Annual events that Hull City supporters can reel off in the ever-evolving life of the club. An owner turning weird. A star player going crap. A major signing suffering a serious injury. Beating Nottingham Forest away. Negligence in the League Cup. Losing to Macclesfield Town somewhere, anywhere. Beating Liverpool at home.
That last one looks quite good, doesn’t it? And given that until last season it had never, ever happened, it looks even more impressive. We’d like to think that Liverpool fans will refer regularly now on in match previews to “our annual defeat at Hull”.
And it never really looked in doubt. This is despite the only goal coming late in the first half and no further chances being taken. As great a victory and stellar a performance it was from City, it was at least in no small part to the Liverpool team clearly thinking too much about the Seychelles in June.
Of course, the chance to beat Liverpool at the Circle next season isn’t yet confirmed, and Steve Bruce rightly declared there were further big tasks ahead for his side, not least with Arsenal to pop up our way on Monday. But six points from six, after a run so wretched even Derek Redmond would have declared it unrealistic, has made the Premier League future for City so much the brighter.
Bruce, rightly, had no need to change the team from the one that gave Palace a belt in the mouth on Saturday. So striding it with purpose before a rocking KC Stadium were Harper; Chester, Dawson, McShane; Elmohamady, Livermore, Huddlestone, Quinn, Brady; Aluko, N’Doye. Liverpool didn’t bring Steven Gerrard with them, and as a consequence a few individuals were seen shuffling away from their previously unoccupied seat in the West Upper muttering phrases such as “want my fookin’ money back” and “how far is it home to Sigglesthorne from here again?”
They did pick Mario Balotelli, though. And how we laughed.
The Italian, described by some as “a talented enigma” and others as “an overrated gobshite”, was in action early after an innocuous but unlawful trip from Tom Huddlestone, to which the Liverpool centre forward reacted with puzzling anger, shoving the City midfielder away, prior to taking the free kick himself and seeing it deflect off the wall. This was, along with a backheeled attempt at goal a little later in the half, the most notable contribution he chose to make to the game.
Ah, the game. Yes. A tad pedestrian, with City dictating the pace as Liverpool surprisingly were less keen on maintaining possession, with Philippe Coutinho (ludicrously in the PFA team of the season) having little influence. The best player on the park in red was Jordan Henderson, although a new £100,000 a week contract for someone who is good but not great symbolises the financial incredulities of football as much as the ticket prices which kept most Liverpool fans with the audacity to live on Merseyside away from the occasion.
City’s first chance came when a free kick into the Liverpool box was cleared to the lively Sone Aluko on the left, and he found room to cross for Dame N’Doye, whose header was powerful but lacked direction, allowing Simon Mignolet to catch.
A quiet moment allowed the City faithful in north and east to label the Liverpool fans ‘scabs’, which will have caused an arousing ripple of nostalgia for the socialists in the home crowd while baffling the suburban Yorkshire folk in the away end, some of whom had palpable looks of sheepishness throughout.
Henderson pulled a corner back to Coutinho whose shot was saved through the bodies by Steve Harper before Huddlestone cleared acrobatically. Harper’s handling was mildly suspect at times but this was a fine save given his restricted vision, and only injury is now likely to see him displaced from the team for the remainder of the campaign.
Aluko tripped over Martin Skrtel’s invisible leg and won a fortunate free kick which he took himself. The clearance via Mignolet’s fist reached Huddlestone, who lofted back in for James Chester to head straight at the Belgian.
Chances at each end, none of them absolutely clear cut. Raheem Sterling, a good footballer but nowhere near a complete player, then got past Chester and crossed low for Balotelli, whose impudent back heel contacted well but was straight at Harper. This was regarded as selfish and unnecessarily showy by supporters on both sides; the replays showed it was as good an option as he had, and he nearly pulled it off through power alone. The only tick next to his name.
City swapped passes a dozen times before Aluko had a shot that Mignolet saved well, with the football becoming edge-of-seat stuff. Why can’t we play like this all the time? Because we’re human. Footballers sometimes get it wrong, as well as right. It’s likely you’ve made at least one mistake at work today.
Balotelli then lost possession on City’s left and, indirectly, lost Liverpool the game. Aluko piled on the pressure after the Italian’s idleness relinquished the ball, won a corner. It was cleared to Paul McShane who comically (he would later say deliberately) miscontrolled for the arriving Ahmed Elmohamady to swing in a peach of a cross for Michael Dawson, played onside by a lethargic Balotelli to head in. It was his first goal for the club, majestically flighted from his forehead to the one bit of goal Mignolet couldn’t reach.
And as a result of the goal, he got a chant. Why the City faithful couldn’t just adapt the song that heralded his big brother for ten years is something of a mystery, but you can’t have everything.
City deserved it too. Certainly Liverpool looked less likely to score, but they did step up for the last five minutes of the half. The busy Henderson, looking like a captain, less like a midfield general, volleyed a Jordan Ibe cross goalwards which Harper gathered at the second go. Then, in added time, Glen Johnson broke down the left and got all the way to the byline inside he six yard area before gliding the ball invitingly for Balotelli to tap in. Except he didn’t, because he stopped his run just as the ball was played, then had the gall to blame the full back. Balotelli must be among the most disliked players among Liverpool fans of all time, which is quite an achievement after one season, much of which has been spent not on the field of play.
There was no time for the throw-in, as the half time whistle shrilled. City walked off the pitch, satisfied.
The now traditional chant at 19:04 had occurred in its usual spot, and there was anti-Allam sentiment elsewhere too. Now, at Palace, where the City fans were in attendance rather than the Premier League fans, it was unlikely there would be much protest at any ditties suggesting that our owner, mad and maddening, becoming more and more unhinged and unreasonable by the day, might wish to forswear his involvement with our club. But the acid test would be how the anti-Allam verse would be received from the mushroom club appointees who take up valuable seating at home games and didn’t know until this week that Bournemouth even had a football team.
The answer? A bit meh. The booing that soiled the air around the Circle when we played West Ham in September wasn’t there. Some supporters stopped going after that happened. Perhaps the publicised presence of the North Ferriby United players at half time had an effect, with the news at the weekend that the Allams were unplugging the ventilator at Church Road after a season of great joy, national acclaim and life-enhancing excellence. It’s all about business, you see. And it’s certainly not all in the timing. If it’s the squalid treatment of the local non-league club, FA Trophy winners and playful summertime foes in the Billy Bly Trophy every season, that has finally made the epigeous fungi wake up and smell the stroganoff, then so be it. Better late than never.
Meanwhile, the manager felt the need after the match to declare that the anti-Allam chants were unnecessary, ungrateful, unhelpful, add your own adjectives here. He reminded us, like children, that the man had put lots of money into the club. Steve, mate, you’re a fine manager and a nice guy, and we do get that you can’t be seen to criticise or contradict the chap who gave you a good job. But he hasn’t put loads of money in that he isn’t expecting to get back, with interest. And it’s got nothing to do with that anyway – he has insulted, decried, ignored, undervalued, outraged and finally outpriced the fans. One doesn’t imagine that our manager would have deemed victory over Liverpool just as fulfilling if it had been behind closed doors, though if the owner could fashion a way of emptying the pockets of supporters and then still not allowing them into the stadium, he would.
The second half then, and it was initially uneventful. The hour mark had passed before Henderson – again – turned and volleyed at Harper after a clip in from Coutinho around the ‘D’ mark of the area. Henderson again tested Harper afterwards from distance, with the City keeper equal to it via a mild fumble.
City then won a corner which Robbie Brady took and Chester flicked on. McShane seemed to miss the timing of his header and Skrtel, unwittingly, butted the ball away from almost under his own bar.
Sterling – whom this author still thinks goes by the first name of Worrall, and has edited this report accordingly – then cut inside Elmohamady and hit a shot that could’ve caused strife to Harper had Jake Livermore not got bodily parts in the way that took the pace out of the shot. The keeper had a much more straightforward save to make as a result.
Liverpool, looking uninterested and tired, had already made three substitutions by the time City prepared their first. Balotelli, who only touched the ball once in the second half, was yanked away for Rickie Lambert, for whom the Liverpool experience seems not to have followed the fairytale plotline manacled to it when he signed last summer. For all that, he’s a proven Premier League striker and if Liverpool don’t want to use him after buying him, he’s the kind of player that would fit in nicely at the KC, albeit at 33, for the short term.
The City sub was Gastón Ramírez, on for the tireless Stephen Quinn. Liverpool shoved men further forward as the last knockings of the match emerged. Adam Lallana, who is a genuine talent, began to receive the lion’s share of possession after coming on, and his corner was cleared back to him to try an impudent curler with the left foot that, with Harper beaten, blessedly, didn’t quite curl enough.
City responded by withdrawing Aluko, who looks like the chap we had in our team when we first signed him, and bringing on Alex Bruce to play alongside McShane and dish out the necessary controlled brutality and ‘longest kick wins’ entries. It worked. Liam Rosenior then replaced N’Doye to stiffen the resolve even further. City had little problem in clearing what Liverpool laughably passed off as pressure, and on occasional breaks it threatened to become two and safe, like Palace at the weekend. Huddlestone voleyed a Ramírez corner wide and then Ramírez broke two on two but, with no right foot of use beyond standing, couldn’t dig a ball out for the unmarked Rosenior on the left, who would have been free on goal.
Five minutes were added and within it, Coutinho had a shot from distance that Harper pouched with ease, prior to doing that fall to the floor with ball in grasp that keepers do when they know only seconds remain. It seemed to produce quite a cheer, the kind that occurred when Boaz Myhill caught the ball at Wembley in 2008. It had been frantic and nervous, but fantastic. The game was up for Liverpool, the game was won for City.
What a fantastic four days on the pitch we’ve had, after such a rotten, argumentative, desperate period before it. Off the pitch the issues will remain through the final four games of the season, as the issue is now the owner, who has added warped principles and rank hypocrisy to his cretinous ideas. Arsenal feels more like a free hit than before now, even though we clearly have form on our side (and we seriously owe them one, of course), but by the time we play Burnley and then jaunt down to a holidaying Tottenham, maybe our troubles on the pitch will be over for another season and we can get on with the business of removing the toxicity at the top of our club. Our club.