The Championship – Saturday 29th March 2008
“We were beaten by the better team… They outclassed us.”
So said Aidy Boothroyd, who really should have grown out of using that christian name when he was 12. He’s right though. And that quote could have been attributed to Ian Holloway, Geraint Williams, Nigel Pearson or any number of Championship managers in the past few months. We don’t just beat teams, we humiliate them, we batter them, we bully them, we demoralise them, and, yes, we almost always outclass them.
Lining up for the latest of the biggest games in our history were Myhill, Ricketts, Dawson, Brown, Turner, Ashbee, Marney, Pedersen, Garcia, Windass and that loanee chap. The bench presented the 23,500 fans at the KC with a happy sight too. Matt Duke returned from his health scare to take his reserve goalkeeper duties. Alongside him were Walton, Hughes, Fagan and the unlucky Folan. In opposition, Watford lined up Lee, DeMerit, one-time Tiger target Bromby, Shittu, Sadler, Smith, Williamson, Bangura, McAnuff, Ellington and the comically bad Kabba. Their bench consisted of the brave Mart Poom, Stewart, Mariappa, John and Ainsworth.
The weather was wet and windy as Watford kicked off, and then we scored. Nerves? We don’t really do them; we just get on with winning games. Garcia was fouled, Marney curled in the free-kick from our right and Michael Turner, the god-like Michael Turner, rose to power a header past Lee’s right hand. This was what Watford were supposed to be good at, but within 45 seconds we’d already demonstrated that it doesn’t matter what teams are going to try to do to us, we’ll simply match their strengths and exploit their weaknesses.
A minute later Watford almost equalised when Jay DeMerit headed narrowly wide from a corner, but this was to be Watford’s sole contribution to the first half-hour other than a series of long throws by Leigh Bromby. How have they maintained a promotion push with so little guile and attacking flair? No matter, if this performance was anything to go by, it’s two from four for promotion. Normal service was soon restored as City started stroking the ball around to good effect. An Ashbee surge forward was only spoilt when our leader overkicked into Lee’s grateful arms; Garcia seemed to have hypnotised left-back Bromby into giving away cheap free-kicks as and when he desired; and Campbell and Marney were giving Watford’s defence all sorts of headaches.
It was no surprise when we doubled our lead on 13 minutes. Marney crossed in, Shittu cleared, Pedersen volleyed goalwards and Campbell directed the ball home. Thousands of text messages descended upon the KC with words to the effect of “Fuck me, you’re going up”.
The rest of the first half saw City in control while never really getting out of second gear. Bookings to Campbell and Brown – both correctly issued by a strangely competent Uriah Rennie – will hopefully not come back to haunt us later in the season, but Watford had been every bit as wretched as Southampton, Colchester and Leicester had in recent weeks. The long throws were being expertly marshalled by Turner, Brown and Myhill and only the tricky McAnuff posed the problems that we’d been expecting.
If City were lapsing into complacency, an outstanding save from Myhill on 42 minutes woke us up. A McAnuff volley from just outside the area saw Myhill at full stretch to keep the two goal lead going into the interval. Tellingly it was the first time Myhill’s palms had been stung since his wonder save from a Colchester corner roughly 180 minutes of football ago. Our defence is as good as it has been in decades.
Half-time then, and an air of disbelief was descending on the KC. Watford would have the wind and rain at the backs in the second half, but we were better than them. The game looked anything but a promotion fight.
As expected, Watford came at us in the second half. After Dawson had gone close with a decent shot, Watford pressed. Both Windass and Ashbee were labouring a little and Pedersen wasn’t having his finest of spells, all of which was giving Watford a little more space in midfield than they should have been afforded. On 53, another long throw into City’s box saw the ball fall to McAnuff just three yards out. It was a goal, quite simply. Watford fans were already celebrating when Ricketts, the finest right-back in the history of Hull City Football Club, somehow got in a last-ditch tackle that any defender in the world would have a giant, full-colour still of framed above their mantlepiece, assuming footballers still have mantlepieces. Ricketts doesn’t quite get the praise he deserves sometimes, particularly for his defensive contribution, but if we do go up, I’m sure that a new right-back will not be on Duffen and Brown’s shopping list. If we don’t, we may struggle to keep Sam. He’d grace any team outside the top four in the Premiership.
Watford responded to this spell of pressure by making a double substitution. DeMerit and Bangura came off to be replaced by Mariappa and number 39 Lionel Ainsworth, who sounds like he wrote musicals in the 1950s but was to treat the East Stand to the most abysmal example of wing play that the KC has ever seen, worse than Damien Delaney’s attempt at playing on the left wing against Sunderland 18 months ago. If a cross could be over-hit, a run mistimed, a ball tripped over, Ainsworth was your man.
Watford were still looking the most likely to score though, and on 57 minutes Boaz Myhill reminded us of why he is one of the best keepers outside the Premiership. A goalmouth scramble saw the ball fall to former Rotherham midfielder Lee Williamson, who hit the ball goalwards. Myhill dived to his left to pull off an incredible save. This was going to be our day. This is going to be our season. Phil Brown responded by replacing Windass, who looked tired but had done his usual job of getting through all the ugly stuff that helps Campbell to shine, with Caleb Folan.
Have you ever been a substitute? Most of you will have been at some point. And you’ll know that when you come on, no matter how good your warm up has been, the cold air scorches your lungs, your first touch takes seven or eight attempts to come, the pace of the game mystifies you, your timing is out. I only mention this because it helps to emphasise what a player Folan is. Within seconds of coming on his off-the-ball running and link-play created a chance for Pedersen that the Scandinavian should probably have done better with and which Campbell then forced a save from. Ten minutes later, as Watford continued to exert the pressure, the outstanding Marney played the ball forward to Campbell as we counter-attacked. Campbell then hooked the ball forward to Folan who outpaced the Watford defence, which tried by fair means or foul to stop him, and slid the ball coolly past Lee. Three-nil up and the third time Folan has come off the bench and put a game to bed in the space of three games. A bargain at a million pounds.
It is also worth highlighting the role of Marney in all three goals. Marney may be something of an enigma, but with a decent run of games and a bit of confidence behind him – as he now has – he is as close as we’ve had to the complete midfielder since Garry Parker inflicted that haircut on the Boothferry faithful. His return to form and return to the starting XI has given us a swagger that we have otherwise lacked. He has been the difference between the scrappy wins in the start of our good run over the likes of Wednesday, Wolves, Coventry and Plymouth, and the battering we are now inflicting on anyone who has the gall to stand in our way.
Any lingering hope Watford had of getting back into the game was effectively killed off within a couple of minutes of the restart as Steve Kabba was given a straight red for a late challenge on Ricketts. The decision looked harsh, and it is to be hoped that Watford get the decision overturned so that Kabba can continue to help screw up their promotion campaign.
The game then petered out, with chances falling to Pedersen and Campbell. However, Michael Turner did have the chance to cement his position as the new Maldini. On 88 minutes he twice threw himself in the way of goalbound Watford shots. No one was going to take his clean sheet away from him today. Sadly the City fans – who had wisely ignored the sheets of paper asking them to sing our new ‘anthem’ (a remedial six-year-old’s reworking of Annie’s Song) – started a chant of “Another clean sheet for Myhill”. That’s rubbish, and it took a bit of the shine off a wonderful win.
A couple of substitions allowed Campbell and Ash to get the ovations they so richly deserved and gave Hughes and Fagan some pitch time. Ash wasn’t 100% but his presence is priceless at the moment. Who’d have thought a year ago I’d have been able to type that when he was shrugging his way through a 3-0 defeat at Barnsley?
The final whistle came with a few groans amid the applause as news of late goals for Bristol City and West Brom kept things in the top five tight. But Stoke still have to play Bristol and West Brom come up against Watford (after an FA Cup semi-final and a Black Country derby against a resurgent Wolves). I wouldn’t swap our position with anyone right now.
A quick word, if I may, for Wayne Brown. If he wasn’t match fit today, it didn’t show. Some City fans have had the odd dig at Brown when praising Neil Clement. Clement was, undoubtedly, excellent for us, but the restoration of TurnerBrown today looked cool, composed, tough, brave and well organised. Brown may shank the odd clearance into touch, but the way he organises his troops, never panics and generally is in the right place at the right time means we are a better team with him in our starting XI. It was telling that when Ash went off he gave the captain’s armband to Turner. There was only two minutes left, and it didn’t really matter who wore it. However, Turner ran straight to give it to Brown. We have many leaders on the pitch, but Brown’s effect on the team goes beyond that. His defensive marshalling means that Ash doesn’t have to worry about the back four as much and can concentrate on his own game. Which, as we’ve all seen, is flourishing.
So, two weeks off now. We’ve not really been that fluent on our immediate return from our previous breaks but with just five games left it will probably do us good to take stock and have a rest. In truth, for large chunks of today’s game we weren’t as slick as we’ve been in previous weeks. There are mitigating factors for that: the weather, the need to outbully a team of bullies, and the amount of players carrying knocks. QPR in a fortnight’s time can’t come quickly enough though. We owe them a proper battering. The bastards. (Richard Gardham)