Hull City 1 Norwich City 0

Curtis Davies reminds me of Carlton Palmer. And this is meant as nought but a compliment. There was a moment in the second half of a compelling and nerve-shattering game against Norwich City when the new centre back, on his home debut, made an interception, played a pass and then just kept on running. He received the final ball and got to edge of the box, ready to have a pop at goal before contenting himself with a corner and a deafening round of applause from the City faithful. That run, that spindly-legged, unconventional, utterly determined, manic run. That was the kind of thing Palmer did at his peak in the early 90s as a marauding, awkward sod of a midfielder and sometime centre back in one of Sheffield Wednesday’s best sides. It got him the 18 England caps that to this day tiresome people say he didn’t deserve, despite being in the form of his life. Davies probably doesn’t walk like Rihanna, though he may do press-ups like Sinitta, eat cakes like Tracey Ullman and vacuum clean like Susan Cadogan. But he runs like Carlton Palmer. And it was gripping to see. His performance at the back and as a general behemoth encapsulated a totally absorbing return to the Circle of Premier League football. That City won the game was slightly fortuitous thanks to Norwich, sporadically threatening but generally a disappointment, not creating anywhere enough chances for a team that had a man advantage for two thirds and more of the match. The determination, the endeavour, the enterprise, the self-made luck; all were clustered together by a resolute Tigers ten after a temerarious sending off for Yannick Sagbo left a bewitched 23,682 crowd biting approximately 216,820 nails. And nails is homonymically appropriate, as that’s what the Tigers were. Determined to put all references to Iain Dowie to bed once and for all were:

McGregor
Elmohamady
Chester
Davies
Figueroa
Livermore
Sagbo
Koren
Huddlestone
Brady
Aluko

… ish. All of our sides and formations express fluidity these days. With Danny “Jimmy” Graham, faultlessly isolated but culpably unenamoured at Chelsea last week, demoted to the bench and the exposed David Meyler also in a bib, the team looked somewhat more ravenous for the ball, with Robert Koren aiming to support Sone Aluko as much as possible. Norwich, elegant in a basic white with black change kit, had City’s great defender of the modern era, Michael Turner, among their ranks. The Canaries made the first chance when the gangly Leroy Fer, whose surname looks like the registrar’s pen ran out while completing the birth certificate, headed a Steven Whittaker cross just wide of Allan “Rioch” McGregor’s right hand post. Handy chance, gratifyingly not taken. For all the joy and excitement and summery eagerness that goes with a first home game of a top tier season, there was still the nagging fear that City might not yet be up to the job. And surrendering an early goal wouldn’t have helped. The visitors had another try through Nathan Redmond’s shot from distance that McGregor tipped away well, and James Chester needed to make a timely interception after Fer and Redmond combined fluently down the right before the latter issued a low tempter to the six yard box. City settled down, with the resourceful Jake “David” Livermore banging one shot over the bar after divine interplay with Aluko that included a backheel for the Spurs loanee to chase down on the edge of the area. It otherwise became a smart and open but largely closed game for ten minutes until Ahmed Elmohamady swung in a cross and Turner got forearms all over Sagbo, forcing the Ivorian to the ground. Turner wasn’t happy but the penalty decision was instant and pretty obvious, and despite a bit of needless gamesmanship involving Fer and the position of the ball, Robbie Brady was as cool as required in sidefooting it in, with John Ruddy diving the other way. Steve Bruce chose to walk down the track towards the south west corner while all this was going on. Strange superstition of his; firstly because he was for a while a useful penalty taker himself for Manchester United; secondly because the last time he refused to watch when City had a spot kick, it was missed. Be that as it may, this was a first goal in the Premier League this season. The first, in fact, since … hang on … ah yes, Mark Cullen’s close range header at Wigan in May 2010. And a first at the Circle since … back in a jiffy … blimey, Kevin Kilbane’s opener against Burnley early on in what was ultimately as wretched as countless other games that season, irrespective of the many there are to choose from. The maths aren’t pleasant; City’s first Premier League goal on home turf in 357 minutes of normal time. Brady’s penalty looked simple, but the churl in me hates the low, sidefooted, stroked spot kick because unless there’s proper power in it there’s a real chance a keeper shall get it, sometimes even with comfort, if he guesses the right way. Ruddy didn’t and so Brady looked like a phlegmatic genius in dispatching it. But it may not always be thus, as a certain German reserve team target man – and his ritualistic manager – may attest. Buoyed by the gift, City took control and with the wonderful Tom Huddlestone to the fore, exhibited some delightful touches and put on a bit of a show with pass-and-move football that suggested the rest of the team had learned quickly how to rise to the level of their division and the standards of their newest playmaker. Huddlestone really is a treat to observe; that adage of having the first yard in his head rings truer than most with him, as does this notion that some players instinctively know where to put the ball in the very split-second they know they are going to receive it. Assuming he stays motivated, he will be gigantic in a black and amber shirt this season and players like Brady can only benefit from his presence. But then, a setback. A big one too. It seemed that it had been averted when Davies, winning everything in the air thus far, seemed to take hold of Turner in as similar a way as the former City defender had done at ‘yon end but was bizarrely not penalised. In the box too, meaning some vigorous protests from the Norwich players and some evident wiping of brows in the home ends. A corner was given, and as it swung in and out again, Sagbo aimed a headbutt at Russell Martin and while only referee Mike Jones appeared to see it as live, he nonetheless was entirely justified in showing an instant red card. Foolish boy. He will now essentially have a month off, and it was notable that none of the coaching staff spoke to him as he trundled down the tunnel, having initially been persuaded not to confront the referee or the opponent any further by Koren and Elmohamady’s intervention. One nil up is good; one nil up to a decent Premier League team in hot conditions with more than an hour to play and shorn of a body is less good. At least as it was an attacker who had gone, there was little need to make any emergency changes. The defence remained stoic, Livermore dropped back a tad further, Aluko went wider and Koren did less of the support striker malarkey that had been such an integral part of Bruce’s game plan. This was no more evident than when Huddlestone found the Slovene square from 40 yards out and, striding purposefully, he realised there was nobody ahead of him and so tried a shot with the outside of the boot from 30 yards which Ruddy saw go wide. Livermore then worked very hard to get down the flank and find Aluko who did an exquisite turn to get to his favoured left side and curled a shot a yard or so wide and City, aided by Norwich’s bewildering lack of positivity despite the man advantage, continued with the same tone until first half injury time, including one bit of one-touch showmanship across the field involving six players that finally ended in a right-foot shot from Brady flying over. Norwich won a free kick in the last seconds which Redmond aimed for McGregor’s right hand post but the Scottish stopper flung himself across well to divert it out. The referee gave the corner but then blew for the interval instantly, and City left the pitch and the supporters left their seats with a strange feeling of satisfaction mixed with edginess. After all, ten man teams like ours don’t hold on to leads forever. Do they? A pause here to mention Michael Turner. At one point, this author heard a boo as Turner took possession in defence. It was a single boo, not long, not reciprocated but also not shouted down. Who on earth boos Michael Turner? Who is that dense, that pig-headed, that one-eyed? I know we have extremities among our support, but even so I did allow the sector of fans whose brains resemble their own feet some semblance of intelligence when it came to appreciating our former players. However, there is a school of thought among supporters of all teams that any player who leaves their club, whatever the circumstances, should not be anything but scorned upon their return with another team. And Turner is just that. That he didn’t engineer the move to Sunderland, that he didn’t set the fee, that he didn’t run up the debt that made his move urgent to begin with, that he didn’t take the rise out of the City fans right in front of him when he promptly scored on his debut for his new club against his old one, and that the first three months aside, he gave unflinching, massively consistent and occasionally life-affirming service to the club, putting his gonads on the line (literally) right up to the last seconds of his City career, seems to have passed these unswayable individuals by. They should take a look every day at that moment when his thigh stopped Lee Trundle banging in an obvious equaliser at Wembley. And then shut up. Turner still looks effortlessly good, an interesting and skilled disposition to adopt given that effort is something he possesses and shows all the time. Norwich, aware that their formation was now unduly negative with their hosts down to ten, sent on portly ex-Leeds gabber and creator Robert Snodgrass at the break. Good player, Snodgrass. Also very cynical and very belligerent. Maybe this was why he got all the anti-Leeds invective from Es 1 to 5 in the second half when Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson, just as stained by previous WS connections, were on the pitch and got off lightly. Or maybe it’s because he has a familiar and amusing surname. He was quite influential on the second half and City had to graft. Alexander Tettey had a shot deflected wide by Livermore, then a scramble in the box resulted in Davies heroically dealing with it prior to having elongated treatment for a cut head, eventually regaining his feet with a headband wrapped round the abrasion. What was interesting, and gladdening, about City’s performance was that they seemed agile and fit enough to counter attack in numbers when the inevitable pressure caused by Norwich’s extra body and desire to gain parity had cooled. Koren and Aluko combined sweetly in one such instance to cover 50 yards between them before Turner slid in to take the ball away from Aluko, as cleanly as normal. Howson had a swerving effort tipped away with some difficulty by McGregor, then the same two duelled again with a drive that seemed to rise at the last moment, allowing the City custodian to let it be. Norwich maintained the pressure; Javier Garrido chipped in from the wing and Ricky van Wolfswinkel chested down for Fer to slice high and wide. The Tigers rearguard fell short of proper concentration after this, conceding possession cheaply and van Wolfswinkel, quiet thus far, headed a pearler for goal from Garrido’s cross but McGregor was able to stretch up, tip over and land on his backside to roars of appreciation for what was his finest save to date. Apropos of this, Ricky van Wolfswinkel is a superb name. We should have re-signed Jan Vennegoor of Hesslink just for this game and hoped they went up in Dutch combat for a header together when one came back to defend a corner. The commentators on duty would have swallowed their tongues. Tackles flew in as Norwich kept a tight hold of the game, but still their breakthrough wouldn’t come. Assuming you were realistic enough to believe a ten-man City couldn’t hold on for an hour, it’s at around the 70th minute mark you start cursing yourself for hoping they might, thereby setting you up for a bigger fall and a bigger bruise when the predictable equaliser finally comes. Then when Davies, bandaged, drunk on the atmosphere, showing his desire, went on a pitch-length run, some of it with the ball, some without, his legs all telescopic, his athleticism incontrovertible, his directive wonderfully spontaneous, the mood changed. He didn’t get a shot in when Aluko played the final return, despite it being essentially two on two, as Turner was doing his usual shtick of unflustered defensive excellence, taking the ball off his fellow defender’s toes and dousing the flames. But in being so proactive he seemed to trigger a second wind among the other nine players, not to mention the crowd. Nails remained at risk, but suddenly it felt like City would hang on. With good reason. Bruce aided the situation by bringing on Graham as an effetive sponge up front, withdrawing Aluko, then later introducing George Boyd (was I alone in thinking he looked rather good in his brief cameo at Stamford Bridge?) for the immense Brady. Graham and Koren, whose continuing presence on the pitch was brilliant and puzzling at the same time, combined arrestingly on the right side of the box, with the Slovene’s final ball just too far ahead of the slithering Boyd. Maynor Figueroa, whose experience at the back (especially when making opponents angry) was invaluable throughout all this, took on Davies at his own game and traversed at pace down the left flank before delivering a final ball that again just evaded the willing Boyd. Bruce finally took Koren off to massive applause – when he’s like this, he’s still a master of his game – and moved Elmohamady forward while slinging on Liam Rosenior. Boyd turned numerous circles on the edge of the box to make room for a clipped cross slightly too high for Graham just as the board for six – six – injury time minutes went up. Ulp. Six minutes is a long time when you haven’t got the football. And yet Norwich seemed bereft of ideas. In the final seconds Snodgrass wanged in a desperate cross to the six yard area that Howson just failed to flick; any deviation in the ball would have left McGregor in trouble but instead he pouched it safely. The ball went to the other end, and as Ruddy belted it upfield there was a false start – or false end, if you prefer – when the whistle assumed to be the one ending the game actually turned out to be for a retake of the goal kick as the ball was moving. Back it went, down it went, up it went – and off it went. Three magnificent points. The opposition weren’t as good as they should have been. City were better than could actually have been expected of them, however. That really does bode well. Sagbo was a fool and no excuses were offered for his behaviour, but Bruce can now give the majority the rest they need and have earned. Davies was magnificent, Livermore out on his feet, Koren industrious as well as immaculate, Huddlestone dominant, Brady relieved of every ounce of energy in him, the rest all worthy of the praise aimed their way. Meanwhile, esteemed Messrs McShane, Fryatt, Proschwitz and so on can engineer our depressingly inescapable struggle through the League Cup at Leyton Orient in midweek. Then it’s Manchester City. Someone ought to persuade Bruce to try to win there. It can be done.  

Matthew Rudd