Very soon a major decision will be made by football’s overlords on the future of Hull City AFC, as a name and, consequently to many of us, as a club we would wish to continue following. It doesn’t feel likely, without tempting fate of course, that the conclusion reached by the FA will go against us, but were it to do so, at least we could say we had one final proper footballing day out to see the old girl off.
Going to Southend, and clubs of their ilk (formerly and recently our ilk too) is far more fun and far more productive than going to Arsenal. The tickets are attainable, the stewarding is friendly, the facilities are traditional, the atmosphere is unsanitised, the opposing fans lack sanctimony and a propensity to talk down to us, the pitches are gluey and workmanlike and the games themselves are invariably more entertaining. Helped of course by City winning at Roots Hall this weekend though it was, all of these factors made a contribution to a truly superb retro day out for proper City fans.
Steve Bruce made nine changes in total from the team that capitulated at Norwich but only two thirds of them were unenforced, and it was a pretty strong set-up that was announced as the Tigers’ line-up before hand. Playing a in 3-5-2, we had Harper; McShane, Faye, Figueroa; Rosenior, Quinn, Meyler, Boyd, Sagbo; Graham, Fryatt. The bench was full of A-listers, including a welcome return to availability for Robbie Brady. Southend, whose manager Phil Brown happily waved towards the Tiger Nation before and during the game when called to, included former City fringe player Will Atkinson in their XI. It was notable, not to mention pleasant, to hear the announcer at Roots Hall refer to the visitors very deliberately as ‘Hull City AFC’, and we thank him for that.
The game began slowly and Southend could have scored when striker Barry Corr won a header from a long throw which Steve Harper did well to tip over the crossbar in front of the travelling support within the rickety, leaky and awesome North Stand. By this point City had been restricted to one shot which David Meyler succeeded in kicking clean out of the ground and into the apartment complex behind the goal.
On the half hour, after bookings had been traded and little else, George Boyd scampered down the inside left channel and laid a chance not just on a plate, but with buffed cutlery, cruet, napkin and a winning smile from the buxom waitress for Danny Graham, but the confidence issue for the Sunderland loanee extends even to quagmires owned by League Two scuffers and his first time effort was weak and directionless, permitting a save from white-kitted keeper Daniel Bentley that was way easier than it should have been.
It appears that Graham’s perennially colourless performances have been now noticed by his parent club, who not only have chosen not to recall him in January but also have given him the green light to play in the FA Cup for City, even though Sunderland themselves were and remain in the competition. The dramatic dip in Graham’s form would also be prominently illustrated by his own team-mates a little later on.
Boyd swung in a free kick that Abdoulaye Faye headed wide, then in a later flurry before half time, Matt Fryatt was denied a clear shot by a last ditch challenge from Luke Prosser, menacing and effective in his Steve Terry tribute plaster. From the corner, Yannick Sagbo headed wide.
Southend showed more nerve in the second half and very nearly took the lead when a long-range snapshot by Michael Timlin swerved in the Essex gales and bamboozled Harper entirely. The City custodian was rooted to the spot as the ball smacked the underside of the bar, prior to Corr tamely heading the rebound straight at the relieved Geordie.
Exonerated by this, City stepped it up. Stephen Quinn, excellent throughout, played a fine crossfield ball to the overlapping Liam Rosenior, whose feed to Meyler opened up a shooting chance. The final hit actually struck Boyd’s legs with Bentley already committed to his dive, but the keeper managed to stop it with his shins. From Quinn’s corner, Faye rose well to head wide.
Just after the hour mark, with City looking more potent, the breakthrough came. Meyler burst through midfield and played a ball across to Graham on the edge, who was instantly relieved of possession by a bolshie Fryatt, whose clever creation of the angle and subsequent shot across Bentley showed his strike partner how it was done. It was a tidy goal by someone who we should never forget is utterly natural as a finisher, and will score goals wherever he goes if the creativity is there. It’s nice also to see that irrespective of the big names for big money Bruce has brought in, he has time for Fryatt as a player.
Southend came back, and Ryan Leonard and Kevan Hurst both had shots blocked in quick succession, initially by Meyler, then by Paul McShane. Bruce withdrew Graham, a forlorn and subdued figure whom it is hard to imagine seeing in City colours again, and brought on Robbie Brady for a test of that recovering groin problem. Brady’s width allowed Sagbo to move to his more familiar central role.
City nearly made it two when Fryatt sent Boyd clear on the left and his delightful, curling cross just evaded the hard running and stretch of Quinn, who’d made an awful lot of ground to get there.
Jake Livermore came on – easy to use him in the FA Cup now Spurs are out – and Sagbo left to big applause from the Tiger Nation, prior to Brady having a pop from distance that Bentley managed to paw out well. Alex Bruce replaced Quinn late on, and as injury time ticked through, Fryatt sealed it when he picked up a clearance on the right flank, dummied and tortured his marker to just inside the box before blootering a shot past Bentley with total authority.
And that was that. An outstanding day out, a joyous hark back to the recent past and a revisiting of where football’s soul still feels at its most comfortable, enhanced further by the correct result, and only clothing was dampened by the biblical Essex rainstorms that fell in the half hour after the game ended, not spirits. Not of those heading back north anyway. Southend were good hosts and their team looks useful, and with Phil Brown’s legendary self-belief, they could well get the promotion they are currently threatening to achieve from the bottom division. City were professional, steady and when necessary, ruthless, and a place in the last 16 for only the second time since 1989 is a most pleasant thing indeed.