The Premier League – Saturday 13th December 2008
Ooooh, get us. Winners at the Emirates, probably the greatest ever losers at Old Trafford, and now giving England’s most successful club one of its biggest frights within its hallowed reddened walls.
How dare we? Upstarts, urchins, hobbledehoys of the Premier League. That’s us, isn’t it? We’re supposed to turn up at these heritage sites of football, look committed, allow the opposition to steamroller us and be grateful for it, maybe picking up a souvenir mug and a round of applause from head-patting locals on the way out.
We are Hull City, colossus of the Premier League. The real deal. Not just better than the other two teams who were promoted with us (one of whom is going back down through naivety, the other through imbecilic brutality) but a lot of the establishment outfits too. As for the Big Four, the bloated, spoilt gluttons of this business, we are matching all of them on their own patches. It’s absolutely terrific. Football’s very fabric, its foundation, its modern tradition, is being rocked to the core by us, a club that once got really excited when we found the money to afford Ryan Williams.
City turned up at Anfield to play for a typically throaty Tiger Nation humanhood, plus the odd Scouser and shitloads of football tourists from the Wirral, north Wales, Cumbria and the bits of West Yorkshire which happily let Halifax Town die an appalling death last year. Football tourism is the pits. If you’re Chinese or Chingfordian, you have no place supporting Liverpool. As with our jolly to Manchester United, your reporter was startled, saddened and then (predominantly) amused greatly by the total lack of community involvement at these places. Though Liverpool handle their history with dignity – the understated list of honours in the matchday programme, the tasteful Hillsborough memorial – they aren’t very good at looking after the present or the future. These alleged fans are quiet as lambs, the owners squabble, the manager is Megson-esque in his groundless bawling and pointing, and the team relies on one fantastic local to get them through the game.
Steven Gerrard gets stick on Amber Nectar, and deserves it. But on watching him close up, one realises more starkly than ever how much he is Liverpool FC. The other players – allowing for the sensational Fernando Torres’ absence through injury – cower in his presence, desperate to give him the ball, hoping to be honoured by receiving it from him. Two obvious conclusions – firstly, if Gerrard ever gets a cruciate ligament injury or suchlike, Liverpool will be in mid-table. Secondly, if teams can prevent Gerrard from being too damaging, they have more than adequate opportunities to outwit the rest.
Gerrard was influential but not all-compassing as City shackled him reasonably well. If he did get away, the task was to reduce his targets. Yes he can pop them in from 30 yards if given the chance, but not if his route to goal is blocked. Force him wide, force him backwards, allow him to maintain possession if it means he is going the wrong way. This was executed largely to perfection. he did score twice, but he was off the ball in his appraoch on both occasions and both goals were fouls anyway.
Phil Brown, in a smart furry leather overcoat, made one change. He dropped Dean Marney to give Bernard Mendy a role on the right of midfield. Mendy, a brilliant footballer of wit and eccentricity, ran the first half of the first half. Andrea Dossena, who has both an Italian passport and a girl’s name and therefore should spend a day being tortured by a French footballing headcase, had his upper body shattered to bits by the dancing wideman over and over again. Mendy’s selection was key to City’s success, and his re-selection was key to City’s ultimate sense of mild dejection.
Liverpool made the early chances but City were settled. Michael Turner could have rendered Torres a weeping Spanish sissy given the chance, we know that, but instead he was restricted to presenting Liverpool fans further chance to label Dirk Kuyt as an exercise in profligacy and weakness. Kamil Zayatte won everything, headed everything, tackled everything that was there and quite a lot which wasn’t. And our captain, Ian Ashbee, as if he had to point out who was the best captain on the field, was just stupendous. He covered all the blades and was masterful in the tackle, unflinching in his leadership and, gratifyingly, accurate in his passing. This was Ashbee’s best performance for City, among a plethora of mesmerising displays in the last 12 months from our captain. On the biggest stage, Ashbee again steps up. Let’s see how he fares in the UEFA Cup next year.
So, the game settles. And City should have had a penalty in the first five minutes when Sam Ricketts and Nick Barmby combine nicely down the left. Barmby, against his old club for the second week in a row, turns a low effort into the box and the sliding Javier Mascherano blocks for a corner – with his hand. It’s Anfield, it’s early in the game and it’s the opposition who want the penalty, so naturally Alan Wiley doesn’t give it. Turner heads the consolatory corner over the bar.
City revert to defensive heroism – a tack that would be reassuringly present throughout the match – as both Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera (football needs more people called Albert) have vicious snapshots which black and amber bodies fling themselves in the way of. A corner is forced, and Riera laughably balloons a shot wide from Gerrard’s far post delivery. Moments after Boaz Myhill’s clearance, Zayatte is in the action, stealing the ball from Kuyt with exuberance and class, prompting wild applause from the Tiger Nation.
The wild applause quickly became wild capering and eye-rubbing incredulity as City took the lead. Mendy wins a free kick after relocating Dossena’s pelvic area, Geovanni aims it a little long, but when Marlon King collects and re-delivers, there’s the ginger mane of Paul McShane climbing highest and aiming a looper over Jose Reina and just beneath the bar. An unexpected scorer but it matters not. City are winning at Liverpool. Another adventure has begun.
Having won the free kick, Mendy becomes the main outlet for City’s next ten minutes. Geovanni even bows down to the mercurial, flighty Frenchman, looking to release him as often as possible. Mendy’s treatment of Dossena was a sight to behold. Think Eddie Gray and David Webb, 1970. Think Chris Waddle and Paolo Maldini, 1989. Only fate would stop Mendy from having a 90-minute impact on his full back in the manner of these other wideman and their victims. But for ten immense, addictive minutes, he was capable of destroying any defender on earth.
Away he went again in the 21st minute, and again Dossena was reminded of how much pain can emanate from one’s arse muscles when they have been twisted and manipulated in unnatural directions with high frequency. Mendy wasn’t done either – having turned Dossena to paste, he then cracked in a cross of ferocity and accuracy which prompted Jamie Carragher, that laudable virtue of rearguard strength, to place the ball into his own net. More capering.
McShane picked up a booking and then, crucially, picked up an injury. His withdrawal for Marney forced Brown to revert Mendy to the right back slot, and our most potent, devastating weapon was nullified. Mendy still managed a couple of spontaneous runs when room was allowed – he neded up on the left wing after one such mazy dribble – but the decision not to pick Nathan Doyle, the only fit back-up defender on the books, as a sub was soon regretted. City’s sparkle had been dulled and they got cocky.
Liverpool had already begun the comeback. Kuyt breaks, his cross is helped on its way by Turner being shoved out of the way, and Gerrard taps in the chance. Should have been a City free kick, but it’s Liverpool at home, and it’s in front of the Kop, and it’s Gerrard, so it must be a goal.
The reshuffle comes shortly afterwards and City are barely out of their box for the rest of an enthralling, exhausting first half. Kuyt stabs a cross-shot from Gerrard just wide, but then makes amends with a smart lay-off under pressure – with Turner illegally decked again – to give the talisman his second and level things up. It’s 2-2 before half time and City have relinquished a two-goal lead. You’d expect Liverpool to win it now, wouldn’t you?
They did try. Before half time, Barmby blocked magnificently from Benayoun, Riera flashed one across Myhill’s goal and Xabi Alonso – a brilliant, no-frills footballer who is the real star here – curled a peach of a shot inches beyond Myhill’s post, with the custodian of City’s leather flagging. It was all a bit dismaying and the noise from the Tiger Nation died – until Brown turned our way and did his waving routine to get it back up again. A manager who wants to start the singing? Awesome. A man of real calibre, our gaffer. Can you imagine Terry Dolan or Stan Ternent doing that?
Half time was a relief. The second half was assault. City were punched, kicked and sliced apart – proverbially, although Liverpool did commit actual fouls later in their most frustrated moments – and the Tigers kept them out. Heroism isn’t a hefty enough word to define what Messrs Ashbee, Turner and Zayatte in particular, but everyone generally, attained in the second half, but it will do for now.
So, prepare yourself for a barrage of words to describe the barrage of chances, re-iterating once more that none of them went in.
Gerrard takes a corner, Sami Hyypia wins it aerially and finds the outside of the post. Riera fizzes a right-footer from 18 yards which Myhill’s clenched fists arrow away. Alonso curls one inches wide again from Riera’s pull back. Gerrard cascades into the box but Turner blocks his shot and Ashbee clears. Kuyt miskicks over the bar from six yards. Kuyt then runs into Ashbee, who leaves the area upright with both the ball and every bit of Kuyt’s breath. Zayatte hurls his forehead at Riera’s cross as Gerrard shapes to volley. Hyypia wins another Gerrard corner but goes wide. Gerrard finds the roof of the net from distance. Substitute Nabil El Zhar hits a vigorous drive which Myhill fumbles, clutches, fumbles and then finally punches properly, as both Kuyt and Gerrard sniffed rebounds.
Four minutes of added time were signalled and, amazingly, joyously, City spent most of it on the attack. But for disappointing deliveries by King, Marney and especially sub Peter Halmosi (on for George Boateng), the chance to win it in front of the Kop was presenting itself. No matter. City celebrated a fabulous point and banked another day of memories to relay to the grandchildren from a peacock chair in 2047.
The Tigers have scored more away goals than every other Premier League club except Chelsea, and only that 4-3 sphincter-clencher at Manchester United represents a defeat on our travels. And our next away game is after Christmas! Stone the crows.
Disappointed to be two up at Anfield and not win? Maybe. It’s time we spoiled ourselves with such thoughts. Our manager and players have made sure we deserve to. (MR)