Relegation stalks Hull City AFC, yet the threat remains unrecognised, the fight against it non-existent. We are, as a club, sleepwalking to calamity.
Four festive fixtures, four presentable opportunities to amass points and propel ourselves from danger. Yet today, the day after Swansea, we find ourselves mired in grave peril, not only because of another defeat, but because of the woeful performance that accompanied it. Others are battling to avoid disaster. We are ambling soporifically towards it.
Steve Bruce must surely be aware of this too, aware that familiar criticisms are resurfacing. How he must yearn to prove everyone wrong, to prove that he can manage in the upper half of the Premier League. That he can be trusted with piles of other people’s money.
These must be unhappy times for him. From the glory of the FA Cup Final, European qualification and the prospect of a tilt at the higher reaches of midtable, to facing Sunderland on Boxing Day with his credentials certain to be loudly queried up there – and worse, now being discussed in Hull.
Discussed they are, and discussed too was the team. Gaston Ramirez has done little to justify the manager’s decision to bring him on loan from Southampton, but he was surprisingly given a starting role ahead of Stephen Quinn, whom most expected to play. Paul McShane, dismayingly ostracised, was absent entirely.
It meant that on a cool afternoon at the Circle, City carded: McGregor; Davies (c), Bruce, Chester; Elmohamady, Ramirez, Meyler, Livermore, Robertson; Jelavić, Hernandez. The minor puzzle of Ramirez starting in favour of Quinn aside this was a solid line-up, and our hopes were raised further upon learning that Swansea would be without their impressive duo of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wilfried Bony, the latter on the bench, the former absent altogether as Swansea made seven changes to the side that lost narrowly to Tottenham last weekend.
Attacking the North Stand, City began the game positively and it was a bright beginning to the match overall, Jelavić shooting wide for City and Routledge off target for the Swans. They were very much on the back foot in the opening exchanges as City enjoyed significant territorial advantage, and with less than five minutes on the clock Ramirez had City’s second effort of the afternoon, a shot from outside the box that went wide.
Things quietened a little after that, though City remained the dominant force, until a miserable stroke of ill fortune felled us. Ki Sung-Yueng switched a pass inside for Jonjo Shelvey, stationed on the left hand edge of the area. His shot initially looked unthreatening, but it took a horrible deflection and span past the wrongfooted McGregor.
Despair flooded the stadium as the moderate Swansea following celebrated their good luck. The stadium had already been frighteningly quiet, now it was eerily silent. The partisan inhabitants of the North Stand barely raised a whimper on 19’04”, so demoralised were they. On the pitch, shoulders sagged and heads dropped. Belief, a thinly available resource at kick-off, now looked non-existent.
Midway through the half, City’s best move of the afternoon almost saw a leveller when a neat exchange of passes on the left saw Robertson teed up in the area – the angle was unhelpful and the distance daunting, but his shot was marvellously hit and he was unlucky to see it flick the top of Fabianski’s goal on the way over.
Sadly, our left flank was proving underused. City’s tactics appeared to consist of little more than pumping the ball in the air to Ahmed Elmohamady, hope to win the next ball and then, err, something. To give our Egyptian winger his due, he won many more aerial duels than he lost and spent the afternoon gamely trying to create despite erratic service, but ultimately this was not a ploy that required much thought from Swansea to quell.
It was at least a ploy of sorts, however. Most of Elmohamady’s team-mates were wandering with a conspicuous lack of urgency around the pitch. Ramirez looked as though he wasn’t terribly bothered about things, occasionally effecting a pleasant touch but largely content to spectate; Livermore was off-form, while Meyler – whom this observer greatly admires – was having a rotten afternoon, every touch clanging off a shin, passes being routinely misplaced; it was tough to watch.
On we laboured, already fearing the worst. On the half-hour Swansea nearly made it 0-2 when a superb low shot from Shelvey flew past McGregor and struck the inside of his post, only avoiding crossing the line by a few bare inches.
We’d like to say that scare galvanised City into action, but, y’know…
The game worsened. Nothing happened.
Half-time, then. A pint. It can’t get worse. Right…?
Gentle reader, it could. It did. And not even in the way that brought anger crashing from the stands, incensed patrons voicing their uncontainable disquiet. More chillingly, a bored, distant silence pervaded. A friend of ours, of the ilk that has travelled up and down the country in all four divisions, who loudly supports the team, had a surprisingly revelation for us in the pub before the game. “Not going today”. We know more like him. It’s almost as if the unceasing determination of the club to antagonise its most loyal supporters isn’t a very good idea.
The football, then, after a nice vocal interlude at half-time by a red-clad choir, applauded more sincerely than just about anything else on this grey afternoon. Neither manager made a change at the break.
A few minutes in, David Meyler was chopped down about 25 yards from goal – Ramirez took the free-kick, and it was a decent enough effort, though a yard too high. Then, at last, some urgency! Perhaps not surprisingly it came courtesy of Elmohamady, bursting free on the right and sending in a fine cross to Jelavić – it wasn’t an easy chance but the Croat managed to steer a head on target; Fabianski’s save was awkward but accomplished.
It briefly roused the crowd however; at which point that brief flicker of life in the side extinguished itself. We went back to dreaming of warm inns.
On 55, Swansea ought to have killed an already half-dead game. Cutting City wide open on their left, a cross was dragged in to the wholly unmarked Shelvey, a dozen yards out. He had time to take a touch, perhaps eat a nice sandwich and complete a medium-difficulty Sudoku, and then calmly pass the ball past the exposed McGregor; instead he carelessly blatted the ball straight at the keeper. The North Stand celebrated this remarkable let-off by advancing a slightly implausible claim about McGregor’s carnal appetite and stamina.
As the hour approached, some substitutions. Emnes replaced Carroll for the Swans, whose first contribution was to volley wide when picked out, unmarked, by a cross from the right. Steve Bruce responded by bringing on Sone Aluko for his son.
On 73, Swansea hit the post again. A cross from Emnes was scuffed around at by both teams, eventually arriving at Gomis – he mishit his shot but it still beat McGregor, who was presumably relieved when it struck wood.
You’ll notice there’s no mention of chances for City.
On 76, Harry Maguire replaced Curtis Davies.
Nothing much changed.
Swansea withdrew Gomis for Bony.
On 81, Sagbo replaced Jelavić.
Come on ref, for pity’s sake, let us go home.
Bony should have made it 0-2 when heading straight at McGregor.
Still no chances for City.
And that was it. We lost, without even the feeblest of whimpers. A scarily uncommitted, clueless performance that was greeted with a mixture of apathy and a smattering of boos from those who’d toughed it out to the bitterest of ends.
The danger is that it could all unravel quite quickly for Steve Bruce. Sunderland will relish plunging him further into trouble on Boxing Day, while Nigel Pearson will be viewing his Leicester side’s trip here two days later as a winnable fixture.
Lose those two, and this will become a full-scale crisis, one that could cost the manager his job. It isn’t just results. Everton aside, we haven’t played remotely well for a long time, and are losing games without seriously contesting them. The effort is simply not there. This is a side perfectly capable of finishing healthily outside the bottom three, but no team will prosper if the basic requirement of total commitment is missing.
And worryingly for Bruce, many will start to conclude that he is incapable of instilling that virtue into his side if results do not begin to improve very soon. We desperately want to believe in Steve Bruce. He has taken us further than any man has ever taken this club. But he’s making a slew of unforced errors. Tossing aside European football was a ghastly error at the time, but now it looks close to suicidal given our atrocious form since. Should the League Cup have been taken seriously – after all, a decent run in that would at least have seen us win a few games and have something to hold on to in this bleak midwinter. The idea that it’s somehow better not to win games, to not stay in the cups, to not have the feelgood factor that accompanies advancing in competitions is really quite foolish.
I don’t know where we go from here. Bruce amassed an unprecedented amount of capital with the owners and the fans, but he is spending huge chunks of it every week. The fans will probably remain loyal for time being, particularly the pre-2008ers. But will the Allams blink? They ruthlessly disposed of Nick Barmby, and however good Assem Allam’s relationship is with Bruce and however reliant the self-confessed footballing ignoramus is on his manager, the club’s finances would make relegation an unmitigated disaster. It isn’t at all impossible to imagine them getting rid. And if that does happen, all bets are off.
Of course, in five months this may be looked at as the nadir of a problem that quickly blew away. A point at Sunderland. Victory over Leicester. It won’t solve everything, but it will buy time, time enough for the feckless gaggle of indolents to realise that their fat contracts at Hull City will not be matched by anyone else if we go down. Time for Steve Bruce to decide just what sort of style and methodology he wishes to employ in order to keep us up (top tip: put the triers in, it’s at least less galling to watch them when we lose).
Because let’s be clear about one thing: if we carry on as we are, City will be relegated. Probably not by a small distance. And I doubt anyone at the club knows the Hindi for “cold Tuesday night at Rotherham”.