A greying sage of Hull City supporterdom, 40 next year, made an interesting point at half time as he suggested the possibility that the Tigers would relinquish a 1-0 lead and possibly lose this game. “It may be four defeats in five, but two were under Pearson and so they don’t count.”
It was logic that threatened straight to go over my head, having never achieved the mortarboard level of academic excellence, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised he had a point. Nigel Pearson’s exit, about which we shouldn’t care as much as some singing groups of the Tiger Nation still seem to do, is so unrepresentative of today’s Hull City that we shouldn’t find ourselves harking back, positively or negatively, to his era at all.
Saturday’s defeat against Burnley mixed naïveté with weak defensive submission and was rightly greeted with utter bewilderment rather than fury. This defeat, against a Southampton side that was chasing 19 solid wins on home soil, was greeted mainly with an element of philosophical understanding, though there were individual targets of resentment. Southampton may have been in League One last season, but the manager Nigel Adkins has a talented and tight-knit team, and the team has an astute and intelligent manager helping them along. Ultimately, although they’ve built from a division down, it’s clear that what Southampton are right now is what Hull City should be aiming for in the next year or two, and probably would have achieved this year had the management team not been prised away.
Whoops, sorry, that’s in the past now. I forgot.
St Mary’s Stadium, although following the ill-advised design of absolute symmetry that infects the atmosphere and visual pleasure of most nu-stadia, is a very acceptable place to watch football. Southampton’s residents, still largely occupied by memories of Channon and Le Tissier, as well as that time when they had four England captains in their squad at once, haven’t quite cottoned on to the obvious gifts of their current side and so there were a surprising number of empty seats scattered about. The Tiger Nation had a healthy 500 or so in attendance.
Nick Barmby needed to replace the suspended Paul McKenna and reinstate Aaron Mclean, and so with only the minimum available disruption to the side, he picked an XI of Gulácsi; Rosenior, Hobbs, Chester, Dudgeon; Stewart, Evans, Cairney, Koren, Mclean; Fryatt.
Yes, Mclean did spend vast quantities of the game on a flank, something that either he or Koren is going to have to get used to until Martin Pusic and/or Richard Garcia return, because Robbie Brady is evidently not to be trusted any more. A little more painfully necessary analysis of that young man later. Tom Cairney got the nod as McKenna’s short-term replacement, and although the veteran midfielder will be a shoo-in on Saturday, his stand-in played one of his finest games in a very long time.
After a minute’s applause for Gary Speed, during which City fans chanted his name and made us all actually really rather proud of even our unloveliest element, the team lined up. And in amber shorts – the club really are reading this website, aren’t they? – to go with the home shirt and amber socks (or stockings, as they are technically known, but the idea of Jack Hobbs capering around in stockings doesn’t quite feel right to me), City played some exquisite first half football.
They really did. It wasn’t quite up to the pass ‘n’ move artistry of Derby County, not least because Southampton are a considerably more accomplished side and were happy, patient and professional in their approach to City’s dominant possession. This explains why, ultimately, the Tigers’ loving placement of the ball seldom resulted in something tangible in front of nets.
At the other end, Peter Gulácsi’s continuing inability to look a compelling choice as number one goalkeeper maintained its worrying momentum. A low, straightforward shot of little power from Morgan Schneiderlin was inched out by the Hungarian custodian prior to his grasp at the second attempt. This would be largely indicative of his night as a whole although he shouldn’t, on this occasion (and certainly not, by the way, after the defeat to Burnley) be cast as a villain. There are worthier names on that list.
Matt Fryatt, operating as a lone striker but always aided as a rule by Mclean and Robert Koren when chasing down a ball, got to the byline after one fine run and flashed a cross in that just evaded Koren at the near post and, subsequently, everyone else charging in behind the Slovenian. Koren then found room for a shot from distance, something that always prompts a sharp intake of breath from expectant City fans, but this time a deflection made the save a simple task for Kelvin Davis.
Southampton pressed a little and after James Chester blocked strongly a drive from Adam Lallana, left back Dan Harding – a scorer against City before in his Ipswich Town days – followed up to crash a stinger just over the bar with Gulácsi not appearing entirely comfortable with its path. A similar chance from the same range fell to Lallana shortly afterwards when an attempted one-two was deflected back his way, but the trajectory of the shot was much the same. In between, Fryatt was put through at a tight angle at the other end and tried to chip Davis, only for the keeper to get a crucial knuckle on the ball to aim it wide.
Something called by the Tiger Nation as far more controversial than it actually was then came when Jack Hobbs aimed one over the top and Fryatt, onside as Koren trotted back from an unlawful position (think of Burnley’s winner on Saturday, if you can stand the fleeting agony again), charged through with just keeper to beat. Hobbs’ sense of direction wasn’t exactly dead-on-balls accurate (with thanks to Marisa Tomei) and so Fryatt had to chase the ball slightly to the left rather than straight through the centre. Davis saw, rightly, his own opportunity to collect it first – certainly no defender was going to do it – and Fryatt was minutely ahead of him as the two connected. Fryatt took the ball, Davis took Fryatt and the referee took out his yellow card. And absolutely correctly too. Fryatt is a good goalscorer, but that was no goalscoring position and Davis was left with little choice after his defence’s offside trap had failed.
Needless to say, the free kick came to nought. Our set pieces are absolutely abject right now – all direct free kicks hit the wall, all corners are cleared. Dreadful. Get to work on them, City.
Cameron Stewart and Liam Rosenior then switched passes grandly to leave Harding spinning and allow City’s right back to reach the line and cross and ultimately win a corner which, needless to say … oh, you know. For what it’s worth, it did sort of reach Hobbs, but he was climbing so prominently onto his marker you wondered if John Eyre had provided him with branded crampons. The whistle shrilled.
Rickie Lambert then hit a shot just wide from Southampton’s own half-cleared corner as the first half ticktocked into its final couple of minutes. City, with Cairney’s touch and vision returning and the full backs enjoying ample room, had played cutely and with real aplomb at times, but the big chance hadn’t come.
Then a series of tidy passes through one of those famed midfield triangles allowed Cairney to release Dudgeon into proper space on the overlap. The left back reached the box, flicked it through to Fryatt on the edge of the six yard area and then hit the return first time. It was a shot from Dudgeon, really, and a non-scoring defender’s type of shot at that, but it in a split-second turned into a smart low cross as Koren got an instep on it, saw it hit Davis and loop upwards, allowing him an easy header home on the rebound. Right on half time too. A brilliant, priceless, immaculately crafted team goal that was celebrated wildly by the travelling support.
Lambert won a free kick in first half injury time that the Tigers’ wall dealt with, and the whistle went. We were one up at, in this postcode, the seemingly unbeatable Saints and deserved it. There was real optimism among the heaving throng that wandered around the spacious half-concourse below and emptied plastic bottles of ale down throats in one gulp.
Thing is, however, Southampton have a manager who knows what he is doing.
I remember when everyone howled at Scunthorpe with real laughter when Adkins was appointed. A cheap option, untried, a man best suited to applying linament and caressing calf muscles than organising midfields and deciding if a 19 year old right back should go on loan to Immingham Town, was in charge of the club. But, aside from the occasional bitter press conference after losing to City, the man has never been anything other than impressive, progressive, positive and affable. His appointment at Southampton was seen as one indicative of a club on its uppers, only able to attract an ex-medic currently based in arguably England’s least salubrious town, and since his arrival neither club nor manager can do wrong. That the capable man he succeeded is now tweaking Premier League noses at Newcastle United is no longer relevant.
Adkins had seen the problem and he duly fixed it. Rosenior and Dudgeon – the latter especially – had been running amok down City’s flanks, required to do little in defence and everything in attack. Adkins widened his midfield, took a man off Stewart (who had been dually marked and rendered utterly impotent) and instructed his charges to make the full backs feel their breath on their necks at all times. Result. Dudgeon didn’t even look forwards again, Rosenior curled into a ball, and such was City’s inability to find a plan B that soon the game was lost.
Three minutes had passed only when Lallana had exposed defensive rustiness in Rosenior that Adkins had identified, and the inviting cross was headed back across by Lambert for Guly Do Prado to volley at goal. Gulácsi got in the way but only succeeded in handing the Brazilian a second bite, which he slammed into the net. Gulácsi’s save was impressive but, annoyingly, from this author’s angle it looked like the initial shot was heading wide. Had Gulácsi shown less competence on this occasion the equaliser would have been spared. The guy actually can’t win.
Southampton could though, and didn’t we all know it. Seven more minutes passed when Frazer Richardson gave Dudgeon vertigo near the corner flag and Lallana made the run to the near post – unforgivably not accompanied by any City defender – to nod past a blameless Gulácsi. From being a goal up at the restart, City were now 2-1 down with not even an hour gone.
Southampton then proceeded to take almost exclusive possession of the football, something that was only momentarily halted when a stray pass reached Corry Evans who gave Cairney room for a distant shot that flew over. Again, one looks to the bench in these situations, and that was what Barmby found himself doing. In the absence of a forward-looking, selfless, mature, workaholic, responsibly skilled creator – there’s a chap somewhere called Garcia who fits that bill – he had no option but to bring on Brady. The subdued Stewart, who had been shackled well, made unsurprising way.
Now, look. Nobody denies that Brady has ability. He has all of the ability in the world, in fact. But gifted footballers with textbook touch and celestially-acquired vision aren’t individuals any more than a gruff defender who can tackle like a tank but can only kick with his tongue sticking out. Brady’s dozen minutes on the park were negligible in terms of viable benefit to the match and overwhelming in terms of brazen irresponsibility. He barely wanted the ball, let alone touched it, and then his diving tackle on Harding, when the ball was trundling over the touchline on halfway and was actually an unnecessary cause for opposing players to fight over, was diabolical.
Looking at it again, the tackle was one of those that would have earned you the Victoria Cross in 1971. The player was hurt but the ball was available and Brady got it, but had to take out the player entirely through the laws of physics, thereby making the challenge dangerous. It would have been semi-understandable had it occurred in either penalty box. But it was on halfway and the ball was going out. It may even have been City’s throw-in. It was needless, stupid, reckless and symptomatic of a player for whom only an acknowledgement of his age is stopping him from becoming a boo-boy target. He is the John Bostock of the day. All the talent under the sun that gives him what he feels is the right to a stinking attitude. We all saw through Bostock last year and his loan was cut short. Brady will get a three match ban now, meaning he’s in limbo until a week before Christmas, and by then Garcia and Pusic will be fit and Stewart will be fully in the groove.
As Brady trotted off, Barmby had no choice but to sling on Dele Adebola, withdrawing the impressive Cairney in doing so. For the second game on the bounce we were in a situation where we had our awkward, brutish centre forward on the field with no player of sufficient flair to make a chance for him. Koren drifted out wide but with a man down and already second best, City were pretty much finished. It did fleetingly pick up as the 90th minute approached and Southampton chose to go into protective mode, but there was no way back. There never really was.
So there is much discussion and repositioning to do in the Tigers squad. Brady’s absence won’t amount to much, although it could mean one less attacker on the bench, given that Garcia, Pusic and Martyn Waghorn aren’t yet ready, while Barmby’s own injury isn’t yet apparently healed. Are we allowed to recall Jamie Devitt at all?
Beyond that, however, one can speculate about the midfield’s make up, given that McKenna must come back but Cairney played really well in his place, leaving the slightly bypassed Evans perhaps in the most danger. And this may be a skewiff suggestion, but I’d now like to see Paul McShane back in defence somewhere. For all his occasional brainstorms and idiocies, he’s a tackler and a scrapper and a bruiser with a spot-on attitude and there certainly isn’t enough of those key attributes within our stagnant back four at the moment. Chester is a fine player, of course, but right now his form is rotten.
Still, at least the first two of the four recent defeats don’t count. After all, we don’t have to be concerned about Nigel Pearson any more – it’s a new era, different focus, different approach. Now, who are we playing on Saturday?