The Premier League – Sunday 19th October 2008
The clocks go back soon, that final submission to the changing of the seasons, and winter looms unbidden on the horizon. Already a chill wind blows, but it brings more than the promise of colder, darker days – carried also is a sense of imminent, violet re-ordering of the old ways. Just as in those days before war, or revolution, this feeling is there but not visible, tangible yet unfelt, and though it remains beyond definition, we know that madness stalks the land.
The latest slice of insanity saw Hull City best London opposition for the fourth time in succession, victory over West Ham United propelling us back – back! – to third place in the Premier League, once more clambering to the upper reaches of the planet’s richest and most important league, and no amount of rubbing our eyes seems to amend this staggering fact.
The conundrum of which is North London’s best team (“Arsenal or Spurs? It’s actually Hull City, ha ha”) having been solved by a 4-3-3 formation, Phil Brown quite logically elected to give it another go – therefore, with Marlon King winning yet another fitness battle, we lined up on a mild autumn afternoon: Myhill; McShane, Zayatte, Turner, Dawson; Ashbee (c), Marney, Boateng; Geovanni, King, Cousin.
Craig Bellamy started for West Ham, with Carlton Cole spearheading the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation preferred by new manager Gianfranco Zola. Diego Tristán, former star of La Liga side Deportivo La Coruña, was not considered close enough to match fitness to feature.
It was a pleasant, if overcast Sunday afternoon – the game having being put back a day to cater for Hull Fair, and we’re now five weeks since our last Saturday 3pm kick-off. Such are the sacrifices we must make at this level, however with 2,500 West Ham fans helping towards a record crowd of 24,896 at the Circle, one supposes this inconvenience is not proving too grave.
It was a cagey start by both teams – both sides seeming slightly unsure of what to expect from the other, and although City were enjoying slightly the better of the possession and territory attacking the North Stand, when the first chance arrived on 15 minutes the visitors should have taken the lead.
McShane rashly contested a loose ball with Craig Bellamy on the West Ham right, was beaten to it by the fleet-footed Welsh winger, who hared down the touchline in front of the anxious East Stand with Geovanni in desperate but futile pursuit. Ten yards from the goal-line he dragged the ball back to the unattended Cole, whose first time shot on his left was sweetly hit from about ten yards, but flew straight into Boaz Myhill’s grasp.
A major let-off. West Ham hadn’t deserved to lead, but this was a sweeping move of real class spoiled only by a poor finish. West Ham were buoyed by it, and had the ball in the back of Myhill’s goal a few minutes later. As Myhill advanced towards the edge of his area and threw the ball up to clear upfield, Herita Ilunga nicked it away from him and smartly hooked the ball over his own head and into the corner. Sadly for him, referee Chris Foy blew his whistle immediately, and them administered a harsh-looking caution.
Mr Ilunga was the recipient of some more generous officiating moments later, when a very untidy challenge on the City right was punished only with a free-kick, when a caution may ordinarily have resulted.
With half an hour on the stadium clock and the match entering a slightly sluggish phase, Dean Marney had a difficult shooting chance when a King cross found him at the far post, however he was unable to hook his foot around the ball and it flew safely wide of Robert Green’s left-hand post.
West Ham were maintaining a loose kind of superiority as half-time neared, and eventually the interval was reached via a skied effort from Bellamy – the Tigers had been slightly bettered in the first half, with West Ham’s wide men troubling us and their numerical advantage in midfield forcing our central three into something of a holding operation.
Something needed changing, and though some favoured a change of personnel Phil Brown’s response was much more cute, shifting Geovanni wide on the left to bolster and broaden our midfield.
We looked a much stiffer prospect straight away, and had a couple of efforts on Green’s goal in the first five minutes of the second forty-five – a harmless long-range effort by Boateng and King’s snap-shot from a Marney cross, and although these came to naught City had wrested the initiative from West Ham…and the opening goal was just moments away.
A corner on the City right was given away by the visitors, Dawson’s inswinging corner saw Turner’s clever run and forceful leap completely overpower Matthew Upson, and the ball flew cleanly into the goal. The Circle roared its approval, West Ham presumably cursed giving away a goal to a set piece, and we were leading yet again.
The game had rarely been more than medium-paced, more Angus Fraser than Shoaib Akhtar, but we were now seeing a much zippier tempo. Geovanni had a tough chance to double the lead when King freed him, but the ball was always moving away from him and he fired tamely wide.
Back came West Ham, and when Cole expertly turned Turner in the six yard box and fired the ball against the underside of Myhill’s crossbar – it bounced to safety, with no other West Ham player close enough to capitalise.
It elevated the atmosphere in the ground to a suitably febrile level, and one fancies the structural foundations of the Circle would have received a stern examination had Kamil Zayatte’s 50 run and 25 yard piledriver gone a couple of feet lower – we simply guffawed at the sheer lunacy of a City centre-back rampaging half the length of the pitch and crashing a marvelous shot on goal…not since Damien Delaney’s epic surge upfield several years ago we seen such a sight – and that was only against Rochdale.
The game calmed down a little after this, probably to City’s benefit. A frenetic game suits a team seeking a goal more than one seeking a calm conclusion to events. Phil Brown capitalized in the protracted lull in proceedings by introducing Bryan Hughes for the tiring Boateng, and Hughes’ unfussy style was exactly what City needed.
However, West Ham did have an excellent chance to equalise with fifteen minutes left when a free-kick was conceded 22 yards from goal. It looked horribly, gut-wrenchingly presentable, dead central with either corner equally appealing targets; the shot was obligingly spannered into the wall and the ball hastily transferred far from goal.
Halmosi came on for Geovanni to introduce some fresh legs and pace to a wilting City midfield, while Faubert came on for Di Michele for the increasingly exasperated visitors.
In the 83rd minute, former Hammer Richard Garcia came on for the shattered Cousin; West Ham swiftly replied by withdrawing the quiet Etherington for Sears, and we steeled ourselves for a frantic finale.
I’m not quite sure why; City’s feted resilience carried us to promotion last season by closing out games, and it’s not been lost during the summer. And closed out this game was, three minutes of injury time from Mr Foy being perhaps fractionally on the fortunate side, and they were navigated with ease.
It’s getting all a little familiar now, the cries of relief and satisfaction at the end of a game, celebratory handshakes and hugs, raucous applause for another job well done. This was an impressive win from a slightly pedestrian performance, and while the perfectionist Mr Brown will take pleasure from the former and disappointment at the latter, it is a quite remarkable achievement for us to be capable of taking three points from a top-half Premiership side despite not playing well.
That we can do is largely down to Mr Brown’s tactics, and the superb execution of them by his charges. Our 4-3-3 may seem narrow, and it may invite pressure on the flanks in midfield, but with McShane a solid presence at right-back and Andy Dawson in the kind of form even his greatest advocates cannot have thought him capable of, crosses are invariably smothered at source, or simply nodded clear by the imperious Turner or Zayatte.
Aah, Michael Turner. Never before have our entreaties for England representation to be bestowed upon one of our own carried such credibility. Phil Parkinson may be a discredited figure among the City fans, and rightly so, but in handing over £350,000 of Adam Pearson’s money to Brentford to bring Turner to the Tigers, it may be that he made one of the most extraordinarily successful transfers in our history. And if Fabio Capello is not watching the progress of this player, he and England are missing out.
Not that we’re a one-man team – of course not. Geovanni’s new-found appetite for teamwork saw him put in a manful stint on the wing, unveiling abilities not commonly associated with the stereotype of a Brazilian midfielder. The Ian Ashbee of Division Four has been seamlessly upgraded to the Premier League – and be sure that we mean that as a compliment of the highest order.
The rest? Superb. For City now lie third in the Premier League, 17 points having been accrued from eight games – or if you prefer, with only seven points dropped so far, fewer than one per game.
It won’t last, it surely can’t last – but fewer than 25 more points are required for certain safety, and the nation stands agape at our achievements. We’ll revel in cocky Champions League references, about hoping Chelsea and Liverpool draw next week in the big game between our title rivals, and we’ll affect to scoff at lowly also-rans such as reigning European Champions Manchester United, Arsenal and the world’s richest club, all vainly trying to keep pace with a club that lay 92nd in the League ten short years ago.
And yes, we’ll enjoy the adulation from the entire footballing world, bask in the glory of our achievements, but not until many months and perhaps years have passed can we realistically hope to make sense of it all. For this is all so hopelessly, wonderful mad that we can do nothing more than laugh at the sheer craziness of it all. (AD)
Myhill 7; McShane 6.5; Turner 9; Zayatte 8; Dawson 7.5; Marney 7.5; Ashbee 7.5; Boateng 7; Cousin 6.5; King 7; Geovanni 7