I was last on match reporting duty away from home at Blackburn on February 13th. It was a competent, comfortable victory by a Hull City team far too good for middling Championship opposition and heading back to the League’s summit.
What on earth has happened to our football club in the 77 days since?
It wasn’t perfect on Feb 13th. Certainly no-one was sending the Allams Valentine’s flowers the following day after two years of acrimony over the failed name change and Steve Bruce wasn’t getting any either after the miserable performances in December but while those old wounds weren’t quite healing - no-one was picking at the scabs.
In 77 days, the wounds have been picked at, opened up and the innards pulled out and wrapped around the neck several times. The challenge for automatic promotion has given way to a play-off campaign none of players, manager or fans are looking forward too. Said manager has forgotten how to pick a winning team and is displaying all the motivation of a man standing atop the Humber Bridge holding a photo of his wife and her young, attractive boyfriend making love in his bed. The once-lauded playing squad is low on morale, responsibility and winning mentality. And the owners have antagonised the fanbase with a request to “Earn your stripes”. A membership scheme that penalises children and senior citizens (to add to the previously penalised “carer assisted” supporters) unless they shift themselves into the corners of the stadium or behind a goal.
“Why?” would be a fair question too. And the truth is, I have no bloody idea. There’s been no change in the playing staff. No signings, sales or injuries that would explain why form, confidence and belief went downhill faster than me and Jon Parkin in a rocket powered shopping trolley. The manager hasn’t changed the system, tactics or instructions that had the team pressing for the title. His staff is untouched, there’s been no interference from above or change in the tools he has to work with. Sure, we’ve got flaws but they’re the same flaws we’ve had all the time we were winning.
And as for why the club’s administration would introduce an unfair and unnecessary “membership” scheme at a time when fan relations were already fragile and attendances disappointing is the toughest question of all to answer. If it didn’t sound so utterly ludicrous, you’d suggest that they don’t want anyone in the stadium and they don’t want the team to succeed in winning promotion. No other explanation makes any sense.
So off the back of all that, we headed to Bolton to face hosts relegated from the league two weeks ago after one of the worst season’s in the club’s history. The only consolation for the Wanderers fans is that they still have a club. They’re the ultimate warning to any club in massive hock to a single investor and fans who think that somehow it’s not really debt.
It seemed a pretty simple task for The Tigers. Dispatch the team rooted to the bottom of the league and build on the tiny bit of momentum gathered since the realisation that automatic promotion had been chucked away set in. 1200 City fans followed the team to the Macron Stadium. That showed a level of commitment that wouldn’t be shown by the manager who made six changes from Tuesday’s win over Brentford (in which he’d made seven changes) or by the players who, for some strange reason, seemed to think this game didn’t matter.
Brian Lenihan – Michael Dawson – Harry Maguire – Sam Clucas
Ahmed Emohamady – Isaac Hayden – Tom Huddlestone – Robert Snodgrass
I can’t explain that team. There was obviously a clear purpose to resting Moses Odubajo and Andy Robertson who’ve been almost ever-present this season and Michael Dawson needed a game on his return from injury. But otherwise? I’ve no idea. What will Sam Clucas get out of playing left back? Is Shaun Maloney going to do what he’s failed to do all season? Is Chuba Akpom going to develop a partnership with anyone playing on his own? I’ve enjoyed watching Brian Lenihan in the U21’s recently but he’s not going to be involved in play-off games so why’s he starting here?
Not a lot happened in the first half. It felt like a friendly, as did Tuesday. The lack of importance placed on the games by the manager is the reason. There was another peaceful “red card” protest against the name change followed by less peaceful “Allam Out” chants. Remember the chants in February? Me neither. The club have poked the fans again and awakened all this ill feeling.
The only positive was the combination of Lenihan and Elmohamady down our right. Both put in several good crosses that gave Akpom something to attack but he was the only one in the box. On 18, he did get on the end of a cross from Elmo but headed wide. That came just after he’d been played through on the left and chosen to try and find Elmo rather than running in on the keeper. They were the two big chances. Right on half time, Snodgrass curled a free-kick onto the top of the bar after Pratley had clobbered Maloney and been booked.
Davies was also booked for a foul on Maloney on the half hour. Bolton were flying into tackles. They were dead men walking but wanted it more than we did. Jakupovic saved at close range from Heskey after Davies skinned Clucas on 19 mins and Clough was denied runs in on goal by good defending from Lenihan early on and Maguire just before half time.
Half time: Bolton Wanderers 0 Hull City 0
If the first half was dull, the second was just dreadful. We controlled possession but passed slowly and almost exclusively in front of a ten-man defence. You know the story; you’ve seen it enough this season.
On 52 Jak spread himself to save from Davies after good work from Clough put him through on our right. Five minutes later Dawson flicked a near-post header wide from Snodgrass’s corner. We then hit the cross bar through Akpom who smashed a shot against it after Hayden had brilliantly battled his way down the right and Maloney cleverly dummied the cut-back. Then they scored. Sub Dobbie had all the time in the world to tap home at the far post after Huddlestone failed to cut out a cross and Maguire couldn’t stretch to head it [1-0]. It was awful defending. I’ve no idea where the right sided players where as Dobbie enjoyed the freedom of the park.
We never looked like coming back. The City fans chanted “This is embarrassing” and “Top of the league and we f**ked it up”. Both correct. Diame and Aluko replaced Akpom and Maloney leaving us striker-less. A pointless substitution but dwarfed in the “Why the hell did you bother?” stakes by the introduction of Ryan Taylor for Tom Huddlestone with fifteen to play. Shockingly, that brilliant tactical switch didn’t turn the game around.
Full time: Bolton Wanderers 1 Hull City 0
So did we learn anything from this? Not much in truth. But one important thing was hammered home. We can’t play Tom Huddlestone in a four-man midfield in the play-offs. Wonderful footballer though he is (sometimes), he just doesn’t have the mobility to cover our defence. This was made clear at the Macron numerous times but none more obvious than when he was booked for tripping Pratley because he didn’t have the speed to chase him. The only other positive was that Ahmed Elmohamady looked something like his old self.
Does any of that matter? I’m as optimistic as any City fan and I’m saying no. There’s no belief in our squad, our staff or our fanbase. There’s no confidence, there’s no strength of mind and there is nothing positive coming out of the club. We’re fourth in the Championship, heading into only our third play-off campaign ever and the place is shrouded in negativity. What’s anyone doing to sort that out? Pushing Steve Bruce out via David Burns and Phil Buckingham to beg fans to get behind the team while the club simultaneously alienate those same fans with their spiteful actions. The club gives nothing. They’re more interested in ensuring no-one accidentally calls us “Hull City” than in filling the stadium. The priorities of those in charge are wrong and have been for a long time.
I hope we do somehow make it through the play-offs. Because otherwise, we’re going in the same direction Bolton have gone since they tumbled out of the Premier League. They’re in freefall. We’ve still got a parachute. Anyone know if it opens?