After a fortnight of fighting, a football match finally broke out. And, given the bitterness and recrimination of off-field issues at Hull City AFC still ongoing, as well as the smoke-blowing, sick-making, lickspittle from the national media over Jose Mourinho’s acquisition of a new job, the Hull City AFC players may well have wondered if anyone had noticed they were about to take to a Premier League field.
Well, now they have. And initially overawed and ultimately well beaten though they were, much praise can be extended their way on how they eventually went about things.
Chelsea had it sewn up by half time and, in previous lives, might have gone on to rampage through the Hull City AFC team throughout the second half, rendering goal difference utterly irrelevant for the season with 37 games still to go. But as flamboyant and as charismatic as Mourinho may be in life, in football he is one of the zeniths of pragmatism. 2-0 at half time? That’ll do. Keep the ball, don’t get injured and don’t do anything daft.
Hull City AFC manager Steve Bruce, whose return to the top tier of the game seems to have gone down well with the self-important in front of microphones and notepads, made no changes to the pre-season team that had shaped up before the midweek business that blew us away. With logic hard to challenge, he left Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore on the bench due to meagre training time in their new surroundings, and picked the team that began against Real Betis last week, viz: McGregor; Elmohamady, Chester, Davies, Figueroa; Sagbo, Koren, Meyler, Brady, Aluko; Graham. No specialist centre forward was on the bench alongside the two freshest recruits, a new goalkeeper in Steve Harper and three defenders.
Chelsea began swiftly and with some style, too. Fernando Torres set up Eden Hazard with an excellent flick in the first proper attack but Allan McGregor got his body in the way of the ball. Within five minutes of the season beginning, however, the new keeper had committed his first solecism, rushing out needlessly to the cusp of his area as Torres chased the ball and punching the Spaniard square in the head. The spot kick was obvious, but the new custodian made amends with an excellent save from Frank Lampard low to his right.
Getting your breath back and curbing your heart rate wasn’t going to be easy. Hull City AFC had made a lucky escape, no thanks and then special thanks to McGregor, and currently were without any notable spell of possession. Then Robbie Brady, of whom much is expected this season, made a smart diagonal run from the touchline but his flicked ball with the outside of the foot wasn’t timed correctly and Danny Graham was caught a yard offside.
Chelsea settled down and, with depressing inevitability, took the lead when Torres caressed a sly ball through James Chester’s legs around the edge of the box and Oscar was able to get there a second ahead of the onrushing McGregor to poke it under his body. The deadlock had been broken in the direction expected – and demanded – and it worryingly didn’t slap city about the cheeks and wake them up. Lampard had a shot from 18 yards tipped over by McGregor shortly afterwards and Kevin De Bruyne battered one too high after Curtis Davies, on debut, made a hash of a clearance from within his own box.
The second goal wasn’t far away, but it irked many not brainwashed by the Mourinho love-in as Torres flopped to the floor without even a breath his way from Chester. The ref fell for it and Lampard shelled a marvellous free kick into the top corner to which the slightly culpable McGregor only got a thumb. Ulp. 2-0 already.
But this is Mourinho. He wants to win first, win last, and if it is required, win effortlessly. More goals mean more effort.
Hull City AFC then made a rare foray into the Chelsea half and Brady was bundled over. The Irishman got power but also negligible direction behind his free kick and the ball slammed into the shins of the wall and away.
Brady, momentarily forgetting he was up against a better class of defender this season, then tried one of his off-ball shuffles on the touchline but forgot to take the ball with him in the final switch of direction and John Terry, backed by the Chelsea fans, made him look foolish. His international team-mate David Meyler subsequently hit a shot from distance well after some sensible and patient approach work from Sone Aluko and Yannick Sagbo, but a blue-shirted body got in the way.
McGregor saved again from Lampard as he chased a clipped ball from Oscar, then the keeper blocked and subsequently palmed away a bullet header from Branislav Ivanovic in first half injury time, with the goal-line technology confirming that the ball hadn’t crossed the line.
So, the break. 2-0 down. Game likely lost. Face not yet lost, however. The team talk would have been interesting to hear; you can’t imagine Bruce telling the Hull City AFC players there was still a point to get, nor can you envisage him expressing his worry that it could end with seven going in. So what did he say? Our guess is on the lines of: tighten up, play it simple, support each other up the field and cross it early.
And we got a different City in the second half. If we’re rather brutal, we also got a different Chelsea, befitting Mourinho’s philosophy of doing enough for the points and no more, an understandable policy on day one in bright sunshine when the opposition are untroublesome and another game awaits in midweek, ahead of anyone else’s second match due to continental commitments. But notwithstanding any reduction in velocity and urgency from the hosts, Hull City AFC picked their game up substantially in the second half. And good on them for it.
De Bruyne belted one early Chelsea opening a long way over, but otherwise we got a visible, contributory, even dominant Hull City AFC for pockets of the second half. More possession, more angled passing, more mileage, more fun. And, crucially, less likelihood of Chelsea getting another. That they weren’t especially bothered about doing so, or required to do so, is sort of extrinsic, really. At the black and amber end of the event, there was a real necessity to get a feel of the ball and look the part. Hull City AFC did this.
It was aided by Huddlestone and Livermore’s introduction just before the hour, with both showing a willingness to lead and make the rest follow. Huddlestone’s class in control of a football is well known; his first touch sent Brady scampering free of Ivanovic towards the byline and was only a shade to strong for the eager Irishman. Livermore upped the tempo of the off-ball game, meanwhile, bringing more work and desire out of a cumbersome Robert Koren and prompting both full backs, especially Ahmed Elmohamady to cut his losses and join the attack more. It worked – well, it worked as far as re-introducing one’s team to a Chelsea outfit on autopilot was concerned.
Koren shot from distance and forced Petr Cech into a save; his first of the game and the first effort on target for Hull City AFC, on 63 minutes. A minor appeal for handball (it wasn’t) followed when Yannick Sagbo, too isolated on the flank thus far, hit one goalwards from a corner and Lampard got in the way, but with his pectoral area more than anything. Davies then soared high and majestically on to an Elmohamady cross and aimed the header for Cech’s top corner, but the keeper plucked it out with ease. Nothing looked like it would go in; but everything looked like it had improved.
McGregor made another foolhardy run off his line as sub Andre Schürrle chased a Ramires ball down the inside right channel; the German’s chip beat the impetuous Scot but landed in the side netting. Lampard put a late free kick wide and George Boyd, on as a sub for the tiring and ineffective Sone Aluko, mishit a reasonably placed volley from inside the box as the last seconds of the two minutes added were extinguished. No points, no damage done, no expectations unmet, no bigger tests than this.
Norwich City come to the KC next week and that is the season-starter for Hull City AFC. Bruce knows that, the players know that, the supporters certainly know that. While all the drivel around the much-derided name change continues to dominate thinking within supporters’ groups and the media, the small matter of a winnable game among equals should now become the absolute focal point. Utterly outclassed Bruce’s men may have been in west London, but there was enough on show – eventually – to suggest there is a decent prospect of progress for Hull City AFC in the Premier League this season providing everyone realises that, ultimately, the superficial, gimmick-laden side of football must play a distinct and correct second fiddle to excitement and betterment on the pitch.