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NOSTALGIA: a decade since Cardiff away

BrownPhil

Ten years ago today, we made the long trip to South Wales to follow the Tigers. We’ve traversed that route before, and doubtless will again, but it may be a while before so much rides upon it.

It was the penultimate day of a traumatic 2006/07 season, and City were tussling with Leeds to avoid relegation, the two teams either side of the dotted line of death that indicates demotion from the Championship into League One’s backwaters. City possessed a superior goal difference and had their heads barely above water, but were away; Leeds were at home to mid-table nothing-to-play Ipswich.

2006/07. What a horror. It was a season of promise, or supposed to be. Peter Taylor’s time at the club had come to a natural conclusion, and Phil Parkinson was the Bright Young Thing, poached acrimoniously from Colchester and intended to establish the Tigers in the second tier with the meticulous implementation of the latest coaching methods. Instead, it went wrong from the beginning and never recovered, and amid rumoured agitation by senior players he was sacked in December after serving up a horrific 5-1 reverse at his former club and a 2-4 defeat against Southampton four days later.

Phil Brown, known only for a brief failure at Derby and a lengthy stint as Sam Allardyce’s assistant, had joined City as a coach under Parkinson and auditioned with enthusiasm for the job. Three wins got him the gig in the New Year.

However, while things had improved a little from the dog days of Parkinson’s ill-starred tenure, City never really escaped the relegation zone and disastrous results remained a feature of the season – an infamous and stormy 3-0 defeat at Barnsley and a farcical 2-5 at home to Ipswich being particular low points.

After gubbing a doomed Southend 4-0 in late March, City then picked up only two points from four games to enter the final pair of fixtures in desperate trouble. And that took us to Cardiff.

You can relive the full report of that fixture here – it stands as a contemporary snapshot of our thoughts at the time. Suffice it to say, Dean Windass was the hero, Leeds arsed it up late on, their fans acted like nobs and the Tigers made survival virtually certain.

Ninian

Except, it’s necessary to recall the afternoon in greater detail. Ninian Park was a fearsome, brooding ground to visit. It was intimidating in a way you don’t really get any more, perhaps not unlike Vetch Field and Boothferry Park – big, old grounds occupied by decent-sized clubs fallen on hard times. It wasn’t a place for club colours or conspicuous Englishness.

But it’s where we had to win, or get a result, and so on an unseasonably hot day a large City contingent made the journey, squeezing itself into the left-hand side of a stand behind the goal that was split three ways – Cardiff, City and a neutral zone, equipped with anti-missile netting. It was also weirdly split between seats and standing, the former at the front and the latter at the back. At least it was by now roofed, as wasn’t the case until the early 2000s.

Cardiff’s season had petered out badly and they’d long since dropped out of play-off contention, though they’d only lost four games at home prior to this fixture. The Tigers, by contrast, had won only four outside of East Yorkshire.

A first half précis: Steve Thompson missed an early sitter for them, Leeds took an early lead to swap the clubs’ respective positions, City looked nervous and played poorly, and via a Deano shot that Forde saved, we limped goallessly into the break.

At that point, City were in the relegation zone, with 135 minutes of the season remaining.

On came Dean Marney for Ray Parlour, and thus the game was saved. Marney was a booming influence in midfield, seizing both ball and initiative with commendable vigour.

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On 52 Windass scored, to spark a goal celebration as manic and visceral as any you could hope for (aided, of course, by a terrace on which to cavort).

The hypothetical mid-match league table now showed City back out of the bottom three, though with Leeds continuing to lead the margin was narrow, and a final day reckoning loomed. Fortunately for City, a warm day and an irrelevant fixture was creating a soporific afternoon for our hosts, whose fans weren’t their customary snarling selves and whose team was evidently disinterested. City held on more easily than we’d feared, aided by the lung-busting determination of Nick Barmby when he replaced Stephen McPhee.

Then, as injury-timed neared and fingernails disappeared, a sudden commotion began to the left of the City end. Its cause was instantly obvious: news from Elland Road of an Ipswich equaliser, and pandemonium again shook one third of the Grange End.

It seems impossible to imagine that the City players hadn’t divined the cause, and they stood imperiously tall to repel Cardiff, only to hurry over to us at full-time to celebrate with us.

Surreally, we no-one could be quite sure what was happening. Leeds fans being Leeds fans, they were busy engaging in one of their periodic displays of invariably unpunished hooliganism; Ninian Park was empty long before news filtered through to our Nokias that they’d finally drawn and we were as good as safe.

Both City and Leeds were to lose their final games of the season, which were dead rubbers (and Leeds had chosen to enter administration before it, incurring a ten point penalty). However, for his unlikely escape act, Phil Brown had earned a shot at managing City in the Championship, and few will need any reminders as to how well that turned out.

Phil Brown’s career trajectory was to provide the most vivid, soaring to barely believable heights before crashing back down, though he’s busy with a capable restoration of his reputation at Southend.

But what of the City XI that day? Myhill experienced Wembley and then the top flight, though now aged 34 and barely any appearances for West Brom this season, it sadly appears that an authentic City hero who never wanted to leave is seeing his career fizzle out.

Sam Ricketts went to Wembley and the Premier League before joining Bolton; he later played for Wolves and, latterly, Coventry before his distinguished career came to a sad end in November last year when injury forced his retirement.

Michael Turner never did get that England cap, and was sold in disgraceful circumstances by Paul Duffen 2½ years after the Cardiff match. Damien Delaney still plays in the Premier League, and although nearly 36 may still face us for Crystal Palace in a couple of weeks.

Andy Dawson left as a legend six years later to rejoin Scunthorpe, having achieved stunning success from such humble beginnings.

Ray Parlour received the half-time hook that changed the game at Cardiff, and after featuring in our listless defeat to Plymouth eight days later, he never played another professional game – though this contributor met him at an awards ceremony in 2010, where he was surprisingly enthusiastic about his time at City. Marney, his replacement that day, rather unexpectedly still plays in the Premier League for Burnley.

Ian Ashbee is Ian Ashbee; he still lives locally hawking pricey watches and continuing to earn affection with social media criticism of the club’s present owners.

Lee Peltier, a loanee from Liverpool, is now with Cardiff at their shiny new ground, via Yeovil, Huddersfield, Leicester, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield. Once a player of promise, things just haven’t ever seemed to work out for him anywhere.

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Though perhaps it seemed it at the time, this obviously wasn’t Dean Windass’ finest hour in a City shirt, as he immeasurably added to his already considerable legend 13 months later. He’d play for another two clubs after finally getting that top-flight goal for City, taking his career total to over a dozen. And hey, he’s Deano, he can do no wrong in this city.

Nicky Forster left City that summer for Brighton, and has dabbled in management with Brentford, Dover and Staines. Fellow striker Stephen McPhee, once thought to be a record signing, suffered perennial misfortune with injury throughout his career and after another bad one at Blackpool, he retired prematurely.

Cardiff would finish that season 13th, and eventually make it into the Premier League themselves with a sparkly but quieter ground, though it’d be a one-off. By contrast, we’ve had three goes and are there again; at the time of writing Cardiff are…13th in the Championship.

Though we could never have known it at the time, this act of escapology set in train events we could never have imagined and that are still unfolding ten years later. Wembley, the Premier League, China, the Cup Final, Europe – it may be stretching things to say that it can all be traced back to a sunny afternoon in Cardiff, but had things gone badly ten years ago today, our recent history may look very different.

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Things We Think We Think #253

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1. You’d be forgiven for considering not turning up to home games till half time at the moment. First, you’d avoid the queues for the turnstiles, which are worse now than at any time since the stadium opened (slow hand clap for Ehab), and secondly, because for the time being City home first halves tend to be insipid, uninspiring affairs where the Tigers seem stuck in first gear, lacking any real purpose, beyond waiting till halftime when Marco Silva imparts a deliciously meticulous plan to sex up the second half.

2. And that second half was sexy. It was top shelf in its sexiness. It was so sexy, it made a 21 year old Sophia Loren look like Deirdre Barlow in comparison. It was footballing Viagra. Cock stiffening, pussy widening, nip tingling, fluid generating sexiness.

2a. We’ll be good to go in a minute, just let us catch our breath…

2b. Okay, the second half. City’s courage in overcoming both the referee (of whom more in a moment) and a numerically advantaged Watford side felt vitally important. To win when a man light for well over an hour in the Premier League is extremely impressive, and testament to City’s resiliance and belief at home. The reaction when City scored that first goal was, at the risk of lapsing back into graphic imagery, semi-orgasmic. And from there, the will of the players and the fervour of the City fans did the rest. It was magnificent and uplifting.

3. It can be all too easy to pile into match officials: fans are tacitly encouraged to do so by broadcasters and pundits who’d rather pore over a contentious refereeing decision (making glib remarks such as ‘well you’ve seen them given’ or ‘he’s given the ref a decision to make’) because it’s easier to do that than to really earn corn by offering thoughtful tactical insight. As partisans, it’s convenient and painless for fans to blame referees in defeat, as it avoids the cognitive dissonance of acknowledging flaws in the abilities of players we are fond of and the team we love. When you’re still cursing the man in the middle hours after a win, however, then it’s quite likely that the reason is no more complex than shite refereeing. Step forward Robert Madley.

4. The decision to produce a straight red for Niasse’s supposed foul on Niang felt contemptible in realtime, and further contempt was liberally applied after seeing replays of the incident. Madley compounded the error when he elected to let off Niang for a dive on the stroke of half time that was in turns impressively balletic, dramatically hammy and unfathomably twatty.  Thus a pattern was set of City transgressions being jumped on while Watford indiscretions were ignored.

5. Can you imagine how deflating it must have been for Swansea, who recorded their first Premier League win since February on Saturday, to find out that 10 men City had beaten Watford 2-0? It must have made them feel their efforts in besting Stoke were all for naught, as they are no nearer to overhauling our two point advantage and now have one less game to do it in. Psychology is a massive part of football, and it’s hard to believe that Swansea’s sense of hope and self-belief wasn’t damaged by the weekend’s dénouement..

6. Andrea Ranocchia was named man of the match, and he was as he’s been since joining us on loan from Inter highly competent, but we’d have handed the accolade to another man. Alfred N’Diaye was tremendous in both breaking up Watford possession and in confidently maintaining possession for us. Sam Clucas is another on the shortlist.

7. Though perhaps it’s better to consider Sam Clucas for player of the year rather than just man of the match on Saturday. A game award against Watford would have neatly illustrated his growth as a player, juxtaposing the performance with the last one against Watford, when the lad endured a torrid afternoon unfairly deployed at left back, but his exponential rise to prominence since joining City from Chesterfield in the summer of 2015 would be better acknowledged by the 2016/17 player of the year award.

8. He might just take goal of the season too, after that beautiful and composed strike that sealed three points against Watford.

9. Southampton next, then. That’s an away game, and therefore impossible to contemplate without a sense of fatalist dread. Surely this extraordinary pattern of win-at-home/lose-away cannot remain for the whole of the season? We wouldn’t complain if so, as we’d be very likely to stay up if so, however the prize for even a point at St Mary’s is huge. With Swansea not playing until the next day, if they were to prepare for a fixture at Manchester United three points (or more!) behind, their task would appear formidable. Come on City, let’s summon the spirit of Saturday and sort this away thing out.

10. We enjoyed the match report in the Sunday Times pointing out, as a casual but pertinent aside in parentheses, that the referee was barracked off the pitch by a stadium that was “not full (largely because of comical ownership)”. Sadly, we suspect Ehab Allam will take that to mean he’s some kind of charismatic raconteur with the timing of Eric Morecambe, and not a manifestly inept autocrat who hates his clientele.

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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”?

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Things We Think We Think #252

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1. City’s 3-1 defeat at Stoke followed a depressingly unaltered template. Play well for long periods against beatable opposition, miss chances, concede softly a few times, go home with zero points.

2. The bad bits first. City defended hopelessly in the early stages of the match, and although they became less awful once the game was about a quarter through, a cheap concession always felt likely – particularly with City looking wide open on both wings. We wondered partway through the first half whether at least two goals were going to be needed just for a point. In the end, even that wouldn’t have done.

3. Harry Maguire on the right? Well, he’s surprised a lot of people this season, but this was an assignment too far. Stoke sensibly targetted the flank he was patrolling, and enjoyed success throughout. With Omar Elabdellaoui absent through injury and Ahmed Elmohamady’s sad decline showing no little prospect of being arrested, you can perhaps see what the manager was thinking. However, round pegs, square holes…

3a. Moses Odubajo: how we have missed you.

4. The good-ish. After a horrible start, City controlled the game from about 25 minutes until Stoke brought on Crouch and Walters, which unnerved Silva’s men to a ridiculously disproportionate extent. It’s a City we often see on the road: calm, capable, able to dictate the game (even if only at a modest tempo) and able to create chances. This is a team with plenty of talent and an underrated capacity for attractive football. For that half-hour either side of the break, we were very enjoyable to watch, and well worth the equaliser when it came.

5. However, too many chances weren’t taken, again. Niasse has broadly impressed since his arrival, and he’s taken some sharp opportunities during that time, but he was disappointing in front of goal at Stoke. Hernández, benched for the day, would surely have fared better.

6.  It isn’t an ambitious way of looking at things, but it feels like the rest of City’s season could come down to matching Swansea’s results. Viewed through that prism, their defeat at West Ham made for a successful weekend, despite our frustrations in the Potteries.

7. City seem determined to salvage their Premier League status through home games alone, and with Tottenham now a fully fledged title contender, the prior home games against Watford and Sunderland, while both eminently winnable, are going to be tense affairs indeed.

8. There was an odd story over the weekend in the national Daily Mail about Marco Silva potentially being appointed last summer, but not being recruited for fear of “antagonising” fans. The proposition in this argument is patently false – the lamentable Allam family have never worried about antagonising City fans, and as their present actions demonstrate, they appear to actively relish it. However, although it carries no supporting quotes for this fantasy, it’s fairly specific in its contentions, which chiefly suggest that Ehab Allam is a man of both rare vision and acute sensitivity. He’s obviously neither, and it appears to us that this tall tale was fed to the media by someone at the club, in a fairly transparent and unsubtle manner. Ehab, or a lackey of Ehab’s? We’d love to know.

9. If managerial decisions are actually being turned over to the fans… the fans have been saying for a few weeks that Silva should be tied to a new deal now, not when he’s a free agent coveted by a string of other Premier League clubs.

10. Congratulations to Brighton & Hove Albion on their long overdue promotion to the Premier League. Like us, they had to hit the very bottom before they could start their rise to the top, with unscrupulous owners, ridiculous stadium politics and a community that seemed to be apathetic at best, especially when it came to getting their current stadium okayed. We remember Brighton fans, despite their own troubles, dropping change into buckets when we needed it, and for that alone we salute them heartily on their day of celebration. Our fingers are crossed that we’ll be meeting each other next season.

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NEWS: Sky Sports inconvenience Palace travellers

AshbeePalace

Big thanks to the people at Sky Sports, who’ve moved Crystal Palace v City to 12pm on Sunday 14th May.

As City’s penultimate game in a season that’s likely to be still in the balance by that date, it’s an obviously important fixture, and as such has attracted the broadcasters’ attention.

However – it’s also massively inconvenient for City fans. Leave aside the short notice, a miserable 4½ weeks that may have left supporters with unusable train tickets for Saturday 13th, or the need to leave East Yorkshire at dawn. It also means that public transport is no longer viable, as the earliest train into London arrives just 27 minutes before kick-off – and Selhurst Park is a fair distance from London Kings Cross.

City fans are naturally accustomed to being treated with contempt by their own club, but there’s no need for others to start doing the same.

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Things We Think We Think #251

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1. There was nothing unsurprising about City’s non-attentive performance at the Etihad on Saturday. Manchester City may have been off form prior to us popping across the Pennines, but we have a fetid smell seemingly following us around the country right now, and we should be grateful that many of the hardest away games of the campaign came at times when seasons weren’t going to be defined.

2. There were dabs of light in the City display, but ultimately better players beat us. That we managed a late consolation, thereby ever so slightly reducing the impact on our execrable goal difference, pays a small tribute to our team’s perseverance (though more likely Marco Silva’s insistence we play a proper 90 minutes, whatever is going on) while also making Pep Guardiola entertainingly tetchy in his post-match interviews.

3. Michael Dawson is a fine player, a consummate defender and a great example to young players everywhere. But he isn’t among our best two centre backs any more (as isn’t Curtis Davies), and the absence in Manchester of the injured Harry Maguire, and the buckles he tends to conclusively swash in games, was truly notable.

4. Maguire was colossal, again, as City beat Middlesbrough on Wednesday night and to finally see him notch up his first Premier League goal in what was a thoroughly engaging game, and display, was marvellous. The result itself was significant, as the spirit of Middlesbrough seemed to go that night at the Circle, and now it feels like City only have one relegation place to avoid.

5. Maguire’s header against Middlesbrough understandably made the highlights reel, but we could watch THAT pass for the third goal without ever growing tired of it. If Andrés Iniesta or Paul Scholes had picked that out, the world would coo. Well, it damn well should over that, because it wasn’t a diminutive midfield schemer managing it, but a colossus of a centre-back.

6. A fascinating aspect to that victory was that even Middlesbrough’s opening goal didn’t visibly dent the confidence in the team, or the stadium. City’s remarkable home form is not merely a happenstance of statistics, it’s increasingly a matter of belief.

7. Meanwhile, the peculiar hell that is Sunderland’s 2016/17 season shows no signs of improving, and they’re now a distant ten points behind City and from safety. What impact – if any – could them being relegated before they even play us next month have? Perhaps it could go either way. They’ll either be so deflated by their pitiful relegation they’ll accommodatingly capitulate, or may finally show up and play as soon as it no longer matters. The former would be preferable, obviously.

8. As for the earlier part of what is now officially (according to Sky Sports, anyway) the run-in, we have Stoke away, Watford at home and Southampton away, prior to that game against the doomed Mackems. The home game is eminently winnable; the away games, yet again, are where we should have enough about us to compete for at least a point, even if our away record in recent months is something on the imperfect side. Imagine what seven points from nine would do prior to Sunderland making their reluctant trip down the A19.

9. It’s hard to know what to make of the lack of progress towards a new contract for Marco Silva. The Allam family are not renowned for valuing valuable employees, however his impact has guaranteed Silva options aplenty should there be a parting of the ways in summer. It’s understandable that all parties may wish to wait for the determination of our “divisional status”, as the club’s semi-literate membership brochure would call it – but it’s abundantly clear that there’s something special about this manager. Given that, we should be making the first move.

10. Yesterday marked three years to the day that the FA rejected Assem Allam’s imbecilic name change idea. Think it’s irrelevant? The club still refuse to use their own name on anything unless obliged to by the FA/PL, the fans’ Twitter hashtag remains unused and the YouTube channel still alludes to a fiction of his feverish imagination. It’s as relevant as ever. Now, and forever, No To Hull Tigers.

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REPORT: Man C 3-1 City

ElmohamadyA16

Manchester City   3  Hull City  1

This was the calm after the storm, and the calm before the storm too. We showed resilience in beating West Ham, whereas shimmering excellence was on show in the dismissal of hapless Middlesbrough and, looking ahead to the five games that begin with the visit to Stoke next Saturday, expect plenty of thrills and combat as we confront opponents with which we can realistically compete. There was none of this frenetic joy on display yesterday. We were well beaten in East Manchester, sternly subdued by a palpably superior home side. Mr Silva has moulded his players in a way that has on occasion come close to bridging the gap that opens between the rich six and the rest, but in this match the billions dominated.

It was, in truth, a bit mundane.

A glorious bright Spring day and, still blighted by injury and suspension, City card:

                    Jakupović
Elmo  Dawson  Rannochia  Robertson
Marković  Clucas  N’Diaye  Grosicki
Evandro
Niasse

Doesn’t really look strong enough, does it? It wasn’t.

John Stones, the future of English football, succeeded in running down the tunnel without banging his head on it and was promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract, and the game was underway. Yaya Touré, David Silva, Leroy Sané and Jesus Navas … you would imagine we are not going to see a lot of the football, and so it proves. Midfield is theirs. Even the presence of second rater Fabian Delph, a delicate-looking physique in his Leeds and Aston Villa days who now looks to have been spending a lot of quality time in the company of his pharmacist, yields little to our hopes.

Meanwhile John Stones, the future of English football, saunters across the grass without tripping over his own feet and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

The Jak has saved impressively from willowy Sané after just three minutes and, a brief Grosicki adventure notwithstanding, the pattern of the play in the first quarter an hour is plain. Manchester City have the ball, cascade forward. We hang on. Grimly. And yet, as their collapse to Monaco in the European Cup demonstrated, Guardiola’s side is a great deal more impressive on the front foot than the back, and we glimpse a couple of chances. Robertson surges forward thunderously on 16, but a slack touch by the Scot brakes the momentum in a promising attacking position. Then, a minute later, Grosicki gains a good position to deliver a cross, but he too is let down by a sloppy touch.

Are we getting into this game? A bit. Possession will come only in crumbs, but that is wholly foreseen. As the half hour mark approaches, and our formation, founded mainly on the hard running and commitment of Clucas and Evandro in the centre of the park, looks relatively secure, there is room to nurture a sniff of optimism.

Which is brutally trampled underfoot.

On 28 a vicious free-kick from Touré is tipped over by the Jak, but two minutes later our gallant netman is beaten. It is a routine move down the right, a hopeful high ball towards the back post by Navas, and Elmo, serving up his all-too-familiar dopiness under pressure, simply allows the ball to cannon into him and back into the net.  Sigh. The man is just not a full-back. How we’ve missed, how we miss, Moses Odubajo.

The home side’s goal celebration is slightly sheepish, but John Stones, the future of English football, makes an imaginative contribution to it and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

A response is immediate, and we almost crash through the sky blue defence courtesy of an intricate passing move, but it’s blocked, and play is whipped at frightening speed up to the other end. David Silva blasts a shot over the bar, but in fact the football is transferred via Silva more often than not. In a team of high-class skilful ballplayers he stands high above all his team-mates – hugely gifted, but always aware of the play around him, never dwelling on the ball, always moving, always thinking. This generation of Spanish midfielders has given us so much to admire. It is not possible to be better than Iniesta, nor can you improve on Xavi, but it is in that exalted company that David Silva belongs.

One added minute, and the clock ticks down to half time.

John Stones, the future of English football, pours the tea with an elegant flick of his chiselled wrist and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

The second half is just the ninety seconds old before Man City score again, and place the game far beyond our reach. Raheem Sterling races aggressively down the right, penetrates deep inside the box, crosses low and hard. Jakupović pushes the ball out but it trundles loose to Agűero at the back post, who has time for a touch before he forces it over the line from six yards out. Flailing defensive limbs are to no avail. There is not a trace of glee from the scorer. Agűero stalks sullenly away, looking as if he had the winner of the Grand National but has lost the betting slip. Did poor diddums get dropped by the nasty manager? Boo hoo.

Sterling has lately been the subject of an industrial strength campaign in the printed media designed to persuade that he is not in fact the spoiled sneering brat of popular imagination, but in truth a fast maturing young man of dignity and respect. It almost seems like a carefully engineered plot to induce plutocrat sponsors and advertisers to court him with immediate effect. The modern game! I hate it. There are, however, few things in football more thrilling than an exocet-paced winger stripping a full back bare and supplying crosses to his strikers, and Sterling showed enough ability in that vein during this game to explain just why so much cash is shovelled in his direction.

‘I can do that too’, thinks John Stones, the future of English football, as he displays international-class languor in taking a quick swig from a water bottle, and he is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

Sterling rips clear down the right once again and squares to Sané, whose shot is saved by the Jak’s legs. Tough going now. We are struggling even to get a touch.

Clucas and Evandro, both surely leg weary after an afternoon chasing the ball and rarely finding it, are subbed, replaced by Henriksen and Hernandez, as we switch to a more orthodox 4-4-2. But damage limitation is the target now, and damage there certainly is that needs limiting.  Decent preparatory work from Sterling again pulls our defence out of shape, and Delph is given an inviting amount of time to pick his spot and drive a shot across the Jak and inside the far corner of the rippling net.

John Stones, the future of English football, runs up breathlessly and tells his team-mates ‘That’s three goals we’ve scored now, I can count lads, I did it at school and once I did some sums with crayons as well’ and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

Curse me for over-praising the ghastly Delph – or for praising him at all – but there was an echo in his thumping strike of Falcao’s goal in the Brazil v Italy game in 1982, albeit that Delph was left side of the box, whereas Falcao was right side when he smites the cross-shot. (Highlights here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3th82ZfFsUg – but find the whole match if you have some time to spare, there has never been a better one).

With half an hour left we are staring in dismay not only at defeat but also at malevolent harm to our goal difference. But Man City kindly remove David Silva, and immediately the pace of the game drops several notches. Should we stay up, level on points but a goal or two better off than Swansea, then this is the moment it was secured. So, thank you Pep. You are by no means the only top six manager who looks like a close cousin of the Addams Family, but here you showed us welcome mercy.

So the game drifts towards its conclusion in suitably half-paced style. And yet, what’s this, we’ve scored! It is at the far end from the cheerful City support, but it’s deft stuff: Grosicki down the left finds Maloney, on for Niasse, and his cut-back is rolled first-time beyond Bravo by Ranocchia.

3-1. Five minutes left, plus added time. Now, if we could somehow nick another goal Mr Guardiola will be urgently flicking through the rulebook to find a way to get Silva back on the pitch. A mask perhaps: ‘no ref, honest, it’s Vincent Kompany coming on, he’s lost a lot of weight, err vertical weight’. I would suppose that John Stones, the future of English football, would be the man to come off, and in my view the talent so evident in the way he waves to the crowd should lead to the prompt reward of a new and improved contract. However, as it turns out, there is no need for panic measures. We are not able to damage the home side again, and, with three minutes added at the end, the game cruises serenely to its conclusion.

So it goes. We never seriously expected this fixture to offer a route to salvation from relegation, and in the event it never seriously looked like doing so. More manageable tests await us now, beginning next week with the trip to the Potteries. Happily, all being well, we will be able to welcome back Tom Huddlestone from suspension and Harry Maguire from injury. Harry Maguire! A considerably better young English centre back than some I could mention.

Steve Weatherill (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

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Happy “No to Hull Tigers” Day

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Three years ago today, the Football Association saw fit to rubber stamp the decision of their Membership Committee and reject Hull City AFC’s preposterous idea of changing their name to “Hull Tigers”.

The Allam family were to try again with the idea that would have surely destroyed the club, with an identical lack of success – however, it was on 9th April 2014 that the first formal rejection came.

It already feels as though it’s fading into history, with the abolition of concessions and closure of a stand more recent acts of spite. However, the name change was the first serious rupture with the owners and its repercussions continue to this date, both at City and in the game more widely.

It also represents a colossal and inspiring victory that City fans should forever be proud of.

A very Happy No to Hull Tigers Day!

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Things We Think We Think #250

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1. City’s win over West Ham on Saturday was streaky, improbable and accomplished late. None of that can detract from a result of serious consequence. We’re halfway through a brace of home fixtures from which the absolute minimum requirement, given our ongoing difficulties on the road, was probably four points. Three are already banked. And the season remains alive.

2. It felt in grave danger at half-time against the Hammers. City trailed after a wretched concession and had done little to suggest that even a draw could be salvaged. It’s tempting to let the euphoria of the eventual result mask the first half, but it was low-grade stuff. Worst of all, it was puzzlingly short of urgency, as though the desperation of the situation was somehow being missed by everyone on the pitch.

3. Still, if we’re to scorn the first half, let’s celebrate the second. A half-time substitution and a tactical switch saw a major improvement, quickly culminating in a sumptuous leveller, one of those goals we’ll never tire of watching. It set us up to lay siege to West Ham, a modest team playing modestly…but that didn’t really happen. When Grosicki directed his shot wide after we had struck the post, it felt like a rare and perhaps final opportunity to pinch the win.

4. Sometimes, luck goes your way. When West Ham inexplicably switched off at a late set-piece, Andrea Ranocchia capitalised with a fine header. But for the visitors’ sudden inattention, we’d have had to settle for a draw. It’d have been costly, as we were well aware that Crystal Palace were unexpectedly leading, but it’d have had to do. Fortunately, the sloppiness City had shown with West Ham’s goal was reciprocated, and the celebrations were long and loud.

4a. Apropos the second goal, we loved the poor steward’s unsuccessful attempts to douse the flare. Crash course in sand deployment for our fluorescent-jacketed friends, please.

5. Predictably, a lot of the pre-match discussion centred upon Robert Snodgrass. That he’s been almost entirely excluded from the post-match debate is testament to what a completely anonymous afternoon he had. That isn’t a trait you’d ordinarily associate with such a fiery character, but it’s true of his display on Saturday.

6. Results elsewhere this weekend were an odd bunch. Sunderland are surely done for after their latest defeat, while a draw in South Wales was a significant missed opportunity for both Swansea and Middlesbrough – the latter are in serious trouble, while the former have gained just one point in games against M’bro, City and Bournemouth and are heading quickly back into danger. Just a shame about Palace. The neutral observer may think that two are already as good as down, and it’s a straight fight between City and Swansea for the promised land of 17th. Such an observer would have a point.

7. With the exception of Manchester City next weekend and Spurs on the last day, the run-in is decidedly kindly, on paper at least, which was something we wryly noted last summer when the fixture list was first released. The principal games marked down as clichéd “must-wins” will be those against Watford, Sunderland and, of course, that seriously troubled Middlesbrough side in just 48 hours at the Circle. They can’t score goals at the moment, have just sacked their manager and replaced him with our own former assistant manager, and are set to come up against a City side close to invincible on its own soil with a head coach who hasn’t lost a home game with any of his last three clubs since Abba split up, or something. That fighting goalless draw at Swansea, while not massively helping either side, should serve as notice to City that our midweek opponents will journey down from Teesside at least determined to scrap like mad for something.

8. So what to make of the brochure sent out to current patrons of the membership scheme? Well, the first thing to jump out is the illiteracy of whoever wrote it (and Ehab Allam’s name is on it, so perhaps he is the author). Indefinitely is ‘ indefinately’, eighth is ‘eigth’, and the difference between ‘effect’ and ‘affect’ is misunderstood, as both are used. Incorrectly. When a Premier League football club can’t be bothered to get a document proof-read, or at least run through a spell checker, it’s clear they have utter disdain for the intended audience.  The timing of the brochure’s distribution is suspect too,  there were 14 days between games and this brochure arrived (and  was inevitably picked up by local press) the day before an important game.

9. March 2016: Ehab Allam tells the Yorkshire Post that “Clubs should be encouraged by a penalty system to ensure crowds are close to capacity. At Hull, it would put the onus on us to get things exactly right…to fine-tune efforts.”

April 2017: The latest fine tuning of efforts? To claim memberships are increasing, then announce the closure of the West Stand Upper. Every day is April Fools’ day when you’re Ehab Allam.

10. We were as stunned as anyone when Jake Livermore was picked in England’s starting XI against Germany – we had gone on record both here and in our podcast that he would be on the bench for both games – but kudos to our recently exited midfielder for not only playing, but playing well, and making the more cutting, condescending doubters admit that he might have something to offer his country after all. It’s one of those occasions where we couldn’t be more pleased to be wrong – we just wish he was still playing for us at the time Gareth Southgate decided to include him.

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MATCH REPORT: City 2-1 West Ham

SilvaMarco

Hull City’s home games feel like a knockout competition at this stage in the season. If there is any hope of avoiding “Prexit” then any slip-up is unaffordable. With three minutes left of normal time, hope was fading fast but then we delivered Article 87. From the boot of Kamil Grosicki to the head of Andrea Ranocchia and lived to fight another day.

Marco Silva made two changes from the defeat at Everton before the international break. Elabdellaoui was injured and Tom Huddlestone, wrongly, suspended. Clucas dropped deeper to replace Tom with Niasse returning after missing the game against his parent club.

Jakupović
Maguire – Ranocchia – Davies
Elmo – Marković – Clucas – N’Diaye – Robertson
Niasse – Hernández

Feeling all home games are “must win” brings great pressure and that pressure was too much for City in the first half. It weighed on the players who could barely make a pass at times and looked uncomfortable playing three at the back against one centre forward limiting options further up the field. Niasse worked hard to run the channels and, despite his clumsy first tough, was effective while Clucas put in his usual incredible shift but the rest rated from abysmal to anonymous.

West Ham had already spurned a great chance when Robert Snodgrass, who was booed heavily throughout the half, headed straight at Jakupović when he was in acres of space (because he looked miles offside) when Andy Carroll gave them a lead. Carroll was the best player on the pitch by a mile. He met everything tossed forward, turned every cross into the box into a worrying situation and headed every corner and free-kick we put into their box. They were a pretty average side but Carroll and our generosity in allowing them time and space to put in each cross improved them immeasurably. On 17, they chucked in another cross, Davies completely misjudged it in the air and Carroll pulled off him, controlled it and smacked it past Jakupovic [0-1].

No response came from City. Move broke down in midfield too often to sustain any pressure in their third. There was a fair shout for a penalty when ‘keeper Randolph dribbled out under pressure and then appeared to kick Hernández who’d nicked the ball away from him. Clucas made a great run from deep and exchanged passes with Niasse who just failed to get on the end of his clever backheel. That really was the sum of our efforts.

The full backs were poor. Davies didn’t recover from his costly error. N’Diaye wasn’t effective in or out of possession. Marković was floating about taking the odd nice touch but generally avoiding anything that looked like hard work. We were in trouble.

Half time: Hull City 0 West Ham 1

Marco Silva doesn’t always get his team selection right but he’s quick to accept it and looks for a solution to problems. He hooked Davies at half time and introduced Grosicki to make a 4-4-2 formation. It didn’t suddenly change the game and we were grateful to Ranocchia for two crucial challenges early in the half but it did give us pace on the break and balance across the midfield and that game in handy as we levelled on 53.

Marković broke superbly into their half and found Grosicki with a nice ball across the field, Grosicki looked to come inside the defender, his touch was slightly heavy and Robertson who’d not stopped supporting raced onto the touch, steadied himself and finished low across Randolph [1-1].

Chances followed at both ends. Carroll rose to meet Cresswell’s high cross but headed straight at Jakupović. A huge let off. Niasse and Hernandez then combined nicely to send Marković racing into the box but he just couldn’t decide what to do and ran out of pitch. We kept the pressure on from the goal kick and Niasse worked his way into the box and forced a challenge that diverted the ball to N’Diaye who lashed a shot against the near post. The rebound fell for Grosicki who beat a defender, steadied himself, gave the ‘keeper the eyes and then missed.

Mike Jones, who’s surely the worst referee in the Premier League, then took centre stage as the game became a slog. He waved away our appeals for a penalty after Maguire fell under a challenge from a corner. Maguire had a great opportunity to shoot inside the six yard box on an angle, I’ve no idea why he’d fall if not fouled. A blatant handball by Kouyate outside the penalty area was missed while Niasse and Carroll were booked for very little.

The ‘ammers looked the most likely side to find a winner. We’d lost all ability to pass the ball to each other again and handed them the initiative. We defended well from a myriad of set pieces and long throw ins. Silva responded by introducing Henriksen and Maloney for N’Diaye and Hernández. Henriksen looked as rusty as you might expect but the subs refreshed City and we were able to build a little momentum in their half leading to some opportunities to deliver a ball in.

Grosicki wasted some of those opportunities, most obviously from one of the worst free kicks you’ll ever see. But in the 87th minute, he whipped a corner into the near post and Ranocchia stopped to power a header past Randolph [2-1]. Bloody foreigners. Coming over here, saving our season!

The six minutes of added time was uneventful save for Ranocchia killing Feghouli under the nose of the Ref who waved play-on. That cemented Ranocchia as man of the match for me.

Full time: Hull City 2 West Ham 1

It might seem over-dramatic to relegate City as soon as they fail to win a home game but it’s very hard to see any other scenario. With Spurs to come on the final day, winning the next three home games would take us to 36 points. That’s got to be the minimum required to have a chance of finishing above three other teams. Unfortunately, away points have not been forthcoming and that doesn’t look likely to change.

Marco Silva’s been dealt a poor hand with his fixtures away from home. He’s already taken City to Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal, Leicester and Everton and has Man City, Stoke and Southampton to follow. Crystal Palace away in the penultimate match of the season will be his only trip to a bottom half side – if they’re still in the bottom half by then.

So we cling to Marco Silva’s remarkable record of six wins and a draw from seven games at the KC in all competitions. Given where we were when we arrived I’m grateful that we have anything to cling to at all.

Rick Skelton (first posted on the Tiger Chat mailing list)