Hull City 2 Exeter City 2

A point snatched from the jaws of victory against ten man Exeter.  Ian Thomson rises from his sick bed to tell another in the long line of City related sorry tales.
Southend. Bristol. Bury. Leyton. Rushden. Shrewsbury. Lincoln. Bournemouth.York. Exeter. Not a list of locations of hotels featuring in the Ibis Hotels “Winter Madness Promotion” advertisement in the Sunday newspaper at my feet as I type this, still less the list of venues featuring in the comeback tour of some 1980s never-was musical act, now trying to resurrect a career which never really existed in the first place No, this particular list is one which, if it grows any longer, will end up going down in the history of Hull City as the list of performances contributing most significantly to our failure to mount a serious promotion challenge in the 2002/3 season, being games in which the team through its own ineptitude emerged with a solitary League point when all three were pleading to be plundered. Our current record stands at played 27, points 37. Imagine that City had won just half of the above games (not an unrealistic hypothesis). Now reach for your Sunday paper and check where would be in the league with a record of played 27 points 47. No, it didn’t make me feel any better, either. Yesterday at the Circle was an all-too familiar tale. Despite what was ironically in many respects City’s most encouraging performance for some time, in which the message that we will be most effective when we play to our strengths and take the game to the opposition was actually heeded to good effect for long periods of the game, a draw was wrested from the jaws of victory in a manner which, not only do City seem to have got off to a fine art, but appear also to be the only team in the Third capable of doing. But despite the complacency and the lack of heart and application in defence in the final twenty or so minutes, this was a battle lost as much off the field as on it, with two charges in particular being justifiably placed at Peter Taylor’s door. Firstly, the substitution of Alexander by Williams, whilst it no doubt pleased the section of the East Stand continually baying his name (if any of you are reading this, satisfied now, are you?) was frankly disastrous. Alex had been having his best game since Carlisle; he was holding the ball up well, supporting intelligently, frequently keeping a couple of members of the Ex rearguard gainfully occupied in chaperoning him, and but for some wretched luck in front of goal and the excellence of the visiting custodian might well have notched a couple of goals of his own. Once however the diminutive one took his place City lost all the fluency and shape which, pleasingly, it looked was starting to return, and with Williams keeping back in midfield leaving Webb to plough a lone furrow up front we began to be pegged back much more frequently in our own half, when sticking with the same team and shape might well have resulted in City adding to a scoreline which, at 2-1, flattered our visitors somewhat . To compound matters, the City No 20’s own personal performance was a nightmare. He continually slowed down the pace of attacks and breaks by cutting back when there were options going forward; on one occasion he looked for the left winger quite forgetting that he was the left winger, and on another knocked a City clearance, from a position some 40 yards out, back into our box. The second Taylor-made howler yesterday was the selection of Delaney at centre-back. Why, for goodness’ sake, when there were other recognised centre-backs available, notably the forgotten man Greg Strong, was the absence of Whittle and Joseph addressed by drafting in a player suffering from that lethal cocktail of a current bad run of form giving rise to a massive lack of confidence, and being out of position?. Delaney is no centre-back; he hasn’t the physical presence despite his height, and has no conception of the fact that, especially when under pressure and a goal in front late in the game, the centre back gets himself between the opponent and the ball and takes no chances, even if that means hoofing the ball as hard and far as possible, which would have been a vast improvement on yesterday’s procession of balls stroked to the feet of an opponent thirty yards away. His exquisite ball to lay on the second goal notwithstanding, if the City number 28 is in the starting line-up at Brisbane Road next week it will be impossible to conclude anything other than that the only reason for this is that he is a Taylor acquisition and must therefore, as a matter of principle, take precedence on the team sheet over those who are not. Oh yes, and Exeter scored their late equaliser while down to ten men. If City had set out deliberately to fritter the points yesterday it is hard to see how, short of all other 21 players attacking the Muss’s goal, they could have been more ruthlessly effective at it. Guilty as charged were:-

Musselwhite Regan Anderson Delaney Holt Green Melton Ashbee Elliott Alexander Webb

As has been the case of late, the above line-up doesn’t tell the full story, with Melton taking on a very fluid role and Elliott acting as a third striker for much of the time Exeter kicked off attacking the South Stand end on a bitterly cold and at times threateningly misty afternoon. Our visitors knocked the ball around neatly in the game’s opening stages, while we looked lethargic and unable or unwilling to challenge much for the ball, taking the easy option (usually the backwards one) too often when we had the ball and showing little adventure or penetration. In short, it all looked as though it would be Bristol revisited, albeit with perhaps an end result more befitting the limited quality of our play, this latter concern being exacerbated on 11 mins when, from a free on the edge of the City box after a clumsy Ashbee challenge, the ball took two deflections, including one off the badly-positioned and disintegrating City wall, and struck the Muss’s right-hand post. A minute later came the first signs of restiveness among the City crowd (the match attendance being a hugely creditable 13 667) when Alex made a hash of a ball to Regan, but then City started to work themselves up into cohesion. The first attempts on goal came on 18 when Webb’s header from a Holt long throw was easily saved by the visiting netminder, and then a minute later when an Elliott cross flashed across the face of the away goal and the ball was returned by Green to the head of Alex, who produced a fine point-blank save from the keeper. This was much better. We were starting to take the game to the Ex, who in turn were looking increasingly less up for it, frequently and unnecessarily being caught offside, and with their ludicrously-coiffed number 26, Coppinger, resorting to the old dying swan act, sadly usually successfully, every time a City player got close enough to see the whites of his eyes and on one occasion earning Ash a booking, which earned him a chorus of boos every time he took possession of the ball and inevitably, the Circle’s first-ever chorus of “Rent Boy”. After, in an increasingly rare Exeter foray, Melton, who had his best game so far for the Tigers but faded somewhat in the second half, had to clear off the line on 26 mins, City hared upfield and had a clear appeal for a penalty turned down when a Webb header appeared to strike an Exeter defender’s hand. The Tigers returned to the ascendancy after this without ever getting really close, until the 38th minute when after a storming break down the right a stinging drive (not sure who; could have been Alex) was blocked by the diving keeper, with the ensuing frantic attempts to force the ball home coming to nought. As the half came to close Regan cut inside well and had his shot saved, and then City went as near as they had to date to opening their account with the very last kick of the half, when Alex had time in the box but saw his seemingly goalbound effort blocked by the outstretched foot of the keeper. All told, a half at the end of which City could count themselves unfortunate not to be at least one up after shaky start, but representing the most positive effort for some matches. The start of the second half was lacklustre in comparison, with City not achieving the same degree of penetration and Exeter, if anything, even less adventurous than they had been in the first, although they ought to have found the target at least when a loose ball following a Muss flap at a free kick was lobbed tamely over. Just after the hour, however, City at last got the reward their overall domination deserved. After a free on the edge of the Ex box was wasted by City messing about in the usual fashion instead of someone just having a bloody dig, another free was won on the left. A sublime ball was curled in and Elliott, who thankfully seemed none the worse for all the press attention he had been receiving though the week, rose at the far post to power in a header which the diving keeper could only push into the net. The Circle celebrated as though promotion had just been secured and the Tigers were rampant. A mere six minutes on, the advantage was doubled. Delaney curled a wonderful through ball which evaded the cover and fell  invitingly into the path of Elliott, who took the ball confidently in the box and slid it insolently between the legs of the keeper. A goal of almost perverse simplicity and executed in text-book style. The way things had gone, any neutral observer not familiar with the workings of Hull City would have assumed that the home side would now cruise to a three or four goal victory. But this is Hull City, and what transpired next can hardly have been outside the range of plausible consequences to the world-weary Hull City supporter. While the team were still apparently celebrating the second goal and no doubt congratulating themselves on a job done, an Ex bore down on the Muss in far too much space and unleashed a drive which the Muss could only fuble. The ball fell invitingly for the Ex sub Partridge, who had the time and space to have two attempts to force the ball home for the first away goal at the Circle. The ill-fated Alex/Williams substitution took place, and the tempo of the game increased, with the Tigers to their credit trying to take the game still to the opposition, while looking vulnerable when Exeter had the ball, not least because of the continuing and infuriating double expedient of dropping too deep but not marking. Thus, after Elliott had forced a point blank save from the keeper with another header on 72, and from the resultant corner and Anderson header looped over the keeper from a narrow angle but was somehow hooked off the line by a defender, Exeter themselves then had two chances to score. It was end-to-end stuff now, although the eventual sight of the board of the fourth official, indicating a questionably-lengthy injury time of four minutes, seemed to indicate the end was in sight. Indeed it was; if by “it” you mean the Tigers’ lead. It is a well documented fact that the worst thing that can happen to Hull City is for the opposition to be reduced to ten men. Thus when Power of Exeter was harshly adjudged to have committed a professional foul on Dudfield after the latter had run onto a nice ball from Williams, and was granted first use of the soap, wiser heads knew what was coming, albeit not before, from the resultant free kick, the tireless Webb had forced the keeper into yet another fine save with a volley from Green’s cross. But as even the four minutes’ additional time came to a close. Green stupidly gave away a free kick when he tripped an Ex who was heading towards his own goal near halfway. The resultant free was not properly cleared (again), and when the ball was inevitably worked in from the left the City cover was so lacking that the ageing carthorse Flack, of all people, had more than enough time to mishit a ponderous overhead kick, from no more than a couple of yards out, past the spectating City defence and into the net. So where do we go from here? Not, it is to be hoped, headlong into a rush to bring in yet more players who can’t cut it in the First any longer, or never could in the first place, and fancy coming to City to pinch money for a couple of seasons (and yes, I do include Andy Thomson in that category). This has not worked in a single case since Pearson came to Hull and adopted it as his policy, so why should it start now? Surely he has to see this some time. Despite the infuriating manner in which victory was lost yesterday, the performance was in many respects the most encouraging for some time, and definitely something on which to build, provided we can learn to defend effectively and develop the strength of character consistently to defend leads successfully. But we need a run, and soon. If we drift on like this for another half-dozen games, even a play-off spot will look a forlorn hope.

HULL CITY: Musselwhite, Regan, Anderson, Delaney, Holt, Green, Ashbee, Melton, Elliott, Webb, Alexander.  Subs: Williams (for Alexander, 71), Dudfield (for Elliott, 88), Jevons, Smith, Deeney. Goals: Elliott 61, 67 Booked: Holt Sent Off: None   EXETER CITY: Miller, Sheldon, Virgo, Hiley, Gaia, Pettefer, Walker, Cronin, Thomas, Coppinger, Flack.  Subs: Devine (for Coppinger, 53), Partridge (for Sheldon, 64), Power (for Walker, 76), Fraser, Ampadu. Goals: Partridge 68, Flack 90 Booked: Cronin, Gaia, Walker Sent Off: Power   ATTENDANCE: 13,667