REPORT: Wigan 2 City 2

If you’re a pedantic, over-optimistic mathematician then, finally, you can be quiet and join the rest of us in mourning Hull City’s ex-status as a Premier League club. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. And it was finally tinlidded in a way that can only be described as “typical City”.

The scene is set. Wigan are 2-1 down in injury time and, despite the game holding about as much importance to the fabric of the nation as Wigan itself, send their goalkeeper forward for a last-ditch corner. City clear the corner to halfway, lose possession again and this time the cross results in a defender, who has never scored before, having time and room to control with his chest and put away an overhead kick from just eight yards out.

Typical City indeed.

It means that our Premier League farewell will be forever tarnished with the knowledge that we could not win a single game away from home. Relegation form, that. Most relegated sides still manage the odd victory on the road, even if such triumphs only emerge from flukey or oddball or controversial circumstances. Remember how dire City were in 1996? Still one away win, at York. The desperately bad 1991 team managed a comparatively stunning four away wins, at some fallen giants and impressive names of the time too – Oldham (champions), Leicester, Watford and Newcastle. Go on then, you’ve twisted my arm – the skint side of 1981 got one away win and the dying embers of City’s 1970s watertreaders picked off Crystal Palace and Charlton Athletic while plummeting from the second tier in 1978. And there are people who watched all four of those seasons who, therefore, will see this campaign, rightly, as unique. Our lovable but nationally scorned club has managed to achieve one of the great stats of humiliation in a single season.

And against Wigan, it really shouldn’t have happened at all. Not only because City conceded in harrowingly familiar circumstances to collect just a meagre, utterly useless point, but also because Wigan were so criminally lacking in interest as far as the rest of the match, and certainly the second half, was concerned that the game should have been won long before they decided, half-heartedly, to try to salvage something. That they did so half-heartedly and still succeeded shows exactly the level of our confidence. It is at as much of a nil status as our away wins tally.

Next week, if (that’s if) we lose to Liverpool and Burnley and Portsmouth both get something then we’ll finish spiritually bottom of the table, as a reversal of Portsmouth’s deduction for going into administration would overhaul us on goal difference at the very least. I feel like we’re the worst team in the Premier League, even though we have two below us. We have the worst away record, have scored the fewest goals and taken precisely one point from the dozen available against the two teams below us. Portsmouth have garnered sympathy, spirit and an FA Cup final appearance. Burnley have history, an ageing penalty expert and some adequate home form to take as consolation from their demise. What do we have? What do we possess, or what have we attained, that can provide any source of pride?

Well, we have the talented kids coming through. And from that, Tom Cairney now looks and acts like a senior professional, never again to have his gifts sacrificed in the name of tactics or to accommodate someone far more expensive and far less arsed. It’s gratifying that Cairney has been given the time and room to show his real worth and convince chin-strokers that his youthfulness does not equate rawness, and he can play the game with authority and tranquility in the manner of his own self in five years and 100 games’ time. He has age on his side, but only now in order to get better. Any manager who uses inexperience to justify removing Cairney from the team is a backward thinker, and Adam Pearson must make his long-term managerial appointment as much about developing and aiding the youngsters as about building a shattered and, by the time someone is given the job, decimated first team squad.

Cairney, as brilliant as he is, is only the exception, of course, and while it was terrific to see two more youth products in yesterday’s starting line-up at the DW stadium, it hammered home the insignificance of the occasion for all concerned. Will Atkinson and Mark Cullen should hope that their next start in a League game for the Tigers will be because they have played their way into contention, not because the elder players to whom they look up have failed to deliver. It borders on the patronising. It feels like last resort stuff, even though the last resort was washed away into the open sea by Sunderland last week. Atkinson has made token appearances in FA Cup and League Cup games for three seasons now but ultimately was only considered good enough this season for a loan spell at Rochdale. Cullen, meanwhile, may have nearly 20 goals in the reserves this season, but had it been those goals that had won him his elevation, it would have happened weeks or even months ago, especially as none of our well-paid strikers can really score. Cullen was called up basically because he isn’t Caleb Folan. Actually, scrub all that – it’s a far better reason than form, fortune, fitness…

Both players, naturally, played really well. Atkinson was busy and tidy as he drifted from the right of midfield into the centre and out again. Cullen, smaller than your average 18 year old and decidedly more ginger too, scuttled along the Wigan defensive line eagerly and cleverly, and showed promising awareness and assessment of where the ball was and, more crucially, where it was going to go. A good goalscorer will be in the right place at the right time and on most of those occasions, he’ll be there because he knows that’s where the ball will end up. Cullen’s joy at scoring City’s second goal will be galvanised further when he reads the reports of how his own sense of taking a chance on the ball’s eventual destination made the goal for him. It was an easy finish, but don’t believe for a moment Folan would have had even the remotest inkling that the ball was going there. It was a special goal for more than just the human happiness that goes with seeing a teenager from the ranks get off the mark on his full Premier League debut.

Cullen partnered Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and his dented head up front, with recalls also given to Kevin Kilbane and Cairney. The bench was full of expected big names but among them was not Jimmy Bullard, who was left behind altogether and almost certainly watched the ESPN coverage of the game not from the comfort of his own armchair with a mug of Ovaltine, pausing occasionally to scratch his overvalued bollocks.

The team then: Duke; Mendy, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Dawson; Atkinson, Boateng, Cairney, Kilbane; Vennegoor of Hesselink, Cullen.

The details of the game are largely irrelevant, despite the apparent drama of the scoreline. Wigan are safe and played like they knew it only too well. They could have scored early on with Jordi Gomez and Hugo Rodallega both coming close with shots but the former went wide and the latter was blocked by Anthony Gardner and Steven Mouyokolo flying in together.

City’s first attack came via Cullen’s awareness of a loose clearance and a smart one-two with Atkinson, but Vennegoor of Hesselink couldn’t shake off his marker enough to get anything more than a fleeting connection with the ball, and the header sailed wide.

Atkinson then had a first-time drive batted away by Wigan’s third (at least) choice keeper Vladimir Stojkovic (bet he wasn’t discovered playing park football in Orrell) and Kilbane, back on familiar turf, hit a stinging drive against the side netting after both Atkinson and Vennegoor of Hesselink had tried to bulldoze their way through the defence with the ball and had it kicked off their toes.

Mouyokolo then completed the best individual bit of defending since Michael Turner’s gonads (distinctly undervalued compared to Bullard’s) earned us a not-as-it-turned-out priceless point at Wolves in August when he slid his mighty right foot across Rodallega’s gilt-edged shooting boot and blocked the goalbound effort from just five yards. Tremendous. Add another million to his value.

Wigan still took the lead afterwards, mind. A set-piece was dealt with competently but George Boateng gave the ball away in clearing down the line and soon it was at the feet of Victor Moses, purchased from the Crystal Palace fire sale earlier in the season, who had time and room to cut on to his right foot and thump a low shot past Matt Duke and in via a post. A good goal and the immediate aftermath contrasted impressive Moses somersaults with the ever-abysmal strains of Tom Hark. There are lyrics in that song, you know. It’s just that the intro is 50 seconds long and nobody in football ever gets that far.

Moses then missed his kick in front of goal after a corner was headed back his way amidst a weakly-organised City defence, and that was a proper let-off. City took full advantage when Boateng crossed from the right and Cullen threw himself at the chance only for Stojkovic to get a half-punch in ahead of him. The ball spun to the left from whence Kilbane re-centred and Atkinson, arriving late, buried a fine header past the stranded keeper which the linesman wanted to rule out for offside as Cullen was still retreating, but referee Phil Dowd smartly declared he was not interfering with play. And so it was 1-1 and Atkinson, yes he of Rochdale loan fame, had scored. Nicky Featherstone is probably sticking pins in a knitted effigy of him right now.

Half time came, grown men had a House Of Pain-esque jumpathon in the concourse and spilled their beer everywhere, then the game restarted. Wigan had early chances twice through Rodallega but Duke saved one with his feet and then saw the next fly high over his bar. From hereonin, City dominated the rest of the game.

Cairney had endured a very quiet first half but now he was ready to take charge. The match, and City’s own progress, was dictated at his pace and by his need to control the opposition as well as he controls the ball. And, of course, that’s very well. Who was the last City youth product to have touch as impeccable as Cairney’s? Answers into a comments box below.

Cairney won a free kick which he took himself, arrowing the ball into the danger area from where Wigan’s panicky semi-clearance was nodded back in by Atkinson for the offside Mouyokolo to chest down and volley wide from a smart position. Unfortunate, and the Tiger Nation acknowledged this via loud applause and louder vocal encouragement. Cairney then fed Bernard Mendy on the right, who was promptly tripped as he tried one of his weaving runs that pains to remind us that if he weren’t such an unfocussed, idiosyncratic dingbat, he’d be the best player in our squad. Anyway, Cairney’s perilous free kick was cleared to Boateng, who delivered a second cross of length and power.

This is where Cullen’s name will begin to be made. He couldn’t have had a great view of the ball as Boateng delivered it, as there were any number of bodies in the way and he was having to lurk at the far side from a deep position in order to stay onside. But this was all about an obviously natural sense of timing that centre forwards need. As the ball rose to the air, Cullen chanced his teenaged arm and ran beyond the last defender without any of the sturdy, shaped Wigan backline noticing. The ball evaded three defenders and got to the far post where Cullen, onside and determined, got his head to the bouncing ball from five yards and hit the back of the net with the statuesque Stojkovic unaware that he was even anywhere near. It was a simple goal but, for the way Cullen created it from his own perception, a truly brilliant one. And, of course, the celebrations from the Tiger Nation were as much for the identity of the goalscorer as they were for taking a rare but thoroughly deserved second half lead.

The Premier League’s youngest goalscorer this season belongs to Hull City.

City continued to dominate and Cairney was now really having fun. He took possession of the ball from every direction, dropping deep to receive from the back four, arching forward when required if a higher punt was aimed towards the strikers, ever available in the wider supporting positions when Atkinson and the notably competent Kilbane were in need of an outlet. City didn’t create much more as far as chances were concerned, but were in control of the game against a team who still didn’t seem overly concerned. Iain Dowie made his one substitution of the day when he withdrew the shattered but incredibly admirable Vennegoor of Hesselink and replaced him with Folan. Who was then caught offside.

I’ve been made angry by City players over the years. Pat Heard was a regular spooner of touchline passes on to the roof of the West Stand at Boothferry Park. Dave Bamber’s tendency to walk around the pitch rather than attempt to run used to irk my teenage self. Jamie Wood had this habit of getting into brilliant goalscoring positions and then always, always, always missing the target. But nothing has sent me more incandescent with rage than the sight of Caleb Folan straying offside entirely through his own brainlessness and incompetence – and then seeking to blame someone else.

Back to the action. Thanks for that.

As the injury time board went up, a very sudden surge came from the Wigan team, as if Dave Whelan had just signalled via semaphore that they would get a million quid bonus each if they could tie the game. They won a corner, and we got it out for a throw-in which they hurled in long. We got shut of that one too. Then another corner, for which their goalkeeper rather oddly chose to go forward to. Were they challenging for Europe, or something? Anyway, City got the corner clear to Cullen who, knowing the keeper was out of the equation, tried a sharp turn to see if he could exploit the lack of protection at the other end. Cullen doesn’t look strong enough to kick the ball that far, but we didn’t get chance to find out as he stumbled on the sodden turf and Gary Caldwell lumped another cross into the City area. A far post header, worryingly free, turned it into Gohouri’s path and though he was a) a defender; b) with his back to goal; and c) without a single goal to his name, he took the ball on to his chest and bashed an overhead kick over the helpless Duke and into the roof of the net.

Now we had to struggle with losing the lead, seeing our season end without an away win, Tom sodding Hark and, most ludicrously of all, Wigan fans entering the pitch in celebration of easily the least important goal they have scored this season. Oh yes, the drama and joy of a last-minute equaliser. But that’s an equaliser. Not a winner. That town simply will never ‘get’ football at all.

The game eventually restarted and then almost immediately stopped again. A 2-2 draw, with the youngsters to the fore and time to start thinking about the rail routes to Swansea, Reading and Preston, and some big local derbies. This game, and this division, can go hang … until the next time we get promoted, obviously.

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