One tricky 90 minutes at home negotiated, one more to come. Then it’ll be Wembley. For once, it appears that Hull City and the FA Cup have become kindred spirits, despite only a passing flirtation in the recent and less recent past. We usually see more of Halley’s Comet than we do of FA Cup quarter finals, but there’s one on its way to the KC Stadium very soon.
After making hard work of acquiring a draw down at Brighton seven days ago, the Tigers made short work of the replay, though naturally lobbed in a bit of drama in the last 20 minutes to keep everyone interested to the end. Brighton looked keener to progress in the competition when chasing an equaliser late on than they ever had in the first half, and the two goals that City attained were more than enough, last-ditch hairiness notwithstanding.
Steve Bruce’s team was pretty strong, even though he rang the changes from the side that trampled all over Cardiff City just 48 hours earlier. Banging on about multiple changes is disingenuous when it’s well-documented that Shane Long and Nikica Jelavić are disallowed from playing, thereby forcing at least two alterations per tie, and the validity of the alterations were further enhanced by the return from injury of James Chester, who would always be in a Premier League starting XI when fit. Chuck in Sone Aluko, a known and proven matchwinner, and the apparent willy-nilliness of the changes suddenly disappears altogether.
So, City’s fifth round team read thus: Harper; Elmohamady, Chester, Davies, Figueroa; Livermore, Meyler, Koren; Aluko, Fryatt, Sagbo.
It was a fluid 4-3-3, with Yannick Sagbo and Aluko essentially going wide when required while Ahmed Elmohamady was allowed as much licence to get forward as he felt necessary, with David Meyler dropping back to fill the gap. Brighton included Keith Andrews as a very deep midfielder, still not regarded as anything special by the City fans who remember his characterless year with the Tigers but whose career has been consistent and watchable ever since.
With the West Stand Upper shut and the South Stand oddly deserted, it struggled to attract five-figures at the Circle, with ticket prices – £15 felt a lot for what was essentially a bonus game – and the presence of free-to-air telly at the stadium making a dent in the number of attendees. Brighton brought a few, about as many as you would expect for a deeply inconvenient long trip north for a game they knew they’d be long shots to win, and City soon set about making sure their trip home was long and unfulfilling.
Elmohamady got forward at speed and curled a wicked one around the defence for Koren to take with his back to goal, but his attempted overhead wasn’t powerful enough to trouble Peter Brezovan. The Slovak was much more agitated by Elmohamady’s next swinging delivery, however, mistiming his dive for the ball and duly distracting Fryatt behind him, who was not expecting to receive it and allowed it to hit him and bounce to the relieved keeper.
And then came another, this time more of a chip from the Egyptian via a smart pass by Robert Koren, with Íñigo Calderón heading over his own bar as Sagbo charged in. The first corner was headed out for another, and the second was met by a looping Curtis Davies header, which Brezovan couldn’t get to under pressure from Meyler, allowing the ball to touch a post and creep in.
Soft goal, but no matter. It counted, and it settled everyone down.
Aluko then smacked a free kick against the wall, and when Jake Livermore clipped in the second ball, Meyler went down from what seemed a clear push but referee Andre Marriner did the “get up” gesture at the City midfielder rather than pointing to the spot. Aluko soon got the ball back and turned sharply on a return pass from Koren, prompting a graze of the ankles which earned another free kick. Koren hit it low and Andrews’ deflection was enough to put Brezovan off, though the keeper will be unhappy with how foolish he looks in failing to keep it out.
And so it was 2-0. And so we could think about a rare quarter final.
Of course, there was ages to go yet, and if there’s one thing anyone who notices City beyond the slaver for Premier League glitterati knows about, it’s the club’s ingrained ability to eschew victory and success when defeat and failure remain available. Even Brighton’s roaring disinterest in the rest of the half didn’t stop the wisdoms from the older souls from being exchanged during the half time comfort breaks. They know their stuff.
Brighton duly showed that they may after all have a passing desire to gain something from the match when defender Lewis Dunk battered the underside of the bar with a shot early in the second half, though by the time they did set the nervous blood racing through City vessels, the Tigers should have been out of sight.
Aluko freed the impressive Maynor Figueroa in oodles of space but the Honduran took a tad too long to square up the very obvious shot that was on, and saw the chance blocked out for a corner. Aluko himself had a similar effort go the same way after intricate passing from Livermore and Koren.
So, it could and should have been a bigger margin that the visitors had to chase by the time David Lopez swung in a gorgeous free kick that had four worryingly unmarshalled Brighton players all cruising in to meet it, and Leonardo Ulloa was the one whose forehead flicked it past a ludicrously exposed Harper.
Uh oh. Here we go. Let’s be honest, we all said it.
Bruce took off a tiring Aluko and threw on George Boyd, whose inability to get into an FA Cup starting XI is somewhat baffling, as the Tigers always manage to look a more vibrant, athletic side when he is in it. He started the move that involved the busy Fryatt and the surprisingly active Koren setting up Meyler for a shot that was deflected for a corner, from which City produced nothing. Meyler was subbed for Stephen Quinn just afterwards and got deserved applause. His performances in all competitions recently have been top drawer and it’s pleasing to see that the majority have noticed this despite his unglamorous name and role.
Jake Forster-Caskey hit one long range shot wide as Brighton umped and aahed about whether they wanted extra time or not, and in the three added minutes Fryatt shot straight at Brezovan after Koren intercepted a loose goalkick and, through Quinn, set up the City striker. Brighton sub Solomon March made Harper save an actual shot just afterwards, with the City keeper holding it at the second go as Ulloa beetled in for a rebound, and the sighs of relief were 10,000 fold. The final whistle was greeted with elation, relief and a trio of youthful idiots running on to the pitch for a dare.
So, let’s see what this does to the history.
Well, City are in the last eight of the FA Cup for only the sixth time. On four of the previous five occasions the FA Cup run has ended there, but this time we have our best and most obvious chance of equalling the unique semi-final spot the team of 1930 managed as, for once, we will go into our sixth round tie as favourites. Manchester United, Chelsea, Stoke City and Arsenal were all expected to beat us and indeed all did (though City were undisgraced on all four occasions and robbed on two, possibly three of them as well).
However, City in 2014 are a better side than their peers from Sunderland. The league table backs this up and the head to head stats this season do likewise, and when Sunderland visit, they’ll have a fixture backlog on their minds due to postponements and a League Cup final, and will be a bottom three side, possibly even joint bottom, by the time they turn up at the KC. We’re actually favourites to win an FA Cup tie and go to Wembley as a consequence, which is weird, fantastic, nonpareil for our generation and, of course, utterly and indescribably petrifying.