On this sunny summer’s Sunday morning Hull City lie in first place in the Premier League table.
That’s my favourite line so I’ll sing it again.
Hull City lie in first place in the Premier League table.
Sure, it’s merely the alphabet that guarantees that position of prominence. Sure, it’ll last no more than a few hours until this afternoon’s fixtures unravel. And sure, judged according to substantive achievement, it falls a long way short of the mighty deeds of Phil Brown’s team that sat first equal on points, third on goal difference, nine games and a 3-0 horsing of West Brom into the dreamy beginnings of life in the Prem, season 2008/ 2009.
But …. top of the League. Get that.
What an unimaginably deliriously wildly euphoric lunchtime’s football. To win? It seemed vanishingly unlikely before the game kicked off, but well, weird twists happen, you can sometimes pocket a season’s luck within 90 fluky minutes. It wasn’t like that. Not at all. We outplayed, we outfought, we periodically dominated our opponents: Leicester City, the Champions of England, as their initially buoyant but ultimately quelled support studiously advised us. Just sometimes Football produces glittering days like this, and this is why we tolerate, even embrace, the drudgery that is the norm. I understand and I unreservedly respect the motivations of the Hull City hard core who have vowed to tread not one single step inside the Circle while our current owners remain in place, but o, you missed a good one here, you missed a great one here. Warmth for our players – they’ve been traduced and treated like dirt by our owners every bit as much as we, the fans, have been, and even though they are at least being paid for the privilege of being sneered at, it would have been hard for us fans to feel too sore if the players had collectively approached this fixture with sullen do-the-minimum demeanour … but not a hint of that. I’m no admirer of the pre-match huddle – and there was a post-match one too – but on this occasion it carried real meaning, as the players tore into Leicester and demonstrated untarnished honesty, commitment and spirit from minute one to minute 95. It’s been a while since I’ve felt as positive as I do this morning about the men wearing our club’s colours.
So! Filled with dread about what awaits, rather than enjoying the normal pre-season energetic buzz, we looked out on this game- and season-opening formation:
Elmohamady Livermore Davies Robertson
Snodgrass Huddlestone Meyler
The same personnel as chosen for last weekend’s Torino test, but set up more defensively. Sam Clucas begins by sheltering the back four, Adama Diomandé is helping out David Meyler in strengthening left side of midfield more than he is supporting Abel Hernández up front. Makes sense. No reason at all why we should walk glass-jawed straight on to Leicester’s proven counterpunching power. Moreover, even if the motivation is mainly shutting down space within which Leicester can construct threats, playing Clucas deep also forces Tom Huddlestone further forward than he’s played for most of the last two years, and that can only be a good thing.
We win a corner on 5, which Robert Snodgrass delivers and Curtis Davies heads past the far post. It’s a cagey opening on both sides, but we are holding our own.
Plenty of chanting about our pitiful owners, plenty of placards and banners. Plenty of empty seats too, especially in upper West and the claimed attendance of over 20,000 seems fanciful. But, sad to tell, there are plenty of areas in the ground, especially in west and south, where apathy reigns, and not a hint of dissent about the way the club is being run emerges. You people really do not deserve the giants of the Hull City Supporters’ Trust working tirelessly on your behalf.
On 17 Musa bursts through on the left, hits the by-line, pulls the ball back for Vardy, but he fluffs his shot. On 24 Drinkwater fires wide of the far post. Small alarms, but there is no sustained pressure from Leicester.
Our set up is well judged. Everyone is working hard – that’s a given, a necessary minimum – but I am especially enjoying Clucas patrolling in front of the back four. Quick and eager to seize space, decisive in his choice of options, I’m seeing the young Lothar Matthäus.
Snodgrass wastes an inviting free-kick opportunity on 29 by rolling his shot wide and shortly afterwards Abel swats aside a Fox defender with vigorous contempt before swivelling and sending an optimistic shot high over the bar.
An even pattern to the play so far. But on minute 40 the visitors suddenly up the tempo and open us up. Fuchs is denied by a good stop from Jakupo, the ball rolls loose to Vardy whose shot is blocked quite brilliantly by Jake Livermore, courageous but even more so alert to the defensive positional needs for which he is not trained. The ball spins clear to Mahrez who helpfully steers a weak shot wide of the target. Wild and franctic … survival.
Mahrez, by the way. He’s twice as bulky and immensely more powerful than he was last time he played in Hull, when he scored the winner in a dreadful match at Christmas time in 2014. What a lot of work in the gym, eh? Yes, that must be it. Gym work. In Russia, maybe.
Danger now, as Diomandé wastes possession with a horribly heavy touch, allowing Musa to sprint clear down the right and stroke an inviting ball inside for Vardy, losing his marker by making an intelligent run to the near post. Vardy spent most of last season slipping such chances nonchalantly into the back of the net, but this time the weasel-faced casinohound smashes the ball high into the back of the stand.
Two minutes are added at the end of a half which has been scoreless but, given our club’s plight, properly uplifting, and then all of a sudden scoreless it is not. It’s a melee, a stramash, the Leicester defending is flimsy, not least because Schmeichel seems to have done a reverse Mahrez and looks far less physically imposing than he used to, and a glorious overhead kick by Hernández turns the ball back across the face of the goal in a delirious loop and into the net underneath the crossbar.
From my vantage point in East it’s obviously Abel’s goal, but bizarrely other camera angles turn out to reveal that Diomandé was also aerially involved and may also have got a boot end on the ball. Strikers combining is nothing unusual, but combining to hit the same shot is pretty special. Half a goal each? Anyway, I think they are a tag team, and, given the early kick-off, there was time enough for our two frontmen to get themselves over to Hanley Town Hall to take on the Royal Brothers in a bout televised on World of Sport after the ITV Seven and the half times. Clothesline!
Half time! That’s been fun! Keep it tight early on in the second, hit ’em on the break.
Leicester have a penalty within twenty seconds of the restart.
It’s poor stuff by Mike Dean. Gray goes down all too willingly and he’s probably outside the area on point of contact as well. But it’s poor too by Meyler who gifted possession carelessly in the first place and by Huddlestone, whose intervention is clumsy and an accident waiting to happen.
Mahrez slurps down some lavender and crayfish organic gel and injects himself with some entirely natural extract of Alpine marmot saliva and boots the ball hard straight down the middle. The game is level.
Time for our wearily put-upon players to subside? Not a bit of it. Clucas, channelling his inner Giancarlo Antognoni as he commands the midfield with grace and poise, sprays a glorious ball wide to Andy Robertson haring down the left. Leicester half clear the delivery, but Elmo returns it, this time from the right, and Snodgrass, showing exceptional technique, gets head over the ball and smites a left foot shot low past Schmeichel’s despairing left glove.
Just a fantastic spell of football, and a wonderful goal.
2-1 threatens to become 3-1 as we win a free-kick just outside the box, but the lively Snodgrass contrives to hit the top of the wall, and the ball flies away for a corner. That’s not the end of the attack, as the dangerous delivery whistles untouched across the face of the goal. Cracking stuff, this.
Amartey and Okazaki enter as subs for the visitors: Mr Phelan’s youthful bench contains only Shaun Maloney who counts as a genuine first-teamer and, remarkably and unusually, we make no changes at all. There is evidence of our players tiring, but at the same time the vibrant spirit crackling among our first choice eleven is the very reason we’re leading and I think it’s a good call to let them to finish the job as a collectivity. And anyway when you’ve got Clucas in imperious command of midfield, part Jean Tigana, part Alain Giresse, what needs to be changed?
Okazaki makes a difference. Leicester have looked strangely lethargic all game, perhaps missing the buzz provided by the departed Kanté, perhaps distracted from their proper obligations by a sparkly pre-season featuring Barcelona and Wembley. Davies has been colossal, and Livermore, even if at times visibly unsure about his positional duties, scarcely any less so, but a subdued Vardy in particular has offered surprisingly little to trouble our makeshift central defensive pairing. The incoming Japanese is by contrast perpetual motion. Okazaki is fouled, Jakupo saves the free-kick. But the changes made by Mr Ranieri can’t disguise tiring legs across most of the Leicester line-up. Gangling Ulloa is their third sub, but he can’t disturb our granite defending. The minutes tick by without major alarms.
For three and a half of them we play it to perfection: comfortable possession, the play reserved for Leicester’s half of the pitch. We don’t quite see it out that easily though, and an awkward free-kick is won by Leicester, but defended, and the final action sees a low shot through a tumble of legs fly directly into the grateful Jakupo’s midriff.
Truly magnificent. Exultation, relief, astonishment. Pride, genuine, deep, well-earned pride.
Yes, I know. This win does not change in any way the bare fact that our football club is in grotesque and strategically deliberate crisis. The Allams. I’ve kept their name out of this match report. Maybe I should keep it that way. But their malign influence pervades any reflection on the present and the future. I won’t be falling for their banal ‘hey! We got rich new owners lined up! Deal’s nearly done!’ – not until the contract is signed and the deal is truly done. The Allams wish ill on Hull City and on its fans, and I trust not one single thing that they say or write. The garish display of HULL TIGERS on the advertising hoardings throughout the match was simply to underline the contemptible joy they take in bruising us fans.
But just briefly we can shove the ghastly Allams to one side. This was a truly marvellous performance, and a magnificently memorable game of football. I didn’t expect to get any enjoyment out of this fixture and I certainly didn’t imagine I’d enjoy writing this report. How gloriously wrong I was. To Messrs Jakupović, Elmohamady, Livermore, Davies, Robertson, Clucas, Snodgrass, Huddlestone, Meyler, Hernandez, Diomandé and yes, to Mr Phelan too – thank you!
Days like this are why we go to the football.
(report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)