It seems inconceivable now, in the wake of our largest Premier League victory, that at half time Tiger Nationals contemplated that David Stockdale in the Fulham goal might never be beaten in this game, despite an abundance of City pressure. That for all the pride generated by a sterling performance against the reigning champions a few days earlier, frustration would be the main sensation felt if we didn’t win this game, one that will have a far greater long term significance for The Tigers than a 3-2 Boxing Day defeat to Manchester United. That BBC production teams were pondering whether to show the highlights of this game last on Match of the Day, or first on the Football League Show, as for all of City’s dominance, they and Fulham had served up a less than ‘premier’ 45 minutes of football.
It seemed inconceivable then, in that 15 minute interval, that City would score 6 league goals in 45 minutes, having taken the best part of 5 months to score 16. That City would truly break the spirit of a side ensconced, as many pundits thought we would be, in the bottom three.
Things can change very quickly in the Premier League. Take Boxing Day for example: While City were gallantly battling the champions, coming agonisingly close to matching and sharing points with Manchester United, results elsewhere were going against us. Teams below us in the table, Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Fulham, were all winning and by doing so creating a current that threatened to pull us towards the relegation zone without quick action, but act quickly City did, and emphatically so, even if we in the stands had been consumed with Kafka-esque angst by half time.
Two games in as many days halted the run of unchanged line-ups, though Allan McGregor would again start in goal, as the knock that cut his Boxing Day game in half was not serious enough to sideline him again. Liam Rosenior started as City switched to 4-4-2, fielding: McGregor; Figueroa, Davies, Chester, Rosenior; Boyd, Livermore, Huddlestone, Elmohamady; Koren and Sagbo.
City kicked off facing the North Stand, the away section of which was sparsely populated as few Fulham fans made the trip, a wise decision in retrospect. Those that did were not in a talkative mood, despite the attempts of E1 to goad them into song. FFC – The Religion, read one flag covering 20 or so seats; its owners must have made a vow of silence as they were unmoved even when bankrupt Norwegian left bank John Arne Riise struck a fierce shot at goal that drew a smart save from McGregor. It would be another 70 minutes before they tested him again as City hogged possession.
After a driven shot was hit straight at the former City loan keeper, Tom Huddlestone had another crack at goal from a free kick, this time shaking the nearside upright with Stockdale stranded in the middle of his goal. Fulham’s netman made a smart save soon after though, acrobatically tipping over George Boyd’s downward shot that rose high after hitting the turf. City were turning up the heat 20 minutes in.
Huddlestone was in the thick of it for the Tigers, taking two more free kicks, the first driven low on goal but scrambled away for a corner, the second was chipped over all outfield players and was claimed by Stockdale, as well as defensively patrolling the midfield, he bullied Patjim Kasami into surrendering possession.
For all their dictating of the game, City weren’t showing the cutting edge needed to cash possession into goals, Maynor Figueroa’s cheeky run was halted when he was felled by a redshirt but Yannick Sagbo was quick to react, taking control before bending a shot beyond the far post.
Fulham were offering nothing at this point and an untroubled McGregor was staving off boredom with a series of yogic stretches some ten yards outside of his box. He could have dragged an exercise bike from the tunnel to the penalty spot without fear. Ashkan Dejagah had a shot that was so hopelessly wide it probably wasn’t even recorded as such by the ProZone stattos.
The half ended 0-0 with the familiar worries in place, where are the goals coming from? Why can’t we capitalise when we’re in control of a game? When will Tom Huddlestone get a haircut?
We had no idea that those frustrations would soon be wiped away in a hail of goals and with impromptu shearing…
Not that it happened immediately following the restart, in fact the first few minutes of the second half resembled much of the first; Huddlestone fizzed a shot narrowly wide and Stockdale kept Fulham in the game with a smart double save. Sagbo raced onto Huddlestone’s through ball and considered playing in Robert Koren while shedding his markers before electing to going it alone, lashing the ball goalward. Stockdale got down well to beat the ball away, only to put in onto the foot of Koren, but the stopper showed quick reactions to spring to his feet and deny the Slovenian.
From the resulting corner though, City broke the deadlock. Huddlestone drove the cross in over the first cluster of men and Hugo Rodallega looked to be first to it to clear, but Elmohamady hustled the ball from him and in one quick footed move controlled the ball, span his body round to face goal and slightly off balance, lifted the ball into the net. 1-0 City, and a wave of relief rolled around the stands, stopping in the North Stand where Fulham’s small band of fans added glumness to their silence.
Who can blame them? Their side visibly wilted and gave up. It has been said many times recently that Fulham look a changed side since Rene Meulensteen replaced Martin Jol, but here they were supine and resigned to defeat. City on the other hand could do no wrong, even a wild Figueroa cross/shot thing that arced towards the corner flag turned out to be a decent pass.
On the hour mark City doubled their advantage: From a Rosenior throw in, Huddlestone cushioned the ball down for Sagbo who rather brilliantly chose to cross first time, reducing Fulham defender Aaron Hughes to a spectator as an in-line Koren moved obliquely beyond him before sliding the ball past Stockdale for 2-0.
The Tigers, often found huffing and puffing just to notch up one goal, had developed a taste for them, and they set about ruthlessly dismantling the visitors confidence and goal difference. Within 3 minutes, City had a third, Boyd getting in on the act with his first Premier League strike. Jake Livermore played the ball forward to Boyd, who span on it and darted towards goal, with defenders backing off. Boyd used the space wisely, cutting left to wrap his left foot around the ball and sweep it sublimely into the right corner of the goal. 3-0
Mercilessly, City pressed for more, and birthday boy Huddlestone, who directed this game like he had a remote control, sensed a trip to the barbers was in order. The ‘fro headed midfielder, who pledged not to trim his locks until he ended a two year goal drought, followed the George Boyd goal template after controlling a clearance, checking the ball onto his left foot to throw off defenders before powering a 20 yard strike into the right corner of goal for 4-0. Not content to wait till the barbershop opened, Huddlestone directed the physio to scissor off a large clump of hair that remained on the touch line as play resumed.
Matt Fryatt replaced Sagbo (who had led the line in two games in two days) and was warmly greeted by the Tiger Nation. He deserves his slice of Premier League glory to see if his natural striking instincts can cut it at this level.
Fulham, non-existent as an attacking force in the second half, finally gave McGregor something to do when he was called upon to claw away a Elsad Zverotić effort, it was a brief respite from the champagne football City were playing, epitomised by Figueroa and Boyd playing piggy in the middle with several hypnotised redshirts on the left flank. To really rub it in, City brought Danny Graham on, retiring Livermore.
So confident in his own ability was Huddlestone, that he tried an audacious chipped shot from a free kick, the range of which was so long the Hubble telescope’s view of it was grainy. His shot arced through the air for what seemed an eternity before Stockdale despairingly pushed it onto the bar, only for an alert Fryatt to compound his misery by smashing in the rebound. 5-0.
City made a final substitution, relieving Elmohamady and throwing on the heroic ginge Paul McShane.
A Fulham fan live Tweeting about the game graphically described the events unfolding at the KC, likening it to a violent sexual liaison. It was hard not to disagree, what had started as a gentle probing, a timely prostate exam, had morphed into a consensual sodomizing of the Cottagers as they submitted to our every depraved impulse. Finally, the Money Shot; Rosenior’s cross from the right was met by Graham, whose shot on the turn was blocked by Stockdale, who was given zero protection for the entire second half. Were his defenders on hand to hack the ball clear as he lay on the ground? Nope, they just watched Robert Koren calmly angle the ball beyond the besieged keeper’s grasp. 6-0.
A lusty rendition of ‘City till I die’ swirled around the stadium soon after, as the Tiger Nation explained in subtext that our identity doesn’t become less important because we’re winning, in fact it strengthens the value of the name Hull City AFC, for it is that name being lauded around the world right now, not some childish fusion of our club name and nickname.
In injury time City withdrew Huddlestone, leaving us with just ten men. Maybe he was hurt, maybe he wanted to get the rest of his hair shorn on the bench, it mattered not, as City played around Fulham till the final whistle ended their indignity.
The Tiger Nation on the other hand, revelled in the blistering second half display and lavished praise on their heroes, in particular Tom Huddlestone and Steve Bruce.
The inconceivable had been played out before our very eyes, and we were left to wonder how we ever had any doubts. The win moved us up two spots to tenth, restoring a seven point gap between us and 18th place. Of course, bitter experience has shown us that a decent point haul from the first half of the season is no guarantee of Premier League survival, which is our primary aim, but we have a securely built arch to build upon in 2014 and an experienced man at the helm.
An extended stay in the top division? Conceivable.