Blimey, that was a successful evening for City. And thoroughly enjoyable at that. A lot that’s good about our club was on display. We won too.
This match will be remembered as the one where much of the fanbase —out of deep-rooted feeling for the club and frustration at the way it has been run down and its supporters ignored, insulted, and incited to action— stepped up to the televised plate with that combination of anger and good humour that Hull people can do so well.
That the team managed to craft a win made a big difference. Victory seasoned the evening with celebration, when, had we lost by a hatful, protest could have tipped into bitterness. It put to bed the idea that the determination of supporters to do right by their club off the field somehow stops the team doing well on it. The team win or lose because of the normal stuff like luck, referee’s decisions, managerial choices, and above all, whether they’re better at football than the other lot. That’s it, and the rest is marginal.
But my job here is match reporting. I’ll leave it to others to dissect in detail the ball-throwing, whistling, chanting, and banner-parading. I’ll concentrate on the football. In any case, my East Stand vantage is brilliant for watching the game, whereas it was the North Stand that provided the best spot for the off-field action. And of course the telly gives another perspective of both football and fans.
Polishing up Nigel Adkins’ unbeaten home record as City Head Coach were:
Aina Dawson McDonald Clark
Bowen Evandro Diomande
After our confident win at Forest a couple of weeks ago, Adkins had inexplicably messed with personnel and formation for the next league game, at Middlesbrough, by playing three central defenders with advanced wing-backs either side of that central defence. This time he reverted to a back four. The erratic Hector was dropped, as were Tomori, Toral, Campbell, and the injured Keane. Aina played on his favoured right. Max Clark returned as left full-back.
Did you know that Max Clark has played in every one of City’s league wins this season? Admittedly he’s played in plenty of defeats too, but tonight he looked like the increasingly assured player that he is becoming.
Another player coming into his own at the moment is City’s Brazilian midfielder, Evandro Goebel (I love writing ‘City’s Brazilian midfielder’), who opened his account for the club with a sweetly struck shot from a training-ground routine corner at Boro on Tuesday. In a pretty uninspiring first half tonight, it was Evandro who stood out. He’s got skills beyond your standard second division midfield player, and the confidence to receive the ball under pressure, turn his way out of trouble, and take the ball past lunging opponents.
Early doors, as City attacked the North Stand end of the ground on a bitingly cold Hull evening, Evandro received the ball in a crowded penalty area. He managed to make space for the shot, but too close to Blades’ netminder Blackman, and the chance is gone.
Throughout the game, until his substitution, Evandro showed his skill and calm presence. He could turn into an important player for us in the closing months of the season, bringing experience in addition to his ability to keep the ball and find a teammate.
Although having more of the ball than Sheffield, City struggled in the first half to make much of it. There was a cheeky free kick about 35 yards out that looked to be just outside Larsson’s shooting range, but he surprised the opposition by taking it on anyway and curled the ball only just wide of the upright.
Mostly though, we were poor as a team. There was a lot of passing the ball safely around our own half, and back to McGregor, as if we were the away team waiting to play on the break. The trouble was, Sheffield United, as the actual away team, did the same, making for a fairly dull spectacle.
When City did want to go forward, two glaring problems stood out.
First, we kept playing the ball in the air, up towards our non-existent centre forward. Dicko, for all his qualities, is a nippy inside forward not an imposing number nine. And being isolated on his own up front, a quick ball played high from the defence was never going to cut it. Even when he did get near it, the gap between Dicko and the rest of the team was so wide that he could do little with it.
Second, too many of our players have a tendency to work as individuals rather than concentrating on the team. When fans argue that our squad looks too good to be in such relegation danger, they see the individuals, and some good ones at that. But they have to be moulded into a team.
On 15 minutes, Dicko got the ball, for once, at his feet, where he could run at the Sheffield defence. To his left, galloping forward in space were both Bowen and Diomande. But Dicko kept the ball, put his head down, and ran into a cul-de-sac in front of the away fans.
On 20 minutes the match was interrupted by the balls-on-the-pitch protest. On 30 the fairly constant vuvuzela-esque sound of whistles that had accompanied the match from the start, turned into the concerted and planned one-minute whistling protest.
All off-field issues aside, I was beginning to hope that these things would affect the players, so poor were City at that time.
Half-time came. It was 0-0. If it hadn’t have been for the off-field action, that first half would have been entirely unmemorable.
During the interval, I fell to musing about what listening to a Nigel Adkins half-time teamtalk must be like. May be I’ve been reading too much of the @TheNigelBadkins parody Twitter account, but I reckoned it might be quite trying. Full of ‘healthy zen’ and #StayPositive. Not so much the Alex Ferguson hair-dryer treatment, more motivational speaker at a company staff away day?
Well, I reckon I might need to rethink. Because when City eventually came out for the second half, a good few minutes after the Blades, it seemed that there had been more than positivity preached in the home dressing room. The tactics had changed.
All of a sudden, City were playing it more on the ground.. We were less prone to by-passing the midfield. As we attacked the South Stand it would have been easy to look the other way and be distracted by the parade of stewards, followed by a procession of police officers, who lined up in front of the North Stand, backs turned to the game, staring at the home support.
But City were playing better, despite Sheffield —no doubt fresh from having their ears bent by Chris Wilder— having a bit of a go in the first ten minutes. At the back, Angus McDonald, whose reassuring displays are making that coveted number 50 shirt his own, snuffs out a good move by the Blades.
About 10 minutes in, Nouha Dicko finds himself just outside the Sheffield area, back to goal. He swivels and slams a hard shot goalwards, only for Blackman to push it round the post.
From the resulting corner, swung in from the left by Larsson, Sheffield’s defenders struggle to clear the ball and it eventually falls again to Dicko, who wellies it into the net.
We’re actually winning. That goal injects more confidence into the players, may be adding force to the argument that somewhere in that squad of disparate individuals we do have a semi-decent team waiting to be found.
Bowen, who has been relatively quiet so far, bursts into life a little more, making a couple of surging runs, one down each flank. Aina —having one of his skilful and confident games, untroubled by the need to do much serious defending— follows Bowen’s example and manages to get a cross into Diomande, who, as is his wont, can’t get the header right.
Grosicki replaces Diomande. The sort of no brainer preference that leaves me scratching my head as to how we ever started with the Norwegian ahead of the Pole.
Soon after, Kevin Stewart comes on for Dicko, and then Fraizer Campbell comes on for Evandro.
I can’t be bothered to think too deeply about these swaps, because I assume that they stem from what Adkins seems to say about too many of our players, namely, that they can’t manage the full 90.
All I’m thinking about is how City are going to turn a precious lead and three potential points into a draw or even a defeat.. It’s not that I’m a pessimist, just that I’ve watched City a lot this season.
I mutter: ‘Remember, we were one up at Bramall Lane. We lost 4-1.’
Grosicki, the scorer of the worldy that give us that 1-0 lead in Sheffield in November, is looking lively but too often ignored, or not spotted, by teammates. Well, he’s been in and out of the team so much, it’s no wonder they’ve forgotten him.
There is though a lovely little cameo between Larsson and Grosicki, who play a tippy-tappy bit of close passing by the left touchline to bewilder a lunging United player. These two are both harbouring realistic ambitions of playing in the World Cup in a few months time. For now they play for us. It’s a little incongruous.
Talking of cameos, Sheffield bring on Clayton Donaldson, an ex-Tiger who is so ex that his last game for us was a league fixture away at Boston United. Yes kids, Boston United.
It was good to see him. Especially as the Blades now fielded a not-very-sprightly three up top of Donaldson, Billy Sharp, and Leon Clarke; combined age 99.
Even City’s notorious late-goal leaking defence can keep this veteran trio at bay, and we duly saw out the final few minutes plus three added on.
And it’s good to go into the weekend feeling pleased with the team. We can enjoy the rare luxury of sitting back and saying to our relegation rivals, match that.
Then in a few days time, such is the relentless nature of this league, we go again. Another night match. Again taking on Yorkshire rivals. The weather is forecast to be colder still than it was tonight. For all the success of tonight’s events, we’re still a club that has fallen very far, very fast, and is in real danger of plummeting yet further.
But for now, there’s a bit of lively optimism around. Enjoy it.
Ed Bacon (via Tiger Chat)