Two minutes of time added on had been played when James Milner put the ball down 25 yards from goal and curled a free-kick around the Hull City wall. His manager, Manuel Pellegrini, punched the air in delight.
Manchester City had been jeered off at half-time, when they trailed to relegation-threatened Hull. They had not lost at home to Hull since 1930.
Milner, who was a substitute not used until the 66th minute, does not know where he will be playing next season.
His contract is ticking into its final months and there is considerable interest from Liverpool. Pellegrini would stress only that Milner is important, and praised his goal afterwards.
Milner was more critical of the current run City are on. Last week’s brave draw at Chelsea cannot mask a huge dip in form. They have drawn three and lost two of their past five League games. It is their worst run in the Premier League since 2009.
“It was not good enough,” said Milner. “Coming off the back of a good performance last week we knew it would be tough against a spirited side but we’ve slipped up at home again.
“You can look at a few things, but over 90 minutes we didn’t do what we should have done. It is disappointing again but we need to regroup and come back again.
“You look at our success in recent seasons and it was built on solid home form. It shows we now need to make up the ground away from home. Chelsea have a big lead now.”
That lead is now seven points, and City’s goal difference is inferior. Of some consolation is the fact that Yaya Touré will be back next weekend from the Africa Cup of Nations. The champions have not won a League game without him since April.
They craved for a driving force yesterday. Hull had been hammered by their own manager as well as Newcastle United last week in a 3-0 defeat. Yet they were excellent throughout yesterday and dominant for 45 minutes, when they hit the crossbar through Ahmed Elmohamady and then the post through Gaston Ramirez. His shot in the 35th minute rebounded back to David Meyler and the midfielder scored from close range.
Allan McGregor saved well from Edin Dezko early in the second half and Alex Bruce was heavy-handed in a challenge with David Silva that could have been a penalty, but only in the closing stages did City truly rally.
Sergio Aguero clipped a shot off the crossbar with fine skill in the 90th minute and then, two minutes later, Tom Huddlestone clumsily bundled him to the ground. From there Milner curled a fine free-kick into the corner of McGregor’s goal.
“That was a bit more like the team I’ve had the pleasure of managing the last two-and-a-half years,” said Steve Bruce. “They showed the determination to hang on and win the match.
“The goalkeeper has only made one save. We got a bit deep in the second half, but in the first-half performance we could have gone further ahead. I’m disappointed for them because they played so well.”
Pellegrini has much to ponder. The return of Touré and Wilfried Bony will add urgency that was missing for most of the draw with Hull. “I can be more angry and disappointed if we don’t run and we look a tired team without ideas, but I think we worked, we played and tried. But for different reason sometimes you can’t do it,” he said. “They will return to their normal performance.
“We are not concerned about the gap [to Chelsea]. We are concerned about how we can go to our normal performance. How we can score goals. That is more important than the gap to other teams. James scored a beautiful free-kick.”
He must hope others follow the lead of a player who could be leaving. The champions cannot afford many more slip ups.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Nasri, Fernando (Navras, h-t), Fernandinho, Silva (Jovetic, 75); Dzeko (Milner, 66), Aguero.
Hull (5-3-2): McGregor; Elmohamady, Dawson, Bruce, McShane, Brady (Quinn, 90); Livermore, Huddlestone, Meyler; Ramirez (N’Doye, 76), Aluko (Robertson, 67).
Referee: Jonathan Moss.
Man of the match: Brady (Hull)
Match rating: 8/10