A nervous first half, which turned on an amazing lunging clearance by Leon Cort, gave way to a thrilling second period as Craig Fagan stepped from the bench to fire a goal and seal a valuable three point haul.
In which we got what we needed – and what we deserved.
A tough battle in the first half, an early goal in the second – thereafter it’d be misleading to claim we cruised to the points but we did feel the benefit of playing a team safely stationed in mid-table and not inclined to get down and get dirty in pursuit of an equaliser. But I shouldn’t be churlish to our team. It was a grinding win yesterday, but after the lack of steel late on against both Norwich and Wolves, the wretched ill-fortune at Cardiff and the terrifyingly stupid display at Leicester, a spell at the grindstone was just fine by me. I want us in this Division (and progressing) next August. It looks a much safer bet now than it did 24 hours ago.
On a day of snow flurries and bright wintry sunshine the game kicked off under the stern gaze of very (and unusually) able referee Mr Webb according to the following Tig 4-4-2 orthodoxy:
Wiseman Cort Delaney Rogers
Green Welsh Andrews Elliott
And inside the second minute the half’s best opportunity presents itself. A cross from the left by the Beast is bundled out to Elliott, who has time to line up a searing swerving left-foot drive which looks destined for the back of the net until Larrieu, impressively alert at such an early stage of the play, leaps to his left to beat away the shot.
A bright start. But on it we did not build.
Plymouth played with ambition, shoving plenty of men forward at every opportunity, and we creaked defensively. The lack of mutual understanding among our back four was no great surprise, given the weekly changes to personnel inflicted on that wobbly platoon. On 9 Rogers was culpable in sloppily giving away a foul on the edge of the box only to watch in relief as Plymouth made a horrible mess of the set-piece.
When we visited Home Park early in the season lightweight and unimaginative Plymouth looked worth a very short price to suffer relegation this season. The appointment of dour journeyman Tony Pulis hasn’t done much to alter the team’s ratio of wit and flair to sweat, but at least they are now sweating. And lightweight they certainly are not. Instead they are physically powerful and uncompromising – it pains me to see a team achieve success through an emphasis on brawn but I suppose that’s the bare minimum you need to survive in this Division. We remain a bit short of it. But we’re progressing.
So burly bustling Vincent Pericard was troubling Damien Delaney. Delaney never took a step backwards (I think he wouldn’t even recognise the concept) and kept concentrating on tight marking and physical determination. Hodges, Capaldi – two more imposing figures. Long-haired midfielder Nalis (hard as Nalis? Not quite that intimidating, but another big bloke) was being allowed far too much space and looked increasingly menacing as playmaker. The points were not going to be won easily against this side – though ‘keeper Larrieu’s timewasting tactics from an early stage hinted that the visitors wouldn’t ultimately sneer at a draw to take home to Devon in the company of their usual decent-sized long-distance travelling support.
So we were second-best. Andrews, most of all, seemed unable to impose himself on the game, though he was not alone in looking vainly for a way to unsettle the opposition. And on 39 the lead seemed about to fall to Plymouth. A free-kick is knocked into our box, Myhill punches uneasily under intense pressure from Pericard and the ball drops cosily to the feet of Nalis, just outside the box. He sends a firm low shot directed unerringly at the middle of the goal, with Myhill unable to recover his position, but is thwarted by an astonishing stop from the masterly Cort, who stretches out a long leg and diverts the ball up and over the crossbar. This is superb defending, and the Plymouth team is visibly open-mouthed in astonishment by the splendour of it.
A match-winning piece of defence. More than a turning-point. A season-defining glitter of resilient brilliance.
There are two minutes added at the end of the half, during which Green cleverly strips the ball from Nalis and slips a neat ball in behind the defence for the Beast to chase, but his shot is scuffed feebly at Larrieu. And the whistle is blown.
It had been a first-half of honest endeavour from both sides, but at this stage, as a City fan, you would have not only expected, but also even welcomed, a final outcome of nil-nil. We’d hoped beforehand to be better than Plymouth, but we weren’t, we’d hoped they might have their minds on the summer sun on the beach at Bude, but they didn’t.
Off came Duffy, on came Fagan. Duffy is slight, alert and very quick, and we are simply not playing to his strengths. I hope he’s being tenderly handled behind the scenes, because he is a young man with real talent. I could say much the same about Welsh, though his relative lack of physical power seems increasingly to be casting him as a Taylor unfavourite – he too came off at half-time, replaced by the (also less than bruisingly brutal) Noble.
Oh, and Fagan. Craig Fagan. A word. Lose the gloves son.
Y’know, we could do with a goal in this game. On 53 a free-kick, the ball drops to Delaney, he shoots, it’s blocked, corner. The ball is hoisted in and Cort, in space, heads over the top. Then, on 55, a fine move develops, the Beast takes possession and glides a quite glorious pass into the path of Fagan, advancing down the inside-left channel, and the speedy young Brummie shows commendable confidence for a man out of the team more often than in it of late and he strikes a powerful shot beyond Larrieu into the corner of the net.
1-0, relief is tangible, and, don’t doubt it, this was a fine goal. We opened up Plymouth like a thing that can be easily opened up, which is to say not like one of those corned beef tins with the fiddly little key thing stuck on the side that in my view they should have devoted a lot more time on Tomorrow’s World to improving on. And central to this incisive and decisive moment of football was the Beast – as he has been central to most, near enough all, of the attacking inspiration we’ve served up since he joined us. There’ll never be another Billy Whitehurst – football has changed a lot in 20 years and some of the physically direct and unambiguous deeds Billy used to get away with would nowadays land him a trip to The Hague and a War Crimes Tribunal – but Parkin truly is a modern-day equivalent in his sheer size, power and ability to persuade defenders that backing off is a better option than trying to go in mano-a-mano. Result: Parkin’s marker steps back warily, Parkin can bring the ball down and Parkin can choose a pass. And he can execute a pass too. That’s how we scored yesterday. Whitehurst, of course, would be Parkin’s inferior judged by delicate touch on the ball (Billy Whitehurst! Delicate! If you’re out there Billy mate, sorry, I’m not being rude, I loved you then as I love you now, but not for your delicacy). Even Chris Chilton, peerless target man, couldn’t play on the ground with the elegance that Parkin offers (though, to be fair to the golden footballing memory of Sproatley’s number one son, I suspect that granite-hewn gents of the calibre and might of Duncan Forbes and Eddie Colquhoun would rather have sawn their own legs off than succumb to a beasting as meekly as some modern-day defenders).
Rio Ferdinand. I’d like to see him suffer a beasting. John Terry, he could take it. But Ferdinand? Don’t think so.
The Beast almost scored again after play re-started, but his shot was too high. On 63 the Beast (again) surged clear of the despairing defence and, meeting a through ball, poked a shot goalwards only to be foiled by a good block from Larrieu. And then a Greeny shootfest – the first effort flies too high and then the second flies, err, too high as well. Still, Green’s influence on the game was growing. So, in fact, was that of most of our players. Andrews, visibly more combative than earlier, looked the pick of the midfielders on show by now and Noble, playing a more conservative central role rather than wandering free all over the pitch, looked well worth his place. We were showing much improved form compared with the first half.
Or were we? At first glimpse, yes. But the temperature had by now dipped appreciably and so had Plymouth’s workrate. On 72 they served up their only real threat during the second period, when a left-foot volley from sub Djodjoc was deflected goalwards by Pericard, drawing a fine parry form Myhill, but that was the limit of their ambition. It had taken a while but now we could recognise a team with nothing to play for. Fine by me – we need the points. But though we did play some attractive football in the later stages of this match, I think it was in circumstances which will not be repeated in the next few, considerably more testing, games.
Still, we can only win. And we do. On 80 Noble shots too high. On 81 a corner, won after an excellent dribble by the doughty Rogers, results in an Elliott header pushed round the post by a defensive toe. But, for me, the best moment of the closing minutes arrived with ten to go when Noble hopelessly missed a challenge on Pericard near the half-way line, allowing the Plym forward to race clear and beat Delaney too. It’s still 45 yards from goal but it could be dangerous if Pericard advances further. So Delaney scythes him down. Of course it’s a foul. Of course it’s a booking. Of course it destroys any chance Plymouth have of using pace to open up our defence. Ruthless and simply excellent defensive work by Damien Delaney.
There are four minutes added on at the end, but though Plym manage one shot – from Connolly, safely pouched by Myhill – it’s the Beast who looks more likely to provide the game’s second goal. He doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. We win.
We could yet be safe at Easter.
HULL CITY (4-4-2): Myhill; Wiseman, Cort, Delaney, Rogers; Green, Andrews, Welsh, Elliott; Parkin, Duffy. Subs: Noble (for Welsh, 45), Fagan (for Duffy, 45), Paynter, Lynch, Duke.
Goals: Fagan 55
Sent Off: None
PLYMOUTH ARGYLE: Larrieu, Connolly, Wotton, Aljofree, Barness, Norris, Hodges, Nalis, Capaldi, Evans, Pericard. Subs: Djordjic (for Barness, 67), Buzsaky (for Hodges, 70), Chadwick (for Evans, 84), McCormick, Pulis.
Booked: Aljofree, Capaldi
Sent Off: None
REFEREE: H Webb