When is a win not a win? When you’ve clumsily lost the first leg one-nil a week previously.
Welcome to my first official Tiger-chat match report. I’ve been hoping for a week that it wouldn’t coincide with our first ever European exit. But I’m not that lucky.
So the adventure ends before it’s really started. In a game without any real pattern between two evenly matched sides – neither of whom ever dominated but instead traded tiny swings of momentum. That was until the Romanian referee intervened and dealt our European campaign a deathly blow.
Bruce picked a stronger side than he did last week in Lokeren but it still wasn’t quite full strength. Lining up 4-4-2 for the first time this season were:
McGregor; Rosenior, Figueroa, Chester, Davies; Elmohamady, Brady, Livermore, Meyler; Aluko, Sagbo.
Given that the only real difference between Lokeren and a weakened City team last week was a ghastly error, it looked a side capable of beating them at home. We got the perfect start too as Figueroa crossed low from the left, their keeper Verhulst came and missed and Robbie Brady walked the ball into the net.
The goal didn’t give the game the lift you’d imagine but it did help the atmosphere with the KC at roughly 75% capacity producing more noise than any home game last season. The relocation of the “Ulltras” to the North Stand has certainly helped but 1382 noisy Belgians didn’t do it any harm. They kept bursting into some crazy medley that featured a “USA” chant at one point and ended with an ode to Ian Ashbee.
The opening half hour featured a lot of play but little action. The home crowd grew more and more frustrated as mistakes and weak defending let them in down our left while sporadic Tigers’ attacks ended without a shot, a cross or even a vague appeal for a foul to show for it. On 15 a shot from Vanaken hit Davies and flew wide though it could have gone anywhere. From the resulting corner Maric headed over at the far post when he looked well positioned to score. 10 minutes later Davies was fortunate to avoid contact with Abdurahimi’s cross and the ball fell kindly for McGregor.
There were early signs that the referee wasn’t like those we encounter week to week. He punished every push in the back, however tame. He also didn’t indicate advantage though as far as I can tell no-one noticed. Lokeren were a decent if unspectacular side. De Pauw stood out with his pink boots and impressive footwork but he was rubbish at shooting and crossing so we didn’t have to worry about him. Vanaken, last week’s goalscorer, was the most crafty player. Even though he’s got legs like two plastic chip-shop forks, he moved intelligently and passed well.
City came to life a little in the five minutes before half time. Sagbo, who made a decent contribution in the 20% of the game he wasn’t standing offside, chested Brady’s cross down for Meyler to force a save on the volley. It didn’t have a lot of pace on it but the keeper pawed it away like a kitten attacking a bit of string. Sagbo then had the chance to test him from range but shot tamely and straight at him.
Half time. One nil. No added time and just the one booking. Rosenior over-stretched and caught Persoons. He was being dragged back at the time and took a lot of the ball. Looked a bit harsh to me.
If City ended the first half well, they started the second appallingly. Gifting Lokeren possession from the kick off and then conceding a daft free kick from which McGregor tipped over Overmeire’s fine drive. The resulting corner was punched unconvincingly by the Scotch keeper and they kept it alive on the edge of the box before Remacle lashed home a shot from 12 yards with the possible aid of a small deflection.
It wasn’t undeserved. They hadn’t been second best and we hadn’t kicked on from the early goal. Livermore and Meyler created little from midfield and we didn’t get Elmohamady and Brady into positions where they looked like doing some damage. Amusingly the Lokeren fans sang “You only sing when you’re winning”.
Fortunately they weren’t level for long. Rosenior made a rare trip to the by-line and his cross was handled. The linesman in front of the vociferous West Stand (ho ho) immediately flagged for a foul but the referee didn’t appear to notice. Then once he did become aware, he didn’t seem to know whether it was in the box or not. Players from both teams surrounded him and the linesman marched to the edge of the penalty area to show that he was awarding a penalty kick. After a delay while both sides argued their case and the referee cleared the penalty area (slowly) – Robbie Brady stepped up and slid the ball into the bottom left hand corner. It was a terrific penalty under the circumstances. Shenanigans followed as City tried to retrieve the ball to take the kick off quickly, which is the most pointless action in football, and somewhere in the argument their manager Paes was sent to sit in the stands.
In amongst some comical refereeing Steve Bruce sent on Nikica Jelavic for Liam Rosenior on 65 minutes and switched to 3-5-2 to try and force the crucial third goal. Vanaken gets a lucky break and plays in De Pauw who kindly passes straight to McGregor. A laughable free kick is awarded after their keeper clatters into James Chester and then an equalising goal is disallowed for a very soft push by Persoons on Elmohamady. Aluko had a half chance but took the ball too far wide before committing a foul and Overmeire picked up a booking for continued arguing over the disallowed goal. The City fans lost patience with the referee and suggest he’s not fit for purpose. Unlike the Flemish safety announcements though – no Romanian translation is announced over the P.A.
On 70 minutes the tie turned and the laughable refereeing stopped being funny. Yannick Sagbo went in for a 50/50 with Galitsios. The Greek looked like the one who went over the top of Sagbo’s boot but he was also the one who hit the deck first and rolled around. To the astonishment of everyone the referee not only gave the foul against City but produced a straight red for Sagbo. It was an awful decision and one that would ultimately cost us a place in Europe.
They played out most of the last 20 minutes expertly. Killing the clock with well-rehearsed time wasting and cheap fouls. Just like we did so affectively against Stoke on Sunday. Persoons was booked for a late challenge on Meyler and Aluko picked up a well-deserved yellow for what must have been his 97th foul. Bruce threw on Huddlestone and Ince for Meyler and Chester in the 74th minute but it didn’t have the desired effect. The performance was summed up quite nicely with two to play when Brady ran 60 yards down the left outstripping the right winger only to pass to Aluko whose attempt at a return ball was so wretched Chris Lee blushed.
Five minutes were added and City pressed to their credit. The tactics were clear – get the ball to Elmoahamady on the right and pile Huddleston and Davies into the box. It almost worked right on full time as Jelavic forced the keeper to drop a cross and Huddlestone lashed it goal wards only for them to kick it off the line.
That ended Hull City’s first ever involvement in high class European competition before the excitement of the group stage. Before the opportunity arises to face a Napoli, an Inter Milan, a Villareal or a Borussia Moenchengladbach. Steve Bruce will take some flak for that given his team selection – perhaps not so much for the home game but certainly for the first leg last week.
I don’t think it’s especially fair. The sad reality is that for both his own interests and those of the club – Bruce has to prioritise the Premier League. Europe is exciting, far more interesting than trips to bloody Stoke or Sunderland and an opportunity I am gutted to see end. For the club though, it’s a distraction that they both welcome and dread in equal measure. Bruce knows he has to stay in the Premier League. His job depends on it. And more importantly, the club cannot afford to be relegated – we’re in over our heads.
The FA Cup run was similar last year. It was never prioritised over the Premier League but Bruce did warm to it the longer it went on. He sort of hoped he could keep it going without risking burning out his best players. Reaching the FA Cup final or the Europa League knockout stages isn’t going to save his job if (big if) the club were relegated from the Premier League – or even threatened to be. I wish he’d prioritised Europe as much as the next guy but I understand why he wouldn’t.
So we’re now left with the saddest reality of all. This may not ever happen again. We may never experience Zilina or Lokeren in the future. We might not get the chance to feel cheated by a Romanian referee. We might be condemned to a lifetime of trips to Leicester and London.
Europe. Over and out.