Following an entertaining, hard fought and interesting (on several levels, both positive and negative), David Wagner commented that Town are not only a long way from providing any sort of sustained challenge to the top 6 of the Championship, the next step is to compete with the middle of the road clubs.
While sensible expectation management must also have informed his thinking, the experiences of the last 7 days, not to mention the previous absence of any success against the top end of the division, provides the stark realities of the task he is taking on with enthusiasm, intelligence and determination.
It is unlikely that he will be carried away by a useful point against a Hull side whose quality was obvious but rather patchy. The timing of the fixture – not an inconsiderable factor in the Championship – favoured Town, as Hull have suffered a slump in form only temporarily relieved by their easy home win against a weak Charlton side before a thrashing at Derby.
A frantic first half began with Town spurning a good opportunity created by good counter attacking through Lolley but a poor touch let him down when bearing down on goal allowing defenders to recover and block his attempted cross to Wells.
Early on, Hull found space down Town’s left and the ever dangerous Elmohamaday skinned Husband to find Hernandez free in the box only for the Uruguayan to head in to Steer’s arms.
Emyr Huws also produced an overdue performance of no little quality, prompting several attacks in the first half, finding his range of passing and adding a sense of calm too often lacking in one or two around him.
While half chances fell to Wells – who worked hard and effectively without getting another sniff of goal – Lolley and Paterson, it was Hull who looked most dangerous and the rather last ditch nature of Town’s defending, while often brave, was disconcerting. Cranie, Hudson, Smith and Steer were all called upon to foil dangerous situations, some of which were self inflicted in the first place.
Admirable as the blocks and saving tackles were, the desperation was palpable at times and illustrated that Wagner’s new embryonic tactics for better opposition requires work. The plan has echoes of Powell but with added flair when counter attacking was allowed, and as he learns the realities of Championship life – not least the disparities of wealth – without the luxury of his own squad prepared through a pre-season, the German is showing a pragmatic approach to the challenges.
Having survived scares and slowly getting to grips with the multiple threats of Robertson, Elmohamaday and the rather disappointing Snodgrass, Town took the lead with an impressive counter attack prompted by a superb ball by Huws to Husband. That the Welshman had extricated himself from a tight situation to deliver the pass made it more impressive and, in his last game on loan, Husband made maximum use of the space and opportunity before him, squaring to the unmarked Paterson to steer home.
The lead was valuable if not entirely deserved and was nearly doubled when Van La Parra spun around a defender and lofted a ball to the onrushing Lolley. Unfortunately, his volley hit Maguire and diverted wide – a 2-0 deficit at that stage may well have shattered the Tigers’ fragile confidence.
As it was, Hull should have equalised in the 5th minute of 3 minutes injury time – courtesy of refereeing liability Mr Deadman – when a soft free kick appeared to be floating out harmlessly before Snodgrass managed to hook the ball back in to Bruce’s path only for him to blast well over under some pressure from Steer.
With a half time lead and a much improved, if far from perfect, performance behind them, all eyes were on the elusive prize of a top 6 scalp; an understandable objective but one which has seemed a tad overblown in recent weeks and perhaps the source of a little too much anxiety which has perhaps stifled the exuberance Wagner has brought.
Town started the second half with apparently increased confidence and calmer defending before a sequence of events over the space of two minutes began to change the game’s dynamics just before the hour.
Another mazy run by Van La Parra, who by now was bringing out a range of tricks, took him to the edge of the area before he slipped in Wells whose first time effort was well saved by McGregor. From the ensuing corner, a clearance was picked up by Lolley who played in the overlapping Paterson to deliver a great cross for the unmarked Huws. McGregor was at his best to tip over, but it was a glorious chance which, again, would have tested Hull’s mental state.
The next turning point was the withdrawal of Van La Parra with 20 minutes (plus Deadman’s potentially arbitrary additional time) to go. The winger had produced the best home debut in some considerable time which completely banished memories of his forgettable actual debut, but was clearly viewed as tiring by the management despite, or perhaps because of, a sprint back to commit a foul on Snodgrass minutes earlier.
We can dream that Van La Parra can become our Arfield – a player who couldn’t fulfil his potential at one club only to blossom at another – but, more prosaically, his departure freed up Elmohamaday from fully committed defensive duties and, once Aluko replaced the ineffective Snodgrass, Town’s left side became a potent source of supply again having been largely shut down since midway through the first half.
It was a clever and immediate response by Bruce, no doubt relieved that a potent threat had disappeared and delighted to be able to turn the tables. It also spoke, again, of the depth of the wealthier clubs’ benches.
From that point, Town began to atrophy alarmingly. Tired legs were not helped by two injuries to Hudson, both the result of a return to increasingly desperate defending. The veteran’s reduced mobility was an obvious concern and it was surprising that with Lynch on the bench his number wasn’t called.
Shortly after Hernandez had hit the bar and with desperation levels rising, Hudson couldn’t make a second tackle having initially won the ball on the left and Aluko skipped away down the wing. By the time the Nigerian had negotiated his way past Husband and Bunn, the captain was on his way back in to the area and inadvertently flicked the ball up perfectly for Hernandez to volley home.
The equaliser had been coming and to add injury to insult, Cranie’s vain attempt at a block resulted in a muscle pull and Town’s central defence was now seriously compromised.
Lynch replaced him but even the presence of our most accomplished and calm defender could not quell the anxiety of having to survive another quarter hour against a buoyant team and, in particular, the excellent Huddleston who had taken a firm grip of proceedings. Though quiet in the first half, the strangely unfit looking ex Spurs man was dominant in the second, linking play effortlessly and cruising through the chaos around him.
Scares came thick and fast and all semblance of control was lost as clearances simply invited the away side back on to the attack. The best chance fell to Aluko who was found by Huddleston, naturally, but fired over when he should have at least hit the target.
Somehow, Town survived and, implausibly, took the lead which should have earned the first top 6 scalp, even if it would have been more than fortuitous.
Harry Bunn, who had spent most of his time as an auxiliary full back, was released by Huws and he surged in to the area to put in a dangerous cross which Maguire turned in to his own net.
To their credit, Hull didn’t slump at what must have seemed a horrible injustice (and in their position, they couldn’t afford to sulk) and resumed their dominance in injury time to snatch a deserved equaliser.
Town’s defending was questionable at best, allowing too much space for a cross which flicked off Whitehead and arced towards Diomande to head past Steer, who may feel he should have done better.
The main concern for Town reverted to preserving their point as they retreated again with exhaustion, but Hull could only muster a wild shot as they pursued a win to cement their play off place. As it happened, results elsewhere went their way, particularly Wednesday’s thrashing at Bristol, and an extended season looks guaranteed.
For Town, the point slightly extended the gap to the doomed looking MK Dons and Charlton with Bolton finally being put out of their misery with a fully deserved relegation.
Referee Deadman failed in his attempts to ruin an entertaining game with inconsistent and often plain wrong decisions against both sides but added a touch of comedy by indulging two boot fittings by Hull players having kept Lolley off the pitch for an eternity for similar shodding.
Much improved for 70 minutes against good quality opposition, Town regained the steel absent in midweek at the Riverside, but the form of Whitehead, who works hard but remains slightly off, the troublesome left back slot where the rather average Husband will be replaced by the erratic Davidson and a creaking central defence remain worrisome until the mathematics render them redundant.
But it was a thoroughly enjoyable encounter from the home fans’ perspective, even if this is a sentiment unlikely to be shared on the east coast, where a return to the Premier League may well be essential to prevent potential stagnation and decline.