Who, I wonder, would wish to do anything other than manage this current Hull City squad? Leaving aside the prevailing lack of team spirit and a level of fitness that would disgrace a platoon of Hattie Jacques impersonators, the prospect of taking the helm at our club could scarcely be seasoned to a more appetising degree. Sure, it would be nice to possess a proper on-pitch leader. And, true to confess, some midfielders who betray a hint of self-confidence and even - I call for the moon! - fit together in a modestly recognisable interlocking pattern would help. But hey! If I were - to pick an example from the air at random - capable recently departed Kidderminster boss Jan Molby, my goodness me, Hull City! The very thing! Where do I sign? Just next to the special ITV Digital bonus clause? Wahey! No monkey me.
Because Hull City, you see, has potential. And precious little achievement.
As I reflect dolefully on this latest contribution to our quest to finish below Carlisle, it is fair to admit that we were less inept and soul-weary in this trip to Gloucestershire than in most of the gruesome procession of staggeringly supine displays that has painted the Tiger's stripes puce and beige since early December. In fact, Cheltenham, backed by a home support that would have been deemed appropriately decorous for the XXXXIII Cotswold Flower Arranging Tournament (Mothers and Youngest Child only), showed a pitiful lack of bite and could easily have squandered two promotion points notwithstanding the listless character of the opposition that we presented yesterday. But the home side probably did just about enough to deserve to win. And did win. And we lost. Again.
We've done despair and we've done anger, we've done frustration and we've done heavy-handed satire, and one of us has even done buggering off to the Isle of Wight when it's his job to wield the crayons, so we match reporters - or, at least, this one - are reeling at the pain and anguish of trying to find the verbal wherewithal to fulfil the sorry task of transporting season 2001/02 to its conclusion. Same procedure as last week. We have good players. Who are, almost without exception, playing badly. Or - in the case of Messrs Goodison and Dudfield in particular - apparently preferring not to play at all.
I'll talk you through some football before flaying further flesh from my back. On a mild afternoon we lined up:
A lively, though rather bitty, beginning suggested an open and - whisper it not! - even enjoyable match. It didn't really work out that way. For a side closing in on automatic promotion, Cheltenham looked wholly unaffected by nervous tension, but equally they seemed strangely lacking in iron will and ambition to succeed. "The Chelt" is described in my 1952 "FA Football Book for Boys" as "a rather leaden but periodically effective style of play involving booting the ball forward a long way and often high into the air, towards big immobile forwards" - to be distinguished from "The Dolan", which is the same thing except wholly ineffective in its outcomes. Against irresolute opponents, the Chelt works, just as the West Midlands Police can confirm that bashing someone over the head repeatedly with a cosh will eventually produce a confession to just about anything you choose. (Ah the 70s! Crazy Days! Why is that the police nowadays have to do all that fiddly paperwork in advance of going before a judge and jury? Why indeed.) And against City The Chelt worked. Eventually. (And here's me stuck with the paperwork, and expecting no reprieve from that nice Mr Blunkett).
In the meantime we offered a lively moment or two. Williams did pleasantly well in a one-on-one wide on the right, feeding the ball to Johnsson, whose cross flashed beyond the far post, just out of Alexander's reach. An offside flag against our leading scorer only slightly marred the impression of a positive start. But it was a bit here, a bit there, no more. Julian Alsop, part man part fridge freezer, was more prominent for the home side in defence than in his normal role as lumbering target man, but neither side was able to sustain any momentum. For Chelters, a sharp low shot from right to left drew a sound save from Musselwhite, at the expense of a corner. Then delicacy from Sneekes created space for Lightbourne and Norris to combine, but home netman Barry Took pouched the cross. Back up the other end and a ball knocked in from their right was met powerfully by a Chelt forward, but Muss blocked the shot gamely, and he repeated the feat by holding a header from the resultant corner.
Both sides had their best moment of the first 45 hard by the half-time whistle. Sneekes slipped a pass out to VanBlerk on the left. His cross was met at the back post by both Johnsson and Lightbourne, whose confused combination distracted the defence for long enough for Alexander to slide in ahead of his marker and thunder a shot over the bar from eight yards out. In the Autumn that would have been a cast-iron goal. Then one of theirs burst into our penalty area and was flattened by the most perfectly executed forearm smash I have witnessed since the days of Tally-Ho Kaye (is he too to be banned, Mr Blair? Is nothing in our rural heritage sacred?). The referee, perhaps a childhood devotee of World of Sport's wrestling coverage from Hanley Town Hall, smiled winningly and waved play on.
The incident was up at the far end from me, so I am not sure to which incipient grappler we must express thanks - it was Van Blerk's position, but I suspect it was actually Mohan who went for the first of two falls or a submission - but let me be clear, Kent Walton himself would have gasped at such majesty. Chelters claims for a penalty - which it certainly was - merely betrayed their Non-League-rooted incapacity to marvel at such Renaissance Sporting Artistry.
Into the second half and the sunshine ushered the clouds back over the lee of the Cotswolds as we prepared for more, err, not very good football. Which is what we got!
Still, we showed pleasing vigour in an evenly-matched opening to the half. Alexander hit a sharp right foot shot which was held to Took's right. Then the Muss dropped a cross as it sailed out of the sun like an avenging Spitfire of the type so gallantly piloted by HRH during the Battle of Britain, allowing one of theirs to boot a hasty shot over the bar. It was even for quarter of an hour, but the game began to slip away from our grasp as the afternoon progressed. Perhaps the promotion-chasing home side began to display greater hunger. But I don't really think that explains it. They look a sound bet to come straight back down in disarray in May of 2003. The game tipped in favour of the Chelts because we have no one who consistently whips the team onward when the going gets heavy.
Yates, one of the clutch of monster Chelt six-footers, bashed a shot goalwards, but was thwarted by a timely Mohan deflection. From the corner, Mohan again intervened, clearing with poise and calm experience. Then a shot from wide on their right flashed across the face of the goal with Musselwhite scrambling in vain and the Tiger support behind the goal believing their heroes undone. Not so. An inch wide. But the home side was now well on top and for the first time in the game, as they moved the ball down both flanks, they looked likely to defeat us. The winning goal duly arrived from a corner - a hopeful punt, headed in from about six yards out. The defence remonstrated angrily with a sheepish Muss, who had showed a dismal lack of conviction in coming off his whitewash. But our too-quiet keeper would have been entitled to ask why no defensive head lunged into the gap where his lagging fist failed to appear. Van Blerk, not the most aerially impressive of our defenders, was especially rude to Musselwhite. Heavens! A mouthy Aussie! Who would have believed it? Justin's view was that the team should get on with the game, and he did so, while others mooched around and sounded off. He is an angel.
Sneekes was off by now, and Whitmore had come on. Beresford for Lightbourne too; no great virtue in either switch was evident. 90 minutes were spent now, and there were 4 extra. A lively foursome, as it turned out. A woeful back pass forced Musselwhite to hack clear in desperation as Tyson marauded for the "we've just done enough" home side. Then Tyson muscled Justin aside - no easy task - and shot just wide of the far post. The home side led, but it was the dispirited visiting Tiger that had to defend deep. Whitmore's firm tackle on 93 is a pleasure to record - but since it occurred five yards from the corner flag at the end we were defending and with just thirty seconds remaining on the clock, it was not the best use of the mighty Jamaican's refulgent talents.
So we lost.
In attack and in defence, there was little to cheer, though Mohan had probably his best game of the season (an accolade on a par with acclaiming "Ra Ra Rasputin (lover of the Russian Queen)" as the pinnacle of Boney M's artistic achievements). But how atrocious is our midfield? How atrocious has it been for months? Those were, I suppose, written as rhetorical questions - but should you need answers, they are "very" and "VERY". This, of course, is not a lament provoked by a modestly zesty 0-1 defeat at Cheltenham. It's this entire collapsed season that tortures my soul No individual has lately been playing well. Together, they are hair-tearingly awful. Never have I seen a collection of players so dismally lacking in confidence - Williams and Johnsson score grimmest on that scale. Really good footballers are not reaching even half-way on their personal performance thermometer - Whitmore most of all, but also Beresford and the AWOL Dudfield. And there is no sense of proper pairings - where now Paul Moss and Mick Tait; Garry Parker and Billy Askew? Sneekes has a nice touch on the ball, but does he fit into this team? I don't think so. It's not a criticism of Sneekes. No single midfield player is sensibly talked of in the same breath as another player in the squad. They are individuals, not a team - certainly not a midfield. Sigh. Mr Little, you signed Savo Milosevic sight unseen for Villa and your roster of player acquisition for us is, well, disappointingly ill-structured. I could talk of Williams and how he has played five decent passes all season; of a sub-standard campaign from the admittedly injury-hit Greaves (one towering display at home to Exeter is not enough); the competent but woefully one-paced Philpott; and of Norris, who was awful at Cheltenham. But for me the man of the season is Julian Johnsson. Strong, forceful, thoughtful in the first couple of months. And right now his first touch goes ten yards up in the air, he can't pass straight, he's as likely to chance across a defence-splitting ball as the Queen Mother ever was to hire someone black for her taxpayer-funded Household. For me. the new manager's first job will be to shape a midfield formation and stick to it, and to find players that suit not only that formation but also each other. Happily, according to current rumours (mediaspeak for "what Les Motherby thinks"), we seem likely to appoint a manager who, if he knows nothing else, should at least grasp the basics of a proper midfield.
Report by: Steve Weatherill