Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The central problem

So, who is to play alongside Steven Mouyokolo at centre back on Saturday?

We're not exactly blessed with a list of mobile candidates. Anthony Gardner and Kamil Zayatte are a little way off recovering from their injuries yet. Ibrahima Sonko, back impressively from the cold against Fulham, is ineligible as we are playing his parent club.

So it's either a specialist rookie or one of two players who can fill in an emergency but prefer to play wider.

The rookie is Liam Cooper, whose two Premier League games so far have been against Liverpool (which he started) and Arsenal and he has not let himself down on either occasion, with his 40 minutes or so as Zayatte's replacement against the Gunners nearly three weeks ago showing enormous promise. But he has been injured and though likely to be fit, it's a big ask to throw him straight into the team without much in the way of sharpness or match practice.

But at least he is a specialist centre back. The alternatives are Paul McShane, currently testing many a patience at right back, and Kevin Kilbane, who has tested many a patience since the day he walked through the door more than a year ago, irrespective of where he plays.

McShane has a history of playing in the centre of defence and is movable due to Bernard Mendy's recovery from illness, but the Irishman didn't cover himself in glory when thrown into the central role at Portsmouth nearly a fortnight ago.

Kilbane, meanwhile, has played his best games for City when plunged into the role of emergency cover in the middle, but with Andy Dawson only 50-50 to return, there will be literally nobody suitable to play on the left of defence if he is shuffled inside and so his worth to the team may be required elsewhere.

In order then, the preference would be: a fit Cooper, and then a dispensable Kilbane, with McShane wandering in last resort territory. One wonders if Seyi Olofinjana can play in defence but that is an assumption based purely on his build, and not on any evidence of well-timed tackles, incisive reading of the game and instinctive mastering of an offside trap.

If Cooper is fit, then his time has properly come. Stoke City are a mean bunch with real strength and force up front and if Cooper is going to come of age as a Premier League defender, he needs to face such brutish strikers as much as he does those who rely on twinkly skills and sheer pace, as he did against Liverpool and Arsenal.

While there is an immediate defensive worry, Sonko's eligibility will cure the headache the moment the game at the Britannia Stadium is over, assuming no new crises emerge from it. However, the main conclusion we reach, irrespective of who does get the nod, is that Mouyokolo will be as vital as ever. At least our one properly fit and available central defender is on real form.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

He's bang on the Marney

It remains as fashionable in Hull as Henley T-shirts and holey jeans to scorn Dean Marney. Yet three games into his latest unheralded comeback, the hardworking midfielder could now become a crucial component of a relegation-threatened team.

The problem that Marney has always had since arriving in the summer of 2006 is that he doesn't live up to expectations. He was a successful graduate of the productive academy at Tottenham Hotspur and had scored a particularly famous goal against Everton which was dug out on YouTube over and over again by City fans from the moment he signed. But he has never been that player at the KC Stadium.

But he has something. More myopic members of the Tiger Nation see little in him. More rounded members of the same club notice at the very least his workrate - which has always been tremendous, irrespective of his or the team's form - whereas a sizeable handful also notice his inability to hide. There is a confidence issue with Marney but at least his way of trying to gain in confidence is to stay in the bearpit and keep trying, rather than hide away and look for a hug behind closed doors.

Of the current 20 or so players in regular contention for a place, Marney is, along with Richard Garcia, the least well regarded. Yet these two will remain solid performers when the chips are down for far longer than some of their gifted, higher-paid colleagues. They have both become emotionally attached to a club that gave them a new route into the Premier League when their nurturing clubs - Garcia was from the even more renowned West Ham United academy - decided they couldn't quite cut it. City made them into Premier League players again and, having lost that status once in their formative years, they don't fancy losing it again.

Marney's long cross for Craig Fagan to score the second goal against Fulham was described as a "peach" by a couple of Sunday hacks and was praised by television pundits. Yet the consensus of the less forgiving standing arms folded at the back of each home stand gave Marney little credit for vision or execution. Essentially, it was a fluke. This does Marney a disservice, especially as his confidence at having such an active assist in such a mightily crucial goal should, given the sort of player he is, help him develop his game further just when City need players with heart and belief to lead the charge out of the bottom three.

Lest we forget that three Hull City managers have now selected and praised Marney, while a further gaffer of even more reputation - the one beaten by City at the weekend - was rumoured to be interested in the player during the January window. That Marney didn't go to Fulham and play for Roy Hodgson was neither here nor there; the point was that a genuine connoisseur of football with a thirst and knowledge almost unmatchable among his peers saw the good in a player that the Tiger Nation has at best undervalued, at worst really disliked, during his time with the club. But when the final knockings on this season sound, Marney is one of those who'll still be working, still trying, still showing the desire to be part of the Premier League scenery, repaying the club that lay before him his path back into the big time. For this, he should be afforded proper credit.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cairney kick it? Now he can

Tom Cairney's daft contract problem is solved, and the supremely gifted youngster has signed his new deal.

It's a relief, and the previous couple of weeks of wrangling seem to have been little more than a waste of time for everyone concerned. But hopefully now Cairney has learned that he has to be advised for his own benefit, and not for that of his advisors. Agents will get their cut anyway, but the good ones make sure the best deal remains that for the player.

Cairney was dropped from the squad for the Arsenal game after an unlicensed advisor, believed to be the teenager's solicitor, got involved in the deal. Cairney was in the first team and had just scored his first Premier League goal but was, because of this unscrupulous individual, unable to negotiate directly to the club under FA rules.

Adam Pearson, unsurprisingly miffed by this, refused the demands and went public to embarrass the advisor, who was ultimately trying to benefit himself, into backing down, and Cairney was dropped from the team, missing the chance to play against Arsenal and impress a wider audience.

Cairney can be absolved of personal responsibility here. It's fair to suppose that he didn't necessarily try to use this unlicensed advisor to try to make the pips of the club squeak, but just because he was naive. There had evidently been some clearing of the air last week as he was on the bench at Portsmouth, although he didn't get on the pitch.

It's a shame that it ever happened, even if the outcome is now satisfactory for all concerned. Cairney, after all, has lost his place in the side, a place that this blog and many other sources were claiming he deserved long before Phil Brown finally gave him his Premier League bow. Under the new manager, he will have to work doubly hard to get it back and prove he is worth the money he is currently on, never mind the money someone with their own agenda tried to claim he should be on.

Cairney is contracted now until 2013. If he maintains the progress he has been making at a similar rate, those bigger wages will eventually be his anyway. It's up to him, not any wideboy third party, and it has to remain only up to him. Meanwhile, it's fantastic news for the club that Cairney has joined Liam Cooper in signing up. Given our utter failure to bring good enough players through the ranks and make them into proper first team performer over the last decade and more, it's about time. Short term issues remain questionable but, in the long term, the future is bright.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

It's all work work work

Fulham are the visitors to the KC Stadium this weekend, and the main hope that the Tiger Nation will harbour towards gaining a crucial three points is that our opponents will be completely shattered.

Their squad isn't big and they have made laudable progress in both the Europa League and the FA Cup this season while also maintaining the status quo within the Premier League. But they have a daunting FA Cup replay - ie, a preventable game - against Tottenham Hotspur tonight, and the point may just be round the corner where the fatigue finally hits.

This means that Iain Dowie's team changes - and there has to be some - need to emphasise the contribution of workhorses in the squad. The likes of Dean Marney, who is already back in the side, plus Seyi Olofinjana, Jozy Altidore and even Geovanni, who had become much more of a team player this season than he ever could have been last, need to be involved.

All players should work hard, of course, and sheer graft means nothing if you have little inkling of the correct way to kick the ball, but if playing against an overachieving team based on togetherness rather than size, then you have to try to peck them into submission. Give them no time on the ball, no space to play about, no moments of recuperation.

City beat Fulham on the opening day of last season to create club history. This weekend they need to repeat that feat to try to maintain some club history. As good as Fulham are, they are showing that fortunes in glitzy European competitions can be detrimental to the weekly bread and butter stuff. City have no such excuse, and every such reason to prove it.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Folan victim

So, just how ungrateful is the supporter who dares criticise Caleb Folan even after the striker bagged two goals at Portsmouth on Saturday?

Well, perhaps a little. And some supporters criticise without reason. Method to go with the madness does not exist in their world. Folan is who he is and that remains enough.

Yet the laconic centre forward deserves it. His two-goal salvo is rendered less laudable by City's inability to then see out the game safely (not that Folan is to blame for that) and also for the great number of things Folan simply didn't do correctly set against the two things he did get right.

There is a broken record at work here, but Folan simply will never be a good enough centre forward at Premier League level until he can fathom how to stay onside. Six months in the wilderness has done him no good, and maybe it was thinking way beyond the wishful that Phil Brown had told him when he returned from his loan at Middlesbrough to put his feet up and watch endless DVDs that spoonfeed the workings of the offside trap to players who simply cannot decipher what it is.

Someone somewhere will have kept count of the occasions when Folan was caught beyond the last defender. It occurred two, three, maybe four times too many and a better striker would have seen the majority of Folan's peccadilloes as preventable. There was one occasion when Richard Garcia waited and waited and waited on a counter attack for Folan to get into position, and still the flag went up when the Aussie could bear the suspense no longer and released the ball. It helps Folan in no way at all that he habitually berates the deliverer of the ball each time he is caught by the linesman, even though only Folan himself is to blame.

Folan hadn't changed much at Portsmouth, despite the goals. He is still a preener on the pitch. He still doesn't run anywhere near as much as he could. His touch is good but his awareness of what is around him and general football sense is poor.

And yes, he scored twice. The generous would say this means he deserves a break from the criticism. Well, the first goal he knew barely a thing about, while the second was as much down to a defensive stumble as anything else, though he did finish it well. He didn't help himself, however, with a strange, egotistical celebration which was easily forgotten during the Tiger Nation's own capering of glee but then instantly recalled when the final whistle sounded on the 3-2 defeat.

The worst thing of all is that Iain Dowie, a confirmed Folan fan, will now argue with some justification that Folan deserves to keep his place in the team, even though he only received his fast-track to the starting XI when two other strikers succumbed to injury the day before. Folan may have a history of scoring against Fulham at the KC Stadium, but even so there is little to feel but horror at the prospect of City trying to stay up while relying on Folan to lead the line. Those two goals are nought but a smokescreen, and if that makes us ungrateful, so be it.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

30: Portsmouth 3 - 2 Hull City - 20/03/2010

This one hurt like no other. To be a goal up with two minutes of normal time on the watch and still lose the game tells you everything you need to know about the heart, stomach and attitude of the Hull City first team squad.

Iain Dowie has so much work to do. His reputation suggests he is a noted disciplinarian; it is evident that this trait is one he is going to need to exercise on his inheritance substantially over the coming days and weeks. The players were disjointed, unmotivated and, with a notable exception or two, uncaring. And still they contrived to get within breathing distance of a first away win for more than a year.

Dowie picked Paul McShane to fill the Kamil Zayatte-sized gap in defence, and put Kevin Kilbane in midfield for the suspended George Boateng. Andy Dawson wore the captain's armband, while the bizarre sight of Caleb Folan back in the side took some getting used to.

Caleb Folan!

The laconic, preening, non-scoring centre forward who would be a half-decent player if he ever managed to master the offside laws. Only half-decent, mind. A facility to time his runs would only make up a fraction of the shortcomings he has as far as being a Premier League performer is concerned. And yet there he is, in the front line.

A new manager always has new ideas and it isn't unusual for a player frozen out under the previous regime to suddenly receive a lifeline from the following one. Ibrahima Sonko was the one we wondered about, especially given the defensive shortage and inexperience in the squad. Sonko, for which we can be grateful, was nowhere near Dowie's thinking, in the end. But Folan? It never occurred for a moment to anyone that he might be involved. He hadn't been seen for weeks, since returning from his spectacularly uneventful loan at Middlesbrough with an injury. But in hindsight, it made sense. Well, it did to Dowie, anyway. He had tried to sign him when he was manager at QPR. We, correctly at the time, said no.

So, with Folan playing alongside Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink up top, hopes weren't high. A double-edged consolation came through that Jozy Altidore was injured, so at least the skilled American hadn't been dropped for the lumbering Folan on a quality issue. And those hopes weren't exactly reaching for the clouds even before the Folan bombshell dropped. But City took to the field with the support of a whopping 1,100 travelling fans and began the brighter in a turgid game.

Vennegoor of Hesselink aimed a strong header just wide from a Kilbane cross as City created the first chance, but Portsmouth then settled in, with nothing to lose, and Marc Wilson put a free kick inches adrift of Boaz Myhill's post and then Quincy Owusu-Abeyie hit a shot straight at McShane. Steven Mouyokolo then similarly got in the road of Tommy Smith's after a rapid Portsmouth counter attack.

City regrouped a touch and Jimmy Bullard twice aimed curlers wide, the second of which took a slight deflection. From the consequent corner, the ball was cleared to Craig Fagan and his low goalbound volley was touched in, more by accident than design, by Folan.

So Folan had scored. Via a fluke, and without remotely justifying his sudden rebirth as a bonafide Hull City performer at this level, but he had scored. And City were winning. Away from home. It was a feeling seldom experienced and one the Tiger Nation was happy to exploit.

It didn't last long though. David James was booked for handball outside his area - a momentum handball via the slippery pitch, as opposed to a calculated act of cheating - and then Portsmouth charged upfield. Jamie O'Hara crossed for Smith whose chance was barricaded away by McShane, but defending of the corner was lame, to say the least, as no flick or clearance was offered and allowed Smith to pounce on the ball inside the six yard box and poke in.

City made one more chance before the break, with Bullard and Vennegoor of Hesselink showing tidy touches to give Dean Marney shooting room, and the drive was only a foot or so wide. The second half started in this manner, with Fagan battering a shot from distance just over and Vennegoor of Hesselink stretching, stretching, stretching that long frame of his but still not able to get on the end of Kilbane's driven cross.

McShane got in the way of a Smith shot on the counter attack before Dowie bit the bullet and slung a substitute on. The wrong sub for the wrong player, it seemed, as Nick Barmby's brand of low gravity immobilty was preferred to Vennegoor of Hesselink's brand of high gravity immobility. The Dutchman should have stayed on, or at the very least been replaced by Geovanni. Everyone was expecting Folan, by now reverting to type by being offside a lot and then blaming team-mates for it, to be the player hauled away. But he stayed on. And then he scored. Properly this time, too.

Richard Garcia had also been introduced for the injured Dawson - Kilbane dropped back as part of the shuffle - and the Australian exchanged a gorgeous sequence of balls with Bullard to feed Folan who got a break from a defensive stumble and steered a scruffy but well-angled shot beyond the advancing James to give the Tigers the lead with 17 minutes left.

Gulp. A win away from home was now really possible. City didn't try to increase the lead, but crucially also didn't try to nullify the inevitable Portsmouth backlash. It was luck and Portsmouth's own inadequacies that maintained the situation until Bullard gave away a free kick on the edge of the box - and we did this a lot, which Dowie bemoaned correctly - and O'Hara, a sublime footballer, curled an immaculate, scrummy shot around the wall and beyond a well beaten Myhill.

Instantly, City fell to bits. From the restart, Garcia received the ball deep on his own flank and tried to find Mouyokolo inside him but lost possession to a rampaging Nadir Belhadj, who galloped to the line and pulled the ball back for sub Kanu to finish with ease.

We would say it was unbelievable, but the heart-wrenching truth of the matter is that it was entirely believable. Not for Portsmouth to win 3-2 from 2-1 down in the 88th minute, but for City to lose 3-2 from 2-1 up in the 88th minute. Oh, that's quite believable.

Five minutes were added and City had nothing left. None of us did.

Given that we don't have any away form at all, it perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that we lost, and even that we lost from a gilt-edged winning position. There are home games ahead against Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland that could be the true shaper of our fate, but now we have to win them and make up five points on teams above us in doing so. A tall order indeed. And with the current lax attitude within the squad, not one anybody can feel confidence about.

Dowie will have learnt much about his squad after this game. Hopefully part of it is deciding exactly which of them are actually bothered at all about keepin our club afloat. By the time Fulham come to the KC next week, we'll know much more about what he knows.

Portsmouth: James, Rocha (Basinas 84), Hreidarsson, Belhadj, Mokoena (Kanu 57), O'Hara, Mullins, Owusu-Abeyie (Webber 82), Wilson, Piquionne, Smith. Subs not used: Ashdown, Finnan, Diop, Brown.
Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson (Garcia 70), Mouyokolo, McShane, Marney, Bullard, Kilbane, Fagan, Folan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Barmby 66). Subs not used: Duke, Cooper, Olofinjana, Cairney, Geovanni.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Super Cooper

In a pivotal week for Hull City, a piece of positive news is that Liam Cooper has signed a new three-year contract with the club. For Cooper himself, an eventful week could end even more positively with a place in Iain Dowie's first starting line up.

Cooper is a teenager and all members of the Tiger Nation should remember that. But there is also no doubt that he fits that adage of an old head on young shoulders. Anyone who witnessed his performance in the last 40 minutes of the game against Arsenal last weekend - and this includes a paying television audience, as well as those present - will have seen a fearless, uncompromising young defender at work.

Of course, as Arsenal took the points and the headlines, and will have been the focus of attention during the game, Cooper's escapades will have been largely secondary to some of the other achievements on the pitch. Arsenal winning in the last minute is a story; Arsenal not winning in the last minute is also a story. For the Tiger Nation gutted by the 93rd minute winner, a small but absolute consolation was Cooper's display.

On as a 55th minute substitute for the injured Kamil Zayatte, Cooper proceeded to throw himself into every challenge as if his young career depended on it. He won balls cleanly, shepherded Arsenal runs away effectively, headed away higher crosses dominantly and then, showcasing probably the hardest part of the defensive art, read the game deliciously. The way he anticipated a Theo Walcott run before Walcott himself and duly nicked the slide rule ball off the England winger's toes was defensive perfection on a par with Andy Dawson's tackle on the same player a season before.

Cooper's inexperience is the one thing that Dowie will consider as a negative prior to picking his defence for Portsmouth tomorrow. It is a fair point, as with Zayatte joining Anthony Gardner on the injured list, our first choice central defensive pairing seems, at face value, to be 20 year old Steven Mouyokolo and 18 year old Cooper. There would be no complaint at beefing up the gravitas in that defence should Dowie choose to do so, though Kevin Kilbane is the only viable option as surely Ibrahima Sonko remains unplayable, even through a new gaffer's eyes.

Mouyokolo is a shoo-in and, in all honesty, Cooper has every right to claim to be likewise. Yet whether he plays or not, a performance like the one against Arsenal and a new three-year deal straight afterwards makes it a good week for the player all round. It would end very nicely for him if Dowie, having watched the game against Arsenal, puts an arm on his shoulder and tells him he's in the team. The attitude he showed against the Gunners is precisely the sort Dowie needs from the players as a whole if we're going to escape the drop.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Our new leader

So, it's Iain Dowie. An underwhelming appointment to most, but then again despite Premier League status, we're still Hull City and the biggest out-of-work names (ie, Mark Hughes and Alan Curbishley) will not be interested in us.

It's hard to accept that sometimes, but it really is that simple.

As for Dowie himself, he is immediately being knocked by less cerebral elements within the Tiger Nation, but more for what he isn't, rather than what he is. A closer look at his managerial record suggests it is a fair one. His life in the top tier isn't fantastic, but he is a thinker and a learner who surely will take the harsh lessons of seeing Crystal Palace narrowly relegated under his stewardship and use them to the Tigers' benefit.

Dowie has everything going for him over the next nine matches, which is all he has signed up for thus far. More than that, he has everything going for him as far as this Saturday's trip to Portsmouth is concerned. The players, not all of whom were enamoured with Phil Brown, will enjoy the new direction and fresh faces on the training ground and Portsmouth themselves have had their relegation sealed via the nine-point deduction on the same day as Dowie's arrival. Therefore, he could be preparing a buoyant team to take on one with a sense of wonder at what the point of it all is. It's all about the timing.

It's very sad to see Brian Horton, twice over a Tigers icon now, leave the club as part of Dowie's arrival but, like Brown, he will be regarded as a legend of Hull City for as long as the club is with us. Yet the club is that which matters most, and so Dowie is our man. He deserves everyone's support.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Ten of the best

These are the ten best players signed by Phil Brown during his three and a half years at the helm of Hull City. They are in order of impact and success, not necessarily on out-and-out ability...

1 - Dean Windass
It says a lot when Brown's most successful signing was one who earned Premier League status for the club rather than one who contributed to it in any tangible way once it had been achieved. Already with goodwill on his side from being the best footballer in Tigers colours through the bleak 1990s, Windass returned in January 2007, scored the requisite goals to keep City in the Championship, and then carried on his stirring form up to and including his immortal volley at Wembley. His lack of class off the pitch and ability on it once in the top flight does little to nullify his effect. Brown's decision to sign him was shrewd; his decision to jettison him once the Wembley champagne had flattened was shrewder.

2 - Fraizer Campbell
It would be easy to declare Campbell ineligible for such a rundown, given that he was never actually ours. But his acquisition on loan from Manchester United proved to be the final, key component of Brown's team for the top, and we had never seen a player who could combine sheer pace and elegant touch with such prowess in front of goal. Oddly, like Windass, perhaps Campbell suffered for promotion as he went back to Old Trafford with his reputation enhanced, then went on loan to Tottenham Hotspur, and finally joined Sunderland, and had patently failed to have any effect as a Premier League player at any. City's almost obsequious efforts to court him - twice, without luck - may have turned out right for the Tigers after all, and Campbell's own part in keeping the Tigers guessing while waiting for a "bigger name" to snap him up tarnishes his rating with the fans considerably. But he was still a cracking player to have.

3 - Geovanni
As much of an individual as impishly brilliant Brazilians tend to be, Geovanni was a stunning bit of business by Brown as the squad was reshaped for the Premier League adventure. His touch and vision are exemplary but it is his capacity for the unexpected that has elevated him to heroic status within the Tiger Nation, and his goal at Arsenal will, quite simply, never be bettered when combining technical skill with a sense of the occasion. Injury troubles and a worthy attempt to prove more of a team player have calmed down his flamboyance of late, which has been as handy as it has been harmful, and there is hopefully a good deal more from him to come.

4 - Stephen Hunt
Only three quarters of a season at the club and Hunt has already established himself as a first-rate performer. His skill down the left flank is further enhanced by an amusing and very watchable lack of respect for any opponent at all, and his capacity to irritate adversaries has earned him one of those "love to hate" statuses with other sets of fans, aside from the Tiger Nation that exclusively loves him and the Chelsea contingent that solely hates him. He is also very good in front of goal, which has proved particularly useful this season. Easily Brown's best bit of business last summer.

5 - Wayne Brown
The manager, thinking about a plan for promotion, targeted and got an unrelated namesake at Colchester United as the right man to become the experienced, fearless leader at the back that City needed. He was an outstanding, unfussy defender and that we didn't need him once promotion was established a year later was neither here nor there, and the player himself would probably agree. He did the job he was brought in for, did it superbly, picked up his medal and left.

6 - Marlon King
A thousand reservations exist about including the discredited King, but his three months on loan at the start of the Premier League adventure gave us a striker who could both hold the ball up brilliantly and get into goalscoring positions. We didn't have that again for more than a year.

7 - Richard Garcia
A bit-part player of late, though his natural ability on the right flank maintains plenty of supporters, but it's worth remembering just how good Garcia sometimes looked during the promotion season. Able to beat full backs with brains rather than pace, he crossed the ball with accuracy and proved to be an able finisher too, both from close range and distance. His current status as a selfless team player offers numerous clues as to why he has become a notable survivor in recent harder times.

8 - Jimmy Bullard
Too obvious as far as the most gifted player signed by Brown is concerned, and would be so much higher if, clearly, he'd ever been fit for a reasonable period. The half a dozen games he played in the autumn after finally shaking off his knee trouble were some of the most inspiring performances recallable by the Tiger Nation in many years. Now that he's fit again, he could easily be pushing Windass on the list if he continues in his current manner and City stay up.

9 - Kamil Zayatte
As mad as a window when the mood takes, but in the Guinean defender, Brown signed a player who could play football as well as defend like a trojan. He settled in at the end of August 2008 as if he had been around for years, and only the odd injury lay-off has seen his progress falter, despite the odd daft agent-placed rumour of his supposed desire to move on. A brilliant tackler, willing worker and handy going up for set-pieces, the occasional defensive howler has been all that has blotted Zayatte's copybook, and his absence through his new injury will be harshly felt.

10 - Caleb Folan
Scrapes in despite the historic £1 million fee, as since promotion he has contributed almost entirely nothing to the cause except complaining, posing and being caught offside. There remains doubt about whether he was ever worth the money as it took him until December 2008 - four months after joining - before he scored his first goal (albeit the fractured skull on his debut didn't help) but later there were crucial strikes against Stoke, Coventry, Leicester, Colchester and especially a fine winner at West Bromwich Albion which contributed greatly to the promotion effort, and it was his goal that saw off Watford for good in the play-off semi-finals. A good signing for his sense of occasion rather than anything else, as proved by his winning goal against Fulham in City's first ever Premier League match. In the 19 months since that day, he hasn't scored again and remains on the books as an inadequate but harmless bit of nostalgia for the club's rise to the top.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Thank you Phil

I never care in the slightest what supporters of any other clubs think of Phil Brown. And today, the day his dismissal from duty prompts the worse of prejudiced, witless, anonymous opinions from the kind of moron whose football comes purely from armchair and tabloid, I care even less, should that be possible.

The man fulfilled the dreams of a footballing city, one that had suffered generations of underachievement on the pitch and idiots, crooks and incompetents dragging the club down off it. Worthy managers - not to mention a fair measure of deeply unworthy ones - could not get the Tigers into the top flight.

But Brown did. And that is a legacy that will maintain him as a club legend for as long as Hull City is in existence. He is a manager without equal when one examines the rollcall of gaffers that have held the post. Eternal gratitude will always be offered to Cliff Britton, Terry Neill, Colin Appleton, Brian Horton, Warren Joyce Brian Little and Peter Taylor. But none of these are revered. Brown is and always will be.

It's one of the detrimental effects of the internet that you have to read through a swathe of inarticulate, uninformed dross while searching for the good stuff. And yes, I understand the irony of that statement while running a blog that many will find both inarticulate or uninformed. But when Brown's sacking was announced this morning, the reaction of most football supporters I found online was dismally predictable.

The usual stuff was churned out about team talks on the pitch, skin pigment, earpieces, singing on the pitch, the recent kerfuffle in front of Hull's order of the fragrant Women's Institute. Guff, the lot of it. Only the kindlier souls recalled that Brown's three and a half years at the helm consisted of cheating relegation, earning promotion to the top tier for the first time via a debut day at Wembley and then, albeit scruffily, surviving that first Premier League season.

I don't care about his liking for ultraviolet rays or sartorial flaws. It matters not a jot whether he ruined Sloop John B. Just look at those achievements, for heaven's sake.

The incredulity of the occasion at Wembley can be heard now in John Murray's exceptional commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live on that momentous summer day in 2008. He only said "Hull City are in the Premier League", but did so in a tone that wouldn't have been out of place had a girls' under 11 team made the Premier League. The Tigers only had history via meagre longevity, not by achievement. That is, until Brown came along.

The Premier League is a different beast, and there is much to be said, with a touch of hindsight, for the argument that the Tigers wouldn't have made such a compelling, nose-tweaking start to life as a member of the elite had the clubs they overcame been even remotely able to take these upstarts seriously. Arsène Wenger acknowledged a lack of commitment from his team after a daring 4-3-3 formation beat the mighty Gunners 2-1 at the Emirates and shot Brown and his team to worldwide fame and intrigue. It was and remains the most sporting thing Wenger ever said about us, and much has occurred since that win to give him the ammunition too.

Nonetheless, neither Brown nor City could be held responsible for the failings of bigger clubs with eyes off the ball, and so he became the Manager of the Month for September 2008. He was being asked to appear on television, he gave big interviews to broadsheet newspapers, he revelled in the spotlight.

Naturally, the British attitude is to raise someone's standing and then do as much as possible to knock them from it, and Brown's alfresco lecture to the players at Manchester City on Boxing Day 2008 was the moment they had been waiting for. It's a subject matter that has never quite been left alone and, in the usual press manner, only the facts that suit them - City lost 5-1, didn't win again for all bar one of the remaining games - were the ones that were regurgitated again and again as Brown's presence and ego became actively offensive for some people. This blog is duty bound to point out (again) that City were 4-0 down (and therefore drew the second half 1-1) and had lost to Sunderland heavily at home the week before, thereby prompting any rot to set in a lot earlier than Brown's detractors would prefer the public to believe. Enough senior pros have since said, frequently, that their attitude to the manager did not change at all as a consequence of the public admonition and, of course, Jimmy Bullard and co re-enacted it in celebration this season as if to draw a very thick, indelible line through the whole sorry affair. Brown shouldn't have done it, but only for his own sake.

The paucity of wins that followed, carrying over to this season, was enough to make the more pragmatic wing of the Tiger Nation declare that only the special circumstances of Brown's achievements in getting such a backgroundless club into the Premier League was stopping him from being ushered out of work. That was partially true; what was truer was that Brown was untouchable thanks to the blind faith he was receiving from Paul Duffen, a starstruck chairman whose ultra-close friendship with his manager suggested a worrying myopia as to the best future for the club. Duffen's eventual demise in November, notionally self-inflicted but later established as anything but, robbed Brown of a huge ally and forced him, with the return of a focussed and supporter-revered chairman in Adam Pearson, to rethink his methods. Brown's image improved, largely through his non-appearance in the national media beyond the requirements immediately before and after games, and things got better. Yet Pearson's trigger fingers have evidently itched from the moment he returned. He could have sacked Brown when he first arrived; he didn't do so. Each of the next handful of games felt like the last call for Brown but he won against Stoke City, against West Ham United and against Everton. Those three wins, plus a draw at Manchester City, gave him enough of a mandate to, we believed, see out the season.

So, where did it finally go wrong enough for Pearson to act? After all, but for an injury time goalkeeping error that Brown could not prevent nor prepare for, the Tigers would have earned a totally unexpected point against Arsenal. Even the defeat, due to its gallantry, means that the timing still looks odd. Nine games remain but the run-in is not spectacularly difficult compared to some. The only remaining "big four" team looming is Liverpool, and as the last-day fixture that game could well end up a dead rubber anyway. Aston Villa are still due a visit too, although we don't know when, but otherwise home matches against Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland each represent real possibilities for points, and (even allowing for a big fat zero in the away wins column) trips to Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic (less so Stoke City and Birmingham City) offer further hope for at least a share of the spoils. Brown, using the mindset of the team that frustrated Arsenal, could have led his side to those points. That he isn't going to be allowed to do so asks more questions about what Pearson's real motives are.

Brown's reputation is only tarnished superficially by those who believe that it is a crime against football to question the integrity and dress sense of the Arsenal captain, or claim that the notorious team talk was akin to a public guillotining of delicate footballers. It's a results business, and Brown wasn't getting many results but the tightness of the bottom of the Premier League meant he was still capable of becoming a hero for another year in keeping the team up. And, irrespective of whether he managed it or not, his legacy as a manager and his attractiveness to similarly sized clubs is secure.

So maybe it is an off-field issue. And this is where Duffen's unpalatable head is raised again. He resigned publicly but was sacked privately by club owner Russell Bartlett back in the autumn, and was later taken to court by Pearson over club monies that had either gone missing or been misused. Duffen's agreement to an out-of-court settlement established a level of culpability but an FA inquiry remains on the horizon. It is by no means improbable, though one deeply hopes it is a red herring, that Pearson has found evidence of wrongdoing by his manager and has got his retaliation in first prior to the FA's findings and prospective punishment. Every pair of fingers should be crossed that Brown did go for purely footballing reasons. Anything else and that reputation that the Tiger Nation have worked so hard to preserve on his behalf could die right there.

Horton is leading training but Pearson had made it clear that the new manager will be in charge by Thursday morning and will select the team for the game at Portsmouth. The identity of that manager is for another blog posting, although for what it's worth I'd rather keep Horton in charge than give Gary Megson licence to inflict his desperately negative brand of football - and his appalling habit of bawling at his players throughout a match - on City. Still, if it's just about nine matches and no more...

The last thought is to offer Brown great thanks, sincere good wishes and all the luck in the world for getting the inevitable new job. Whoever does appoint him shouldn't worry about his foibles and notice the fine football manager that he is, the one that made this infernally crisis-ridden club's most vivid dreams a wonderful reality. It's a sad day for the Tigers, and for Brown, but the starry era that today's decision brings to an end will be cast as his, all his, only his and forever his.

I hope, as he dared sing to us upon securing Premier League safety ten months ago, that it really is the best trip he's ever been on. It's certainly been ours.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

29: Hull City 1 - 2 Arsenal - 13/03/2010

The ball must have had a vicious swerve or taken a deflection not visible to the naked eyes within the KC Stadium. There must be a reason why Boaz Myhill chose to parry back into the danger zone a less than credible shot that gifted Arsenal an injury time victory they didn't deserve.

He might have been able to catch it. He certainly should have been able to push it sideways, away from obvious and immediate peril. That he chose to just push the ball from Denilson's effort back ahead of him, allowing Nicklas Bendtner a tap-in that released the Gunners from their jail sentence, was as sickening a blow as Hull City could have suffered.

This was as superhuman an effort as any recallable struggle in recent Tigers history. Only the fact that it ended in defeat prevents it from being the greatest ever. City were at 1-1 and had been a man down for the entire second half. The ten remaining players had battled and grappled and fought as Arsenal's cultural machine took a slow but evident stranglehold on the game. Right until the six minutes of added time were announced, there seemed a sense of inevitability that Arsenal would score. And yet that inevitability seemed to pass when the injury time began. So obviously, they put one away.

It could have been such a crucial point. At the most now, we can hope that this astonishing team performance can be replicated in the next three home games as they are winnable encounters against Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland. It fulfils the arcane City fan's adage of typical City that they quite possibly won't, and the Arsenal heroics will be seen as a rise to the big occasion rather than an example of what is required from all remaining games to stay in the Premier League. Teams that can play this well against such a pedigree side shouldn't be relegated. It remains a stark fact, however, that City could still be, and easily so.

Phil Brown
rung the changes and located his guts and brains by reverting to 4-4-2, despite fears over Jimmy Bullard's capacity to operate in such a system just yet. The surprises were still there, with Dean Marney's return from the cold - and a calf injury which few have believed was ever thus - to midfield alongside Bullard and George Boateng, with Tom Cairney missing out. One assumes that the talented youngster's absence from the bench meant he wasn't dropped, but unavailable.

Craig Fagan, with a sense of dread, was also back after his ban and the authentic duo of Jozy Altidore and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink were back up front as they should always be. Andy Dawson was restored to left back after illness and Bernard Mendy was given licence to be dreadful and dreamy in equal measure at right back.

The Tigers started nervously and Arsenal enjoyed sumptuous possession but little damage was done. Altidore was soon ejoying the challenge of facing the experienced but slowing Sol Campbell, and the first battle between the two saw the American shake off and turn the ex-England defender but then scuff his shot wide.

Arsenal can, of course, pass and create at will, with deft touches and a sturdy work ethic to go with a brand of football that just looks like nature at work. When on the receiving end of this it is hard to appreciate but it is quite extraordinary when one's emotions are cleared. The Tigers worked and harassed in the way that lowlier teams have to in such circumstances, but eventually the ballwork was always going to win.

The opening goal came when Emmanuel Eboué and Bacary Sagna swapped passes on the right to give Bendtner room to edge across the area and find Andrey Arshavin. The impish Russian casually nipped between two City defenders to find Myhill in front of him and he happily steered his shot home.

Scripts state that Arsenal will then take control, pass and move to their heart's content and take their opponents entirely for granted. This didn't quite happen. Tellingly, for now and the rest of the season, no heads dropped and City maintained their restricted but visible defiance, and got back into the match.

The equaliser was deserved; it could have brought more City's way than just a goal. Bullard's low ball to the edge of the area was flicked sideways by Marney and Vennegoor of Hesselink had a yard on Campbell, possibly an offside yard at that. The Dutchman crashed to the ground, the penalty was given and Campbell saw yellow. Vennegoor of Hesselink was in a position to focus on goal, thereby it was a clear goalscoring opportunity and so the absence of a red card was a talking point. It didn't take much attention initially however as Bullard had a penalty to take. He thumped it beyond Manuel Almunia's right hand and parity was restored.

The game began to get tasty afterwards. Fagan was being a pest, but in a refreshingly controlled way. Boateng was chasing everything, Altidore was utterly possessed in his desire to show Brown that dropping him in recent weeks was the act of a lamebrain. Arsenal still created but were in a match, and being given a lesson in the other brand of football - the one that claims that hard work and desire to suppress is as worthwhile as pretty passing and vision.

Abou Diaby climed highest to head a Denilson free kick wide, then Sagna overlapped as City appealed for a ball in touch and crossed for Bendtner who was followed by Eboué in being unable due to amber-shirted aggressors, to get a shot in. Arshavin got the last go and sliced it over.

Fagan was fouled on the right and a free kick was awarded, but then Bendtner and Boateng had an altercation that seemed little more than daft handbag stuff, but each were given yellow. This would be significant later.

Arshavin swiped another shot wide and high after being teed up by Eboué who had nutmegged Bullard in making the chance. It was a terrific spectacle and the second half was set to be a pearler. Then just as two added minutes were announced, Boateng went in high on Sagna as each chased a bouncing ball and got his second booking. Unlike at Blackburn Rovers, there will be no grounds for appeal here. He was careless and had to go, and the immediate thought was to get into the dressing room level and wonder how on earth the Tigers were going to deal with being down to ten against this terrific football team.

A half time change in personnel was expected, bearing in mind the presence of spoilers like Kevin Kilbane and Seyi Olofinjana who could do Boateng's admirable job. None was made, interestingly. City were going to restart the game a man light, with two strikers still on the pitch, a midfielder returning to fitness and another severely lacking match practice. Altidore went wider a little more but it seemed to be the only concession. Marney, catcalled at times by the unforgiving Tiger Nation but never hiding as a consequence, shook off the paucity of his own recent involvement in the squad to put in one of his shifts of immense work. It just began to look hopeful, though only just.

Vennegoor of Hesselink headed a Marney cross wide and then Altidore made a fabulous flowing run but chose to release a clearly offside Vennegoor of Hesselink instead of continuing his run and maybe having a dig. City won it back through Kamil Zayatte from Arsenal's clearing free kick and he decided one of his rampaging dashes was in order, but Campbell brought it to an end with a crunching tackle which was fair but extremely hard. Zayatte was stricken, helped from the field, helped back on and then finally collapsed to the extent that he needed a stretcher. Liam Cooper was introduced.

So let's re-assess the situation. City were playing Arsenal with ten men and two 20 year old centre backs who had never before been in partnership. Not exactly a scenario to presume a point was possible. Yet Cooper, along with the excellent Steven Mouyokolo, was immaculate. Beautiful, at times. His reading of the game and ability to be where he needed to be to head or hack away the ball was the action of a special young defender.

City carried on. Altidore broke away from Campbell again and fed Bullard square, and the mercurial midfielder had room to shoot as Arsenal backed away, but aimed the shot a yard too high. Arsenal threw on Theo Walcott, giving Dawson the chance to replicate the exceptional display of the Emirates last season that no member of the Tiger Nation will forget. Walcott was influential and quick and delivered ample dangerous balls but the finishing was wayward from the Gunners, with Arshavin especially profligate.

Bendtner hooked a half chance over before Brown withdrew the flagging Vennegoor of Hesselink and introduced Richard Garcia as City began to adopt pragmatism as a point became a clear possibility. Mendy hurriedly got rid of a Walcott cross from his own six yard box and managed to clear the whole stadium in doing so, before Cooper made a magnificent block at close range from Bendtner who had the goal at his mercy from another Walcott centre.

Walcott tried again, scuffing a shot woefully wide as the squeeze on City's rearguard tightened more. Cooper then got across Walcott before the ball was even played into the England player's run, and took it away from him with a stunning bit of reading of the game. It was impeccable.

Kilbane came on for Altidore as City essentially went 4-5-0. Six minutes were signalled to account for Zayatte's fall and Myhill held a Gael Clichy shot before his heartbreaking flap, maybe with wind assistance or partial vision, or both, put Denilson's shot into Bendtner's gleeful path.

It's as disheartening a defeat as one can remember, following one of the most stirring performances that makes one forgive the bleakness of City's recent showings in the Premier League. That it came so near to a big point and yet ended up so far away could prove crucial in the long term as well as soul-destroying in the short term. City are three points adrift of safety now, simple as. And displays like this against a colossus of the game are unlikely to be repeated against the beatable sides we have still to play - Portsmouth, Burnley, Sunderland, Wigan Athletic. That's the tragic thing.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte (Cooper 55), Mouyokolo, Boateng, Marney, Bullard, Fagan, Altidore (Kilbane 82), Vennegoor of Hesselink (Garcia 73). Subs not used: Duke, Olofinjana, Barmby, Zaki.
Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Clichy, Vermaelen, Campbell, Denilson, Diaby, Eboué (Walcott 65), Nasri (Eduardo 76), Arshavin, Bendtner. Subs not used: Fabianski, Silvestre, Traore, Eastmond, Merida.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Once more for the one up front

If there is a reason to field a 4-5-1 formation against Arsenal tomorrow, it is to keep Jimmy Bullard involved.

The super-skilled midfielder is still returning to fitness after his extraordinary injury problems and needs help and protection in the centre of the park that a 4-4-2, the preferred method of everyone, will not entirely provide.

And, as it's a hiding to nothing game, the Tigers might be able to get away with it. Few people - okay, let's make that nobody at all - would predict that City would get anything against a talented and resurgent Gunners outfit irrespective of formation. So maybe a 4-5-1 might be seen as a damage limitation exercise.

It may limit the damage to Bullard's fitness, but given that a 4-5-1 still got blasted substantially out of Everton's water last week, and further so at West Ham United a fortnight before, would it necessarily limit the damage to the scoreline and the goal difference?

It's a proper quandary.

Certainly one thing that Phil Brown can do to aid the lone striker while also giving Bullard enough assistance is pick natural wide players who can attack and who can really run. This means Bernard Mendy or Kamel Ghilas on the right. However, the doubt remains over the fitness of Stephen Hunt for the other flank, and that leaves few natural choices for the manager. Richard Garcia has the appetite but isn't left-sided; Nick Barmby has the hunger but, again, is not left-sided. It's a tough one, and exposes just how valuable Hunt is when he isn't playing.

Another thing is to pick the right front man. Someone who is mobile, fit, able to control the ball, able to run along the line, selfless and in touch with his team-mates. This narrows it down to just one player - Jozy Altidore.

The 4-5-1 might work, depending on what the most is you can expect from it when Arsenal are the team in town. But the only way Brown will appease the supporters after recent horror shows is to get the right players for this otherwise wretched, negative formation. And hope and pray Bullard can be active in a 4-4-2 by the time we head down to Portsmouth next week.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Amr can't

In very simple terms, Amr Zaki has, thus far, been a disaster.

This specifically applies to the games he has started for Hull City. There have been only two of them, but he should not have been on the pitch for either.

The Egyptian is evidently a skilful and gifted footballer. There is evidence of this on film and we have seen glimpses - meagre glimpses, but glimpses nonetheless - of these attributes when he has taken to the field as a substitute for the Tigers.

But he did not earn his starting place at either West Ham United or Everton and still hasn't earned one as the shape of the side for this weekend's visit of Arsenal to the KC hovers into sight.

Zaki clearly isn't fit yet. To give a semi-fit striker a lone role up front and expect him to scamper around like Craig Fagan, using the wings and irritating defenders, strikes of real stupidity.

He also seems to have a powerful cheating chromosome in his system which he cannot shake off. This needs sorting urgently. Not just because his wild plunges to the deck make him look foolish, but also because he sometimes does it in situations where he may actually be in a good enough position, on the ball, to benefit from staying on his feet. Football fans aren't happy even with people who cheat to their own team's advantage. They're even less happy when that player happens to be rubbish at it.

The biggest problem caused by Zaki's elevation to the side, however, is the effect it will have on Jozy Altidore. The American scored his long-awaited first Premier League goal in the win over Manchester City, and it was a beauty too. He gave their defence a torrid time, scared the wits out of Chelsea's John Terry a few days before, and then got dropped after the ten-man horror show at Blackburn Rovers which left him isolated. Altidore is evidently a confidence player as he continues to get used to his surroundings. All the self-belief instilled in him after recent performances and that goal will have drained from his system the moment Phil Brown told him he was being jettisoned in favour of someone unfit and untried.

Zaki's rise to the team also meant Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink had to give way. The Dutchman is longer in the tooth and will not be mentally affected by being dropped, but there's little doubt he'd have been annoyed by it, especially as he was genuinely blameless at Blackburn owing to his instant withdrawal for tactical reasons the moment the Tigers were reduced to ten.

The proof, dare we need more of it, that the dreaded 4-5-1 doesn't work is evident from two away games that ended 8-1 on aggregate and in which City were just utterly dire. The Arsenal game is a hiding to nothing anyway, but Brown simply has to restore a 4-4-2 with Altidore playing alongside Vennegoor of Hesselink. There is real mileage in the hope that Altidore can give Sol Campbell as rough a time as he gave Terry and those two Manchester City defenders. And with his pace and Vennegoor of Hesselink's aerial strength, there would be two proper targets for Jimmy Bullard to look for.

Zaki, at best, belongs on the bench. Or in the gymnasium, shifting some weight and gaining some real fitness. And someone really needs to tell him that his brand of simulation just makes his club look weak and dishonest. Right now, there is no place for his type of player in our team.

Monday, 8 March 2010

28: Everton 5 - 1 Hull City - 07/03/2010

There has to be a cut-off point in the Premier League when you accept that you are simply not good enough. Hull City have passed that point. Simultaneously, however, they have passed the point where the players know they're not good enough. And that is a worry.

The second half at Goodison Park was a spectacular collapse, and not a jolly one to watch. Everton carved through the Tigers' flimsy rearguard like a knife through melting butter. They barely needed to try. They often didn't, and still succeeded.

Phil Brown needs to have a quiet word with both his team and himself. He reverted to the 4-5-1 system which has failed on so many occasions away from home - the lack of a victory for more than a year now tells its own wretched tale - and while the midfield was blessed with ability going forward, it was spineless in more ways than one when heading in reverse towards its own goal.

Once Brown has had his quiet word with the squad and the mirror, his chairman needs a less quiet word with him. Adam Pearson should, hopefully, be steaming the wallpaper off his manager's office with his anger. The books are improving, the ambition is set out, the estimated figure which will float into the semi-naked City coffers has been publicly revealed. And his manager and team selections look set to ruin it.

It is all the more galling to note that at half time, City were very much in the game. The score was 2-1 but there had been life and presence from the Tigers, including Boaz Myhill's first penalty save since 2006 and a stunning equaliser after Everton's opener had rocked City back on their heels. Everton may well have upped their game in the second half, but in truth they had to after being largely matched all over the pitch.

The last 100 per cent records of the season both went as Stephen Hunt and Andy Dawson succumbed to injury and illness respectively, so a new left hand side was built, with Kevin Kilbane playing behind Nick Barmby. Jimmy Bullard made his much-cheered return to the midfield and Tom Cairney kept his place alongside him. Richard Garcia replaced the suspended Craig Fagan and Kamil Zayatte was a direct alternative to the crocked Anthony Gardner. Multiple changes and, for a bit, proper results.

City had the first chance at a deathly silent Goodison Park - these bigger names really don't feel the need to get excited about playing us - when Bullard chipped a smart ball through the centre for Garcia to chase, and the Australian's attempt at a lob was charged down by a hurrying Tim Howard.

Everton responded with a Mikel Arteta run through the middle that seemed unstoppable until Kilbane got a foot in the way of his final ball. It trundled back to the Spaniard who shot over.

Amr Zaki, a calamitous selection again, made room from a Myhill goalkick but his drive went wide. He duly spent the rest of the game hiding and, when the ball did require him to do some work, diving. Everton again went closer when George Boateng gave the ball away carelessly in the middle and Leon Osman fed Yakubu but the shot touched Myhill's post.

The deadlock was broken soon afterwards when Yakubu worked an opening down the left and crossed long and high for Arteta, arriving late, to guide in a sidefoot volley at the far post with Myhill scrambling across. It was a little bit too easy.

City did respond, however, and Barmby got to a high centre from Boateng but saw Howard charge down his shot. Yet the decent effort from the Tigers looked as though it would be really in vin when a soft penalty was given as Myhill and Zayatte both challenged Yakubu in the six yard box. Yakubu tried to dilly and daly with Myhill but in the end City's custodian guessed correctly, diving low to his right to shove the ball away.

The Tigers were inspired and took ruthless advantage of Everton's shellshock to level up. Paul McShane lifted a high free kick into the box and the headed clearance landed on the chest of Cairney who, from 25 yards out, teed up a scrumptious volley into the far corner for his first Premier League goal. And what a beauty it was too.

Parity didn't last long, mind. Victor Anichebe launched an attack down the right before pulling a lo ball back for Osman. Hearing the shout behind him, he flicked an impertinent backheel into the path of Arteta who beat Myhill with a tidy low shot, placed to perfection. City tried to reply again as Bullard and Boateng swapped passes with Zaki to eventually get Garcia into the box with another late run but the chip was too high. A Kilbane long throw then nearly reached a sniffing Barmby in the area but was hacked clear just in time.

Yet a 2-1 half time score was satisfactory, and so was the City display. There was an opportunity here, a big one too. Everton didn't seem to be in top gear but nonetheless there was something further for the Tigers to contribute too, as if they had rediscovered patience and confidence the moment the influential Bullard was back in the fray.

And so the second half was a shocker.

Concerted pressure from Everton for the whole 45 minutes. City barely squeaked in response. The vibe had gone, the togetherness, the desire. It had been sucked dry from them. Heaven knows what was said or done in the changing room at the break as the players re-emerged as people whose footballing nous and heart had not just gone, but looked like it had barely ever existed.

Substitute Jack Rodwell fired across goal with Everton's first opportunity to extend their lead. Yet when that finally happened, it was down to blundering from the City rearguard that will be remembered in horror for many a long year.

Everton forced a corner, and the ricocheting effect of the ball gave Arteta a run to the byline inside the area. He chipped to the far post where Myhill seemed an obvious claimant, especially as no Evertonian was making ground to get on the end of the bll. The City keeper lost its flight at the last moment and the ball struck an unwitting Garcia square on the head and bounced into the net. As ugly an own goal as you could muster. And now it's 3-1.

Brown withdrew Barmby and Bullard - sensible in the long run, but a premature acknowledgement that the game was over, too - and threw on Geovanni and Jozy Altidore. To say that neither were effective would be an understatement, and the Brazilian looked every inch the unenthralled player back from injury that he was. Such was Everton's confidence at this point that Sylvain Distin made a run from the back and exchanged a one two to give him a clear sight of goal, only for Myhill to save.

Then, a kernel of a chance for City. Cairney swung in a free kick and a large number of heads go up but it is Zayatte's that wins the flick. It went over the bar. The next free kick was so poor from Geovanni that the headed clearance by the first man sent Yakubu in on City's goal after a powerful run, though Myhill was equal to his shot.

The abysmal Zaki was then replaced by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink as both sides carried on strolling. City were strolling through insufficient ability; Everton through not needing to add any pace thanks to their opponents' insufficient ability. It was a car crash.

Yakubu put a good chance wide from substitute Landon Donovan's cross, with the American then finally making it four when Leighton Baines' cross from the left evaded everybody and left him all the time he needed which, as it turns out, wasn't much. It got worse, as Everton then walked, almost literally, through the beleagured and laughable Tigers defence to put Donovan in a similar position, and this time he pulled it back for Rodwell to score with a precise low shot.

Three minutes were added and they couldn't end too soon. The players' lack of appreciation of the supporters - who, like at West Ham United, were distinctly unvocal aside from one element near the rear - will further rankle with Pearson as he and his manager look ahead to Arsenal and decide what is necessary. Aside from personality transplants and a few contracts being ripped up, it's hard to know. What a disastrous day.

There comes a point where you almost want to leave the Premier League. For all the riches and profile it brings, it also brings little enjoyment for teams and supporters who know that year on year each campaign will be the same. Last season's astonishing crash to earth did make the season interesting if not necessarily enjoyable once Christmas had been and gone, but this time round it is a season lacking in craft, sense, collectiveness and away victories. It is quite depressing to think that the Tigers could yet stay up due to two other teams being even worse, and one being in administration. And it's hard to argue for that as a good thing.

Everton: Howard, Heitinga, Baines, Jagielka, Distin, Neville, Arteta, Pienaar (Gosling 85), Osman (Rodwell 44), Yakubu, Anichebe (Donovan 70). Subs not used: Nash, Hibbert, Yobo, Bilyaletdinov.

Hull City
: Myhill, McShane, Kilbane, Zayatte, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney, Bullard (Altidore 62), Barmby (Geovanni 60), Garcia, Zaki (Vennegoor of Hesselink 789). Subs not used: Duke, Cooper, Olofinjana, Ghilas.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The forgotten man

With all the discussion of Jimmy Bullard's impending return to action this weekend, it seems that the dual rehabilitation of Geovanni has been completely forgotten.

It seems bizarre to consider the brilliant Brazilian to be a forgotten man. But that's just what he is. He has not been on a teamsheet since warming the bench for the whole 1-1 draw with Chelsea, and last appeared on a pitch at Manchester United. In the four days between the Chelsea game and the win over Manchester City, he somehow hurt a knee and has been recovering from it ever since.

He is now ready to play again, but this piece of news has become entirely incidental, as if his availability does not have the bearing on selection and tactics. When one considers just how crucial he was last season, this is a remarkable turn of events.

The problem for Geovanni is three-fold. Firstly, in half of the games he missed, City did extremely well - the aforementioned home games with Chelsea and Manchester City. Subsequent defeats against Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United were both of a type that meant his dash of unpredictability would have been pointless. The referee's outlandish decision to send off George Boateng did for one, the general incompetence of the team and Craig Fagan's imbecilic dismissal the other.

Secondly, the Brazilian has had little influence this season when he has featured. It comes from a mixture of his own muted form, that of the team, pessimistic tactics and the knowledge opponents now have of him. Therefore, when he did leave the picture for a while, it was difficult to notice.

Thirdly, there is the Bullard issue. Both players are similarly skilled and visionary, but in entirely different ways. Geovanni is, of course, a brilliant individual, yet that's the problem. He isn't a team player, despite efforts this season to turn him as much into an off-ball worker as an on-ball craftsman, and our best memories of him since his arrival have been of things he has created for himself. Bullard, however, uses his immense gifts to create for others, to bring the best out of those wearing the same colours. He is a leader and a figurehead and ultimately the team and the supporters raise their expectations when he is around. Nobody, even last season, has ever done that with Geovanni. When we think about the glorious autumnal spell of 2008, Geovanni was merely the best player in a fine team. He didn't win games on his own - his scoring of the only goal at Tottenham is merely a quarter of the story - and he didn't pick up the majority of plaudits after each match.

None of this is designed to devalue Geovanni. He is a superb footballer and the Tigers remain fortunate to have him. But, at the most, the bench beckons for him tomorrow, especially with Bullard around. It's hard enough to accommodate both of them when each are match fit, never mind do so when both are on the comeback trail. And ultimately, the player everyone is demanding tomorrow is Bullard.