The Premier League – Saturday 25th October 2008
As seven-eighths of the Hawthorns emptied and scurried home underneath slate Midlands skies, we loitered a little. That’s happened a few times this season, the sense of wanting to stay just a while longer, to thoroughly savour the latest triumph. We’ve been declaring every trip as the best we’ve ever been on for a while now, but what sticks in the mind from our West Brom glorying was a thunderous, fevered enquiry: “are you watching Lawrenson?”
The target was, of course, Mark Lawrenson – a leader member of the smug punditocracy on BBC Television whose hopelessly wrong-headed pre-season comments about the Tigers are unlikely to forgotten quickly. He wasn’t alone, of course. We were the New Derby, fated to endure a horrific nine months in the Premier League before returning from whence we came, and good bloody riddance.
But no. And to be fair to Mr Lawrenson and his ilk, his expectations for the season have been spectacularly wrong, but few of us can claim to have been wholly accurate. For as I write, the clocks have just gone back, winter’s coming yet still not here, and the Tigers are level on points at the top of the Premier League.
It’s been done with four straight wins, which have seen the same XI selected by Phil Brown. It’s been arranged in a 4-3-3 formation, which some consider to be a 4-3-1-2 – the “1” being Geovanni, floating in the “free role” that people often like to mentally assign to any creative player. It’s not inaccurate in this instance, although it’s not entirely right either. Geovanni is playing as an orthodox forward, mainly hovering on the left, and slightly withdrawn, and with a looser brief than his striking companions, but it doesn’t quite strike me as an entirely free role.
He is terrifying defences though, and there’s becoming something reassuring and familiar seeing the Tigers line up: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerforEngland, Zayatte, Dawson; Ashbee (c), Marney, Boateng; King, Cousin, Geovanni. Also unchanged were Phil Brown’s seven substitutes – no place again for Deano.
For West Brom, whose own excellent start to the season had been (unfairly?) eclipsed in public attention by ours but whose reputation for attractive flowing football has been deservedly highlighted, they switched to a 4-4-2 line-up, with Ishael Miller accompanying Roman Bednar in attack. They had the better of the opening exchanges, chivvying away on the flanks, although the first shot of a blustery afternoon came from Geovanni – he picked up the ball twenty yards from goal and immediately fired it at goal, however Scott Carson saved easily.
West Brom had the next effort on goal, when a dangerous-looking free-kick about 22 yards from goal clipped the City wall and looped up safely for Myhill to collect the ball. The foul had come from a bad challenge by Andy Dawson, who injured himself making the tackle, and he limped back into the fray looking decidedly uncomfortable.
His reintroduction was almost a costly one, for when Boaz Myhill batted away a shot from distance by Valero, Dawson was unable to challenge Morrison for the rebound – with the City keeper grounded we were extremely fortunate that this follow-up effort hit the crossbar, and with bodies flying in the Tigers eventually survived the resulting goalmouth scramble.
Phil Brown swiftly withdrew the lame Dawson, bringing on Sam Ricketts in his place at left-back. West Brom were still on top though, and it needed a world-class tackle by Kamil Zayatte to foil Miller when the big striker looked set for a clear run on goal.
City’s only foray up front during this difficult period came when King collected the ball from Marney and shot from twenty yards on the right-hand side of the area, but his effort bobbled well wide.
Gradually, the match was becoming more even, evidenced by another nice move being fashioned by City which resulted in a tame attempt from Geovanni being easily held by Carson, although a moment of alarm came when a corner saw Ryan Donk head straight at Myhill from close range, when directing the ball a foot either side would have seriously test the Tigers’ goalkeeper.
Zayatte was a major influence through the game, and he had a spell of telling involvement when Miller was cautioned for a bad tackle on him, and moments later he ought to have done better when meeting a corner with his head, but the ball bounced two yards wide.
Back came the home side, and Valero fed Miller on the right the latter struck a shot which was slightly mishit but which still required a superb save by Myhill to flick the ball wide.
Ricketts entered Mr Probert’s book for a high tackle on Miller which drew blood and saw the welcome arrival of a comedy bandage being applied after treatment had been administered. The match was drifting slightly as half-time arrived, although when Bednar stole in ahead of his marker from a corner on the West Brom right he was unlucky to see his shot fly a foot over – that Myhill would have been able to prevent the ball flying in had it gone a shade lower was doubtful.
And so we arrived half-time, pleased with a decent showing to date. West Brom is a pleasing place at which to watch football, and despite the tiresome presence of a drummer spoiling things, there’s usually a decent atmosphere. We have the right-hand half of a large individual stand behind one goal, separated from the home fans by a beefy line of stewards, and it’s an arrangement that works well.
Underneath the stand, those needing a fag are accommodated with a open-air pen in which meat of dubious origin is hawked at three quid a time – a “burger”, they optimistically called it. I have my doubts.
Still, if we were content at the break, we were to be transported to the oft-visited heights of delirium early in the second half. Turner charged down a shot from Miller, and City swept upfield with breathtaking pace. The ball eventually reached King on the left, he squirmed into space close the goal-line and pulled it back to Geovanni. His shot took a nasty deflection and it took a superb one-handed save by the wrong-footed Carson to palm it wide for a corner.
Not that we were finished yet – from this corner on the right, Marney swung the ball in, the presumably sore Miller bottled his header and Zayatte cracked a beautiful volley past Carson. And yet again, the City portion of an away ground screamed in mad delight, and the season lurched further into bewildering insanity.
Moments later, with the City fans crowing about elevated league positions, Ian Ashbee picked up a costly caution that will see him suspended in the very near future. West Brom were unnerved but still positive in the approach, and Donk came close with a header from a corner that Ricketts watched onto the post he was guarding, although a corner was erroneously awarded and comfortable dealt with.
Myhill had had a fine afternoon to date, and when he produced a flying one-handed save from a 25 yard drive by Morrison, one sensed that another superb away win was to be ours – it looked great on the first viewing, and the replay on the stadium’s big screen confirmed what a truly outstanding piece of goalkeeping it was. And important too, for within the next five minutes the match was over.
Firstly, Geovanni flicked onto King, who expertly shattered West Brom’s offside trap, advanced on the left, and hooked the ball over the man covering in defence, where it fell perfectly for the returning Geovanni to steer a beautifully executed diving header past Carson. The away end went mental. Again. And this is a goal of rare skill and vision that we’ll never tire of seeing.
Myhill pulled off another terrific save from a long-range shot by Koren, and almost immediately we made it 3-0. A long clearance was met with a shocking header that King instantly fastened on to. He delightfully took hold of the ball by nudging it with the outside of his right foot before calmly steering it past the exposed Carson and triumphantly rushing over the single writhing mass of humanity that was previously 3,000 individual City fans.
Another great goal, made by an immaculate first touch and converted ruthlessly. And that was game over. Some of the less hardy home supporters scuttled away ’neath a torrent of Tiger scorn, while we gleefully cavorted and partied away the remaining twenty minutes.
Enquires were made as to whether Mr Lawrenson was observing our fourth away win in a row, and events on the field assumed a surreally peripheral air as the City fans, mostly stood, all singing, revelled in moments we’ll remember forever.
Ian Ashbee was withdrawn as Phil Brown decided to blood Bryan Hughes into the central midfield role he may assume in the impending absence of our skipper, while Geovanni sauntered off to a hero’s ovation for Richard Garcia.
City should have scored a fourth when a Marney free-kick found Turner unmarked at the far post – however, he went to head a low ball when perhaps a volley may have been wiser, and the ball went straight at Carson. Meanwhile, Morrison struck the outside of Myhill’s post with a twenty-yarder that curled just away from the goal.
Mowbray’s triple substitution in the 80th minute was much too late to change the pattern of the game, which featured several instances of us crying “ole!” as ostentatious passing moves were served up for us – deliberately, one suspects, as our men played to the gallery. Mr Brown was asked for a wave – he did, we cheered. There was a classy chant of “one Brian Horton” too, and one hopes a man whose own football life has spent so much time bound up with City appreciated it as much as he is appreciated.
And with the home ends half-empty, Mr Probert ended proceedings after a brief period of injury time, and three more points were ours.
Twenty, we now have. No Premier League side has more, although the match between Chelsea and Liverpool will see at least one of our title rivals (heh) move clear. No matter; we’ll host Chelsea on Wednesday night at what is certain to be an engorged and intense Circle in third place.
When will it end? This is the question on so many lips now. Arsenal may reasonably have been viewed as the absolute pinnacle of our season, and although it’s unlikely we’ll gain such an incredible single victory again in 2008/9, that we’ve continued winning since then is deeply satisfying.
Four wins in a row. Four wins on the road out of five. Just a single defeat. Third in the table. Twenty points already gained, with twenty more certain to keep us up. Already thirteen clear of the relegation places. The statistics become no less remarkable for being regularly related.
More remarkable are the individual performances we’re seeing. Boaz Myhill looked an international goalkeeper yesterday, and not just for Wales. McShane was targeted by West Brom, who frequently doubled up on his flank, but he coped bravely. Ricketts put in a solid effort in an unusual position at club level. Michael Turner should be in the next England squad; Kamil Zayatte looks like he could star in any international squad.
Ian Ashbee is continuing to write one of the most extraordinary personal stories in the history of English football, Dean Marney’s fearsome workrate keeps the midfield permanently chugging away, George Boateng is the experience and intelligent glue welding the whole side together.
Marlon King is a strong, fast, menacing presence leading the line, Cousin likewise has fine stamina and pace, while Geovanni is reason enough to have kids, just so you can tell them you saw him play. They’re great, all of them, absolutely great.
And so we march on, and we prepare to face Chelsea next – and then a visit to Old Trafford that is no longer the chance to be a tourist, it’s the chance to claim the biggest scalp of them all. For we had one final chant at full-time: “who the fuck are Man United? When the Hull go marching on on on”. And you know what? We meant it. (AD)
Myhill 8.5; McShane 7; Turner 8; Zayatte 9; Dawson n/a; Marney 7.5; Ashbee 8; Boateng 7.5; Cousin 7.5; King 8; Geovanni 8; Ricketts 7; Hughes 7