Hope. People deal with it in different ways. Some embrace it, hoping for better things, whereas some fear it, knowing that hopes can be cruelly dashed.
Our hopes for the last game of 2014/15 were, in truth, always slim. City needed to beat Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League, a tall enough order without also needing West Ham to beat Newcastle to maintain our status at that level, even if undeservedly.
Ultimately those hopes turned to ash, as City couldn’t register a goal against a remarkably pliable United side that were just going through the motions, and even if they had, Newcastle beat the already holidaying-in-their-heads Hammers 2-0 to make our result academic.
To fulfil our end of the unlikely bargain, the 11 men in black and amber needed to show more than hope, they needed belief, and lots of it. Not quite showing enough belief over the course of the game were…
Chester Dawson McShane
Elmohamady Meyler Huddlestone Quinn Brady
Mostly morgue-like in recent games, the KC Stadium was a raucous venue this day, the travelling fans repeatedly sang a desire to “go on the piss with Georgie Best” while the Tiger Nation attempted quite admirably to lift the lads.
Manchester United, clad in all white, kicked off towards the South Stand, but it was City that showed the early intent. Robbie Brady swung a low cross towards Nikica Jelavić in the box, but the Croat was flanked by Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, and the latter slid to push the ball to Daley Blind who cleared. Brady was looking energised and soon after put another cross into the box, this time Dame N’Doye glanced a header goalward but the ball fell straight into the welcoming grasp of Victor Valdes.
A positive enough start then from City, though United soon showed that while they may not have been that enthused about this game, they still possessed the quality to pin us back with ease: Ashley Young played a diagonal ball behind Ahmed Elmohamady to Rojo, he feigned a deep cross, instead pulling the ball back to Wayne Rooney, stood outside the box, and the Scouser fired a shot through Michael Dawson’s legs that scraped the topside of the crossbar.
That warning against complacency didn’t extinguish City’s early game enterprise though, Tom Huddlestone played a ball over United’s defence to Elmohamady (played onside by Blind) who raced forwards with Valdes coming out to narrow an already tight angle, Elmo dinked a crossed ball over towards Jelavić but by this time the white shirted defence was back in numbers and the ball was headed away for a corner.
After the first was headed behind by Blind, a second cross from a corner was hoofed away, leading to a highly approximate challenge by Angel Di Maria that wiped out Elmohamady (who’d curiously been the lone defensive player in the corner routine) and both men rolled around in pain, though the Argentinian initially seemed to faking hurt in an attempt to avoid reproach from the referee.
After a lengthy delay, Elmohamady was again sent to the floor, this time by Rojo on the flank, winning a free kick. The set piece was swung in by Brady and seemed destined to be easily claimed by Valdes, only the Spanish netman dropped the ball with Paul McShane underneath him. Rooney nudged McShane beyond Valdes and the ball into an offside position, which was flagged when David Meyler flicked the ball out of Valdes’ hands and McShane mischievously prodded it over the line.
Valdes looked a somewhat safer pair of hands minutes later when Brady’s delicious cross from the left was met by Elmohamady, his downward header drew a magnificent save from the former Barcelona stopper, he got low quickly and pushed the ball around the post.
From the resulting Brady corner kick, Ander Herrera’s header wasn’t away but lateral, falling to Stephen Quinn who struck the ball into the thicket of legs in between him and the goalline, one of those legs belonged to N’Doye who backheeled the ball past Valdes, but alas both N’Doye and McShane were stood in an offside position and again the linesman held aloft his flag.
We weren’t to know it at the time, we were too busy being enthused by City’s pluck, but this was a pivotal moment of sorts. City have repeatedly shown a tendency to look like world beaters for 20 out of the 90 minutes in many a game this season, often failing to sustain this form for the length of time needed to secure a desirable result.
It’s a problem that seems entirely psychological, and if our being on top in terms of pressure doesn’t equate to being ahead on goals in these short bursts of aceness, then belief escapes from the players like helium from an untied and let go balloon.
Di Maria, it turns out, was genuine in his pain exclamation earlier, and he was withdrawn on 22 minutes and Adnan Januzaj joined the game in his stead. The assessment and substitution seemed to take an age and then Jelavić spent some time being checked over by the physio after going down clutching his ankle after being turned by Antonio Valencia when chasing a stray ball.
These delays ended City’s momentum and perhaps broke our players concentration, allowing anxieties to resurface, as we were now on the back foot as United enjoyed a rather leisurely paced, prolonged period of possession. Young played the ball into the box where City’s defence had missed Herrera’s advance, but he couldn’t make a meaningful contact with the ball and the move broke down.
It was pretty clear that Manchester United had little interest in moving through the gears, there was no guts being busted to ensure a win, and if City could raise their game again, then a win wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. The attitudes of both sides forwards was interesting to note, even though not at full pelt, United’s advanced men were still instinctively putting pressure on our defenders when the ball was deep in our own half, City’s front men, conversely, weren’t pressing much, Jelavić not working defenders is perhaps understandable, he’s clearly far from full fitness (and normally does press well) but N’Doye’s lack of application in such a manner seemed more the product of resignation. He had air of a man who already knew he’ll be playing elsewhere after this game and was not overtly fussed about going out on a high.
Half time was whistled, and having twice put the ball in the net by foul means, there were just 45 minutes plus change left to do it fairly. Still everything to play for at this point though, as the Geordies and West Ham were nil apiece.
The second half started as the first finished, with United lazily in control and City unsure how to impose themselves on the game once again. N’Doye gave the ball away with an appallingly judged backpass to McShane, instead sending Mata skipping towards goal, he slipped the ball behind McShane for Herrera but his shot was manfully blocked by Dawson. That shook the crowd out of its slumber, as did ref Lee Probert’s decision to award United a throw after Jones tackled Jelavić on the left wing.
City’s best chance since the middle of the first half went agonisingly begging as Elmohamady’s deep cross was headed across goal by Valencia under pressure from Jelavić and Meyler opened up his foot to send the ball over and wide.
At this point news of a Newcastle goal was filtering through, not that the feeling of nervous anxiety that shrouded the ground could be increased by much. Dutch Jimmy Bullard lookalike Blind received a yellow card for stopping Meyler taking a free kick quickly.
With nearly an hour gone, United made another personnel change, sending on the bouffant Belgian Marouane Fellaini while removing Young. Herrera flashed a shot across goal and wide after a pull back pass from Mata. We’re not winning this if we can’t get on the front foot, just too much respect was being shown to a barely trying opposition.
Brady was still keen to drive City forwards, he skipped past Mata and fired the ball into the box where Chris Smalling got low to head it away for a corner. Brady took it himself and delivered a raking ball for Dawson to head forward towards a mass of bodies in the six-yard area, McShane went up with Valdes, the ball slipped past both of them, N’Doye was slow to turn and Blind hacked the ball away to safety.
N’Doye fell to the floor after poking the ball beyond Jones in the box but even he wasn’t convinced there had been any foul, perhaps such desperation betrayed a lack of belief in his team mates to fashion another goalscoring chance as the game ticked away to its dismal conclusion. He did get one though, Elmohamady swung in a fine cross and N’Doye hit the ball on the turn and on the volley but it arced wide of the goal.
That was N’Doye’s last contribution as he and Chester were brought off for Abel Hernández and Sone Aluko. Aluko made a quick nuisance of himself by turning Herrera before crossing for Jelavić who drew a smart save from Valdez.
With a quarter of an hour to go City were given a numerical advantage. Quinn played a backwards pass to Brady that went beyond him, and Fellaini sprinted towards the ball, McShane was quick to cover ground and slide the ball away only for Fellaini to stamp a studs imprint into McShane’s knee. Ref Probert had little hesitation in producing a red card after seeing red oozing from our Irishman’s knee. Curiously, the physio bandaged McShane’s bonce as well as his leg.
Elmohamady delivered a cross from the right after beating sub James Wilson, Valdes pounded the ball away but straight to Hernández who swung a leg and missed the shot. His follow up attempt was blocked before Brady shot wide. Conviction, as well as quality, was absent.
Steve Bruce made a final change in a bid to make the extra man count, sending on Andy Robertson in place of Meyler, but it was to no avail. Further north, Newcastle doubled their lead, and though City huffed and puffed for five added minutes, it was for nought.
City then, are back in the Championship, and deservedly so, having been relegated in a dispiritingly meek and oh so avoidable manner. We had hope of avoiding the drop, but no belief, and ultimately we weren’t good enough, and the summer will be spent apportioning blame for that.
Hope though, as the Bard famously wrote, springs eternal, ever changing shape and form. We hope that we can return to the top tier soon of course, but some hopes are more important than that: we hope that this relegation can be used to reboot the club, to re-establish some of the values that were needlessly cast aside during the last two years. The relevance of the local community in decision making, the value of the club’s long established and cherished identity, not quantified in pounds, rupees or yen, but in heartfelt importance to those who love the club rather than the division it plays in. We hope that the players who don’t care about the club’s cause are dispensed with and that the players who have shown that they really care, some of whom have not been treated well by the manager this season, can be retained. Paul McShane winning the man of the match award in our last Premier League game for a while is significant. Ultimately, we hope for a happy Hull City AFC.