Normally, when the Man of the Match award is verified and the identity of the chosen player wired back to the stadium, it – and he – is the subject of an announcement and a consequent ripple of applause (or shrug of utter indifference). But not this time.
It’s not to say that Richard Garcia, recipient of the honour for this game, didn’t deserve to have his name announced. It is more to say that no Hull City player deserved to be known as a Man of the Match for such an awful, bamboozling, amateurish, stupefying display of football.
Sure, it picked up in the second half and with some cooler finishing and luckier breaks, the Tigers could have wrestled an unlikely point. But they wouldn’t have deserved it. The first half, and its unbelievably trite defending from all charged with the task, ruined the game, punctured the bubble of hope to go level with sixth place and, in all probability, surrendered the ambition to sneak up on the blind side and make the play-offs.
Why do City do this to us? Timing-wise, it was habitually impeccable and utterly depressing. With four games to go, Leeds had dropped more points and Forest hadn’t gone mad in victory. QPR notwithstanding, the run-in for Nigel Pearson’s men looked theoretically easier than those of the other candidates for the last season-extending spot. Yet we should never forget the wise words that haunt every inconsistent side at this level – anyone can beat anyone else.
And boy, did Middlesbrough beat us. They absolutely tonked us. It was annihilation, slaughter. Architects of our own downfall we largely were, but nonetheless they were clinical, devastating, typical of the attacking mindset and optimistic approach that Tony Mowbray belligerently insists on with all of his teams. Some of the recent setbacks that City have sustained at the Circle of late have been against sides our equal or better – Cardiff, Burnley, Millwall – but perhaps really we were always punching above our weight. It’s an accusation the hard-thinking southern mouthbreather aims at our 2008 campaign and we as one can reject that with no qualms, but doing so for the Hull City model of 2011 is harder. We aren’t ready. We aren’t good enough. We’ve been outstanding on our travels and the transformation from the laconic, ill-disciplined rabble of egos that felt they were too good for all this back in the autumn has been nothing short of spectacular, but ultimately we still fall short on experience, concentration and focus. There is super talent in the squad but it needs a full campaign together to fulfil itself, and to fulfil us.
Pearson (N) made no alterations to the starting eleven, with Garcia’s initial self-diagnosis of “just a tweak” proving accurate, and so we lined up thus: Mannone; Rosenior, Hobbs, Gerrard, Dawson; Garcia, Chester, Evans, Koren; Fryatt, Simpson.
The sun was beating down and Middlesbrough, in what one assumes was close to their shortest awayday of the season, brought plenty. It was a terrific atmosphere, made all the more terrific for three quarters of the audience when City scored early.
A long cross by Andy Dawson was met by the head of Garcia at the back post with a “hang” in the air that all gravity-deniers would do well to study again and again, and the eventual header beat all in the Boro rearguard and left Jay Simpson with a finish from close in.
The perfect start. On the live league table, we were joint sixth. People were mentally booking London hotels and considering how to renege on the promise to take the family to Clacton for a specific weekend in May. But as if fate had been overly tempted, City promptly combined such ruthless offence with utterly rudderless defence, and Middlesbrough were gifted a very quick equaliser – and then an even quicker second.
Scott McDonald got both. They came complete with labelling and ribbons, courtesy of a horrifyingly slipshod defensive unit that, all the more worryingly, could not learn from each individual mistake and got steadily worse and proved more and more expensive as the half wore on. These two chances dropped into McDonald’s lap almost in slow motion; the type that everyone in the ground knows will be a goal before the ball has actually had the gallantry to cross the line and prove it.
The first came via an attempted clearance from Anthony Gerrard which smacked into Marvin Emnes, sent everyone the wrong way and allowed McDonald a simple tee-up and volley which Vito Mannone could do nothing about. The second was even more ghastly, as Andy Dawson’s effort at intercepting a crossfield ball took all other outfield City contributors out of the equation and left Mannone with no choice but to charge the unguarded Emnes, who walked the ball through the desperate Italian for McDonald to stroke it into the open net. Mannone protested to the referee for heaven only knows what reason; the visiting supporters, still delirious from the equaliser, were now on standby for oxygen, such was their glee.
Okay, so it had gone very badly wrong, very quickly, and early enough for some people who’d fallen asleep in the sunshine to miss all the fun and games as they still came through the turnstiles. So at the very least we had ample time to regroup and turn it round. What actually transpired was that we had ample time to lose the game but actually used as little of it as possible, as soon Middlesbrough had a third.
McDonald had already nearly secured a hat-trick in the opening 20 minutes when an enormous clearance from near his own byline by Andrew Taylor – that’s near his own byline – sent the striker clear as Gerrard hopelessly misread the considerable flight of the ball. McDonald held off the backpedalling centre back and saw goal, but this time spannered the chance wide. With work of his own to do, he couldn’t score. With the work done for him by his opponents, he’d bagged two. Maybe that taints McDonald’s achievement somewhat, but neither he nor the Middlesbrough faithful should care, and quite right too.
The third goal went in almost immediately afterwards. Emnes charged down the middle, Dawson slid in to tackle but, again, took his team-mates out of the picture with his ill-judged direction of the ball and this time it was Julio Arca faced with the empty net. It was 1-3, it was catastrophic, it was implausible, but it was happening. The visitors even had a man writhing around near the touchline, out of commission, while all this was going on, so we’d lost a third goal to a ten-man team. Not good at all.
All that didn’t frequent the north east corner were aghast. City had a moment or two of seeing light, and Robert Koren saw one shot deflected by a defender towards the corner, making the double movement and subsequent save by Middlesbrough keeper Paul Smith irritatingly expert. Liam Rosenior then withdrew his leg as he shaped to pass, and you could almost hear his cry of pain as he instantly lay down on the touchline. The visitors crudely but lawfully – and rightfully – exploited the yawning gap created by City’s stricken right back but McDonald was carelessly offside as he took the final crossfield ball that seemed to give him another one-on-one. He put it away with the flag long held aloft.
Rosenior hobbled slowly across the pitch until the tardy stretcher bearers finally cantered across the turf to make his withdrawal pass by more quickly, and while Garcia’s identical example of last week proves we shouldn’t think the worst every time, there seemed certainly a serious issue with the dynamic City right back. James Chester shifted into the defence and Pearson (N) used the enforced change to reshuffle into a 4-3-3, sending on Aaron Mclean.
Four minutes were added at the end of the half due to Rosenior’s woes, and Mannone had to save at close range from McDonald prior to two efforts from Emnes that were both blocked, with City under real strain in trying to get the ball clear. Arca then battered the final effort over from distance but then, just as 1-3 looked retrievable after a team-talk and a crack refresher course in defending, McDonald acquired his third after a cross from the left gave him the chance to turn Gerrard sumptuously in the box and fire in.
Shrewd observers compared this half of alleged football with the atrocity that was the defeat to Burnley in the Premier League last season. An early goal in a must-win got us off to a flier, then every notable moment of the game that followed battered our heads and self-esteem into the ground like a mallet striking a tent peg. Our season was deemed over, our ambition dashed. That day the ambition was staying up, this time it was going up. And, of course, there is hindsight atached to that grotesque afternoon a year ago and still nine points of potential turnaround to act as caveat to this one, but the comparison holds water. We briefly offered promise that day, then stank the place out and deserved nothing. We briefly offered hope this time, then stank the place out this time and deserved … yep, you fill in the gaps.
Another observation of eminent shrewdness came with the reaction of the City supporters. At the half time whistle, the inevitable boos rang out and, while some people will never agree with booing their own team, there was obvious mitigation for those who chose to vent their frustration. Yet upon the second half starting, the game lost, we got 20 minutes of good quality loudness from the crowd, of the type that we don’t get when we equally really need it during games that are winnable and tight. Too many City fans sit on their hands when nervous or unimpressed, and yet songs and rhythmic clapping were the order of the afternoon as the team, helped by Middlesbrough’s understandable need to just play sensibly, tried to make amends with some salvaging of pride, if not points, for the rest of the game. If only the Tiger Nation would sing and support like this when the team actually needs that “twelfth man”.
An alternative reaction from a substantial number of City fans was to stay in the concourse drinking beer even after the game had long recommenced. This, given the temperatures and dearth in entertainment, was a wise course of action.
For all the stealthy dominance of possession the Tigers had in the second half – which, incidentally, began with Matt Duke replacing the injured (again) Mannone – there was seldom a sign of getting back into the game properly. Matt Fryatt, quiet and exposed at the top, hit the bar with an angled shot on the run after a decent ball through from Mclean, then the same player found himself through on the inside right channel, but as he ran out of ground and felt a defender’s breath on his neck, he got little purchase on his final effort and the ball hit the side netting.
City replaced a hobbling Garcia with Tom Cairney – who appears to have put some needed meat on his bones – while Middlesbrough’s hat-trick hero McDonald also went off injured, though managed to limp towards the byline at the north end to take lengthy applause from the visiting supporters in doing so. And who can blame him? He had caused considerable damage to the Tigers’ play-off prospects but, while not demeaning his threesome in any way (he won’t get many more, after all), he didn’t damage those prospects as much as the Tigers’ defence did.
The Tigers won a free kick with 20 minutes to go, and it was steered across to Gerrard who blasted home a low shot from 25 yards, maybe more. It was an excellent strike but, for all Gerrard’s bravado to the East Stand in celebration, a meaningless one too. Gerrard and his defensive colleagues were having, collectively and as individuals, their worst afternoon of the campaign. Still, false hope is marginally more pleasant than no hope, and so for a few further minutes City put Middlesbrough under pressure and the Tiger Nation gave them appropriate encouragement.
Koren was the best player over this final segment of the game. It’s tough to analyse Koren’s contribution at times as it depends on your starting point; each misplaced pass was greeted either with derision or with appreciation for what he was trying to do. Most people, gratifyingly, fell into the latter category. Koren was as listless as anyone else in the first half but, at 2-4 and with one more goal having the potential to make Middlesbrough panic, he was good to have around. Unfortunately, the next goal wouldn’t come. Corry Evans came closest with a clipped shot on the run that just cleared the bar from Koren’s elegant through ball, but soon enough the board for four added minutes was going up.
It should have ended 2-5, with Leroy Lita – the replacement for McDonald – striking the underside of the bar with a shot after a last ditch counter attack but the scoreline no longer mattered. No rest for Pearson (N) on what is the most restful Sunday of Sundays for most of us, as he had just seen his first choice XI undressed and spanked, and now has to pick them up for an away game which, for all our imperious form on the road, is still at the champions-in-waiting, and still within 48 hours of a serious humiliation at home. The team will need alteration too, for reasons of form, rapid fixture turnover and the fact that all three of our substitutions were forced by injury.
But knowing City, play-off hopes will be resuscitated again after the trip to west London, only for strugglers from elsewhere in the capital to dash it all again next Saturday at the KC. But first things first; let’s make this season’s worthy champions really have to play for their title on Easter Monday, and let’s not let one chronic afternoon at the KC cloud what has been an entertaining, life-enhancing and extremely promising 2011 thus far. And well done Middlesbrough.