Thursday, 29 April 2010

Ash

How we have missed Ian Ashbee. How we have missed the club's greatest skipper, and certainly one of football's great skippers.

Had he been fit, and Michael Turner been kept - or even one of the above - then this blog is in no doubt that Hull City would have had a better season.

Ashbee has been out for almost exactly one year with the bad knee injury suffered at Aston Villa towards the end of last season. His absence has been noted not just as captain - the succession of players who have worn the armband without much talent for captaincy made it even more obvious, however - but as a cajoler, encourager, enforcer and the skilled moderator between players and club hierarchy he has always been.

We are not only lucky to have a smart, skilled youngster like Tom Cairney in our ranks. We're also lucky that when he leads our midfield next season, he'll have the best possible guide alongside him.

Anyway, Iain Dowie has claimed that "at a push", Ashbee could play for half an hour against Liverpool in the last game of the season a week on Sunday. Despite later saying it may still be too early as Ashbee is under orders to rest, this became a no-brainer as soon as Dowie chose to say it was doable.

The one time when there is room for sentiment in football is when neither you nor your opponents have anything to play for. By the time Liverpool visit the KC to bring down the curtain on our two years in the limelight, they will almost certainly know exactly where their European destiny lies irrespective of the result. Ashbee's semi-fitness should give him a place on the bench and with it, a chance to wear the Premier League crest on his sleeve one last time.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Bring back Warren Joyce


Warren Joyce would be a fantastic and courageous choice as the next manager of Hull City, were Adam Pearson to decide we need one.

One would hope Pearson will indeed have established by now that restoring Phil Brown to his previous role would be an own goal that even Kamil Zayatte would think outlandish, while Iain Dowie's experimental period in charge has been a complete failure. Neither should have the job next season. Neither deserve it.

City are not in a financial position to go offering the job to highly-prized managers currently in work, so those suggesting Gary Johnson, Danny Wilson, Sean O'Driscoll or Lee Clark need to remove the rose-coloured specs. The salary that Pearson will probably need to offer with the role would also struggle to tempt good, unemployed managers like Tony Mowbray and Alan Curbishley - not to mention bad, unemployed managers like Gary Megson.

There are wildcards out there. Footballers and football people rate Jim Gannon extremely highly, but he refused to sign contracts with both Motherwell and Peterborough United because of family commitments in the north west. Paul Jewell has a good CV but is tarnished by his failure to make Derby County a success under the watchful eye of a certain Adam Pearson, who both hired him and fired him. Jim Magilton has good credentials as a coach but made little progress at Ipswich Town and struggled to keep the belief of the players in his last job at QPR.

So Pearson will need to dig deeper. And here is where Joyce comes in.

The former City player-manager is already a club legend as architect of the original and best Grest Escape campaign of 1999. Without wishing to belittle Brown's achievements of 2007 and 2009, there was no finer, more dramatic nor more important rescue act than that which Joyce achieved with a bunch of focussed cloggers and talented kids, especially as Joyce was not a popular player with the Tiger Nation when he was first asked to take over from the wretched Mark Hateley.

That Joyce was fired the next season by a dimwitted, impetuous and spiteful board of directors who wanted promotion to be handed on a plate remains one of the great scandals of Hull City's modern era. Joyce himself has kept a quiet, dignified silence when questioned in later years about the matter, but it still burns and rankles.

He was the one who first took Fraizer Campbell out of Manchester United when, as coach of Antwerp, he borrowed the raw young striker who promptly delivered a return of goals that was beyond stunning. Such was the impact of Joyce's time in the Belgian League that he was headhunted by Sir Alex Ferguson to become reserve team coach at Old Trafford, where he remains to this day. He and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer together have brought through Manchester United's latest supply of gifted youngsters now featuring semi-regularly in the first team.

He loves Hull City, will feel he has a job to finish off and the Tiger Nation utterly adores him. He won't be expensive, either in salary or in compensation, and he will not have his boss standing in his way. He can use his influence to persuade bright young stars of Manchester United's future to come play for the Tigers in the Championship. He can tap into the psyche of footballers of any age, ability or ego and, as the club looks to become a much more approachable, likeable and solvent entity after the recent excesses, he will bring some much needed humility to the task.

The more you think about it, the more sense it makes.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Push the Boat out?


Hypocrisy appears next to the name of a relegated Premier League club almost as quickly as the bold 'R' in brackets.

The media, through distinguished columnists and much-decorated ex-players, has stuck an extra boot in on George Boateng following his decision to pin the blame for the drop squarely on Phil Brown.

For as much as Boateng was incorrect to hark back to Boxing Day 2008 as a starting point for where it all went wrong, the media is more than a bit rich criticising him for this when it has been at pains to bring up that wretched incident time and time again every time anything slightly went awry at the KC.

However, their main issue - that yet again a player was again trying to deflect blame for failure from other players - was observed correctly. Boateng has let himself down.

This blog loves Boateng. He has been an awesome presence in a team of misfits and malingerers over the last three months or so. But this outburst, controlled and articulate though it was, does him no favours at all.

He unwisely held court with any hack he could find to offer support and praise for the Iain Dowie regime while claiming, without any room for misunderstanding, that Brown's ego and inability to get on with certain players prompted unrest that lasted for many months.

And, of course, he took it all the way back to the team talk at Manchester City on that Boxing Day, claiming the players were unable to play for Brown effectively after he chose to dress them down for their 4-0 half time deficit in front of the travelling fans.

Boateng, whose dogged performances of late have at least enhanced any compulsion he felt to start pointing fingers, was quite wrong to wash quite so much dirty kit with the hacks. Evidently emotional and angry, he nonetheless owed it to his team-mates to keep his opinions to himself, especially those fellow senior professionals, like Nick Barmby and Andy Dawson, who have long claimed that the notorious alfresco lecture had no bearing on the subsequent slump.

His argument doesn't hold up for so many reasons. Without wishing to go through it again at any length, City followed the Manchester City debacle with a gritty performance against Aston Villa which was lost only thanks to a very late own goal. Boateng himself was not party to the team talk, having been substituted as part of the tactical shake-up just half an hour into the game. Paul McShane, on loan at the time of the game, didn't lose enough faith or respect for Brown not to sign for the Tigers permanently in August. And Boateng himself was one of the players enthusiastically seated on the same stretch of Mancunian turf this season when the scene was satirically re-enacted in celebration of Jimmy Bullard's penalty equaliser.

Opening up this can of worms again does not do justice to Boateng, a player and man of intelligence and experience. The automatic assumption was that he was still smarting, with justification, at being on Brown's 'naughty step' this season, along with other professionals, following differences of opinion on their form and roles within the team. He pointed out that he took a wage cut to come to the KC Stadium and was treated shabbily afterwards by virtue of that decision by Brown to scapegoat him as, one by one, the Manchester City goals flew in. Boateng too was incorrect to praise the attitude and activities of the Dowie management team, given that a meagre four points from 21 available, including defeats in shocking circumstances against the two sides below us in the table, does not remotely represent a breath of fresh air or an upturn in fortunes.

Those whose thoughts are dominated by conspiracy claim that, with Adam Pearson in the dismal position of being publicly unable to rule out Brown's return from gardening leave in the summer, Boateng was making the effort to show willing for the club in order to make Brown's already unfathomable return even more pointless and backward an exercise.

After all, Boateng has little to lose unless he is genuinely keen on staying with the club in the Championship. He is out of contract this summer and, although pushing 35 years of age, should receive at least one offer from lower-ranked Premier League outfits like Bolton Wanderers or Wigan Athletic to maintain a long-running and illustrious top-flight existence that began when he joined Coventry City in 1997.

Yet his on-pitch passion and seemingly ageless existence in recent times has suggested, through actions if not yet words, that he would like to maintain his connections with City next season and in these circumstances, knows that Brown's mooted, implausible return would severely hamper that aim.

Even if relations had improved between Boateng and Brown leading up to the Arsenal game (during which Boateng was sent off and after which Brown was handed his spade and shears by Pearson), clearly there was still ill-feeling there. Boateng had been cast aside earlier in the campaign by Brown and the Dutchman is obviously in possession of a long memory. His comments at the weekend would make his future with the Tigers untenable, even with Pearson acting as mediator, were Brown to return.

It should be a pointless argument, of course. A manager on gardening leave has never, to this blog's knowledge, returned to a club afterwards. Gardening leave was, in this instance, Pearson's chosen course of action simply because he couldn't afford to pay Brown off under the terms of his contract. That means he would have willingly sacked him on the spot had the financial position of the club been healthier. There is no grey area here.

Boateng therefore seems to hold the aces, even though he has been heavily criticised by pundits and columnists for what he said, while supporters have also accepted he made a bad judgement while also holding back on severely admonishing a player whose recent displays had at least done justice to the Tigers shirt.

It is tiresome to hear players blame anyone but themselves when things go pear-shaped, and while Brown has to take his share of the flak, so must Dowie, but most of all so must highly-paid and vastly underperforming members of the first team squad. Boateng can at least say with a clear conscience that he has done some good talking on the pitch, even if his talking off it has added extra fuel to a fire already roaring out of control.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

36: Hull City 0 - 1 Sunderland - 24/04/2010


It's hard to type with a heavy heart and fingers tired from defiant applauding. There may be no emboldened letter 'r' in brackets next to Hull City's name after today, but it's relegation nonetheless. Ultimately, a playing squad devoid of ideas and particularly devoid of goals simply wasn't good enough to, at best, prolong the agony.

The inquest will be long and harrowing. There was an £8million wage bill when the club were promoted; it is now in the region of the £40million mark while somehow dropping in quality. The figureheads that oversaw this quite extraordinary bit of malpractice will continue to offer excuses and issue strong denials. But the upshot is that relegation doesn't just mean the end of trips to Anfield and Old Trafford and a return to the Glanford Park and Ashton Gate, it also means a total decimation of the squad as the vultures emerge with undergenerous offers, knowing that the financial plight of the Tigers means that the better players - there are some - may be sold for a mere fraction of their true worth.

Their worth to Hull City right now is nil, really. They couldn't keep us up, after all. Against Sunderland with nothing to play for and an away record that, while nothing compared to ours, still is not something to be proud of, there was proper endeavour but just no quality at all. Jimmy Bullard, so much the talisman whether fit or not, was so abject he was substituted at half time. Geovanni, back in the starting XI, was much better but still couldn't produce any magic that once made him the subject of much discussion and praise. Sunderland were tidy and quite defensive and though they only scored one of their many early chances before letting the Tigers dominate, never looked in too much danger.

Michael Turner was playing for them and got an enormous cheer. Fraizer Campbell also figured and was regally barracked throughout. Had Turner stayed and Campbell signed - especially the former - there may have been a different story to the season. Hypotheticals are all we now have.

Geovanni's recall was accompanied by likewise for Anthony Gardner, Bernard Mendy, Nick Barmby, Jozy Altidore and Caleb Folan. Six alterations in all. It was a 4-4-2 as well, therefore necessitating the removal of the fabulous Tom Cairney, though he was on the bench.

Sunderland, with their usual full-throated and slightly charmless support (let's qualify this - Sunderland have superb supporters but given their numerous misfortunes at this level in recent times, slagging off a far smaller club for suffering a relegation not even remotely as humiliating as the one they suffered under Mick McCarthy smacked of utterly graceless idiots), took early control and could have been three up quite quickly. Campbell, playing wide in red boots, fed an overlap from Jordan Henderson with nobody tracking back, and the layback was wastefully belted over by Steed Malbranque.

It didn't take long to make up for this bad miss as Alan Hutton hit a smart cross to the far side of the area for Kenwyne Jones to nod goalwards and Darren Bent guided in a neat volley with little attention being paid to his run, leaving Matt Duke helpless. A simple goal, from Sunderland's point of view also a deserved and artistic goal, from the Tigers point of view a terrible goal.

The next chance quickly followed as Henderson curled one just over from a terrific long ball by Malbranque, before City finally made the visiting back four work. George Boateng crossed for Altidore to challenge the onrushing Craig Gordon near the edge of the box. The ball fell out of the box but the keeper inexplicably was more committed to a standard tackle than Bullard, who seemed to jump out of the way. Afterwards Barmby tried a shot on the turn from a rare bit of Folan craft - a dummy from Boateng's overhead punt - but Gordon had little trouble claiming it.

Geovanni then broke down the right and fed Barmby's run outside him, with Turner cutting out the dangerous low cross and forcing a corner. Bullard's kick then got to Folan at the far post but his control was dire and eventually he could only pass backwards to Boateng, with the eventual second ball from Bullard punched clear.

Duke held a Kieran Richardson free kick that found a hole in City's wall before City's first real bit of bad luck. Bullard swung in another corner and Gardner, very warmly welcome back after his ankle injury, won a clean and powerful header that Gordon kept out only by being directly in the way, as opposed to any really tangible effort to save.

Altidore then won a free kick on the counter attack which Bullard chipped in and Barmby headed over, then Altidore got Folan free on a counter attack and the lolloping City forward tried a low shot aimed for Gordon's near post which the keeper managed to palm out of play.

Folan's one telling contribution then followed, when he unusually fought like a wild animal to get possession of the ball on the edge of the box and when Geovanni took possession of the loosened ball, a wild boot chopped him down. The penalty was obvious but Bullard really picked his moment to miss his first spot kick for the club, smacking the outside of the post with his low shot.

Geovanni was fouled again shortly afterwards and sent the free kick over, and in the five added minutes at the end Altidore and Hutton each received red cards after a tussle ended with the American striker aiming his head into the Scotsman's face. Unquestionably a foul and red card, but there was an outcry from the Sunderland contingent when Hutton, whose brand of overacting could have had him in rep, also saw red. Why Steve Bruce felt the need to join in the altercations near the corner flag is anyone's guess.

That' the last time we shall see Altidore play for the Tigers, then. He may as well hop on a plane back to Spain or the USA right now, with our good wishes.

The half time whistle shrilled soon after the game finally got going again. That Cairney was ready to come on at the start of the second half was pleasing, that the previously undroppable Bullard was the player withdrawn was greeted with unforgiving approval. Bullard may have had a knock, of course, but for a player of his class and importance he has delivered next to nothing in recent times. Iain Dowie, for all his faults, called this one correctly. A player who cared replaced one whose attitude was questionable, to put it charitably.

Sunderland made two changes as not only had Hutton been dismissed but Turner, who had been imperious as expected, had picked up an injury.

The early second half was only notable for the enormous chorus of the Great Escape that emerged from the Tiger Nation, as neither side created anything of worth and many were concentrating on whether Wigan Athletic could maintain or improve upon their level-pegging status at West Ham. Geovanni hit a free kick into the wall after Cairney was tripped by Campbell, and then the Brazilian was booked for diving while trying to win another set-piece on the edge of the box.

Dowie slung on Craig Fagan for Barmby, whose attitude was superb but contribution still muted. Fagan then, depressingly, chose to spend the majority of his gametime trying to wind up Richardson on the flank they shared. Meanwhile, Duke was called into action for the first time when tipping wide a Lorik Cana drive from long range, while Bruce's whingeing at the officials earned him a dismissal to the stands.

City's best chance - aside from the penalty - came when Mendy crossed from the edge of the area for Folan to nod back to a very advanced Andy Dawson, whose shot took a deflection and hit the trailing legs of an otherwise committed Gordon. It was as unlucky as City could have been.

Steven Mouyokolo looked after a Campbell counter attack with aplomb before David Meyler's left-footed follow up flew wide, then a Bent drive took a deflection off Gardner which made it an easier catch for the City custodian.

Dowie went for broke and withdrew the terrific Boateng - paid a lot, but worth it more than most, and one hopes he may sign a new deal for the Championship - and sent the youthful Mark Cullen into the Premier League for the first time. Cullen soon got into the action, floating a lovely ball on to Folan's head but the nod back from him and the rancorous effort at shooting from Fagan that followed was simply humiliating.

In the five added minutes, Mendy hit a low shot on target that Gordon held, and the Frenchman was one of two players - Mouyokolo being the other - who sank on to his back, distraught, when the final whistle sounded shortly afterwards. There were no tears - we've been through far worse than this - but mainly philosophical words and gestures, as if we knew it couldn't and wouldn't last. Sunderland's supporters were refreshingly sympathetic as they applauded the Tiger Nation prior to exiting the KC, happy with their own three points.

West Ham won, so at best we'll be relegated thanks purely to a woefully inferior goal difference. That tells its own tale, as for the thrashings we've taken there is more to be said for the utter ineptitude shown when trying to find the back of the net this season. Assuming we don't find Wigan on the beach next week (and even if we do the likelihood of scoring doesn't necessarily increase), we'll also end the season without a single away win.

This relegation is horrible and merciless and there will be plenty of Premier League stalwarts who will not be sorry to see us go. But make no mistake, it is a relegation we entirely deserve. Were it not for the frightening financial situation that now awaits us thanks to demotion, it'd be an easier relegation to take than any of those of 1978, 1981, 1991 and 1996, even though we were poor on the park and skint off it (and often both) on those occasions too. After all, this time round we've had a two-year stay in the top flight.

It really has been the very best trip we've ever been on. But now we may be about to embark on our worst. Over to you, Adam.

Hull City: Duke, Mendy, Dawson, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Boateng (Cullen 75), Bullard (Cairney 46), Barmby (Fagan 62), Geovanni, Folan, Altidore. Subs not used: Myhill, Sonko, Kilbane, Olofinjana.
Sunderland: Gordon, Hutton, Turner (Ferdinand 46), Kilgallon, Richardson, Malbranque (Bardsley 46), Henderson, Meyla, Campbell, Jones (Cana 60), Bent. Subs not used: Carson, Da Silva, Zenden, Mwaruwari.

Don't let it be over

Most of us have been resigned to relegation since the Burnley debacle, never mind the awful night against Aston Villa that frittered away our one trump card of a game in hand.

But today is a new day, with a new game to play. So go on City, prolong the agony. Beat Sunderland and better what West Ham United do against Wigan. Put the work in. Make us sweat. Give us some of that horrible hope for a bit longer. Dare you.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Turner and Campbell


Michael Turner comes back to the KC Stadium tomorrow in the unenviable position of being within a team that could relegate all his old muckers by the time 5pm comes round.

Turner has been a success at Sunderland, to whom Paul Duffen practically gave him away in August while brazenly telling all and sundry that the fee was huge, and he will be given the warmest of welcomes by the bedraggled Tiger Nation that never forgets a hero.

Oddly, while we'd kill to have Turner in our side again, the centre of defence has largely had not much wrong with it beyond the actual absence of the best player ever to wear Hull City colours in that - or any - position. Anthony Gardner and Kamil Zayatte have each had good, sturdy spells in the side, albeit with an isolated error each, while Steven Mouyokolo has been a terrific find and even Ibrahima Sonko, brought in as an unwanted temporary replacement for Turner as much to appease unrest as to plug any gaps, has been able to restore a soupcon of his crushed reputation.

But Turner, oh how we miss him. How we miss that reliability, that positional accuracy, that immense reading of the game, that step or two in his head that makes up for a lack of sheer pace. How me miss all of those things. How he will be loved forever for what he achieved at the club, and how his sale will always go down as the day Hull City's supporters and the hierarchy that secured Premier League status fell out of love.


The same can't be said of Fraizer Campbell, of course. He will be booed and barracked to high heaven by unforgiving types who recall the number of occasions he seemed set to rejoin us and then never did. Campbell has, worryingly, begun to find some scoring form at last for the club he eschewed the Tigers for last summer. If he finds a winning goal that sends us back to the Championship this weekend, it'll complete the most gruesome of turnarounds, given that he set up the goal at Wembley that got us out of there in the first place.

If Turner plays a blinder at the back, if Campbell scores a goal at the front, neither will be blamed. They're Sunderland players and a job is required of them. But in this bitterest of bitter, hateful campaigns, it'd be the icing on a deeply tasteless cake if one of these two heroes of such recent memory actively confirmed our descent back to the footballing abyss. At least with Turner, it'd be easily forgiven, and he won't celebrate at all. With Campbell, it'd be a different matter entirely.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

35: Hull City 0 - 2 Aston Villa - 21/04/2010


And so another nail takes a hammering. The game in hand has gone and with it, almost certainly, Hull City's status as a Premier League club.

Yet again we proved that the team isn't good enough, the risk on a new manager hasn't paid off and the future generally looks bleak. While there is much to be had from competing equally in the Championship and making the process of watching one's team fun again, there is a lot of doom and gloom abound after digesting Adam Pearson's programme notes. He criticised Paul Duffen again, which was both welcome and expected. But he left enough rope therein to allow a self-hanging in the summer if the anticipated relegation becomes reality. There is trouble ahead for the Tigers.

This knowledge almost makes the nature of last night's defeat to a polished but cynical Aston Villa side unimportant. Villa were better than City, as befitting of a side chasing a place in Europe's elite while steadfastly refusing to have anything resembling a squad big enough. Meanwhile, the Tigers sink merrily deeper, seemingly unaware of just how awful the football is despite the presence of a handful of players whose wages are far exceeding the level of talent or commitment on display.

Iain Dowie is going to fail. He won't accept that, but one suspects he knows it. One is certain that the chairman who took a spin on him knows it too, and is getting his retaliation in first. Pearson is a club legend forever but is unspeakably dreadful at picking managers, and yet it will still be his job to pick another in the summer. And even if, via a miracle that would make the burning bush extinguish itself in shame, the Tigers take nine points from the last three matches and survive, Dowie cannot stay.

He picked the 4-5-1 that did so well at Birmingham City and quite rightly. Yet once more he failed to turn it into a 4-4-2 when the state of the occasion demanded that the Tigers chanced their arm and attacked a little more. And, frankly, 4-4-2 is hardly taking a chance, is it? It's the natural formation. Dowie was unlucky to lose Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink to a vile head injury - the big Dutchman was unconscious before he hit the ground after the foreheads of he and Richard Dunne made sickening contact - and so Jozy Altidore's introduction was unavoidably like for like. But when, with the score only 1-0 to Villa, Geovanni was summoned, it was the impishly brilliant Tom Cairney instead of the woefully short - of skill, pace, direction, touch, you name it - Kevin Kilbane who was dragged off. And the catcalls from the Tiger Nation were loud and long and fierce for it.

Soon afterwards, Villa got their second and were strolling to a win that they didn't really have to work too hard for. City began to embarrass us all, with touches going awry and tackles being missed and passes being not just misplaced, but largely invisible full stop. Paul McShane has never played a worse game of football in his life, and plenty of Sunderland fans will laugh at that thought. Craig Fagan was all kill and no skill, everything that creates despair in him. Jimmy Bullard reverted to his deeper position and looked for full backs only. The centre backs, less culpable than anyone else, were devoid of assistance as Villa chose, sometimes, to go for more goals. It wasn't as bad as Burnley but that is more from the caveat of who the opposition were rather than from any real improvement.

Villa had the first chance of the game when Carlos Cuellar headed right at Matt Duke from a Stewart Downing set-piece. City responded with Kilbane spooning a reasonable chance far, far over the crossbar after Vennegoor of Hesselink had nodded an Andy Dawson cross into his path.

Cairney lost the ball in midfield for the only time in the game but nearly cost City dear as James Milner charged on to the loose ball and exploited the space but screwed his shot wide. It wasn't going to take long, it seemed, for Villa to get their opening goal, though they did so through circumstances that all of the travelling Villa fans - and how few of those there were - would have found richly comical.

A ball was played into the Tigers box. Ibrahima Sonko tried to clear and hit a Villa body. It went to McShane and he tried to clear and it hit a Villa body, again. The ball ricocheted wide for Gabriel Agbonlahor who collected, sized up where the space on a quickly guarded goal was and promptly found it, with Duke's hand and two leaping outfield players each beaten by the accuracy of the shot.

A fantastic finish, but a chance that should never have even remotely gone Agbonlahor's way.

Stiliyan Petrov then tested Duke's fingertips from distance before City responded with their only real spell of pressure. George Boateng won a splendid tackle to release Kilbane, who got Vennegoor of Hesselink in on goal. Brad Friedel blocked but Kilbane followed up, hit one shot at a covering defender, a second at another defender, and then the third, with the ball now in front of goal, at the one Villa player left on the goalline with everyone else on the deck. Kilbane essentially was one on one with a player who wasn't allowed to handle the ball. He failed.

Dawson tried a free kick which cleared the wall and hit the target but was easily clutched by the astute Friedel, who knew where it was going before it was kicked.

A chunk of the first half remained with no chances resulting and lots of delaying tactics from Villa players, with Stephen Warnock and Ashley Young especially guilty. It was frustrating stuff but Villa have form for this sort of thing, and they remain the most cynical and deceitful team at this level, getting away with much of it because they have English players at the forefront of it. Warnock was especially loathsome.

The second half started with Cairney enjoying a fine run in and out of three players before giving Fagan a crossing chance that ended up as a corner. It came to nothing, but Sonko's long throws proved a semi-effective weapon thereafter, and Vennegoor of Hesselink hit a volley into the ground from one such howitzer that Friedel tipped over. From the corner, Vennegoor of Hesselink suffered his head injury.

There was a ten minute delay, caused as much by the slowness of the stretcher bearers in actually getting to the stricken player as by the injury itself. Altidore eventually came on and 4-5-1 was maintained, but little else. Sonko chucked in more throws, Dunne dealt with them simply and confidently. Cairney took one gorgeous corner that Steven Mouyokolo headed wide, then a counter-attacking Agbonlahor went for the long-range curler after John Carew's layback, but Duke did well to touch it over when it looked destined for the net.

Geovanni was seen to be getting ready to come on at this stage. Now, the Brazilian hasn't looked committed from what little football he has had of late, but even so the extra pace on the ball and vision made him seem perfect. Kilbane, unable to look the correct way, let alone make any kind of contribution as a football player, could be withdrawn and City would charge after an equaliser. At worst, Fagan could be yanked away from the scene after a particularly unpleasant evening of whinging and strutting not backed by footballing prowess.

But Dowie took off Cairney.

Cairney had been booked but had also been in total control of City's ratio of possession, more so even than Bullard. The reaction of the crowd brought back memories of how Geovanni's own withdrawal against Blackburn Rovers last season was greeted, only this time it was far more deserved. Dowie called it wrong. Dowie made a change not to improve, but to maintain. Taking off a less cultured player than Cairney may still not have worked, but it would at least have given an indication that City were trying to get back into the game. Like for like does not do this, especially when the player taken out of the equation was the one who seemed most competent on the ball.

Carew countered from another Sonko long throw and, with City struggling to get bodies back, fed Milner who reached the area, slipped inside Boateng and had his ankle taken. Penalty without argument, and Milner himself sent Duke the wrong way very neatly.

Dowie put Kilbane out of our misery afterwards and sent on Seyi Olofinjana, but the remainder of the game was played out without signs of life, hope or commitment, and that is as much a description of the Tiger Nation as it is of the team. We're beaten. We're spent. And we're down. Open the inquest now. There's no point at looking at our three remaining games, nor those of West Ham United immediately above us, as we simply will not get another point all season.

Hull City: Duke, McShane, Dawson, Sonko, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney (Geovanni 70), Bullard, Kilbane (Olofinjana 84), Fagan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Altidore 54). Subs not used: Myhill, Cooper, Barmby, Cullen.
Aston Villa: Friedel, Cuellar, Warnock, Dunne, Collins, Downing, Milner, Petrov (Sidwell 84), A.Young, Carew (Heskey 90), Agbonlahor. Subs not used: Guzan, L.Young, Beye, Reo-Coker, Delfouneso.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Play the five again

As Iain Dowie shifts unpopularly towards another 4-5-1 set-up against Aston Villa tonight, the reason for it seems pretty clear. In fact there are two reasons for it - Tom Cairney and Kevin Kilbane.

It feels close to our last chance to stay in the fight for survival tonight, as this is the game in hand we've had on everyone else for quite some time. It should have taken place at the end of February but Villa's involvement in the Carling Cup final put paid to that.

Now, with only ourselves to worry about as we prepare for a truly enormous occasion for the Tigers, our temporary football management consultant seems set to stick with the 4-5-1 formation. It is obviously going to be greeted with howls of derision when we need to win the game, but it's worth examining why he is looking at it.

Firstly, it worked well and looked quite good at Birmingham City. Dowie's only error was not changing to a 4-4-2 when bringing on Jozy Altidore as the hosts evidently were struggling to cope with City even with one striker and a packed midfield. He thought it was winnable with 4-5-1 to the end. Better finishing suggests he would have been right, but in a squad devoid of killer finishers, he took off the best the club has to offer in Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink when adding Altidore's power to the front line.

Secondly, the team is simply a better thing for Tom Cairney's presence within it, but although his defending is improving, there is simply no place for him in a 4-4-2 that also needs to accommodate Jimmy Bullard and somebody of an attacking bent in a wide position, who currently is Craig Fagan. For all Kilbane's laughable inabilities with a football, he is a steady influence, both as player and talker, and adds the insurance required that permits Cairney and Bullard to roam and scamper about with the ball at their feet. Kilbane adds little in attack, though he does get into attacking positions, but a four-man midfield which requires Cairney to play wider and operate as a defensive player as much as his marvellous touch gets him forward, is asking for bother. George Boateng can protect one. He can't protect two.

A 4-4-2 formation is, of course, preferable in the current Tigers situation, especially as it would - assuming Dowie has noticed this - pair Altidore and Vennegoor of Hesselink up front again. But the downside is that in the midfield, it wouldn't be Kilbane who would get sacrificed, it would be Cairney.

Dowie is within his right to stick with the 4-5-1 - and, frankly, the actual XI that began the Birmingham game within that formation. However, if things need to be stepped up with an hour gone, and the game feels winnable or salvageable, he has to grab the bull by the horns and use his substitution to create a 4-4-2. There are players like Seyi Olofinjana knocking about if we then need to re-strengthen the centre of the park in the event of having a lead to defend.

Cairney, unless he directly replaces Bullard, does not belong in a 4-4-2. It really is that straightforward.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

34: Birmingham City 0 - 0 Hull City - 17/04/2010



And so the mantra of hope over despair is maintained. A nervy, battling, often enjoyable performance by Hull City which, with just a little more finishing prowess, would have been a stunning and timely three points instead of the adequate one.

The Tigers were helped by some effective and subtle team changes by Iain Dowie, although his selection in goal of Matt Duke over Boaz Myhill was as surprising as it was pointless, and an obviously dozy Birmingham City whose work this season is done and who are all looking forward far too prematurely to a tropical island and a big telly beamed in on South Africa.

Dowie also restored Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink up front but in doing so again erased the name of Jozy Altidore from the teamsheet. Yet has he to see the potential of the American-Dutch partnership that briefly looked so useful in Phil Brown's last throes, but there was at least progress in his thinking by the absence of Caleb Folan entirely from the side. Also returning was Tom Cairney within a five-man midfield.

Birmingham had the first chance as James McFadden volleyed a half-cleared corner from Craig Gardner over the bar and then Scott Dann was wide with a glancing header from another Gardner set-piece. The game settled quickly and, with springtime sunshine beating down on St Andrew's, City began to get more involved.

Jimmy Bullard, with his head up throughout the game, swapped passes with the selfless Vennegoor of Hesselink to send George Boateng free to the byline. The marking had not materialised at all by the time the low cross reached Kevin Kilbane with pretty much an open goal before him, but the ball ran under his feet. A seriously big chance wasted, but the resourcefulness of the move suggested that the Tigers were capable of creating similarly good openings again.

Paul McShane
cleared under pressure from Cameron Jerome after Duke could only palm to one side a Gardner shot before City countered thanks to Bullard's renewed desire to advance with the ball, and he tried two shots from distance which were saved by Joe Hart and deflected into touch respectively. Craig Fagan, back at his first club, sliced a reasonable chance high and wide after Vennegoor of Hesselink nodded Bullard's chipped pass into his path.

Birmingham then saw City bodies get in the way of good chances, with Steven Mouyokolo's crunching challenge on Keith Fahey earning him rapturous acclaim from the Tiger Nation, and then Cairney also putting a sturdy foot in the way of Jerome's effort after City had been caught out by a quick throw. The ball looped into the air and Lee Bowyer headed over the bar.

Duke then saved a Bowyer shot with a full airborne stretch, a stop that was to prove his most taxing moment of the day as Birmingham began to wilt, dropping back as the break approached and giving the Tigers, and especially Bullard, more of the ball. Vennegoor of Hesselink plunged at a low Andy Dawson cross to aim a fierce diving header towards Hart's near post but the keeper managed a tidy and instinctive save. The tall Dutchman managed a further header shortly afterwards from a Fagan centre but it was weaker and caused little trouble for Hart.

Half time came and went with, as usual in these situations, the Tiger Nation expressing hope and immediately cursing themselves for doing so.

But it was worth expressing as City were by far the better team in the second half. Instantly Kilbane won a corner which Bullard curled in dangerously for Mouyokolo to head on and Boateng to volley over after a Birmingham forehead only got half the required power into the clearance. Encouraging start, made more so by the wonderful Cairney weaving through three players, determined to find room for a shot that, when it came, was too high.

As the game began to open up, Dowie got Altidore ready and we awaited the restoration of the big two up front. But alas, it was Vennegoor of Hesselink's number that was raised but at least with Altidore on the park there would be mobility as well as brute force to work Birmingham's tiring defenders. He was roared on with real enthusiasm by the Tiger Nation.

Birmingham counter attacked from an Ibrahima Sonko long throw but Jerome's final shot was deflected wide by a chasing McShane, who had initially struggled to see the ball arrowing his way from the Birmingham half thanks to the sun. From the corner, City launched their own counter which involved Altidore burrowing through, round and eventually past Roger Johnson to get to the byline, only to concede a soft free kick as the defender went to the turf.

Bullard, utterly dominant of the ball now, tried a poked shot that had in timing what it lacked in power, and Hart was very nearly fooled but still managed to grab at the goalbound shot. Altidore and Cairney then exchanged passes with real beauty before Cairney hit a shot with the outside of his left boot that was only just wide.

Injury time was underway by the time Fagan hit the final chance just wide from a volley that came his way after Bullard's cross was cleared. The final whistle confirmed a goalless game but anything but a soulless effort from the Tigers, and while a point only represents a hollow victory following that awful display against Burnley a week ago, it also indicates there is still spirit and desire in the squad to do the right thing by us all. It was a fine game and so nearly the finest of results, and much credit should offered to all involved.

Birmingham City: Hart, Carr, Ridgewell, Johnson, Dann, Bowyer, Ferguson, Fahey (Larsson 63), McFadden (Phillips 60), Jerome, Gardner. Subs not used: Taylor, Parnaby, Madera, Vignal, Benitez.

Hull City: Duke, McShane, Dawson, Mouyokolo, Sonko, Boateng, Cairney, Bullard, Kilbane, Fagan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Altidore 75). Subs not used: Myhill, Cooper, Marney, Olofinjana, Barmby, Geovanni.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Barmby no more


Nick Barmby's introduction to the fray early in the second half against Burnley last week was Iain Dowie's biggest mistake of the day.

While it would be unjust and inaccurate to say that sending Barmby on directly caused the collapse that everyone has been apologising for this week, there is no doubt that the player's existence as a first team option is done so with misted eyes.

Barmby is 36 years old and really, really looks it now. He looks exhausted, fed up and unmotivated. It's a difficult situation when you are introduced to a match that is being contested tightly between two sides that dare not lose, but experience teaches players how to deal with such a situation. Barmby's experience now looks no longer like it can carry him through. He needs to donate more, and he can't.

When Andy Dawson got injured, Kevin Kilbane had to fill in at left back and so a gap was opened on the left side of midfield. Barmby played there with some regularity in both League One and the Championship, smoking cigars of comfort throughout, but simply is not up with the pace and quality that Premier League opponents foist upon you. But Dowie chose what he thought was the safe option and let him loose. Instantly Barmby committed a foul; soon afterwards he was being booked for another. He barely touched the ball, complained a hell of a lot and, surprisingly for a chap who empathises so much with the supporters, did a swift disappearing act at the final whistle.

Dowie had better options with Geovanni and Tom Cairney, and although he did later bring on the Brazilian, swapping flanks with Barmby in the process, he should have done so the moment Dawson went down. Seven players hogged the bench and Geovanni was distantly the most talented. The game was level and tight and needed inspiration which Jimmy Bullard didn't seem inclined to provide. Geovanni might not have done so either, but there was more than a fighting chance that he could, something which Barmby simply does not give any more.

Barmby has been a fabulous footballer and had a terrific, varied career. His story, when he publishes it, will be an intriguing and lucrative one. But the contract expires this summer and even if City are in the Championship, the time will have come for the club to ask him to take up a fresh role, one that doesn't involve kicking a ball - indeed, his current one doesn't involve much kicking of a ball even when he is on the pitch.

The moment he accepts it is over for him as a player we can all immediately remember just how great a player he was. At the moment, we seem to have forgotten.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Billy and Nicky

It is nice to see two former Hull City strikers conspiring, albeit unwittingly, to prevent Leeds United from leaving the tier of football they arrogantly believe is beneath them.

At Swindon Town, the most unlikely of the teams challenging for automatic promotion from League One, Billy Paynter cannot stop scoring. At this level, as he proved in his early days at Port Vale, he can be a prolific and reliable centre forward and this season he has been helped by the fairytale that comes with his similarly lethal strike partner Charlie Austin, who was a bricklayer picking up £80 quid extra a week playing for Poole Town last season.

Paynter was, in essence, a classic Peter Taylor signing when he joined the Tigers on loan from Port Vale in November 2005. Taylor wanted to develop his side by recruiting from below and turning promising talents into the finished article. He had suffered burned fingers with strikers the year before, despite the heroic promotion into the Championship, as none of his three signings - Aaron Wilbraham, Delroy Facey and Jon Walters - had worked, with the goals that took City up coming almost entirely from Stuart Elliott from wide positions. So alongside Paynter there were already question marks as the player himself was still unpacking his boots.



Paynter scored in his third game for the Tigers with a soaring header from a Mark Lynch cross as City grabbed a handy 2-2 draw at QPR. He then steered in a smart finish from close range at the KC in an impressive 2-0 win over Cardiff City, before hammering in a truly memorable half volley from distance in a Boxing Day draw at Crewe Alexandra that was just as famous for Taylor's oddball substitutions prompting a rather cruel catcall of "you don't know what you're doing" from a Tiger Nation that had conveniently forgotten the two consecutive promotions this manager had already achieved. On New Year's Eve 2005, Paynter hit the woodwork at Leeds United as City lost 2-0.

Taylor signed Paynter permanently when the January window opened, but also memorably signed Jon Parkin from Macclesfield Town within the same trading period. Parkin's arrival was greeted with great scorn from supporters who remember his comical awfulness in the lower divisions, but Parkin became an instant hero, battering defenders with aplomb while also showing poise and touch and an eye for goal that pushed the nose of Paynter out of joint. It is notable that Paynter played almost entirely as a right-sided midfielder for the remainder of the season, if he was selected at all, and never scored again for the club. Taylor's departure in the summer heralded Paynter's too, with Phil Parkinson choosing to sell him to Southend United upon becoming the new Tigers boss.

Parkinson also let Ben Burgess go during the same period, meaning he had room to invest in two new centre forwards which, judging by City's cringeworthily poor start to the season, the team needed with urgency. He bought Michael Bridges from Carlisle United and also Nicky Forster from Ipswich Town. Forster was a prime example of second tier experience and was just the kind of player City required.

As Parkinson's tactical vacuum plunged City into deeper and deeper trouble, however, Forster began to take some stick. He was absent from games for long periods although it was less than helpful that Parkinson had made a panicky switch from possession football to long humps upfield - Forster being a much smaller target than the likes of Bridges and Parkin, as well as Paynter and Burgess.



Forster touched in his first goal for City at Colchester United on a Tuesday night, more than two months after his Tigers debut. It was a shinner from little more than a yard that even then he very nearly missed. But it provided us with hope that he would now settle into the ways of Hull City a bit better. None of us reckoned without Colchester's sense of injustice at the way Parkinson walked away from them in the summer to become the new City manager, and they scored five without response and provoked the first serious calls for the new gaffer to be replaced.

Parkinson did indeed go a few days later after a similarly catastrophic performance and defeat against Southampton. Even though he and Forster were longtime pals, having played together at Reading, the departure of Parkinson seemed to bring out the best in Forster, as if he now had room to prove that he was no puppet, no signing under the old pals act and still able to commit himself as a professional to a club that had paid quite a sum for an ageing player and expected a return. Phil Brown took over as manager and Forster scored a brave headed equaliser to earn a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup third round against Premier League side Middlesbrough, before putting in a superbly selfless and indefatigable shift in a fantastic replay at the Riverside, winning a penalty and generally stretching the Boro defence throughout. City lost 4-3 but did so from positions of 3-0 and 4-1 down.

Forster had the crowd on his side after this display on Teesside. He scored the equaliser in a home game against Leeds United, of all teams, which had become a relegation battle as well as fixture brimming with contempt and mutual dislike. City lost the game 2-1 but Forster's socks were entirely absent at the final whistle from all the running he had undergone.

At this point, Parkin had started to go off the rails entirely with his weight and attitude problems and so Forster, along with the re-recruited Dean Windass, became paramount to City's chances. Windass was far more prolific in front of goal but Forster had become revered for his attitude, more so when offered as a stark contrast to that of Parkin, whose presence became so disruptive that Brown packed him off on loan to Stoke City.

Forster scored the opener in a fine 2-0 win over Preston North End and added further goals against Wolves and, once more, Colchester (this time a much less damaging 1-1 draw) and maintained his team player mentality as City battled and struggled through inconsistent runs that eventually allowed them to beat Cardiff City in the penultimate game of the campaign and stay up, deliciously at the expense of Leeds.

After survival was confirmed, Forster asked to leave City for the benefit of his family, who were still based in the south. Brown allowed him to join Brighton & Hove Albion, from where he has just rejoined Parkinson on a loan deal at Charlton Athletic. They have still to play Leeds as the promotion race hots up in League One.

As Hull City players, Paynter and Forster made contributions to games against Leeds that were memorable, if not always for the desired reason. Recently Paynter scored at Elland Road to help Swindon to a stunning - and most amusing - win there, and Forster has now propelled himself via a late loan move into the promotion race, and still has to face Leeds before the season is out.

Their impacts on the Tigers were short and variable, but each will be willed on from this part of the world as much as possible, as the only outcome that is good for football is pursued - that which prevents Leeds United from leaving the division they have always loftily claimed is not good enough for them. For that attitude alone they deserve to stay there forever.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

See you Jimmy?


This blog last week implored Hull City to tell us the full story regarding Stephen Hunt's foot injury. Too crucial was the player to our hopes of avoiding the drop from the Premier League that it was not acceptable to just drip feed the information.

Well, now the club has revealed the situation. And, frankly, Hunt could easily have played his last game for the club.

The chippy Irishman is out for the remainder of the season and, in the now depressingly likely event of City's relegation, will undoubtedly be one of the highest earners that Adam Pearson will need to offload from the wage bill come the summer. Unlike some of the other recipients of the bigger wages, Hunt would be able to leave the club with his head held high and the appreciation of the Tiger Nation his to keep forever.

It is surprising to note, however, that the same may not apply to Jimmy Bullard, who definitely will leave the club in the event of demotion to the Championship, and may well still do so even if the outside bet of survival comes in. Bullard is suffering right now, but not to the extent that he deserves much sympathy from the Tiger Nation.

The upshot of it is that Bullard, probably closer to Phil Brown than anyone else within the squad the manager left behind when instructed to go push his lawnmower around, has not looked interested or focussed at all since the management regime changed. He still receives the ball with the same frequency and, of course, is by far and away the best creative force in the side. But his play at the moment is weak and limp and he is proving something of a liability.

He hasn't got fitness, or the continued re-acquisition of, as an excuse any more. Since returning from his latest injury he has played enough games and run enough yardage to restore the fitness levels he needs. There is more to it than this. He not only looks half-hearted, he seems frightened.

His last injury was to his previously "good" knee, meaning that Bullard now has ligament issues in both knees. In recent weeks he has taken to playing deeper and deeper, choosing to release the ball earlier rather than make space with a run or a sidestep, and plays far more square or backward passes than he does forward. There have been a handful of occasions where he has been tackled and subsequently stayed down just long enough for a few hearts to reach mouths, prior to his return to a standing position and continuation of the game.

It is a terrible thing to contemplate when one considers the rotten luck he has had, and the transformation to the team he inspired alone when he made his first comeback late last year, but right now the Tigers would be better off without Bullard. Of course it is easier to pick him when the team needs players capable of inspiring vital wins to be involved, but currently Bullard can't do that. The harsher critic would say that he won't do it, for reasons of self-protection and out of loyalty to his golfing partner and former manager. Only Bullard knows the truth, and only Bullard can deny that the latter is true. The continuing stories of Bullard's lack of self-respect as far as his social habits are concerned adds more fuel to the fire.

If Iain Dowie has the gall to drop Jozy Altidore for the impotent Caleb Folan, a decision he mercifully realised was wrong very quickly, he should also have the guts to drop Bullard, whose apparent psychological and attitude issues are affecting the team and its immediate future. Tom Cairney is waiting on the bench, all contracted up and with every desire to help keep the Tigers in the top division. He is a fine craftsman in waiting and will add the belief and nerve that Bullard's contribution hasn't supplied in quite a while. It has seemed for a while that the only people who don't seem to believe in how good he is are the two managers who have had to choose him - or not choose him.

And lest we forget that Geovanni, for all his own fall from grace in recent times, has far more credibility as a forward-thinking creator over the last 12 months than Bullard, in this current form, will ever have. There are alternatives to Bullard. It's a question as to whether Dowie notices them, and whether he then has the bottle to use them.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

33: Hull City 1 - 4 Burnley - 10/04/2010


So, that's that then. Any number of humiliations have been foisted upon the club following Burnley's astounding, devastating victory at the KC Stadium. This is Burnley, a team that had acquired the princely total of just one point away from home all season, managed by the dreaded Brian Laws, outplaying Hull City all over the park.

They looked better than the Tigers, they wanted it more, they were more positive, they cared dearly. Barring the initial period of the game, during which time City deceptively opened the scoring, the Tigers were as abject as it was possible to be. That such a turgid, dismal, gutless display came in a game when professionalism and heart was so badly needed and with the knowledge that a winner would give their survival hopes a major shot in the arm, suggests that the Premier League dream ended today.

Burnley were level before half time and won two penalties midway through the second half which were each confidently struck home by Graham Alexander. Upon the second of these spot kicks finding the net, the Tigers just wilted. Passes went astray, tackles were avoided, heads dropped or were just entirely lost. Some of the football from Iain Dowie's men was beyond awful. The upward mobility of the club over the last decade means it has been a while since a home crowd has booed a performance quite so heftily as they did today, but nobody could fail to understand the upset this display has caused.

Make no mistake, it was a shambles. Beyond that, it was a disgrace. The players didn't have a thing. By the time Burnley scored their fourth with a speculative free kick in injury time, the stadium was half empty and those who had stayed were, Burnley's ecstatic support aside, doing so purely to barrack the players. The money they are paid, coupled with the financial meltdown that could follow if the club is relegated, means that they cannot and should not complain for being treated so uncharitably.

Dowie picked a good side, it seemed. He got the call up front right, dropping the horrific Caleb Folan and restoring the far more effective Jozy Altidore. Ibrahima Sonko returned to defence after being ineligible last week, and Andy Dawson was fit to return to left back. Shuffles elsewhere saw Paul McShane and Bernard Mendy restored to their preferred positions on the right while Kevin Kilbane played on the left. George Boateng was fit to start despite having half his face kicked off a week ago.

City took an early lead and duly fooled us all about how they would approach the game. Jimmy Bullard was fouled by the referee saw an advantage as Craig Fagan took over possession and slipped a ball wide for Altidore to break the offside trap. The American's cross was gorgeous and there was Kilbane to head in unchallenged. It was his first goal for the club and as timely a moment to get it as any player could have managed.

So the script that we had all written prior to the game - dangerous to make assumptions, but the KC had been a good venue for the Tigers in 2010 while Burnley, lest we forget, had not won away all season - seemed to be on its predictable course. But City sat back way too much and barely got the chance to get forward effectively again. Burnley got into the game with Tyrone Mears hitting a distant left-footer over the bar and David Nugent cut inside McShane to shoot tamely at Boaz Myhill. The final efforts did not worry City but the possession ratio should have done.

Fagan had a chance he barely knew about when a long Sonko throw beat two aerial attempts to head clear and pretty much hit the unaware City forward as opposed to anything else. City then won a free kick in a promising position but Bullard's flick up and shot proved too ambitious and went over. The best real opportunity to extend the lead then came when Altidore turned divinely inside the box and hit his shot against Brian Jensen, with Bullard's follow up steered inches over the bar.

Burnley sensed their opportunity was approaching and took control of the game. The equaliser came in the final ten minutes of the half when Wade Elliott crossed low at the second attempt and Martin Paterson had time and room to turn in the box and guide a low shot beyond Myhill's right hand.

Little occurred up to half time thereafter, apart from Altidore being booked for petulance after giving away a free kick, and although City had not been good, the way Burnley failed to settle quickly suggested there was an opportunity to kill the game off in the second half. That was the optimist's view. And the optimist was soon keeping his counsel.

Soon after the restart, City were forced into a change when Dawson hurt his trailing leg in a fairly straightforward block tackle and was replaced by Nick Barmby, with Kilbane dropping back. Barmby's first contribution was to concede a free kick on the edge of the box and Mears' shot was deflected off the wall, wrongfooting Myhill but just clearing the bar. Paterson then put in a cross that ex-City defender Leon Cort, still up from a corner, plunged to reach but couldn't make contact. The ball got to Michael Duff at the far post whose control was shabby and shot hurried over the bar. A more cultured player would have scored. The Tiger Nation were not happy.

Fagan then crossed for Altidore to challenge Jensen in the box, with the burly keeper chasing the loose ball to the edge of the area and blocking Bullard's volleyed effort with his hand while perilously close to leaving his area. It was risky but sound goalkeeping. Mendy and Fagan were then booked for retribution and not retreating respectively as the game threatened to degenerate into something unwatchable.

Then Burnley took the lead. Duff, wearing a numberless shirt after spilling some blood in the first half, was chopped down by Steven Mouyokolo as the visitors tried to make room for a shot. Some grumbles, but it was hard to make a claim of any conviction that the penalty was wrong. Alexander, with his idiosyncratic method of approaching penalties, sent Myhill the wrong way with the outside of his boot.

Now there was a problem. City had gone behind but once the game restarted, it soon became obvious there was little appetite or idea as far as getting back into the match was concerned. Fagan could have scored when he sliced a half volley wide from Sonko's flick but that was all. Dowie tried to freshen up the attack by throwing Geovanni into the action, withdrawing McShane and sending Mendy back, but the Brazilian could not exercise any influence before Burnley had it sewn up.

Nugent seemed to handle the ball near halfway as he brought it under control, but once play was waved on he proceeded to weave through three wimpish efforts to bring him to a halt and had almost got to the byline in the box by the time Mendy hauled him down. It was a fine run but City's defence reacted appallingly. Mendy was lucky not to get a second yellow for the foul and Alexander used the same unusual method and the same corner of the net to defeat Myhill - who again dived the other way - and establish a two-goal lead. The Burnley fans, understandably, could not have been more gleeful if they tried.

City began to get petty and angry, but in a negative way. There was no sign of channeling that fierce energy into anything positive. Barmby was booked for a foul and had no right to moan at the decision as much as he did, Bullard dropped further and further back and began, remarkably but not entirely without reason, to take some stick from the furious Tiger Nation. The midfielder had hidden for much of the second half and now didn't seem to want to dictate the pace and direction of the game in the way everyone knows he can, and just at a time when it was required.

Dowie took Fagan off and sent on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, who quickly made a great chance for Altidore with a low cross shot but the American couldn't wrap his foot around the ball enough at the far post and the opportunity went begging. Altidore then made room for a shot from distance which was blocked, with Bullard's low follow up dribbling disappointingly wide.

By now, the final balls were as dreadful as we had seen in years and City were resorting to long punts that Cort, as the Tiger Nation remembers only too well, eats up for a light breakfast. Burnley were totally comfortable. Their fans fell off the happiness measurement scale and no doubt Laws, a manager with little love for City, was dying to leap up and down and rub it in the faces of all wearing black and amber.

Five minutes were added and Elliott scored a peculiar fourth when he took a shot from a wide free kick, on the reasonable understanding that a two-goal lead meant he didn't have to waste any time, and the ball looped over a surprised Myhill. The final whistle that came soon afterwards was greeted with loud heckles and ironic applause. The players, with the exception of Mouyokolo and Altidore, vanished down the tunnel as swiftly and as cowardly as they could.

Problems, then. This isn't the end, of course, although the game in hand is now irrelevant as West Ham United won and so City are now relying on others to make a contribution to what seems an unlikely claim to survival. Too many players failed to react to the importance of the occasion and now one hopes they feel some regret for throwing away a huge, huge chance to stay in command of their own destiny. Adam Pearson's gamble on a change of manager has, for the first time, backfired massively on him. Five games remain and in all honesty, City need to go unbeaten in the first four of them to keep hopes up, yet right now they seem unlikely to win again at all.

Well done to Burnley. They wanted this so much and got precisely what they deserved. It remains to be seen whether this historic win will ultimately prove a false dawn for them, but they have given themselves a chance. It is the act of a churl who does not wish them well after such a display, especially as any sour grapes will stem from the knowledge that Burnley's players did exactly what the Tiger Nation expected their players to do.

To be a fly on the wall of Phil Brown's drawing room right now...

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Jay Jay


We need today's enormous game against Burnley to go without a hitch. Given that we are Hull City, a club that has made it a 106 year long habit not to do things straightforwardly, we should still expect something unexpected to happen. Hopefully it won't extend to Burnley actually taking anything from the match, and the unexpected can be good - a Jozy Altidore hat-trick, for example - as well as bad.

Last time we played Burnley at the KC it was a raucous old affair, characterised by a marvellous half of football from the Tigers that had the game won, and then a bizarre breakdown in discipline from both sides in the second half that saw three players sent off.

One of these players was Jay Jay Okocha, and this red card was the only statistic aside from the 18 Championship appearances he would eventually card up for the Tigers by the end of the season. That he never scored - and, in truth, rarely created - a goal for City during his brief time with the club makes the sending off all the more bizarre.

It was March 2008 and the Tigers were sniffing a play-off place at the very least under Phil Brown. Okocha had joined as a 34 year old free agent in the September and had sporadically contributed to a slowly growing side mainly by name alone, frightening opposition players via his very existence. Obviously though, there were still occasions when he did frighteningly amazing things with a football.

At Wolves, a mere fortnight after joining, he ran the show so effortlessly that he was applauded off by the whole of Molineux when substituted late on. His only error was trying to get the ball off Dean Windass when the penalty that won the match was awarded to City.

Okocha had made his debut as a substitute the week before in a 1-1 draw with Stoke City at the KC Stadium. City were a goal down when he came on, and he spent his time on the pitch hitting pinpoint passes, long and short, shooting from impossible angles and at unexpected moments, and generally being a total thrill as well as a ridiculous novelty for a team that had relied on Ray Parlour as its veteran creator the year before. City got a late equaliser which had nothing to do with Okocha, unless Stoke were worried in advance about whether he would get the ball and therefore didn't notice where else it could go. It was David Livermore who scored with a close range header.

The other notable occasion for Okocha came on a blustery February evening at Norwich City. Again the game ended 1-1, which at this stage of the campaign was a very useful point for a Tigers team starting to believe that climbing the table was possible, and Okocha's glorious touch, appreciation of where the ball and the target player was and general smoothness in possession prompted the Norwich manager Glenn Roeder to pay a tribute afterwards that bordered on the obsequious and got a lot of headlines.

The rest of Okocha's time saw him dragged down a little by the demands of a less silky brand of football than that to which he was used. Often Brown wouldn't play him at all, and sometimes he would be on the bench. He did have injuries too, not least at the end of the season when he missed the run-in and the eventual play-off glory, but ten starts and eight appearances via the bench doesn't sound very much for a player drizzling with such special ability. For all that, City won the play-offs without him, beating at Wembley a Bristol City side that had taken four points off the Tigers during the regular season. In those two games, Okocha had been involved, albeit as a sub midway through the second half on each occasion. He was there at Wembley, in his training gear supporting the team, and was the first on to the pitch in the sponsors' T-shirt to congratulate the players on promotion to the Premier League. Brown chose to release him afterwards, and was right to do so.

And so to the red card, the last and only non-playing stat against Okocha's name. It had been a brilliant evening. City had played their most dominant half of football in years, with goals from Fraizer Campbell and a 25 yard strike from Richard Garcia (the goal of the season, even allowing for volleys at Wembley) securing a 2-0 half time lead against a Burnley team lacking any discernible interest in the competition.

The second half had been equally City's but without any further goals. Then Caleb Folan gave Stephen Caldwell an elbow off the ball and walked, with Caldwell getting yellow for the niggliness that preceded it. Caldwell himself got a second yellow and left the field a few minutes later after fouling Campbell. So, it was ten versus ten.

And then it was nine versus ten. Okocha stood innocently over another Burnley player in a horizontal position, Joey Gudjonsson, and even though the referee (Mike Riley, later to endear himself even less to the Tiger Nation with his antics at Arsenal in the FA Cup) saw nothing and had to consult a linesman, whose lack of excessive flagging suggested he had been equally unsighted, the two of them somehow concluded that Okocha had committed a heinous enough crime to receive a straight red card. The KC Stadium had never raged more in its short life than on that evening. Gudjonsson's own dismissal afterwards, making it nine versus nine, merely confirmed the farce that had unfurled itself.

And, apart from an 89th minute substitute appearance at Colchester United immediately after his three match ban had expired, we never saw Okocha in a City shirt again as injury took over. It had ended rather unfavourably for him, and he didn't have the impact many would have expected from a man of his phenomenal talent and experience, but the very fact that he made a contribution, small but noticeable, to our most triumphant season will live with a generation of Tigers fans forever.

Meanwhile, today's game against Burnley is very different, even though Garcia and Folan remain in the squad, among others, from the last time these two met. It'd be nice if we could replicate the dominance and goals and not the red cards.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Hunt for the truth


Exactly what is going on with Stephen Hunt?

Hull City's most impressive performer this season has been absent with a foot injury since the 3-0 defeat to West Ham United at the end of February. The silence from the club about the extent and nature of the injury has been deafening ever since.

Week on week, we get a flat piece of unemotive news that Hunt will not play in the next game because of his foot injury. This includes this weekend's almighty visit of Burnley to the KC Stadium.

What we do know is that Hunt was struggling with the injury before he exited the first team. This begs the question as to whether he was playing through the pain barrier or if the club had misinterpreted the extent of the injury, thereby making it worse by playing him. Either way, the club needs to come clean. Hunt, of course, is best qualified to decide if his foot is up the rigours of Premier League tackling, especially given that he is the sort of character who blows the shorter fuses among top flight defenders and therefore falls victim to physical retribution, but ultimately the club has to execute a fragile balancing act between needing its best players and protecting their long term health.

Hunt's importance to the team is almost beyond measure and this is endorsed as much by his recent absence as it was previously by his 100 per cent appearance record up to and including the horror show at Upton Park. We have few players as good as Hunt; we certainly have nobody up to the task of directly replacing him, and playing the listless Kevin Kilbane or the right-footed Dean Marney wide on the left has merely served to emphasise just how huge Hunt's presence is.

So, is he going to play again this season? Does he need surgery? Did he exacerbate the injury by continuing to play? If the latter is true, it shows how desperately lacking in depth and talent our squad is. And although we should be capable of beating Burnley without Hunt in the side, it'd still be nice to have him available - and if he isn't available, then just tell us why and for how long. We're the ones hoping and praying for Premier League survival, and we'll know a lot better to we can raise our expectations if the truth about Hunt is explained.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Trust

We have to trust Iain Dowie that he knows the best way to keep Hull City afloat in the Premier League. He has been appointed as a troubleshooter and has an almighty bonus coming his way if he succeeds. And if he does, he'll be worth every penny.

But it surely is the case that he is still learning about his players, and unfortunately he isn't really blessed with time to learn. This is why it is imperative that he allows Steve Parkin, the one remaining senior figure of Phil Brown's era, to offer advice and instruction as much as possible.

It seems that Parkin was offered a payout by the club upon Dowie's appointment and the first team coach declined, preferring instead to continue working with the players. This may have been for Parkin's own professional standards that he didn't just take the cheque, but we can be very grateful to him. It would have been madness for Dowie and his two new assistants to sever all ties with the regime they were replacing and just rely on their own instincts and the club dossiers to assess the squad inherited.

This is ever more the case with some of Dowie's selections. He's the manager, the tactician, the qualified coach and the communicator. He knows best. But while some fans are moronic, many more are not. We know that Jozy Altidore is a better footballer and more workable prospect than Caleb Folan. We've seen enough recent evidence of Altidore and plenty of past evidence of Folan to confirm that. And Dowie himself saw just how effective Altidore was, to the point of excluding almost all others, as City swatted aside Fulham last week.

So why drop Altidore? It was a baffling decision on a par with any of the bewildering eccentricities of Brown's latter selections. To be kind to Dowie, the last time he saw Folan - and the last time the rest of us saw Folan - the languid and half-interested centre forward was scoring two goals at Portsmouth. Even though we lost the game, there was obviously ample argument for keeping a player of severely restricted ability in the side, even though absolutely nobody believed he would reproduce the two-goal salvo, and would struggle to manage even a one-goal salvo.

But Folan, unluckily for him but an undisguised blessing for the rest of us, was ill. So Altidore played. And put in the sort of shift that Folan wouldn't manage on any sort of consistent basis at this level even if he were to drink from the cup of eternal life. He is not a good enough player nor a selfless enough player to do what Altidore did. He doesn't frighten defenders, only his own team-mates and the supporters of the side for whom he plays.

So there was reason, albeit one evoking empathy rather than sympathy, for Dowie to look again at Folan. But Altidore must have been raging, and as a player reliant on confidence and one who looks just outstanding when he has it, it is a worry as to how he will react once he does regain his side. Fortunately, his instant changing of the game upon replacing the rotten Folan just after the hour at Stoke City suggests his mental state has strengthened as he has become more suited to the physical needs of the Premier League. Forget his lack of goals, the boy is a fine footballer and we need him playing.

As for Dowie's decision to put Paul McShane at centre back, well that was a case of devil and deep blue sea. Kevin Kilbane could have played there, and would have done a better job (not just than McShane, but also that of his woeful efforts on the left of defence) but Dowie preferred to use Bernard Mendy's natural attacking instincts at full back rather than use Andy Dawson's more staid qualities on the other side. So of the two full backs, it was McShane asked to step inside. Wisdom after the event is fine, and you do have to feel for Dowie having to choose from two such unappealing candidates.

Parkin has been seen putting the squad through its warm-up at Dowie's three matches in charge. One hopes that there is more to his role under Dowie than this, and his experience of the players will also be eagerly scooped up by Dowie. It's hard to imagine Parkin telling Dowie that McShane would be the best choice for centre back, and certainly not that Folan was worthier for the starting XI than Altidore. Hopefully now, however, Dowie has worked this out for himself.