Never mind the League Cup, the serious business for Hull City started today with the opening Championship game of the season against Gus Poyet’s ambitious Brighton and Hove Albion. It wasn’t a game that had the fans flocking with an attendance of just 15,794 but that was probably a good job given the trouble we had with the new Supermarket Self-Service aisle entry system. The low attendance can in part be put down to the fact that we’re still in holiday season, while Brighton’s 600 hardy followers or so didn’t put a lot on the gate but some of the drop-off will have been caused by the rising prices and the discontentment at times this summer. That will only change if the Tigers play winning football.
It was certainly a Hull City side that was picked to win the game. You’d have to go back to sometime in the Autumn of 2008 for the last time we saw such an attack minded line-up, on paper anyway. Sone Aluko finally received his international clearance from the morons at the Scottish FA who’ve spent the summer making a mockery of their game and the past few weeks doing likewise with ours. Surprisingly he went straight into the team. I say surprisingly only because I’d imagine the team prepared to be without him. His inclusion meant captain Robert Koren started a game in the centre of a midfield pair for the first time in a while.
Tigers: Amos; Rosenior, Dudgeon, Chester, Faye; Stewart, Aluko, Koren, McKenna; Proschwitz, McLean.
What looked on paper to be a traditional 4-4-2 was actually more of a lone striker system as right winger Cameron Stewart lined up on the left wing, striker Aaron McLean on the right wing and left winger Sone Aluko somewhere in the middle between Koren and Proschwitz. Brighton play a tidy 4-3-3 with three very mobile front players and a well-balanced midfield of Andrew Crofts, Gary Dickers and the excellent Liam Bridcutt. While the opening exchanges were pretty even, Brighton’s midfield three began to boss our two and it would require some tinkering from the manager before we’d really get to grips with the game.
City suffered an early scare when Mackail-Smith slipped past Faye and slid the ball in for Noone who steadied himself but saw Joe Dudgeon nick the ball off his toe. Sone Aluko tested Kuszczak after wriggling free in midfield and hitting a low shot that the former Manchester United custodian pushed wide. Brian Clough would’ve called their Polish goalkeeper a clown. And unlike in 1973, he would’ve been spot on this time. We were supposedly interested in Kuszczak in the summer. Thank heavens we got Ben Amos instead. As well as their tidy passing, two other features of Brighton’s game were their combative challenges and their long range shooting, which was nearly excellent. Craig Noone was the first to curl a shot just wide of Amos left hand post while Barnes and Bridcutt were both lucky to escape bookings for strong challenges. They were lucky that it was early in the game on the opening day but I also thought that Stuart Atwell, despite his reputation, took a sensible approach to the game. Aaron McLean might also have had a yellow on another day as he caught Noone while trying to block a clearance. Atwell was especially lenient on McLean because Noone made a meal of it. Noone would be the first player in the book after barging into Rosenior as he headed clear. It was clear that Mr. Atwell had lost his patience with this one, the card was out before the challenge went in. The lenience almost cost City in the second half when Noone, obviously already booked, made a challenge identical to McLean’s on Liam Rosenior. Gus Poyet then withdrew him before he was sent off.
The Tigers had the better of the 15 minutes before half time after Steve Bruce tinkered a little bit and we reverted to the 4-4-2 that we looked set to line-up with pre-match. McLean joined Proschwitz up front; Aluko went left and Stewart right. Brighton had been in control, playing the ball out of defence into their midfield, getting the full-backs wide and working the ball into Mackail-Smith or Barnes on the edge of the box far too easily. Not only did the changes give the full backs something to think about but McLean’s high pressure game meant the defenders couldn’t stroll out with the ball but hit it longer more often and allowed Chester and Faye to compete and win the ball back. Chester and Faye had switched sides after the early exchanges, presumably to counter Mackail-Smith’s pace. In a crazy spell, both ‘keepers had a touch of fortune in quick succession. Amos came out of his box in similar fashion to Rotherham last week when Chester had a situation under control. Instead of being able to pick up a back-pass calmly, he ended up having to take it on his chest and boot into the stand. It was a decent recovery but a worrying trend. At the other end, Kuszczak chose to punch a harmless looking Stewart cross despite it being a foot off the floor and no striker been in sight. He was very lucky that his punch evaded the City players.
With half-time approaching Andrew Crofts hit a great drive that flew wide of Amos right hand post. It was followed by the best piece of play in the half. Aluko, having just switched to the left, picked the ball up about 30 yards out, played it into space on the left wing and left Bruno for dead. Then, when you expected him to put a cross in, he hit a stunning shot from around 20 yards from goal and 16 yards from the goal line. It beat Kuszczak all ends up but hit the bar. A truly excellent effort. Half time came soon after with the scores level and neither side deserving to be behind.
The interval saw Hull’s Olympic goal medallist, boxer Luke Campbell, paraded around the pitch to a tremendous ovation from both sets of fans. I felt a little bit choked up as Luke passed us in the East Stand and a chant of “There’s only one Luke Campbell” broke out loudly. The applause was dying down from the East Stand when Luke received a nice ovation from the Brighton fans which prompted the East Stand to start up the applause again but this time for our visitors. Luke then spoke to Steve Jordan on the pitch but as the PA system in the East Stand is appalling, I’ve no idea what he said.
The Tigers started the second half brightly, controlling possession and creating a couple of half chances. First Paul McKenna hit a super half-volley from around 25 yards that was arrowing into the top corner before Kuszczak turned it over the top. A world class save. Then Cameron Stewart was freed down the right and produced an excellent cross but unfortunately neither McLean nor Proschwitz had bust a gut to get into the box. At the other end, Craig Noone produced a cross out of nothing that Mackail-Smith met ahead of Chester but smacked the top of the crossbar. Noone then nicked the ball of Rosenior, ran at the back peddling defence and curled a shot a couple of feet wide of the far post. There were oohs and aahs from the Brighton fans but the East Stand and, more importantly, Ben Amos could see it was always going wide. In between, a tiring Faye was booked for chopping down Mackail-Smith who’d got away from him on halfway. A Tigers corner was flapped at by Kuszczak and met by Faye but the ball dropped harmlessly in the six yard box. There was a big handball shout from the South Stand but difficult to see any Brighton defender from our angle.
Brighton took hold of the game after that. Substitute Kazenga Lua Lua gave them added impetus and a tiring Tigers outfit were struggling to press the ball and to pass at high tempo when we had it. Corry Evans replaced Nick Proschwitz who worked hard but struggled to have any impact on the game, while Alex Bruce came on for Abdoulaye Faye who’d gifted a ball to Mackail-Smith moments earlier; a sign to Steve Bruce that he was knackered. There was some frustration in the crowd during this period with some of the backward passes receiving much harsher criticism than they did last season. One guy shouted “you’ve got to go forward to score goals, City”. I’ve asked that he writes it down for them because it’s clearly an inspirational bit of wisdom that they aren’t aware of.
Jay Simpson replaced Aaron McLean, who’d put in a great shift, in a desperate looking last throw of our dice. A draw against a good side who’ll finish in the top ten wasn’t the worst result but you felt sure that if a winner came, it’d be a Brighton winner. Lua Lua hit a fierce shot that Amos put two fists behind to keep out. It was a bit continental for my liking but it was effective enough. Then, the breakthrough came and despite the Tigers looking a little worse for wear, it was a black and amber winner. Joe Dudgeon made an excellent run in behind the tiring Bruno and Koren found him superbly with a defence-splitting left foot pass. Kuszczak charged from his goal with no chance of beating Dudgeon to the ball and could only clatter into Dudgeon after the left-back had prodded the ball past him. It was a clear penalty but Mr. Atwell held on that split second and Jay Simpson made it academic by turning it into the roof of the net [1-0]. A great moment for Simpson but in truth, most people could’ve scored the goal. Not many could’ve made the run or pass that preceded it. The last five minutes of play and the four minutes of stoppage time passed quickly with only Paul McKenna’s inevitable yellow card and a wild miss from Simpson to comment on. And then Mr. Atwell blew the whistle. It was an excellent three points and a great start for Steve Bruce.
The three points were especially useful as City face two tricky away ties next at Blackburn on Wednesday and Charlton next Saturday. We shouldn’t fear anyone though; we’ve got plenty for others to worry about too. Sone Aluko was probably the man of the match. He’s a real livewire who looks likely to make something happen every time he gets the ball. He’s got excellent dribbling ability and turns “on a sixpence” as they used to say. He over-shadowed Cameron Stewart who had a quieter game than last week but did a good job for the team and looked effective when he got the ball wide. Cam can still continue to improve by playing the game simpler at times but he’s already shown in the past couple of weeks that he’s listening and learning in that department. Koren and McKenna worked hard and put themselves about in midfield but faced a difficult task against three opponents. Koren showed his quality when it really mattered. Defensively we were pretty sound. Brighton are quick, intelligent and lively up front and for the most part we coped well. Despite their possession and attempts from distance, Ben Amos only had to make one save of any significance. It was nice to see Joe Dudgeon have a hand in the goal because he gets forward well but hasn’t really produced a lot once he’s got there in the past. Andy Dawson is going to have a job to get the place back. I heard a rumour that Wayne Bridge was going to play at left back for Brighton but for some reason, he didn’t turn up!
As for negatives, I’m a little worried that we’ll be over-run in midfield if we try and play with two wingers and two strikers. We’re going to really have to take games to the opposition to make it work and we don’t look fit enough to do that at the moment. Ben Amos is clearly a much, much better goalkeeper than Peter Gulacsi so I’m not worried about him generally but his now traditional walkabout in each game does frighten me to death. Nick Proschwitz hasn’t done a lot so far. I hope people don’t get on his back because it’s not easy to adjust to our game. He’s working hard and has some nice touches but hasn’t had much to work with inside the penalty area. Our crosses into him, assuming they were intended for him and not for catching practice for Kuszczak, weren’t up to much most of the time. Everyone needs to be a little patient with the guy, forget how much he cost and he’ll get better the more he plays with those around him.
The team are winning. There’s no point isolating individuals. The team is all that matters. And after 265 minutes of Championship football against Brighton in that last 10 months, we finally scored a goal. Hurrah!