What do the best stories contain? Perhaps it depends on the type of tale, but some elements frequently recur. A nefarious baddie bent upon destruction, a handsome and dashing hero, an improbable twist in the tale and satisfying victory for the good guys against daunting odds.
Clocking in at just under two hours, you’d struggle to suggest that Hull City v Watford qualifies as a full length story. No sweeping Wilbur Smith epic this; but it was sufficiently laden with incident to deserve greater consideration than merely a chapter in a longer drama. Let’s file it under “novella”, an engrossing stand-alone that makes up a worthy part of a longer story arc.
Summoning up another implausible adventure were:
Elmohamady Maguire (c) Ranocchia Robertson
Grosicki Clucas Evandro Marković
Approximately, anyway. It surprised plenty that Tom Huddlestone was benched, for his form had sparkled lustrously prior to his unjust suspension, while many more anticipated Marco Silva opting for a front two for a must-win winnable fixture. But no.
Watford reached 40 points last week, the much-vaunted mark whereby another season suckling at the television’s teat is usually guaranteed. Might they accommodatingly phone in a performance for us, with their primary objective obtained before St George’s Day? Or might they play with vigour and freedom, unshackled by pressure and unnecessarily denting our ambitions of similar suckling?
And what of Stoke, similarly safe and carrying the East Riding’s hopes in south Wales? We’re at the stage of the season where examining scorelines elsewhere is no longer a way of passing time during the interval but an integral part of the afternoon. And so we kicked off on an attractive spring afternoon with minds full of permutations – five clear by 5pm, one adrift come the evening, or maybe just somewhere in the middle. Whatever a relegation battle is, we’re deep into it in a way Teessiders and Wearsiders alike will envy, and it’s been a while since a season ended up a series of numbing dead rubbers.
City began attacking the North Stand, something I’ll never understand (why not attack your most partisan support in the second half and oblige the away team to kick away from their own fans?), but there was initially little for those patrons to see at close quarters as a palpably nervous City were pressed back by Watford. Resplendent in all-white, the Hornets looked as though they may indeed be here on business rather than pleasure, however their early promise faded without them creating anything and the first opportunity of the afternoon fell Sam Clucas’ way when a cross was partially cleared to him – however his half-volley was ill-timed and sailed well off target.
The mere sight of goal saw City improve, and while the overall quality was poor from both sides, the Tigers began to show signs of winning the arm-wrestle.
Enter the baddie.
On 25, a ball breaks loose in midfield, slightly in the Watford half. Milan loanee M’Baye Niang pounces first and narrowly beats Oumar Niasse to the ball, before collapsing to the turf in confected discomfort. From E5, there’s time to process each of Niasse’s reactions in order – first, contempt that such a soft collision (a foul, but nothing more) has prompted such histrionics, then bafflement when he sees referee Bobby Madley reach for a card, and then complete incomprehension when he registers its colour.
The stadium rises in bewildered anger as the distraught Niasse leaves (Niang was still pretending to be hurt) and the anger towards Mr Madley was long and loudly projected. Anyone who’s watched a reasonable amount of football knows the approximate sequence of events when a red card is widely considered to be possible. The foul happens, the opposition react with horror (whether real or feigned), one set of fans screams for justice and a weird sort of anticipatory murmur involuntarily escapes the entire crowd as they wait to see whether the potential dismissal will be realised. It’s like a thunderstorm – you can just FEEL something in the air.
None of this happened. None of the usual sensations were felt. Instead, an innocuous midfield foul was punished with a red card. You need to go back a long time, down several divisions and grades of official to recall a more appalling decision. Coddington? Laws? Those hazily-remembered names from a grim and distant past floated to mind as we tried to make sense of it. Needless to say, in the smartphone era it wasn’t long before City fans could be seen watching a replay to confirm the injustice. But if you know anything about football, and how to read its signals, you’ll have needed no replay. It was a rancid, rotten, foul decision from an abysmal referee plainly out of his depth.
How it stung. News of Swansea’s lead had already reached us, and Watford resolved to seize their unwarranted advantage by again pushing City back. They ought to have led too – a real threat from set pieces, only a fine reaction save from Eldin Jakupović denied Prödl and minutes later Britos headed wide under worryingly little pressure.
It didn’t get much better. Mr Madley must surely – SURELY – have begun to wonder whether the relentless invective from the stands was in fact justified, and he responded by, err, making some more terrible decisions. Irksome as they were at the time, with hindsight they probably had the useful effect of turning the game into a bitty affair, allowing City to hang on to reach the interval goalless. It came via Mr Madley’s decision not to caution Niang for a ridiculous dive in injury time that raised the temperature even further. The referee was escorted off by stewards, with a torrent of dismay conveyed by all areas (including the one Ehab Allam dopily wants to close).
Bloody hell. This was winnable, and now we were only drawing while a man down and uncomfortably aware of Swansea’s lead. In that fractious 45, the whole season had taken a real jolt.
Enter the dashing hero.
After all, does anything jolt Mr Silva? At the break, he withdrew Evandro for Hernández, the Brazilian having begun well but declined rapidly following the red card. Meanwhile, shorn of the lone striker we’d started with, Hernández’s introduction was plainly necessary. It wasn’t the change in personnel but the change in mindset he can engender that we should most admire, though. Rather than letting an inept official dictate to them, Silva used the break to calm his players, and it was quickly obvious that deep breaths had been drawn and minds refocussed. Whatever the Portuguese for dusting worselves down is, we’d done it.
Hernández had an early shot following his arrival, directing a fairly soft attempt at Heurelho Gomes – though perhaps he was attempting an audacious chip? Watford were again becalmed, but could/should have taken the lead when defensive blunders from more than one in black and amber saw Capoue stab the ball goalwards – fortunately it hit Jakupović’s foot before he could even react and bounced to safety, although Jakupović’s endearing attempt to take credit for the save with the North Stand was raised a half-smile.
Enter the plot twist.
On the hour, a Watford free-kick fizzled out and was cleared. Suddenly, the realisation dawned that the visitors had overcommitted and for a thrilling moment we had a three-on-one advantage on the right wing. Robertson had collected possession and was spoilt for choice as Marković darted forwards centrally and Grosicki provided a second option further down the flank. Momentarily it seemed as though Robertson had called things wrongly by keeping the ball wide when transferring it to Grosicki, but the Pole’s cross to his Serbian teammate was beautifully judged. Marković’s effort struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced downwards. In? Not in? The stadium held its breath, but there was no such hesitation from Marković, who responded first and blasted into the empty goal.
Euphoric pandemonium. As always happens with the best and most unexpected twists in the narrative. The goal celebration was as good as it gets. Underdog status, venal injustice and even the heightened anticipation from watching a threatening break unfold combined perfectly and the stadium was rocked by convulsive joy. 1-0.
Meanwhile, Swansea went 2-0 up. Well, you can’t have everything.
Amrabat went off for Watford, Marković and Prödl were both cautioned and we steeled ourselves for a gut-wrenching final twenty minutes.
Did I mention that was a really BIG plot twist, staged over ten minutes and featuring two separate incidents?
Enter Samuel Raymond Clucas.
On 70, a Grosicki corner was cleared to the edge of the area, where our unheralded midfield organiser was stationed. He instantly controlled it with his chest and sent a gorgeous looping left-footed volley over Gomes to win both the match and Goal of Month. Not surprisingly, the stadium dissolved into further feverish capering. 2-0.
On the pitch, that was about it. Watford’s stomach for a fight fled entirely, and even a man down there was little suggestion that a devastating comeback was likely. Huddlestone replaced Marković with ten left, but even that precautionary measure seemed unnecessary. There was time for Robertson to be cautioned for ill-advisedly kicking the ball away as Mr Madley continued his quest to remain wholly friendless, and by the time Dawson replaced Grosicki with the fourth official readying his injury time board, the match was finished.
And what a match, and what an outcome. This breathless afternoon may not have made a material difference to the battle to avoid the final relegation place that’s still largely between City and Swansea, though Crystal Palace will have had better non-playing afternoons. However, it made for a wonderfully uplifting viewing, and took us another round of games closer to the most remarkable of escape acts.
Well done City, and Marco Silva. The heroes of our little story. Any chance that the sequel will be called “An Away Win”?