With 80 minutes gone in a fixture which threatened to show up the Championship standard – not to mention the supporters of the home team – as nothing but insipid mediocrities, a lone Hull City supporter in a white T-shirt wandered up to the back two rows of grumpy fans and started a chant of ‘Peter Taylor’s Black and Amber Army’.
Initially, just those two rows joined in. The pace quickened, the accompanying handclaps got louder, one or two started to leap to the beat. Then, gradually, more supporters began to raise the roof until three quarters of the away turnout were, in unison, bellowing the virtues of their manager and team for all to hear.
And City were 3-0 down.
The players didn’t deserve this rally of raucousness and feeling. They were outplayed and outfought by a Preston team which, an isolated exception or two apart, were anything but better man for man than the eleven Taylor picked at Deepdale. Had a certain Nicky Barmby been on the field from the beginning, then he would have cancelled out any sense of individual superiority. But he wasn’t, with the boss loyally sticking to ten of the eleven who did the usual stage-fright job for Sky at Burnley the previous Friday.
Andrew Dawson and awayday specialist Roland Edge were injured, so Taylor shuffled his defence to bring in Marc Joseph and, remembering the disastrous experiment with Mark Lynch at left back, left the ex-Sunderland player alone and shifted Damien Delaney, a natural left footer if not a natural left back, to the defensive flank. City lined up with Boaz Myhill in goal; Delaney and Lynch either side of Joseph and Leon Cort; then Ryan France ploughed the right furrow and Stuart Elliott the left, with John Welsh and Curtis Woodhouse a naturally cautious central pairing. Craig Fagan and Chris Brown continued up front; or, at least, that was the idea. Barmby was on the bench again – three games in a row he hasn’t started now – along with Kevin Ellison, Stuart Green and Ben Burgess, plus Matt Duke. The France factor meant Taylor, with Joseph already on the park, felt he could do without defensive cover in the dugout.
From the off, neither team seemed overly interested in playing a game of football. Preston, with no wins and only three goals at home so far, made some inroads during a ten minute spell in which Myhill, in the middle of our goal, did his usual iconic turn for the fans and the lenses, pawing a Chris Sedgwick shot over the bar and then getting a palm in the way of a point blank header from the impressive loanee David Jones. The “Myhill for England” chant made a welcome return; one hopes that it might even happen, bearing in mind our manager’s lucrative sideline.
Delaney hardly rolled back the years when his last stint at left back made him a target for short-sighted City fans (but he’s in Ark history, so ner) but he excelled himself on the half hour when Myhill was left stranded by Jemal Johnson’s shot smacking the inside of the post. Sedgwick’s crisp follow-up was surely in, until an Irish size 10 stretched towards the ball and got it away from a point on the goal-line which was surely the last available inch before attacking players would appeal for a goal.
Stirring stuff but City were defending. The attacks at the other end were not known for their frequency. Fagan made little impression, manfully working the flanks in his usual manner but getting so little change from his first half-dozen forays that he was rendered anonymous after the break. City didn’t carve out even a half opportunity, with Fagan’s confidence-shredding aped by arguably the most out-of-sorts performance Elliott had ever put in. He couldn’t beat his full back – the wily Graham Alexander – on even one occasion and when he was required to ghost in unnoticed as the ball sailed in from the opposite flank (something France did well in the opening ten minutes after the break), he didn’t seem to have the bottle as Preston defenders closed in.
Still, an hour had gone and there was a game to be won. For all City’s ineptitude, Preston were no better and their own rotten form was, we rather hoped, starting to eat into their thought process as the hour marked ticked closer and they still hadn’t scored. Then Elliott lost the ball down the City left and Johnson was put clear with Delaney out of position. He cut in on Joseph with ease before smashing a left foot shot above Myhill’s hand and into the roof of the net. A good finish from a tight angle, but Myhill may have been too quick to go down. A barely deserved lead, but a lead it was.
Delaney’s positional brainstorm was nearly forgotten when a half-cleared corner fell to his unerring left foot, but he booted a defender’s shot over the bar. Taylor slung on Green and – hooray – Barmby for the overran (and wounded) Woodhouse and the inconsequential Lynch, which meant another trek to the right back position for France. He’s actually our best right back, probably, but he was also our best outlet in attack and we didn’t need him to be shifted in favour of Green, whose displays this season have bordered on the homicidal.
To be fair to Green, he showed some delicate endeavour and a willingness to chase which we haven’t seen in bucketloads this season, while Barmby didn’t get a touch and Welsh – so often worth the entrance fee alone – saw the game continue to pass him by. By the time City had got used to the shuffle, Preston had thumped in two more. Jones hit a low rasper in off Myhill’s post with the keeper unsighted; then Paul McKenna hit a hypnotic (DING!) piledriver into the top corner from 30 or more yards, which had Bo in a trance (That’s enough hypnosis gags; it’s not the time or place – Ed) and prompted a handful of City fans to stand and applaud. Sportsmanlike reactions to good football (from a not good team) were all we had left; until our comrade in the white T-shirt started the chorus which didn’t let up until the final whistle. Brown hit the post late on but any late goal would have been the sort of consolation the word can’t define.
The scoreline flattered the home side a tad, even though were City were rubbish enough to be beaten 3-0, but what’s less forgivable is the way the Tigers didn’t take the opportunity to exercise some bossiness on a game afforded to them in the first half by a team who was struggling and nervous. The grizzled City fan knew it seemed inevitable that Preston’s millstone would be gladly taken from their necks and chucked away by a generous City, but if it had been more like Burnley (a narrow defeat which was down to great goalkeeping and poor luck) then it’d be easier to put it to one side and move on. Displays like this, however, make one realise more than ever that we’re not going to pull up trees like the last two years and the winter could be tougher than we’ve thought so far. Coventry away isn’t always going to happen, and with a lording Reading our next awayday, we have to take some points at home to Watford on Saturday as an insurance.
Burgess was thrown on at 3-0 for no reason except to withdraw an awful Elliott; it seems odd, you know, that Kevin Ellison – for all his limits – hasn’t kicked a ball since he was many people’s man of the match against Reading at the KC, especially as Elliott – unlucky though he was against Burnley – is now more prone than ever to being completely absent from any spell of the game. The downturn of Elliott’s form, of Fagan’s confidence, of Brown’s capacity in front of goal, poses problems. Taylor can at least count himself lucky that the defence has a unitary feel to it, although we’d like one of our left backs to stay fit for more than three games in a row please.
A bad night, the worst of the season, and there may be more to come if City don’t start ditching their respectful stance and start going at teams, home and away, whoever they are. No football match lasts 45 minutes or an hour, but too many of City’s do, and we’re looking scarily downwards as a result. Time for reinforcements as well? After all, a goalscorer is always handy when you play football for a living.