Sometimes, things seem to occur almost in slow motion. With seven minutes remaining at Norwich, a Cairney cross from the left was half-cleared in two stages by the covering home defence. Ashbee transferred the ball to Dawson, about thirty yards from goal. His mis-hit shot fell to Barmby on the penalty spot; he attempted to stab the ball goalwards, it struck a defender and looped up into the air. Sneaking in was Robert Koren, surely offside…his header skipped past the onrushing keeper…Mark Cullen slid in…the ball was obscured from our view but had surely gone in…the flag was still not raised…Koren wheels away in delight…we held our breath still waiting to be denied…the linesman hared to the halfway line…the goal was going to stand…we were winning away…and utter bedlam erupted in a corner of Carrow Road.
It was to be only the second most intense celebration of the afternoon – one that will have meant little to the footballing world, but that meant everything to the 600 or so City fans present and tens of thousand spread across the world. That horrible, hateful run of wretched results away from home has finally been ended. 30 winless matches have spread themselves over more than 18 months. It’s been more than 10,000 miles of travel since Fulham away in March 2009. But…we’ve finally done it. And here’s how:
With Jimmy Bullard and Craig Fagan both declared fit, Nigel Pearson made one change from the side that was held by Nottingham Forest a week ago, dropping Bostock to the bench and restoring Ian Ashbee to the side. It meant that on a wet, windy afternoon in East Anglia, the Tigers lined up in their white change kit as such: Duke; McShane, Ayala, Gerrard, Dawson; Ashbee (c), Bullard, Cairney, Koran; Fagan, Simpson.
The received wisdom was that Nigel Pearson’s adventurous midfield selections in recent home games would not be replicated on our travels – Ian Ashbee has been a worrying pale shadow of his former self this season, but it was to our legendary captain the manager turned to add a sliver of steel to the prettier players in midfield. That aside, it was as you were for the Tigers.
City kicked off attacking the goal nearest to our modest portion of a creditably full Carrow Road, policed by loathsome stewards harassing those who wished to stand and, as usual, causing more problems than this non-offence ever could create. Boneheaded stupidity. Norwich’s reputation as a friendly place to visit is badly undermined by this arrant nonsense.
Unfortunately, there was enough friendliness on the pitch to compensate. The conditions were difficult: swirling wind, occasional brilliant sunshine, fearsome rain. City had the wind with them in the first half, but it was a hindrance to both sides – as was the slick, greasy surface. Cautious, conservative play abounded. It was a poor spectacle.
Twenty seconds into the game, a cry of “how shit must you be, we’re drawing away” rang out. Gallows humour has rarely been absent from City away days of late. We did have the ball in the net after just seven minutes when Simpson effected a sharp finish from twelve yards, though he’d already been (rightly) flagged offside. Cairney had apparently been told to shoot from distance, as he tried a few during the afternoon and forced a good save from Ruddy from outside the area.
Ayala coughed up possession a couple of times in mildly alarming circumstances, but Norwich failed to capitalise – as they did when a corner was dropped at the feet of a Canary, and indeed the story of a tepid first half was of fairly woeful execution by both teams.
There’s another story, though. With the game goalless at the break, it represented the first time City had gone into an away game in the League this season level. It meant that Nigel Pearson’s team-talk was not just about rescuing a situation, but about preserving and perhaps even enhancing it. In the analysis of this game, the fact that City were drawing at half-time is likely to be overlooked, but its importance was arguably considerable.
For long spells of the second half, it looked as though our point and third clean sheet were unlikely to arrive. The first forty-five saw the sides roughly level; the second saw Norwich stride ahead on points. Matt Duke was now a pivotal figure in the game, and while the City keeper has had an, um, mixed start to the season, he stood impressively tall yesterday. A Hoolahan shot was repelled when it looked certain to open the scoring, while Gerrard and Ayala were desperately marshalling our stretched defensive resources as Norwich scented blood.
This made an episode of City wastefulness all the more dismaying while our goal was being besieged: a sudden break of the ball set Simpson free, with only two defenders and Craig Fagan for company. A straightforward through ball would have released his strike partner, and though you can never be sure of a goal when in the centre circle, Fagan would surely have won any footrace against the covering duo. Simpson passed it straight to one of them; and the chance was over.
Shortly after, and perhaps because of this, Nigel Pearson made one of those ruthless decisions for which he’s slowly becoming acclaimed for. Fagan and Simpson were hooked from the field; the wily Barmby and the willing Cullen were City’s new forward line. Norwich had a lot more to think about, and became a bit more circumspect about committing men forwards. Clever, Mr Pearson.
The football quietened. Norwich had enjoyed territory and possession, but had pierced City’s defence on comparatively few occasions. Yet with ten minutes they did with a sparkling move that appeared certain to move City’s score onto 31 not out. The ball was whipped around and ultimately used to free Martin, who steadied himself and blatted the ball at goal. It thumped into Matt Duke, who’d torn from the line and we celebrated an intervention that looked to have preserved a useful and welcome point.
Then Robert Koren scored, and a decent afternoon become wildly brilliant.
There were seven minutes left at the time – more than enough for Norwich to puncture our recently-formed dream of winning an away game. In fact, bearing in mind the fiasco at Portsmouth last season, even a point wasn’t necessarily secure.
Norwich seemed not to share this sentiment though. As a chorus of “how shit must you be, we’re winning away?” boomed from the delirious knot of City fans, they sensed this was not to be their day, though of course being in the Tiger Nation conditions you to expect the worst at all times. We were frantic with both worry and delight.
In the final minute of normal time, a cheap free-kick was surrendered on the edge of the area, to the right of the D. Up stepped Tom Cairney, and he passed the ball into the corner of the goal with sublime skill and technique. The away end went into utter meltdown, as primeval screams of joy shook the sky and bodies writhed with an all-consuming delight that no physical form of celebration could adequately convey.
Think this is exaggeration? It is not. This run of away form has corroded the spirit in a way few other things have in the history of the Tigers. We’ve been shit before, and we will be again; but the numbing feeling of trekking to Cardiff KNOWING we’d be terrible and lose was grim. It’s been like that away from home for a very, very long time. To finally be free of that, if only for a single day, made this genuinely one of the best City away days in years.
There was just enough time for one more ludicrously brilliant episode: City took the ball into the Norwich half and unfurled a move that had no ultimate destination save for ball retention and showing off. And so the Tigers whizzed the ball around the turf, some 20-30 passes, as the disbelieving City fans triumphantly cried “olé!” at each. That, I suspect, was done for our benefit. A beaten Norwich side could conceivably have been forced into a third concession. Instead, City performed a party trick for us. How we loved them for it.
As we filed out of Carrow Road still bearing the idiotic smiles of the faintly simple and giggling with girlish delight, we heard the grumbles of the Norwich fans: “bloody robbery”, “Hull are crap, how did we lose to them?”, and so on. Meh. It happens, and always will in a tight division stuffed with closely-matched sides. We deserved some luck on the road.
Most of it we made ourselves, mind. City were a more potent attacking force for Nigel Pearson’s brave double substitution in the second half. Matt Duke made some very good saves. Gerrard was willing to put his head anywhere for the cause, Ayala exudes class, the occasionally rocky full-backs had some nervy moments but never stopped trying.
In midfield, Bullard was very good, though sometimes too deep to be truly effective. Cairney’s style of play is starting to divide a few. Personally speaking, a player who knows how to find space and quickly and successfully pass the ball is a rare gem at this level. If most of those passes are sideways, then where’s the harm in keeping the ball and waiting for something else to develop? He’s great, he keeps the City midfield ticking and his goal was world class.
And so to Burnley on Tuesday, which we can approach with optimism instead of dread, thanks to the sterling efforts of the lads yesterday. The final word goes to the Tiger Nation, who’ve endured so much outside of the city of Kingston-upon-Hull: “thirty-one games…it ended here.”