You forget, don’t you, that a gulf in class between City and an opponent can work in our favour too. For all of its gaudy glitz, a season in the Premier League can be demoralising as the weekly assignments against the significantly wealthier continue without cessation. Back in the calmer waters of the Championship, with fish smaller as well as larger, the scope for dishing it out instead of being a permanent punchbag does possess a certain appeal. And as City pummelled an adventurous but pretty hopeless Burton, we left in a brighter mood than so often last season.
Not that Hull City AFC is a club wreathed in smiles at present. The sight of the whole Upper West Stand closed is a testament to the damage being done by the Allam family, and made for a sorry pre-match spectacle.
Luckily, one man for whom the next beaming grin is rarely too far away is the new City manager, Leonid Slutsky. On his home debut as the Tigers’ manager, he named the same XI that started and improved to draw at Aston Villa a week earlier:
Clark, Dawson, Hector, Aina
Grosicki, Clucas, Henriksen, Bowen
On the bench was new signing Seb Larsson, and City began the afternoon attacking the South Stand (hooray!).
It was open start, with Kamil Grosicki pinching the ball in the third minute and ill-advisedly opting to conclude his burst down the wing with a shot from an acute angle with unmarked teammates in the middle. Meanwhile, Stephen Warnock – who’d been struggling since a first minute knock – failed to last beyond 3.07pm, limping off to be replaced by Lloyd Dyer.
With the first anti-Allam chants of the afternoon only just subsiding, City took a gratifyingly early lead when a loose ball fell to Markus Henriksen. His fabulous volley hit the crossbar and came back out, where the alert Abel Hernández’s superior anticipation gave him a free header at goal. In it went, via a strong but vain attempted deflection from the exposed Burton keeper.
That began a spell of near total domination, as Burton Albion Brewers – as our own club cretinously renamed them in the build-up – looked close to being totally overwhelmed. Grosicki had a shot blocked after neat play by Fraizer Campbell, but the besieged visitors nearly (and should have) found themselves level soon after. Aina dithered naively on the ball, was dispossessed and Akins’ low shot went past McGregor but was ruled out for offside, erroneously it seemed.
That wasn’t unique, with a disagreeable vein of complacency running throughout City’s otherwise strong work. It became a madly end-to-end affair as Burton grew in attacking intent. McGregor smartly saved from Akins, Hernández fluffed a chance tougher than the one he’d earlier taken, Sordell sent one curling inches wide and Grosicki then wrapped up the 2017/18 miss of the season when rounding Bywater after being released on the right only to then miss the open goal. A crazy match.
It got crazier. More defensive faffing saw City fail to clear their lines repeatedly, and eventually Jackson Irvine was able to bend a superb shot past McGregor into the top right of the goal.
A great finish, and while parity flattered the visitors, they’d probably been worth a goal – City’s mucking around in defence and profligacy up front had badly undone them. Meanwhile, the 473 Burton fans crowed about this sudden and unexpected improvement in their fortunes.
But City weren’t to be the only ones capable of substantial self-harm. With eight minutes remaining before half-time and Slutsky’s charges yet to properly recollect themselves following their concession, Irvine rashly upended Bowen for the second time in the game. He’d seen yellow the first time, and although the City youngster was fully 80 yards from the Brewers’ goal, it looked a promising enough break to warrant a second caution. The Australian international forlornly departed, and the game very much felt City’s to lose.
Save for Grosicki directing a free kick well over, that was it for the half, with both sides appearing content to get to the interval and assess how best to approach the numerical disparity that Jackson’s foolishness had engendered.
Burton’s response wasn’t too unexpected. Nigel Clough deployed his depleted yellows in a 4-4-1 formation, while Leonid Slutsky took the opportunity to capitalise upon Burton’s likely lack of attacking ambition by urging his fullbacks further forward. It was to work splendidly.
On 50, City again began a half with an early goal. It came from the flanks, with the impressive Ola Aina fleet-footedly bewitching his marker before sending in a cute cross with his presumably weaker left. Grosicki determinedly attacked it at the near post, and sent a header bouncing into the far post to make it 2-1. Relief! Even if Burton were unlikely to win with ten, holding on for a point wouldn’t have been impossible, but now they had to chase.
Soon after, their stiff task began to appear impossible. A long ball was partially cleared straight to the unattended Hernández, who instantly crashed a low shot at Bywater. He may have done better with it, though its instant nature and sweet connection made it a challenging effort. Either way, he couldn’t keep it out, and on 53 it was 3-1. Game over, right?
Right. Flanagan replaced Sordell for the ailing visitors, who looked completely winded by their disastrous start to the second half. Campbell missed a chance to get his first City goal in 3,395 days when sending a header wide, but spurned opportunities no longer felt as though they’d materially affect the outcome.
On 68, any remaining doubts were dispelled. Clucas obtained possession in midfield, lost it and then quickly regained it, before threading a perfectly weighted ball to Hernández. The Uruguayan had cleverly found himself a yard of space and his control was perfect, allowing him to hare free of the beleaguered Burton defence. It never felt as though he’d miss, and he didn’t, coolly steering the ball past late-90s City loanee Bywater for his hat-trick and an emphatic 4-1 lead.
That left a quarter of the game remaining, and with the result assured, what to do? Push on for more goals and really put the distressed visitors to the sword, or relax a little with successive midweek fixtures approaching? Pragmatism won the day, with Slutsky swiftly withdrawing Clucas, Hernández and Grosicki for Meyler, Diomande and Larsson. Either way, it was a pleasant situation for the new boss to have.
14,882 was the official gate, incidentally. It felt approximately right, though tellingly it wasn’t announced over the PA system. It was displayed on the big screens though, and precipitated further calls for the Allams to bugger off.
City could and perhaps should have scored more as the cowed Albion prayed for an end to their torment – chances fell to (in no particular order) Clark, Henriksen, Dawson, Larsson, Hector, Diomande and Meyler, and if there are any frustrations to be gleaned from a comprehensive 4-1 win, it’s that City missed a boatload of opportunities throughout the game.
But hey, a 4-1 win! That didn’t happen much last season. Behind the affable exterior, Leonid Slutsky won’t have become a national manager without knowing his stuff, and he’ll know there are things to improve upon. Occasionally lackadaisical stuff in defence, too many chances being frittered away at the other end, coupled with the odd piece of bad decision making.
There’ll be tougher tests than a Burton side who played with ten men for over half the match. They don’t look like a side who’ll be seriously contesting for anything other survival this season. Wolves have won all three this season, beating two fancied Championship sides on the way – they’ll provide a much stouter examination on Tuesday. For now, four points and five goals. That’ll do nicely.