With just six days to go until the start of the season, today saw the Tigers travel to Chesterfield for our final warm up. There’ll be some debate as to whether friendlies count as ground ticks but they do in my book so a tick it was. Not only that but Chesterfield became the first club (other than Hull City) that I’ve visited at more than one ground. I have fond memories of my trip to Saltergate, it came in the glorious summer of 2008 when everything related to Hull City was fried gold. I recall being wowed by Peter Halmosi and Bernard Mendy.
Today it was the B2net Stadium. The name is hideous, as with most modern stadiums, but the ground is very nice. It’s not the most beautiful but it’s perfectly functional, it has good access, great views and a terrific playing surface. The attendance was just over two and a half thousand in a ground that holds around ten and a half so we rattled around a little. It’s a pretty sobering thought that throughout the nineties, we would have struggled to fill two thirds of this ground more often than not. It took me back to a time when I looked at the plans for a 25,400 seat stadium and wondered what the hell we’d do with it.
We took to the field with a 4-4-2 that looked very much like the team that will take on Blackpool in the season opener on Friday. The only deviation I can imagine is up front where Dele Adebola partnered Matty Fryatt almost by default as Aaron McLean and Jay Simpson sat out injured. City lined up: Gulasci; Rosenior, Dudgeon, Chester, Hobbs; Koren, Brady, Evans, McKenna; Fryatt, Adebola.
City’s performance overall was sharp, even taking into account the numerous changes, and the start was particularly bright. Paul McKenna was flattened straight from the kick off and, in a feature of our play, took the kick quickly. The ball found Brady who forced a corner. Koren’s delivery was poor but with Adebola giving their defenders a hard time, Fryatt picked up the loose ball, turned quickly and thrashed a shot onto the bar. Koren and Brady were involved often in the first 20 minutes, turning up on either side, making terrific runs off the ball and giving Evans and McKenna an option time and again. Both central midfielders showed a nice array of passing and City moved the ball around nicely. We always looked to build from the back and when that wasn’t possible, we used Adebola well and he showed his ability to hold the ball up or move it on quickly. He’s got a phenomenal ability to lay off the ball with his chest/shoulder. His feet are less reliable.
Defensively we look absolutely fine or at least, we do if the first choice back five stays fit. Everyone knows what Liam Rosenior brings to the team but Joe Dudgeon has impressed in pre-season. He’s tenacious, brave, quick and energetic. He doesn’t shirk responsibility and he looks to have a good sense of where he should be and what he should be doing. Chester and Hobbs are still magnificent. Chester’s positioning is excellent and Hobbs would stand in the way of a Panzer if it threatened to shoot at our goal. In a very rare lapse, Chesterfield trialist Rohan Ricketts played a ball over the top which Chester couldn’t cut out and Gulasci had to race off his line to deny Jack Lester. Lester is still an excellent footballer with incredible movement. I’ve no idea what he’s been doing in League Two for the last few years.
City threatened to open the scoring, Adebola bludgeoned his way through their defence and passed to Fryatt who, with the goal near empty, shot weakly and saw it kicked off the line. Fryatt wouldn’t be denied a third time though. Citymoved the ball from right to left through Koren, Adebola, McKenna and Evans. Fryatt picked up deep, skinned a defender and slid in Koren. Koren’s shot was half blocked but Fryatt had continued his run, controlled the ricochet and volleyed neatly past Lee.
A response never really came from Chesterfield and we remained in control through to half time. Robbie Brady burst past the full back and hit a superb shot that Tommy Lee turned around the post. Robert Koren had numerous shots blocked by brave defenders in blue, marshalled by the excellent Aaron Downes. Half time rolled around and with a decent 45 minutes work done, Nigel Pearson looked to protect his players for the big one on Friday.
City started the second half: Basso; Rosenior, Dawson, Chester, Hobbs; Devitt, Pusic, Harper, Cairney; Fryatt, Adebola. We made another bright start and with Adebola and Fryatt linking up nicely, made a couple of chances. Pusic rattled a shot towards the top right hand corner that Lee saved well but our Austrian temp had given Downes’ shirt a tug. Then Adebola crafted a chance for Fryatt with another super knockdown, Lee saved well at Fryatt’s feet but Cairney pounced on the loose ball and squared for Adebola who volleyed over with the goal gaping. He was on the stretch but should still have scored.
Barmby, East and Atkinson replaced Fryatt, Rosenior and Adebola. Pusic moved up front with Saint Nick and immediately disappeared from the game completely. He’d been OK on the left, he’s technically very good, looks quick and moves inside nicely. On one viewing, he doesn’t look much better than Tijani Belaid was but he’s got a little bit about him. He’s no striker though. The best player on the pitch was Nick Barmby who plonked himself in the middle of the pitch, accepted simple passes and put the youthful legs of Devitt and Atkinson to good use, in behind their defence with defenders chasing them like fat coppers chasing stubbly robbers in old cartoon strips.
Atkinson was the first beneficiary but he turned down a superb shooting opportunity and the chance disappeared. Later Jamie Devitt raced onto a super Barmby pass and as he went to pull the trigger, Downes pinched the ball off his toe. Great defending. In between, Barmby was involved again as we won a corner. Devitt delivered deep to Chester, a tactic we’d used a few times, with Chester heading back into the danger area. This time though, perhaps fortunately, Chester’s powerful header looped over Tommy Lee and into the net. The game died out a little after that, thought Tom Cairney did force a good stop from substitute ‘keeper Fleming after Barmby, Pusic and Atkinson had worked the ball brilliantly across the box and laid it off for Cairney to shoot. Sonny Bradley gave Jack Hobbs a breather for the last 10 or so and City ran out comfortable winners.
Nigel Pearson won’t get carried away with 5 wins from 5 in pre-season but I’m sure he’ll be pleased that the new boys have settled quickly, we’re defending stubbornly and we’re playing attractive, attacking football. Our central midfielders work hard to keep us on the front foot and the front two and wingers are flexible, quick and direct. It’s a nice formula and it will be interesting to see it put to the test for real on Friday.
There were a few disappointing performances today. Andy Dawson looked leaden footed replacing Joe Dudgeon and was beaten by Jack Lester on one occasion with frightening ease. James Harper takes up great positions and provides a good voice but his passing is literally hit and miss. Tom Cairney didn’t really push for a midfield place after some good performances recently. He didn’t give us what McKenna and Evans had before the break. He looks useful around the box but there’s no argument for him instead of the four who started the first half. Basso looks like a mistake is a “when”, not an “if”. Otherwise, we look a well knit unit and have more pace, energy and presence than we did last season.
Time will tell all.