Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa 1 Hull City 1
Let us go back in time, thirty-five years ago. A young boy takes a walk across the rolling slopes of the Ural Mountains, lost in thought, deep in his dreams. He is sports-mad, and it is football that most of all grabs his youthful enthusiasm, but not for him the stars of the very fine Soviet Union side of the time. Shengelia, Blokhin, Bal, Dasaev – superb footballers, but the young Leonid Slutsky – for it is he – turns his eyes fondly to the west. As the ancient folk tales of his village tell, there is no higher land between the Urals and the lofty fortresses of the Yorkshire Wolds. ‘How I wish’, thinks the hopeful lad, sniffing the bracing breeze that has crossed the plains of Northern Europe, ‘how I wish I could one day see the trees spilling down over Welton Dale, feed the ducks on the pond at Bishop Burton, and, joy of joys, watch Comrade Nick Deacy play football’.
Dreams. Sometimes they become reality. And so it is today, as Leonid Slutsky has landed the job he has craved for so long. The manager of Hull City.
Sure, back in the days when he was tramping the steppes with his faithful dog Spassky, I don’t suppose Mr Slutsky imagined he’d end up in in the employ of the ghastly Allams, but I also don’t suppose in the troubled days leading up to this opening fixture of a season wracked, for the second year in a row, by atrocious off-field negligent summertime planning by our owners, he imagined he’d able to field a side that showed such a high level of defiance, commitment and ability.
We got a point at Villa Park, and, while it might not have been expected, it was certainly well earned. Early days, but even if we are a traincrash of a club off the pitch, there are hints of a decent team waiting to emerge on it.
This, then, was an unexpectedly enjoyable game of football.
Off we go, on a breezy but sunny late afternoon, the pitch slick from a heavy lunchtime rainstorm, and we card an orthodox 4-4-2:
Grosicki Clucas Henriksen Bowen
Clark Hector Dawson Aina
First thoughts on seeing that set-up were that the midfield looks lightweight – and the midfield did indeed look lightweight – and that young Max Clark at left back is going to need help from Grosicki to repel Villa’s preference to attack down the flanks. And indeed he did need that help. But rarely got it.
Henri ‘Fop’ Lansbury breaks clear on to a through ball within the first two minutes, but his shot slithers across the face of McGregor’s goal and beyond the far post. On 5 Agbonlahor, serial lazybones and squandered talent, sprints clear of Aina down their left, shredding a fragile offside trap, but McGregor smothers his shot. No such respite a minute later, as Grosicki dithers, leaving young Clark exposed to a 2 on 1 attack down their right. The ball is shovelled across the face of our goal, and Agbonlahor, wholly unmarked at the back post, is left free to swipe the ball into the net.
This could get messy. Aina, pulled inside and consequently completely AWOL from the right-back position when the goal was scored, is obviously having trouble adjusting to the intensity of first team football, Clucas is allowed little time on the ball in midfield and gets minimal help from Henriksen, another who is presumably feeling his way tentatively back into competitive action, while Michael Hector, an impressive physical specimen, looks far too easily pulled out of position by Villa’s pace and movement. Hector is also damaged early on by a horrible illegal tackle by Henri Lansbury. Yellow for the Villa midfielder, and a great big old sore Hector.
After twenty minutes or so we finally begin to get to grips with a game that could already be beyond us. Referee Andy Madley aims to keep the game flowing, which leads to a wild spell with several bodies sprawled over the pitch after heavy challenges, culminating in a Grosicki shot that is held by netman Sam Johnstone. We are second best in midfield but showing signs of life, though on 26 Michael Dawson is indebted to Alan McGregor’s feet for blocking a chance created by Dawson’s own clumsy surrender of possession.
Villa’s most impressive player is, no surprise, one Ahmed Elmohamady. Playing in his favoured right midfield role with Alan Hutton backing him up at full back, Elmo is able to dart forward at will without worrying about the defensive side of his game which is so notoriously frail, and he makes life tough for Max Clark throughout. As mentioned, Grosicki is way off the pace through the first half and looks barely interested: a vision of Nikica Jelavić after relegation last time, keener to get on the ‘phone to his agent than to put in a shift for Hull City. Meanwhile, Villa’s central defence consists of a Saint and Satan. James Chester, halo worn nonchalantly, is paired with the genuinely evil John Terry. Neither is at all stretched during the opening 45 minutes of the season as the ball rarely comes anywhere near our forward pairing of Hernandez, anonymous, and Campbell, mobile but hoping in vain for service.
But we finish the half with flickers of hope. On 42 Hernandez swivels, whips a smart shot wide of Johnstone’s right hand post. On 43 a fast break yields us our best moment of the half, as Grosicki feeds Campbell whose shot is saved, and the ball rebounds to the Pole whose shot is also saved. That drags us through to half time, indisputably second best but only a goal adrift.
There are plenty of gaps among the travelling support. Better things to do than slog down the holiday motorways, sneered at by television’s capricious kick-off whims? One can well understand the sense of alienation from our club, and from the ravenous beast that is modern football in general. And there are no tourists scattered among our support. We are not Premier League anymore.
Into the second period, and we begin with refreshing vigour. Sights on goal are however few, though a speculative 30-yarder from Hernandez flies closer to the target than Johnstone was initially expecting. On 61 there arrives reward for a brisk fifteen minutes from our boys, and a strangely indolent spell since the break by the home side. Campbell drives forward with pace and menace, a short spell of broken play in front of the Villa box, Grosicki is fed the ball down the right, and his gently lofted cross sweeps across the face of the goal to Bowen at the back post who cudgels a nonchalant left-foot volley into the net. The ease with which Bowen converts the chance shouldn’t disguise how well he did. He is, on this evidence, what Ruud Gullit would call ‘a good technical player’.
That is a deserved leveller, and we persist in pleasingly positive vein. Grosicki, now playing directly in front of the City fans and visibly concerned to impress us with his rediscovered commitment, is looking for the ball and making things happen. Villa look short of leadership from midfield, and at the back Terry is exposed as hopelessly slow, even if he also has a quick awareness of positioning that will allow him to get away with lack of pace most weeks even against much fleeter of foot Championship attackers. Useful for finding those elusive disabled parking spaces too.
The subs bench is raided by both managers as we move into the final twenty minutes of the match. For us David Meyler replaces Campbell, who has put in a decent shift and is, I suppose, not yet fully match ready. It is a switch that suggest a certain lack of ambition, and so it proves. We are not now pushing to win this game, Mr Slutsky is happy with a point. Villa aren’t, but they are not willing to take big risks in search of the win either. McGregor makes a complete mess of a free kick on 79, clutching at air as the ball soars beyond him, but we survive, and we settle down to a spell of sustained Villa possession to complete the match. Onomah, the Aston sub, can’t stretch to convert a presentable chance on 86 but, that apart, they create little, and the poverty of their attacking imagination is emphasised by the torrent of noise pouring down from the Holte End which they are attacking. There is no torrent. There is no noise.
Villa’s empty cupboard of attackers prompts Mr Bruce to bring on dear old Chris Bamba right at the end, forty seven years old and the same number of stones in weight. The wily Slutsky, having already swapped Weir for Grosicki, reacts to the arrival up front of the vast but ponderous Bamba by withdrawing Henriksen in favour of the sturdy Mazuch, and that is quite enough to get us safely over the line. A point, a precious point! Only the fourth we’ve gathered away from home since the end of last August, remember.
At the end the players offer warm applause, and receive it in return. That performance and that result are about as good as we could reasonably have expected, after yet another summer of gross mismanagement at our club. Campbell, all smiles through most of the match, hands his shirt to a kid, and finally Mr Slutsky himself, boyhood ambition fulfilled, walks over, wreathed in smiles, to take the plaudits.
There are tougher tests to come … No, hang on, there aren’t really, at least not if the bookies are to be believed. That is one of the hardest fixtures we’ll face all season out of the way already, and safely negotiated. The real tough test is prising the money out of the Allams to acquire the players we need to create a squad that can be viable in this brutal slog of a Division. We will see, but yesterday was a far more encouraging display that anyone can seriously have foreseen.