Hull City 1 Bristol Rovers 0

A few scares, but Fortress KC remains intact as the Tigers bag another three points and surge up to 10th in the table.  Steve Weatherill gets a nose bleed at such dizzy heights.
Ah! Our beautiful new stadium! You really do need to approach it on foot. Up Londesborough Street and over the footbridge … it is to escape the narrow streets of the Borgo and have St Peter’s suddenly burst on your astonished gaze, it is to feel the thrilling vigour of turning away from forbidding grey concrete tower blocks in favour of the lavish decadence of St Basil’s … Yesterday, as a snowstorm draped the giant orb in ghostly white in the hour before kick-off, it was to approach a new and bravely honest world. Don’t miss this injection of emotional thrall to your football club. Walk. Way to go. The stadium was the star yesterday for this was an oddly disjointed game. The League table demonstrates that Bristol Rrovers are a pretty poor side, and plenty of evidence in support of this diagnosis was on show at the Circle yesterday. Nevertheless, though some of our attacking was attractive, we never dominated the play and, in fact, we had good cause to be grateful to the Muss for more than one last-ditch save after the visitors had sliced through our defence with alarming ease. So there wasn’t much basis for enthusiasm about our own long-term prospects based on yesterday’s encounter. Except that … except that we won, except that we added to the mystique of the Circle as a place we never let slip a goal, much less a point, except that grinding victories like this one will, if continued soberly and sensibly for a couple of months, contribute to a serious promotion challenge. Frost warmed by the under-soil heating had melted, and was overlain by the painfully beautiful snow shower. So it was a glitteringly wet pitch that greeted this line-up:

Musselwhite Regan Anderson Joseph Delaney Green Melton Ashbee Elliott Dudfield Alexander

As ever, a “sort of” must be appended to the midfield quartet. Ashbee played deep, Melton played central, Green roamed where his muse took him and Elliott was commonly well advanced down the left. Whatever misgivings we might have about that set-up were put on hold as we made a roasting beginning. A Green corner was flicked on by Alexander to Elliott at the back post: his meaty shot was turned away by a stretching Howie in the Rrovers goal, only for Dudfield to seize on the rebound and smash a shot from a tight angle into the side netting. Ooo! A slick start, but the visitors hit straight back, and a neat backheel in our box prepared a dangerous shooting opportunity which was snuffed out by a crunching Anderson tackle. This opening exchange of parries set the tone for a match that was not fluent enough to be labelled “end to end”, but in which nonetheless both sides seemed able to take turns in puncturing dodgy defences. A free-kick towards the by-line was awarded for a challenge on Dudfield that looked perfectly fair to me, yet earned the tackler a bizarre yellow card; Green’s floated kick into the six-yard box was cleared. Then a long cross from the right eludes Anderson and falls enticingly on to an attacker’s nut just behind the big Scotsman, but the Bris has lost sight of the ball’s trajectory and, taken by surprise, he heads tamely wide of the target. It gets more alarming still as the Muss stops a close-range header and then reacts with honed instinct to block a fiercely-struck follow-up shot. This was a marvellous double save, well worthy of the laconically murmured “Jim Montgomery!” from Ed Bacon to my right, but it was also slack marking at the heart of our defence. Shortly after Regan was culpable in missing a long cross, and was almost punished by ex-Tiger Tait, who chested the ball down and forced a corner which, happily, came to naught. The game was moderately lively, though of a pretty poor quality that could not be attributed solely to the sodden surface. There were occasional glimpses of skilful touch play, most noticeably when Messrs Dudfield, Green and Elliot were adjacent to the ball, and so far Melton was more heavily involved in this game than in any other since his arrival, but there wasn’t much evidence that the opposition were bottom-of the table fodder for our ravenous table. So then we scored. A corner, an Ashbee header – blocked, a Melton side-foot shot – blocked, a grand stramash, and after a wild flailing of limbs another corner. This one is met by a towering Anderson leap and a thumping downward header; Howie blocks it, fubles, and Alexander sweeps the loose ball into the net from close range. A predatory strike, a vital goal. Suddenly we are at the races. Stuart Green delves elegantly into his bag of tricks and tortures Bristol. He feeds Ashbee, who slips a clever pass forward to Melton. He transfers the ball to Dudfield who scampers to the by-line and when his low cross is half-cleared the ball reaches Elliott and a crashing left-foot shot is blocked close to the visitors’ goal-line. We unleash some lovely passing as the snowfall becomes thicker, but a second goal eludes us. Now the game tip-toes towards half-time in tamer mood. It’s been an odd half. Our defence looks draughty, our attack ambitious – it’s not at all like it’s been most of the time of late. It’s less controlled, and I prefer it that way. On 45 a ball is slipped across the face of our goal from their left, but no Rrovers toe makes contact, and we are allowed to make it to the break with our solitary goal advantage. Into the second half, and more flashes of lively entertainment. Alexander muscles his way through the defence like the fondly remembered terrorist frontman of Autumn 2001 and sets up Dudfield inside the box. He slips the ball past the keeper but is foiled by a fingertip save that diverts the shot an inch the wrong side of the post. The ref incorrectly awards a goal kick. Then Dudfield skips down the right and sends a cross sailing towards Elliott, unmarked beyond the back post, but he cannot control a difficult spinning ball and loses possession in a sprawling jumble of limbs. And now the game slips gradually into a shapeless phase. Bristol have slightly the better of it, though they do not help their cause by substituting Grazioli for the canny Allen up front, opting to leave the gratifyingly unimpressive Tait on the pitch. Melton is now rarely involved, Green has slipped temporarily from the radar and though, with Elliott pushed forward, we are now playing a 4-3-3, the Tiger attacks are only sporadic and marred by some consistently aimless punted crosses. The Muss makes an excellent save from a powerful 12-yard shot and then, a couple of minutes later, our offside trap is sprung with ridiculous ease and a Rrover wastes a golden opportunity by sliding a shot past the post with only the Muss barring the route to the equaliser. “Only the Muss” – ha! Our goalkeeper is in commanding form but at this stage only he and the determined Ashbee are on their game. Time for a change. Smith. Hmm. Wouldn’t’ve been my choice. But on comes our man with a (half) season of modest fruitfulness behind him. He takes over at left-back, Delaney steps forward into left-side midfield, while Elliott partners Alexander up front. It is a tiring Dudfield that is taken off. Bristol promptly carve us open once again and only a superbly-judged Muss block prevents them converting a one-on-one into a 1-1. None of our defending in this match made a case for the exclusion of Justin once he is fit. And, though it gives me no pleasure to report it once again, Mr Taylor’s two midfield acquisitions revealed nothing of the reasons for their continued presence in the side. Melton’s vaguely encouraging first-half display has now given way to a disappointing second-half. While Delaney, pushed into midfield, was a gruesome sight. His lack of confidence with the ball at his feet is painful. He advances with all the grace of a giraffe riding a unicycle and he created no beginning of problems for the right side of the visiting defence. Jevons replaces Alexander and we are homing in on a testy 1-0. Ashbee passes to Elliott whose superb ball inside the defence sets Green free, but his cross is blocked. A brief moment of excitement extinguished – too much of yesterday’s match fizzled out after showing brief indications of promise. A fussy ref didn’t help, but the bottom line is that we didn’t ever look like punishing the Bristol basement outfit that provided the opposition. A big thumbs up for the Muss and Ian Ashbee; adequate performances from the hard-working Elliott, Alexander and Anderson; and glimpses of excellence from the Dude and Stuart Green. The rest were, at best, in the “could do better” bracket (except Melton, who all evidence indicates can’t). Overall, a patchy afternoon for the team. But no matter. A nervy 3 minutes are added, Elliott is off, Webb on, and it’s over and we have the points. And the stadium is the star.

HULL CITY: Musselwhite, Regan, Anderson, Joseph, Delaney, Green, Ashbee, Melton, Elliott, Dudfield, Alexander.  Subs: Smith (for Dudfield, 82), Jevons (for Alexander, 87), Webb (for Elliott, 89), Holt, Deeney. Goals: Alexander 25 Booked: Green Sent Off: None   BRISTOL ROVERS: Howie, Boxall, Austin, Barrett, Rose, Carlisle, Quinn, Astafjevs, Street, Tait, Allen.  Subs: Grazioli (for Allen, 67), Gall (for Rose, 79), Uddin (for Boxall, 79), Clarke, Bryant. Goals: None Booked: Rose Sent Off: None   ATTENDANCE: 14,913

Bristol Rovers 1 Hull City 1

Bristol Rovers (1) 1   Hull City (0) 1 A game of two halves.  Steve Weatherill reports on the Jekyll and Hyde tendencies of the new Tiger breed.
Two games, two points, two red cards. A rum do in the rugby citadel of upland Bristol, as City were woeful throughout the first half, trailing deservedly 1-0 at the break, and then, by contrast, vigorous and effective but goalless in the second half up until the moment deep inside the last 10 minutes when Strong was sent off, whereupon sheer spirit surged to the surface, and substitute debutant Johnson thumped home an equaliser to seal a welcome and well-merited point. All in all, a decent game with no particular pattern, save that – for no obvious weather-related rationale – the whip hand was clothed in blue up until half time and amber thereafter, but nonetheless many of the impressions gathered on the opening day of the season inched closer to being confirmed: our attack is potent and though neither Dudfield nor Green looked as menacingly on-message as they had three days earlier, Bradshaw’s display outshone the limp offerings provided last Saturday by Williams, while Elliott is simply magnificent. Meanwhile, midfield is patchy. Ashbee again came and went as the game progressed. And we remain a defensive shambles. We began with the same ersatz diamante 4-3-3-ish formation as we had deployed against Southend, although a small personnel adjustment saw Williams left out and Bradshaw included. Dudfield took over the right-side attacking role and wee Bradshaw stepped in as cutting-edge. So:

Glennon Edwards Anderson Strong Smith Ashbee Greaves Green Dudfield Elliott Bradshaw

A scrappy opening ten minutes gradually gave way to obvious Rovers superiority. They looked fit and lively, as you would expect of a Ray Graydon side, and, though their lower Division hackers will never aspire to the pacy trickery of their manager in his gifted playing days, they pushed urgently down the flanks and found us defensively wanting. Our principal tactic appeared to consist of the obtuse one of allowing the thrower to go wholly unmarked, so each time the home side won a shy their man threw it in, received it back and trundled happily off into space down the wing. Perhaps someone can confirm just how many throw-ins Bristol enjoyed during the first-half last night? Too frustratingly often we were defending hopefully as crosses looped in, instead of cutting off delivery at source, and it was this malfunction that led to the first major scare. Challis, limited but eager shaven-haired left back, was permitted time to hoik a long cross towards the back of the box where more poor marking allowed another of theirs time to bring the ball down and smash a low shot beyond Glennon, only for Anderson to rescue City with a clearance from bang on the whitewash of the goal-line. I will confess I have some difficulty telling our pair of centre-backs apart. Though facially dissimilar, Strong and Anderson’s build is comparable and so is their hair colour and shape, so from a distance a case of mistaken identity is all too possible. I find myself imagining we have a composite central defence comprising two men both called Armstrong, so bear with me if such imprecision slips into these reports, but on this occasion credit for salvation definitely goes to Anderson. More woe as Rovers dominate. Edwards and Dudfield got hopelessly confused down the right, allowing one of theirs ample time to loft in another looping cross. Tait, briefly clueless for City last season, got ahead of Armstrong and nudged the ball over Glennon and on to the top of the bar. It was a good position and he should have scored. But he’s rubbish. Then Strong lost his man; the shot was soft, and Glennon made a diving meal of a fairly simple save. Oo, it was rotten. The sun-kissed undulations of urban Bristol away to our left made happier viewing than the ragged Tigers. Bristol were playing orthodox 4-4-2 and dominating midfield. Green was isolated in the advanced sections of the middle and was able to exert negligible influence on the pattern of play. The ball kept rolling Glennon-wards. Smith was regularly out of position down the left and when he wasn’t, he was easily outpaced by an opponent. On the other side poor old Mike Edwards was having a 24-carat nightmare, frequently uncertain in choice of position and hesitant in the tackle. And I’m afraid he didn’t strike a pass cleanly all night long. Tait was offside; it wasn’t given and Glennon made a sharp stop. Then, a short thirty seconds later, the other home striker, Grazioli, was offside; it wasn’t given and Glennon was beaten to his right by a crisp finish that rolled into our net just inside the post. I call it as I see it and I thought it offside. Reliable witnesses around me assert Grazioli had run from deep and that he was onside. Whatever. We deserved to be losing and now we were. It’s not even half-time yet, and it could have got worse soon after as Smith backed off like a chipmunk faced by a cougar as one of theirs raced at him. The cross was duly delivered without the pressure of any challenge, and Grazioli, allowed plenty of room by Armstrong, whirled into an overhead kick which Glennon managed to cling on to. On 43, Elliott darted from left to right and, bringing his right boot into serious competitive action for the first time, he hammered in a fierce shot that was tipped over the bar. Aside from an earlier Dudfield cross which Green had headed disappointingly high it was our only attacking flash of a first half which now, mercifully, was called to a close by prancing Premiership whistler, nervy eleven-year-old and keen Airfix modeller Andy D’Urso. I had expected Mr Molby to change our formation at the break and to stiffen midfield. But he didn’t. Instead the Dane changed our players’ attitude. And some. Perhaps Ashbee and Greaves had been encouraged to play a little closer to Green, but most of all, all three had been instructed to up their work-rate. And they did, and so was midfield wrested back into our grip. A Molby plea to “Get it out wide to Elliott, that lad can PLAY!” had also evidently been issued, and was acted on. And he can play, and he did. It was a gradual improvement. Initially too much was lumped in the air at Bradshaw who, though as tenacious as a vole, cannot seriously compete aerially with standard-sized centre-backs. Bristol even threatened briefly as Tait found space. But he mangled his chip and Glennon held it without a tremble. Time for the Tiger. Green slipped a cute pass to Elliott, racing in from the left wing. He took it in his stride, near the edge of the box, and fired in a vicious meaty drive which the keeper was mightily relieved to see nestle in the side-netting, just wide. Then a slick move out of midfield presented Bradshaw and Dudfield with a gleeful 2 on 1, only for idiot referee D’Urso to haul play back all the way to half way for a useless free-kick in our favour. Never mind – all City now. Bradshaw’s darting run and flick header – saved at a stretch. Elliott strains down the left and slides an inviting ball across the face of the goal – Dudfield mysteriously hesitates and stands watching as the ball screams “hit me!!” as it travels across the goalmouth just three yards in front of the transfixed Dude. Our lack-lustre Bergkamp-lookalike pays for this moment of indecision and is hauled off in favour of Johnson, the Leeds loanster, who takes up the same right-sided berth. This lad is exciting. He is very powerfully built, in the way that so many Premiership players who regularly visit their pharmacist seem to be, and is also obviously schooled to get himself and the football forward at pace whenever the chance presents itself. Molby also made another like-for-like exchange as he brought off Greaves and introduced Price. Plenty of time for an equaliser yet. Green shot from 25 yards – just wide. Then an outrageous Bradshaw flick had the entire Rovers defence gasping in admiring bemusement as Green accepted the gift and motored forward into space, but his shot was soft and easily stopped. As yet Green’s play is a shade over-ambitious and his choice of options was certainly less well-judged last night than on Saturday, but he is a rare talent and I don’t expect Mr Molby to curtail his invention. All the more so in the case of Elliott. His commitment as a Christian is his business; his commitment as a footballer is ours. And he never gives up. He’s a genuine hard-worker, which, combined with flair, pace and shimmering self-confidence, makes him a hugely exciting prospect. We’re lucky to have him. Positive thinking all round, but we’re into the last ten minutes now and we’re still one down a long way from home. Glennon has possession and the players are trotting upfield when Strong seizes the moment and kicks one of theirs to the floor. O, yes, smart move. The linesman sees it – he can’t miss it – and once the tale is told Mr D’Urso has no option but to reduce us to ten men. I suppose that will be a three game ban for Strong and I hope that will bring us Justin back permanently. He was back temporarily last night, as we re-organised the defiant ten by bringing off Smith for the reliable Whittle. Well, I didn’t think we’d get anything from the game now, even though the efforts since the half-time break had made us worthy of a point’s reward, but team spirit was now allied to footballing power and elegance and we sneaked it. Green stroked a delightful pass down the left wing for Elliott to race on to. He picked his spot for the cross delivered from the by-line and rolled the ball into the path of Johnson, who had spotted the possibilities as soon as Green had lofted the ball forward. His 40-yard lung-bursting run was rewarded by the opportunity to ram the ball home from near the penalty spot. 1-1, about right, and, in contrast to Saturday, we duly survived an ominous repeat of the “3 added minutes” board.

HULL CITY: Glennon, Edwards, Strong, Anderson, Smith, Ashbee, Green, Greaves, Bradshaw, Dudfield, Elliott.  Subs: Price (for Greaves, 61), Johnson (for Dudfield, 61), Whittle (for Smith, 81), Musselwhite, Williams Goals: Johnson 85 Booked: Anderson, Elliott, Johnson Sent Off: Strong   BRISTOL ROVERS: Howie, Boxall, Uddin, Barrett, Challis, Carlisle, Quinn, Bryant, McKeever, Tait, Grazioli.  Subs: Astafjevs (for McKeever, 78), Gilroy (for Grazioli, 84), Clarke, Hogg, Gall Goals: Grazioli 30 Booked: none Sent Off: none   ATTENDANCE: 7,501