Put in team players and you get a team performance. At Goodison Park, the old guard were handed their long-awaited return and they responded with the sort of gutsy committed display that is the least we expect but have seldom seen of late. We’ve got our City back.
It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that the Tigers were at their best once shorn of all bar one of the last batch of signings. Abel Hernández escapes any culpability – he’s just become a dad back home in Uruguay and hasn’t been able to train – but the two feckless loanees were not on show – the other Uruguayan one suspended, the French one binned – inducing a back to basics approach from Steve Bruce, more so when the ineffective Senegalese one bumbled away after less than hour, limping and listless, to be replaced by another of the clubmen. The professionalism of the players Bruce had willingly jettisoned back in September showed up everything a supporter hopes to see in the attitude and pride of a Hull City player. There may not be the raw talent in Stephen Quinn, David Meyler and Liam Rosenior that other more exotic acquisitions may possess, but right now hunger and desire is far more important as City seemed set to hurtle towards propping up the Premier League. These three players epitomised the spirit of the team. Meanwhile, the introduction of Sone Aluko, a player confronted by demons more than most lately, won us a point.
It’s also, quite intriguingly, not an exact science, as Curtis Davies had also been dropped. It had been mooted, with a slightly wide-eyed astonishment, that the captain was becoming as much a defensive liability this season as he had been a steadfast leader and behemoth over the last campaign. Bruce, having done similar to Tom Huddlestone at Old Trafford on Saturday, put his primary centre back on the bench and reverted to a 4-4-2, with James Chester and Michael Dawson looking after each other as a pair.
The team had a packed midfield and read thus: McGregor; Elmohamady, Chester, Dawson, Rosenior; Diamé, Meyler, Huddlestone, Livermore, Quinn; Jelavić. Hatem Ben Arfa wasn’t even on the bench.
A slightly sparse turnout from the correct end of the M62 cheered the Tigers on, with ample standing room in the infamous Lower Bullens area, a viewing zone with ceilings so low you feel like you’re watching proceedings from inside a pillar box. Yet it was loud and it was enjoyably dark in humour, and City started brightly enough. It took 13 minutes for Everton to have a shot, with Romelu Lukaku aiming a power drive into Allan McGregor’s midriff, and by then City had gone for a number of aerial duels in the box thanks to Elmohamady’s overlaps and some decently delivered set-pieces. Nikica Jelavić headed one just wide via a deflection and another a few yards over, and Chester was unfairly but inevitably penalised when challenging Tim Howard for another and winning the duel.
When Everton scored, which didn’t seem an obvious occurrence if you weren’t primed in the habits and incontrovertible course of events that follow the Tigers everywhere, the heads visibly dropped and City began to panic. This was worrying stuff, as until Lukaku had smashed in a simple finish from Kevin Mirallas clever stop-start run and drag from the byline, the Tigers were comfortable. Perhaps Everton, a stylish and intricate side built on the tactic of patience so beloved of their manager, were allowing City to be comfortable. Even so, the concession of a mere goal when things had looked reasonably promising should not have instantly restored the clueless, decapitated fowl operation that proceeded. It was desperate. Everton now looked, with 15 minutes left of the half, in a mood to pick off goals two and three, maybe more than this, before the whistle sounded. Should they have chosen to, of course.
Meanwhile, after an enjoyably boisterous ‘City Till I Die’ chant on 19:04, an argument was breaking out behind this author. One chap had commenced an ‘Allam Out’ exclamation afterwards, which got a handful of disciples, but was instantly asked what the hell he thought he was doing by the geezer next to him. The two then had an oddly engaging, mature discussion of the merits or otherwise of everything from the owner and Premier League status to the quality of pies at the KC and whether Sam Sharman was a fitness test away from being the next Peter Beardsley. It was like having an episode of After Dark playing on a peripheral screen near you as you watched the game, only without Oliver Reed getting his knob out.
Everton’s goal hadn’t been necessarily coming, although Mirallas had once previously got a ball in towards Leon Osman who’d backheeled his chance straight to McGregor, but they were now, in taking the lead, totally controlled. Muhamed Bešić curled one chance inches wide after a free kick routine sent City the wrong way in defence, then Lukaku saw his shot blocked by Dawson after the ever-industrious Seamus Coleman found room to cross his way. Phil Jagielka headed Leighton Baines’ cross wide, and mercifully the half-time whistle sounded.
The interval discussion on the concourses, where the pies were good and spiky hairdos took paint off the ceilings, was about the alarming way City had just collapsed, emotionally and tactically, after Lukaku’s goal. And yet there was the usual wonderfully mindless, groundless, spiritual optimism of a good City fan that a whole 45 minutes still existed to put it right. Where this was going to happen, nobody knew, of course. Evidently Steve Bruce did, however, as City absolutely laid into Everton from the off in one of the best halves of football we will see all season.
Diamé, lumpen and bored, did get one shot away early on which was deflected out for a corner, picking up the knock that would see his premature but, in truth, not unwelcome exit a few minutes later. Aluko replaced him as City began to squeeze Everton out of possessional dominance and actually make this truly enterprising side figuratively soil themselves on their own patch, prompting their amusingly silent support – arms folded, expecting a landslide – to turn on them a tad. This happened more vociferously than ever when, just before the hour, Meyler glided a ball forward to Jelavić on the edge of the box who squared it into Aluko’s run to the right. The substitute rolled back the years as he skipped twice through Sylvain Distin with a drag and shoulder drop before aiming a right-footed shot gracefully between Howard and his near post. His first goal for well over a year, and one celebrated with real intensity by a thrilled Tiger Nation.
Look at this. Dawson aside, we had our ‘old’ team back, the one that took us to our record position, the one that got us to the FA Cup final and Europe, and we’re doing the business. Meyler, Quinn, grafting as if on a midwestern chain gang, notably willing to do so. Rosenior, on his unfamiliar flank but always knowing the point to defend and the point to attack. Aluko, his crashed reputation almost entirely rebuilt thanks to one piece of footballing magnificence. The feeling that the squad, the harmony, the shape, the spirit, was disrupted by some of the late August arrivals was more prevalent than ever.
Aluko’s rejuvenated mojo was in clear evidence, and the way he made Distin look like a wasteland defender near the corner flag shortly after his equaliser was beautiful to observe. His heels and toes in harmony, he left the Everton centre back gasping before crossing for Jelavić to head marginally wide as Howard remained rooted to the spot.
The pressure from City was now immense. This was what we needed; this, more to the point, was what we knew these players could deliver. It was like a flashback, a momentary regression back to a recent but still nostalgic era when everyone on the pitch evidently respected each other, knew their games and played to a team ethic. The noise from an appreciative – not to say relieved – City faithful was explosive in response. Even if the game still were to end in defeat, there was real pride on show again, a pride that could be effect as well as cause. It was smashing to watch.
Ross Barkley, gifted but clearly now believing his own hype, kicked the ball away as City prepared to take a free kick and somehow escaped a booking. It wasn’t just his gamesmanship and arrogance that irked the Tiger Nation, but the fact was that he kicked the ball away from the exact spot where the foul had taken place, so didn’t even have a correctional excuse to use. That he wasn’t cautioned suggested yet more big club mentality from the officials, the kind that sees a City player sent off for a mild exertion of the feet while Diego Costa escapes red from incidents of kicking out and elbowing within the same game.
Meyler steepled a ball into the box – the kind that was high enough to vanish from view for those in the Lower Bullens – and Jelavić won a clean and clear header against Howard but naturally didn’t get the benefit of the doubt from the ref as the ball trundled towards goal. Everton began to get frustrated, and a spiteful foul by sub Steven Pienaar on Meyler went ludicrously unpunished, though when Baines did similar to Elmohamady moments later he saw a belated yellow card. Meyler couldn’t recover and was replaced late on by Robbie Brady, with Andy Robertson – unlucky but unmissed – replacing the indefatigable and quite brilliant Quinn a minute or so later.
And Brady could have been the hero. As City again pressed and Everton were left bewildered, he skipped away from one, two, three challenges from the halfway line onwards and the space was open and the goal available for him to try one of his digs from 20 yards. Everybody implored him to do so but, perhaps with a doubt in his mind about previous criticism over greed (which we’ve all levelled at him at times), he tried instead to feed Jelavić’s late run and woefully overhit the pass. The frustrated groans from the Tiger Nation were as loud as any of the raucous yells of encouragement heard earlier in the half. You felt sorry for Brady – a classic case of not being able to do right for doing wrong, though his approach play before eschewing the shooting chance was a real delight to see.
Six minutes were added due to the issues with Meyler and Elmohamady late on, and Everton took the concrete from their boots and had a go. Chester and Dawson were imperious to the end, though when the ref gave Everton a corner after Chester seemed to clear as a result of a trip by Osman, every City player – not to mention supporter – went potty at him. No change in decision was in the offing, of course, and City dealt with the corner well. As Elmohamady began a very promising breakaway, the full time whistle sounded. The Egyptian made a point of continuing his run, downgrading it to a brisk jog, and poking the ball into the net before turning to lead the applause. Fans and team had done each other proud.
And what an important point all round – for team, for club, for manager. Bruce will find it nigh on impossible to bring back the heavyweights for the visit of West Bromwich Albion on Saturday – and that includes Davies – because his expression of faith in the fringe players had paid off. There they were, wondering whether integrity, professionalism and compassion for the club they represented would be enough to make their manager want them again, and when he did, they delivered a performance to set pulses racing, like days of yore. The whole team, from Aluko’s introduction onwards, were superb. And more days like this, home and away, are required urgently. Well done, City.