REPORT: Portsmouth 3 City 2

It was a celebration straight from the method. Caleb Folan ambled like a stalking jungle beast across the byline in front of the Hull City supporters glowering and frowning while those not behaving like egotistical dimwits leapt all over him, yelping in glee.

What we were supposed to make of that celebration? “Look, you ungrateful wretches on meagre working salaries, I *can* stay onside!”

We didn’t actually care.

By the end of the game, we had cause to care even less.

Folan, the forgotten man of Hull City and deservedly so for any number of reasons, had just steered a shot past David James in the 73rd minute to put the Tigers 2-1 ahead with, inexplicably, his second goal of the afternoon. This was a player who had been routinely ignored since August, and had not scored since the August before when we were a bright-eyed new Premier League team with intrigue and freshness on our side. And people quite liked us.

Such was the lack of script within a bizarre game at Portsmouth, one which could destroy the reputation of five-goal thrillers everywhere, and certainly has gone a long way to destroy lingering hopes of a Hull City revival under new manager Iain Dowie.

Last week’s 93rd minute concession to Arsenal was a kick in the nads. This 89th minute defeat was a full on castration, unanaesthetised, with a rusty machete wielded by a woman wronged by every man ever to have crossed her vengeful path. It hurt. It was genuinely tear-inducing. It was also capable of making pacifists murderous and put small children in fear of their lives – or their hot dinners later, at least – from their own loving fathers.

And this was because City were two minutes away from a precious first victory on the road this season – and still lost the game.

Dowie chose to make only necessary team changes from last week’s unfortunate defeat to the Gunners, with Kevin Kilbane replacing George Boateng in midfield and, disappointingly, Paul McShane instead of Liam Cooper taking the central defensive role vacated by the injured Kamil Zayatte. But wait! Do I spy the surname of Folan? Er, yes. Before the game it was assumed – as we’d heard nothing otherwise – that Dowie had done a fast-track job on a player who he had tried to sign when he was at QPR and whose last act in a game involving Dowie was to score a 90th minute winner against his Coventry team at the KC. A few furrows of worry were visibile upon this news, although afterwards we heard that both Jozy Altidore and Amr Zaki succumbed to injury in the 24 hours before. Hobson’s Choice then. For the completists – Myhill, Mendy, Dawson, McShane, Mouyokolo, Marney, Kilbane, Bullard, Fagan, Folan, Vennegoor of Hesselink.

On a day of swirling rain which made the pitch carry extra skid that no player quite got the hang of, City began slightly the brighter. Kilbane hurled in a long throw that Portsmouth struggled to deal with and Dean Marney had a shot blocked back to Kilbane in his wide position. His cross was good, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s header was inches wide.

Marc Wilson swerved a free kick just wide after Bernard Mendy’s foul on Quincy Owusu-Abyie, a foul that was replicated far too often by an ill-disciplined City throughout the game. Owusu-Abeyie then made room for a drive that would have tested the nervy gloves of Boaz Myhill had McShane not got in the way and deflected it behind. Portsmouth then broke from City’s eye coming off the ball as they appealed for hands in the area, and Tommy Smith swapped passes with Owusu-Abeyie before hitting a goalbound shot that the excellent Steven Mouyokolo blocked.

It wasn’t pretty, and City were second best. But the consolation was that Portsmouth were evidently as poor as the Tigers, in a bizarre situation all round to be competing a Premier League football game. One team in administration, deduction confirmed, playing only for pride and an FA Cup semi-final place; the other with a new manager trying to exploit the negative vibes represented by their hosts. It isn’t the ideal scenario for those wanting a match blessed with skill, craft, technical excellence and the like. The only thing this game had going for it was that it was played in extremely good spirit.

Anyway, back with City again. Jimmy Bullard, nowhere near as influential as he should be, curled a shot just over after good work spreading the ball from left to right and back again. The same player then had a shot deflected out for a corner from Folan’s flick downwards. And from the corner, the clearance reached Craig Fagan whose low goalward volley struck Folan – no more than that, really – and squirmed past James.

City were a goal up. Fagan tried to climb it, Folan did. That these two players were involved shows just how fantastic we have been at standing completely still since Wembley.

It’s not to be churlish against either player. Fagan’s hit was on target and Folan was in the correct place. A goal is a goal and we celebrate those irrespective of their origin. But almost two years ago we were promoted, and now we’re in a ghastly situation, almost expecting relegation, and still we are relying, substantively if not exclusively, on Fagan and Folan to get us goals. It’s a worry, yes?

Still, we were ahead. Probably didn’t deserve it, but then what one earns and what one gains are rarely compatible in this elite division. James was then booked as Folan went after a second goal, grabbing the ball on the edge of the area and then unable to prevent the slippy momentum taking him over the line. Despite people assuming that all goalkeeping handles beyond the area are red card offences, James was rightly only given a caution. The free kick came to nought.

Portsmouth then broke the Tigers’ offside trap on the left and the super Jamie O’Hara crossed for Smith in space but McShane, a pressurised figure but on this occasion consummate in his timing, got in the way very well of the shot. However, the corner benefitted from a lack of flick distracting the Tigers defence and Smith got a toe on it in the six yard box to level up.

Myhill replicated his horror show against Arsenal when he punched O’Hara’s cross away instead of pouching it, though he did see it late and it was effective, if designed to make City fans check their heartbeat. City broke well through Bullard and the industrious Vennegoor of Hesselink, and Marney had a sight of goal which he nearly hit, aiming his shot just a yard wide.

Two minutes were added and nothing became of them. As the players trooped to the changing area, parity achieved in both scoreline and general underwhelm, the Tiger Nation decamped to the filthy lavatories and narrow sidewalk to discuss what we’d seen. The expression “Not exactly high quality, is it?” was a good summary of such dialogue. Nonetheless, it was an eminently winnable game.

Fagan started the ball rolling in the second half with a shot that was just over from distance and hit well for power, if not quite direction. The Tigers maintained the pressure, refreshingly, as Vennegoor of Hesselink craned his long Dutch neck to reach a driven Kilbane cross but couldn’t quite do so. Portsmouth’s only contribution was a counter attack that momentarily made Smith a spare man from a crossfield ball, but as he cut in to shoot, McShane dived in the way.

McShane got a lot of stick, and indeed this scribe was in the mood to be included among his detractors at the start of this report. But that’s two examples of supreme bravery from the Irishman detailed now as Portsmouth twice lined up one-on-one goes at Myhill, and for that he deserves credit. Let us not forget too, that for all his shortcomings, the lad likes a tackle and backs that up unflinchingly. Up one mark on the ratings.

Dowie then made a change. Nick Barmby sauntered on and, to everyone’s surprise, Vennegoor of Hesselink was the player withdrawn. The big man had worked as hard as ever, making as much as possible from his limited mobility, and still represented City’s best hope of a second goal despite Folan being the marksman – of a kind, anyway – for the opener. Moreover, Barmby’s introduction prompted its own set of questions, the main one being whether Geovanni’s brand of twisting, unpredictable ball play and winding runs could make a true difference up there instead of a 35 year old whose heart now outweighs his influence in possession.

Folan had, through the second half, spent all of it doing what he does – straying offside and then berating the player who had issued the final ball that caught him so. Foolish boy. It is one of the great mysteries about Folan that he just cannot see across a defensive line when trying to time a run. Given just how many times it has happened in his Tigers career, one can only wonder how many chances on goal he would have had if in possession of some gumption over when to make his runs. He would still have to score them, of course, but that’s a mere detail.

During a mild kerfuffle over a torn Portsmouth shirt, Dawson went to the deck. The stand-in skipper – yes, another captain – had taken a whack at some point and needed to be aided from the pitch, unable to return. Kilbane dropped into defence and Richard Garcia – announced as Ricardo Garcia before the match by the announcer – made his entrance. He had an immediate, positive impact.

The Aussie worked a smart move with Bullard to give Folan a chance to brush off a defender and, suddenly, the goonish striker is in on goal. The goal-filling presence of James was all that stood before him, and Folan neatly, if a little untidily, steered the ball beyond him and into the corner. Madness and mentalism from all except Folan. That poseur’s celebration was one to raise the eyebrows, once we’d all calmed down.

There were 17 minutes left. No shoring up was forthcoming from Dowie, who presumably believed that there was enough defensive fortitude in the side to keep Portsmouth and bay and collect three away points comparable in their regularity as Halley’s Comet. For the most part, he looked like he was going to be right, although substitute Danny Webber did send one dipping volley inches over that had the Tiger Nation at the end yonder whistling involuntarily their relief.

Then Bullard conceded a free kick on the edge of the box, with two minutes left. Bullard was no more a culprit than anyone else, but it was something City had done far too often through the game. This could have been the fourth or fifth such dead ball opportunity for Portsmouth and, typically and inevitably, they took it. In some style, for sure, as O’Hara took someone else’s touch to curl a complete beauty beyond Myhill, but the concession was as preventable as the execution was not.

Worse, it threw City off track entirely. Quickly Portsmouth regained possession from the restart and the ball was sent down the left flank where Garcia, who had done genuinely well since coming on, tried to lay the ball into the path of Mouyokolo alongside him. Nadir Belhadj intercepted the weak pass, strode to the byline and pulled back for cameo sub Kanu to put the ball away. There were 1,100 hearts at the opposite end in bits.

Five minutes were added on immediately, but City were dead. The shock had killed their energy and certainly our spirit. That there had been no extra man slung on following Folan’s second goal to calm things in the centre was certainly a talking point, but ultimately – like Myhill last week – the Tigers lost through one single individual error, one that can occur in the first minute as easily as the 89th, and it’s hard to negotiate for that.

The game didn’t deserve a winner. It was a trying, unappealing affair between two teams imprisoned by the desperation that being a Premier League laughing stock brings. Portsmouth can take all the pride they can from winning, and certainly it will do them good for their confidence as their FA Cup semi hopes are concerned, but no more. They’re evidently down. Hull City, on the other hand, still have 24 points to play for. If we are to get even a modicum of these then the new Temporary Football Management Consultant will need to stamp out the complacency and indiscipline that is cascading through the first team like a viral infection. We wish him luck. He may need it. Especially if he now feels obliged to keep Caleb Folan in the team.