Friday, 26 February 2016

Hull City 0 Sheff Wed 0: The view from the stadium, not sofa

City were held to a second successive goalless draw at home by an unambitious Sheffield Wednesday.

Sam Clucas hits the post (
The visitors probably edged a tight first half but then came out in the second half a completely different team. Being wary would be understandable given our improvement in the second half of most games but this something else – fear. Sadly, The Tigers couldn’t punish their lack of purpose but it wasn’t for the lack of trying.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Curtis Davies – Andy Robertson
Robert Snodgrass – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Mo Diame

 City started brightly with Odubajo looking a real threat from full back and Snodgrass pulling the strings. Wednesday got behind the ball quickly when we attacked and the two holding midfielders dropped but they were leaving four up front to counter if moves broke down and when that happened – they shifted the ball quickly and cleverly and caused some problems. For all the good approach play, City’s crossing and passing around the area let us down time and again – particularly from Odubajo who is tremendous running with the ball and has great movement off it but his crossing can be anywhere between excellent and diabolical.

Wednesday forced the first save of the game when McGregor stuck out a right boot to spare Davies’ blushes after he deflected Forestieri’s cross goalwards. City went down the other end, Snodgrass opened up space on the right, Livermore found Odubajo and his cross fell to Snodgrass, now at the far post, who forced a save with a powerful volley. The game was swinging towards Wednesday who had a little bit more threat around the box thanks to the enigmatic but dishonest Forestieri. He forced a tremendous save from McGregor from a direct free kick at least thirty yards out and minutes later smashed the crossbar with a drive from equal distance but way out on the right hand side.

Half time: Hull City 0 Sheffield Wednesday 0

The Tigers improved after the break but were helped by their attitude. I genuinely can’t imagine what was said in their dressing room at half time. Something along the lines of “You’ve done well boys, you’re threatening on the break and you could win this so get ten behind the ball, stop picking out passes and waste as much time as you possibly can. Capiche?”

Forestieri hit another pot-shot early in the half that took a slight deflection but didn’t fox McGregor. Diame then took an absolute age to get a shot off and when he finally did, it also took a big nick and dropped just wide. Clucas then missed the best chance of the game when Robertson slid a ball in behind, their defender got himself completely confused and as the keeper closed the angle on his right, Clucas lifter the ball over him but it drifted into the side netting.

That was a big miss because had it gone in, they’d have had to get men forward and we could have exploited the space left. Instead, they continued to retreat and space in behind was non-existent. City probed, passing the ball left to right and trying to open them up but they showed a lot of discipline and we had to work hard to make half-chances.

A rare Wednesday foray down our right was brilliantly halted by a Peter Beardsley-esque sliding tackle from Snodgrass who then found Diame and then Livermore, on to Clucas who carried it over half way, gave it back to Diame and he played in Hernandez who almost looped a shot over Westwood from eighteen yards. Nick Powell replaced Meyler in a positive substitution before Snodgrass went down on the goal line heading for the box. The ref said there was no contact which meant Snodgrass should definitely have been booked but wasn’t. I can’t for the life of me imagine why he’d throw himself down in that position when he’d just nutmegged left back Bennett and was heading goalwards. Unless he was trying to get Bennett sent off as he’d just been booked. Snodgrass looked furious regardless.

Powell initially took up a position on the left with Clucas moving centrally but then Powell spent most of his time running from between Livermore and Clucas. He’s an odd one. He plays the game without any sense of urgency which is often a sign of quality but didn’t particularly help here. When he didn’t have the ball he was excellent putting in two great tackles (as he did vs. Arsenal) and piling into their giant sub Nuhiu as he tried to waste time in the corner. He’s definitely got quality on the ball but when it’s not coming off, he looks lackadaisical.

Wednesday became increasingly negative and subbed on Ross Wallace to do nothing but chase Andy Robertson towards his own goal. They were clinging on but it was a risky strategy as the indefatigable Clucas played a one-two with Livermore and stroked a lovely shot against the post. Davies then headed wide from the resulting corner and Hernandez tested Westwood twice before the end, forcing a close range block after the keeper had dropped a cross under pressure from Akpom (on for Diame) and then a comfortable save from a curling effort after Powell and Livermore had opened them up.

They managed to waste most of the last ten minutes and the five added minutes to hang on for a point but not before they’d lost Forestieri to his second red card in six days. He pulled back Robertson on the counter for the first and then “dived” for the second. He was actually jumping out of the way of a late challenge from Dawson so was a tad unlucky but when you’ve a reputation for cheating – these things will happen.

Full time: Hull City 0 Sheffield Wednesday 0

The result isn’t disastrous given the good away victory on Tuesday but it is disappointing because we bossed a huge portion of the game and suffered a similar fate to the last home game. This is going to become the norm between now and the end of the season so we’re going to have to learn the lessons from it.

I’d question whether Diame should be starting up front at home. As against Brighton, he was fairly anonymous. There’s no doubting that he’s often involved in our best moments but he’s deeply frustrating for the rest and his failure to get hold of the ball and keep it was a big part of them wresting the advantage in the first half. I’d like to see two strikers at home so we can press the opposition high up the pitch and to give our excellent wide players a target.

Regardless of that, our decision making and crossing has to be far better in wide areas. Snodgrass, who looks fitter, stronger and quicker than he ever has in our colours, and Clucas had excellent games but wasted a lot of good situations. As did both full backs who worked tremendously hard but lacked a decent ball in and around the box.

We need to pass the ball quicker, particularly when making forward passes before the opposition get themselves set. There were times we did it well in the second half but other times when we missed the opportunity and then had to spend time prodding and probing. When the opposition are determined to get ten men behind the ball though, it’s easier said than done.

Off the pitch, perhaps a full stadium might help? Once again, for a clash between the top side in the division and a rival and near neighbour, there were thousands of empty seats. At thirty-three quid a ticket and upwards it’s hardly surprising. I know the club are aware of the situation and they’re messing around with advertising and videos and such to try and entice customers (none of it mentioning our name, of course). However, they appear to be steadfastly refusing to do the most obvious thing. Drop the bloody prices. Ten, fifteen, twenty. Charge what you like. But somebody reading this please recognise that you cannot charge thirty quid plus for a game that is on the telly in the (nice, warm) pub and expect a crowd.

Whinge over. So, it’s a point. Two fewer than we wanted but one we have to take and try to build on. It’s handed Middlesbrough an opportunity to take control of the title situation but otherwise, it keeps our destiny in our own hands. We’ve played two of the top ten this week, picked up four points and not conceded a goal. We’re greedy so we want more but on reflection – that’s not at all bad.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Blackburn 0 Hull City 2: The Tigers top the Championship again

Hull City returned to the top of the Championship, for 48 hours at least, with a fine 2-0 win at Ewood Park, Blackburn.

(C) Hull Daily Mail

Who’s your Hull City cult hero? I was asked to pick mine recently. Four names spring to mind immediately (I’m way too young for Waggy and only saw the last knockings of Billy Whitehurst’s time at City): Dean Windass, Justin Whittle, Ian Ashbee and Duane Darby. 
Deano’s an obvious one and despite his controversial comments about the “Hull Tigers” fiasco, is still my hero. Ash is a club legend who battled to prove himself after each of his three promotions and two serious injuries. “Sarge” is arguably the most important signing the club has ever made. Darby might be a personal choice but I loved him after he took up the incredibly difficult task of replacing Dean Windass and his six-goal haul against Whitby and appearance on “Goal of the month” just cemented him as my favourite Tiger in a dreadful era.

On to a group of players looking to achieve cult following themselves. City made the trip to Ewood Park. A return of three wins from thirty trips, the last coming in 1986, mean it’s been far from a happy hunting ground historically. One of the scorers on that last victorious visit was a youth product called Steve Corkain who was making his debut. I’ve not seen every player of the last thirty years but I thought I was familiar with all of them. I have to say – he’s one I’ve never even heard of before.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Curtis Davies – Andy Robertson
Robert Snodgrass – Jake Livermore – Tom Huddlestone – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Mo Diame

The one change from last week’s narrow defeat at Burnley was Huddlestone for Hayden. I’ve no idea why that was the case and there was no change of system to justify it. If the plan was for Huddlestone to get on the ball and make things happen – it didn’t happen during a dull first half. Blackburn were garbage. I was trying not to tweet it for fear of “jinxing” us but it’s true – they made Fulham look like Real Madrid. Jordi Gomez looked like he might pull some strings early on put if he was the puppet master, his puppet is knackered. It’s old and falling to bits. They seriously lack quality and the one player of any creative ability that they have, Ben Marshall, plays right back these days.

In spite of their uselessness and City’s superiority in possession, Allan McGregor was worked most of the two keepers. He saved low to his left from Marshall and later to his right from Craig Conway. At the other end, Jason Steele was tested only by Clucas’s tame volley after a lovely move involving Snodgrass, Hernandez and Odubajo.

City defended with calm assurance and had the majority of the ball but were clearly still playing within themselves. Hernandez was a willing runner but we rarely committed men forward and didn’t have enough of the ball in areas around the penalty area from where we could do damage. It’s always difficult to know whether it’s the manager or players holding something back but it’s clear that we go into away games showing a great respect for all opposition and like to feel our way into those games. It feels like we could dominate if we wanted but a level of caution is understandable given that not long ago we strode confidently into games at Rotherham and Preston and came unstuck against poor opposition.

An unmemorable half would have been anything but if Mo Diame had shot six inches lower on the half hour. He picked up the ball on the left wing, turned a first defender, put the ball through the legs of a second and then drove as a third and gave him another nutmeg before unleashing a decent effort from twenty yards that flew over. It was breath-taking stuff.

Half time: Blackburn Rovers 0 Hull City 0

If the team were restrained in the first half, they were unleashed after the break. Hernandez broke brilliantly down the right but ran out of steam as he hit the box and then Diame beautifully freed Snodgrass who faced one defender and had Hernandez in support but made a mess of a great opportunity. Robertson, who had a whale of a time roaming forward into the space left by the increasingly fractured Blackburn defence crossed for Hernandez who killed the ball instantly but shot powerfully wide of the near post. Next, Odubajo broke away and found Hernandez who set up Clucas to drive low and hard but wide of the far post. After a quiet forty-five minutes, we’d created four openings in the first six of the second half.

Just two minutes later and we’d lead. Snodgrass won the ball in our half and it found Diame who strode away, got a little lucky when his through ball was deflected rather than cut out and Hernandez raced on to the pass, rounded the keeper and slid into an empty net in from of the 1,311 City supporters at the “Darwen End” [0-1]. That’s sixteen goals for the season for “Abel H”, eitheen if you add his League Cup equaliser against Champions-elect Leicester and a World Cup qualifying strike for Uruguay.

Blackburn forced a couple of corners in response to the goal and Robertson had to clear off the far post after one awful delivery somehow bobbled past everyone until Ward met it but was denied by the Scot. The hosts would regret that spurned opportunity as Huddlestone dinked a pass over the top, Hernandez exposed their horrendous offside trap and as keeper Steele came out, Abel unselfishly slid the ball to his left where Diame stuck it into the once again open goal [0-2].

That was the end of the game as a contest in truth. City took their foot off Blackburn’s throat and with the usual raft of substitutions made it clear they were happy to see out a more than useful two-nil win. Tom Huddlestone, who’d put in as good a shift as he’s capable of, showed some magnificent touches and the again impressive Livermore added steel in the middle but produced a couple of moments that showed his tremendous vision. As City sat off, Blackburn were able to force some set piece situations, mostly awarded by the generous referee, and Dawson and Davies had to stand up to some balls into the box. McGregor made two fine saves from a powerful effort strike by Marshall and a dipping volley by Evans on their right.

City could have wrapped it up when Robertson, who turned up on the right several times in the game leading counter attacks, fed substitute Akpom but he shot straight at the keeper from six yards. I thought Akpom was offside but the linesman didn’t and it should have been buried.

Full time: Blackburn Rovers 0 Hull City 2

This game was won in the quarter of the game after half time. City’s ability to break in numbers at pace and composure in the penalty area put paid to a hapless Blackburn side. I’m sure it will lead to a discussion on just why we play with such tempo and quality only in short bursts but it’s hard to argue with the approach taken by Bruce given this was a fourth away win in five games and we are sitting pretty in a very competitive league.

Thanks to the joys of sat nav, I headed home via Rossendale. It’s a beautiful country road that twists and dips and in the last of the daylight, I was able to enjoy the combination of open fields and dense forest, the stone walls and the occasional building made of tough, local stone. There are worse places in the country to hear Radio 5 live announce “Hull City returned to the top of the Championship”.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Can Nick Powell rebuild his once promising career at Hull City?

Hull City ended their “quiet” January transfer window by sneaking through two low-key signings. Goalkeeper Dusan Kucak from Legia Warsaw for a small six figure fee and Manchester United’s Nick Powell on loan until the summer.

While the Slovak Kuciak is low-key because he’s plied his trade in Eastern Europe for his entire career, the lack of fanfare surrounding Powell is strange but unsurprising. If he’d signed for The Tigers two years ago, it would have felt like a major coup where now it’s simply a shot at redemption for a prodigious talent whose career is going downhill faster than Jon Parkin on specially reinforced skis.

Go back to 2012 and Nick Powell had the world at his feet. In May, his sublime goal, and sixteenth of the season, won the League Two play-off final at Wembley. In July, he joined Manchester United for an initial four million pounds. September brought a Premier League debut as a substitute vs. Wigan and a debut goal. In October he made his England U21 debut – having appeared for the national team previously at U16, U17, U18 and U19 level.

He was 18 years old. He was confident, bordering on arrogant. He stood a sturdy six feet tall and had undoubted ability in both feet. There were question marks over his best position but Sir Alex Ferguson thought he’d become a central midfielder telling the press after the aforementioned debut "We hope Powell fills Paul Scholes' boots. For an 18-year-old boy it has been a terrific day."

From those early highs added to a tremendous cameo in a 4-5 League Cup defeat to Chelsea and a fine performance away to Galatasaray in the Champions League – a promising career unravelled slowly but surely. There was little sign of that in the autumn of 2012, nor of the attitude problems that would end his loan spell at Leicester two years later.

Powell: “My dad will keep me in touch, I’ll tell you that. I’m just going to go home, have this great feeling and I’ll keep myself on the ground. When I first came on it scared me a little bit, to be fair, because I’m only used to 5,000 people now and then, but it’s a great atmosphere – the fans are great.”

Injury curtailed his first season at Old Trafford and in the summer, Sir Alex Ferguson retired and was replaced by David Moyes. Powell was sent on loan to recently relegated Wigan where he had a productive season, bagging twelve goals including three in the Europa League group stages. Wigan boss Owen Coyle was enamoured with him, feeling he could polish up a rough diamond:

“I've given him a platform to showcase his talents and Manchester United will get back a more-developed player with more experience and a player who can challenge; as we've done before with the Sturridges and the Wilsheres. There's no doubt from me he can have a huge career. He's got so much belief and ability in him and hopefully I can give him more and it benefits the football club.”

Sadly his Wigan spell ended with a whimper as failed to regain his starting berth after injury and then admitted a charge of drink-driving receiving a fourteen month ban and a £5,000 fine. Another season at United brought another manager in Louis Van Gaal and Powell’s stock continued to fall with each passing month. In his only appearance of the season, United were beaten 4-0 by MK Dons in the League Cup before he went on loan to Leicester and managed just forty minutes of football in three months. That spell ended prematurely as then Leicester manager Nigel Pearson was said to be unimpressed with Powell’s attitude to training and poor time keeping.

Serious hamstring problems kept him out for nine months in 2015 but he did return late in the year to make a couple of very odd substitute appearances in defeats against Wolfsburg and Bournemouth.

With his United contract dwindling down, Hull City have offered Powell an escape from Old Trafford and a chance to get some “game time” at the KC Stadium. That would once have been a highly exciting prospect for Tigers’ fans. Instead it was met with apathy. City need a striking option according to most fans and, most importantly, Steve Bruce. A midfielder who has barely played for eighteen months doesn’t exactly float the boat.

However, it seems certain that Steve Bruce will use Powell as a forward. That may not be a bad idea. When he became the latest name to roll off the magnificent production line at Crewe Alexandra – Dario Gradi was sure his game was set-up to score goals:

"When he does ridiculous chips and flicks I tell him, 'don't think you're going to score like that.’ He has now accepted what I've said to him that his future will depend on him scoring goals. I think he understands that now. Instead of ridiculous and outrageous shots, he's actually trying to put the ball in the back of the net which he has the ability to do, there's no doubt about that."

That advice was clearly sound because Gradi turned Powell from a player who scored precisely zero goals in 2010/11 into the forward who scored sixteen the following season – several of them sensational.

Steve Bruce will look to take a similar tact with the player whose ability was beyond question. Ferguson took five minutes to decide that his touch and vision made him a player he wanted. Bruce has to coax that back out of him while ensuring his attitude doesn’t derail not only him but Hull City’s cohesive and confident squad.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Powell will be to again get used to training every day at a high intensity while preparing, seriously, for crucial games coming thick and fast. Yet at that the same time, that may be exactly what he needs to regain his love for the game he has a natural ability to play. And play very, very well.

Tranmere 0 Hull City 3: Short and sweet match report

City progressed in the League Cup on a first visit to Tranmere for 14 years since a Craig Fagan inspired win in League One en route to b...