I had a right shock on Saturday lunchtime. Sinking pints with abandon, the assembled group’s conversation turned to football. Ehab’s statement, the recent run of gleaming form, the unlikely ascent of the league table. ‘It won’t last’ we growled, ‘foundations built on the shifting sands of Allam malevolence’. But one of our number was already wrapped in reverie. His eyes are sparkling, his gaze is towards the distant horizon – ‘y’know lads, I think promotion’s on again, I really believe it’s going to happen’. What? The wide-eyed innocence, the sheer lack of realism? You’ll have come across the half-full gent in question if your life includes reading about programme collecting in the Hull Daily Mail. He’s a kindly soul, generous of spirit and always wanting to think the best of his fellow human beings, and in that he has precisely zero in common with any of my other friends, but he also possesses over fifty gnarled years watching Hull City under his belt as well as half a decade and more of observing close up the cruel pantomime that is the Allam stewardship of his and our club, and I would have expected him to be inoculated against the toxin that is hope. Yet, no. Just as there are still starry-eyed idealists in the Labour Party who believe that if they just wait patiently for long enough Uncle Jeremy will show his true colours and halt Brexit, so too, it appeared to me in a rush, there are seasoned Hull City supporters that are still willing to buy into the idea that Ehab is going to fund, or even permit, a serious assault on the upper reaches of the table. The triumph of hope over experience and cold calculation. I want to be able to hope. I really do. But at best Ehab is going to expect the current squad to continue to work miracles, at worst he is going to sell off Bowen and Grosicki and we are going to tumble back into the relegation fray.
And yet …
No, no, behave, this is not an ‘And yet …’ that is going to lead to me dreaming of the Play Off places. It is an ‘And yet …’ that commands me and you to pause and marvel at what’s going on at Hull City. I’m not going to talk anymore about Ehab, I’m certainly not going to reflect any more on the shapeshifting machinations of the ghastly Corbyn, but I am going to talk about football, Nigel Adkins and the entirety of the current Hull City squad.
Sheffield Wednesday were swept aside yesterday. The visitors scarcely had a touch in the final third, and David Marshall will have had more energetic afternoons out walking his dog Waverley. We controlled midfield, we whisked the ball energetically down both flanks, we pierced their threadbare lumbering defence at will and smacked three delightful goals past hapless netman Keiren Westwood. Don’t feel too bad about it, Wednesdayites! You’re in good company, or at least you’re in company. QPR couldn’t handle our attacking verve, Brentford were suppressed with ease, Swansea ultimately downed by a flurry of pace and belief, Preston beaten, Leeds smashed, Bolton plastered across the brown waters of the Humber and flushed out to sea. And now a 3-0 cuffing of Wednesday. That’s six wins in a row, and seven wins and a draw in eight League games since the beginning of December.
Look, this is historic stuff. There was a six week spell as winter turned to Spring in 2008, bookended by the 2-1 Okocha-illuminated win at West Brom and a 3-0 horsing of Watford at home, in which we won 7 times – but we also lost twice; there was the glorious run early in 1989 which took us via four wins in the League and two in the Cup to the fifth Round tie with Liverpool – but there was a loss too, 4-1 at Manchester City, and of course we went out to Liverpool; seven wins and two draws in the Spring of 1985, but a winning sequence of only five in a row. You need to go back to fabled 1966 to find a spell demonstrably superior to what we are enjoying right now, a ten match winning run in Division Three wrapped around the immortal quarter final games against Chelsea.
Football as vibrantly good as this comes along once in a generation. It usually culminates in promotion, but won’t this time. This Hull City side is currently magnificent. Don’t worry about the future. Just relish this.
Because it won’t last.
Off we go!
Kane Burke De Wijs Kingsley
Bowen Henriksen Stewart Grosicki
Minute one, a shot flies past the far post, it’s been deflected, corner to us, comes to nothing. On 9, Grosicki combines well with Martin, Westwood in the Wednesday goal produces a good stop. On 17, Martin is pulled back clumsily but a penalty is incorrectly denied us by referee Eltringham. 21, Grosicki squares the ball to Henriksen, whose shot is saved. A corner flashes across the penalty box, and out for a goal kick. We are whisking the ball around with immense confidence, there’s a lovely flow to our play.
I haven’t mentioned any of our defenders yet. That is not an error. Sheffield Wednesday, who have just exchanged one manager with an oddly shaped head and an erratic approach to the English language for another, look clueless. They are an ageing side, with George Boyd still able to illuminate the play with an occasional deft turn and a gorgeous flick (of his hair), but I’d be worried about surviving a relegation scrap if they have to rely on the creaking likes of Steven Fletcher and Barry Bannan. Going forward, they have virtually nothing to offer. At the back they card dear old Michael Hector, whose bid to appear on loan for all 92 League clubs is well on its way to completion, but is likely soon to be confined to ticking off the ones he’s missing from the bottom two divisions.
Rain blows across the pitch on a mild but grey and blustery day, and as half time approaches the only nagging doubt is that we haven’t managed to put the ball in the back of the net yet. As the board flashes an addition of two minutes, that changes. Grosicki cuts inside and belts a heavily weighted pass square to Bowen. Our star man is technically good enough to deal with the pace, a couple of touches tame the ball, he shifts inside on to his left foot and caresses a shot across Westwood and inside the far post.
It is really a gem of high quality football and, on the balance of play across the first half, the bare minimum we deserve.
Into the second half, the blusters get a bit more blustery and the rain increases in intensity, but there’s no change at all to the pattern of the game. We are smooth and impressive. Sheffield Wednesday are clunky and feeble.
More attacks! On 49 a delightful move down our left shreds the visiting defence, Grosicki sets up the marauding Kingsley, but he spanners his shot wide of the near post. Wednesday’s poor right back, one Liam Palmer, is having a miserable afternoon, spending most of it having Grosicki breeze by him at will, reduced to scanning the horizon in bewilderment, like Chris Grayling looking for ferries. And soon afterwards our second goal is created down that same left-side channel. Grosicki plays in Chris Martin, he cannily holds his position and anticipates a clumsy intervention from keeper Westwood which duly arrives, Martin crumples to the turf and the penalty is awarded. Ha! Outplayed and out-thought, goodnight loser Owls. Bowen whips the spot kick into the corner of the net with a disdainful air.
The joy is supplemented by comedy. On 54 Wednesday bring on a sub. At first it really does look like a sub – a rusting hulk of ugly shapeless metal, ponderous, slow to turn, in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is in fact a man by the name of Atdhe Nuhiu, and he makes Jon Parkin look like Olga Korbut. Nuhiu is the classic Sunday morning fat lad footballer who’s put away twelve pints and a couple of kebabs the night before. And here he is, tasked with rescuing Sheffield Wednesday from the pit of gloom into which their morose support has slumped.
There’s no rescue for the travelling support.
But there is more gloom.
Evandro, excellent throughout, is replaced by Fraizer Campbell, who quickly scores. The Wednesday defence appears to have packed it in, and Campbell, eager and alert, is able to wrest possession from Lees, streak clear of the shredded cover and thrash a ferocious shot past Westwood, who does a pretty good job of diving fearfully out of the way. That’s 3-0, and that is not in the slightest bit flattering: we’ve ripped them apart.
Chris Martin comes off for Toral, who picks up Evandro’s role linking midfield and attack, and on 83 we come close to scoring as fine a goal as the stadium has ever witnessed. A long ball is played out wide to Campbell on the right, in front of West Stand. He produces a quite astonishing piece of skill, cushioning the ball, bringing it instantly under his control and, in the same movement, turning inside to pick out a magnificent defence-splitting pass to release Grosicki with only Westwood to beat. A defensive foot snakes in at the last moment to deny Grosicki and send the ball spinning out for a corner, but, my o my, that is proper football.
Milinkovic for Bowen as the time ticks down. Wednesday have given up. They have showed precious little fighting spirit since the game kicked off, and there’s nothing to see from them now. There are three added minutes, and they are lit up by a quite outrageous piece of trickery from Kingsley, whose backheel and feint leaves his opponent dazed, confused, and wanting to go home and drink alcohol on the sofa in his pants. Stephen Garrincha Kingsley! I think our players are enjoying their football just now.
Sometimes a manager stumbles across a formation that suits and brings out the best in the available resources. In Autumn 2012 Steve Bruce seemed to arrive by accident rather than design at a back five, but he was wise enough to stick with it once it because plain that the central defenders at his disposal (Chester, Faye, Bruce, McShane, Hobbs) were far happier in a trio than duo and that the set up permitted the full backs, Elmohamady and Rosenior, sometimes Brady, to bomb forward rather than defend deep, thereby to play to their strengths. We were still playing that formation eighteen months later in the Cup Final (with Curtis Davies added). It has taken Nigel Adkins time to work out how best to arrange his players, but what we have been watching these last few weeks suggest we have underestimated him all along. Because this is terrific. Yesterday was terrific. The system is fluid, proper fluid, but it is crucially built on two central midfielders who right now look incomparably better than we might have expected last August (in the case of Henriksen) and last month (in the case of Stewart), two fast and genuinely dangerous wide men, the sublime footballing intelligence of Evandro and, ah, Chris Martin. Keep this squad together, add a striker, and well …
What, my programme collecting friend, could possibly go wrong?
Stephen Weatherill (via Tiger Chat)