No victory, but the evidence of just how much heart the Hull City players possess right now was plain for all to see. From two goals down to 3-2 up, and then a show of admirable resistance after going down to ten men made sure that a precious, satisfactory point was bagged and that Phil Brown’s employment was prolonged.
The win against Stoke suggested the players still wanted to play for Brown; this display absolutely confirmed it. A lesser motivated, more divided team would have withered away after losing two goals in the opening 11 minutes and Brown would have been a goner. Again, it was an active performance from a spirited side that kept Brown alive and there’s more than a glimmer of hope, suddenly, for City to flower as a Premier League force.
Geovanni’s return was expected by some, doubted by others. Absent for the Stoke game through suspension, he was ultimately placed only on the bench as Brown, justifiably, kept faith with the strikeforce of Jozy Altidore and Craig Fagan, with Jimmy Bullard doing all the prompting. The only change saw hamstring injury victim Seyi Olofinjana replaced by the energy and wayward shooting of Dean Marney. Thus, the Tigers lined up as Duke; Mendy, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson; Garcia, Marney, Bullard, Hunt; Altidore, Fagan. Mark Clattenburg was the referee, a man claimed to be the most lenient in the top flight. We’d later see why.
Early chances were traded, with Valon Behrami hitting a first minute drive right at Matt Duke, then Fagan was penalised harshly for a foul as he twisted on to Altidore’s flick and aimed a shot just wide. Little to hoose between two struggling sides at first; then from nowhere Guillermo Franco, not the tallest of players, nutted a free header past Duke from an inswinging corner and the Hammers had first blood.
It was a soft, infuriating goal, with the marking poor and communication obviously at a premium. City responded with both Altidore and Fagan unable to feed properly off the scraps thrown by Bullard’s deflected volley, but then the defence was punctured way too easily again.
Franco this time was creator, with an accurate but still not perilous-looking centre from distance that Jack Collison managed to flick beyond Anthony Gardner’s challenge but, more chillingly, over the advanced Duke’s head and into the net. The visiting fans, plentiful in both numbers and decibels, were understandably gleeful as they took a 2-0 lead with merely 11 minutes on the watch.
City tried to respond as Brown contemplated a half-time phone call to Pickfords. Richard Garcia’s header was blocked by an onrushing Robert Green after good work from Altidore, who played as if he’d been told it was time he used his pace and size properly. Brilliant, he was. But a 15-minute dearth of creativity was to follow, with Bullard pulling his usual mesmeric strings but producing little opportunity to claw a way back into the game.
Then City won a free kick at the corner of the area. Bullard smacked it lowly and vigorously, it took one deflection that looped it upwards, then another that took it away from Green’s eyeline and rising fist, before nestling into the net in that postage stamp area between post and bar. It seemed to take several weeks to go in. But it did, and it was fortunate, yes. But we’d take it. We rarely do good fortune round these parts.
The noise rose from the KC as the proles realised the prospect of at least repairing some damage and making the second half into a proper contest was right there. The players responded superbly. Marney made room for one shot but, being Marney, he put it wide (last goal – penalty v Barnsley in the promotion season; last goal from outside the box – v Southampton, earlier the same season) but positioned himself well and made himself available for the ball all the time. Maybe playing alongside Bullard might make Marney raise his game to the level we’ve all anticipated but very rarely seen from a boy once top of the class in Tottenham’s academy. And maybe it won’t.
Marney then chipped a nice ball through to Altidore, with the American’s drive smothered by Green. Bullard then sent a marvellous fizzing pass to Mendy on the overlap, and the Frenchman’s impeccable control on the chest took him clear but his attempt at a cross was disappointingly snuffed out.
Kamil Zayatte and Anthony Gardner, a central defensive partnership that at times looks ragged and other times invincible, each ventured forward for set-pieces with the former seeing a header deflected wide and the latter sending his own butted chance beyond the far post. The Tigers were getting closer, it seemed…
Another free kick, which Bullard leaves for the better angles of Stephen Hunt’s left foot. The delivery is sublime, and Zayatte gets on the correct side of his dozy marker and thumps a crisp volley low into the net. A fine goal, one which West Ham will hate to see again, and parity is restored. To be level at the break would do just nicely. But wait!
Craig Fagan, still hopeless with his touch but doing the effective Fagan shtick of winding up opponents, goes all swan-like to the deck just inside the box. He might have been shoved, he might not. It still looked soft though as referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot, and Bullard overruled the claim of Hunt to the penalty, smashing it in with Le Tissier-esque confidence. And at half time, we’re winning. Insane. Inexplicable. Ace.
So, now to rubberstamp it, thought we. Well, this was after discussions over the beers and coffees about the last time we’d come from two down to win, the last time we’d scored three at home, and every other dusty old stat that had either been, or was threatening to be, blown apart by this remarkable game of football. We hadn’t won yet, of course. But we certainly looked hopeful of doing so. Especially as we all seemed to agree that West Ham deserved a half-time bollocking but had a manager too nice to be able to administer it.
Yet it was the visitors who came out of the second half blocks quicker. Junior Stanislas, a player who lost a vowel at some point in his life, swung a free kick over all heads from a good position, then Franco fired wide from a reasonable position while Zayatte lay prone on the deck.
The latest turning point soon followed when Mendy, covering for another horizontal City player dashed across to curtail Scott Parker’s run on goal and, with the sense of kamikaze inevitability Mendy takes with him (especially when he’s defending), connected not with leather but with leg. Parker was a bit of distance from goal and isn’t regarded as an ace finisher, but there simply wasn’t the defensive cover that would have prevented him at least lining up a chance against Duke, and so Mendy had to go. City survived the free kick and reshuffled with Paul McShane replacing Garcia and slotting in at right back. Fagan went wide, leaving Altidore a little isolated at the top.
And West Ham came right at the Tigers, knowing that this was a situation begging to be exploited. Carlton Cole shot wide from a long way out (and looked most foolish in doing so) and Stanislas tried to bamboozle Duke from a similarly distant range and worked the keeper harder, with Duke almost caught out and having to collect after a spill.
Franco, already in the book, then chops down Altidore as the hardworking striker wriggles through a gap and finds room. A second yellow seems inevitable but, even though the free kick is given, Clattenburg doesn’t deem the foul serious enough to warrant a yellow card. A baffling decision on one level, though it doesn’t harm football fans to remember that once a player has been booked, it doesn’t make every type of subsequent felony from the cautioned player an automatic yellow card offence. There were worse fouls in this game. Franco can still count himself lucky, mind.
Had it gone to ten versus ten, it may have changed the complexion of the game again. But West Ham, relishing the freedom on the ball that an extra man gave them, seemed certain to score – and they seemed to know it too. It wasn’t long coming too, though it was galling from City’s point of view as, for the second time, a corner was inadequately defended and Manuel Da Costa steered home a low far post shot.
It’s 3-3, heck. And we don’t look likely to win this now. West Ham do though. And with Franco teetering on the disciplinary brink, Zola wisely substitutes him as soon as the equaliser goes in. Brown throws on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for the weary, excellent Altidore, who takes a few days to realise he is the man coming off.
The visitors are presented with a golden opportunity when Gardner, awesome at times and dismal at others, is unaware of Luis Jimenez hovering around him, with the Hammers sub robbing the City centre back and hitting the side netting with his shot when he should have done better.
Brown throws on Geovanni for Hunt with seven minutes left, an intriguing substitution given that percentages suggested a draw was a worthy outcome for a team with ten men, but Brown used to do this a lot – ie, try to win football matches. His new found focus seems to have reinvigorated his happy habit in the Championship of picking winning teams and, if that didn’t work, sending on subs to win it instead. But against West Ham, resurgent and with a man extra? Risky.
Cole headed a cross over the bar, then Duke had to make a rare proper save when Collison aimed a sturdy downward header for the corner and the Tigers custodian had to batter it away and collect after getting back to his feet. Geovanni’s 40 yard free kick hit the wall and injury time and that, pantingly, was that.
City didn’t win, but the way that the players responded to going two goals down and then battled like hell upon losing Mendy, suggests that in the scheme of things for the future – that’s the future of Brown as a manager and the club as a Premier League member – things are still looking up.
Everton, for all their injury issues, will provide a different type of opposition for yet another game at the KC on Wednesday night and the test of just how progressive the Tigers really are will be far more stringent. Meanwhile, it was nice to see a game of genuine entertainment, unpredictability and excitement involving the Tigers. We really have seen not enough of those qualities lately. Good stuff. (MR)