Probably mentioned it before, but I work among a large number of Leicester City supporters, and left for the game yesterday morning from a Leicestershire hotel, where our firms’ partners’ conference had taken place the previous day. On coming down for breakfast in my City shirt ready for a swift departure north, I sensed a certain nervousness among the Foxes supporters present, a far cry from the euphoria which oozed seemingly out of every doorway, shop window and pavement crack of the city just eight short months ago and which, as anyone familiar with the place will testify, has perceptibly retreated whence it came. Maybe it was just imagination, but were the good wishes for the forthcoming game proffered by my partners not quite as heartfelt as they might have been earlier in the season?
Whatever the answer to that question, they’ll definitely be rather more nervous this morning, thanks to a combination of several factors: their own team failing to produce, so far this season, anything approximating the scintillating form they maintained for the whole of the previous campaign culminating in yet another tonking today, the fact that Sunderland are starting to pick up points, the increased resilience injected into Swansea by Paul Clement….but, probably most of all, the arrival of Marco Silva at Hull City A.F.C.
I mean, let’s face it, with the obvious exception of the hapless Derby side of 2008, Hull City at the turn of the year were as much of a basket case as the Premier League has ever encountered, easily on a par with the awful Villa side of last season or the wretched Sunderland team of 2002/3 under the stewardship of Howard Wilkinson. Scroll forward a month, however, and the transformation that has taken place at the Circle is the subject of almost as much column space and airtime among the national media as any other footballing topic in this country.
Remember how we just had to get through the run from Hell with as little collateral damage as possible before starting on the relegation battle proper, with the visit of the Dingles at the end of this month? Ha!
Now, of course, we’re all too long in the tooth and too scarred by our regular exposure over the years to what some wryly refer to as the phenomenon of “Typical City” to entertain even the most fleeting thought that Premier League survival this season is a given, or even that it’s more likely than not. But what we can be sure of is that, if we are to go down playing like we have been, those who do survive will have richly deserved it.
Exhilarating times, but intriguing ones too. We’ve all seen the transformation on the field, but can anyone actually put their finger on how Silva has done it? Stories abound of how the players have not been given a day off since his arrival and the banning of puddings from the squad’s diet, and no doubt most of us have seen that clip of a City training session where Silva can be seen physically dragging Michael Dawson to the spot on which he wants him to stand, so it’s clear that we now have an authoritarian man at the helm and that the players are going along with it. But there is palpably much, much more to it than wielding the metaphorical big stick.
To give probably the most visually apparent example of that, nobody could have failed to notice that Tom Huddlestone has played the finest football of his City career in the past month. Granted, his form had picked up since December but he’s kicked on even from there since Silva came. On the way home last night we were faced with a tiresome procession of pundits’ observations prefaced with the words, “No disrespect to Hull City, but….” because, as you would expect, it was all about Liverpool. The one which did catch my attention though went on to inform us that “no Hull City player out there today would have made the Liverpool team. One can only presume that whoever it was who offered that pearl of wisdom didn’t actually watch the game.
But it’s not just about one player, as the manager is frequently at pains to point out. The whole team yesterday was organised, committed and resilient, despite the fact that nearly half of them were virtual strangers. it’s been the same story throughout January, with the dishonourable exception of Fulham. Hull City has – for now – had its credibility restored.
And so the story continued yesterday. Despite the “statistics” which purport to demonstrate our visitors’ superiority in every conceivable respect in yesterday’s game, this was no fluke neither was our victory in any way undeserved. We battled, we thwarted them, we frustrated them, we ground them down. In short, we did a job on them.
Sending out a stark message to the bottom third of the Premier League were the following:-
Elabdellaoui Ranocchia Maguire Robertson
Grosicki N’Diaye Evandro Clucas
Substitutes: Tymon (for Evandro, 61 minutes), Niasse (for Hernández, 65 mins), Meyler (for Grosicki, 80 mins)
So, a late and unexpected change to the line-up, as Dawson, it emerged, had injured himself in the warm-up and had to be hastily replaced by Andrea Ranocchia. Not the ideal start, and it seemed from the off as if Liverpool wanted to get their mark stamped on the game from the off, but in truth all they have to show for it is Mane clipping the leather high and wide. We warm up a bit after a somewhat pedestrian start, though and manage our first effort on target after ten minutes, Abel Hernández’s effort being without power and straight at Mignolet. There follows a further injury scare on the quarter hour, though, as Omar Elabdellaoui takes a smack in the chops (and, it later emerged, a broken nose in the process) but returns after a brief visit to the touchline and a change of shirt (did we really only have one No.14 shirt? Sort it out Johnny Eyre!).
Whilst it’s mainly them in terms of possession, when we do advance it’s with purpose and mobility, and you can sense that the Reds’ famously-flaky defence doesn’t really look all that comfortable.
Not as uncomfortable as we look on 21 though, when Eldin Jakupović, possibly impeded by Harry Maguire, flaps at a cross and the leather drops to Coutinho who scuffs it wide when he ought to have done much better.
Then five minutes later, with Andy Robertson out of position there’s more danger as the ball is played out to Mane, in the inside right channel. Maguire spots the danger and move across to cover. “You’re going to have to deal with this, Harry”, I exclaim, and he certainly does, magnificently scything his opponent down in a manner of which any of the legendary hard men of the 60s and 70s would most certainly have approved. Referee Mason, unsurprisingly, brandishes his yellow card.
But how are the new boys doing? Very encouragingly, it has to be said. Ranocchia shows his class and pedigree with a solid, uncompromising display and – according to my neighbour, who was counting – a 100% success rate in the aerial duels (the fact that the defence performed so convincingly without either of its main organisers on the field was an especially-pleasing factor throughout the afternoon), Elabdellaoui looks very competent despite having his proboscis spread across his features early on, but the one who really catches the eye for me, until he started blowing through his arse about midway through the second half, was Kamil Grosicki, who looks as though he’s going to be a real asset on the attacking side, especially when he gets himself fit enough to keep going for an entire match, skinning Milner twice in the first half hour. Our new Polish recruit is then involved in our most dangerous foray so far on 33, taking a sweet diagonal ball from the Huddster and firing in a low cross which Mignolet does well to smother at the feet of Hernández.
Three minutes later and we are a bit naughty at the back, allowing Matip a free but thankfully wide header from a corner. More problems on 38 when they get a dodgy free on the edge of the box and attempt a laughable “training ground routine” which results in the ball being slammed into the wall and eventually we scramble it away.
The official attendance of 24,822 inevitably includes a fair number of tourists (as well as several hundred so-called Liverpool supporters from East Yorkshire, readily visible dotted about the home enclosures) and, as half-time approaches, going to the kiosk evidently becomes more important than actually watching what has become a quite absorbing -if not exactly stirring – game of football They probably don’t give a monkeys but, their warped priorities deprive them of witnessing a quite sensational development. After Abel is outpaced by Matip as he chases a through ball from – yet again – Huddlestone, we eventually win a corner on the right a minute before the half is up. It’s headed down and goalwards and should be Mignolet’s ball, but the away custodian, distracted more than a keeper at this level ought to be at this level by Hernández’s perfectly lawful jump, fubles the ball at the feet of Alfred N’Diaye five yards out, and our Alf will not get an easier chance if he plays till the age of 100. Scruffy goal, but who cares? Total Tiger Mayhem.
Half-time, then, and time to reflect on Ehab’s recent “interview”. Many Tigerwatchers seem to have approved – some in quite breathless tones – of this cynical little bit of PR, so for them a question: have you learned absolutely nothing at all about the Allams? It would be a happy day indeed if owners and fans were able to bury the hatchet and work together in order to take the club forward in a responsible and constructive manner, but it’s going to take much, much more than that to generate any kind of optimism that such an outcome would be possible. Like henceforth referring to the Club solely as “Hull City” in all publications and communications. Like scrapping the current pricing arrangements and introducing genuine and fair pricing concessions for senior and junior citizens and the disabled. Like paying whatever it takes to keep Silva at the Circle for at least a couple of years if he keeps us up. Like setting transfer and salary budgets for next season which will enable substantial team and squad strengthening. Like agreeing those budgets unconditionally by the final game of this season (for the summer window) and by Hogmanay (for the January window) and then just leaving the manager to get on with the recruitment. Like coming clean that they do not have, and never have had, any serious intention of selling the Club. Like a total and irreversible end to any further acts of sabotage of the efforts of manager and players. And by an admission that they have been wrong about all the things that they have been wrong about. Chance of getting all of those (most of which other clubs just take for granted, by the way) are minus nil. Getting one of them would be a true miracle. So please excuse me for not being convinced just yet that Ehab’s actually an all-round good egg.
Anyway, unsurprisingly the ‘Pool (do people still call them that?) come out with all guns blazing, Herr Klopp’s invective doubtless ringing in their ears. They force a succession of corners but during this spell the only shot they manage to get on target comes when Milner hooks one straight at the Jak. They go a whole lot closer on 55, though, when the City net man does brilliantly to tip away a Mane header which bounces off the top of Robertson’s head and looks to be sailing in. Think Banksie’s save from Denis Law, England v Scotland, Wembley 1967.
Their diagonal balls are causing us problems, but we keep them at bay despite now-constant pressure, amidst an atmosphere which is now starting to jump as the the clock ticks. Respite on 62 minutes when Hudd (yes, again) feeds Abel but the angle is a bit tight and he succeeds only in finding the side netting.
Then, bizarrely, it starts raining feathers from the roof (shades of rust from the Best Stand roof at the Ark whenever the ball struck it). Puzzled spectators raise their eyes to the rafters and identify the culprit, in the form of a hawk which has nabbed a pigeon and had now set about methodically plucking it prior to consumption. Sometimes you think you’ve seen everything at a football match, and then something else surprises you. This process of wild game dressing continues for the rest of the half, but at least we were spared having giblets dropped on us.
Attention quickly switches back to the pitch though as Hernández is sent haring away in space by Grosicki. A second now will probably, and sensationally, kill the game, but his first touch is over-eager and Mignolet is able to smother.
66 minutes. An almighty scramble in the box. Mane must score. He doesn’t: the leather flashes across the goal. “Can we really hold out?” I write.
71 minutes. Jak saves from Milner. A minute later and we attack, but Grosicki’s cross is just out of Alf’s reach. But we are struggling to keep possession, frequently hoofing clear and waiting for the next attack.
This is proper pressure. But Liverpool just seem to lack that bit of nous, of ingenuity, of skill or even of luck that they need to pierce the City rearguard and in fact for maybe ten minutes they don’t seriously trouble the goal for all the ball that they have, a fact borne out by the fact that they only managed five shots on target to our four.
No, they have to be shown how it’s done. Six minutes remain on the clock when Mane cuts in menacingly from the right. Robertson times his tackle to perfection. The leather finds Ranocchia, who curls an irresistible ball through to Oumar Niasse, on now for Hernández, who times and directs his run impeccably between the two defenders left at the back. Suddenly he’s away, and shows great composure to fend off the challenge of Matip and steer the leather under the advancing Mignolet and into the centre of the goal. Not the work of a man who’s a shit as Everton seem to think, if truth be told. Bedlam in the stands.
And that’s it. Jakupović plays to the gallery with a fine acrobatic save from Milner with a minute of normal time left, but we see out the 90 minutes and the five added on for a famous and well-merited victory which augurs very well for the rigours of the forthcoming relegation dog-fight. Or was it that famous? After never besting the Scousers (as they largely were for many of those days) at the Ark we have now sent them away with their tails between their legs (to say nothing of their Hull-based “fans” who turn up dutifully for their ritual humiliation) thrice in a row at the Circle.
It’s been a torrid and difficult January and early Feb and now only one game of that run from Hell remains, with four more points than we thought we’d get already chalked up. Probably asking a lot to expect anything at the Arse next Saturday, but they are definitely not in a good place at the moment, and we have nothing to lose. After a proper week’s rest for once, we might just be looking forward to this one more than they are.
Football without Fear, City.
Ian Thomson (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)