MATCH REPORT – Arsenal 1 City 2

The Premier League – Saturday 27th September 2008

It’s become something of a cliché to start these reports with a contrast of now to “then” – the “then” in question being any of the vast collection of dismaying episodes from yesteryear. That need not deter us, however: we seek refuge in clichés, and find comfort in the familiar in such bewildering times.

We’ll limit ourselves to just one moment of contrast. It is this – thirteen years ago a 3-0 home defeat to York was the latest indignity inflicted by a dying club on its traumatised supporters on the way to a notably embarrassing relegation from Division Three. Now we survey the rest of the country from the giddy heights of sixth place in a division we’d previously assumed was none of our business, and we declare it to be rather good.

The first inkling we had that this may not have been a standard Big Four Club 3-0 Relegation Candidates came as we breakfasted in the Midlands, word filtering through of Phil Brown’s intention to line City up in a 4-3-3 formation, our goateed sage assembling our XI thus: Myhill; McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson; Marney, Ashbee (c), Boateng; Geovanni, King, Cousin. 4-3-3 at Arsenal. Cripes.

Arsene Wenger had seen his lesser lights record a 6-0 League Cup win in midweek against Sheffield United, with an astonishing average age of just 19. However the Frenchman brought in such stars as Theo Walcott and van Persie to accompany Adebayor, Fabregas, Gallas et al. A daunting prospect, and as the late evening sunshine fell upon a 60,000 crowd at the Emirates Stadium, we braced ourselves for an examination for which the word “difficult” seemed laughably inadequate.

The game started in a reassuring quiet fashion, with Arsenal’s puzzling lack of urgency giving us the vital opportunity to spend a few minutes acclimatising to the occasion. Indeed, one of the first chances of the game fell to City when a scampering run down the left by Geovanni forced a corner, from which the Brazilian attempted an overhead kick that flew a fair distance over Almunia’s goal.

Arsenal gradually pushed City back however, and Fabregas wasted a great chance when he dragged a shot wide of Myhill’s right hand post after finding space in the area. This provoked a flurry of attacking from the home side, and City had an escape when Emmanuel Adebayor had a goal (correctly) disallowed for climbing on Paul McShane – though Myhill would probably have saved the header had Mr Wiley not already blown for a free-kick.

It was all Arsenal now, with City seeming to purposefully cede space out wide with the narrow midfield trio preferring to protect the central positions as Walcott in particular found space on the flanks. Dawson was called upon to execute a splendid covering tackle on the England forward as he hared forward – with a shot imminent, there’s every chances this marvellous intervention prevented Arsenal taking the lead. Think Bobby Moore on Pele. But by a City player.

Still the home side came, with only a long-range Geovanni shot breaking the pattern of play. Adebayor had a shot from an acute angle inside the area smothered, while Walcott dithered too long in possession instead of applying the sort of clinical finish he recently achieved in Croatia, and City continued to grimly hang on.

And if this sounds a little one-sided, maybe it was. However, City were defending with fearsome determination and making frequently astute interceptions, refusing to permit Arsenal players to get in behind them and making clearances from every cross. And as the game approached the interval and afternoon gave way to evening, Arsenal’s meticulous passing game continued to be parried, often at the very last moment, but no less creditably for that being so.

There were a few more moments of note – City had the ball in Arsenal’s goal (long after the whistle had blown for a free-kick, mind), Arsenal invoked their own fans’ displeasure when Adebayor and Eboue tried to arrogantly walk the ball in rather simply passing the ball into the goal and Ashbee finally collected a caution, and a decidedly muted response from the home supporters contrasted with the thunderous applause meted out by the City fans when the two minutes of first half injury time were concluded.

Ah, the City fans. 3,000 strong and barred from a five-figure following only by away allocation donated by Arsenal, we were unwaveringly positive, loud and good-humoured. And what a fine venue for us. Housed in a corner of lower tier and with a slender segregation policy that our police force may wish to copy, we made a terrific din throughout. Impressive too were the concourses – suitably spacious and efficiently staffed. Rarely has the half-time beverage been acquired so swiftly.

We reflected cautiously on our prospects of actually grabbing a point from the game as we trooped back out for the second half, and when the Tigers forced an early couple of corners things looked very bright.

Then Arsenal scored.

It had been coming, if we’re honest. City were caught out after a foray up front with three men committed to an attack, the Gunners sprang down our right, Walcott turned Zayatte inside the area and squared it into the middle where Myhill palmed it onto McShane’s shin – the ball crossed the line before he cleared it, although the ball was put over the line by van Persie just in case.

The home fans celebrated with a slightly superior and complacent air, while we sighed with disappointment and the tone of our support switched from hopeful to defiant. Arsenal were unsurprisingly rampant at this stage, and had a few chances to double the lead – Adebayor had a brutal shot deflected fortuitously over, van Persie toe-prodded a left-footed shot just wide, and the Tigers were rocking. An ambitious overhead kick by Marney gave Almunia something to do, but the overall flow of the game was towards the far end where Boaz Myhill was stationed, and the contest appeared over.

Not that it unduly troubled us – the padded seats were being mostly unused in the away end, and we speculated that such comfort is perhaps the reason behind the torpor among the Arsenal support. Or perhaps it was just another home win for them.

Then we scored.

And then we scored again, and the world wobbled on its own axis.

First, Geovanni fastened onto the ball wide on the right, 35 yards from goal. He scooted inside into a patch of space lethargically afforded by Arsenal’s slothful midfield. He advanced five more yards, and flayed the ball into the top corner.

Utter Tiger bedlam erupted as the City players gleefully mobbed Geo – a hoarse, high-pitch scream of delight punctured the north London sky from three thousand slightly unhinged Hullfolk.

The response was swift – by City. Cousin found space twenty yards from goal and unleashed a low shot on his left foot that deflected wide. From the resulting corner, Dawson swung it in, Cousin wriggled free of his marker and flicked a deft near post header into the top corner.

The City fans’ reaction cannot be described with mere words. I won’t try.

Arsenal were shaken. Properly shaken. It took them a moment to recuperate and gather their thoughts. More than twenty minutes remained, and their worry was palpable.

Wenger panicked, throwing on Bendtner for Eboue as his visibly rattled outfit tried to get back into the game, and the scene was set for our goal to be laid siege to. Arsenal won a few corners; each was batted away.

Phil Brown made three changes inside seven minutes, Hughes coming on for Geovanni to shore up the midfield, Garcia for the tiring Boateng, and finally Mendy for the exhausted Cousin. Meanwhile, we amused ourselves with a cry of “mauled by the Tigers”, with the familiar bewilderment from opposing fans witnessing this bizarre but hugely entertaining spectacle.

Arsene Wenger’s side now looked visibly troubled – Vela came on for the disappointing Walcott, and we looked with despair as the big screens showed ten minutes remaining. We sucked in air and prayed for full-time.

Arsenal were not without chances. Van Persie missed a superb chance when he dragged a shot wide on his right foot – he should have scored, and from our distant vantage it seemed he had, however the ball dribbled a foot wide of Myhill’s post.

Gallas was next, leaping above Mendy from a corner and whacking the crossbar – the ball fell to Vela, who couldn’t shape himself in time and the ball bounced off his shin and narrowly wide.

Five minutes to go. A howitzer from Fabregas was brilliantly turned over the bar by Myhill, to the astonishment of the former. And why not – it was a magnificent, match-winning save.

Arsenal were not finished, and Mr Wiley suggested that four minutes would atone for time lost to date. We’d previously sang “can you hear us back in Hull” – one suspects the groans this caused may also have been audible in East Yorkshire.

Halfway through van Persie directed a stinging twenty-yard shot at goal which Myhill opted not to go for – it flashed about six inches over the crossbar, hinting at either marvellous judgement by the City keeper, or more likely an acknowledgement that the shot was too good for him.

It was our final scare. This prize was not to be taken from us, and at the end of the game the players triumphantly assembled in our corner of the ground as we disbelievingly celebrated together.

Not that the festivities were over. Long after the players had left the pitch, we were still in the ground, watched the highlights on Arsenal’s big screens, proclaiming this to be “the best trip I’ve ever been on”, and cheering with juvenile joy as we ‘scored’ again. Indeed, it was close to 20 minutes after full-time that the away end finally emptied itself.

How? How did this happen? City began the game as 20/1 outsiders – we were 600/1 to win when 1-0 down. This ranks as one of the greatest footballing shocks of the past decade.

It happened because Phil Brown is a genius. He really is. 4-3-3 at Arsenal was a masterstroke. It meant fluid support for King up front, ensured the back four was protected, and while it meant Arsenal had space out wide, no-one can score immediately from the wing and we were well set up to cope with balls from out wide.

With Ashbee and Boateng deployed to guard the defence, Marney had a magnificent afternoon as a link between the front three and the deeper players. Dawson had a jaw-droppingly good day attending to Theo Walcott, one of the outstanding English prospects of his generation. McShane was combative, Zayatte is a revelation alongside the metronomically reliable Turner.

And Cousin – he was a disruptive influence up front in tandem with the relentless King, while Geovanni is a magician who can do things no Hull City player in history has ever been able to do.

And if that all sounds appallingly saccharine and gushing, why the hell not? Just when we think things cannot possibly get any better, they do. We are privileged to enjoy the great City team in our history, achieving arguably the most stunning result in our 104 years.

And deservedly so. Sure, we had to ride our luck. On another day, Arsenal may have made it 2-0 and settled the game, or they may have equalised and dashed our hopes. But realistically, there’s no way a club of our stature and resources can expect to win such a fixture without a dose of fortune. Simply for the resilience we showed, both in shutting out one of Europe’s best teams for the first half then scoring twice from behind means we deserved lavish reward.

Well, we got it. We lie sixth in the Premier League with eleven points to our name – the same as Derby got in the whole of 2007/8, and with 32 games left to better it in. Avoiding relegation will require amassing another thirty; probably fewer. Phil Brown said winning at Wembley was the start of the adventure, not the end. I’m starting to think he was right. (AD)

Myhill 8; McShane 7; Turner 8; Zayatte 8.5; Dawson 8; Marney 8.5; Ashbee 8; Boateng 8; Cousin 8; King 7.5; Geovanni 8