Footballing déjà-vu. It happens. We’ve had our share of it over the years in following Hull City around and across the nation. The stinkiness of performances and results against Macclesfield Town. The influence against us of Liam Lawrence, Scott Sinclair and especially Chris Iwelumo. The lack of reward at Sheffield United (until recently). The general habit of cocking up winning positions in spectacular fashion. In essence, footballing déjà-vu could be another way of saying ‘Typical City’.
But the last place a City fan should expect familiar events to be repeated is the City Ground. After all, when the Tigers won there in March, it was our first visit to that particular bit of the east Midlands for 33 years. Probably 95 per cent of the crowd that shuffled into the Bridgford Lower that day had never been before. We emerged with a single goal win that mixed fight with fortune and became rightly regarded as the highlight of an eventful, topsy-turvy season.
Eight months on, and again the Tiger Nation squeezed itself into the Bridgford Lower to witness another cracking team display that wasn’t exactly resplendent with flowing, fluid football but was strong, disciplined, professional and, when again one good chance emerged in the second half, ruthless in its swiping of the points on offer. Even the goal that won the match was similar to last year’s – a ball through the inside right channel that was more effective than its initial intentions seemed to indicate followed by a tremendous finish across Lee Camp and into the far corner. Oh, and the same riotous celebrations.
This was a superb, superb win, make no mistake about it. Having done it last season, it felt more doable this time round but nonetheless Forest, albeit in a bad place, were no mugs. Under their new manager Steve Cotterill, whom this scribe has always rated, they began their post-McClaren revival with two stoic victories and, through a mixture of that brace of successes and nobody noticing anything Hull City seem to do (ever), went into this match as favourites with the bookmakers. Some of us knew better. If last season’s win was joyfully unpredictable, this one was joyfully inevitable. And as the game pushed past the hour mark, goalless and largely chanceless, it seemed to somehow become more obvious that City were biding their time, picking their moment. Then it came – Aaron Mclean scored, City shut up shop and the game was won without fear or question and with still a quarter of an hour left. Even the most ardent pessimist, usually seen clutching their Thermos and silently kicking their ankles with morbid fear of a last-ditch leveller, didn’t think City would do anything but win once the goal went in. And that’s the sign of a good team with which its followers have empathy, support and understanding.
Nigel Pearson had no cause to change the team (nor, to be truthful, the kind of fit personnel that may have tempted him to) and so the side that began last week’s game against Watford did so again. The team, illogically dressed in the blue kit, carded as Basso; Rosenior, Chester, Hobbs, Dudgeon; Brady, Evans, Koren, Cairney; Fryatt, Mclean.
For all the praise that the result and performance warranted, this is not to say everything that was plotted actually worked. In the first half City had next to no width that caused peril to the home team, who looked patient and comfortable and not a little good in possession of the ball. The full backs – Liam Rosenior in particular, it must be said – were struggling positionally, while Tom Cairney and Robbie Brady were deeply ineffective in hugging the touchline. The issue here is total imbalance – Cairney is a central midfielder, as we know, and his instinct to venture towards the middle always left a tiresome yawning gap for Forest to exploit. Brady was the opposite, but almost equally as frustrating in being so. He stays on the line and becomes, for all intents and purposes, utterly worthless if not actually given the ball to his feet as he doesn’t feel it necessary to come inside and look for it, to join in, to provide an outlet. Too often Corry Evans had to send balls to the full backs or look sideways for help from Robert Koren. Our wide players right now are unsuited either positionally or tactically to their roles if the opposition are set up to disallow them from playing the way they wish.
Forest commanded the first half but crucially, despite crisp passing and perennial availability of a man somewhere, they were creatively vapid. The best they could come up with was a near post Marcus Tudgay header that hit the side netting from a Lewis McGugan cross. They also won a free kick around the edge of the area shortly afterwards which McGugan curled round the wall as Ishmael Miller did a distraction job in front of Adriano Basso, but the keeper kept his concentration and pouched the ball.
After that? Not much. Joe Dudgeon headed a deep cross over his own bar with a mild sense of panic in his eyes though City players and fans had been baying for a foul against James Chester for a good few seconds prior to this bit of last-ditch rearguard. There was a tepid penalty scare that, in fact, could have led to a goal for the Tigers when the excellent Evans broke clear as Forest players still moaned at the ref but his feed to the supportive Cairney wasn’t well-aimed and the City midfielder could only shoot weakly at Camp.
“One Steve McClaren”, sang the Tiger Nation at this point. In case Forest fans are unaware, this wasn’t about you. Your former manager was a fine footballer in black and amber during the 1980s. Naturally we like to remember our heroes. Okay, and bait you a tad at the same time. It all ties in. What a wonderful world we inhabit.
Chris Gunter miscued a shot that was never going to trouble Basso even if on target and then Jack Hobbs, playing his best game for some time, meatily headed out a cross from loanee Greg Cunningham as Miller, a lumpen, lethargic waste of linament and shinpads, decided whether he could be bothered with a challenge. City were imperious at the back, entirely dominant. Not much was happening further forward, but much of Pearson’s gameplan on the road is about annoying the hosts for a bit, subduing them and frustrating them, silencing the mob that supports them, then upping the ante later. It tends to work.
Half time. For what it’s worth, for two games in a row now I’ve sung along to Mull Of Kintyre. I’ve always rather liked it.
Pearson had no further time nor use for Cairney, quite rightly, and Paul McKenna was introduced for the second half, steeling the centre of the park considerably while allowing Koren the chance to drift and be free, something we need from our gifted Slovenian more readily. Though regimented formations are most laudable on difficult away days, ultimately this team will be promoted if we can keep Koren fit and, more vitally, happy in his work. Telling him he’s free to maraud and be crafty, and that the team will be built around him as his personal back-up, is the way to go about it. City were much more optimistic in the second half and the liberation of Koren did much to produce that.
Possessional ratios changed massively and City were now in charge, while still exercising patience in terms of making the proper chance needed. At the top, Matt Fryatt was allowed much of the ball but Forest had put a tag on Mclean, whose endeavour was as honest as ever but whose mighty spring in the air was being reduced. So up steps the manager to make the substitution that would change the game.
If Mclean is being cut out of the match, what change do you make? The layman says a like for like. You want spring heels? Mclean has them, but Dele Adebola has the height and bulk to make aerial battles much more indelicate and inelegant. But we have such a shrewd coach. Instead of hauling off Mclean to introduce City’s biggest of units, he took off Brady (who was shocking anyway), spread the midfield thinner, sent Mclean a little more wide and forced Forest to switch their man-marking job on to Adebola’s shoulders. Now Mclean had the same freedom as Fryatt. And Forest didn’t know what to do. It was genius. One of the best tactical switches I can remember a City gaffer making.
Adebola nearly scored, too. Basso belted up a goal kick and the large centre forward bottomed aside his marker, chested down the ball and hit a low drive a foot or two wide. The keeper had it covered, but it emphasised further the way the City sub had altered Forest’s thinking at the back. Suddenly, Mclean wasn’t an issue. There were allegedly bigger dangers to snuff out. And as they diverted their attention to the red herring in the XL shirt, Mclean was able to benefit.
Basso had, a few minutes before, fingertipped out a rasping long-range shot from Radoslaw Majewski that, although impressive as both shot and stop, represented pretty much all Forest managed after the break. Then Koren headed towards Adebola, only for Wes Morgan to step up and head away again. He got surprisingly little purchase on the ball however, and as McKenna followed it up to nod forward once more, Mclean was already turning his opponent.
Who knows what McKenna intended? After all, you can’t say for certain he was trying to head the ball into a position whereby a City centre forward could wriggle free of his marker and fashion himself a chance. Not dissimilarly to Chester’s deflected ball last year, that turned a pass to the centre circle into a sudden chance for Fryatt, who then scored, this one seemed to have an intention that differed from the result. But we’ll have it anyway. McKenna was almost certainly just clearing his lines from just inside the Forest half, but the header beat the last man and Mclean was away. Just half a yard or so from his marker, but away.
Problem is, it’s Mclean. Yes, we all had the same thought. Fryatt scores goals from these positions. Mclean doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to be natural, he needs to put the ball in when he isn’t given any time at all to decide what he’s going to do. He is a striker of instinct but one who suggests self-doubt and, when there is time on his side, he chooses the wrong option. His goals at Scunthorpe last year were instantaneous, his fabulous drive at Coventry was a swipe and a whack that he met without thinking. His winner at Peterborough this season was also quickfire, and he took his finish at the KC last week with little thought, although it was notable that as he did have more of a split-second of time as the ball reached him, there was a scuff to his shot. Still went in, of course.
So now he’s in possession, holding off a defender with admirable force. Keeper to beat only. Roughly the same area as Fryatt last season. It’s a great chance, but the Tiger Nation is scared to death that it’ll go begging. So what a double joy that not only did the ball slam into the net, low and authoritative in its delivery, but also that it was a maligned finisher that did it. If Mclean can use that goal as a catalyst for improving his finishing as a whole, then the fine footballer those with eyesight and intelligence already know him to be could get even finer. It was a cracking finish. And Mclean’s celebrations were long and ecstatic. He knew what a big goal it was, for club and player – and support.
There were 15 minutes left and Forest did next to nothing in response. Their best option was to hit it long, win set-pieces and hope for a spot of luck. They got none. City’s resolute back line made sure they deserved none either. Mclean took a late knock and a standing ovation as he was replaced at the death by James Harper, and City calmly ticked down the seconds and secured a fine victory.
So, it all feels like we have been here before. A one goal win, mildly smash and grab, brilliantly eked out, a triumph for coolness, psychology, ability, professionalism and tactical acumen. We have a game in hand from a lofty position, and that extra match makes us a team to fear very much indeed. Also, while we’d like some national praise, it’s doing us some real good that we genuinely haven’t been noticed yet by the media, salivating as ever over fallen giants Southampton, West Ham United, Middlesbrough and Derby County.
They adorn four of the top five positions, but none of them has yet experienced what it’s like to play Hull City – and that’s the attitude we should take. None of that “yeah, but we ain’t played West Ham or Southampton yet, y’know” cobblers. They haven’t played us, not the other way round. We have nothing whatsoever to fear, and with a run of nine unbeaten, placed sixth in the table and sporting a game in hand, I wouldn’t fancy playing us at the moment.