February the second. Groundhog Day to various Philadelphians and Nineties cinema fans. The omens weren’t good for Hull City. Two defeats in two seasons at the New Den had been depressingly similar: gutless, guileless, grim. Would the same apply to… woah, David Meyler’s just scored!
More on that shortly. The big news pre-kick-off was that we were playing Alex Bruce in midfield. That’s right, Alex Bruce. It was a decision I was uncomfortable with upon first hearing, and despite what happened in Bermondsey on Saturday afternoon, I hope it’s something we don’t see too much of in the future. I suspect that the thinking was that Bruce Jr – excellent for the most part since joining us – would snuff out the threat of the often excellent Liam Trotter in the home midfield. Did it work? Well, they didn’t score. Will it work at the Amex Stadium next week, or in home games? I have my doubts, but then the vast majority of the doubts I’ve had this season have been calmly assuaged by the ever-impressive Bruce Sr.
Anyway, we kicked off in a formation that looks nothing like this, but the text formatting wouldn’t allow be to put it any other way:
Elmohamady Chester Faye McShane Brady
And then we score. Mark Beevers – once a Hull City target in his Sheffield Wednesday days – feebly underhits a backpass. David Meyler shows impressive anticipation in running on to the ball, and then impressive composure in slotting coolly past Forde in the Millwall goal. Many of City fans – again, so impressive in both number and volume – haven’t even got into the ground yet, let alone finished their pre-match pie. No matter, we are 1-0 up after 37 seconds, and we have four centre-backs on the pitch to quell any threat from the home team.
After only a couple of minutes, it looks like we may need a few more centre-backs, as Millwall roar back and a couple of uncharacteristic errors from McShane see our goal come under threat. An excellent cross by the ever-dangerous Henry is partially cleared, only for our ginger genius – cheered on yesterday, somewhat bizarrely, by a gaggle of not-unattractive American girls in the away end – to give away a free-kick right on the edge of the box. The free-kick is hammered into our wall by Henry and the threat is over, for both this attack, and pretty much the rest of the half.
Nothing happens for the best part of the next 20 minutes. Literally nothing. The match is flat, the home fans are flat, and the pitch is bobbly. On 19, Millwall centre-forward Marquis heads a half-decent chance apologetically at Stockdale, and then we break through with the thank-god-he’s-back Elmohamady, who whips in a terrific cross that Quinn volleys narrowly wide.
The rest of the half passes without much incident. We have what looks like a decent penalty appeal turned down on 32, and a minute later Simpson – putting in one of his best shifts for City – evades his marker to get in down our right. Alas, the angle he has to shoot from is too narrow and Forde saves well with his feet. On 33, former Scunny man Woolford advances into the box to shoot straight at Stockdale, and then a couple of minutes later the same player acrobatically shoots with an overhead kick that goes a couple of yards wide. In truth, though, we appear to be handling them with a measure of ease.
As half-time approaches, we do suffer a bit of a blow as Faye turns his ankle and goes off injured. He’s replaced by Hobbs, who must be feeling a touch unfortunate to be on the bench anyway. Half-time is reached with no further alarms.
My notes for half-time read ‘Millwall all Henry. Surely Keogh or Hulse are better than Marquis’. This is a sentiment that Kenny Jackett seemingly agrees with. Our two previous defeats here have seen a couple of impressive centre-forward partnerships destroy us: Morison and Lisbie in the season before last, and then Keogh and Kane. And indeed, with a more established attacking force at their disposal, Millwall show a greater attacking threat in the second half.
Hulse’s first contribution, however, is to go into the referee’s notebook on 49 for an awful foul on Quinn. For the most part, though, we’re keeping possession well and Meyler in particular is causing all manner of problems for the home side. Indeed, it is our recent signing who conjures up a magnificent piece of skill down our right to win a free-kick in a dangerous position. The set-piece was – in a theme that was to run throughout the game – wasted by Brady.
On 63, Koren and Quinn combine beautifully for the former to send a cross across the home six-yard box which Simpson is agonisingly close to sliding home. We appear to be the most likely to score next. And then it happens…
A long punt upfield from a City corner falls nicely for Brady, our last man on the half-way line. Under barely significant pressure from Henry, Brady messes up badly and gifts the ball to Millwall’s best player by a mile. Henry runs down on goal unopposed, and must surely score. Stockdale times his run to meet Henry nicely, and as the winger prepares to shoot, the combination of a bobble, Stockdale and Henry’s nerves all seem to combine to see the ball sail high and wide of our goal. In the end this was to prove the difference between the teams. We put away the one-on-one we were gifted, they didn’t.
A silly Quinn booking on 65 is followed by Meyler going off injured, to be replaced by Proschwitz. And what of our lumbering German? Frankly, he was poor. His running style doesn’t help matters. No matter what he’s doing, he looks like Bob Willis coming into bowl. When he gets the ball he uses it intelligently, but his lack of pace, strength, anticipation and, sadly as far as yesterday was concerned, effort all mean that he very rarely gets the ball to do intelligent things with. Gedo had better be good.
The game then settles into a pattern that continues until the final whistle. We sit deep and defend, hoping to hit Millwall on the break. On 71, this arrangement seems as if it is about to work better for the home team as a Chester error – our Maldiniesque centre-back wasn’t his usual self yesterday – lets in Hulse who looks favourite to score until he’s jumped on by four City defenders who manage to crowd him out. Our counter-attacks, set off more often than not by Quinn, who demostrated once again what an utterly wonderful player he is, look promising until we get near the opposing penalty area, by which time they fizzle out. Gedo had better be good.
On 76, Koren gives away a silly free-kick right on the edge of the box. Woolford blasts the set-piece criminally high and wide. On 80, Stockdale is called into action however. A very good cross from the Millwall left sees our custodian of the leather dither. Thankfully, McShane heads the ball clear. Worryingly, it lands perfectly for Henry who shoots into the bottom corner, only to see Stockdale get across his goal superbly to tip the ball round the post.
On 83, Evans replaces Bruce and we continue to defend in a not-quite desperate, but slightly uncomfortable-looking manner. On 87, though, it is City who nearly put the game to bed.
Jay Simpson. A quick word. He was magnificent yesterday. His work-rate, his first touch, his use of the ball, his hold-up play. He didn’t score, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t magnificent. Anyway, on 87 he does brillaintly to latch onto a clearance and takes the ball from the halfway line to the Millwall penalty area. He feeds Koren in who shoots well, but Forde saves. Bah.
And now the nervy bit. Except it’s not nervy. We survive the next three minutes of normal time and five minutes of injury time with barely an intake of breath. Millwall have nothing left in them and we keep possession for the most of the rest of the game until the final whistle goes and a sizeable City following celebrates a fairly ugly win, but a win that is crucially important given the context of the month just gone. We didn’t play what I would call ‘well’, although there were some excellent shifts put in from Elmohamady, Quinn, Meyler and Simpson. But we were back to being effective. I don’t think we’d get away with playing like this at home, but that’s another worry for another day. Right now, several hundred City fans have seen us win at Millwall. And Nigel Pearson knows that he’s not going to have things easy.