|Steve Weatherill reports on another season opener that promised much, but ended in disappointment|
|And how was your Summer of Sport? So many thrilling moments of splendour, etching the memory like diamond on speckled slate. The World Cup – the sight of a million and more jubilant Koreans thronging Seoul’s City Square like a lava flow of molten red or, on the pitch, the resurgent genius of Ronaldo, the breathtaking delicacy of the Borghetti bonce, or the fluidity of that gorgeous Turkish midfield. Cricket – the faultless stroke-making of Marcus Trescothick and, you know, at one stage I do believe I spied a Yorkshire bowler who wasn’t injured. Wimbledon, and the heartache of a nation discovering to general astonishment that Tim Henman would get turfed out of the tournament just as soon as he ran across someone who didn’t treat grass as a giraffe would the polar ice-sheet. The Commonweath Games, and the extraordinary feats of Ian Thorpe, the unstoppable front-running of dainty Paula Radcliffe and those mesmerising tiny shiny yellow skirts favoured by the victorious Australian netball team. And always looming on the misty horizon was the shrill bell that would awaken us from our reverie and send us trudging back to our daily bread.Southend at home was the uninspiring verdict of the fixture list, and now season 2002/03 is under way and … well! how about that!… so far it looks remarkably similar to season 2001/02. Bright and lively at the beginning, brimming with flair and promise, only to deteriorate messily and ultimately to deliver horrid disappointment. City led twice, Southend equalised twice, on the second occasion as the game laboured through the three minutes added on at the end of the ninety for the sole purpose of torturing the anguished home support. Meet the new boss ….
Mr Molby is touted as a devout 4-3-3 man, but the starting line-up looked more nuanced that that from where I was standing:
Glennon Edwards Strong Anderson Smith Ashbee Greaves Green Williams Elliott Dudfield
A diamond formation, if you like: Green played directly behind Dudfield, with Williams and Elliott operating consistently close to the touch-line, while the burly Ashbee and the fit-again Greaves performed the holding job in the centre of the pitch, a role that was our most obvious (but far from only) omission from last season’s tactical thinking. The positive elements to take from yesterday’s game? The attack. Dudfield, Elliott and Green were all excellent and, since we have injured bludgeon Gary Alexander to restore to the side sooner rather later, yesterday’s evidence provided a strong case that we will score a lot of goals this campaign and that we will do so on a rising tide of flowing, attractive football. Young Green, on a season’s loan from Newcastle, is a remarkably intelligent footballer. He passes well and, off the ball, he moves into space with a guileful awareness which far surpasses most of what we’ve had to endure from this Division’s midfield hammer-throwers in recent seasons. File under “let’s hope we don’t drag him down to our level”. Elliott is a splendid accomplice. He is fast, sharp-thinking and confident on the ball. He too looks a cut above the normal drudgery of this Division, and his wing-play should terrorise defences this season. And though you would be entitled to comment wryly that much the same was being breathlessly said of Beresford this time last year, I get the strong impression that Elliott is a much more complete footballer than could ever have been imagined of that departed one-trick pony speed merchant. Of Dudfield we know plenty already, and I am glad to be able to report that yesterday Lawrie revelled in this sparklingly fluent environment by producing the brand of trickily elegant football that in the course of the first half of last season stamped him as our most skilful non-Jamaican player since Garry Parker. The negative elements to take from yesterday’s game? The defence. Smith, Anderson, Strong and Edwards all had disappointing games on an individual level – I list them in order from “most” to “least” in the hierarchy of disappointment – and, furthermore, at no stage did they look convincing as a unit. Southend were allowed far too much room to devise attacking options, even deep inside the final third of the pitch. Smith, in particular, rarely seemed positionally alert and far too many Southend advances were carried unopposed deep down his flank. Strong and Anderson look ugly, as all true central defenders must, but their play is too restrained for my liking. Curdle my blood with your challenges if you please, gentlemen. Well, off we went, on the sunny afternoon that is the prerogative of the first day of any season, and a pleasingly lively opening to the fun was crowned by a very fine Tiger goal, rippling the North Stand net. Dudfield won the ball with a vigorous challenge and promptly released a superbly weighted pass into the box where Scott Green, sprinting forward on a run that was delightfully judged and quite enough to elude Southend’s baffled cover, converted the chance crisply with an accurate shot into the far corner from twelve or so yards out. A crowd of over 10,000, all but 300 of amber and black fidelity, roared, and settled back for more of the same. And there was more. A neat interchange between Dudfield and Williams provided space for the latter to dart clear of the visitors’ lumbering back-line – Cort and Phil Whelan? Built for speed they aren’t. Elliott cleverly pulled another defender away from the danger area with a nippy run off-the-ball, allowing Ryan space for a good shooting chance, but he rolled his shot the wrong side of the near post. Then a defensive mis-header invited Dudfield to shoot, but his low effort was saved by the competent Shrimp netman, Flahavan. The absence of comedy keeper Mel Capleton was one of several issues on which stubborn Southend refused to provide us with maximum entertainment value yesterday. Things got a bit silly for a while. A tackle which nowadays has players and fans howling “Two-footed! Over the ball!” sent a Tiger to the turf, whereupon several of our team surrounded the offender and jostled him. More Southend players scurried up, so did more of City’s, and soon enough most of the players on the pitch were performing the ritual “don’t you shove me like a tart, or I’ll shove you back like a slightly bigger tart”. I mean, I love watching this sort of daft melee, but, honestly, the tackle in question wouldn’t even have been treated as a foul back in the days of Duncan Forbes and Eddie Colquhoun. Nobody was hurt, either from tackle or subsequent pastiche posturing, but the referee, a small man with a moustache (where DO such people acquire their fashion ideas?), was in a blind panic, and simply whipped out his yellow card and brandished it in the face of – as far as I could see – four of their players, seventeen of ours, both linesmen, several St John’s Ambulance men, and the apprentice sweeping up the off-cuts of pig from the floor of Imison’s top-notch butchers over on Boothferry Road. In fact, further pointless yellow cards followed as the half proceeded to do anything but boil over. It was a sorry case of a referee hopelessly out of his depth, and it would have taken a brave man to express the view that we would not be seeing red before the game was complete. No such bravery was forthcoming and, as we would later discover, wisely so. Still, we continued to go forward with enthusiasm as a subdued Southend side looked likely to accept that Hull away on the first day of the season was best written-off as a solid no-pointer. Elliott impressed throughout down the left. He’s not a big lad but has an enviable capacity to bring down high passes from forehead to boot and then unhesitatingly to savage his nearest opponent. Dudfield too was in lively form, and he duly produced a spectacularly brilliant chipped pass into space for Green to race past the hapless visiting rearguard and thump a shot just past the angle of post and crossbar. Dudfield looks a little like Denis Bergkamp; this was a moment of sublime skill of which the transportationally challenged Dutchman would have been proud. Two minutes later Green repaid the favour with a cute pass that Dudfield slipped just wide. And so we hold a 1-0 lead at the break, and we had created pretty much all of the proper chances throughout that first 45. Defensively there had been occasional moments of alarm, the majority of which had arisen down the flank defended unconvincingly by Smith, but Southend had rarely looked capable of taking advantage of any scraps that had come their way. And so the complete alteration in the mood of the match came as a considerable surprise. We trotted out for the second half and never re-captured the confident swagger of what had so encouragingly gone before. Southend began slowly to assert themselves and, visibly puzzled as to just why they were enjoying so much quality possession, nevertheless found themselves playing with the air of a side that has thrust upon it the realisation that, after all, defeat is not inevitable. And so had the balance shifted. Time and time again Rawls, the lean number 11, was able to receive the ball in an advanced position, control it and look for the next man to pass to. Why weren’t our central defenders treating him more aggressively, not to say brutally? Graeme Jones looks like a striker in his final season as a professional but even he was enjoying far too much freedom deep inside our half. Defensively we looked ragged; the deep-lying midfield duo was less prominent than in the first period, with Ashbee, in particular, supplying a hot-and-cold first half/second half display. Southend levelled from a corner which was only half-cleared, nudged feebly to the back of the box. One of theirs controlled the ball, slipped inside and stroked a chip high over Glennon and just underneath the bar. From where I was standing in Kempton, it was a deliberate attempt on goal, not a cross that drifted crazily off course, and a reward for audacious skill. As the thread of the game had drifted out of our hands, it had been surprising to see no subs warming up, but happily that equalising goal acted as a cold shower to our team, and we started to play properly again. Smith knocked a well-judged long ball down the left side to Elliott, who squared to Green; a toe-poked shot flew just over the bar. Then Green surged through the midfield and released a delightful ball into the path of Elliott, advancing towards the edge of the box with a narrow window of freedom from defensive attention. But Southend were rapidly covering the gap so Elliott had only a brief opportunity to craft an attempt on goal. It was quite enough. A confident sidefooted shot slid cleanly over the turf, past Flahavan’s groping left hand and just inside the far post. 2-1. Elliott celebrated a delightful moment of exuberant vision by standing in front of Kempton and pointing up to the heavens. He is, I understand, a committed Christian and this was therefore his method of indicating to us that this was the first City goal that should be credited to the Lord since October 1978. Southend still fancied their chances, and came close when a delicate chip left Glennon rooted glumly to the spot, only for the ball to fall just beyond the crossbar. Our goalkeeper looks as chubby this season as last, and his mobility would surely be improved were he to lose half-a-stone or so. Meanwhile the sleek Dudfield found space up at the other end, and belted a left foot shot just too high. We were worth our lead by virtue of the attacking imagination displayed during the first half in particular, but the margin for error was narrow. Narrower still once Ashbee was sent off. It was another innocuous foul but of the silly type that the referee, now on to his fourteenth biro and fifty-fourth emergency supplementary notebook, had been punishing with yellow all afternoon long, and Ashbee walked. Dudfield teed up a shot for Elliott, which was struck over the bar. Philpott replaced Williams. And we were into the last couple of minutes. And then ninety was up and there were three minutes extra. And you knew what was going to happen. Our ten men crowded behind the ball, allowing Southend to compress the pattern of play exactly where they wanted it, deep inside the territory we were protecting. The entire Tiger team was all-too-readily penned into its own penalty area and when a weak Philpott header fell to Bramble, he had no hesitation about whipping in a fiercely struck shot. It was swerving well wide but cannoned into a limb ten yards from goal and the ricochet sent the ball spinning into the back of our net, with Glennon hopelessly wrong-footed by the deflection. There was, however, nothing lucky about that Southend equaliser. They took the chance presented by our witless decision to cram so many bodies into the area closest to our goal, instead of keeping Tiger players upfield who are, after all, eminently capable of taking and keeping the ball in order to run down the clock. When Bramble shot into that penalty box maelstrom, he knew he was more likely than not to gain a generous deflection. I’m looking forward to enjoying our attacking flair this season, and the speed of its delivery may make us even better value on the counter-punch away from Hull than on our own home pitches. But did I mention that our defence needs sorting out?
|HULL CITY: Glennon, Edwards, Strong, Anderson, Smith, Ashbee, Green, Greaves, Williams, Dudfield, Elliott. Subs: Philpott (for Williams, 89), Price, Musselwhite, Whittle, BradshawGoals: Green 8, Elliott 68Booked: Ashbee, Smith, Strong, WilliamsSent Off: Ashbee SOUTHEND UNITED: Flahavan, Broad, Cort, Whelan, Searle, Clark, Maher, Selley, Jenkins, Rawle, Jones. Subs: Bramble (for Clark, 73), Thurgood (for Broad, 80), Gay, Belgrave, Beard Goals: Jenkins 62, Bramble 90 Booked: Broad, Jones, Maher, Selley, Whelan Sent Off: none ATTENDANCE: 10,449|