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Jan 31, 2009

Tigers need to find their roar

West Bromwich Albion 0 Hull City 3. The win put Hull level on points with Liverpool and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, but that was then and this is now. That was a brave new world. This is the old one, with its familiar anxieties and predictable concerns. Hull can no longer look forward optimistically. Their gaze has been diverted over their shoulders and they are distinctly nervous.

Just as some outside East Yorkshire were belatedly recognising Hull, their decline was beginning. Since that giddy October day at the Hawthorns, they have won just one of their last 15 Premier League games. In failing to overcome an Albion side who had lost their eight previous away games, Hull belatedly re-entered the lower half of the table. Their position is more precarious than that suggests.

Hull's wonderful start gave them margin for error, but they have erred time and again. They led twice against the division's basement club today, but did not win. This represented the ideal opportunity to regain the momentum they have mislaid. They could not.

"I'm disappointed that we didn't win the game," said Phil Brown. "I thought we were nothing short of magnificent in our application; the work rate was tireless. Compared to Wednesday night [a 2-0 defeat at West Ham], it was chalk and cheese. I can't ask for any more effort or desire from the players."

Yet when a team draws at home with West Brom, more is required to secure safety. Indeed, a typically glum Tony Mowbray, rather than savouring his side's fightback, inadvertently highlighted that. "We've found it hard away from home in the Premier League to pick up points," he said.

"I wasn't particularly pleased with anything in the first half; I thought it was as poor as we've been this season. Half a team that would probably start today was not here." Patched-up they may have been, but Albion had sufficient spirit to salvage something.

Indeed, having only scored four times on their travels all season, they mustered two in the second half. Their first equaliser came from Jay Simpson, finishing after James Morrison's fine solo run. Then, after Kamil Zayatte fouled Robert Koren, Chris Brunt drilled in a second leveller from the penalty spot.

It means Hull retain the unenviable distinction of having the Premier League's most porous defence. "It's always worrying when you're not keeping clean sheets," Brown added. "Manchester United have kept 11 on the bounce and the last one we kept was in late October [at West Brom]."

Hull twice led, first when Ian Ashbee lofted a pass over an Albion defence that may have pushed up too far. Bernard Mendy accelerated on to it, showing a sprinter's speed and uncharacteristic calm to wander round Scott Carson and slide the ball in. The Frenchman played a pivotal role in the second, too, crossing for Craig Fagan to convert from close range. When Mendy was replaced at half-time in a 4-0 pre-season defeat at Crewe, having been culpable for three goals, his influence appeared entirely negative. Yet having tormented Manchester United and Liverpool in what Brown called "a stop-start season" he is a reminder that Hull have specialised in the unlikely.

The unfortunate element for them is that few such tales have emerged recently. The contrast with the fearless conquerors of Arsenal, Newcastle and Tottenham is marked. Geovanni, then the conjuror of improbable goals, has been dropped, George Boateng and Daniel Cousin are injured and Marlon King is at Middlesbrough after alienating too many in too short a period of time.

Only the back four and captain Ian Ashbee seem guaranteed a place while Brown, once applauded for his boldness, has shown an element of desperation in the team selection as he flails around in a search for a saviour.

An ersatz forward partnership of Fagan, often a right winger, and Richard Garcia, essentially a midfielder, seemed to be aping David Moyes' tactic of operating without a specialist striker. Brown pronounced himself pleased with the results, though Garcia spurned a glorious first-half chance. After the novel sight of Ryan France - once of Alfreton Town - facing Arsenal, this was a Championship stalwart in a Premier League attack. There were times it showed.

It took a while for reality to return to Hull after their early-season heroics. Now it has made an unwelcome comeback.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Scott Carson - His mistakes have been highlighted recently, so his excellence today should also be recorded. He produced fine saves to deny Mendy, Kevin Kilbane, Michael Turner and Ashbee and earn Albion a rare away point.

HULL VERDICT: The team changes by the week and some more amendments may be required to find a winning formula. Geovanni surely still has a role to play, while Manucho, the loan signing from Manchester United, was another unused substitute while Garcia was strangely preferred in attack. Zayatte's challenge on Koren was costly and, if Anthony Gardner ever returns to fitness, he would be a finer option in the centre of defence.

WEST BROM VERDICT: With their central defenders either injured or substandard (or, in some cases, both) Albion still have defensive concerns. The benefit of Mowbray's January dealings is in attack where the combination of Marc-Antoine Fortune and Jay Simpson provides pace and more of a threat.

NO BULL: The infectious enthusiasm and considerable quality of Jimmy Bullard should be essential if Hull are to survive. However, their record signing was absent, sidelined by a knee problem. They desperately require him now.

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