FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: QPR 2 City 1

DiomandeA2
If you are prone to bouts of depression then I advise not reading this report.  Instead, look for some images of kittens to while away the time.  If you are into self-flagellation then you might want to know more.

Walking back to Shepherds Bush station, weaving through the blue and white hooped hordes and dodging the many deposits left by nervous police horses I reflected on the match.  Had I seen more crap on the road (the horse dung, not the QPR supporters) or on the pitch?  Probably the latter.

This is my first taste of the 2017/18 vintage Hull City. I don’t think it’s going to be one that goes down in history.

Lining up on a warm summer afternoon and not doing the business for the Tigers were:

McGregor
Aina Dawson Hector Clark
Grosicki Larsson Meyler Stewart Bowen
Campbell

The first observation is that Sam Clucas wasn’t on the pitch and nor was he on the bench.  A fairly obvious giveaway that we have seen the last of him in black and amber.  Wherever he ends up, well done young man.  His development over the last couple of years has been great to watch and one in the eye for the naysayers who liked to call him ‘Clueless’.

We kick off with the sun behind the team, and the City supporters who have made the trip.  It’s almost ten seconds before the first anti-Allam chants are raised.  It’s an even game.  QPR are poor and can hardly string a couple of passes together, but we are competing with them to see who can be worse.  Nine minutes into his first start, Kevin Stewart went down with an injury following a routine clearance.  It looks like it could be a recurrence of the ankle problems that suffered last season which is worrying.  He was replaced by Diomande, the latter going up front with Campbell playing a deeper role.

We are well into the half before the first chances arrive.  We have had marginally better of the early exchanges but about twenty minutes in the home team – and their supporters – wake up.  The chances go begging and neither goalkeeper has been troubled at this stage.  A promising break is lead by Grosicki but the end result encapsulates his career to date, promise followed by poor execution.  The first call to action for either keeper results from a Campbell shot after he manages to wiggle free.

After half an hour a trip right on the edge of our area gives the Rs free kick in a dangerous position.  An elaborate manoeuvre with several players running in random directions seems to confuse the home team more than it does us.  The first attempt is aborted as a couple of City players have encroached, the second results in a daisy cutter that is easily repelled by the wall.  We are still under pressure however and smart defending from Hector and Dawson is needed more than once to keep them at bay.

And then we score.  A free kick on the left is played across to the right.  It looks like we have messed around too much and the opportunity will dissipate but finally Meyler gets his cross over.  It evades the players in the middle and reaches Bowen.  He fends off a defender and slots in a low shot.  Bowen was one of the few to rise above the morass of mediocrity in the game.  The goal actually manages to stop the “Allam Out” medley for a few minutes.

There are still ten minutes left in the half but that’s about it until the break.  1-0 up just about reflects the play but it has mostly been meagre fare on offer.

Slutsky makes a change at half time with Mazuch replacing Campbell.  We learn later that the latter had taken a slight knock but it’s a negative move and reduces our attacking threat.  It’s also a reflection of the inexperience on the bench: of the seven selected, only Diomande had played more than three games for City.  There is almost a complete lack of action in the first quarter of an hour.  There are players out there, there is effort, there is no quality and no end product.  On the hour mark we win a corner after an incursion by Aina up the right flank but the resulting header from Mazuch is straight at Smithies in the Rangers’ goal.

Diomande does produce a bit of quality with take down and turn but then negates the good work when the attempted through pass is too heavy and straight to the keeper.  By this time Holloway has brought on Matt Smith for the ineffective Lua Lua (it could have been anyone, they were all just as ineffective).  This does regenerate the home team.  Smith’s physicality is the sonic screwdriver that unlocks the home defence.  First he heads straight at McGregor and then just wide but it looks like an equaliser is on the cards for the home team.  The traffic is now mostly one way, but there is a respite when first Diomande and then Bowen are brought down.  It looks like an opportunity for dead ball specialist Larsson but Grosicki lashes it high, wide and not handsome.

And then the inevitable equaliser arrives.  A corner is partially cleared, Freeman returns the ball into the box and the inevitable Matt Smith nods in a close range header with no discernible challenge from a City defender.  It’s almost immediately doubled as Sylla (another substitute) hits the post and the resulting rebound off the diving McGregor squirms to safety.  QPR are definitely on the ascendency and looking more likely.  McGregor is booked for time wasting which sums up our lack of ambition at this point.  Therefore it’s something of a surprise when City almost snatch a winner.  Grosicki threads a through ball that Larsson latches on to.  His shot lacks power however and Smithies is able to stick out a foot and direct it away.

The fourth official has just announced seven minutes of added time (there were a couple of injuries to add on to McGregor’s shenanigans) when QPR get what proved to be the winner.  I’ll need to see this again to comprehend the comedy defending that lead to Sylla being free to tap in from a couple of feet out from goal.  It hard to say who exactly was culpable at that distance so I’ll blame all of the defence.  Sylla gets a yellow for excessive celebration (i.e., ripping his shirt off to reveal a very fetching sports bra).

There is still time for an equaliser and we nearly get one.  In final flurry, first Hector and then Mazuch have attempts cleared off the line and a couple of of other efforts were sent wide.  Finally, after 90+ minutes there is some effort and intent but it’s way too late to make a difference.  If only we had shown such intent earlier in the game.  QPR were a poor team, there for the taking.  It just so happens we were poorer.

As I write this, I see in the morning papers that departure of Clucas has been confirmed.  With the other transfers and injuries we have a threadbare squad.  Reinforcements are definitely required if we are not to emulate Wolves and pass straight through this league on our downward spiral.

Rob Kaye (via Tiger Chat)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 2 Wolves 3

MeylerD

Good news: I think we saw the best team in the league tonight. Bad news: it wasn’t us.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Wolves at the start of the season. They spent a lot of money last summer on continental players and it never really worked out for them. But this time they look the real deal. It’s not just the excellent players they’ve brought in but they have a top manager in Nuno and he’s got them set up incredibly well. They’re playing a style of football that, particularly away from home in the Championship, is very brave. They played three at the back stretched out almost the width of the pitch while the two wing backs hugged the touchline high up the pitch and stretched City every time the ball went forward. In the middle exploiting the space this leaves they have clever players who can move the ball about well and, as we saw devastatingly for the opening goal, shoot from distance.

City had started well until Neves smashed one past McGregor from 25 yards after six minutes [0-1] but it was already clear that Wolves wing backs were going to be a crucial part of the game and we were already struggling to cope with them. Not for the first time this season our naive young full backs were exposed – in part by the opposition and partly by our failure to protect them up the field. That situation isn’t helped by us only playing one central midfielder. I’m not counting Markus Henriksen. He’s not a central midfielder – he has no effect on games, he doesn’t make a tackle or a forward pass.

I don’t lay the blame at the feet of the manager for our failure to match them tactically. He just doesn’t have any other fit players to work with. Sure, 4-4-2 is no counter for what is almost a 3-2-5 formation but replacing any of the first eleven with those from the bench is far worse a proposition.

We weren’t just second best on the ball, with Neves dominating for them like Tom Huddlestone at his very best, but we didn’t have their knack of drawing fouls or killing time, with Neves dominating for them like the lovechild of Cristiano Ronaldo and Rudi Voller.

After Miranda spurned the chance to double their lead as a corner was flicked on to him at the near post, we equalised pretty much from nowhere. Hector met a Donald Trump corner along with a defender and the ball was shuffled away from the far post. We took the resulting corner short, a cross was whipped past Ruddy, headed off the line and Dawson headed it back in [1-1].

That could have been the catalyst for City to push on before half time but instead, we were sloppy in possession, gave them gifts in our half and looked susceptible to a ball over the top to either wing-back. In the end, it was the little winger Enobakhare who picked up the ball on the right touchline, breezed past Hector and laid the ball on a plate for Jota to score [1-2].

Our flaws were there for all to see but fixing them was going to be difficult. We had nothing on the bench to change the game. In similar fashion to the Villa game on the opening day though, the eleven sent back out for the second half changed it themselves by getting on the ball, keeping possession and forcing Wolves to worry about us. And they looked nowhere near as effective.

McGregor made a decent, but simple, save from Bonatini’s far post header in what was suddenly a rare Wolves attack. City struggled to find a final ball after getting into key areas until just after the hour a neat move worked the ball to the edge of the area where Campbell exploded into the box, beautifully beat the last man with a neat trick and was denied by a good save from John Ruddy’s out-stretched right arm. If that was close then Hernàndez’s thumping header from Clucas’s corner smashing the post five minutes later was tantalising.

We had momentum. Even Henriksen won two excellent challenges in midfield. Then Campbell was subbed off for Diomande and the game went. Again, it’s hard to blame the manager when Campbell is clearly not yet at peak fitness but there is just nothing outside the first eleven and losing Campbell’s effervescence for Diomande’s clunky and clumsy wandering was the sign that this game was over. Worse was still to come when Hernàndez jumped to challenge for a good Grosicki cross (not many of them to the pound) and landed awkwardly. He immediately called for the physio who called for a stretcher and Abel went off with a serious looking achilles injury.

With the referee just about to announce NINE minutes of stoppage time, we made it irrelevant. Typical. Aina was caught in possession in their half and sub Nouha Dicko raced onto a ball into space to finish under McGregor [1-3]. We were awarded a seriously soft penalty eight minutes into the nine added for a foul on Diomande which David Meyler buried into the bottom left hand corner [2-3] but the game was up.

This felt like a game that would let us know how good we are after a comfortable win on Saturday. In the end though, it’s probably not told us anything we didn’t already know. We’re a decent outfit with 7 or 8 quality players. Michael Hector is a classy defender. We’re at least five players short of having a squad anywhere near Wolves’s (they had actual grown-ups on the bench). We desperately need a left back. Markus Henriksen isn’t a central midfielder. Kamil Grosicki will have games where you wonder if he gives a toss.

And one new one, we desperately need Abel Hernandez to not be injured for six months. Or even six weeks.

Rick Skelton (report via Tiger Chat)

FEAT-BALL2

MATCH REPORT: City 4-1 Burton

HernandezA

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:

McGregor;
Clark, Dawson, Hector, Aina
Grosicki, Clucas, Henriksen, Bowen
Campbell, Hernández

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.

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Aston Villa 1 City 1

McGregorA
Let us go back in time, thirty-five years ago. A young boy takes a walk across the rolling slopes of the Ural Mountains, lost in thought, deep in his dreams. He is sports-mad, and it is football that most of all grabs his youthful enthusiasm, but not for him the stars of the very fine Soviet Union side of the time. Shengelia, Blokhin, Bal, Dasaev – superb footballers, but the young Leonid Slutsky – for it is he – turns his eyes fondly to the west. As the ancient folk tales of his village tell, there is no higher land between the Urals and the lofty fortresses of the Yorkshire Wolds. ‘How I wish’, thinks the hopeful lad, sniffing the bracing breeze that has crossed the plains of Northern Europe, ‘how I wish I could one day see the trees spilling down over Welton Dale, feed the ducks on the pond at Bishop Burton, and, joy of joys, watch Comrade Nick Deacy play football’.

Dreams. Sometimes they become reality. And so it is today, as Leonid Slutsky has landed the job he has craved for so long. The manager of Hull City.

Sure, back in the days when he was tramping the steppes with his faithful dog Spassky, I don’t suppose Mr Slutsky imagined he’d end up in in the employ of the ghastly Allams, but I also don’t suppose in the troubled days leading up to this opening fixture of a season wracked, for the second year in a row, by atrocious off-field negligent summertime planning by our owners, he imagined he’d able to field a side that showed such a high level of defiance, commitment and ability.

We got a point at Villa Park, and, while it might not have been expected, it was certainly well earned.

Early days, but even if we are a train crash of a club off the pitch, there are hints of a decent team waiting to emerge on it.

This, then, was an unexpectedly enjoyable game of football.

Off we go, on a breezy but sunny late afternoon, the pitch slick from a heavy lunchtime rainstorm, and we card an orthodox 4-4-2:

Campbell Hernandez
Grosicki Clucas Henriksen Bowen
Clark Hector Dawson Aina
McGregor

First thoughts on seeing that set-up were that the midfield looks lightweight – and the midfield did indeed look lightweight – and that young Max Clark at left back is going to need help from Grosicki to repel Villa’s preference to attack down the flanks. And indeed he did need that help. But rarely got it.
Henri ‘Fop’ Lansbury breaks clear on to a through ball within the first two minutes, but his shot slithers across the face of McGregor’s goal and beyond the far post. On 5 Agbonlahor, serial lazybones and squandered talent, sprints clear of Aina down their left, shredding a fragile offside trap, but McGregor smothers his shot. No such respite a minute later, as Grosicki dithers, leaving young Clark exposed to a 2 on 1 attack down their right. The ball is shovelled across the face of our goal, and Agbonlahor, wholly unmarked at the back post, is left free to swipe the ball into the net.

This could get messy. Aina, pulled inside and consequently completely AWOL from the right-back position when the goal was scored, is obviously having trouble adjusting to the intensity of first team football, Clucas is allowed little time on the ball in midfield and gets minimal help from Henriksen, another who is presumably feeling his way tentatively back into competitive action, while Michael Hector, an impressive physical specimen, looks far too easily pulled out of position by Villa’s pace and movement. Hector is also damaged early on by a horrible illegal tackle by Henri Lansbury. Yellow for the Villa midfielder, and a great big old sore Hector.

After twenty minutes or so we finally begin to get to grips with a game that could already be beyond us. Referee Andy Madley aims to keep the game flowing, which leads to a wild spell with several bodies sprawled over the pitch after heavy challenges, culminating in a Grosicki shot that is held by netman Sam Johnstone. We are second best in midfield but showing signs of life, though on 26 Michael Dawson is indebted to Alan McGregor’s feet for blocking a chance created by Dawson’s own clumsy surrender of possession.

Villa’s most impressive player is, no surprise, one Ahmed Elmohamady. Playing in his favoured right midfield role with Alan Hutton backing him up at full back, Elmo is able to dart forward at will without worrying about the defensive side of his game which is so notoriously frail, and he makes life tough for Max Clark throughout. As mentioned, Grosicki is way off the pace through the first half and looks barely interested: a vision of Nikica Jelavić after relegation last time, keener to get on the ‘phone to his agent than to put in a shift for Hull City. Meanwhile, Villa’s central defence consists of a Saint and Satan. James Chester, halo worn nonchalantly, is paired with the genuinely evil John Terry. Neither is at all stretched during the opening 45 minutes of the season as the ball rarely comes anywhere near our forward pairing of Hernandez, anonymous, and Campbell, mobile but hoping in vain for service.

But we finish the half with flickers of hope. On 42 Hernandez swivels, whips a smart shot wide of Johnstone’s right hand post. On 43 a fast break yields us our best moment of the half, as Grosicki feeds Campbell whose shot is saved, and the ball rebounds to the Pole whose shot is also saved. That drags us through to half time, indisputably second best but only a goal adrift.

There are plenty of gaps among the travelling support. Better things to do than slog down the holiday motorways, sneered at by television’s capricious kick-off whims? One can well understand the sense of alienation from our club, and from the ravenous beast that is modern football in general. And there are no tourists scattered among our support. We are not Premier League anymore.

Into the second period, and we begin with refreshing vigour. Sights on goal are however few, though a speculative 30-yarder from Hernandez flies closer to the target than Johnstone was initially expecting. On 61 there arrives reward for a brisk fifteen minutes from our boys, and a strangely indolent spell since the break by the home side. Campbell drives forward with pace and menace, a short spell of broken play in front of the Villa box, Grosicki is fed the ball down the right, and his gently lofted cross sweeps across the face of the goal to Bowen at the back post who cudgels a nonchalant left-foot volley into the net. The ease with which Bowen converts the chance shouldn’t disguise how well he did. He is, on this evidence, what Ruud Gullit would call ‘a good technical player’.

That is a deserved leveller, and we persist in pleasingly positive vein. Grosicki, now playing directly in front of the City fans and visibly concerned to impress us with his rediscovered commitment, is looking for the ball and making things happen. Villa look short of leadership from midfield, and at the back Terry is exposed as hopelessly slow, even if he also has a quick awareness of positioning that will allow him to get away with lack of pace most weeks even against much fleeter of foot Championship attackers. Useful for finding those elusive disabled parking spaces too.

The subs bench is raided by both managers as we move into the final twenty minutes of the match. For us David Meyler replaces Campbell, who has put in a decent shift and is, I suppose, not yet fully match ready. It is a switch that suggest a certain lack of ambition, and so it proves. We are not now pushing to win this game, Mr Slutsky is happy with a point. Villa aren’t, but they are not willing to take big risks in search of the win either. McGregor makes a complete mess of a free kick on 79, clutching at air as the ball soars beyond him, but we survive, and we settle down to a spell of sustained Villa possession to complete the match. Onomah, the Aston sub, can’t stretch to convert a presentable chance on 86 but, that apart, they create little, and the poverty of their attacking imagination is emphasised by the torrent of noise pouring down from the Holte End which they are attacking. There is no torrent. There is no noise.

Villa’s empty cupboard of attackers prompts Mr Bruce to bring on dear old Chris Samba right at the end, forty seven years old and the same number of stones in weight. The wily Slutsky, having already swapped Weir for Grosicki, reacts to the arrival up front of the vast but ponderous Samba by withdrawing Henriksen in favour of the sturdy Mazuch, and that is quite enough to get us safely over the line. A point, a precious point! Only the fourth we’ve gathered away from home since the end of last August, remember.

At the end the players offer warm applause, and receive it in return. That performance and that result are about as good as we could reasonably have expected, after yet another summer of gross mismanagement at our club. Campbell, all smiles through most of the match, hands his shirt to a kid, and finally Mr Slutsky himself, boyhood ambition fulfilled, walks over, wreathed in smiles, to take the plaudits.

There are tougher tests to come … No, hang on, there aren’t really, at least not if the bookies are to be believed. That is one of the hardest fixtures we’ll face all season out of the way already, and safely negotiated. The real tough test is prising the money out of the Allams to acquire the players we need to create a squad that can be viable in this brutal slog of a Division. We will see, but yesterday was a far more encouraging display that anyone can seriously have foreseen.

Steve Weatherill (report via Tiger Chat)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 1 Tottenham 7 (SEVEN)

SilvaMarco
They scored seven (7).
Coulda been more.
We scored one.
Woo.
Make no mistake, this was dreadful stuff, and even though it was the heaviest home defeat in the history of our club, overtaking the 1-6 Cup reverse against Chelsea when at least we could field the excuse that three Divisions separated the two sides at the time, it was a small mercy that Spurs didn’t add more. They strolled through our set up at will for most of the first half and for all of the final quarter of an hour or so, and we really could have shipped ten or a dozen goals here. It was ghastly, though some ‘fans’ in amber and black still felt able to applaud the visitors’ centre forward as he was subbed off after crashing a hat-trick past us. What do you think this is, a teddy bears’ picnic?
I draw a veil over the footballing bloodshed. Spurs are very good. This was a grotesque mis-match, like putting Dave ‘Boy’ Green in against Antony Joshua, though I fancy the Fen Tiger might have shown a bit more mobility and resilience than did the Hull City Tigers [sic] yesterday.
Who to blame? Relatively few of the players. Elmo has been feckless, N’Diaye has squandered his chance to impress, while Elabdellaoui will fill in alongside Gary Gill in the “o yeah, I’d forgotten about him” hall of fame, but over the course of the season most of the rest did as much as could be expected until injury or superior opposition brought them up short, and at least two, Sam Clucas and Harry Maguire, deserve to progress to proper long-term top level careers plus international recognition. Neither of the managers should be hammered either. No one would dream of criticising Marco Silva of course, despite the collapse suffered across our final three fixtures, but Mike Phelan too deserves credit for creating a viable squad for at least a few weeks during the Autumn after the utterly ruinous summer he was forced to endure. So, who to blame? I think you know. Yes, the owners of the club.
And not only the Allams. We were promoted in 2008 in the company of West Brom and Stoke. Look at what proper management and ownership can do for a football club. Two football clubs with which we can fairly aspire to compete on level terms – two clubs that have left us far behind as they have consolidated the advantages  of Premier League status while we have wasted every single morsel of success. It was only in 2011 that the Allams took over. It’s not all down to them. But last summer’s crimes are down to them, most of all to Ehab. To allow a Premier League club to approach a new season scarcely able to fill eleven shirts, never mind a subs’ bench, is inexcusable incompetence or pure malice. And we could never overcome that leaden handicap. But relegation is something that we can endure, it’s no stranger. What is intolerable, and immensely damaging to the long-term health of the club, is Ehab’s utter indifference  to the interests of the fans, most of all the younger fans, the future of the club yet actively driven away from its stadium by a vindictive pricing scheme. He delights in alienating the local community, he sneers at the attachment we have to our club, he is accountable to no one. And he is not going away.
Valiant deeds and shrewd management provided us with much to treasure from January through April, but May has been catastrophic. Beginning with that inexplicably limp outing against Sunderland, our team has resembled the cartoon character that keeps running even after it has left the cliff edge until it suddenly looks down and realises there is no solid ground beneath its feet. Reality hits. And so begins the long, long fall to the bottom of the valley.
Question is, how deep is that valley, how long is that fall.
Stephen Weatherill (report first appeared on Tiger Chat)
FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Crystal Palace 4 City (R) 0

SilvaMarco
Hard to know where to start, really. Today was, of course, not only about an (even by Hull City’s standards) inexplicably supine capitulation against a side whom we could, had we won the match, have placed in genuine peril of relegation. Today was a day on which chickens came home to roost, when we were finally exposed, when the cracks could be papered over no more, when it was finally rammed home to us, like a stake through the heart, that Marco Silva is an honest man who did his very best with the squad of misfits, slackers and great-hearted triers that he inherited but was not a flaming magician.
Generally speaking, it’s lazy to fill column space in match reports by simply quoting others at length, but there was this quote from Dave Burns on Twitter (which I’m not sure was actually a tweet), which sums up the state of things about as succinctly and eloquently as it’s possible to do:-
“Without taking anything away from Palace, Hull City have made it easy for them. If this game was a bank job, [City] would have left the front door wide open. They’ve been absolutely clueless. Marco Silva had the plates spinning but they’ve crashed to the ground. And who on earth would buy this club now? Dear oh dear”.
Some of this will be revisited shortly, but we’ll deal with the match facts first. it’s tempting just to list the scorers and recall that City failed to get a single shot on target during the entirety of a match upon which our very survival depended, but even the elongated, full-form version won’t trouble us much more massively .
On a fine (and, towards the end, knee-blisteringly warm if you were sat near the front) early afternoon, the condemned men lined up kind of as follows:-
                                    Jakupović
     Maguire             Dawson       Ranocchia       Robertson
 Elmohamady        N’Diaye            Evandro        Clucas        Grosicki
                                     Niasse
A challenging task became well-nigh impossible as early as the third minute, when Andrea Ranocchia allowed a simple ball to roll under his foot and Zaha scampered away unchallenged to slide the leather past the exposed Eldin Jakupović. A more abject start to the game could barely have been conceived: maybe, if such witlessness could have been avoided, things might have been different, but it wasn’t and they weren’t. The relief around all bar one corner of Selhurst Park was palpable. The City fans sang on stoically, bellowing “We’ve got Marco Silva” as a counter to “Glad All Over”, the adoption of which as a Palace anthem I have never understood, the DC5 (who recorded it) being from Tottenham, which last time I looked was in North London.
For a bit, we rally and get in behind them. Our patient passing game gives sight of the goal to Sam Clucas, who shoots narrowly wide. Shortly after we attack again and when a deep cross is not cleared and falls to Harry Maguire on the right side he wastefully fires high and wide. But even early in this game a pattern is developing. This was a day when we needed to be going out with all guns blazing, but instead we persisted throughout with a laboured, overly-patient approach which never really had Palace on the back foot and with which they coped comfortably on the whole.
They don’t actually threaten much after Tomkins flashes a header across goal from a Puncheon cross, until just after the half-hour, when Benteke rises unchallenged at the near post to head home. Zonal marking, y’see. More importantly it now feels as though we are being picked off at will.
Our top-flight status is now palpably seeping away from us, and the unspoken thought among the City support is that, if there is one final last chance for City, it lies in not conceding again before the break and, just possibly, regrouping. Well, we did indeed avoid falling further behind before the break, and we emerge for the second half with a couple of substitutions which might have been tactical but were more likely intended to prevent further punishment to both Ranocchia and Andy Robertson, who took bad knocks in the first half.
The second period can be summarised even more briefly than the first. We continue in our earnest but predictable and unavailing fashion, and over the half create even less than we had managed in the first period: a match stat of no shots on goal in a game of such monumental importance is a telling testimony to our lack of quality which ultimately brought us crashing in the end, the heroics of the last four months notwithstanding. Kamel Grosicki and then sub Jarrod Bowen fire wide either side of the hour mark, Clucas had one blocked and Grosicki wastefully tried to go for glory from the corner of the box when he had both Bowen and Clucas square and unmarked, but it was increasingly apparent that there was to be no comeback and that the curtain was about to fall. If anything, you felt that Palace would maybe turn the screw a little more, especially after Benteke fires one across the face of the goal on 79, and so it proved with five minutes to go. Schlupp is given far too much space on our right (this was a constant feature of the second half) and as he bears down on goal Michael Dawson, who I am sorry to say has been a crashing disappointment since his return from injury, clatters him down from behind. As stonewall a penalty as you will see, and no St Mary’s-style heroics from the Jak this time, as Milivojević strides confidently up and plants the leather into the corner.
And it gets worse when, in injury time, sub Van Aanholt is given far too much room to slide the leather under Jakupović. We might even concede more as we are totally spent now and Palace are looking up for it. but the whistle of referee Atkinson spares us any further humiliation and, unless you count next week (which you had all better enjoy because it could be quite a spell before we’re back, if indeed we ever are), we are a Championship side once again.
Silva and most of the team come through the L-shaped cordon of stewards to acknowledge the support, and even Ahmed Elmohamady, at the back, manages grudgingly to place his hands in contact with each other a couple of times, showing about as much effort as he has done all season, and, after the current fashion, several hundred of the 2,000-strong City support stay put and sing, while the less resilient (or more seasoned) of us melt away into the streets of North Croydon in search of some much-needed sorrow-drowning.
So, a relegation that seemed nailed on before a ball was even kicked is eventually confirmed. That it took as long as until the penultimate game is quite remarkable, and testimony to the fine work undertaken by Silva with a fairly wretched (and that’s not meant as a dig at the players, or at least not most of them) collection of resources and a seemingly irretrievable League position. If there’s any criticism of Silva it’s that he didn’t creak a few out more points on the road, which in the end would have seen us safe (quiz question- which Hull City manager won more away points this season?) but of course that has to be offset against a string of quite remarkable home performances: it was especially gratifying to see West Ham and Liverpool slink out of the Circle with their tails between their legs. Ultimately, it seemed as if the efforts of manager and players since January had finally taken their toll, with the last couple of games creating the very distinct impression that we were simply running out of steam.
So where does it all leave us? Obviously, it would be marvellous if Silva could remain in charge next season, which is probably not as fanciful a notion as some of the national papers seem to assume, with reports abounding that the likes of Watford and Southampton are waiting to pounce, for is there any real evidence that Silva will give either outfit more than they currently have in managerial terms? No, if Silva wants to realise his ambition of establishing himself as a Premier League manager, his best launching pad for that might well be to get City back up. It might be the best offer he will get, and the best hope for him as much as us.
But, whipping off the amber-tinted specs for a moment and contemplating the hard light of day, would he really want that himself? The answer is, as Patrick Moore might have said, “We just don’t know”. Silva has been commendably discreet regarding his views on the Allams, with only a hint in the last few days that a frank exchange of views might be forthcoming as he tells the son what is wrong and what needs to be done in order to correct it. Clearly, and even if he gets no offers from elsewhere that he would even consider taking, he is going to want some cast-iron assurances about the extent and the timing of the investment that will be available to him, because it’s clear that the Hull City team that kicks off the 2017/8 season will bear no resemblance to the one which was fielded at Selhurst yesterday. The vultures, cheered on by their media sycophants, are already circling around Maguire and Robertson, it’s eminently foreseeable that the likes of Jakupović, Clucas and Tom Huddlestone could be snapped up as squad players by bottom-half outfits and there’s a string of loan players who won’t be here. The return of Moses Odubajo and (hopefully) Ryan Mason will be a bonus but the whole thing is going to need rebuilding almost from scratch. Are assurances of money going to be forthcoming? and if they are, can Silva trust Ehab to honour them? Breath-holding not advised.
In the end it all comes back to the Allams. For make no mistake: they are going nowhere. The line dutifully trotted out by the media (the generally-excellent Philip Buckingham was at it again yesterday, and the BBC are serial offenders) that the family has been trying to offload the Club for the last three years just does not wash. Whenever a deal looks to be in the offing it falls through for one reason or another, and word of these deals always seems to emerge when the family is under pressure. It’s likely now that that pressure will resurface as, after a truce while Silva sought to rescue the desperate situation created last summer, the Allams’ stewardship of the Club will once again come under scrutiny from supporters and media. That means that there will be talk of deals before too long, as sure as eggs is eggs, and it would be for the better of all concerned if, the next time some random Chinese bloke conveniently happens to be photographed getting off the London train at Brough or some Eastern European-looking cove is filmed on somebody’s phone stepping out of a Bentley and heading into the back of the West Stand, people could please, please, please restrain themselves from hyperventilating and just reflect on the fact that we’ve seen this all before multiple times.
My own prediction is that the Club will not be sold unless and until Ehab runs out of money, which given the family’s wealth is either never going to happen or is likely to be many years in the future. I sincerely hope that’s wrong, but I have yet to see any cast-iron evidence that they are genuinely serious about selling. Of course, confirmation of our relegation has just made a sizeable hole in the aforementioned wealth and it gives Ehab two choices: either make proper investment and do what it takes to keep Silva, because if both of those things happen I for one wouldn’t bet against our stay in the Championship being a brief one, or use the parachute money to pay off the loans and starve the playing side of funds. The former would make the most commercial sense by far and would put £100M back on the value of the Club at a stroke if we were to go straight back up, but that said it’s hard to escape the conclusion, based on past form, that doing what is best for City commercially is the very last thing on Ehab’s mind. So again, breath-holding not advised.
In the meantime, while we wait to see whether it’s bounce-back time or a Blackpoolesque freefall through the Leagues, there are going to be some tasty away fixtures to drool over when the fixtures come out in about five weeks. Be even better if we were in any fit state actually to win some of them.
Ian Thomson (report first appeared on Tiger Chat)
FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 0 Sunderland 2

ElmohamadyA16

Marco Silva’s impressive unbeaten home record stretching back to March 2014 was shattered in 90 disappointingly tepid minutes at the KCOM – pressure on the players finally told as they bottled it and undid all the good work since Silva’s arrival.

City could have finished the day five points clear of Swansea but now find ourselves potentially four points (five, considering goal difference) behind by the time we kick off at Palace. The Swans have hit a patch of form at the right time, and we can’t win away. Selhurst could have been a party next week, but it now feels like a grim day out to a funeral. It’s a whole new magnitude of TypicalCity-ness.

But lest we forget our impending relegation can’t and should not be blamed on yesterday’s result alone, but squarely on the Allams’ incompetent, idiotic and downright vindictive refusal to sanction summer recruitment which ultimately saw Steve Bruce walk in disgust.

In front of a nowhere near full KCOM (slow handclap, Ehab) for this crucial penultimate home game saw Silva plump for two up-front:

Jakupović
Elmohamady      Ranocchia       Maguire         Robertson
Marković        N’Diaye         Clucas          Grosicki
Niasse          Hernández

It was a bold attacking selection – in truth one called for by many home supporters this season – and probably with an eye on the ponderous and porous nature of Sunderland’s back line. No doubt the pace and guile of both Oumar Niasse and Abel Hernández were sent out to give the beleaguered Wearsiders a thoroughly torrid afternoon.

Sunderland had an early chance as young Mackster Honeyman headed a Jones cross just wide following good work by Defoe.

Not for the first time this season City looked far more menacing down our left wing than our right; Andy Robertson and Kamel Grosicki combined well and had a real understanding; their attacks largely had some sort of end product. But it’s hopelessly unbalanced on the right as Ahmed Elmohamady and Lazar Marković fail to combine with any degree of fluency. Marković undoubtedly has ability, but is sometimes undisciplined and goes hunting for the ball around the pitch leaving us oft exposed.

Sam Clucas was once again pivotal to City’s play, and on 19 mins he was unlucky to see his fine low volley being palmed away by Pickford at full stretch.

City had a penalty shout waved away by ref Swarbrick as Niasse’s overhead kick hit O’Shea’s arm, raised high above his head but hardly deliberate.

But a largely turgid first half was exactly what our visitors wanted. Our recently fluidity had completely drained as the dullest of first halves passed without many incidents of note. City had plenty of possession and obviously the first goal would be key – if we could net it, there was confidence we’d win – but the longer the game went on the more nervous the players, and the crowd, got. For the first time since Silva’s arrival the City players seemingly appeared aware of the enormity of their precarious league position – several froze or didn’t put in anywhere near an acceptable shift (Elmo, I’m looking at you mate).

Goalless at the break, and we reassured ourselves that City are a second-half team….
Jakupović did well to block Defoe’s effort after a fast Sunderland breakaway, and Pickford saved Alfred N’Diaye’s header from a fine Grosicki cross.

Marković saw his header saved acrobatically by Pickford (again) following Elmo’s cross. Jordan Pickford had a fine match as Sunlan leather custodian and surely one of the few visiting players to be still plying his trade in the Big League next season.

A turning-point as Marković limped-off to be replaced by Tom Huddlestone, switching Grosicki from left to right in a move that appeared to suit Sunderland more than it did El Tigres. Pickford was again the hero, superbly pushing the ball away one-handed as Hernández shot sweetly from eight yards.

But on 69 minutes Sunderland score. O’Shea flicked on Honeyman’s corner, and Billy Jones powered a diving header in off the post. He was only six yards out, utterly weak defending from City. Zonal marking my arse, as Joe Royle used to say.

And if the players were nervous before, the goal increased arse twitching all round. Silva threw on Dieumerci Mbokani in place of N’Diaye and the side increasingly had a whiff of desperation about it. Evandro came on for Elmo (to a chorus of boos from both sets of fans).

In added time Harry Maguire gave away a soft foul wide on our left, and Larsson swung round a low free-kick and bundled home by Defoe, who looked at least a yard offside. Maguire’s positioning to defend the free kick was utterly odd – standing yards away from the potential flight on the ball, nearer to the touchline. Final twist of the knife, and the KCOM understandably empties.

So the math is now simple enough. If Swansea win at Sunderland (more than likely) and we fail at Selhurst (again, probable) we can all look forward to that tasty Burton Albion groundtick next season, and save Sky the trouble of having one of those tortuously-hyped “Relegation Showdown Sunday” shows the following week.

Clucas put in another impressive shift (I suspect next week will be his last away match in a City shirt – and he won’t be the only one – final-whistle shirt-collectors note). Robertson and Grosicki generally looking connected and bright. But Elmo stank out the KCOM, and a fresh start with Moses Odubajo next season is long yearned. The Niasse/Hernández forward partnership wasn’t that – they appeared total strangers; forwards generally hunt in pairs, building a relationship, but yesterday ours looked miles apart – making totally the wrong runs, with virtually no-linkup between them during the entire ninety minutes.

The post-match news the Allams sacked the volunteer pitch divot-replacers (mid-shift!) after 20 years dedicated service gives Ehab another final negative PR pop on a season which was ultimately destroyed by him before it even began. The tit.

Andy Medcalf (report first appeared on the Tiger C

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Southampton 0 City 0

JakupovicE

The clouds were grey, flecks of blue streaked around the sky, the wind swirled around St Mary’s Stadium, but it wasn’t until 2.45pm that the sun finally broke through. My first ever visit to this ground, but momentous for the fact that it completed the set of all 92 Premier/Football League grounds for me, hence my wish to volunteer for writing this report.

Marco Silva decided continuity was the key and so no changes to the starting line up were made to the side that started against the Hornets last Saturday, the red card for Oumar Niasse rightfully being rescinded to keep the momentum going. Baffling that Mr Madley’s performance last week should earn him the Crystal Palace v Burnley battle later on….and yet more controversy!

Jakupović
Elmohamady Ranocchia Maguire Robertson
Marković N’Diaye Evandro Clucas Grosicki
Niasse

The first few minutes set the trend for most of the game and it was a joy to see as the relegation battlers took the game to Southampton. As early as the fourth minute, Niasse chased down a backpass to Forster leading to a hurried clearance, fed to Lazar Marković, a free kick being drawn 25 yards out which Kamel Grosicki bent superbly over the wall leaving Forster admiring it, but the ball cannoned off the post. Very unlucky.

Our football at times was slick, fast, accurate, defence to attack, spreading play. It was a joy to watch. How is it we struggle for consistency away from home? The answer almost came when a moment’s lapse in concentration saw a ball played behind Andrea Ranocchia and Gabbiadini had a clear sight of goal but screwed the ball embarrassingly wide when faced with Jakupović.

Our first half performance was excellent, apart from being level at 0-0. The chief reason for that was the willingness for every player to battle and lay their bodies on the line and, with reference to Andy Dalton’s superb report from last week, having the class act on our team in Evandro. His performance in the first half was a masterclass of midfield supremacy. His calm control, clever movement and timing was exquisite to watch.

My one concern was that 0-0 scoreline because this season away from home has seen so many errors that have cost goals that the net normally needed to bulge at the other end for something to hold on to. Added to which, surely Southampton would come out with more purpose having been booed off by their own supporters.

The second half saw Southampton forcing us back more and a few hearts started pumping faster when Shane Long was introduced for the Saints after an hour. Not another former player to haunt us? Memories of Stoke two weeks ago flooded back when Crouch and Walters came on and changed the game.

We were made of sterner stuff today and Long never had a sniff, thanks yet again to the imperious Sir Harry Maguire. When will Mr Southgate finally recognise his talent? Only if/when he leaves the club? Like Livermore.

Anyway, the half meanders along. We’re comfortable, apart from a dodgy punch from the Jak, which he redeemed himself by saving the follow up shot. Substitutions are made. Markus Henriksen for the excellent aforementioned Evandro (71 mins) and Tom Huddlestone for Grosicki (82 mins). That substitution must have been interesting as the fourth official was Paul Tierney, who’d sent Huddlestone off only four weeks earlier. The final substitution was going to be Abel Hernández for Niasse. However, Sam Clucas went down injured and after treatment, it was decided Michael Dawson should appear instead, for Marković.

Enter Mike Dean, a referee I can’t say I rate highly, or even lowly for that matter. He always seems to want the limelight. I have to say that today his performance had actually been very good, though it was a quite sociable game, with no nasty tackles. A shirt pull it seemed, against N’Diaye led to a penalty award for Southampton, with 90 minutes up and injury time being played. From our end it was hard to tell. Paul Clement must have been punching the air in delight. Step up Dušan Tadić, not Shane Long, thank goodness. A low shot towards the Jak’s left post, but our hero gets a strong left hand to it and puts it past the post. Pandemonium at our end and on the pitch. The corner comes to nothing, we break and win a corner ourselves. It’s played across, flicked on and Niasse, despite HIS shirt being held, has a stab at the ball but it is headed off the line. Mike Dean didn’t notice that though. Cue the final whistle and maybe a few thousand Welsh voices being muffled ahead of Swansea’s trip to Old Trafford tomorrow.

Overall, a great away performance, the team ethic and mindset perfect. Was this the day Hull City finally put the nail in Swansea’s coffin? We’ll know soon enough.

Final word is for our unassuming hero Jakupović. He hasn’t had the greatest career at Hull City but has never moaned. He’s got on with his task of being substitute often enough and also being loaned out. Everyone remembers the calamity against Sheffield Wednesday not many seasons ago and not all have forgiven him. He has had his good moments too, like last season keeping Arsenal at bay at the Emirates with a record breaking eleven saves there in a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup. However, under Silva he is now our recognised No.1 keeper and he deserves all the plaudits he’s getting, even the recent transfer speculation, which shows he’s being noticed elsewhere too. I’m really pleased his perseverance has paid off and with Hull City and the penalty save today will lay the ghost of Sheffield Wednesday to rest, especially if Hull City do finally stay in the Premier League.

Tim B (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL

MATCH REPORT: City 2-0 Watford

 MadleyWatford2017

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:

Jakupović
Elmohamady Maguire (c) Ranocchia Robertson
Grosicki Clucas Evandro Marković
N’Diaye
Niasse

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”?

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Stoke 3 City 1

JakupovicE

As always, we travelled hopefully. As so often, we didn’t arrive anywhere near a result. This has done us no real harm, as the other teams in our own particular circle of hell in the Premier League showed why they are where they are by not managing to win games they could have done. It is one of football’s truisms that good teams find a way to win matches. It is less often pointed out that crap teams find a way not to win them, but it is equally so. We aren’t a good team at this level – even ignoring the fact that we’re not really a team at all in the sense we used to understand this, merely a collection of individuals brought together by a skilful manager to attempt a very short term fix to keep our owners in the money – and so we duly found a way to lose an eminently winnable game against a side who had been anxiously looking down at the maelstrom below them wondering whether they would be sucked into it, but are now free to soar and swoop like eagles, in the mid-table mediocrity that is the highest aim of 12 of the 20 teams in the division. Failing to get the job done were:

Jakupović
Maguire Dawson Ranocchia Robertson
Marković Huddlestone N’Diaye Clucas Grosicki
Niasse

So, Harry Maguire on the right of defence with presumably a licence to advance, eh? Interesting, but would it work? With the threat of nuclear conflagration hanging over us, there is far too much stress in the world at the moment, so I will not add to it by unnecessarily prolonging suspense; no, it wouldn’t.

Anyway, some football. In the sort of watery sunshine and coolish weather that everyone calls a lovely spring day on this Brexit benighted isle, City began defending the goal in front of the City faithful, a good turn out considering many people were probably still feeling a bit miffed about the death of Jesus the previous day (Stay strong, kids. MUCH better news on that to come later today!). But defend it we didn’t, as a fairly desultory passing movement in our half between Maguire, Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone broke down when Dawson gave it away to Shaqiri, a skilful and well-balanced player who did what such players do, immediately spotting and finding a fine ball to a striker to discomfit the defenders. The beneficiary of this was Arnautović, who had much to do, but was aided by a defence that slid across as reluctantly as the door on a 1970s conservatory. Maguire didn’t get to him, Andrea Ranocchia and Dawson didn’t seem to know where they needed to be, Arnautović finished with aplomb. And also with his right foot, belting the ball past a throughly-cheesed off Jakupović. 1-0 after 6 minutes. Bugger.

We saw more of the Shaqiri/Arnautović axis in the first half – another fine ball from the former allowed the latter to blast a volley wide that he should have scored and then a typical bit of Shaqirian trickery was part of a move that allowed Arnautović to break free and screw one just wide of goal with Jakupović again aghast at the lack of protection. It didn’t really look like we were going to do much defending so, sensibly enough, we started to push forward. And this worked after a fashion too. Lazar Marković was lively and moved well bringing a save out of their netman which led to a corner that wouldn’t quite fall for Maguire. Another raking move from a Sam Clucas ball should have produced more if Andy Robertson hadn’t made such an arse of the subsequent cross. We ended the half with a series of corners that didn’t produce much more than a OumarNiasse effort that was gang-blocked by their defence but, come the end of the first forty five, we were having enough of the ball to suggest we were controlling the game. Which is correct, if you ignore the facts that they were creating the better chances and had scored an actual goal.

Second half, we started strongly and, I kid you not, we scored a goal too. We did! It had a pleasingly comic genesis as their left back, under no pressure at all, managed to stumble over his feet so effectively that he turned a Clucas cross going nowhere into a corner off the corner flag. Silly fellow, as we pointed out happily from right above him. From the corner Marković and Clucas combined, the cross eventually found it’s way to Maguire who flailed a leg at it and it did a strange sort of superball-type bounce as it evaded their keeper. 1-1 and how Big Harry larged it in front of the cavorting City goers!

We were doing well at this point, the goal seemed to settle us further and we looked the more likely, but chances remained hard to come by. But Maguire continued to move forward with purpose and link with Marković and Robertson and Kamel Grosicki, perhaps more sporadically did so on the left. I started to get that unexpectedly comfortable feeling that we were going to get a draw out of this and may be nick the win, and Swansea were losing and, O, you should never think like that, should you? it all started so innocently, with Saido Berahino and Charlie Adam withdrawn, my notes gleefully reporting this as ‘Adma – thoruoghly Pissed off!’ (spelling courtesy of the locally-based Titanic Brewery’s excellent ‘Iceberg’ ale, partaken of enthusiastically pre-match). And who should replace them but lovable beanpole Peter Crouch and former Tigerish division four rampager Jon Walters? And, rather surprisingly, they won the game.

Walters began to attack us down our right flank, which looked flaky every time we were put under any pressure, Big Harry looking comfy enough with the ball at his feet but not at all when on the retreat. Shaqiri got away, twisted and turned and produced a telling cross that Walters headed powerfully, but not enough so to defeat Jakupović, who reacted elastically to paw it away from goal and the in-gangling Crouch. Custodian of the leather! But the tide was by now undoubtedly on the turn and sure enough, our sand castles were about to be washed away. Walters again marauded down the left, with the cover blown and he plonked the ball over onto Crouch’s head who did what he’s done for the last dozen years at the top level and headed it home. I couldn’t help but wonder why, given that this was about as complicated a ploy as distracting a predator by pointing and saying ‘Isn’t that a unicorn over there?’ before running in the opposite direction, why Ranocchia seemed so utterly bemused by it and didn’t stick closer to the Premier League’s leading Ian Ormondroyd impersonator. 2-1.

We were in retreat now. We still had a threat moving forwards, but got no closer than a Grosicki shot-cum-centre that produced a decent save with Niasse unable to hasten onto the loose ball. All the action was at the other end as the grizzled warrior Walters again got free and headed against the bar. The belief had now drained away completely and once again our right side melted away. it didn’t seem to matter as we cleared it and it fell to Shaqiri, well covered by Robertson on our left. Robertson for some reason didn’t bother to close him down, Shaqiri, once he had got over his surprise, lashed a beautiful dipping effort over and past Jakupović. 3-1, game very much over.

It’s unclear to me why we are so poor away from home, so imperious in Hull. We could have done so much better today and had by far the better of what we might call the middle half, either side of the interval. Once we had done the hard part and drawn level, it seemed that we were the most likely to win, before we wilted at the sight of the iron grey head of Jonny Walters. Marco Silva has organised us so much better defensively that it was a surprise how poor we were today; every Stoke goal was well-wrought and beautifully executed, but each was very poorly defended by players who should do better.

Then again, look at Stoke. Berahino, Arnautović and Shaqiri are all impressive on the ball, Adam, Crouch and Walters have all done their thing at this level now for a lot of years. That seems to me to be a good hand of good players for a team which will breathe a sigh of relief if it finishes 13th. If we do get relegated, as we may, it might be because we are not good enough. We’ll see.

Mark Gretton (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)