner had to go, even though Pearson has subsequently said there was no obvious financial reason for it and the player himself was entirely settled and happy.

As for Duffen, one hopes he doesn't get involved in football again. He will now have his assets, including his yacht, back in his possession - a judge froze them at City's request during the action - and maybe he should go for a long sail and try to figure out over a few glasses of bubbly why he will not be fondly regarded by supporters who fulfilled their dreams under his chairmanship. If he doesn't get it, then there are a good few thousand people happy to fill him in.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

26: Blackburn Rovers 1 - 0 Hull City - 10/02/2010

Ultimately, few people could leave Ewood Park proud of themselves. Blackburn Rovers won the game and maintain an impressive home record, but were wasteful and typically negative. Playing football for Sam Allardyce can rarely be thrilling.

Hull City were extremely poor in contrast to the sunny, vibrant displays at the KC Stadium in recent days and rarely looked like scoring, especially once George Boateng was issued with a straight red card just before half time.

And this is where we reach the figure who should be least proud of all - referee Lee Probert. How he could possibly believe that Boateng had committed an act of violent conduct is beyond anyone's comprehension. The Tigers players went completely potty with him. There was no retrospective view prompted by a later viewing of the incident on television, as it showed that Boateng, albeit with arms raised, went into an aerial 50-50 ball with Morten Gamst Pedersen only with intention of winning the header. No arms connected with the Blackburn player, and both men fell to the deck, grasping their heads.

Mr Probert had the red card out straightaway, although he didn't brandish it publicly at Boateng as the Dutchman had the temerity to be semi-conscious with his face down on the grass. But it was out of his pocket, only semi-hidden in his fist, and the City players saw it, as did the travelling Tiger Nation. There followed a minute of vehement, furious pleading from Boateng's teammates while the Tigers midfielder was given treatment. As he rose gingerly to his feet, even physio Simon Maltby took part in the protests as, finally, the red card was shown. Boateng was helped from the field while the players continued to vent collective spleens at Mr Probert, to the extent that skipper Anthony Gardner had to push them away, knowing that it would alter nothing but may give the authorities licence to hammer the club with another fine.

The decision was ghastly, scandalous, obscene. It must be appealed. It can no way be deemed frivolous by the FA. Even Allardyce himself said afterwards that Boateng was unlucky.

All of this anger and injustice does not, however, equate to an excuse for what was a miserable evening for the Tigers. Blackburn are distinctly unpretty but extremely effective and strong, as is their wont and right. They were dominant before the red card and remained so afterwards. Their stranglehold on the game was tight from the off and City, while occasionally given plenty of possession, rarely looked like the productive, forward-thinking team that had harvested five points from the the previous nine on offer.

Phil Brown picked the same starting XI for the third game in a row after Boateng and Andy Dawson were passed fit following weekend knocks. The bench was identical from Saturday's win over Manchester City too.

Blackburn had the first chance when Boateng conceded a soft free kick which Pedersen swung into the six yard area and Ryan Nelsen won cleanly in the air, only for Boaz Myhill to tip it over from pretty much point blank range. City responded with Stephen Hunt trying an off-ground volley which went over the bar after Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink headed Paul McShane's free kick into his path.

Myhill then pushed away a Pedersen free kick which lad to chaotic scenes in the Tigers area, culminating in Steven Nzonzi spooning a decent chance wide. Again the Tigers had a response, with Hunt playing some smart keepie-up to get the ball under control before feeding Vennegoor of Hesselink, whose low left foot drive was well pushed aside by Paul Robinson.

The breakthrough was deeply unflattering to McShane, who was caught out of position, and ultimately Myhill. A ball down the left allowed Martin Olsson to shuffle free of the covering Craig Fagan and put a low ball in from the byline which clipped the inside of Myhill's heel just enough to divert itself into the far corner. The angle would have been impossible, especially at the pace Olsson was running, for a goal to be scored without the City keeper's help, and so it goes down as an own goal. Olsson's perseverance should allow him to claim the chance. Irrespective of the scorer's identity though, it was a woeful piece of play all round from the Tigers.

There followed a long period of nothingness. Blackburn sat tight, City had little appetite for getting forward. It was a freezing Lancashire evening. It doesn't show much class to have a pop at a team for protecting leads at home, and the Tigers have been victim of many a bitter, unwarranted stab from supporters of teams who couldn't break us down - Tottenham fans after the goalless game at White Hart Lane were especially unkind and charmless. But it can't do the soul good to be paying to watch this sort of football week on week. Be cautious and stoic away from home, by all means. But at home, there has to be something more for the supporters. Allardyce is, and has always been, one of those managers who doesn't equate football with entertainment, merely with results. It's hard to argue with the sentiment, but easy as a romantic to confront his approach.

Myhill held a long range volley from Olsson and then Gardner made a tremendous block as El-Hadji Diouf ran on to a Brett Emerton - Mr Probert gave a goal kick as a bonus, which albeit in our favour, was another wrong decision and would soon not be remotely his worst. Blackburn embarked upon another scramble in the Tigers box afterwards with both Gael Givet and Nzonzi having efforts charged down before Myhill could fall gratefully on to the ball.

Boateng's red card and his colleagues' red mist then followed, and Brown slung on Seyi Olofinjana to fill the gaping hole left in the midfield, withdrawing the crestfallen Vennegoor of Hesselink, who nonetheless left the field the understanding professional, applauding the fans as he exited.

Nikola Kalinic flicked an injury time corner from Diouf just wide at the near post which Myhill seemed to lose all ends up, before a half time whistle offered the players a chance to calm themselves and the City fans ample opportunity to aim vocal brickbats the way of the referee. Boy had he got it wrong.

The second half was threatening to be a total non-event. The life and spirit had been sucked from City via the unjust dismissal of a major influence, while Blackburn's life and spirit was on hold thanks to their desire to maintain the status quo of one strike and you're out. Brown eventually got fed up with this and, in an admirable show of optimism, withdrew both full backs - in the case of McShane it was as much a mercy withdrawal as anything as he had stunk the place out - and threw on Amr Zaki up front and Kamil Zayatte at the back. This made for a 3-4-2 formation which would probably require Fagan and Hunt to play, at times, as wing backs. This was evident within seconds of the restart as Emerton was freed on the right of the area with Hunt nowhere to be seen and belted a shot goalwards which Myhill did brilliantly to keep out.

Myhill then superbly palmed a Givet header from Diouf's corner on to the bar before the Tigers, led by the blatantly unfit but eager to please Zaki, began to look the correct way. The squarely-built Egyptian was fouled on the edge of the box but rushed the free kick, lifting it on to the roof of the net. When a corner was forced soon afterwards, Zaki crossed in a terrific second ball but Steven Mouyokolo failed to play to the whistle and headed the ball half-heartedly at Robinson while waiting for a signal for offside that never came, either via flag or whistle.

Another free kick was then forced by Tom Cairney, quiet but not majorly culpable all evening, and the youngster chipped it diagonally for Zayatte to win but the header was weak and straight to Robinson. Four minutes were added and soon went. The game was lost, the performance was terribly disappointing after all that had gone before.

Boateng's red card didn't lose City the match - the Tigers were already behind and any reply against Blackburn on their own patch is hard-earned with even the full quota of contributors on show - but it certainly played games with the focus and spirit of the City players that remained, and little followed to suggest that an equaliser was possible. Boateng can appeal and should appeal, but beyond his personal battle ahead, Brown needs to decide whether a team that can play so well against big names and then so badly against a smaller outfit needs altering, or whether it counts as a blip mitigated by the referee's hapless decision to reduce the numbers to ten.

Fortunately, he has ten days to figure it out as there is no fixture this weekend. And by the time the Tigers venture to London for the final time this season with the trip to West Ham United, a certain Jimmy Bullard should also be in a position to give the manager a further cause for change.

Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Givet, Nelsen, Olsson, Salgado, Pedersen, Emerton (Roberts 70), Nzonzi, Andrews, Diouf, Kalinic (Reid 90). Subs not used: Brown, Chimbonda, Jones, Di Santo, Hoilett.
Hull City: Myhill, McShane (Zayatte 67), Dawson (Zaki 67), Gardner, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney, Hunt, Fagan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Olofinjana 44), Altidore. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Barmby, Garcia.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Tom 'n' George

If you can get a partnership made up of youthful exuberance and wizened leadership in any part of the field then you are on to a good thing. In the Hull City midfield, that is precisely what has happened.

There were calls for Tom Cairney to become a fixture in the Premier League starting XI for some time, but in the last three matches it has finally happened. The evidence of his calmness on the ball, vision when releasing it and general approach play was obvious during his Carling Cup and FA Cup appearances and now, finally, he is showing it at the top level too.

Alongside him there has been something of an Indian summer for George Boateng, a player almost twice Cairney's age and, as such, half of his energy and capacity to get around the pitch. Yet the experienced Dutchman has been revelatory at the base of the resourceful City midfield since Phil Brown switched to a 4-4-2.

Boateng has brought out the best in Cairney and Cairney has brought out the best in Boateng. Young enthusiasts need someone longer in the tooth to guide and cajole them; elder figureheads need someone less mature to do their running and take the pressure off their need to defend and protect. It couldn't have worked out better for all concerned.

The captain's armband, passed round this season like a parcel at a children's party, currently occupies the humerus of Anthony Gardner, but the real inspiration has come from Boateng in the very middle of the park. He won't get the captaincy back as it will devalue Gardner's contribution and he has already had it this season anyway, prior to his period of exile when he fell out with Brown, but it really doesn't matter. He is leading. And his superhuman efforts in the last three games, especially for a player deemed to rickety to manage more than one game a week, have been arguably the biggest single factor in City's acquisition of five points from nine. His goal against Manchester City, a terrific strike and a rare beast, was not only deserved but also quite poetic.

Cairney has caught the eye of the tabloid newspapers who inevitably have already begun to link him with bigger clubs, despite there being no evidence whatsoever for the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham to be looking at him, but it will do the player no harm at all to feel really loved and wanted, as long as he realises that the main love and desire comes from the club he currently stars for, and the fans who follow it. He is the genuine article and for a club still living in Mike Edwards' shadow as far as productivity from within its own ranks is concerned, he is hugely important.

When Jimmy Bullard comes back, there may still be room for Cairney's brand of creativity, especially as his tender years give him the lungs to get around the pitch at will too. But for the time being, he and his veteran Dutch teammate have given us a midfield for others really to envy. Even allowing for Bullard's much-awaited return, and that of Ian Ashbee eventually, long may this continue.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Everything in the garden looks Jozy

For reasons far beyond his smashing first Premier League goal for Hull City, Jozy Altidore deserves multiple pats on the back.

There is a tremendous interview with him in the Daily Mail this morning, showcasing the youngster's decency and modesty as he explains his familial connections with Haiti and admits to helping the relief effort with both campaigns and his own money.

This proves beyond all doubt that the youthful American striker, whose parents are both Haitian, knows where his priorities lie even within an industry renowned, perhaps unfairly at times, for the selfishness and indolence of those earning the biggest money. His story is thoughtful and personal, and he accepts that while his work to help his nation of origin continues, he also has a job to do in Hull.

And with that excellent goal, the opener in the 2-1 win over Manchester City, he is truly doing that job. With Altidore's recent form as a worker and provider for his team, it had become less of an issue that this powerful centre forward had not yet provided a goal in 17 Premier League appearances. But now that duck has been broken, and broken with real finesse too, he may just be inspired. He certainly doesn't look like the sort of striker who doesn't get many goals - many of his near-misses were on target - so renewed hope will be on his broad shoulders that more of the same is due.

For all the impatience with players that football fans can show, there has been tremendous goodwill for Altidore so far. It is a refreshing brand of patience which has taken into account the player's age, new surroundings and the pace of the game he is now expected to play. He is also just naturally likeable and has given from day one the impression that he is honoured to be with the Tigers. The perseverance of Altidore has paid off for him, and now he looks like a Premier League player. He is fit, exudes power, has real pace and a real thirst for hard work.

He was beginning to show these attributes week on week, but the tiny doubt remained while his Premier League goal record was nil. Now that final hurdle has been cleared, who knows what he can go on to do?

Monday, 8 February 2010

Mutual consent

Common sense seems to be behind the apparent mutual agreement between Hull City and ex-chairman Paul Duffen to settle their legal differences out of court.

Duffen is addicted to media exposure and would have loved his day in court. Ultimately the cards were dealt by the Tigers in order to make plain their disapproval of Duffen's conduct as chairman - he has been accused of taking money from agents in return for club dealings, and also transferring club money to his other business ventures - but even though the case was strong, it could have been more of a pyrrhic victory had it continued.

A club dragging its own name through the British legal system, even with good cause and confidence of success, does not look good for the club itself nor for the sport it represents. Duffen's narcissism when in charge would have re-emerged and, as a skilled and shameless performer in public, he would have revelled in the occasion when called to give evidence. For all the club's public disassociation with Duffen's tenure as chairman (difficult when it involved promotion to the Premier League and a subsequently rather memorable survival therein), it still would have been harmful to its standing had it allowed its evidence of wrongdoing to be aired and debated in a public courtroom.

This way, Duffen doesn't get his day in court and the Tigers can feel vindicated in taking action against him. That an out-of-court settlement now seems likely allows Duffen to look culpable and the club to look generous and self-protective. Duffen doesn't win and his reputation stays tarnished, but he keeps the gory details to himself. It's a perfectly acceptable outcome for the club and the best that Duffen could have wished for.

Of course, there has still been no official confirmation from either the club or its former chairman, presumably until the terms of the settlement are finally agreed. One assumes discussions and negotiations are ongoing.

An interesting aside from this whole sorry business is the revelation that while Duffen publicly fell on his sword in October with faux-gallantry over his responsibility for poor form on the pitch (and then separately told every available media outlet so, rather than issuing a brief statement and disappearing to his yacht), he had actually been sacked by Russell Bartlett earlier the same week. It seems that even his one act of genuine selflessness was a sham.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

25: Hull City 2 - 1 Manchester City - 06/02/2010

There is only one City, y'know. They play in amber, they represent heart and soul as much as footballing ability, and they've just beaten a team for whom money evidently cannot buy cohesion or spirit.

This was a stunning performance by a team that has just managed to get it right. Both goals were terrific, the need to fight for every ball was ingrained within them from the first minute, and this first Premier League win since November was more about their own display than most commentators will accept.

Of course, the response from most will be to assume that Manchester City had an off day. They did. Spectacularly so. But they weren't abject, merely outplayed. The Tigers were better in every department and no binful of excuses from apologists for the fashionable visitors will take that simple truth away.

Phil Brown made no changes. He didn't need to and nobody in the starting XI from the draw with Chelsea deserved to be dropped. If they were fit, they were in, and indeed all were fit. Manchester City did pick Wayne Bridge, as expected, and the wronged England full back got little more than mild ribbing from the East Stand, but this was probably more to do with repetitiveness rather than sympathy.

Craig Fagan had the first chance, belting an angled drive high and wide after Jozy Altidore had beaten off an aerial challenge to get a flick on to Stephen Hunt's cross. The hardworking Altidore then earned a free kick after Kolo Toure fouled him and earned an early yellow card for his trouble, though the American could only hit the base of the wall with his effort.

Altidore's worth was questioned recently due to his lack of goals but this bustling, determined American has really shown how worthy he is as a team player in the last few weeks. Having got Toure on a final warning he soon did likewise with the other centre back, Dedryck Boyata, who was cautioned for felling the broad-shouldered striker near the corner flag.

The burgeoning partnership with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink also took another big step when, having flicked on a Fagan cross to give the big Dutchman a volleying chance which he put wide, Altidore had the compliment returned when Vennegoor of Hesselink laid a George Boateng through ball into the American's path and Altidore placed a careful shot beyond Shay Given's left hand and into the corner.

It was a super goal, and well worth the 18-match wait that Altidore has had to endure before opening his Premier League account. And it was not just what the American himself deserved, but it was what City as a team deserved. By the time the lead was acquired just after the half hour, the Tigers were in complete control. The visitors were slow and negative and making similar presumptions about their status that did for Chelsea in midweek.

Fagan took a similar lay-off from Vennegoor of Hesselink but swiped his shot well wide. The last ten minutes of the half finally prompted some action from the visitors but Anthony Gardner looked after Emmanuel Adebayor's threat in the air with aplomb, while Steven Mouyokolo did superbly to block a far post Carlos Tevez strike after Gareth Barry's corner was flicked into his path.

Bridge then went through on goal after a fine sequence of passes between Craig Bellamy and Tevez, but Boaz Myhill was equal to the task at his near post. Adebayor followed up with a volley that was high, wide and nothing resembling handsomeness.

The second half was a big event, with City clearly believing that they could win this one. The illustrious status of their opponents had proved nothing in the first half, and soon it meant even less.

Altidore got on the end of a fine four-man passing sequence involving Tom Cairney, Boateng, Vennegoor of Hesselink and Hunt but went down easily under a challenge from Toure and got nothing.

Fagan then forced a corner which Hunt swung in dangerously. The headed clearance by Toure reached Boateng on the edge of the box, who duly delivered a stunning, rasping left-footed drive that beat Given all ends up and recorded the inspirational midfielder his first goal for more than two years, and his first in City colours. It was a magnificent effort.

The visitors got back into it quickly, forcing a corner via Myhill's save from Tevez and panicking the Tigers defence in the area. Nobody could get it clear and eventually it fell to Adebayor who stabbed it in from close range.

There was cause for worry, but instantly Bellamy was substituted and on came Patrick Vieira for his debut. How this represented a positive change, especially as Bellamy's chippiness contributes as much to his team's destiny as his skill and pace, is anyone's guess. Vieira may have been once a great player but he isn't any more. And he would prove it. Simultaneously, Altidore was withdrawn with raucous applause ringing in his ears, and on came Amr Zaki.

A period followed when Manchester City forced a seemingly endless number of set-pieces but Gardner and Mouyokolo, plus the gloves of Myhill, dealt conclusively with each. Zaki could have put it beyond doubt when he was sent clear by Vennegoor of Hesselink on the counter attack but went for the near post drive and Given stopped it easily.

Brown threw on two more subs, replacing the shattered but iconic Boateng with the returning Seyi Olofinjana, then the ultimate in protective substitutions was made when Kevin Kilbane replaced Vennegoor of Hesselink.

Myhill threatened a few coronaries when he misjudged a swerving cross from sub Adam Johnson and let the ball leave his grasp and drop just wide, but aside from a good Tevez chance from close range which the City custodian held well, the visitors really weren't getting anywhere fast. The four added minutes dragged on but victory was sealed, and what a victory it was.

Manchester City looked like they really didn't care if a proper competition was put before them courtesy of a team of comparatively skint players. That's what happened. By the time they did have a go, their best attacking threat was off the pitch and there was too much unfamiliarity.

Spirit was lacking too, which is hardly something you can say about the hosts. Hull City were worth every single penny of the admission and a bit more. This national assumption that last year was a freak and this year will result in definite relegation may just spur us on to another survival and another year of tweaking wealthier noses. That's what we've become good at lately, and boy is it entertaining to see.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Boateng (Olofinjana 82), Cairney, Fagan, Hunt, Altidore (Zaki 66), Vennegoor of Hesselink (Kilbane 83). Subs not used: Duke, Zayatte, Barmby, Garcia.
Manchester City: Given, Zabaleta, Bridge (Petrov 85), Boyata, Toure, De Jong, Barry, Ireland (Johnson 55), Bellamy (Vieira 60), Adebayor, Tevez. Subs not used: Taylor, Onuoha, Sylvinho, Wright-Phillips.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

"They're going bananas at Boothferry Park today!"

Hull City are at home to Manchester City today. Now, while last season's 2-2 draw between the clubs was a memorable occasion, as the Sky cameras transmitted some howlers at the back, sublime finishing and a bizarre soap opera surrounding a free kick, the previous encounter between the two will remain sharp in the memory forever.

We have to go back to the opening day of 1988-89, a day of sunshine and many debuts. Lee Warren and John Moore started their first games having joined in the summer, and indeed the man who purchased them, Eddie Gray, was also taking charge of his first game.

Manchester City were projecting their usual shtick about being far too good and far too big to be anywhere but the top flight, even though they had been horribly relegated two seasons before and had finished a crazy ninth in the second division, despite memorably doing over Huddersfield Town 10-1 in a League game. Their fans had become newsworthy for their fetish for inflatable props, most notably the enormous oxygen-stuffed banana, which had become their main match accessory.

Boothferry Park's North Stand, and the uncovered bit of the Kempton in the north east corner, was full of grown men singing vile songs about Munich while holding up large plastic replicas of fruit. The ground wasn't full, as the apathy towards the Tigers continued within their home city, but the travelling contingent took the figures over 11,000 and were considerably loud to boot.

On the pitch, Gray had kept faith with most of the players Brian Horton had left behind when he had been fired the previous April, adding just Warren and Moore to the squad over the summer. A third debutant was Steve Terry, the centre back who sported a large sticking plaster on his forehead and who Dennis Booth had signed from Watford during the short period betwixt Horton and Gray when he had been verbally assured that he would be the new manager.

Moore's presence up front meant that the skilful, gawky Alex Dyer moved out to the left wing. Warren, a teenager whom Gray knew from his Rochdale days, started in the defensive midfield role. Manchester City were resplendent with a particularly gifted crop of youngsters, including the likes of David White, Paul Lake, Ian Brightwell, Steve Redmond and Andy Hinchcliffe.

And this became one of the Tigers' biggest acts of daylight robbery. Tony Norman kept out everything that Manchester City could aim his way, and that was rather a lot. City played some good football, with Dyer outstanding down the wing, but chances were few and far between. Moore struggled to hold the ball up - despite his considerable frame - and although Warren worked hard, there was little creativity in front of him.

And the result? 1-0 to the Tigers. Keith Edwards, goalscorer supreme, forced in a close range chance more against the run of play than any talented football hack could ever have described in the Sunday papers a day later. Things would settle down for Gray afterwards, with victories coming via more convincing displays. His decision to sell Norman at Christmas helped turn the season into a complete nightmare, even though a run to the FA Cup fifth round maintained some positive headlines until Liverpool won 3-2 at Boothferry Park.

As for the debutants, well Moore never recovered from his anonymity on day one and the campaign that soon started against him became one of the bitterest that an unforgiving Tiger Nation ever aimed at one player. When he was dropped for three games, a cheer of joy went up and during this period City defeated Chelsea 3-0. Then he was recalled for a match against Swindon Town and a large boo rang out when his name was announced. He scored the only goal of the game - albeit when someone else's shot smacked him on the side of the head on the way in - but it didn't establish any faith in him and after a particularly awful sitter-missing 45 minutes against Bournemouth in November 1988, he was substituted at half time and never appeared again.

Warren, conversely, settled into a long and reliable Tigers career which never quite saw him become an all-time hero but nonetheless earned him great respect as the Tigers lurched from one crisis to another. He played in midfield, at right back and sometimes centre back for five spectacularly stressful seasons (and even went in goal) before he was unwisely - and unpopularly - released at the end of the 1993/4 season. He was still playing the professional game in his late 30s and turned out for the Tigers in the Masters tournament last year.

Terry had a strange old time at City. Known for his "big esh" clearances from kick off, the elastoplasted defender lost his place in the team in the December to local youngster Neil Buckley and, remarkably, didn't get it back for four months, missing out on the big FA Cup tie against Liverpool. He played alongside Peter Skipper at the back on the opening day, but the long-serving Skipper was out of the door within a fortnight, allowing the cultured Richard Jobson a route back to his favoured position (Gray had put the exquisite Jobson at right back). Eventually it was a Jobson-Buckley partnership for which that season would be known, and although Terry forced his way back in towards the end of the campaign at Buckley's expense and was a favourite of the briefly returning Colin Appleton the next season, he would be gone on deadline day 1990 as Stan Ternent didn't rate him. Gray was fired after an appalling run of one win in the last 18 matches that began the moment the final whistle sounded against Liverpool.

Manchester City were promoted as runners-up behind Chelsea at the end of 1988-9, so the Tigers, who finished fourth bottom yet were never in relegation danger, could at least say that the best two sides in the division had been beaten at Boothferry Park. The victory against Manchester City was, however, a quite extraordinary miscarriage of justice which we happily took as the deflated bananas were strewn all over North Road and Askew Avenue afterwards by Mancunians feeling hard done by.

There would be nobody dressed in amber complaining if something similar occurred today, even if the bottom has fallen out of the blow-up banana industry.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Go go Mouyokolo

The last two matches have given us the first real insight into why Hull City signed Steven Mouyokolo.

The youthful French centre back was a January signing last year but only joined in the summer and has been denied a run of games in his favoured position thanks entirely to the presence of more experienced defenders ahead of him.

He was at least fourth in the pecking order for a central defensive role upon joining, then the departure of Michael Turner elevated him to third. Now an injury to the in-form Kamil Zayatte has offered him his chance - and he has really taken it.

The defence was in slipshod form against Wolves last weekend, with Anthony Gardner resembling a rail accident and the two full backs struggling with positional and distributive issues, but Mouyokolo was a calm, unspectacular and imposing presence, without being absolutely awesome.

But against Chelsea he really raised the bar and, but for the eyecatching displays in midfield by George Boateng and Tom Cairney, would have been praised much more than he actually was. His total domination in the air against an uncompromisingly strong centre forward was galvanised by his coolness in possession and, of course, his potency when getting on the end of set-pieces, earning his first goal for the Tigers in the process.

Mouyokolo's previous involvement had been as a makeshift right back at the start of the season, a necessary repositioning as it was in the black hole period between Sam Ricketts' sale and Paul McShane's arrival, but although rarely embarrassed it was clear he didn't have the athleticism and experience to play there. A 19 year old central defender, new to the country and to the Premier League, debuting at right back against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, was quite a requirement. He succeeded in part, in that he was not a square peg but also never looked like it was there for him to keep.

Zayatte is a cult hero and a fine footballer, and nobody except Mouyokolo himself would have been surprised or disappointed if the Guinean madman had reclaimed his defensive role against Chelsea in midweek, having recovered from the injury that robbed him of his place against Wolves. But Mouyokolo played, played superbly, and has given the fans their first real shot of belief in the ability of a player about whom they still know very little. When Manchester City turn up tomorrow, expect him to play again, and for the Tiger Nation to find out a bit more.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

24: Hull City 1 - 1 Chelsea - 02/04/2010

Don't let irked Chelsea fans claim they were robbed or that it was two points dropped. Hull City were absolutely magnificent and deserved the point, maybe even the full haul.

Raising their game for the raised sense of occasion, the Tigers fought like wild animals for every ball but also matched and often surpassed their illiustrious opponents for pace, skill and passing sequences. At times, the possession and retention of the ball was truly mesmerising.

There were heroes everywhere. It was hard not to notice the gutbusting display from George Boateng, whose brand of fiery midfield play was galvanised by a rare subtlety on the ball and a willingness to set up or join attacks. That he played so well, for the full 90 minutes, having done the full shift against Wolves three days before, made Boateng's achievements all the more laudable.

Another hero was Tom Cairney, who followed up his Premier League debut at the weekend with a display of energy and craft, never missing a ball and never being even momentarily afraid to take on the men facing this teenage lad. He looked like he had been playing forever and the long wait for this incredibly gifted boy to become a proper first teamer is over. He's now first choice.

And there needs to be praise aimed Jozy Altidore's way too. The American striker still hasn't scored but it almost doesn't matter any more for the way he has adapted to the English game, using his bulk and his enthusiasm to scare and bully defenders and a certain beleaguered England captain had all sorts of trouble coping with him, even resorting to a foul in the second half that led to a yellow card that John Terry's tormentors in the crowd celebrated like a goal.

The rest of the side gave their all, some with more reward than others, and Stephen Hunt certainly enjoyed the occasion against the club that hates him the most. The Irishman, whose continued employment by the Tigers remains a great joy after the pressure of the transfer window, had a ball in the first half with his usual mixture of nippy runs and chippy words, even staring out the indignant travelling contingent at one point as if offering them all out.

Phil Brown made just one change, choosing to restore Craig Fagan to the team, though as a wide man instead of down the centre, withdrawing Bernard Mendy to the bench. There seemed little need or motivation to make changes elsewhere, although Kamil Zayatte's return was mooted even though the popular Guinean defender had to be content alongside Mendy in the dugout.

The atmosphere was white hot even though the temperatures were stone cold. The presence of Terry and all that currently comes with him allowed the maturity threshold of City's more vocal element to lower itself even more than normal, with the opposing skipper treated to boos each time he touched the ball as well as some songs that varied between the witty and the downright unkind.

Early pressure was City's. Hunt swung in an early corner which Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink climbed to reach, forcing another corner on the opposite side which Hunt also took and Steven Mouyokolo's flick caused havoc before Ricardo Carvalho hacked clear. Hunt was central to everything, more up for it than ever, and soon won a free kick which he hammered in low and just missed the swinging boot of Fagan before Chelsea again cleared their lines.

The visitors scored after three minutes with a ludicrously brilliant chip by Frank Lampard when they visited the KC last season. This time round, Lampard's early effort from range did not resemble last year's, battering in a swerving shot which Boaz Myhill could only slap down to the floor into the path of Nicolas Anelka, who miskicked the rebound.

Chelsea then forced a free kick which City dealt with well to the extent that Hunt was able to break away down the unfamiliar right flank, cutting inside and hitting a shot that flew some way wide. Chelsea responded with a curling Branislav Ivanovic cross that Michael Ballack met with a totally free diving header, but aimed it straight at Myhill.

The deadlock was then broken. Hunt again was the architect, winning a free kick on the left edge of the box courtesy of a Deco foul for which the Portuguese international was booked. Hunt forced a corner with a swerving delivery, which he then took himself. Mouyokolo did the rest with a thundering unmarked header, and the noise from around the ground exploded.

City settled on this goal and began to play some divine football. Cairney and Hunt were at the helm, with Boateng supporting well and Altidore running his blood to water. Fagan and Vennegoor of Hesselink were willing participants with less success and the defence threw their bodies into everything, with Andy Dawson and Paul McShane always willing to overlap. It was splendid, remarkable to watch.

Anelka had a low shot from distance which Myhill held at his near post and then the City custodian watched a Deco shot well as it bounced awkwardly in front of him. Florent Malouda then hit a vicious shot from an angle which Anthony Gardner deflected out for a corner. The pressure was increasing from Chelsea but City were, thus far, coping.

Then Anelka went down on the edge of the box, but still delivered the ball inside for Lampard to chase, but referee Mark Clattenburg gave the delayed free kick when Lampard couldn't convert the chance. Dider Drogba, quiet and arrogant throughout the first half, stepped up and swept the free kick in a carbon copy of the one he stuck away at Stamford Bridge on the opening day.

City players protested, possibly because they thought an indirect kick had been given and Drogba's effort flicked nobody on its way past Myhill. Later there was a suggestion that Drogba had taken the kick before the referee's whistle had sounded. The pleas fell on deaf ears and it was all square.

Two minutes were added on and City should have scored again as the injury time ticked by. Another free kick was won, Cairney curled in a killer ball and Gardner, entirely unmarked, headed over. It was an amazing miss. Yet the applause for a marvellous first half display wasn't curtailed or annulled, and nor should it have been. City were the better side and though pulled back to 1-1, deserved to be ahead.

The first notable moment after the break involved Altidore bustling an off-balance Terry away from the ball and being grabbed by the ankles for his trouble. The yellow card was inevitable, deserved and celebrated beyond any context. From the Hunt free kick, Altidore won a back header but aimed it right at Petr Cech.

Cairney, having confidence that belied his years by some margin, exchanged passes with Altidore before belting a shot over the bar and then the American dwelled too long on the ball after a good counter attack by the Tigers and had it stolen before he could get his shot set up.

Chelsea began to re-assert themselves, and Drogba gave Malouda a shooting chance which aimed low for Myhill's near post and City's keeper got down to save well. The same two players then faced one another again and Myhill once more came out on top, palming away Malouda's header with admirable reflexes before getting to Terry's follow-up.

Brown shook up the front line, removing Vennegoor of Hesselink and slinging on the broad-shouldered Amr Zaki who proceeded to combine brute force with great pace to scare Chelsea's defence for the rest of the match. The Egyptian created a chance quickly for Fagan with a fine run and cross, but Fagan was crowded out before he could make up his mind.

City then won a corner through Fagan's persistence and in a re-run of the first half goal, Hunt swung in the kick and Mouyokolo met it with the meat of his forehead. The similarity ended there as the ball flew wide.

Drogba beat Myhill in the air to get to sub Joe Cole's cross but hit the top of the net, then Ashley Cole - also on as a sub - broke in typicla style in the box after getting free of Boateng but saw his cross deflected away by Mouyokolo. Terry headed Malouda's corner over.

Brown made two more changes, withdrawing the workhorse Altidore for the calming presence and cult status of Kevin Kilbane in midfield and then putting Zayatte into action after McShane took an elbow from Drogba - who was booked - and couldn't immediately stem the flow of blood.

It was gripping, nerveracking stuff as four minutes of added time were signalled, but Chelsea only had one final chance to win it as they piled it on thick. Daniel Sturridge, their third sub, hit a brilliant instant shlot from a distant anle which Myhill leapt across to tip away. It was the save of the night and it preserved a point signalled shortly afterwards by the final whistle, and celebrated with the sort of roar associated with a win.

What a superb point, and yet the gluttonous would say, correctly, that it could have been three. However, it would have been zero in any right-thinking person's opinion before the game and so it deserves to be marked down as a huge point for the Tigers. Chelsea had a swagger but no spirit and City exploited that. The wider media will say it was down to complacency and factions that Chelsea didn't win, but the main reason they didn't win was because their opponents were just marvellous.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane (Zayatte 90), Dawson, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Boateng, Fagan, Cairney, Hunt, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Zaki 66), Altidore (Kilbane 85). Subs not used: Duke, Mendy, Barmby, Geovanni.
Chelsea: Cech, Ivanovic, Zhirkov (A Cole 81), Carvalho, Terry, Deco, Lampard, Ballack (J Cole 71), Malouda, Anelka (Sturridge 81), Drogba. Subs not used: Turnbull, Alex, Ferreira, Kalou.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Ditching the dead wood

Peter Halmosi, Tony Warner and Daniel Cousin have left Hull City at last.

Well, not quite. Warner has been paid off - exactly why the Tigers needed a senior goalkeeper as third choice when a cheap and promising teenager would do is anyone's guess - but the spectre of Halmosi and Cousin will still hang around for a bit as they have merely left on loan.

Halmosi has gone back to his native Hungary and Cousin has gone to Greece. Just what percentage of their mighty wages will still be funded by the Tigers is not to be publicly consumed, but one can imagine that neither club involved - Szombathelyi Haladás and Larissa respectively - have the sort of riches that can be thrown at their new arrivals. One would assume that they would have offered City and the players permanent deals if so.

Still, if the bill has been reduced even by a small amount for these two it's a start, and added to Warner's departure and those of Bryan Hughes and Nathan Doyle over the last two weeks, it has trimmed the squad by the sort of significance Adam Pearson will have had in mind. One would hope that Halmosi and Cousin get a taste for playing football for money, as opposed to watching their teammates for money, and ask to be released in the summer. The only outcast still hanging around is Caleb Folan and, without wishing to appear cruel, it doesn't come as a surprise that nobody wanted him.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Hunt is over

A few hours still remain of the transfer window, but the main worry about Stephen Hunt making a last-ditch defection to Wolves seems to have been eased.

A verbal £5 million bid was made by Wolves this morning and Adam Pearson has rejected it. Phil Brown said on Saturday that the fans would "go crazy" if the club sold its best performer of the season to an immediate relegation rival and so with words from one man and actions from another, we can put this sorry business to bed.

Of course, those whose heads rule their hearts will ask questions about how the Tigers can afford to turn down such a substantial sum when the debts are as they are. Pearson is, however, never prone to letting his heart get in the way of common sense. He has gone through the books with a fine toothcomb, issued legal papers to Paul Duffen and worked his abacus to within an inch of its frame. And if he says we can afford to keep Hunt then that is the case.

Brown helped matters by making his comment after Saturday's game - in which Hunt played unusually poorly, leading to unhelpful remarks about his head already being with the day's opponents - and in getting the fans involved, may have pushed Pearson into a decision the chairman was already set to make. If only he had done that in August when Michael Turner's future was in the balance. It might not have stopped Duffen from flogging him, but it would have saved Brown a lot of face and suspicion as the truth of City's finances began to unravel over the next two months.

It is proof, if we ever needed more, that the manager's attitude reflects the regime he works for. Duffen was about secrecy and treated supporters as pure customers, so Brown followed suit with cloak and dagger comments or no comments at all. Pearson's desire to make the supporters the focal point of club policy and general transparency has been taken on by Brown, if this comment about Hunt is admissible as evidence. Either way, Brown is obeying orders and taking the lead from the person employing him. That we see this happen within a rebuttal for Wolves, meaning Hunt will be playing against Chelsea tomorrow night, is a nice bonus.

Of course, Peter Halmosi is available for transfer and the Tigers are absolutely desperate to get rid. So if Wolves want a shaggy-haired international left-sided player, then maybe we can assist after all. Hurry along now Mick, you've only got three hours...