To this day, whenever the name of Hull City is mentioned, the first thing I think of is those three games from my youth when they conceded fourteen goals in three consecutive visits to Ninian Park – they lost 3-0, 6-0 and 5-1 between the seasons 68/69 and 70/71. Well yesterday Derby County joined the Tigers in becoming victims of absolute tonkings at the hands of City on three successive trips to the Welsh capital as they followed up 4-1 and 6-1 defeats in the last two seasons with another 4-1 loss which could have been heavier if City had not taken their foot off the pedal after going 4-0 up halfway through the second half.
The strange thing was though that it was hard really to disagree with what was being said by two representatives from Derby after the match. Firstly, Nigel Clough put the defeat down to it just being one of those days and that his team were well in the game for most of it – it was just that every time Cardiff attacked they seemed to score. Secondly, although I didn’t hear him say it, I was told last night that Robbie Savage had said on 606 that it was a frustrating match to play in because the midfield was consistently being bypassed with lots of long and high balls forward (apparently, Savage said both sides were guilty of doing this not just Cardiff).
As I mentioned before, I have some sympathy with what Clough and Savage say – for example, in the home matches against Reading and Ipswich we have a total of twenty seven goal attempts, with sixteen of them on target, and everyone goes home grumbling about dropped points and yesterday we manage just eight goal attempts and everyone goes home saying Premiership here we come! Similarly, although there was some good interplay involved in the build up to our first and third goals, we did play quite a bit of long ball stuff and Craig Bellamy’s recent comments tend to confirm that we are not the get it down and pass it team that many of us like to think we are – let’s not forget as well that our pitch is hardly conducive to good, passing football (having said that though, with grass now growing on it again, I thought it wasn’t as much of a factor as it has been in recent home games).
As always though, there are two sides to things. For example, after City had hit Derby with three goals in twenty minutes early in the second half, it was hard to avoid the feeling that there were further goals there for them if they had really pushed for them – Dave Jones remarked on his disappointment at our play in the last quarter of an hour and I know what he means because goal difference could be the decisive factor when forty six games have been played. So, although Derby can point to some close shaves for City in the first half and a candidate for miss of the season after the break, the truth as I see it is that we were always the better team and, if a three goal winning margin probably flattered them, I don’t think one of two goals would have.
As for the long ball stuff, well when you have players with the long passing ability of Peter Whittingham and Steve McPhail and someone who is willing to put in the amount of running into channels that Craig Bellamy did yesterday then what is wrong with trying to hit him early if the passes are delivered well and are not just aimless boots forward? City did play their fair share of hit and hope stuff from the back (as they always do), but a lot of the long stuff was delivered by McPhail and, in particular, Whittingham and was of a quality that regularly tested the derby defenders.
Bellamy’s performance was one of several encouraging ones for the seven matches to come. Jay Bothroyd ended his run of games without a goal with a confidently taken penalty and generally looked more like his old self, Whittingham’s superb goal and assist were the high spots of a good all round display, Dekel Keinan again showed his value as an attacking threat as he went further towards proving that he was a very good, and relatively cheap, signing in January, one, almost, disastrous header apart, Paul Quinn turned in another solid defensive display with the added bonus of a first ever City goal to go with it and, finally, although he wasn’t really called on to do that much, Tom Heaton inclusion helped create a feeling of defensive solidarity which had been missing while he was out.
So, City’s winless run of four games has ended and they now enter another four match spell which, I believe, will decide whether they can finish in the top two. Although I accept that there are still plenty of sides below us who can take that second spot, the team we have to look at first and foremost is Norwich who , with a four point cushion and a record of two defeats since October, have to be real favourites to come second now. However, with Swansea away (a home win will suit us best there now!), to be followed by a trip to Watford, then a home game with Forest before an East Anglian derby at Ipswich, the opportunity is there for the pack to hunt the canaries down in the next few weeks – contrast what Norwich have got coming with Doncaster and Sheffield United away and Portsmouth at home and City have to have as good a chance as anyone of catching them (visits to relegation threatened sides are always tough at this time of year, but, looking at where we are are and Sheffield United’s home record, we really should be going to Bramall Lane and winning if we are to be taken seriously as automatic promotion contenders).
Winning our next three games would give us a great chance of getting that second spot but, if there is a down side to that happening, it is that it would mean that QPR would not be sure of finishing above us when they come to our ground on Easter Saturday. While this does not rule out the possibility of them still having been promoted because of other teams dropping points, I think that, with the threat of a points deduction still likely to be hanging over them, it is more likely that they will come here with everything still to play for and that would make it as tough a game as anything Norwich have to face in the next three weeks. Even allowing for this though, the next four matches have to represent our best chance of getting past Norwich, because, with their three final games being Derby (H), Portsmouth (A) and Coventry (H), I can’t see it happening if we haven’t managed it by then.