Saturday, 31 October 2015

MK Dons 0 Hull City 2: The view from the stands

Hull City closed the gap on Brighton at the top of the Championship table to two points with a workmanlike 2-0 victory at MK Dons.

It was my first visit to “Stadium:MK” as it probably was for most City fans. It’s a stadium with an unholy amount of seats and a quiet ridiculous amount of executive boxes. Despite being nice as a piece of architecture, well-engineered and well designed as a community venue – it’s not a great football stadium. It’s vast for the size of the crowds it attracts and completely non-atmospheric. 2,600+ away fans would fill most visiting enclosures and make a hell of a lot of noise but even an enthusiastic band of Tigers fans couldn’t liven up that thing. There’s nothing particularly distinguishing about it either. It could be anywhere and belong to any club. Some would call that apt.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Alex Bruce – Andy Robertson
Ahmed Elmohamady – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Chuba Akpom

City were unchanged from the fine win over Birmingham and, in truth, won at a canter. There won’t be much to this as a match report because little happened. MK Dons may well be the worst team I’ve seen in the Championship in the last ten years of City’s involvement. They have decent football principles but to a man they are League One players and as a whole they failed to ever take a stranglehold on their own ground. The Tigers played at 50% of their capability and won without a scare. No scares. On Halloween. That’s horrific.

The start was as confident as you’d expect from a team who were unbeaten in seven going in and had won three games in a week at home (sort of). They made the game look easy and whether moving out from the back or counter attacking were able to cover two thirds of the pitch easily and swiftly time after time after time. The quality wasn’t there in the final third but stretching the game was very easy throughout. Disappointingly, City by passed midfield too often in a rush to get Hernandez and Akpom into the wide open spaces in their half when patience would have seen them kill off listless opponents much sooner.

MK Dons were just starting to get a foothold in the game after twenty minutes or so of kicking us when we took the lead. One of the many counter attacks broke down on the edge of the box with Akpom trying to slide in a pass. Hernandez reacted better than the defenders and slotted the ball across goal for Elmohamady to arrive at the far post for the simplest of tap ins [0-1]. Elmo didn’t have his best game and his crossing was particularly poor for his high standards but he turned up when it mattered to give City a lead that was rarely threatened.

They did try to respond particularly through the impressive Josh Murphy who had some joy against the also off colour Odubajo. Moses was booked for an early fouls on Murphy and then lost out to him a couple of times later in the half. Two dangerous crosses from the on-loan Norwich winger were cut out by the alert Alex Bruce. City were sloppy, perhaps because the game seemed so easy, and a few players got a rocket off Allan McGregor for needlessly conceding possession and good field position. Akpom forced a comfortable save from David Martin while McGregor saved their only decent effort when he punched Church’s near post drive to safety.

Before the break Elmohamady missed a golden chance to kill the game. He wandered in behind the dopey defence and rounded goalkeeper Martin only to fluff his left footed half volley with an empty net begging to be rippled.

Half time: MK Dons 0 Hull City 1

The second half was a turgid affair. Despite numerous substitutions our feckless hosts didn’t improve a jot and with The Tigers showing again their liking for retreating on a lead and playing on the counter it became a frustrating watch. Akpom tested Martin again from the edge of the box with what was about the only effort from either team for about half an hour. City’s counter attacks were undermined by poor decisions in the last third and MK Dons hopes of creating anything were nipped in the bud time and again by interceptions and winning challenges from the excellent David Meyler and Jake Livermore in City’s midfield. This pair continue to look the real deal and have ensured that Huddlestone and Diame will be spectators for a little while yet.

Mo Diame replaced a fading Akpom with twenty to play and Sam Clucas looked to have got through on goal after latching on to Mo’s pass. The whole City support had spotted the late flag long before Clucas stuck the ball in the net – except the young lady from China who had accompanied us to her first ever football match. She jumped up excitedly and gave a huge “Yesss!” before enquiring as to why the rest of us didn’t seem that bothered.

Steve Bruce signaled his intention to see the game out when he withdrew Hernandez for Shaun Maloney later on. It was a risky strategy to go without strikers for the latter part of the game but the gaffer probably felt he could have seen this one out with eleven keepers charging around. Dean Lewington picked up a booking for a foul on Meyler and thanked his lucky stars that his crude body check on Odubajo had gone unpunished early on and the boys from Sim City wasted a good late opportunity from a dangerous set piece position.

That should have been the end of the game but as the ball was booted up field by City, Maloney controlled the ball and with a runner to the right looking the obvious pass, back heeled the ball to put Diame into space on the left. He beautifully opened up his body and slid the ball in off the far post from the edge of the box to seal it [0-2].

Full time: MK Dons 0 Hull City 2

City will have better games this season but unlike some of the other matches we’ve played and not particularly impressed in so far – I really felt like this was a case of doing enough and if the opposition had stepped up then City would have too.

There were few great individual performances aside from the central midfield pairing but the centre halves were typically unfussy and the defence clocked up a stingy sixth clean sheet in ten games and improved the already impressive goals against ratio I mentioned in the Birmingham report to 0.57 goals per game. Over the course of a 46 game season, that would equate to about 26 goals conceded and a minimum of twenty clean sheets. I’m not sure they can keep that up because it’s simply remarkable.

The game wasn’t great. The MK experience was even less so. Regardless, this was a comfortable away win that keeps City well in the chasing pack in the Championship. When all is said and done at the end of the day and the dust settles and push comes to shove – that is all that really matters.

MK Don’s are football’s Frankenstein’s monster. They didn’t scare City today. The prospect of having to return to “Stadium:MK” next season might, mind.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Hull City 1 Leicester City 1 (5-4 pens): The joyous view from the stands

Hull City reached a historic first ever League Cup quarter final beating Leicester City 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw at the KC Stadium.

There have been plenty of great occasions and fine games at our “new” home in the last (almost) thirteen years but for its significance, the drama and sheer enjoyment – this victory was up there amongst the best.

If a couple of penalties in the shoot-out had gone the way of The Foxes instead of The Tigers then this would probably have been a very long rant about referee Stuart Attwell. But as they didn't then I won't mention the odious turd at all. I won't mention that he denied us two penalties in extra time. I won't mention the number of free kicks he gave for next to nothing or the number he waved away for blatant offences. Nor will I mention that the referee who once awarded a goal when a shot went WIDE denied us a goal when Schwarzer dragged the ball from behind the line. Not a word from me on the worst referee in the football league - no, sir.

City 4-1-4-1
Eldin Jakupovic
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Harry Maguire – Andy Robertson
Isaac Hayden
Mo Diame – Tom Huddlestone – Ryan Taylor – Shaun Maloney
Greg Luer

City dominated the first half in terms of possession and the few real chances created. The many changes to The Tigers team over the past few weeks, forced and by choice, benefitted City because there was a familiarity about the team, in spite of eight changes from Saturday, while Leicester were very disjointed. And, in truth, they were very, very poor.

Kramaric whistled a shot past the post after just a few seconds. I’m not convinced he had another touch in the game. His strike-partner Okazaki was equally useless. They were starved of the ball by the excellent Harry Maguire who got tight quickly time and again. It’d be hard to pick out a City player who didn’t have a good game but Hayden and Taylor both had their finest outings for us, Hayden particularly proving a very useful attacking threat despite the defensive role he was given and timing his runs from deep perfectly to join attacks and get into crossing positions.

The best chance of the half came on three minutes when Diame and Maloney combined to slide in Odubajo on the right. His cut-back saw Luer beat Mark Schwarzer but not the covering defender. It was one of few sniffs at goal for Luer who otherwise did very well in the lone role and made himself a good target for balls up from midfield. The ball stuck to him and he gave nothing away. He had a tough task up against the physically imposing Benalouane and Wasilewski but he kept them more than occupied and showed real touches of class.

Leicester were at their best in defence with a solid back four and the experienced Inler and King sweeping in front. City dominated the first two thirds of the pitch but it wasn’t easy to break them down. Their young full back Chilwell grew into the game. Diame and Odubajo had the beating of him at will for the first fifteen or so but he matched Diame after that. That was probably their one positive. We did open them up once more before the break. Luer cleverly stepped over Robertson’s low cross and Mo Diame arrived to smash it high into the North Stand from sixteen yards. For a player of his ability it was a great chance.

Half time: Hull City 0 Leicester City 0

City continued to dictate the game following the restart. Whatever Ranieri said to his team at half time proved fruitless. Chances didn’t arrive for all the possession and the refereeing became increasingly erratic.  Ryan Taylor headed wide from a Diame cross and then Ranieri decided he’d seen enough and introduced Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy from the bench. It would eventually pay-off as the finished the game strongest.

City started to tire. Diame, Taylor and Hayden all looked varying degrees of knackered. Luer, who’d done his job from the start, took a knock and was replaced by Akpom before Hernandez came on for Taylor. Diame showed his lack of fitness when conceding possession and was lucky that Jakupovic held Albrighton’s low centre.

The game was meandering a little when controversy suddenly reigned. Schwarzer fumbled a Maloney corner and Maguire headed goal wards. Schwarzer juggled it towards his line and then smothered the ball in the foetal position looking suspiciously over the line. The linesman was on the wrong side to have a view and this ref will never guess again so the lack of goal line technology cost us a decision. Within minutes still images and videos were flying around Twitter. The camera angle made it inconclusive but I’m fairly certain it was in.

As mentioned, Leicester finished the game strongly and Maguire and Dawson (twice) made crucial blocks in stoppage time while Jakupovic decisively claimed a late corner.

Full time: Hull City 0 Leicester City 0

The sense of injustice grew massively in the first period of extra time starting with Akpom being booked for diving when he looked to have been clearly fouled by De Laet in the box. I could see the contact from miles away but can only imagine the referee felt Akpom initiated the contact. Leicester then took the lead on the break after a City corner had seen Dawson head the ball back into the six yard box and Maguire head jump into the air before challenging for the second ball and being barged in the back. Penalty again I thought. From the clearance, they fed Vardy who looked miles offside and despite Jakupovic saving brilliantly, sub Mahrez followed up to slide it into the empty net [0-1]. I saw a still on Twitter that suggested Vardy was onside and Harry Maguire later said the same on the radio. Regardless, the crowd was furious given the other circumstances and it charged up the atmosphere.

Many other Hull City sides down the years would have just been victims but this one looks to have something about it and levelled before the break. Akpom’s low left-footed drive was saved by Schwarzer and Hernandez followed up to convert the attempted clearance from four or five yards [1-1]. A Hernandez special and a reward for an evening of graft and craft from The Tigers. All of them.

Half time in ET: Hull City 1 Leicester City 1

City made all the running in the second half of extra time but Hernandez’s deflected cross looking like it might spin inside the far post was as good as it got. Akpom, Hayden and Odubajo all forced saves but they were all comfortable for Schwarzer. David Meyler replaced Diame, who somehow lasted 105 minutes plus.

The Man of the match announced in the stadium was Tom Huddlestone. He had a fine night and showed touches of utter genius while moving the ball neatly and looking more mobile than usual. He was beaten by Albrighton on the edge of our box early on when he looked half asleep but otherwise, he really got stuck in and made his share of challenges. I’d have gone for Odubajo though. He was utterly tireless down the right hand side. The runs he was making late in extra time were barely believable. He defended superbly against Albrighton who looked their brightest attacking threat (and only one for most of the game) and supported constantly down that right hand side. He showed composure and quality in good areas too. Albrighton was recently timed producing the fatest sprint in a Premier League game this season. I’d love to see them timing him chasing Odubajo. It was Usain Bolt vs. drugged up Americans. No contest.

Full time AET: Hull City 1 Leicester City 1

For the second time this season, a City league cup tie went to penalties. It felt different than the Accrington game where a defeat on penalties would have been highly embarrassing but I probably wanted to win this one even more given the historic consequences and the still seething resentment at the hideous referee who I’m not going to mention.

Mahrez stepped up to take the first penalty for Leicester in front of the South Stand. Jakupovic went full length to his left and pushed it on to the post [0-0].

Hernandez, fresh from missing a pen at Forest, smashed his into the bottom right hand corner [1-0].

Drinkwater [1-1] and Maloney [2-1] scored comfortably before Inler smashed his penalty into the top corner [2-2]. Huddlestone stepped up and matched him with a beauty into the roof off the net [3-2].

Wasilewski then smashed his straight down the middle [3-3] and Akpom sent the keeper the wrong way [4-3]. Jamie Vardy was next and had to score. The Premier League’s top scorer with a crucial penalty. The story is written surely? Nope, he bangs it in the corner [4-4].

That put David Meyler on the spot to win it. I bloody love the lion of Cork but I was at Accrington and saw him blow a similar opportunity. Not this time though. He cracks it beyond Schwarzer’s despairing dive to his right and City are through [5-4].

It has been an incredible week for City with three home wins. The league and the season as a whole can wait for another day though. This was about The Tigers making our own history again. And Steve Bruce was again the man who oversaw that achievement. When you go through the firsts and the highs of City’s history – Steve Bruce’s name will feature time after time.

Bring on that first ever League Cup quarter final. Bring on Arsenal. Bring on Chelsea.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Hull City 2 Birmingham City 0: The view from the stands

The Tigers made it six points from the week’s two home games with a very convincing 2-0 win over Birmingham City.
Birmingham arrived at the KC Stadium occupying second place in the Championship and with a burgeoning reputation under Gary Rowett. Despite carding an impressive looking front three of ex-Tiger Clayton Donaldson, the exciting Demarai Gray and Jacques Maghoma it soon became clear that they weren’t on the same level as City who out-worked and out-passed them throughout. The visitors’ play was one-dimensional – bouncing the ball off Donaldson and trying to free runners over the top but that failed to hurt City for the most-part and the win was far more convincing than the scoreline suggests.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Alex Bruce – Andy Robertson
Ahmed Elmohamady – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Chuba Akpom

The almost unchanged City side was nicely balanced again. The system suits everyone and it’s weighted nicely from side to side and front to back. Both wingers cover nicely while the full backs overlap at will. On both sides there are signs of partnerships forming – particularly on the right where Elmohamady and Odubajo are working for each other and have both shone this week. The front two are also forming a fine partnership and are making themselves a target for through balls and crosses as well as a reliable out ball from defence or midfield.

Most impressive today was the midfield pairing of Meyler and Livermore. Meyler was quietly efficient, covering back intelligently tracking their runners and keeping the game moving while Livermore was utterly tremendous. His constant movement was hard to live with as he constantly found space around the midfield and in the areas behind the front two and passed with purpose. The energy and confidence he’s brought to the midfield both with and without the ball has taken us on a level in the last few weeks. With ten minutes left, Birmingham won a corner on their right and unsurprisingly it was Livermore who bust a gut to ensure they couldn’t take a short, quick one. He showed tremendous responsibility for defending and attacking.

Despite the early City dominance of possession, Birmingham had the game’s first big chance as Gray tricked Clucas on the right and slid across for Maghoma whose shot was saved by the feet of McGregor. Our ladies’ man seems to be over his crisis of confidence and is making the difficult look routine again. Kuszczak made comfortable saves from Akpom and Clucas and then the former took a decent chance off the latter’s head from a lovely Odubajo delivery. The game went off the boil at that point for five-ten minutes but then City visibly lifted the tempo with Livermore the catalyst and were rewarded with two quick fire goals.

A decent spell of Tigers’ possession saw the ball returned to Livermore on the left and he lifted it into Hernandez first time before it found Clucas. His cross lifted high in the air and Elmohamady judged it better than anyone taking possession in the box and sliding it left to Meyler whose perfectly timed arrival saw him sweep a low shot in off the far post from seventeen yards [1-0]. Two goals in a week is a fine return from the whole-hearted Irishman who’s justified Bruce’s selection ahead of the more talented but less reliable Huddlestone and Diame.

Before Birmingham could catch their breath City swept forward again through the marauding Robertson who brilliantly galloped down the left and passed to Hernandez whose beautiful turn and lightening quick low volley completely foxed Kuszczak who went down like a sack of spuds [2-0]. There was an appeal for a Birmingham penalty in the ninety seconds that separated City’s goals but I wasn’t looking. I know that’s a bit Arsene Wenger but I was noting the first goal rather than struggling to fasten my zip!

It really should have been three at the break as Elmo crossed teasingly across the six yard box and both Hernandez and Akpom behind him found a way to not convert from a couple of feet. I’ve no idea what happened there. Elmo wasn’t pleased.

Half time: Hull City 2 Birmingham City 0

As on Tuesday night, Birmingham made a double substitution at half time with Cotterill and Shinnie replacing Spector and the hugely disappointing Gray. It did prompt a bit of a response and coupled with City’s lacking of pressing in their half allowed the visitors to dominate territory and possession for the first ten of the second half. It didn’t produce much in the way of chances apart from a Cotterill free kick clumsily and stupidly conceded by Meyler. It did, however, bring the worst cross of the season as Caddis advanced on the right, attempted to wrap his foot around a cross and simply belted it into the advertising hoarding in front of him. Funny.

City then stepped up a gear and the game became end to end. The rubbish ref drew the ire of the crowd which lifted the atmosphere too. He awarded Birmingham a free kick for offside in their own box while they were breaking towards half way. Easily one of the poorest “advantage” calls you’ll ever see. After taking a verbal bashing from Gleeson he then decided not to award us anything for ten minutes to make up for it. When he finally did give us a decent decision, he set up a wall seven yards away. Refs have a tough job with hard decisions to make – I didn’t think the counting bit was part of that though.

City could have wrapped up the game with one of several chances. Hernandez failed to meet Odubajo’s cross (with his head anyway, he punched it and got booked), Clucas and Akpom had good low shots tipped around the post, Akpom had another kicked away by a defender and Clucas produced a fifty-pence header when he should have buried from Elmo’s fine cross.

In truth, City could have murdered them and made a real statement but were well aware that they could have left themselves open as a result and took the pragmatic approach some find frustrating. It wasn’t a case of digging in and defending though hence the chances created. But neither did we over-commit to attacks content to dominate possession and deal with their threat calmly. After introducing Maguire, Maloney and Diame from the bench we ended with ten when Livermore was pulled in injury time. Hopefully that was just cramp.

Full time: Hull City 2 Birmingham City 0

The result sees City move up to second in the Championship on goal difference ahead of a chance to make history in the League Cup at home to Leicester on Tuesday and a vital trip to Milton Keynes on Saturday.

That goal difference is particularly impressive because of the record of having conceded just eight goals in thirteen games. Only three have been conceded in seven home games (nine if you count the League Cup). That equates to 0.61 goals conceded per league game. The record low over a full season in the club’s history is 0.67 in the 1948/49 Division 3 North promotion season (28 conceded in 42 games). That indicates just how brilliant the defence has been so far. Much of the credit for that has to go to Michael Dawson who has lead the team superbly. He’s barely had a game where he hasn’t been amongst the two best performers on the pitch and has already been our player of the month twice in my book. He was magnificent again today without any fuss whatsoever. My favourite Daws moment of the day was when he met a defensive header in the first half but rather than just nutting the ball clear, he headed it into the path of Akpom to launch a break on the left – pass of the day that one.

I should end this with some praise for Steve Bruce after his part in two very good home wins this week. However every time I praise him, I end up questioning him a week later. So no offence, Steve, but I’m not jinxing this run….

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Ten years ago this week, Hull City parted company with Phil Brown. He was undoubtedly, to that point, the most successful manager in th...