Despite indicating on Tuesday that the KC pitch would make it difficult to play the 3-5-2 system, Steve Bruce stuck with it on a surface that while patchy looked firm and flat and held up well. Unfortunately, it was that annoying game you get once in Spring and once in Autumn when the sun sits low over the West Stand and shines in your face for most of the game, or at least it does if you sit at the back of the East Stand. Thanks to a cheap ticket offer in the Hull Daily Mail (and Papa Allam inviting 360 kids & parents from Hull's Children’s University) the crowd was bigger than Tuesday. Charlton wore black shirts and white shorts, the shirts looked dark blue at first, just like Millwall. Their keeper wore all white. I joked beforehand that knowing us, he'd go home clean.
Tigers 3-5-2: [G] Stockdale [D] Chester, Hobbs, McShane [M] Elmohamady, Brady, Bruce, Meyler, Quinn [F] Gedo, Simpson
Gedo starting after his second half performance on Tuesday was no surprise. Alex Bruce replacing Corry Evans might've been a few weeks ago but Corry had a poor game and a half last week and Bruce hasn't put a foot wrong regardless of which position he's played this season. City started the game brightly and produced several neat moves in the opening five minutes. Elmohamady was heavily involved while Simpson and Gedo both showed their ability to hold up the ball and bring other players into the attack. Charlton's left back Evina had real trouble with Elmo throughout the game. He was obviously aware of Elmo's liking for delivering the diagonal ball early so he positioned himself to stop the crosses which left him in a position where Elmo could just run past him. When he blocked the run into space, Elmo delivered early. The only real problem with our attacks in the first half was that they were too Elmo-centric. Rarely did we get Brady into the same positions. If I was an opposition manager coming to the KC, I'd put a defensive left midfielder in place to cut out the space in front of the left back.
The first real effort on the Charlton goal came from a right wing cross but not from Elmo, from Paul McShane. McShane just failed to connect with Brady's deep corner. Elmo retrieved the ball and fed McShane who whipped in a tremendous cross that found Meyler at the far post. He headed it back beyond the 'keeper but it was booted off the line. After the early City pressure, Charlton began to feel their way into the game and a couple of silly free-kicks gave them the opportunity to pile men into our box. David Stockdale came and punched twice and David Meyler threw himself in the way of a great strike returning the first punch. Possessions was split about 50/50 for 20 minutes and another frustrating afternoon looked possible. Then a Tigers break saw Gedo pick up the ball, find Meyler who returned the ball in behind and Johnnie Jackson slid in to deny Gedo and concede a corner. Brady swing the corner in, Ben Hamer tried to punch and got nowhere near it, Elmo tapped the ball goalwards and Gedo spun and poked it home [1-0]. The finish was a simple one but it was Gedo's quick reactions and goalscoring instinct that made it possible.
Ricardo Fuller was up front for Charlton. He looked a decent signing for them but hasn't produced a whole lot. He didn't today either, besides the odd glimpse. He did fasten on to one long ball and took the ball past Hobbs before hitting the deck on the corner of the penalty area. I thought it was a foul but the Ref didn't and told Fuller to get up. Fuller stayed down "injured" but jumped up after a squirt with the magic spray and gave the Ref a gob full for not awarding the free-kick. The Ref responded with a yellow card. Jackson dragged Fuller away before he talked himself into a second one. City were settled by the goal and passed the ball a little more crisply. Simpson and Gedo worked hard to make themselves available. Simpson held the ball up well while Gedo showed a great knack for laying the ball off first time with his head or a lovely cushioned volley. Thanks to Leon Cort, the teams went in at 1-0. Elmo switched the play to Robbie Brady on the left, he held up the ball, let Quinn run in behind and flicked the ball through two defenders to Quinn. His cross skimmed off the head of Simpson, taking it away from Gedo flying in behind, but Elmo once again retrieved the ball and teed up Meyler whose shot was arrowing towards the top left hand corner when Cort flung himself at it and headed it over.
City wasted an early chance to double the lead in the second half. Brady took a short corner to Elmo who crossed to McShane. It was a good chance, 8 yards out, but McShane kicked the ground instead of the ball. Stephen Quinn then broke towards goal but Jackson brought him down and was booked. Brady hit the free-kick hard but it was always rising and flew 2-3 feet over. Quinn was chopped down several times, twice without anything being awarded, much to his frustration. Charlton has barely had a look-in at the other end but their luck was about to change. McShane was in the process of clearing up nicely behind Brady when he felt his hamstring. Like any clever pro he limped back onto the pitch and then went down requiring medical attention. The Charlton fans went mental, just as we would in their position. Ahmed Fathi replaced McShane and took up the defensive midfield role with Alex Bruce dropping into the back three. The change disrupted City and we had a major wobble. Too often we tried to take the ball down to play it out and under-estimated the pressure from Charlton leading to hurried clearances and the odd up and under.
From the corner McShane conceded while injuring himself, Ricardo Fuller raced across the near post and headed powerfully into the net pole. City, playing on the break, forced a first save from Hamer when Brady headed Elmo's cross back to Meyler, accidentally, and the Irishman shot with power but at a good height for the 'keeper. Another neat move saw City play the ball from Chester near our penalty area through midfield to release Brady on the left. He was forced to check back in and found Fathi who switched play nicely to Elmo and his cross was volleyed over by Gedo. Robert Koren came on to replace Jay Simpson who received an appreciative applause from the City fans. Either side of the change, Charlton should have equalised. Robbie Brady was caught by Wilson clearing the ball and collapsed in a heap. City played on but lost the ball allowing Charlton to come at us. The City players were pre-occupied with asking them to put the ball out while the crowd booed Charlton's possession. They had no reason to put the ball out though, we hadn't. Fortunately Elmo was still alert and as the ball was played through to Pritchard, he put just enough pressure on to ensure the shot from 12 yards went just wide of Stockdale's right hand post. After the change, Charlton sub Haynes went through in similar fashion and shot straight at Stockdale.
The pattern of the game was set for the last 10 minutes. Charlton played with urgency, getting the ball forward quickly and getting players forward. City played on the break with Koren, eager to impress, pulling the strings. Gedo, who'd looked miles short of fitness at Brighton a week ago, was still full of running. He raced onto a Koren through ball but the advancing keeper forced him wide and we had to settle for a corner. Koren then slid a tremendous ball in behind but Gedo didn't anticipate it. I'm not sure anyone would have. Koren then volleyed wide hurriedly from distance trying to catch out the 'keeper who'd left his goal before he played in Gedo on the right and his cross was headed over by Meyler at the near post. On 84 minutes, Charlton's big chance arrived. Wright-Phillips crossed to the near post where Haynes got across Hobbs and flicked goalwards. Stockdale stood up tall and blocked it. At that point, the late equaliser looked inevitable. Instead, we spent the last couple of minutes plus added time bombarding them on the break. How we didn't score a second, I'll never know. Cairney replaced Gedo to run down the clock and allow our goalscorer a deserved round of applause and almost immediately latched on to a poor back-pass and raced towards goal but tripped himself up and went sprawling. Elmo went free on the right but pulled the ball back poorly with three waiting. With the last play of the game, Cairney forced a fine save from Hamer. He finally got that kit dirty. The linesman showed the number 44 for a Charlton sub and then four minutes for added time. The Ref got them mixed up and only realised half an hour into stoppage time! At least it felt that way.
With the news coming through that Watford and Palace had both won, this was a crucial victory. It also puts lots of pressure on Leicester to win their games in hand. The Hull Daily Mail reported this morning that Steve Bruce was putting more importance on results rather than performances and his words were born out with this game. Once the final whistle went, the performance became irrelevant. The record book says we won and took three points and little else matters. I overheard a lot of people talking about our lack of goals but that also doesn't matter. You need to score one more than the opposition most weeks and you'll be fine. We finished 8th last season without being prolific and we're in the top two approaching the business end of this season without scoring too many more. We're a team who don't concede a lot of goals and nick tight games. We have to accept that as it isn't going to change now. There's no use bemoaning it. Just pay attention to the points column and have regular heart checks. Perhaps invest in a heart monitor?
Gedo picked up today's "Man of the Match: Paul McShane" award and it was thoroughly deserved. It's still early days but he looks the business. He's a quick, powerful runner, he's mobile, has great feet, decent awareness and a striker's instinct. The only blot on his copybook was a booking picked up in the first half for a ludicrous challenge on Pritchard when he was going nowhere on the touchline. David Meyler also had a fine game. Like Tuesday he worked hard to get back and defend but he showed better quality on the ball and got into the penalty box as he was doing with regularity before New Year. Jack Hobbs won some big headers as Charlton threw the ball forward at the end and Alex Bruce won the ball well in both positions. Stockdale came and punched through crowds when we needed him too and came up with a big save at the end. Ahmed Fathi came on for his debut and looked rusty. He was caught out wanting too much time in possession and gave the ball away cheaply. He held the position well, got around the pitch quickly and made a few decent tackles and passes. It's early days for him though.
Next up is Blackburn who'll provide a stern test. They already had a good looking side on paper but they've started to produce in the league and today's victory over Arsenal suggests they are full of confidence. I'd happily settle for a point after two tough games already this week. You'd imagine that unless Bruce decides to switch the formation, Bruce will replace McShane, who'll surely miss out, and either Fathi, Evans, Cairney or Koren will come into midfield. That's not a bad lot to choose from.
There are only fourteen games remaining now, less than a third of the season. It's getting down to the nitty gritty, to what Steve Bruce calls the "tickly" period. At the start of the season, I'd have bitten your hand off if offered a play-off place. It's getting towards the point where I'd be gutted to have to settle for one.