How did you feel at approximately 4.52pm on Saturday 28th November? Head held a little higher? Chest sticking out a bit more? Massive grin on your face that could only be removed surgically? God it feels good to be a City fan again. We have a club that, for various reasons, we can be incredibly proud of. And that includes the manager.
Much has been written about our defeat at the impressive City of Manchester Stadium on Boxing Day last year. Too much. However, you couldn’t help but sense that the eyes of the football world were on Phil Brown in the run up to Saturday’s game. How would he cope? Admirably.
We lined up as we had started in the dizzyingly marvellous first half against Everton, save for a rested Bullard coming in for George Boateng. That made: Duke; McShane, Gardner (Capt.) Zayatte, Dawson; Garcia, Bullard, Marney; Hunt, Geovanni and Altidore.
Our opponents started with Given in goal, a back four of Richards, Bridge, Toure and Lescott, a midfield of Wright-Phillips, Ireland, De Jong and Robinho and an attack of Adebayor and Tevez – a £47m signing who cost Man City more than every signing in Hull City’s history combined.
The opening minutes were a little scary. Man City’s approach work was as good as Chelsea’s was in their 3-0 win at the KC last season, with Robinho and Wright-Phillips in particular pulling our full-backs all over the place. However, as was to be the case throughout the match, the nice touches and impressive movement generally stopped once the penalty area came into view. Indeed it was the Tigers who had the first goalmouth incident of note on 7 minutes when a Garcia cross was unconvincingly dealt with by the home defence, and Marney saw his shot blocked. Man City broke immediately up the other end with an attack that was ended with a pitiful dive by Robinho in the penalty area. The ref, and the City faithful, were not amused.
Man City continued to impress but couldn’t break down our rearguard. A series of corners and free-kicks were poorly delivered, and the closest they came to scoring in the opening 15 was when Anthony Gardner underhit a backpass which Duke had to be alert to deal with under pressure from Tevez. Man City went close soon after when the ever-impressive Ireland volleyed just over the bar.
Hard work from Altidore – something we’re becoming accustomed to – won a free-kick out of nothing which Geo blasted over, but then Man City turned the screw a little. First Robinho’s dazzling footwook bamboozled McShane, who was grateful to see the Brazilian’s shot fly just wide of the upright, and two minutes later Tevez broke through for a one-on-one with Duke. The battle between the £47m and the £20,000 player was won by the latter as Duke stood firm and saved Tevez’s shot with his legs.
On 25, just after Bridge had mystifyingly escaped a booking for a high and late foul on McShane, poor Bullard defending from a corner saw Robinho’s overhead kick go just over the bar. Richards then headed just over from another corner as it looked as though it was a matter of when Man City would score, not if. Indeed, had Wright-Phillip’s shot on 29 minutes gone in, there would have been nothing to do but applaud. A Brazil 1970-style four-man move involving Adebayor, Ireland and Robinho put Wright-Phillips through, but he could only volley into the side netting. How would we survive?
Through character, graft and no little skill, that’s how. Six weeks ago we’d have relented to the home side’s torrent of attacking football. The all-new Hull City rolled up their collective sleeves and scrapped for every ball. Most 50/50s were won by City players. Time on the ball was a luxury for any player dressed in light blue as City players – none more so than the magnificent Stephen Hunt – snapped at their heels. Such bravery and hard work was almost rewarded on 34 when Garcia crossed to McShane, who headed into the side netting, and again two minutes later when Garcia put Geovanni through, whose low shot was well saved by Given. Bridge then committed a bad foul on Garcia and again got away without a booking, unlike Dawson, who’d been shown a yellow car minutes earlier for a pretty innocuous foul.
A half-decent shout for a City penalty was turned down on 45, when Lescott appeared to push Altidore. The appeals from the fans were half-hearted. Of course we knew we’d been given our only dodgy penalty of the season a week earlier against West Ham. Ahem. After this, Man City broke, with Wright-Phillips picking up the ball in midfield. The winger skipped past Hunt and had Dawson dithering when he smashed in a shot that deflected off Gardner’s head and went past a wrong-footed Duke. It was a cruel time to concede, particularly after we’d seemed to have weathered the storm and would have been good value to go in at half-time on level terms.
How would we react to this setback? By immediately winning a free-kick in a dangerous position which Geo wasted, and then by nearly scoring when Hunt and Altidore brilliantly combined to put Garcia through. The Aussie – who’d been moved up front for the second half with Geo on the right – beat Given but saw Lescott clear the ball off the line. We weren’t going to lay down and die though.
Man City reverted to what they do best to cope with our resurgence. They dived. First Adebayor then Wright-Phillips tried to con referee Lee Probert into giving penalties or dangerous free-kicks, but the man in black was having none of it. Duke then saved well on 54 from Wright-Phillips, and minutes later a dangerous Tevez break was marvellously stopped by McShane, who had come through his torrid first half hour unscathed and was now repelling anything Man City could throw at him with consummate ease. Then on 59 Bullard broke forward, but lacking support had little choice but to keep going. Eventually, after beating three men, he fired over. Having covered half the pitch with his run, however, he looked knackered. Thoughts of bringing him off obviously didn’t cross Phil Brown’s mind as Marney and Geo were replaced by Barmby and Boateng.
The game then became very even for ten minutes or so. Adebayor managed to stamp on McShane, who reacted with a smile. The stamp didn’t seem deliberate but I’ll leave it to you to imagine the reaction had the roles been reversed. Zayatte was then booked but on the whole we looked comfortable. Our defence had their attack’s number and our midfield was getting in their faces. They didn’t like it either. Indeed, we started to look a little bit more likely to score. Great work by Hunt saw his cross eventually fall to McShane, who volleyed wide. The longer things stayed at 1-0, the more nervous Man City seemed to be getting.
Then, on 80 minutes, something happened that will live very, very long in the mind. Great work down our left by Dawson and Hunt saw a Garcia header well defender by Man City. However, Hunt then crossed the ball in again, Garcia headed it towards Vennegoor of Hesselink – who had replaced Altidore – and it appeared to hit Lescott on the arm. Meanwhile, Venegoor or Hesselink was involved in a tangle with Toure which saw them both falling on the floor. Probert pointed to the spot for what was – regardless of what the decision was based on – a generous penalty. Still, such decisions had been going against us with such regularity in our Premiership sojourn until last week that we’ll gladly take things being evened out a little. So up stepped Bullard, who slammed the ball to Given’s right and into the net.
What happened next is something that we’ll still be talking about in 50 years. It was wonderful, funny, affectionate, brilliantly executed and, above all, showed the lazy national press of this country just what the players thought of the ‘other’ half-time team talk at Eastlands which had, apparently, been the sole cause of our awful second half of the season. Basically, Bullard stood in the middle of a circle of players and re-enacted the infamous team talk of last season. You’ve probably seen it a million times by now, but like Deano’s goal at Wembley, it will be impossible to ever watch it without breaking into a massive smile. Not that it matters too much, but the negative press the club had been getting in the past few months already seems to havebeen wiped out with one wonderful piece of comedy. Genius. Rumours that the players were going to re-enact the Humber Bridge incident if we scored a second will sadly have to remain just that.
Eight minutes plus stoppage time remained, and we awaited the Man City onslaught. Except it didn’t materialise. Our defence owned them. And Boateng happily battered their midfield into submission too with one of his best performances in a City shirt. A free-kick on 85 was hit into the wall by Tevez, but that aside Man City had nothing left. We’d drawn the war but won the battle.
The players, who seem as together as any team is likely to get, in some respects should not be seperated for analysis. I’m going to, however. Duke was excellent. He had no chance with the goal, and did everything else excellently. Myhill is the better keeper of the two, but he’s going to have to wait to get back in. Amid the press concerning Barmby, Windass and Ashbee, Matt Duke’s story is something of a neglected one, but it really is heart-warming to see him performing so well at this level. His signing is probably the most under-rated of the Taylor era. As mentioned McShane and Dawson both had torrid opening half-hours, but then somehow emerged as the overall victors in their respective battles with Robinho and Wright-Phillips. They look unrecognisable from the players we saw this time last month. Then there’s Gardner and Zayatte. The latter was very good, and didn’t seem to have let his erratic 10 minutes against Everton affect him. Gardner, however, was simply Turneresque. You’ll notice that Adebayor is only mentioned in this report for his diving. That’s because of what Gardner reduced him to. Utterly marvellous. If he stays fit, we’ll be OK.
In midfield, Hunt was the star. He simply didn’t stop working and throwing himself into tackles. And when he needed to deliver quality balls, he did. He was level with Gardner as my man of the match. Geo wasn’t at his best – perhaps trying too hard against his former club – but still was a willing worker. Marney… he was Dean Marney. He worked hard, didn’t do too much wrong and was taken off after 60 minutes. However, there’s no escaping the fact that over the past two years we’ve been a better team with him in the starting XI than without. Don’t expect an explanation of that, but look through the team sheets. He did his bit yesterday anyway. Boateng was immense when he came on, and nipped most Man City attacks in the bud. Garcia worked like a maniac and won flick-on after flick-on. He’s never let us down, and his appetite for hard work is something that seems infectious with the rest of the team. Another player who that could be said about is Jozy Altidore.
Yes, he may still be goalless in the Premiership, but his worth in the past four games has been there for all to see. His touch can be embarrassing, but when he plays up front we score goals. Barmby was superb when he came on, and Venegoor of Hesselink looked the lumbering get that he is, but yet again made a crucial contribution in winning the penalty. And that leaves Bullard. In truth Ireland won their personal duel. Bullard tired in the second half. He didn’t quite link with Geo in the way many had predicted/hoped. But what he brings to the team cannot be measured. The goal celebration was worth £5m alone. The penalty was expertly taken. And he is, quite simple, at the centre of everything that’s good about the club at the moment. It seems incredible to think that this is only his fifth game for us. And his third start. He’s already a legend.
We’re great to support again. And while Adam Pearson is one factor in that, it feels so good to be able to love Phil Brown. His reaction to the goal celebration was nice to see, but more importantly he’s sticking with a settled team, staying out of the media and generally concentrating on managing the football team. And it’s been easy to forget just what a good manager he can be over the past few months. Yesterday showed just that. Tactically he had Man City, and our players seemed twice as motivated as they did. The substitutions all worked, and all in all it was a very good day for our manager. The media might just have to learn to love him again too.