Another top of the table side – Sheffield United – receive a decent going over by the Tigers before easing to a victory as the City challenge fades. In this case, the Blades allied fortune to good play in order to eke out a result.
This game had peculiarly loud echoes of the one at Leeds four days ago. We played some very decent football in the first half, reached stoppage time level (albeit at 1-1 last night, not 0-0) but conceded a very late goal and then, confronted by another goal which doubled our opponent’s advantage soon after the break, largely ran out of steam (and self-belief) second half.
Deja vu all over again.
The creepy feeling of having been here before was not confined to the short-term perspective of comparing last night with Elland Road on New Year’s Eve. There were much longer-term demons that came rattling back to make us suffer last night. Younger fans will, I hope, have looked forward to the first renewal in many years of a fixture which was by far our most regular local match in the mad bad 70s and 80s, and which frequently brought wild scenes around Hull Station, on Anlaby Road and the Ark’s car park, as well as round the back of Bramall Lane’s John Street stand, a seriously intimidating corridor which separated the away end from Sheffield Midland station. Skirmishing of that type and on that scale is no longer part of football, but it was heartening to see a Proper Travelling Support populating the Circle’s North Stand last night, and a suitably ferocious atmosphere was the result, at least for the first hour or so. But what was also a hallmark of those past games was rank injustice. Time and again we would be cheated by the Blades, by referees or by ill-luck that so consistently helped out our opponents that it could be explained only by a red-and-white pact with Satan (a coincidence that the demonic Neil Warnock is now their manager? I think not). So it was last night. Again. They equalised courtesy of a ludicrous deflection, of a type so absurd that you could watch football week in, week out for a decade and never again see its like – unless your itinerary included visits to Sheffield United v Hull City games. And they scored the decisive goal of the match in added time at the end of the first half as a result of a moment of criminally negligent refereeing. A blatant shove in the back on Price was ignored, the space where the fouled Price should have been was exploited and the ball was in our net. Our players protested long and loud, Mr Taylor joined in, the crowd hooted in disbelief and fury. Sheffield smirked. They know their history.
On duty on an evening modestly warmer than the sub-zero conditions that greeted Ipswich were:
France Cort Collins Dawson
Price Andrews Delaney Elliott
No Lynch, no surprise, but otherwise an orthodox 4-4-2, with Elliott and Barmby swapping positions regularly during the early exchanges. These were lively and largely well-balanced, until the first chance arrived on 13 – messy Tiger defence encouraged a sharp shot from ten yards, brilliantly parried by Boaz.
After that, however, we began to look the better side. On 18 Price sends a long cross sailing in from right to left, and Barmby, running alertly to the back post, is squeezed out at the expense of a corner. A couple of minutes later Barmby, displaying bristling aggression as we attack the goal in front of the rancid Blade hordes, chips cleverly up and over Kenny, who twists in retreat to fingertip the ball over the crossbar. From the corner Elliott makes poor contact with an inviting cross.
And then we score.
It’s not any old goal. If you weren’t there, make a point of seeking it out on television. If you were there, you don’t need me to tell you to go look at it again – and again.
Jason Price. He smacked it in from 25 yards. With his left boot. Making the ball curve and dip like Rivelino. Rippling the netting as the hapless Kenny flew through the air in beaten despair, his mouth agape at the audacity and genius of the strike.
He’s had a good holiday period, has Jason Price, and this was simply glorious.
A couple of minutes later a free-kick on the edge of the box allows Dawson to test Kenny, who tips the effort over the bar. But soon after, the scores are level, and in desperately unfortunate – though historically unsurprising – circumstances.
It’s a waft of a shot, it’s not going anywhere dangerous. It hits Dawson – in fact, it seems to hit him not once but twice – and spins up in the air, wobbling crazily. Boaz is hopelessly and, of course, entirely excusably wrong-footed. The ball, cavorting drunkenly as if on its way home from a torrid New Year party, could feasibly career out for a throw, behind for a goal-kick, back up the pitch into midfield … but no, it spins wickedly inside the post and into our net.
1-1, which is less than we deserve, but shortly afterwards, on 35, we are agonisingly close to regaining the lead. A free-kick into the box, a flick-on, and Cort smashes a right-foot volley towards the near corner of Kenny’s goal. It looks in. It’s saved. Brilliantly saved. Sheffield have a pair of porkers on the pitch in Shipperley and Unsworth, and keeper Paddy Kenny is no waif either, yet he belies his unathletic figure with a wonderfully agile stoop to his left to push Cort’s fierce shot on to the post and back out into play, where the ball is cleared.
A great chance, but great defiance by Kenny. But he should have been picking the ball out of the net five minutes later. Price surges through two tackles, Elliott crosses low and hard into the box and Paynter, judging his run down the middle to perfection, escapes the defence and has only to slide the inviting opportunity into the net. He runs over the ball and somehow contrives to let it bobble loose behind him.
And then, during stoppage time at the end of the half, the game is won.
This second goal was so disgraceful that I am doing my health no good at all forcing myself to relive its pain. Ghastly. I mean, it couldn’t have been more obvious. Price had the ball inside their half, their man came in sneakily from behind, barged him in the small of the back, sending him crashing to the turf … and the referee, though well positioned, simply waved play on. Webber picked up the ball in the inside left channel and he was in space – well, of course he was in space, the relevant opponent, Jason Price, had just been taken out of the game unlawfully. Webber sprinted clear, ducked inside and fired an unstoppable low shot past Boaz’s left glove, and a fine finish it was, but most strikers in this Division will score at will if their support players are allowed to clear away potential tackles and create space by fouling the opposition.
Sheffield Bloody United.
Into the second half. We’d played well. But I’m afraid I didn’t think we’d have the energy to get back into this game now. And I think the players felt the same way.
On 47 Shipperley skipped past Collins with alarming ease and crossed to the back post, where Boaz produced a fine block to a well-struck shot. A corner, a melee, a shot hard against our crossbar. And then on 53 we’re opened up down the right, quick passing, across the box, low shot, 3-1.
And that’s the end of that.
Curtis and Green replaced Andrews and Elliott on 62, with Price and Paynter taking on the front-running duties until Price himself came off in favour of Ellison on 72. But Sheffield United looked capable of adding a fourth through most of the middle stages of the second period. Webber danced round a sluggish Collins with impudent ease before scuffing a shot comically feebly at Myhill; a header from a corner flew narrowly too high. Dispiriting stuff. But later on we showed more dogged determination than we had in drooping at Leeds, and had slightly the better of the last ten or twelve minutes, though the only moment of goalmouth excitement involved a Cort header at the back post, firmly directed into the sidenetting. I think our opponents were easing down long before the finish.
Jammy equaliser. Disgraceful refereeing handing them a winner. Hull City versus Sheffield United. The sheeted dead rise up and gibber anew.
Onwards. For reasons of local pride as well as salvation in this Division, it would have been precious to have extracted points from these games at Leeds and home to Sheffield United, but the core of our campaign to stay up will be built on good results against other teams likely, like us, to finish in the lower third of the table. By my reckoning we’ve only got one such fixture at home over the next two months. So we need to be bloody-minded against the stronger teams we meet at home and we need to improve our results away. And get Coles back fit as soon as possible, reinstate Welsh in midfield and buy someone to do the goalpoaching task that McPhee was intended to fulfil. Give it a couple of years and we’ll be as resilient and as well-organised as Leeds and Sheffield United, and we’ll have as strong a squad too – but only sale of our souls will allow us to match the Blades for sheer good luck.
HULL CITY (4-4-2): Myhill; France, Cort, Collins, Dawson; Price, Andrews, Delaney, Elliott; Paynter, Barmby. Subs: Woodhouse (for Andrews, 62), Green (for Elliott, 62), Ellison (for Price, 72), Lynch, Duke.
Goals: Price 23
Sent Off: None
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Kenny, Geary, Bromby, Morgan, Unsworth, Ifill, Jagielka, Tonge, Armstrong, Shipperley, Webber. Subs: Gillespie (for Ifill, 76), Montgomery (for Tonge, 80), Kabba, Quinn, Kozluk.
Goals: Ifill 31; Webber 45; Armstrong 52
Booked: Unsworth, Webber
Sent Off: None
REFEREE: M Thorpe