Martin O'Neill's inclination to play down Aston Villa's chances of finishing the season in a Champions League place looked entirely reasonable for 87 minutes last night as Hull responded to their manager's fit of Boxing Day pique with a stirring attempt to put their faltering season back on track.
Unfortunately for Phil Brown's side, however, Villa have developed the handy knack of scoring late goals and it came to their aid again just when it seemed Hull had denied them victory. A draw would have been enough to lift Villa back into fourth place but the unexpected bonus of a win from a below-par performance puts them level on points with Manchester United.
To compound Hull's frustration, referee Steve Bennett awarded the home side a stoppage-time penalty for hand-ball against Ashley Young only to reverse the decision after consulting his assistant, with television replays proving that he was right to change his mind because Michael Turner's header had hit the bar rather than the Villa player's hand.
It meant that Kamil Zayatte's 88th-minute own goal was enough to continue Villa's profitable sequence of late gains. In the last month, they have turned one point into three at Everton and salvaged a draw against Arsenal with stoppage time goals, while it was a 78th-minute own goal that secured victory at West Ham.
"We did not play well but we are always capable of producing something, even when you think there is no more energy to give," O'Neill said. "When the referee awarded the penalty, elation turned to despair and back to elation again. It was a courageous decision by the referee to change his mind."
Brown, not surprisingly, was less complimentary about the Kent official, even though the cameras exonerated him. "If he thinks it is a penalty and gives it, how can he then decide that a linesman 45 yards away has had a better view?" Brown asked. The only consolation for Brown was the knowledge that his public dressing-down of his players on the Eastlands pitch after their shambolic first-half display at Manchester City last Friday had produced the desired response.
After dropping five of the Boxing Day starting line-up, Hull played with the zest and tempo that characterised their explosive start to their debut Premier League season.
Indeed, they had the ball in the Villa net after five minutes and could argue that Bennett was generous to Brad Friedel in disallowing the goal. The proximity of Nick Barmby to the goalkeeper could hardly account for him dropping the ball before Nigel Reo-Coker put the ball in his own net.
Hull created more chances while Villa, despite long spells of possession, failed to do any damage.The home side finished the half strongly, forcing Curtis Davies into a clearing header that flashed perilously close to his own goal and Friedel into another handling error.
Clearly galvanised, Hull gained self-belief as the contest progressed. It frustrated Villa, with referee Bennett tending to bear the brunt. Gareth Barry, booked for a clumsy foul on Mendy, almost talked himself into more trouble when he made his feelings clear about what he perceived as a foul on him.
If one side looked capable of creating a goal it was Hull, for whom Halmosi worked himself an opening on the left before Reo-Coker threw himself forward to make a timely block. Later, only Zat Knight's intervention took the ball off the head of an unmarked Barmby as Sam Ricketts crossed from the left flank.
It was a considerable improvement on Hull's recent struggles but after Young's cross towards Agbonlahor had been diverted into his own goal by Zayatte their record of one win in 11 makes uncomfortable reading.
Goals: Zayatte og (88) 0-1.
Hull City (4-3-2-1): Myhill; McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts; Garcia (Fagan, 89), Barmby (Hughes, 85), Ashbee; Mendy, Halmosi; Cousin (King, 69). Substitutes not used: Doyle, Geovanni, Duke (gk), Giannakopoulos.
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Knight, Davies, L Young; Petrov; Milner, Sidwell (Garner, 86), Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Harewood, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey, Guzan (gk), Osbourne.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Hull City Zayatte; Aston Villa Barry, Petrov.
Man of the match: Barry.
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