During a time of intense debate about the legacy of Hull City AFC, it seems somewhat fitting for the club to observe its most persistent tradition. Inevitable defeat in the face of pre-match optimism.
After all, a progressive Cup side, a new multi-million pound strike-force, a fixture against unfancied relegation fodder, the appearance of Aaron Wilbraham…what could possibly go wrong?
When the two teams met earlier in the season, bewildered witnesses spoke of a classic smash and grab by the visitors. As one-sided a contest as you could wish, and a belief that a brazen footballing injustice had been committed in Palace’s single goal victory.
A chance then for recompense. A chance for City to stamp their authority and a chance to snatch a much needed away win. For it’s away from the Circle where the Tigers have struggled this term. Just seven goals and five points on the road is a concerning statistic – and one which furrows ever-deeper worry lines across the brow of Steve Bruce. Deep enough, it would seem, to splash out a staggering £14m on Shane Long and Nikica Jelavić, who would be paired tonight for the very first time.
To Selhurst Park then. A south London den of ramshackle sheds, flag wielding natives and superfluous pre-match falconry. A wearisome drizzle had dampened the pitch for much of the day and it was clear from the outset that playing conditions, while slick, would be somewhat challenging.
City lined up in their customary 3-5-2 with welcome starts for Liam Rosenior (preferred at left wing back) and strawberry blonde colossus Paul McShane at centre-half. And so it was McGregor; McShane, Bruce, Davies; Elmohamady, Livermore, Meyler, Huddlestone, Rosenior; Jelavić, Long.
The opening exchanges saw a smattering of half chances as both teams sought to dominate the midfield. Record signing Jelavić was the first to profit following good work from David Meyler and Rosenior. But as the Eagles’ defence backed off, the Croat could only poke a weak effort towards Julian Speroni.
Play then swung to the other end as the hosts earned the first of a glut of a soft free-kicks from referee Roger East. And whilst ultimately unfruitful, a quick interchange from the set piece did cause the City rearguard an inaugural moment. Mercifully, both shot and the resultant corner drifted harmlessly wide.
In the centre of the field a shorn-again Tom Huddlestone was beginning to wrestle control of the ball. Twice he launched incisive cross field passes to release Ahmed Elmohamady, the latter resulting in a devilish ball being fizzed across the host’s six yard box, narrowly missing an anguished Jelavić.
As the pendulum swung, it was clear that at this stage there was little to pick between the two teams. The impressive Mile Jedinak sent a speculative header over the bar for Palace as both sides huffed and puffed but failed to blow the house down.
But then came the evening’s first major talking point.
Another sumptuous Huddlestone pass, this time with the outside of his boot, sent Long racing clear. But just as the Irishman bore down on goal, a clumsy challenge from Palace defender Danny Gabbidon resulted in both players crashing to the floor – and what seemed like a certain penalty. Not so, said referee East, who waved play on despite the protestations of an incensed (and seemingly justified) Tiger Nation.
As so often happens, Palace then scampered to other end and promptly took the lead. The lively Yannick Bolasie, a frequent tormentor of McShane on the right, jived his way to the byline and despite having his initial cross blocked, sent a second effort in that found its way to Jason Puncheon on the edge of the box. The winger is in a rich vein of scoring form and made little work of dispatching a neat finish beyond the helpless Allan McGregor.
City were rattled, but any prospects of a Palace onslaught proved unfounded. Only some speculative pot shots and a dipping Jedinak free-kick gave the City custodian further cause for concern before the half-time whistle.
Indeed it was City who came closest to the next goal, a thumping Huddlestone free kick bore power, but was far too central to cause Speroni anything other that a routine save. Half-time duly came.
If the first half was one of frustration, then the second was one of consternation. Squandered chances, a witless red card and a frequent lack of craft dogged City’s game.
Yet things started brightly. Jelavić was first to show for The Tigers, as first a blocked shot, then a looping header indicated no lack of desire. If anything, those early exchanges painted a picture of acknowledged urgency as City turned the screw with a momentum neither team had previously mustered.
And with it came City’s best chance. A period of offensive possession, some neat interplay and an intelligent assist led the ball to drop invitingly for Jake Livermore. But with an air of inevitability the on-loan Spurs man lashed a first-time half-volley high over the bar.
With this, Bruce made his first change of the evening; Meyler withdrawn for the blossoming George Boyd. And the sub’s impact was almost immediate as his darting runs down the left injected some much needed guile. The impetus was ours and City briefly threatened to overrun the hosts. Alas, just as the pressure seemed insurmountable, Livermore centred from the right only for the onrushing Rosenior to stab a priceless opportunity wide. Psychologically, it was a crushing blow and perhaps the clearest indication yet that it simply wouldn’t be our night.
Indeed, as the makeshift wing-back stood crestfallen, head in hands, it seemed cruel fortune that such a chance had fallen to the feet of possibly the least clinical member of an already misfiring squad. Danny Graham didn’t travel.
Following that moment, Bruce’s charges never truly regained their momentum. Midfield interplay was laboured, the final ball hit too long or too early and not even the introduction of weekend hero Matty Fryatt (or latterly, Stephen Quinn) could add spark to a deflated forward line.
Then, just as the game threatened to fizzle out, a final, bizarre twist. Firstly Palace brought on the lolloping Wilbraham – a marksman with a gun bereft of bullets. So ineffectual was the former City forward that one half expected stewards to race onto the pitch in the mistaken belief that a supporter had encroached the field of play.
Next, referee East conspired to send off McGregor (already agitated, from an earlier exchange with Cameron Jerome) for an off-the-ball kerfuffle with Stuart O’Keefe. City, having made all of their substitutions, were forced to play out the closing moments with the unlikely figure of Huddlestone between the sticks. And it was one of his last acts – a long clearance downfield – that resulted in the final chance of the game – Quinn inching a 20 yard drive narrowly wide of Speroni’s left-hand post.
And duly the final whistle blew and City were condemned to a further bout of away-day misery and a dawning realisation of an all-too-real relegation dogfight.
Will we have enough to stay up? Quite possibly. But whilst Bruce has been quick to add valuable pieces to his deluxe twenty-five piece jigsaw, one senses there are still gaps to fill. One quite possibly in the shape of Robbie Brady, whose vibrant presence from the left is sorely missed; and one, almost certainly, in the shape of Sone Aluko. An irresistible talent on his day and one upon whom our survival may just hinge. Get well soon, son.