The headlines are written. “Adkins revives Hull’s fortunes”. The new manager bounce kicked in on cue as City won their first game in eight, and their first at home since September (as well as continuing this season’s weird run of only beating teams beginning with B) in a Jekyll and Hyde performance under our new coaching team.
That’s all true, and what turned into a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at the Circle started Nigel Adkins’s reign as manager with a much needed victory. A victory moreover that ought to provide at the very least a psychological boost to management and players alike as we begin a run of games against third, fourth, and seventh placed teams, entering the hectic Christmas schedule. In fact, anything less than a win today at home against Brentford could have been massively problematic.
Good news then, and happy faces all round. But I would be failing in my duties as match reporter if I just covered the riveting last 40 minutes or so and ignored the combination of tedium, lack of focus, and shockingly poor play that preceded City’s Grosicki-inspired second-half revival.
Adkins began his career as City boss carding the following starting 11, lining up in a seasonally appropriate Christmas tree formation:
Tomori Dawson Mazuch Clark
Aina Meyler Larsson
We knew before the game that Jarrod Bowen was out injured. Ditto, I think, Evandro. Less publicised were the apparent injuries to Kevin Stewart and Markus Henriksen. And quite where Michael Hector was, I don’t know. Our bare-bones squad had been stripped down further than usual, leaving a trio of under-23 team players (Batty, Clackstone and Luer) to join Marshall, Diomande, Dicko, and ex-Brentford man and eventual second-half hero Jon Toral in occupying the bench.
On a bright and bitterly cold December afternoon, City began the Adkins era attacking towards the North Stand of a half-empty stadium. And I sat there, for the umpteenth time this season, despondent at what has been wrought upon our club this year. I had half expected that — Arctic temperatures and Christmas shopping notwithstanding — the arrival of a new manager might have tempted a few more than usual into the stadium. Not so.
Or perhaps that the more vocal amongst the support would have been inspired to get a little bit more behind the team than usual. May be even some chant-mongers would have come up with something to welcome the new boss? No chance.
But anyway, in the world of ‘football as business’ so beloved of our club’s owners, we are the paying customers; if anyone should have been putting out the metaphorical welcome-to-a-new-era bunting, it should have been the players, the paid performers looking to entertain us and impress our new supremo. Well, if that was the idea, you certainly wouldn’t know it in a shoddy and uninspiring first half that largely carried on just where Leonid Slutsky left off.
First-half City played with the lack of pattern and passion that has been our hallmark this season, against a skilful and well organised Brentford team. We were slow, verging on reluctant when it came to tackling. In possession, we were too often a bunch of individuals, dwelling on the ball too long as if having no knowledge of where, how, and perhaps even why, to find a teammate.
After prodding and probing for the first quarter of an hour or so, Brentford began to realise how poor and uncombative City were, particularly down our right-hand side where the only barrier was two young Chelsea loanees —Aina playing in front of Tomori—who have spent too much of this season looking out of their comfort zone.
On 25 minutes, Aina breaks down our right and falls down under a tackle, winning a free kick. Max Clark —whose main contribution to being noticed by the new manager thus far has been to boot a ‘cross’ about 50 feet in the air— floated an aimless freekick into the Brentford box. They headed clear and broke forward at pace. Within 20 seconds of our freekick, Brentford’s number 9 is through on McGregor’s goal in front of the South Stand.
Happily, Brentford’s number 9 is young Frenchman Neal Maupay, whose main claim to fame since signing for the Bees has been to produce ‘the miss of the season’ against Cardiff a couple of weeks back (well worth a giggle on YouTube). True to form, Maupay drags his shot wide of the post, but it’s a let off for City.
We stumble towards half-time, with the mildest flicker of encouragement coming from the impressive Fraiser Campbell. Despite the Christmas tree formation, the aim of which is to fill gaps between defence and attack, Campbell has been isolated on top of that tree for most of the first half. Then, around the half-hour mark, our new manager calls him over during a break in play and gives him some urgent instructions, after which Campbell plays with more energy and freedom to roam, fired up and chasing down the ball.
The nearest we come to a first half goal is from an Aina long throw, flicked on by Mazuch (wearing a McEnroe-esque headband), to Campbell, back to goal and 10 yards out, who spins and takes a smart left-footed shot that is palmed round the post by Bees keeper Bentley.
Half-time. If you can excuse Adkins from too much blame for the first half shambles on the grounds that he’s inherited a poor squad replete with injuries and has only worked with them for a couple of days, well now it’s time for him to make his first in-game impression.
Whilst the fans mutter about the performance and stamp our feet against the cold, whilst our poorly run club’s hierarchy thinks that watching a bunch of camouflage-wearing squaddies boot the ball at the crossbar somehow merits the term ‘half-time entertainment’, surely deep in the bowels of the KCOM, holed up in the home dressing room, Nigel Adkins is weaving his rhetorical and tactical magic?
May be so, may be not. But whatever happened in the dressing room, the second minute of the second half produces one of the shoddiest passages of play I’ve seen from a Hull City team in many a year.
Brentford clear the ball after a City attack, towards Max Clark, standing unchallenged around the half-way line. He swings a lazy leg at it, missing completely. Appalling. All of a sudden Brentford are attacking towards the north end of the ground. One of theirs makes rapid progress down their right wing, in front of the Bees’ enthusiastic away support, and looks up for support. There is a teammate arriving at pace at the far side of the area, but —I note with relief— at least two City defenders are in front of him in the area. Undeterred, the cross is played in low, only for David Meyler to let it cannon off him from five yards out, into the back of McGregor’s net.
And a poor performance has reached its nadir. Adkins hauls off Max Clark and replaces him Jon Toral, who slots into midfield with Aina taking over the left back berth.
Right Dr Jekyll, drink this potion. Right, you miserable match-reporter, we just won a thrilling game under our new manager, lighten up, will you? Absolutely. You got it. After all, the whole point of a nadir is that the only way after that is up.
The rest of the match, the rest of the afternoon, the rest of this match report is a flowering of skill, passion, excitement, goals, stomping on the late collapse hoodoo, and at last winning at home.
Stop moping, get off your seat, and enjoy the ride.
The man who sparked City’s second-half revival was the enigmatic Pole, Kamil Grosicki. To my mind the best player in City’s squad, perhaps the only one left of Premier League class in terms of pure ability, which goes some way to explaining, but not justifying, his regularly displayed petulance at the inadequacies of his teammates and his evident frustration at still being at the club. He will be gone by the end of the next transfer window.
I don’t know whether Grosicki’s return to the team today was a stroke of managerial genius on the part of Adkins, or merely a result of Jarrod Bowen being injured. But I’d have him in the team every week.
On 54 minutes Grosicki equalises. Jon Toral —the other player gaining particular kudos for our second-half revival — lifts a free kick from right to left, to Grosicki who cuts inside on the edge of the Brentford box and wellies a ferocious shot beyond the flailing arms of Bentley.
Grosicki’s goal was quality. But he scored an even better one away at Sheffield United a few weeks back and we still got tonked, so will this be any different?
Yes, is the answer. The goal lifts the crowd a little, but more importantly seems to lift the team. Inspired by equalising, prompted by Toral’s skill and attacking mindset, and perhaps taking on board whatever was said at the interval, City are all of a sudden pressing forward with purpose.
The next goal isn’t long in coming, and when it does it’s another cracker. A free-kick on the left edge of the penalty area, in classic Seb Larsson territory. And he doesn’t disappoint, curling the ball into the bottom corner of the net with pace and accuracy. Beautiful stuff.
So now City have the lead with 20 minutes to go. But we’re not sitting back. A couple of minutes after Larsson’s strike, the vibrant trio of Torral, Grosicki and Campbell combine again, with the latter’s shot hitting the post.
And still we come forward. On 74 Toral forges forward through the middle again, delaying the pass as Campbell and Irvine curve their runs ahead of him to stay onside. At the last moment, the ex-Barcelona academy man plays the ball through, Irvine takes it just ahead of Campbell, surging into the box before hammering it into the net.
It’s the Australian’s second goal at the KCOM this season. And his first for City.
All of a sudden, City are playing with speed and skill, and a direct attacking intent that we’ve not seen for some time. We haven’t just scored three goals, but we’ve scored three well-crafted goals of some quality.
Then the flow of forward play is interrupted with about 10 minutes remaining as a clash of heads sees David Meyler receive lengthy treatment on the pitch before being stretchered off. Adkins immediately makes two substitutions. Dicko for Campbell was being planned before Meyler’s injury. Meyler himself is replaced by Greg Luer. It’s no slight at all on Luer to point out that bringing on an Under-23 team forward to replace a holding midfielder says a lot about the paucity of the City squad. Luer did OK.
As we enter the final 10 minutes, with the certainty of substantial time added for the injury delay, one stat keeps entering my head, however hard I try to forget it. Brentford have scored more goals in the last 10 minutes of a game than any other team in the division. Given City’s recent propensity to concede late, this is no time to relax.
Sure enough, with 5 minutes of normal time remaining, Brentford get a free-kick, swing the ball into the box, McGregor makes a sharp save, but the ball rebounds straight to Bees’ captain John Egan, who scores from close range.
3-2. Here we go again?
With the fourth official showing 8 minutes time added, and both sides clearly aware of their respective qualities and failings in the dying embers of games, this is no time to relax. It’s good to see Adkins urging City forward, aware that for this current squad, attack is the best form of defence.
And it’s City who come nearest to adding to the goal count during the time played over the 90. A fast attacking move involving Irvine, Luer, and Toral ends up with the ball coming to Dicko about 5 yards out. Reminiscent of his glaring miss against Bristol City, in almost exactly the same far post spot in front of the South Stand, Dicko fails to hit the back of the net.
But this time, the 3-2 score is in City’s favour. Eventually, after 9 minutes added time, Nigel Adkins’ first game as manager of Hull City ends with a victory and three points. We leave the KCOM with memories of the second half putting the dour opening 45 in the shade. But let’s not dismiss that shaky start, as I hope the management won’t also. City’s strengths and weaknesses were once more on display. Getting that win was vital, and whether it was down to Grosicki and Toral, or to an Adkins-inspired change in approach, or to both, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done to turn this season around.
Just after the monumental balls-up that gifted Brentford the lead, I jotted down a quick ‘to do’ list for the new manager. Our subsequent impressive victory does not change what needs to be done. Adkins needs to build a team from this disparate set of loanees, youth players, and fading Premier Leaguers; he needs to identity a clear pattern of play and instil it in the players; he needs to restore or create team spirit; and he needs to be more ruthless with underperforming players and staff than his smiley niceness suggests.
Oh, and he needs to manage the owners as best he can to improve the squad and prevent further damage being done to relations with the fan base. Needless to say, this last task is far easier said than done.
For now though, nice one Nigel.