Today, we witnessed the Tigers finest ever Premier League performance at the KC Stadium. In truth, it’s not top of a particularly long list but it does climb above the home win over Manchester City and the first ever Premier League victory against Fulham – on my list at least.
Not only did City hold on for victory despite being a man light for over 70 minutes but in doing so, they produced some of the silkiest, sexiest football I’ve seen from blokes in black and amber. Late in the first half the Tigers played the ball out of defence on the right hand side, from Elmohamady, through Koren, Huddlestone and Brady before Sone Aluko back-heeled the ball between opposing centre half and full back and Jake Livermore raced through on goal but shot over the bar. Chris Hughton stood on the touchline rubbing his eyes in disbelief while simultaneously having a quick count of how many City actually had on the pitch.
Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore made their first starts for City with Meyler and Graham making way from last week’s 2-0 hammering at Chelsea. Norwich arrived with several of their shiny new summer purchases barely out of the wrapping. If they thought they were in for a stroll in a place they’d never heard of, they would be badly mistaken. By half time Ricky Van Wolswinkel was dropping into his own half just to touch the ball. Leroy Fer cut a deeply frustrated figure. Javier Garrido went home with first prize in the “Kick an Aluko because you can’t get the ball off him” competition. Catchy name.
The game was even enough for the first twenty minutes with Emmanuel Tettey heading the only decent chance wide of the post. Then it turned on a tumultuous ten minutes. First Elmohamady swung a wonderful cross into the box from deep, Sagbo got ahead of Michael Turner in the box and the ex-Tiger hauled Sagbo to the ground. The ref awarded the spot-kick, correctly, and then proved utterly useless as Tettey held up the taking of the pen moaning about the position of the ball. That would become a theme.
Despite the gamesmanship, Robbie Brady sent John Ruddy the wrong way and a first Premier League goal for three years was on the board [1-0]. The game had barely settled back into a pattern when Mike Jones sent off Yannick Sagbo. There’d been a bit of verbal between Turner and Sagbo over the penalty award and tempers flared at the other end when Turner chucked himself down in the area looking for the ref to even things up. As the players wandered out, Nathan Redmond having smashed the ball over the bar for a goal kick, Sagbo and Russell Martin had a little tussle. For reasons known only to him, Sagbo tried to head-butt Martin. There was barely any connection but it’s just one of those things that you know immediately will be punished with a red card. The ref rightly produced one and my heart sank. Surviving for over an hour against a strong looking Norwich side was going to be very difficult.
Up to half time it wasn’t an issue at all. City left Aluko on his own up front and Koren, Huddlestone and Livermore bossed the midfield. Livermore especially had a wonderful game. His pace and energy were terrific weapons but his level of quality in possession was a surprise to me. He was outstanding. Koren was having his best game in black and amber (and putting in one hell of a shift) and Huddlestone gave us the calmness on the ball we knew we were getting. He’s a joy to watch. His one touch passing isn’t second to many. He switches play with the ease of a golfer chipping onto the 18th green knowing a Claret Jug or Green Jacket awaits him. He covers ground quickly and competes in the air. He was great. Livermore was even better.
City played delightful football going into the break. Norwich were rubbish. They were petty. Kicking us out of frustration and wondering why launching balls into our box was utterly pointless. Davies and Chester weren’t worked as much as you might think considering the disadvantage in numbers but what they were asked to do, they did without fuss. McGregor had far safer hands than last week and did a good job of coming for any balls into the box.
I didn’t think Norwich could come out in the second half and be as bad as they had been before the break but to their credit, they managed it. Even with Robert Snodgrass, who has tortured us at the KC once or twice before, on for the ineffective Bradley Johnson. Snodgrass engaged in a running battle with Maynor Figueroa. It didn’t appear to dawn on him that putting in decent crosses or striking at goal might hurt us more than throwing himself around and kicking the Honduran. The best moment came when Snodgrass lad a ball off near half way and Figueroa saw him coming, tucked himself up like he was hiding behind an invisible telegraph pole and launched himself shoulder first into the whinging Scot.
We had to deal with 20/25 minutes of pressure from Norwich. We dropped deep and allowed them a lot of the ball in front of us. They rarely hurt us. Their wide players only produced two decent crosses all afternoon. The second was a potential game-changer, Van Wolfswinkel meeting it with a bullet header that McGregor tipped superbly over the bar. “World Class” doesn’t do it justice; it was a wonder-save. Despite numerous changes in personnel, including the introduction of the always lively Wes Hoolahan, Norwich never got closer. McGregor made comfortable saves from Redmond in the first half and Howson in the second but had little else to do.
The longer the half went on, the more City grew back into the game. Aluko and Koren initially threatened on the counter and after Steve Bruce’s very well-judged substitutions, Boyd and Graham led the charge very well indeed. We came closer to finding a second goal than they did an equaliser. It was a great half of football. The sending off and the referee’s appalling leniency towards the visitors created a fantastic atmosphere in the East Stand. Blocks, breaks and interceptions were met with great applause as the crowd willed The Tigers to upset the odds.
Then as full-time approached it became almost as torturous as the Cardiff game on May 4th. The crowd knew what the players had put into the performance and they wanted to see it rewarded. It’s August and no game is “must win” in August but the thought of losing this one after such a sheer bloody minded effort made me feel quite sick. In the 90th minute, our friend the ref finally booked a Norwich player for a blatant pull on a rampaging Rosenior. It was their 19th foul. That’s before you count the poor sportsmanship, dissent and blatant diving. You have to hope an ugly little team like that gets their comeuppance and they did today - which is nice.
We showed our disgust at the adding of six minutes of stoppage time, presumably for a combination of Curtis Davies’ head injury and the time City took to make substitutions. However like they’d done throughout, City made light work of it. We spent most of it counter attacking and trying not to pass the ball to Danny Graham when he’d made a pretty good run. That’s the Hull City way. A second goal would have been way too easy!
So ended a really terrific 90 minutes at the KC “Sponsored by a phone company but incapable of providing a connection” Stadium. The Tigers really were fabulous. Apart from the lunacy of Sagbo; they were magnificent to a man. The manager deserves a fair amount of credit too. He picked the right team, reorganised properly after the sending off and then made fine substitutions.
Not all of the Premier League games will be like this. Which is probably a good job - my heart wouldn’t make it to Christmas. This should flood everyone with belief though. We can compete. We can go toe to toe with most. And we don’t even need eleven men to do it!
Ratings: McGregor 8; Elmohamady 7, Chester 7, Davies 7, Figueroa 8; Aluko 8, Brady 7, Huddlestone 8, Livermore 9; Koren 8, Sagbo 0.
Subs: Graham (for Aluko), Boyd (for Brady), Rosenior (for Koren).