MATCH REPORT – City 1 Stoke 2

The Premier League – Saturday 9th May 2009

Described by football commentators as in freefall since January, this was City’s best chance, given the late season fixture list, to deploy the parachute, instead we fell further groundward, nearer to Premier League death. Now, defeat at this point is hard enough to take, but the really galling aspect is that we don’t appear to be even trying to pull the ripcord, our players seem to have accepted that bitter fate.

George Boateng supposedly said this game was “bigger than Wembley.” though it’s more likely the Hull Daily Mail put those words in his mouth given that he wasn‘t even a Hull City player when we played at the national stadium, and those words will be attributed to another player ahead of the game at Bolton next week, after a gutless, belief and purpose free capitulation to Stoke, who beat us without breaking into a sweat.

“If we play like we did against Liverpool in the rest of the games, we’ll be alright” was the stock phrase after the 3-1 defeat, but therein lies the fucking rub, we don’t play like that against the sides we should be getting results against, we didn’t play like that against Sunderland, or Middlesbrough, or Blackburn, and now against Stoke.

Bottling it this week were :- Myhill; Dawson, Zayatte, Turner, Ricketts; Barmby, Kilbane, Boateng, Garcia; Fagan and Cousin. No place in the XI for top scorer Geovanni, who warmed the bench.

The Circle was bathed in sunshine and awash with noise as the game was kicked off by Stoke, who were playing towards the South Stand in the first forty-five. From the start, City looked indecisive and anxious, routinely passing the ball to Stoke players (Boateng and Cousin were the first to show such negligence) who in comparison were confident and composed.

More worrying than nerves was the lack of understanding between those in black and amber, something made painfully evident when we were awarded a free kick near the right touchline after Etherington felled Sam Ricketts and saw yellow. Dawson and Barmby stood over the ball, and after Barmby did that utterly pointless pick up the ball and flamboyantly put it back down thing, Dawson whipped in a ball that arced, untouched, out of play. Not because the cross was poor, but because nobody in a City shirt even attempted to get on the end of it, no one, leaving Barmby and Dawson raging and gesticulating wildly at their colleagues.

City did though, create the first notable attempt on goal, after Craig Fagan tenaciously kept the ball in play on the right touchline and then crossed for Daniel Cousin, whose header looped goalward only to be tipped over by Sorensen for a corner.

Hearts were in mouths at the other end soon after though when a free kick, conceded by Ricketts, was fired across the goalline and beyond the mass of bodies where two Stoke players stood unmarked, thankfully Leon Cort saw it too late to react well enough and the ball hit him and went out for a goal kick.

There wasn’t much fluidity from either team at this point though so far this game hadn’t quite descended into the ugly festival of godforsaken hoofball that had been anticipated, not yet anyway. City had taken the step of moving the advertising boards some five yards or so closer to the touchline on each side to prevent Rory Delap from getting a long run up for his lengthy throws, a move which only hindered our own long thrower, Sam Ricketts. Indeed Delap, when City expected a lengthy toss, threw the ball short to an unmarked man, as all of City’s outfield players were in the box awaiting a leather grenade.

What was needed from City was some guile and purpose, some inventiveness and creativity to unlock Stoke‘s admirable and stubborn resisitance. Sadly, we just didn’t have it in us. That’s not to say effort and application was lacking from all, Fagan was having a decent enough game, buzzing around harrying defenders in his irritating gnat manner, and Garcia too was working hard, but these two aren’t the most prolific of goalscorers. The Aussie controlled in the box and struck a low shot that, alas, didn’t trouble Sorensen enough, the Dane getting down to smother it. There just wasn’t the craft to match the graft, Zayatte hit a wild shot that troubled Stoke fans at the back of the North Stand, but not as intended the Stoke goal.

There were pretty desperate shouts for a penalty in the stands, but not on the pitch when Barmby flung himself at a crossed ball placed a good four yards away from him. Soon, came some hopeful, well, hopeless if you think about it long balls towards Nick Barmby. What is he going to do with it? Not to mention that Stoke defend long balls probably better than any team in this division, we were playing into their hands.

For their part, as a team decried all year long for long ball hoofery and reliance on long throw-ins, Stoke played well today. They aren’t proponents of total football by any stretch, but they are well drilled and have an understanding and unity that we haven’t displayed since before the turn of the year.

The Tiger Nation, earlier vocal and matching their Potteries counterparts were now mostly silent, piping up only to drown out ’Delilah’, a truly witless club song, with boos. There was in truth little happening on the pitch for them to cheer, Cousin, back to goal, turned to shoot but instead sort of shinned it way over.

Our midfield was looking decidedly shaky, Boateng looked off the pace, as if not fully recovered from injury and Kilbane was making poor errors of judgement, shaping up to control several balls that got away from him. First Ricketts, then Boateng made a hash of routine challenges and allowed Stoke to break, the ball was sprayed right where Liam Lawrence shot across goal, the strike deflected behind for a corner.

And then, disaster. The corner kick came in, there was a melee in the box and while City bodies were falling to the floor, Ricardo Fuller turned and blasted home from close range. 1-0 Stoke, and we’re in the shit now.

“You should have played long ball” taunted the Stokies as the half time whistle blew not long after. Not really, but we should have played better. The sky, clear and blue at kick off, was now dark and overcast, and a cold wind blew through the stadium. The concourses were thick with gloom during the interval, few could see how we were going to score to get back into this, let alone conjure up a desperately needed winner. One Tiger National, desperate to not appear defeatist, said “there’s forty five minutes to go yet” in a vain bid to inject some hope into the conversation. No one replied.

There were no changes to the personnel at the break and no change to the performance either as the second half began. Kilbane did well to dig out a shot that Sorenson tipped away but ultimately we now looked bereft of conviction as well as shorn of ideas. Garcia was chopped down on the very cusp of the area but Dawson’s free kick, always rising, fizzed the wrong side of the bar. Save for that direct free kick, all of our chances so far had been half baked and we seemed incapable of fashioning a true goalscoring opportunity.

On the hour, Manucho and Mendy were brought on, replacing Cousin and Garcia. Taking Garcia off was a poor choice, he was one of the few not plagued by indecision and had spiritedly gone for goal more times than the forwards had combined, the manager shot the team in the foot here. The two coming on, made not a blind bit of difference going forward. At the other end, Whelan smashed a volleyed shot against the bar and the visitors were enjoying themselves as we spluttered. City, apparently taking heed of the Stoke fans earlier chant were now just punting the ball up field, but unlike those in red and white stripes, we didn’t even do it well, it was pitiful.

The last man to find the net for City, Geovanni, was finally thrown on after Zayatte, already wearing a head bandage after an earlier clash, was stretchered off with around 20 minutes to go. Too little, too late, and minutes later Stoke made sure of all three points when Lawrence hammered a shot from 25 yards out that nestled in the top left corner of the goal, with Myhill watching despairingly.

All of the huffing and puffing that City did after this point was utterly immaterial, Dawson’s late goal from a free kick included, and I won‘t waste time talking about it, lest I make you and I more angry/frustrated/hurt and developing peptic ulcers. We were well beaten today, even if the scoreline doesn’t imply that was so, we never seriously troubled Stoke in a game that we could have used to put daylight between ourselves and the bottom three. Instead, West Brom’s 3-1 win against Wigan opens up the possibility of finishing the season rock bottom, and we can only hope that Boro and Newcastle share points when they square up on Monday, because if one of them wins and draws level with us on points, we are surely fucked. And that’s where we find ourselves, praying on results elsewhere and relying on the ineptitude of the teams below us, because the chances we’ve had to control our own destiny have slipped through our fingers like dry sand.

This scenario seemed a million miles away, unthinkable even back in late December, when after both facing Manchester clubs, City lay seventh and Stoke were in the relegation zone. Lazy journalists may blame the on pitch bollocking at the Eastlands as the pivotal point where our season turned sour, but ultimately it was the weeks that followed, during the January transfer window that changed everything for City and Stoke.

The Potters emerged a better side after bringing in Etherington and a proven Premier League goal getter in James Beattie, and all credit to them for that move. We on the other hand, climbed out of the window a poorer side, losing Marlon King (in itself not an incorrect decision given the personality of the man) and failing to bring in an adequate replacement. The record signing of Jimmy Bullard is not a factor here, as much as the Stoke fans might mock that move, even had he remained fit we needed something more, certainly up front, and we brought in Manucho on loan.

Paul Duffen said this week that in the long term Manucho represents a better signing than James Beattie, if he really believes that he’s a fucking idiot and it inspires little confidence going forward if the men in charge cannot at least acknowledge the mistakes made. You can’t stop the rot if you won’t admit it’s existence. After the game Phil Brown trotted out the line about keeping faith. Faith in what? Your team selections? Your substitutions? The gameplan you instil in the players? Fah. Thinking good thoughts will not save us, we need a plan and some motivation to execute it.

While it’s true that relegation from the Premier League would be far from the worst thing that has and could ever happen to us, it’s just so needless, and could and should have been prevented long before now, with two games left, and one of those against the best team on the planet.

The freefall then, continues. Remember those Match Of The Day pre-highlights animations where the camera zooms in from somewhere above the clouds to just over a stadium? Well that’s Hull City right now, falling at terminal velocity towards the Reebok Stadium. Bolton v. City, it’s bigger than Wembley you know?  (LM)