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FEAT-TWTWT

Things We Think We Think #328

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1. In many ways, Norwich was a lot of fun. A shot to nothing that ended up with City gamely contributing two of the night’s five goals (while never seriously looking like taking anything from the game), in a vibrant stadium that always looks grand under lights. Norwich is a good trip, and a narrow defeat didn’t harm our enjoyment of it.

2. The gulf between City and the very top of the league was pretty stark, however. Norwich looked a cut above City in every way, with their movement out wide mesmerising a City defence that never looked in control, while we were routinely overwhelmed in midfield. They were good, very good in fact – but there’s a lingering regret that in a game we only lost by a single goal that things weren’t made just a bit harder for Norwich.

3. Most galling was the feel of Carrow Road though. The stadium was fully and noisy, the home support was engaged and enthused and everything felt together. Of course, much of this is the consequence of being in the thick of a promotion battle. But lots of it isn’t. It was impossible not to contrast the upbeat, unified approach of the Norwich fans with ourselves on Saturday – those who aren’t boycotting sullenly trudging to a one-third full stadium that’s had the life and colour drained from it. Norwich are what we were, what we want to be once more, and what we will never be again without a change of ownership.

4. Even if we accept that the season’s probably over and we’re only playing a succession of dead rubbers until we can finally focus fully on an Ashes summer, it’s about time this dip in away form was sorted, because people are still going to spend lots of money following the team in the final few weeks. We’ve lost five in a row on the road, and while some of them were pretty stiff tasks, the fact we’ve only got close-ish in one is a worry. If those five games had yielded even one win, we’d have entered the QPR game knowing that a positive result could’ve seen City breach the top six. It’s all ifs and buts, however it’s definitely been a costly and frustrating sequence of results outside of East Yorkshire.

5. Messing up 2-0 leads is even more costly however. To do it once or twice over a whole season is exasperating, but to do it three times in three months is pretty remarkable. The 2-2 draw at Aston Villa is the most excusable, as City were away and Villa are a handy side. Doing it against Rotherham and QPR is rather less understandable.

6. Villa, incidentally, have quietly crept into the top six. We were ahead of them very recently; one team was always going to make a little run into serious play-off contention as the last six weeks of the season approached, and it’s frustrating that it isn’t us.

7. Jarrod Bowen is now on 21 goals, a truly exceptional return for a player who isn’t even an orthodox centre-forward. He’s up to 35 in two seasons, which has emphatically demonstrated that he isn’t a one-season wonder. His Hull City career surely only has a maximum of eight games left. We’d better enjoy him while we can, and hope that his summer move is a wise one that keeps him at the top-flight level he deserves for years to come.

8. An international break now beckons, followed up by three very winnable matches. It’d have been fun to have spent this interlude discussing what Nigel Adkins needs to tweak in order to make the play-offs, but that wasn’t to be. However, the plausible range of finishing positions for City this season is still quite wide, perhaps as many as eight. A top half finish would still represent an outstanding season.

9. The manager cut a thoroughly exasperated figure after the QPR match, and as the match report speculates, it may not all be down to tossing away another two goal lead. That a manager who’s considerably overperformed this season is entering the second half of March not knowing whether he’s even wanted for next season is totally unacceptable. If he walked away from City in protest at the shabby treatment he’s received, and will continue to receive, he’d probably find that his reputation has been restored enough to get a decent job offer in the summer. And who could blame him?

10. Our hearts hurt at the plight of North Ferriby United, forced out of existence on Friday after 85 proud years. Many City fans down the years will have spent enjoyable afternoons and evenings at Church Road, home of our nearest neighbours of note, and the annual playing of the Billy Bly Trophy was an enduring part of the late-summer ritual for so long. To see them fold is devastating, and however modest their support is and always was, a lot of people will be distraught. We wish their fans well in trying to create a footballing resurrection in North Ferriby, and note with foreboding the appalling consequences that terrible owners can have on a club.

FEAT-TWTWT

Things We Think We Think #327

TWTWT

1. After the pretty wretched affair at Brentford, it was quite a relief to get back on track so quickly against Millwall. It certainly wasn’t a game that’ll live long in the memory. For the most part, it looked very much like a game between a side still recovering from a weekend pasting and one with every chance of slipping into a lower division. But as we’ve noted plenty of times before, this was a game we’d have lost in October, so a decent parcel of credit is owed to the manager and players for eking out a narrow win.

2. Happily, it proved to be the springboard for even better things. For if Millwall was tense and cagey, the 2-0 win over Birmingham was fluent and assured. City completely outplayed a side who remain above them in the table, creating numerous opportunities to score and restricting the visitors with ruthless efficiency.

3. Pugh’s a heck of a player. His impact is not quite Wilson-in-2018 yet, but he’s definitely making us tick better in midfield. It’s a shame his performance didn’t include the goal it deserved, but otherwise he was a joy to watch.

4. Then again, so were many of his team-mates. Henriksen’s transformation into an inspirational leader continues to astound and delight in roughly equal measure, Bowen is clearly playing his last dozen or so Championship games, Grosicki worked backwards as well as forwards (yes he did), even the much-maligned Chris Martin played solidly well as a target man. It didn’t match the gaudy heights of the 6-0 against Bolton or the epic magnificence of cuffing the Champions of Europe on their own patch, but it was a very satisfying afternoon of football.

5. What now for Nigel Adkins? It was striking that the North Stand sang his name as soon as the match began on Saturday, a loud show of support for the latest victim of Ehabbian contractual idiocy. However this season ends, it isn’t in the relegation that was possible, or even the relegation battle that seemed inevitable. He’s doing a brilliant job, and deserves better than the pathetic prevarication from his bosses.

5a. Just no-one mention the play-offs, yeah?

6. Tuesday night’s attendance against Millwall was officially 10,191. Which works out to around 8,500 when you deduct the customary 20% gate inflation. Except even that figure felt too high. Did even eight thousand souls make it to the Circle last Tuesday? It’s unlikely. The KCOM Stadium, which only a few years ago was the subject of genuine discussion about extension, now stands barely one-third full. One third. One fucking third.

6a. That’s led to some speculation that further stand closures are possible for next season. It already feels like a long time since the Upper West was needed, and with the ground less than half full even when that closed area is taken into account you can see why this would appeal to Ehab Allam. The thought of saving money by closing the ground and saving on stewards will obviously appeal to him, particularly with the added bonus of aggravating City fans. Because the simple answers – restore concessions, sell the club, etc – work only if you’re a man of reason.

7. Of course, that’s only speculation. But what’s becoming clear is that a slow-motion boycott of the club is underway. Boycotting home games until the repulsive Allam family go has long been advocated by many, though (we felt) prematurely. But what was once noisily called for is now de facto happening anyway. Membership cancellations continue to leak into the club, with anyone having acted last week avoiding summer payments. With those cancellations, the possibility of a series of dead rubbers ahead and ongoing distaste at putting money into their pockets, gates will continue falling. The boycott is already happening, and it’s gathering pace.

8. Really, what else can an agonised fanbase such as ours do? Protests haven’t worked – in truth, they could have been better, but when the owners don’t show and don’t care anyway, even a 1990s style insurrection may not have mattered. As we’ve seen from Blackpool recently, this sort of battle can be won, but starving them out may be the only route to success. That isn’t to say you’re wrong to still go to City (we do), but increasingly a wholesale desertion of home matches is going to happen. Who knows, perhaps that’s best?

9. And yes, that isn’t fair on Nigel Adkins and his team, who’ve overachieved admirably this season. But as Adkins himself knows, his employers are an utter disgrace and need flushing from this club as quickly as possible – because the challenge of rebuilding this club from the Allam arson is going to be a long, arduous one; and like every long, difficult chore, it’s best started sooner rather than later.

10. One last time: our condolences to the friends and family of ex-Tiger Bobby Doyle, who passed away last week. If you haven’t yet read our tribute to the elegant Scot, it’s here. RIP Bobby.

FEATmatch

REPORT: City 2-0 Birmingham

HenriksenM

O, this was good. Unexpectedly, borderline astonishingly so. But good, really good.

Birmingham arrived with a Spring-tinged sniff of the Play Offs in their nostrils, and left chastened. Harried to perdition, outperformed all over the park, beaten and subdued.

At the end of November, 19 games into this wildly uneven season, we sat morosely marooned in the relegation places, with just 17 points. Right now, having gobbled up 33 points from 16 games since the start of December, we’re tenth (eighth equal, if you prefer to set aside goal difference) and already up to 50 points. Safe from relegation and, absurdly, just four points shy of the Play Off places.

Lots of players deserve credit, but I am going to limit myself to one name alone in allocating praise for this remarkable upturn in not simply the team’s fortunes but in the whole mood and spirit of the squad (if not the club more generally). Nigel Adkins. I’ve had harsh words for him in the past. I don’t care for the needy salutes the very instant his name is chanted, and I can’t warm to the torrents of maniacal exuberance he conveys to press and radio. Most of all, I spent most of 2018 with no faith that he could improve an admittedly thin squad. I was wrong. The formation he’s chosen works, every player looks better now than he did at the beginning of the season, some immeasurably enormously refulgently so, and Mr Adkins, for sure, is doing a Very Good Job. Bless.

Off we go, on a mild afternoon though one unadorned by the glorious Spring sunshine of earlier in the week:

                      Marshall

Kane   Burke   de Wijs   Lichaj

          Irvine       Henriksen

Bowen          Pugh           Grosicki

                        Martin

That’s the same side that began against Millwall on Tuesday, and confirms the removal of Ridgewell, McKenzie and Kingsley from the defence that operated with such sullen lack of distinction at Brentford last week. That 5-1 thrashing could have been season-ending. Two subsequent games, two subsequent wins, and the season is still very much alive.

The game begins in an appealingly open fashion. I like our formation. I don;t trust all of those deployed within it. Pugh is a quick-thinking mobile player who I already like a lot, and he fully grasps the importance of bringing our two speedy wide men into the game as quickly and as frequently as possible. This trio would be enough to lay waste to most Championship defences if, ahead of them, a moderately mobile Championship-level striker was able to pull defenders out of position, hold the ball up and release it. Fraizer Campbell, for example. Chris Martin, a willing if limited professional for a decade and more, could have been that man a few years ago. He’s still willing. But he just can’t run, can’t lose a man, can’t run a channel. I don’t blame him – I blame Ehab. But it’s a toil and a trial to watch Chris Martin doing his best, yet struggling in a formation that is almost destructively incisive, but, for want of a better front man, isn’t quite as exciting as it could be.

We’ve still got enough to best a competent Birmingham side. On 19, Pugh shoots, deflection, saved by Lee Camp. 21, Bowen on the break, left foot shot, stopped. And then we score. It’s an intricate bit of play following a free-kick awarded deep inside the Birmingham half, and Pugh’s quick feet do brilliantly well to claim possession and  switch the ball inside for Bowen to carefully lift the ball up and over the advancing Camp and into the roof of the net.

The subsequent play is largely in our half as Blues seek to assert themselves, but there are no serious alarms anywhere near Marshall’s net, except for a scary moment on 34 when Harlee Dean, monster central defender, is left in space at a set piece but contrives to send an inviting free header high over the crossbar. The City defence was entitled to look mutinously in the direction of Chris Martin, who should have been back covering aforementioned Harlee Dean – who sounds as if he should be doing the full Easy Rider thing across the plains of Wyoming while downing hooch and tripping on acid, but a little research advises me that in truth he was not born to be wild, he was born in Basingstoke and once played for Braintree Town.

Grosicki, haring down the left, sets up Pugh, who shoots low but straight at the ‘keeper, but the finest moment of the half, outshining even the goal, is an astonishing lofted crossfield pass from Markus Henriksen which condemns the defence to irrelevance as Grosicki is able to scoot free of its collective attention. A goal is deserved as a result of Henriksen’s touchingly crafted tribute to the sublime passing range of the late great Bobby Doyle, but the Pole is a little clumsy in bringing the ball under control and ultimately he screws his shot wide of the near post.

The people of Norway seem to be transfixed by their favourite son and his slightly wobbly vowels taking charge of Manchester United this season, but they should come take a look at the Sword of Trondheim. Henriksen has been consistently outstanding this season, on the ball and off it, and in his leadership capacity too. Birmingham City, your boys, like so many others these last three months or so, took a hell of a beating.

Half time. 1-0.

Birmingham begin the second half with a little more vigour and application. On 47 a ball spins away dangerously in our box, corner. On 51, a stramash, we survive. Lively football, though largely broken football, as both sides strain in vain to take command.

Next goal is crucial. And, on the hour, we get it.

Not in entirely satisfactory circumstances, I confess. A slick passing move involving Henriksen, Bowen, Martin and Irvine permits Bowen himself to drive powerfully forward through the heart of the visiting defence and into the box, but he pushes the ball just a bit too far in front of him. The goalkeeper’s challenge is a bit clumsy, but Bowen goes down under it with practised (and understandable) ease. I think that Lee Camp got his gloves to the ball in the same instant as Bowen’s boot, and Camp protests his innocence. Over to you, referee Harrington. He is very well positioned, has a clear sightline, but, surprisingly, gives it.

A pleasing outbreak of resentment, outrage and protest and, from our side, derision and glee interrupts proceedings, and a good old-style set-to develops.  A couple of yellow cards are waved, but eventually the fury abates and Bowen has the ball on the spot. He sweeps the ball calmly into one corner of the net while Camp leaps like a young salmon towards the other corner, and that is 2-0.

We’ve squandered two goal leads twice of late (at Villa and at home to Rotherham), so the matter is not yet settled. But we take a secure grip on this one. After the hubbub surrounding the penalty award, a subsequent red card or two seems a safe bet, but the heat quickly dissipates. Birmingham are not exactly resigned to their fate, but they’re second best and appear to know it. Their main man is burly free-scoring frontman Che Adams, who sounds as if he should have emerged from the South American jungle with a grimy bandana round his head and a knife between his teeth, but was in fact born in Leicester and has played for Oadby Town. But Adams is dealt with by stopping his service at source. Our defenders don’t have a lot to concern them because our midfield spends most of the game making sure Birmingham’s never gets chance to supply Adams with bullets or, for that matter, knives. There are some decent larkers in that Birmingham midfield  – Gary Gardner, Kerim Mrabti (who sounds as if he should be a handsome Turkish prince on horseback but is in fact an anagram) – but they’ve been schooled by Irvine  and the sublime Henriksen today.

On 65, Burke is unusually reticent and Marshall is pulled out of position, and Adams, for once, has a glimpse of our goal, but the shot slices wide into the side-netting. The same fate at the other end on 78, when a quite brilliantly deft pass by Martin frees Bowen beyond the central defence, but here too the side-netting is the recipient of the ball. Then Pugh weaves through a static defence with absorbing skill, only to fire his shot straight at ‘keeper Camp. Lots of pleasing football.

Ridgewell on for De Wijs. McKenzie replaces Lichaj.

On 87 Marshall makes a fine save to his right and then, shortly afterwards, an inviting opportunity is spooned harmlessly high into the air. Nothing for you today in Hull, Bluenoses.

Four added, a deflected corner which draws a save from Marshall and the game is done.

So. The stadium was barely one third full yesterday. The Allams remain in charge, and the babble about a takeover, always a rust-stained polluted trickle, has dried up and evaporated. We are stuck with the gruesome twosome for the foreseeable, and I suspect that even now Ehab is planning a summer of sales followed by last-minute loan signings and hauling in vaguely remembered out-of-contract plodders which he will expect Nigel Adkins to convert into a presentable Championship squad. The miracle is that Mr Adkins might well be able to do just that. I yearn for a post-Allam Hull City, but for the time being I don’t ignore what a remarkable job Nigel Adkins has done and is doing in such forbiddingly difficult circumstances.

Steve Weatherill (first posted on the Tiger-Chat mailing list)

FEAT-SEATS

PREVIEW: City v Birmingham

StewartK

City’s flirtation with the play-off race has oscillated more wildly between on and off than the most plainly ill-starred celebrity romance; off after the Brentford humping, but following the midweek win over Millwall, we’re back on. Right?

Probably wrong. A scrappy 2-1 win over a struggling side won’t paper over the cracks revealed three days earlier by Brentford, our third away defeat in a row. It just lifts us back into the top half, and replaced frowns with smiles. Got that? Because if City win tomorrow, there’ll be a quiz, to check we’ve remembered all of this…

And yet, Birmingham are touted as much more authentic play-off hopefuls, despite sitting a slender three points ahead of City; a repetition of the five-goal win we enjoyed on their last visit will lift us above them. But…but a loss would probably see us slip into the bottom half.

City can welcome back Kevin Stewart tomorrow, who’s been missed more than we might ever have expected him to be. However, Fraizer Campbell and Stephen Kingsley will have to sit it out through injury. Longer term absentees Toral, Mazuch, Weir and MacDonald are obviously not going to play any part, though recent recoveree Jordy de Wijs – who again we missed when unavailable – should continue in defence.

Birmingham, the jammy gets, have no-one missing and a full squad available. Imagine that – a squad, properly assembled, that’s all fit. Not for us, such vulgarity.

City paggered the Blues 6-1 last season, the fourth time in a row we’ve bested them in this part of the world. Earlier this season, the sides shared six goals at St Andrews; the omens for goals therefore aren’t bad. Birmingham’s form is patchy of late, with an impressive midweek win at Bristol City getting them back on track after a draw with Blackburn and a surprise home defeat to Bolton ended a decent run of form.

Birmingham can probably survive a draw tomorrow and still be in with a chance, though City can’t really not win and still talk about the top six without sounding a bit silly. You can get 6/4 on City recording a seventh win in eight home games, 21/10 on the Blues and 12/5 on a draw that doesn’t really suit anyone. Two top-half sides both with a shout of the play-offs – surely there’ll be queues for this…right?

FEAT-TWTWT

Things We Think We Think #326

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1. That really is that. Let’s not mention the play-offs again this season, and pretend that we never did in the first place.

2. Brentford was chastening. An early lead collapsing into a 5-1 defeat was redolent of the autumn’s dark days, not the bright promise of midwinter. Sad to say, City were awful, and gave this one up long before the end – all the more galling considering that Brentford barely featured in the opening quarter of the game.

3. What’s happened to City away from home? Three defeats in a row, shipping ten goals and not really featuring in any of those games. It’s been such a disappointment after the glittering form of December and January, and a real pity to see things go backwards so rapidly.

4. Pretty much no-one emerged with any credit, with the possible exception of the tireless Fraizer Campbell. You could lengthily dissect this shambles – as the match report starkly did – but suffice it to say, Nigel Adkins needs to give deeper thought to his midfield selections, and his side need to remember that even though the season’s ultimate outcome (a lower-midtable finish) is in no real doubt, people are still paying good money to watch them.

5. Wasn’t the terrace at Brenford great though? We make no apologies for being shameless nostalgics: proper standing terraces are just so much better than all other ways of watching football. Safe Standing is an idea whose time has come, and perhaps one day it’ll make a very welcome appearance at the Circle – but we still like old fashioned terraces, and mourn their increasing scarcity.

6. This being the Championship, there’s no time to rest. Two home games quickly follow Brentford, with the visit of Millwall tomorrow. It’d be understandable if they’re already dreaming of FA Cup glory, with a winnable quarter final awaiting them next month. However, despite their impressive win at Derby five days ago they’re only four points above the relegation zone, so they’d be unwise to neglect League duties in the meantime.

7. Millwall’s proximity to danger underlines the opportunity tomorrow: a side that the table suggests are weaker, with the potential for a wandering mind or two. Pre-Brentford, we’d have been moderately confident about this one; now, on the back of a 5-1 kicking and with our disappointing Cup exit at their hands fresh in the memory, we’re rather less so now.

8. Then it’s Birmingham on Saturday. A side whose play-off aspirations lasted longer than ours, they’ll rightly target a match against opposition who may already have little to play for. But we can rightly hope to bloody a contender’s nose. We shared six goals earlier this season, and given that both sides will probably attack from the off, we’re optimistic for goals.

9. Will the “official” – by which we mean wholly dishonest – attendance for either game drop below 10,000?

10. Holidays for some of the team this week, so no podcast tonight. Back next Monday with much to discuss…

FEAT-BALL2

PREVIEW: Brentford v City

Grosicki K

To Brentford! And a game between two resolutely midtable sides for whom time to mount a large burst into the top six has almost expired. City, four points ahead of the Bees, have a smaller gap to close and are probably already in possession of enough points for safety, while Brentford need just a few more; but really, this has the feel of a game between two sides who’ll both be lining up in the 2019/20 Championship.

That’s fine for City, who spent much of the early part of the campaign looking like a side who’d be finding out what the Auto Windscreens Shield is currently called next season. Less good for Brentford, who must have expected more than this and perhaps even a tilt at the top six. As it is, we played out the deadest of rubbers on the final day of last season, and this particular caoutchouc looks almost as lifeless.

But we shall not despair, for Brentford really is one of the finest away days in the Championship, and indeed the country. A friendly, welcoming corner of the capital with a proper standing terrace (the last at this level) and proximate pubs aplenty, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s been the scene of Tiger glory before as we’ve won four of our last seven visits, the best being a 2-0 win in 1999 being the day that Warren Joyce’s City side clambered their way into the Football League’s top 91 en route to the Great Escape.

Whatever happens tomorrow, a repeat of that magnificent day seems a tall order, and just a repeat result would require our ever-stretched squad overcoming further adversity as Kevin Stewart is now injured. Jordy de Wijs may be fit though, so at least we could have one or two defenders playing in their preferred defensive position – something of a luxury these days.

Brentford are without Ezri Konsa, who’s banned after a recent red card, while Rico Henry, Emiliano Marcondes and Lewis Macleod are all injured. Henrik Dalsgaard may return, however.

The Bees tumbled out of the FA Cup last week with a 4-1 cuffing at Swansea, but they won their last League game 1-0 against Aston Villa, and savoured a memorable 5-2 win against Blackburn three weeks ago. City have stuttered a little lately, losing their last two on the road without scoring and have won only one of the last five.

Given the advantage of home territory, Brentford are favourites: 10/11 is the best you’ll get on a home win. City are a distant 7/2 for victory, while a draw is 3/1. See you on that lovely sundrenched terrace…

FEAT-TWTWT

Things We Think We Think #325

TWTWT

1. If you were inclined to believe that City had a chance of the play-offs, well done on your indefatigable optimism. But it’s surely gone now; the draw at home to Rotherham – both the result itself and its nature – must have quelled all hope. Teams with authentic top six aspirations don’t really fail to win when 2-0 up and cruising against a side as weak as Rotherham.

2. It all felt so cheaply handed over. City were fizzing with invention in the first half, and deservedly led 2-0 at the break. Perhaps it was premature to expect too many more goals, but the minimum expectation had to be a win. To manage neither was galling. And hey, we can’t get too angry with anyone about it. It’s February, and we may already have enough points to stay up. We’d have been happy to get enough points for survival in May. So the season has already exceeded expectations. But it’d have been nice to capture a win that would have kept us in the top ten.

3. But never mind. It’s been really rather amazing just to get into a situation where discussing the play-offs was a thing. What would be nice now would be for the season to still finish well. A top half finish would be brilliant, a serious success for Nigel Adkins given the sabotage he has to contend with from above. Letting things peter out into (say) 18th would be a shame.

4. On a brighter note, one of the best away trips of the season is approaching: Brentford away. A traditional old ground liberally adorned with friendly public houses and best of all, a terrace. An actual proper terrace. It’s the only one left in the Championship, and it only has another season and a bit of use. Perhaps one day we’ll stand on a proper terrace for the very last time, and we probably won’t even know. Chances are it won’t be this Saturday, as City and Brentford will probably both be in the 2019/20 Championship. But there aren’t many occasions left. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

5. Let’s also sort things out away from home. City have lost a little sloppily in their last two trips out of Hull, shipping five goals and scoring none. Brentford, below City in the table, represent a good opportunity to do something about it. Come on City, give us a goal or two to celebrate on that terrace.

6. A weekend without City always leads to thoughts upon the longer term. Nigel Adkins, together with much of his squad, are out of contract in the summer, and as usual the club’s policy is to do absolutely nothing about any of this.

7. Adkins first. His first season with City saw us stay up, which was the likeliest outcome, but nowhere certain enough for comfort. He met expectations. His second sees City improbably in the top half at the same time as the snowdrops are open, which is quite startling. He clearly deserves to be here for 2019/20, and to be given the opportunity to continue the gradual improvement he’s overseen since joining. That his own future is unclear is simply unacceptable.

8. Plenty of his first team, including plenty who’d be hard to replace, are also out of contract. And nothing’s been done. In this respect, propelling a hotch-potch group of loanees, free transfers and the previously unheralded into the top half makes Adkins a victim of his own success: Ehab Allam, not a man whose time in the football industry has seen him absorb any knowledge of it, will probably think that he can continue to chip away at the quality of the team and the depth of the squad with no ill-effects. He’s wrong. As usual.

9. If the season really is over, with neither relegation or promotion realistic for the final two months, we’re going to see some horrendously low crowds very soon. The cancellation period for membership is two months; if you’re a member, then cancelling now gets you off the hook for the final few dead-rubbery weeks of the season and the whole of the summer – frankly, there’s little reason to not do that. And with precious incentive on the pitch for matchday sales coupled with the retributive policy of removing concessions, it’s inevitable that the club will have to (not) announce a sub-10,000 gate before May.

10. That doesn’t mean anything will happen. Part of being an Allam is cocooning oneself from the real world and refusing to listen to people who know better than you. Crowds could dip into the hundreds and it’d make little difference. However, plenty of their employees at the club are aghast at what’s going on, from the office staff to the players and management. Gradually, distressingly, all of the hard work done between about 2002 to 2015 is being undone. Work that took a decade and more, that united the city of Hull behind its primary sporting institution, that rid our streets and our schools of other towns’ clubs’ shirts, is being destroyed. And this time, we won’t even have the prospect of a couple of promotions back to our natural second tier level or a shiny new stadium to spur a revival. All because of one bitter old man, and his thoughtlessly malevolent son.

FEAT-BALL2

PREVIEW: Derby v City

HenriksenM

In February 2008, City travelled to West Brom. Win that, we counselled ourselves, and this play-off push might actually be a real thing. It isn’t easy to perfectly recollect one’s decade-old thoughts, but that seems close enough to the 2008 reality.

In February 2019, City travel to Derby. Win that, we tell ourselves…and then find ourselves inescapably drawn back to THAT season, the one that changed everything forever.

The comparison isn’t drawn solely as a cheap way of recollecting the very best of days. There’s something tangible in it. Because like 2008, City have come from almost nowhere to be in the frame for the top six. To do that, we’ve already had probably the result of the season, a 2-0 win at then-leaders Leeds. But that win, just six short weeks ago, was about pulling clear of relegation. Now, wins count (we think) towards loftier goals. So as the motive for winning changes, so too does our pre-match thinking. Beat Derby…

Oh, but it’ll be tough. This has never felt a happy hunting ground, as recent 4-0 and 5-0 defeats testify. Then again, City famously hammered the Rams when it mattered most, a 3-0 win eventually sending the Tigers to Wembley in 2016.

City will have to do it without both Reece Burke and Jordy de Wijs, who are still injured; and you fancy that Derby will do a better job of exploiting City’s extremely makeshift back four than a leaden-footed Stoke did last week. A clean sheet here would surely be our best laundered of this season. If Nigel Adkins does decide that defensive reinforcement is needed, Liam Ridgewell could be in line for a City debut.

Ashley Cole could make his Derby debut, lining up alongside ex-City loanee Fikayo Tomori. Also formerly of this parish is Harry Wilson, whose superb loan spell last season was one of the reasons City are still in the Championship. Another ex-Tiger, Tom Huddlestone, doesn’t look an obvious starter.

Derby need the win: they’re 7th, albeit with a game in hand, and a play-off place was presumably the minimum requirement for Frank Lampard this season. They can’t drop lower than that this weekend, but with ten points separating them from second it’s likely that their only route to the top flight is via the play-offs and they daren’t fall behind that race as well. City could end the week anywhere between 8th and 13th depending on other results, a wide spread of positions for a season now two-thirds through. Even a draw could knock the Tigers back into the bottom half; but it wouldn’t be a bad point if we get it.

It’s a mark of City’s huge recent improvement that Derby aren’t odds-on for this game. You’d have struggled to get much better than 1/2 a few months ago, but the Rams are now generally 11/10 for a win. The draw is 13/5, but if you fancy City’s surge to continue then 13/5 is all yours. Not that we advocate gambling or anything.

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Things We Think We Think #324

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1. Prior to the Stoke fixture on Saturday, discussion centred on whether City’s cuffing at Blackburn would prove to be a reversion to the mean, or simply a blip en route to better things. We can’t know for sure, but the weekend win over the pre-season title favourites does suggest the latter – and that this startling mid-season charge towards the upper reaches of the table may not over just yet.

2. This was a different kind of win to some we’ve enjoyed lately. Not the glory of besting the Champions of the Europe in their own fetid lair, nor the slightly gaudy pulversing of poor Bolton. City had to stoutly armwrestle their way to a meat and two veg kind of win, but it’s no less satisfying for it. There’s little doubt that the City of autumn 2019 would have find a way to lose this type of fixture to this type of opponent.

3. Now, we seem to find ways to win. The first half was a pretty wretched spectacle. Perhaps understandably: City’s patched up defence will still have had the misery of Ewood Park at the front of its mind, while Stoke have struggled for fluency throughout a season of disappointing underachievement. The visitors perhaps still had fractionally the better of it, but City were clearly under orders to press high and hard, and it was effectively disruptive.

4. That first goal though! On first viewing, it appeared that Bowen shouldn’t really have beaten the keeper at his near post from such an angle. Subsequent replays showed a shot with unnatural curl applied, and a reminder that this young winger really does look the real deal.

5. Then – following Marshall’s highly enjoyable penalty save – City captured the points with a second half display of growing authority. The second goal came via a clinical breakaway, and after that Stoke didn’t look remotely like troubling us. So much of that is down to a defence that was considerably more than the sum of its parts, but it was also very effectively screened by a midfield that spent the afternoon engaged in a gritty battle for supremacy. We rarely relax even at 2-0, City fans never really should, but this felt different. It felt safe.

6. A word for Robbie McKenzie. He had a tough afternoon at Blackburn, one that suggested he wasn’t yet ready for the rigours of Championship football. To bounce back within a week and play as though his Ewood chasing hadn’t even happened, hints at impressive character. Young players’ development can be affected by being exposed to the first team too early, but he looked the part on Saturday. Now, just as Blackburn was only one game, so this too is only one game. But it was a strong recovery from a player who played with determination and confidence. It was a pleasure to watch.

7. Todd Kane was the sponsors’ man of the match, and there’s no real argument with that, as he was very good. Marshall’s claim was bolstered by his penalty save (and his excellent distribution – more of this please) but probably undermined by having too quiet an afternoon. Bowen and Grosicki were once again too good for middling opposition, Campbell ran himself into the ground, McKenzie was strong and Lichaj unpassable, but Stewart also had a very solid case for the award. His improvement, that begun with that improbable point against Norwich, has continued. He’s a guaranteed starter at the moment – who saw that coming?

8. And so another transfer window passes underwhelmingly. There was a school of thought that defeat at Blackburn would make the Allams less likely to support Nigel Adkins in the transfer market, as that loss suggesed that our promotion prospects were rather remote. So why – from their perspective – spend money when we aren’t going down, and can’t go up? And there’s a ruthless logic to that. But the decision was made not to support the manager, and he deserved better.

9. City’s new crest is due to be launched soon. A trailer featuring Hull City Kits was trailed last Tuesday, and it seems the club are genuinely optimistic at having struck upon something that may find favour with City fans. That isn’t an easy task at the best of times, and these are not the best of times – rather than seeking to accommodate fans’ wishes, this is a club that has repeatedly sought to antagonise, and still has multiple outstanding issues that it refuses to resolve. But they’re clearly hopeful of a better reception here.

10. The crest itself was picked in a pretty unusal way, with a variety of contributors being invited to pick from a set of pre-determined options. The club also made those present sign Non Disclosure Agreements, a wheeze reminiscent of James Mooney’s ill-fated attempt to suppress the true horror of the membership scheme a few years ago. Still…we have a feeling the new crest won’t be so bad (it could scarcely be worse than the amateurish, spite-driven nonsense we presently endure), and suspect it’ll fall down the list of Things That Urgently Need Fixing At This Broken Football Club.

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Things We Think We Think #322

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1. Our minds continue to boggle at what’s happening. A season that seemed certain to feature a grim battle against relegation, whose ultimate outcome was unguessable, has transformed in the space of a few bewildering weeks to a play-off push that looks increasingly plausible. It may be the most stunning turnaround to a season…well, ever.

2. Saturday’s dismissal of Sheffield Wednesday was imperious. From the first minute to the last, City completely dominated. Wednesday’s goalkeeper Keiren Westwood timewasting as early as the fifth minute suggested they were concerned about the afternoon, and those fears were well-founded. Though the opening goal took nearly half the match to arrive, it was yet another peach from Jarrod Bowen, and it was a well-deserved end to an opening 45 that City had much the better of.

3. If the first half was City’s on points, the second was a series of emphatic knockdowns. Wednesday barely featured as an attacking force, becoming the second successive side to leave the Circle without registering a shot on target – a huge compliment to not only a defence that’s gone from porous to miserly, but a midfield that’s also gone from flimsy to all-conquering. 3-0 probably flattered our outclassed visitors, because this was a ruthlessly one-sided match thanks to a display that – dare we say it – closely resembled the sort that top six sides produce.

4. Jarrod Bowen. Surely only promotion is going to see him spend another Christmas in East Yorkshire, and that’s rather how it should be. He’s eviscerating Championship defences on a weekly basis, and deserves a chance to see how he fares in the top division. This transfer window may just be a trifle early to get his move, but a move is surely coming (barring City going up). Let’s enjoy him while we can, because his is a remarkable talent.

5. Kevin Stewart was the sponsors’ man-of-the-match on Saturday. Not an obvious choice perhaps, but that’s only because there was half a dozen strong contenders. It wasn’t exactly undeserved, because he laid a strong foundation in midfield throughout, denying the visitors any kind of toehold in the middle of the pitch. Who’d have thought we’d be in a position of not badly missing Jackson Irvine?

6. Villa next, a side who can’t have expected to find themselves below City at any point this season. There’s no knowing how long this run can continue for, because all good things have to come to an end; but the later it does end, the closer to the top six we’ll get. And if we win again, and go within a few points of the top six…what then? Just how far can City go? Can we really challenge for promotion – or will this amazing run be eventually remembered as a highly enjoyable mid-season spurt that banished relegation fears en route to  a satisfying midtable finish? It’s almost pointless guessing any more, because these are strange, heady days. But we’ll travel with confidence, and who knows…

7. How we’ve missed Club Statements from City! Last Thursday was not one of the genre’s vintage, but it did supply several hostages to fortune that can be revisited when the present transfer window closes next month. That said, the claim that sales aren’t likely was carefully worded – “no intention” is not the same as “will not”. And that still wouldn’t be unacceptable, at least not in normal circumstances. A bid of over £10m for either Bowen or Grosicki would test the best of owners, while a serious Premier League club coming in for Bowen would make it hard for City to stand in his way. The problem is that owners who routinely operate in bad faith will never be trusted on this sort of thing, however much wiggle room they provide in club statements.

8. No-one’s talking about takeovers any more, are they? That wasn’t always a bad thing during the due diligence stage, but with the issue disappearing from view it almost certainly means that the ghastliness of the Allam reign is to continue. And that is emphatically a Very Bad Thing. It cannot be anything else – owners who veer between malice and disinterest are never going to end up providing long-term success for the club and its community, and it would be deeply foolish to soften one’s view of their unpleasantness just because things are improving on the pitch. For that, the manager and team deserve untold credit – it is absolutely nothing to do with Ehab or Assem Allam, whose departures from the club we continue to long for.

9. Instead, Assem resurfaces and Ehab emits a garrulous statement, and it’s hard not to fear the very worst: that these appalling, unpleasant, divisive and spiteful owners are preparing themselves to stay. There’ll be repercussions; there’s been a recent ceasefire while takeovers were discussed, but any confirmation that they’re hanging around is certain to break that. Meanwhile, the club’s death spiral – and don’t for a second let a few wins disguise the slow-motion disaster that’s unfolding – will continue.

10. There’ll be podcasts aplenty this week – tonight’s will focus on City’s remarkable present, and tomorrow night, to mark our 200th edition, we’ll have a retrospective look back at the Great Escape season of 1998/99, without whose successful conclusion none of what followed may have been possible. There’ll be a very, very special guest joining us too…