Football Commentary: Crossfire forces Hull's fall from heights

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The Independent Online
ON THE afternoon when a television sports institution celebrated its 35th birthday, a striker of similar vintage provided the grandstand finish which enabled Port Vale, pre-season promotion favourites, to topple Hull City, the surprising early leaders, from the Second Division summit.

Nicky Cross's personal honours list from 17 seasons as a professional could be inscribed on the back of a stamp. At Vale Park, however, he not only scored two stunning goals to undermine Hull's best start since 1948 but also replaced Lou Macari, albeit briefly, as the name on everyone's lips in the intensely parochial Potteries football community.

Like Macari, whose defection from Stoke City to Celtic would be ironic in view of his recent strictures on contractual obligations to the transfer-seeking Mark Stein, Cross is signed up to the area until the end of the season. Yet before he reluctantly agreed a one-year deal with Vale in August - he had sought two - there was no clamour for the services of a journeyman in his 33rd year.

Cross said with a weary grin after Vale's 2-1 victory over Hull that he was feeling his age. He was entitled to be tired: among his century of goals, shared between West Bromwich Albion, Walsall, Leicester and Vale, he could not recall scoring two of a more exhilarating nature in the same game than the pair which secured the Burslem club's fourth successive win.

They were Premiership strikes in all but name. The first was an overhead kick which a certain commentator would have been justified in describing as quite extraordinary. The second, after Hull's instant riposte, followed a solo run and shot at a time when most of the day's results had already been punched out on the BBC teleprinter.

Nor was it a two-off performance. Against Wrexham a week earlier, Cross scored with a back- heel out of the Denis Law manual. The previous Saturday, at Brentford, he had struck a ferocious winner, Peter Lorimer-style, from 30 yards. Both were voted 'goal of the week' on Granada television. At this rate, Vale will soon be marketing a 'Cross Collection' video.

Never the quickest of forwards, Cross was laid low by a cruciate-ligament injury for 18 months until last season. This year, the contractual wrangling resolved, he was sent off in the reserves and missed three games through suspension.

Throw in his wayward aim during the kick-in, which for endangered spectators brought a new meaning to the term crossfire, and the change in his form and fortunes was remarkable. As the local Green 'Un put it in an article prepared before the game: 'Just what are they putting in Nicky Cross's boots this season?'

Prior to this setback, which let in Stockport and Reading at the top, Hull's own improvement had startled supporters and bookmakers alike. Whatever the secret behind the transformation of a team who avoided the drop by one place last spring and were rated, at 66-1, as relegation certainties, it failed them on Saturday.

Confidence was clearly high, and the memorably named Dean Windass attempted to shoot from the half-way line on receiving the ball from the kick-off. Quality was more of a problem, with Hull often humping the ball hopefully upfield for Windass and Linton Brown to chase. In contrast, Vale stroked so many passes you wondered if they were on commission.

Cross, whose ability to shield the ball and link with midfield troubled Hull throughout, started the move for the first goal. Having fed John Jeffers on the left, he was in the box to launch himself in a blur of black and white at Ian Taylor's knock-down from the far post.

Vale were still congratulating themselves when Neil Allison, Hull's raw centre-half, rose in to head his first League goal, from a corner Paul Musselwhite ought to have collected.

Forty-five seconds into injury- time, when Hull seemed to have survived the fierce pressure, David Norton was dispossessed by Taylor. Cross, released in the inside- left channel, left Allison on his backside before a shot with the outside of his right foot beat Alan Fettis on his near post.

Vale's John Rudge, who will have seen off five Stoke managers if Macari moves, felt his team were approaching the fluency of last season, when they finished third but lost out in the play-off final. Terry Dolan, the Hull manager, complained of being left with a 'sickly feeling' by Cross's timing, but admitted they had not deserved to win. He would be happy, he added, if the next 11 fixtures also brought only two defeats.

In the long run, Hull might have to settle for sartorial leadership. Their 'Tiger-skin' tops could spark a new trend in literal interpretations of nicknames. Why not, for instance, Eagles' wings on Crystal Palace's sleeves, or a natty line in minimalist shorts for the Cobblers of Northampton?

Goals: Cross (17) 1-0; Allison (18) 1-1; Cross (90) 2-1.

Port Vale (4-4-2): Musselwhite; Billing, Aspin, Glover, Tankard; Taylor, Kerr, Van der Laan (Kent, 83), Jeffers; Foyle, Cross. Substitutes not used: Porter, Wood (gk).

Hull City (4-4-2): Fettis; Lowthorpe, Warren, Allison, Hobson; Abbott, Norton, Lee, Atkinson; Windass, Brown. Substitutes not used: Mann, Moran, Wilson (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).