Two games, three points – and already it feels as though the pattern for the season is set. We’ll struggle to compete with the bigger richer boys, but there’s enough about City to ensure we’ll be competitive. A season of struggle lies ahead of us, but we knew that already, and it’s a struggle we look reasonably well-equipped for.
It seems mildly ridiculous to label any game that takes place in August as a “must” anything, yet this could justly have been called “must not lose”. Defeat would have seen the unhappy prospect of a point-free opening trio of matches, ahead of a “relegation six pointer” with Cardiff.
That’s because unlike at lowlier levels, not every game is winnable. There are something like a dozen fixtures – a third of the season – in which victory is improbable, leaving only 26 or so matches from which to amass as near to 10-12 wins as possible. Difficult. But much easier if you do take the first chance to win that presents itself. We’ve done that, and we can now relax a little.
Changes were inevitable following the 2-0 cuffing at Chelsea, and were not impossible to foresee. Tom Huddlestone’s inclusion was a racing certainty, and duly arrived – Jake Livermore was also drafted in, as Steve Bruce shuffled both personnel and formation.
It meant that on a warm, cloudy day in East Yorkshire, the Tigers lined up: McGregor; Elmohamady, Davies, Chester, Figueroa; Koren, Huddlestone, Livermore, Brady; Sagbo, Aluko.
Of course, there was action before the game, as the Ulltras paraded their new “Hull City AFC – a club not a brand flag” in front of the East Stand, following the pre-match protest about the club’s idiotic renaming in West Park. However, despite the souring of relations between club and support in recent weeks, it’s to the credit of the Tiger Nation that once the game began, the only focus was on the football, and the atmosphere was positive throughout.
It was quite good, too. Norwich were solidly backed by 2,500 vividly-attired supporters, rather oddly asserting that we “should have gone to the rugby” – a trifle unfair on their own team, who aren’t so unappealing a prospect we’d prefer to be among fat idiots watching other fat idiots. Indeed, their side had the better start as City began looking a little nervous.
They should have opened the scoring when a wonderful cross by Whittaker met Dutch international Leroy Fer – his header skidded off the turf and bounced about a foot wide of McGregor’s right-hand post with the City keeper beaten.
The Canaries went close-ish again shortly after when Nathan Redmond collected a long pass in a worrying amount of space in midfield – he advanced forward and flashed a 25 yard shot that McGregor pushed away. A tricky start, but City began to settle down as Tom Huddlestone began to take charge.
What a delight to watch he is going to be. A huge man possessing an intimidating aura, with an immaculate first touch, a international-quality range of passing and that unteachable knack of knowing just what to do, and when. We’ve got a real star.
The Tigers began making things happen up front too. After a couple of crosses were repelled by Norwich, Sone Aluko collected the ball with his back to goal…he sharply backheeled it to Jake Livermore, charging from midfield…the Tottenham loanee steadied himself before sending a left-footed shot a yard over. A sumptuous move.
Duly invigorated, we went from parity into the lead. Huddlestone sweetly pinged a pass out wide to Ahmed Elmohamady, whose cross from the right was aimed at Yannick Sagbo, the only City player in the area. It seemed as though the cross was going over his head, making the bungling intervention of Michael Turner all the more puzzling. He half-threw Sagbo to the floor, and after a nerve-shredding wait, referee Mike Jones pointed spotwards.
Quite rightly too. That Sagbo wasn’t going to reach the ball is quite irrelevant, as is the belief that it oughtn’t be punished because it happens a lot. Those are the arguments of the dullard, and whatever else Mike Jones got wrong yesterday (and there was a fair bit), this was quite obviously correct.
Up stepped, err, Robbie Brady. Not Koren? Or another forward? But no – our thrilling young Irish prospect has nerve as well as skill, and as John Ruddy rather accommodatingly advertised his plan to dive left, Brady coolly passed the ball into the empty half of the goal. The celebrations were lustily raucous, and the Norwich fans were smugly advised that perhaps it was they who ought to have gone eggchasing instead.
Then just as City began to purr and we began to greedily envisage extending the lead, all hell broke loose.
Norwich won a corner on the City left, from which Michael Turner hit the floor. That, we must observe, is because Curtis Davies had pushed him there. A definite penalty, and we were extremely fortunate that Mr Jones probably didn’t have a clear view of it. That, or he just made the wrong call. A poor decision and rotten luck for Norwich.
That wasn’t the end of the madness. The ball fell out of the area to Redmond, who walloped a shot miles over…but suddenly our attention was elsewhere, as a flare-up between about a dozen players saw a red card rapidly issued to an initially unknown player. It quickly turned out to be Yannick Sagbo, who stalked off the pitch and was conspicuously ignored by Steve Bruce, the clearest indication to a bewildered crowd that a suitably grave offence had been committed.
Bugger. Having clambered into the game and taken the lead, there was an hour with which to play with only ten men, a daunting prospect in the Premier League. A grey mood of glumness pervaded.
And yet…we made it to half-time with relative ease, only a Redmond free-kick that McGregor shovelled wide at his near-post being the only worry.
Changes, then? Koren for someone busier, perhaps Aluko off for Graham to provide a targetman to relieve the pressure? Nope. Perhaps that was almost too obvious, too Championship Managerish. You can’t do nothing but defend for 45 minutes after all – there still needs to be enough of a threat on the pitch to occupy the opposition’s attention. Anyone who witnessed Warren Joyce’s ill-fated 4-5-0 formation at Peterborough all those years ago can testify to that.
Norwich did make a change however, introducing Scottish international and former White Shite Robert Snodgrass for Bradley Johnson. And he was to have a splendidly awful afternoon.
Before we knew it, ten minutes had passed. City, rightly, were playing a very conservative brand of football, tucking in and allowing width for Norwich but never an easy central route. For their part, Norwich were desperately unimaginative, failing to successfully overload a wing at any point in the second half. We were surviving with occasional alarm, but no sense of panic.
One bright spark for the visitors was Howson. He had a chance when he brightly nicked possession from Huddlestone and sent a shot on target that took a deflection – it looped the ball up a little, always a worry, but the save was comfortable for McGregor.
Howson nearly scored again minutes later when he blazed just over from the edge of the area, but McGregor possibly had it covered.
Meanwhile Snodgrass was keeping the East Stand entertained. His links with the enemy were not forgotten, and he rose very entertainingly to the bait, inserting a cretinous series of sly momentum-spoiling fouls, chirping immaturely away, constantly trying to do too much to prove his gloating detractors wrong and was comfortable Norwich’s worst player.
Or worst player not called Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Though maybe that’s unfair, if you accept that you can’t play terribly if you do almost nothing. He’s not as tall as his angular frame suggests, and he was marked out of the game with ease by James Chester and particularly the terrific Curtis Davies.
Just as your match reporter was sagely observing the lumpen nature of the Dutchman’s performance, he nearly scored. Javier Garrido crossed from the Norwich left and van Wolfswinkel’s meaty header forced an outstanding save from McGregor to tip the ball just over.
That took place on 67 minutes, and it’s sincerely no exaggeration to say that it was Norwich’s final chance of the afternoon. They seemed to lose heart afterwards, with City throwing bodies into challenges, running after everything – even Koren was hyperactive – and this gradually inculcated a feeling of fatalism in Norwich.
Having kept all of his substitutions available by resisting temptation at half-time, Steve Bruce made a series of them between 72 and 83 minutes, with Graham replacing Aluko, Boyd coming on for Brady and Rosenior for Koren.
A word for Koren. He’s not a player with whom discipline and endeavour are commonly associated, but when required he more than did his bit, doubling-up with a full-back to prevent easy crosses coming in, harrying in midfield and seeming content to defer to Huddlestone when it was time for the pretty stuff.
The match drifted. The Norwich fans looked pretty displeased, and understandably so. Following McGregor’s flying save from van Wolfswinkel they failed to create a single chance. The City fans were in good voice, sensing that victory was likely after all.
Mike Jones put up six extra minutes. City counted them off with ease, and a great roar of jubilation greeted their conclusion.
We’re off and running. Reality will probably bite at Man C next week, but for every game like that, there’ll be a Norwich at home. And if we show the same application mixed with a flash of skill, and keep eleven men on the pitch wherever possible, we’ve got every chance. Well played City.