The Premier League – Saturday 16th August 2008
The Circle is becalmed, and Jimmy Bullard is running the show. Already trailing, Fulham look sharper, faster, better than us in every area of the pitch. Worried glances are being exchanged as our team creaks and looks close to buckling – and this at home to one of the weaker sides we’ll come up against. Then our Brazilian international spears a shot into the bottom corner, and we realise that the fairytale is still a work in progress.
Earlier in the day we’d beamed with pride as we heard Paul Duffen’s beautifully eloquent words as the bell was rung to commemorate top-flight football finally coming to Hull, and as we entered the stands we noted the small things – larger dug-outs, increased media facilities, Premier League livery adorning the stadium. It was day 104 years in the waiting, one we thought we’d never see, not least half a dozen years ago when surviving to the end of another Fourth Division season was a heady aspiration in itself.
Well, we are Premier League now. As we took our bow at this level, in front of a global audience, Phil Brown entrusted many of those who brought us here as we lined up with a 4-4-2 formation containing: Myhill; Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Boateng, Barmby; Geovanni, King.
Debuts for Gardner, Boateng, Geovanni and King, with King leading the line and Geovanni playing just off him. Fulham were missing Andy Johnson, who eventually joined the club for an implausibly vast sum of money a couple of weeks ago. Their attacking threat came from Seol Ki-Hyeon and Bobby Zamora, Zoltan Gera and Jimmy Bullard their supply line from midfield.
The Circle was awash with amber, and a thunderous atmosphere was in evidence. Fulham had brought a plucky band of supporters, fifteen hundred in number and replete with southern mispronunciations, however with half of the North Stand given over to a pleasingly vocal batch of home fans they were struggling to be heard.
And we so nearly had the dream start. Attacking the South Stand, Richard Garcia headed a deep cross from the left into the middle of the area, where Geovanni had snuck into space – he was unmarked and he powered a header down towards goal, but was denied a goal as Mark Schwarzer flung himself leftwards and stuck out a massive paw to keep the ball out. Ian Ashbee pinged the rebound back at goal, but a covering Fulham defender and the grounded goalkeeper just managed to keep it out.
It was a lively start from City though – making the dismaying event of Fulham taking the lead even more unhappy. Jimmy Bullard was given too much space on the Fulham right, and he flicked a cross into the area where Seol Ki-Hyeon had been lost by Anthony Gardner and his neat header skidded off the turf beyond Myhill to put the Tigers behind.
Across the country, we could almost hear the mournful tones of national television and radio reporters informing the world that “Premiership class was already showing” at “relegation-bound Hull City”; print journalists were, we fancy, busily raiding their cliché repositories for sorrowful passages about the Championship upstarts were being in their place.
Such observations, real or imagined, nearly become established fact. Fulham were in total control of the game. Their passing was too crisp, their midfield movement too fleet-footed. We were struggling, badly, and there did seem to be a real gulf in class. The City fans fretted and wondered just what we’d let ourselves in for on May 24th.
Fulham had three superb chances to score a second and probably decisive goals during this period of ascendancy – a Davies shot was deflected over, a header by Pantsil was sent wide and a Davies flashed a shot over from a Bullard corner. We survived these scares. Just.
We had one more horrible moment to contend with, when a cross from our struggling left flank found Zoltan Gera in space. He had time to take a took, but happily elected to volley the bouncing ball first time instead. It shanked dismally wide.
With Fulham’s tempest at its most fierce, City equalised. Sam Ricketts flicked the ball to Geovanni in a few yards of space just in from the right touchline and forty yards from goal. He spun and sprinted goalwards, before smacking a beautifully struck left-footed shot that arced past Schwarzer into the net.
The Circle erupted – relief that we were back in it, elation at the sheer ridiculousness of a Brazilian international thumping in a 20-yarder for us in a Premier League game, joyful appreciation of a moment of dazzling skill.
Goals change games; this one may change an entire season. Suddenly, from looking distinctly second best the Tigers were on top. Fulham’s passing was increasingly being disrupted by the frenetic pace of Ashbee and Boateng’s midfield harrying, while the early jitters shown by much of the defence were replaced by a visibly more assured approach.
Not that much actual goalmouth action took place between Geovanni’s equaliser midway through the half and the interval – not much needed to. It was the realisation that we could actually compete that was the greater prize. Halfway duly arrived with City more than matching Roy Hodgson’s side, although a long-range header from Nick Barmby from a deep Ricketts cross did cause Schwarzer momentary alarm before drifting narrowly wide.
Many at the break would have settled for 1-1. This observer would have done. A point after coming from behind, the chance to get something on the board on the first day, plus the satisfying news of Stoke being hammered at Bolton, would not have made it a bad point.
City don’t really do stuff the easy way any more though. Phil Brown is not a manager who seems to accept the acceptable if a greater glory can be taken. We are lucky to have him – and as we came out for the second half it was quickly clear that City were going for a victory.
Yet it was Fulham who should have scored first. Zoltan Gera is a fine player with an absolutely wretched history of finishing against City. Remember his woeful miss for West Brom at the Hawthorns last season? That enabled us to take a 2-1 win, without which so many things could be so different at the moment. He’d already missed one sitter in this afternoon – he missed another when the ball fell to him in the area after a Zamora flick-on about eight yards out, but his side-footed volley was weak and the ball dribbled wide.
A let-off. We capitalised. Michael Turner nearly gave City the lead with a meaty header from a Dawson corner taken from the North-East corner, but it went a foot over. A real chance for a player of his ability.
King was leading the line with commendable application, and when he linked up with Ashbee and Barmby the latter sent over a chipped left-foot cross that Geovanni hit into the ground – Schwarzer dived the wrong way, but luckily for the keeper the ball went a couple of yards wide.
Ooooh. This felt like The Chance to win the game. The Tigers were generally on top and Fulham were beginning to look a little ragged – Phil Brown seized on this by make a change on the hour, Peter Halmosi and his red boots trotting on for Nick Barmby, a straight swap on the left.
He was quickly involved with a scampering run on the flank that was insufficiently attended to by his marker, enabling him to send a cross to the edge of the area that found Richard Garcia haring in to meet. His first-time shot was cleanly hit and flew across the turf, but it was just close enough to Schwarzer to enable him to grab hold of it – his safe handling being particularly imperative with Geovanni lurking.
King’s impressive shift came to end as the City manager introduced Caleb Folan, before Craig Fagan came on for Richard Garcia – two adventurous alterations, and clear evidence of Phil Brown’s determination to seek a win.
He was to be spectacularly vindicated with under ten minutes remaining. A hefty punt upfield by Boateng saw Konchesky gather possession facing his own goal. The simple solutions of a pass-back or a clearance into touch were interestingly eschewed, allowing Craig Fagan to thieve the ball from him. He strode in the area, to be confronted by Schwarzer – at which point Fagan squared to the unmarked Folan, who calmly steered the ball into the open goal.
The place went berserk. The City players piled over to Folan while those in the stands roared themselves hoarse – a huge throaty cry of triumph. City led their opening game in the Premier League, a stunning turnaround from the opening quarter of the game, and suddenly this top division lark didn’t look so bad.
The game was held up for a while as George Boateng lay mysteriously prostrate on the ground – while treatment was being anxiously administered, the City fans amused themselves with a rendition of “mauled by the Tigers”, complete with vivid gestures. Not a chant we were expected to indulge ourselves with too often this season, before dark predictions of relegation for the visitors were issued with a chortle by the fevered East Stand.
With City have used all of their substitutes, George Boateng manfully hobbled back onto the pitch to universal acclaim. His injury meant that five minutes were added by Mr Walton, and when he went down again that it was it for the afternoon, meaning that City needed to hang on with ten men.
Fulham were not able to fashion anything in these remaining minutes though, and the whistles imploring full-time were soon transformed into a joyful cheer when the final whistle came through.
What a start. From the awful, stomach-churning opening when we suddenly wondered if the pundits likening us to Derby actually may have had a point, to the stirring fightback and magnificent denouement. As the players strode from the pitch, all high-fives, manhugs and big beams of delight, we enjoyed the Premier League results flashing through, and swiftly worked out that City were third in the table.
Third in the table. City. In the Premier League. And third. It provides one with a shiver of delight to even consider it. And it really does afford us the chance to think positively about what is to come.
Of course, Fulham are among the sides we really need to beat at home to stand much of a chance. Had they gone 2-0 up, or had Geovanni’s shot struck the post, or had Konchesky defended competently…
But none of those things did happen. What did happen is that City fought back with real heart, and deservedly took the spoils. Strong performances stood out throughout the side. The defence, initially nerved, wised up quickly and snuffed out the Fulham threat in the second half. The midfield pairing of Boateng and Ashbee diligently destroyed everything they could – Boateng certainly seemed every inch the midfield warrior his former fans at Middlesbrough advertised him to be. Geovanni, our Brazilian international forward (no, I won’t ever tire of saying that) was a nimble touch of class, while Marlon King’s selfless battling up front bodes very well for the battles to come.
All can be proud of themselves. The City fans, positive in support and creating of a fine atmosphere, can look back with pleasure at a momentous and successful day. City are in the Premier League, and while it’s much too early to make firm predictions, for just this one day we looked like we belonged. (AD)