It was a poor game! We didn’t lose it! Break out the bunting, crack open the champagne, put on your dancing shoes! A point at home, the very summit of our haunted ambitions nowadays.
Mr Adkins once again shuffled both formation and personnel – he clearly has no sense of his preferred starting eleven, though, to be fair, none of the starting elevens he has chosen to field so far this season has made any sort of compelling case to be treated as the real and consistent deal – and so we lined up as a 5-3-2. Sort of.
Kane Burke Elphick De Wijs Lichaj
Bowen Henriksen Irvine
That looks dangerously stretched across midfield, but I think the idea was that Grosicki would play on the front foot when we are in possession but that he would drop back and help the midfield when Boro have the ball. Occasionally he did. But mostly he wandered around, once again looking like a man eager for his agent to call and say ‘I’ve landed a loan deal at Nantes/ Trabzonspor/ Vitesse Arnhem, pack your bags Kamil’. Chris Martin, by contrast, would never be accused of indolence, but would equally never be mistaken for a player with the extravagant gifts that Grosicki possesses (but largely hides). I always thought that if it had been possible to combine the power and athleticism of Jozy Altidore with the first touch, hold-up play and profound footballing nous of Jan Vennegor of Hesselink, then we’d’ve had a worldbeater. Similarly a meld of Martin’s willing attitude and Grosicki’s sublime touch would be a sight to relish, but as Jeff Goldblum in The Fly reminds us, we don’t yet quite have the perfect technology to achieve this metamorphosis. All of which is a roundabout way of telling you that, one, we didn’t offer much of a goal threat in this match and, two, I am in no rush to trouble you with any information about the actual football. Because it was dross, especially across a careworn first half.
But off we go, on a lovely bright sunny afternoon and Middlesbrough in all white, to avoid that always unfortunate amber versus red colour clash. We start well. Ball down the left, neat interplay and pressure, headed over by Bowen. On 9 a low shot by Henriksen, just past Randolph’s right hand post. Middlesbrough shape up and improve, and the game settles into a pattern of equality.
It’s pretty dull, to be honest. Not much happening. The stadium is largely silent, a few squeaks from the visiting fans in the northeast corner aside. But we’re used to that, aren’t we? The decline of our club is unavoidable reality, and any sense of anticipation or glee of a matchday has long since been crushed under the Allam boot. Well done, Ehab, you really have won.
De Wijs limps off, and is replaced by Kingsley. He goes to left back, so Lichaj is pulled inside to play as the left sided centre back. That, I think, means that Lichaj has played in both full back positions as well as centre back already this season. Impressive versatility. He is by far our best acquisition of the summer.
Three added minutes, half time. 0-0. A few people applaud. I can only imagine they had backed the winner of the Cambridgeshire or were perhaps celebrating a Rory McIlroy putt. That football deserved no applause.
Into the second half, and on 46 George Friend runs inside, cuts on to his right foot and shoots over our bar. The visiting fans celebrate with delirium and gusto, and I wonder if they, like so many before them at West Brom, Palace and Stoke, have learned that Tony Pulis sides don’t do joy, don’t do width, don’t do intricacy, in fact don’t do anything at all that a normal fan wants to watch, and so pleasure must be taken on the rare occasions it is glimpsed – here, a shot off target.
On 49 Lichaj’s run feeds Grosicki, but his cross is poor. And then Middlesbrough score.
It’s a Pulis kind of a goal. Ball lumped in from wide on the right by Howson, sails all the way to the back post, and it’s turned in by Assombalonga. Marshall could maybe have been quicker off his line, but it’s Burke who seems to lose Assambalonga. It probably looks worse defending than it actually is – it’s not so easy to defend these lofted crossfield balls when they travel right over central defence and all the way to the back post – but not for the first time I worry that Burke just doesn’t have the instincts of a proper defender. If that had been Peter Skipper, both football and Mr Britt Assombalonga would have been transported at high velocity in the general direction of Swanland. You’ve got to attack the ball and get there first. Burke didn’t, Burke doesn’t.
A minute later it’s almost two, as the ball is given away wastefully, but Marshall rescues the situation with a good save. Soon after, a monster throw by the impressive Ryan Shotton, a chance from a header, but Aden Flint’s effort sails just over the top, kissing the woodwork on its way.
Anyone who’s tuned in to this dismal Hull City season so far has at this point closed off their expectations with a resigned sigh and a dispirited shrug. We are losing. So we will lose.
And yet … Middlesbrough impress not at all, and offer us a way back into the game. On 63 a Grosicki free-kick is saved low to Randolph’s right. Then on 67 a decent shout for a penalty is turned down only, a moment later, to be followed by a scarcely credible shout for a penalty, as Martin, shielding the ball well, then throws himself at the nearest defender and collapses to the turf. Referee England gives it. I wouldn’t have.
Randolph dives westwards, Bowen whisks his shot southeastwards, and the game is level.
It is quite a lot better than the dismal first half. Grosicki is removed in favour of Campbell, who runs on very fast in approved sub-making-an-entry manner, though he never quite manages to run as fast again and he has little impact on the game. For ten minutes or so Middlesbrough press forward, but with little guile, and it is not difficult for City, tucking in, to repel them. Then, as we enter the last ten, tide turns, we are slightly the better side. The game seems to be ticking down remorselessly to a draw, but on 89 a cross is stood up invitingly inside our box and a firm header looks likely to win for the visitors, only for Marshall to conjure up a quite superb save, diving full length and low to his right. Man of the season so far, by a distance, is Scottish internationalist David Marshall.
Three minutes added, and we are indebted to a sturdy block from Lichaj as Boro look for an undeserved winner. 1-1 it is.
So it finishes. There’s the Championship for you. A team skulking around the lower reaches brings an opponent aiming at automatic promotion to a standstill. It is, we are frequently told, such a competitive league, and therein lies its appeal. Well, it didn’t feel very appealing yesterday afternoon as two dour and limited sides plugged their way to a stalemate. Not a hint of joy or wit. But that really is the Championship. Just occasionally a side with flair and energy emerges, usually as a result of the availability of unfeasibly large injections of resources (Wolves last year), but most of the time there is not much to choose between the lot of them, and recent seasons have regularly seen limited but well drilled and effectively managed sides lurch unconvincingly to promotion (Cardiff last year, Huddersfield the year before and, err, Hull City the year before that). Middlesbrough may make it this year. We won’t, of course, but the frustration of yesterday was the reminder that all you need to make an impression on this Division is a modestly well organised club with stability and owners who do sensible things, not stupid things. If only …
Stephen Weatherill (via Tiger Chat)