A descent into formless football and defensive attitudes sees the Tigers capitulate against meagre Bristolian opposition. Mike Scott sees the parallels with Little's last season in charge.
It's telling when a poor player is the difference the opposition and your side. A player who turns in a gutless performance mostly devoid of skill, guile and desire. A player who shirks challenges, trips over the ball and generally looks like he isn't the full Division Three ticket. It's all the more unfortunate when that player is a Hull City employee playing for the opposition.
I'm sure I've made the "a season encapsulated in one game" comparison in match reports before. But this is another one where the course of game mirrored the way in which a season went. An early goal saw us take the upper hand early on. We scrapped our way through the rest of the first quarter against limited opposition to maintain that lead. Then a goal out of blue saw the City heads drop and the flowing football collapse. The second half was an ugly descent into hoofery against poor opposition who eventually were gifted a late goal. City were a beaten side, mid-table rubbish.
The season I refer to is 2001-02, Little's last season, of course. It's won't happen again this time will it. Will it? Could it?
Signing up for the "Frustration Enveloping City Re-enactment Society" (or FECKERS) on this crisp and clear autumnal day were:
So pre-match predictions based on Wednesday's reserve team selection were correct - Price got the nod up front, France came in to start a League game for the first time and Elliott stayed on the left. Otherwise, the side that fought so hard against Yeovil was retained. And within seconds the early tempo was set as City ripped into tackles with a view to unsettling a home side in the midst of a long run of games without victory. That exuberance was punished after two minutes when Ashbee upended the snarling young Gas forward Haldane. The free kick was swung to the back post 15 yards out where centre-back Edwards, long locks flowing, nodded a looping header just over with minimal attention from the City defence.
An early sign of things to come perhaps. But negative thoughts were soon set aside as City scored a goal on 5 that leant as much to comedy defending as forceful attacking play. Good inter-play between Price and Burgess in midfield freed France on the right. From his cross Green's shot was fubled spectacularly by keeper Miller to Price's feet, but that shot was also blocked and the ball ran wide again to France. The young man took a second to set himself and swing a sumptuous cross deep over the panicking defence to the unmarked Burgess who nodded home from close range. City are back. Easy.
A decent following had turned out to cheer the away side on despite the distance between Hull and Bristol, a place that some consider the leading city of the North Midlands. But the open and fragmented nature of the away terrace at the tidy Memorial Ground made the generation of any atmosphere difficult. Only the presence of Ryan Williams on the Bristol Rovers left bought the City fans to life, and that was motivated more by invective than support. In the early stages Williams and Hinds stood off each other in a passable re-enactment of a Serengeti Zebra mating ritual. Neither seemed keen to go near the other when the ball came their way, and it was left to Ashbee to cover across two or three times and harry the nervous Williams off the ball. But as the half wore on Williams, like his team-mates, started to realise that City were not taking the game to them as they would perhaps have expected, and his and their confidence began to grow. City had their moments up front but, as at Cheltenham, the Burgess/Price front pairing yielded an instant goal, then a subsequent total lack of understanding and cohesion. City's only moments of threat came when Bristol partook in further comedy defending, left back Anderson being a particular culprit on two occasions but the ball fell for Price on neither occasion.
After half an hour Bristol won a free-kick deep in City territory and their set-piece specialist Carlisle eyed the chance with glee. Alas, he plopped the kick into Musselwhite's midriff. In the home side's next attack Williams and Anderson combined to confuse Joseph and Hinds such that Williams was allowed to check onto his stronger right foot and fire an inswinging cross into the penalty box. Agogo's run ahead of his marker was enough to distract the City defence such that the cross plopped straight in at the far post past a blameless Musselwhite. Williams turned to celebrate, then realised he was right in front of the City supporters, so he jumped up and down a bit in muted fashion. 1-1, and City lacklustre performance had let Bristol back into the game.
It was hoped that this would spark City into positive action. Some hope. Ashbee congratulated Williams in typical style, dumping him on his arse on halfway and earning a deserved yellow card. Then in the closing seconds the tall and useful Savage, who had been anonymous up to 30 minutes in but now dominated midfield, swept past France and Hinds on the left before drawing a corner which he himself headed narrowly wide from Williams' delivery. We went in at 1-1 and on the back foot.
It was obvious that Price up front wasn't working and needed changing. Mr Taylor agreed, but didn't advance the pacy Elliott but instead swapped Price with the nervous France. Price did OK on the right as he always does, but France looked like a player that had never played up front in a League game before in his life - which of course, he was. Only once did Burgess and France make any connection as a front pairing throughout the half, understandably this lack of penetration frustrated Burgess and he turned in a wretched second half performance, albeit against the over-physical but largely unpunished ex-Forest centre-back Christian Edwards.
With a lack of any bite up front, Bristol were able to focus their resources in midfield and overran the vital middle section of the pitch throughout the half. Ashbee could have had no more than 6 touches of note in the second half, contrasting with his dominating first half showing. It was a game of few chances - Haldane twisted and fired a low shot at Mussy, Burgess headed softly at Miller after a Green cross, Price burst down the Rovers' right after a neat pass by Burgess but his fizzing cross evaded Elliott in the box - but slowly and surely Bristol took the upper hand and pushed the Tigers back into their own 18-yard box. They had two excellent looking penalty chances refused by the fussy and inconsistent referee - a claimed Dawson handball from Carlisle's cross looked particularly clear-cut - but as the tide continued to turn Rovers' way, so Mr Taylor reacted. Bizarrely.
With France clearly struggling up front and the pacy Elliott ready to repeat his game-turning performance up front at Torquay, Taylor instead withdrew the Ulsterman along with the lacklustre Green, bringing on Holt and Keates. It was a "what we have, we hold" tactical switch that failed totally to recognise that the home side were getting the upper hand thanks to our lack of any threat up front. Not France's fault as such, but he was the problem, and he was left on.
The upshot was that the game barely changed at all. Keates and Holt both did OK, but the mould wasn't broken and Bristol continued to claw their way into a dominant position. This ultimately led to an ugly climax as Williams swung a low corner into the City box, Burgess and Ashbee both aimed clearing swipes at it and missed, and Agogo gratefully accepted the opportunity to thump in the winner unattended from 12 yards. The game petered out and Bristol took the points. Disgruntled City fans filtered away silently only to be struck by further ignominy, a (no doubt provoked) attack by home supporters on our fans in the car park.
There are critical choices to be made by Taylor this week. City must retain the attacking threat saw us sweep so thrillingly to the top of the table in September. With Allsopp and Forrester both absent this side of Christmas and vital games against Scunthorpe and Mansfield to come, it is clear that neither Price or France are up to partnering Burgess effectively. The choice is therefore to either give Elliott a run up front (and for my money, that is the logical choice anyway) or take on a nippy loan player (Paul Peschisolido is the kind of player we need, I guess). When Brian Little got to the crossroads of his season two years ago he fucked up and chose a dead-end. Will Peter Taylor make a similar mistake?
HULL CITY (4-4-2): Musselwhite; Hinds, Joseph, Delaney, Dawson; France, Ashbee, Green, Elliott; Price, Burgess. Subs: Keates (for Green, 73), Holt (for Elliott, 73), Webb, Whittle, Fettis.
Goals: Burgess 5
Booked: Ashbee, Elliott, Jospeh
Sent Off: None
BRISTOL ROVERS: Miller, Parker, Barrett, Anderson, Edwards, Carlisle, Hyde, Savage, Williams, Haldane, Agogo. Subs: Quinn (for Haldane, 89), Boxall, Tait, Austin, Clarke.
Goals: Williams 33; Agogo 87
Sent Off: None
Last revised: December 05, 2003