A return to Hillsborough after last season’s City victory sees Nick Barmby again equalise an early goal, but by the end City were clinging on for a point.
Like Saturday’s opener, last night’s Hillsborough showdown was, to paraphrase my learned fellow Tiger Chat match reporter Mark Gretton, a bit half-full, a bit half-empty, although not in the same way as the QPR game. Whereas on Saturday City had looked second best for long periods but gradually adjusted and managed to tough out a hard-earned point, last night we were – admittedly against opponents against whom we might have been expected to fare rather better and who, since I’m feeling bitchy, wouldn’t even have been in the same division as us if Myhill hadn’t decided to start his summer holiday three weeks early – the superior outfit, at times by a quite significant margin, for long periods of the game, and, having bounced back in style from an early Wednesday goal, spurned chances which would have been gleefully bagged nine times out of ten and thereby rendered the Owls thoroughly plucked and trussed before the resurgent home side, capitalising on a loss of City shape after late substitutions, stormed back, made the Tigers look uncomfortable for the first time in the game, and might easily have sneaked a winner themselves. We will say that on balance it was a case of two points lost rather than one gained, they will say that if the game had gone on another 15 minutes they would have won, and it’s hard to disagree with either view. What nobody else who was there will disagree with, I trust, is that, played out beneath the towering Hillsborough stands containing a whisker short of 30 000 individuals, it was by and large a stirring evening’s entertainment.
Last night’s line-up showed, not unsurprisingly, a number of changes; some easy to explain, others less so:-
Coles Cort Delaney Edge
Price Ashbee Andrews Elliott
Last night did not start well for me. The plan of parking up by Hillsborough at five-ish and then tramming it into town for a swift couple with friends was thwarted by my not reaching Sheffield 6 until shortly after six, courtesy of a journey over the Peaks spent breathing in the exhaust fumes of slow-moving lorries in front of me and the heavy Sheffield traffic (I’d forgotten how slowly traffic moves in that city). Wasn’t sure I wanted to sample any of the pubs in the immediate vicinity and so opted to stand outside the away turnstiles waiting for the ground to open in the company of a large crowd of hicks who looked as though they do that sort of thing every game, and furthermore that it’s vitally important to them that they do so. Having then endured over an hour’s wait punctuated periodically by a naff “Countdown to the return of Coca Cola Championship Football to Hillsborough” (err, ‘scuse me, it wasn’t called that last time you lot were in it) with only the beverages of the tournament’s sponsor for consolation the emergence of the teams onto the field through a dense swathe of grey smoke, but sadly lacking a revolving globe in the rafters of the main stand to make the effect complete, was indeed heaven-sent relief.
The white-beshorted Tigers played towards the 4 000 or so City fans (not as many as last year, but not the biggest game this year) and within a couple of minutes created the first scoring opportunity as Elliott released Fagan who crossed from the by-line, only for Pricey, perhaps distracted a whisker by the inrushing Delaney, not to connect properly with his volley from eight yards out with the Owls defence nowhere.
This was the only real event in a rather tentative opening spell which was then promptly broken on 9 minutes by a Wednesday opener as unexpected as it was preventable. Danger Owl Whelan was given far too much room to progress down the inside-right channel before steering an angled ball into the box which Best – with perhaps a question or two to be asked about our central defenders – ran onto and drilled first time under the blameless Myhill. It all looked a bit too easy.
But City were not knocked out of their stride at all, and responded almost immediately with Elliott wasting a good position by blazing his shot high and wide. He was somewhat closer with an effort from a similar position about five minutes later, by which time City were in increasing control of the leather, their slick passing, intelligent use of the flanks and lively running off the ball all leaving the Owls chasing shadows. The stage was set for an entertaining evening and more goals looked likely, and City duly confirmed that view by drawing level on 22 mins with a piece of sublime skill which, according to the media pundits, is an early contender for the goal of the season. It started when Ash – who turned in another excellent performance – got his head in the way of a bouncing clearance on the half-way line and looped the ball towards Fagan, who had been a handful for Wednesday from the off. As he in turn flicked the ball first time over the Wednesday back line, Barmby darted through it, it was one on one with keeper Lucas and the Tiger Nation rose to its feet. Rarely one to disappoint in such circumstances, the City number 8 cracked the leather on the full volley into the bottom right-hand corner. Three players, three touches, fifty-odd yards and the ball didn’t touch the ground once. And City did it. Sadly, Barmby was booked for his celebrations but that didn’t detract from a scintillating piece of football.
And now it was all City, who for the remainder of the half were in total domination, with Ash and Andrews bossing things soundly in the middle of the park, and produced some quite glorious passing play to which the Owls had no answer. During this spell the Tigers quite possibly could have bagged two or three more goals and put the game beyond doubt in the process. On 29 Delaney headed wide from a left-wing cross when he probably ought to have found the target, then Pricey went agonisingly close four minutes later, reacting alertly to a quickly-taken Andrews throw to loop a header over the stranded keeper only to see an Owl head it to safety from virtually underneath the crossbar. From the resultant corner Cort rose like a salmon to power a bullet-like headed goalwards, but the incipient roars of celebration from behind the goal were stifled as a desperate goal-line block kept the scores level. Elliott then stung Lucas’s hands with a rasping volley from the corner of the box, but the piece de resistance came on the stroke of half time with the noise from the Leppings Lane end of the ground now at crescendo levels, when a delightful four-man move ended with Andrews being robbed by a lunging tackle just as the erstwhile Wolf was shaping up to open his City account. Absolute make-the-hairs-on-your neck-stand-on-end stuff, and evidence that City have stepped up a level from last season.
During this entire spell the only instance of City being at risk was entirely self-inflicted. On 41 mins a long back-pass from Andrews (I think) was trapped in the box by Myhill, who then, inexplicably, picked the ball up. Luckily, the City netman was alerted by the howls of the Wednesday fans behind him and nonchalantly rolled the ball back onto the turf before the officials, evidently dreaming of their half-time cuppa, noticed anything was amiss.
The half-time ovation was rapturous, but ultimately the Owls were still undeservedly on level terms, so had our chance to win the game been blown? At first it seemed possibly not, for while Wednesday, undoubtedly fired up by the half-time rhetoric of that arch aficionado of the sports jacket Paul Sturrock, undoubtedly came into it rather more after the break, and could well have had a penalty on 49 when the ball made contact with the hand of Edge, who generally did not have the most comfortable of outings. It looked a strongly-arguable case of ball-to-hand, but we’d have been disappointed if we’d not been awarded it had the boot been on the other foot. The game then quietened down for a while before coming to life again on the hour, while Barmby, whose effectiveness had diminished after he had taken a clattering, was off the field and McPhee had not yet been allowed on (what was all that about?). Pricey received the ball on the right and went on a superb mazy run, the leather apparently glued to his boot, and took the ball to one side of the keeper before steering it goalwards, but Wednesday had got men back and for the second time in the game the Welshman was denied by a goal-line clearance. Pricey then blotted his copybook somewhat though by not covering back and putting Coles under pressure as a result, which on 63 mins gave one of theirs the chance to cut inside and deliver a curling drive which can’t have missed the angle of post and bar by much.
And now…From Sheffield…it’s the Miss of the Week (apologies to anyone who didn’t watch ITV in the 70s). And the culprit, surprisingly, was the mercurial Ulsterman himself. Another sweeping passing move involving several Tigs ended with Andrews, who on this showing will be a shrewd acquisition, in a shooting position 12 yards out. He could have had a go himself, but the cover was getting across and he wisely fed the unmarked Elliott, almost on the corner of the six yard box.. Again the Tiger Nation rose to its feet. Again, we thought, surely this time this is it. But, inexplicably, the City number 7, who to be honest had not been at his best all night, drove the leather right across the face of the goal and narrowly wide.
But that was the last time we threatened. City had been losing shape since the departure of Barmby, and the need to have an effective plan B for those occasions when the little fellow goes off or is unavailable became painfully clear. The crisp passing game was replaced by hoofing, which doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of either McPhee or Fagan and rather begs the question off why, if that was the game plan, Big Ben wasn’t let out of the traps sooner than the 84th minute. One also suspects that the instructions emanating from the City dug-out were to hold on for the draw. The entry into the fray of Greeny didn’t exactly make much difference; indeed, if the reason for the substitution of Pricey was his failure to defend it would have been better to have left him on, for Green’s little trips into the centre of the field when he should have been out wide left the harrassed Coles, already playing out of position, even more exposed. I have never really subscribed to the view shared by many Tiger-watchers that the Cumbrian is the greatest thing since soft toilet paper (in fact, I think he’s a lazy little get) and his showing (or lack of it) both last night and on Saturday did nothing to alter my view. This could have cost us twice when, as Wednesday rallied and the home fans made themselves heard for once (a sad thing to say for one brave or daft enough to go and watch City at Hillsborough in the 70s), an attack down our exposed right resulted in a cross and glancing header which luckily went straight into Boaz’s pouch, and then again at the very death when the overworked Coles was forced to give away a free kick on the edge of the box. When you consider that, sandwiched in between these two events, Boaz had to make a good save from their number 31 three minutes from time after the 20 had been given too much room to get his cross in, you will understand why those of the amber and black persuasion were the most relieved to hear the final whistle.
Despite that, the overriding thought in the minds of the departing City fans as they filed out of Hillsborough with the police telling us over the tannoy what wonderful supporters we had been (apart from the thick bastards chanting “United” at the home fans at one point in the second half), must have been about how the game should have been out of Wednesday’s reach by the 70th minute; the Owls could scarcely have complained if they had been 4-1 down by that point. By dint of a combination of bad finishing, bad luck and good defending it wasn’t to be, but for all that there were many positives to come out of last night, with some truly memorable football being played for long periods, and you have to be reasonably happy about the start we have made.
Roll on Saturday and the Moulinex, albeit with one lingering unresolved issue. Where was the Wednesday band?
HULL CITY (4-4-2): Myhill; Coles, Cort, Delaney, Edge; Price, Ashbee, Andrews, Elliott; Fagan, Barmby. Subs: McPhee (for Barmby, 58), Green (for Price, 72), Burgess (for Fagan, 84), Wiseman, Leite.
Goals: Barmby 23
Sent Off: None
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY: Lucas, Lee, Hills, Simek, Wood, Whelan, Eagles, Rocastle, Brunt, Best, Peacock. Subs: Proudlock (for Best, 45), Partridge (for Eagles, 79), Coughlan, O’Brien, Adams.
Goals: Best 8
Sent Off: None
REFEREE: M Jones