Tears for Bullard add to holes in Hull

Aston Villa 3 Hull City 0: Masterful Milner makes case for World Cup berth but Jimmy's England hopes are in doubt after yet another knee injury
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The Independent Football

He might have come to Villa Park billed as the Hull City danger man, but the applause which rang out around the old stadium when Jimmy Bullard was helped down the tunnel in apparent agony confirmed that nobody here wanted to witness a scene such as this. Concern for the player who must rank as the most popular in the Premier League inevitably overshadowed a com- fortable victory for the home side which hauled them above Liverpool into fifth.

After going up for a high ball with James Milner in the 15th minute, Bullard fell on his left knee. It could have been far, far more ominous, as he has twice required major surgery on the other knee, most recently following damage to his cruciate ligament on his very first start for Hull in January. Yet the look on Bullard's face still suggested he had experienced this sort of pain before.

"He was close to tears, but that is understandable after all he's been through," said Hull's assistant manager, Brian Horton. "But it's not the same leg he's had all the problems with before, so our physio is hopeful. Jimmy's in a brace and will not be able to have a scan until Monday when the swelling goes down. We shall see."

The waiting will be torture for Bullard. This was only the 31-year-old's fifth game back after a nine-month absence, and his dejection was obvious. Everything had been going so well. On Friday, Bullard was named Premier League player of the month for November, and the hype was growing.

"There was that award and the euphoria of the World Cup draw and I heard talk on the TV whether Bullard could come back to get into the squad," said Horton. "So of course it would very disappointing if he's out."

Bullard's mood was in direct contrast to that of Milner, another midfielder dreaming of South African glory. The coming man in the Premier League was the most influential performer in as easy a stroll as Martin O'Neill could have hoped for against a side unbeaten in four. No, this is not the happiest of weekends for anyone with the word "Tiger" in their nickname.

Hull were already one down when Bullard went over. They could so easily have been two or even three adrift. After just 20 seconds Luke Young had the chance to score, but the full-back's effort flashed across goal. Then in the seventh minute, Emile Heskey made a weak attempt when Ashley Young had played him in. It was left to a central defender to provide the telling finish.

Richard Dunne belied the traits of his position with a superb strike into the roof of the net in the 13th minute. Saying that, he did have ample time to line up his shot; the Hull defence inexplicably left him wide open and allowed Milner to play the simplest of balls into the box.

A quarter of an hour later and the ever-impressive Milner doubled the advantage. Again it came in comically bad circumstances. Matt Duke took leave from his area to clear the ball into touch and when the Villa subs, who were warming up, were alert enough to recover the ball and quickly hand it over to Gabby Agbonlahor, the goalkeeper found himself stranded as the throw-in landed at Milner's feet. He duly and expertly deployed the lob over the back-pedalling Duke. Villa were electrified; Hull were in desperate need of a spark.

It almost came on the hour mark when Craig Fagan, on for Bullard, unleashed a left-footer from 30 yards which rattled against the post. As it cannoned back, Phil Brown jumped around in the technical area like a gaffer demented. He must have known that was the moment. By that juncture Ashley Young had been giving his back four the runaround, and with Stewart Downing, making his first League start in claret and blue, lively on the other flank, a third Villa goal had looked more probable than possible.

In the 88th minute it finally arrived. John Carew showed Heskey why he is O'Neill's favourite with a deft flick on to Ashley Young. It was too tempting for Duke not to bring him down. Carew converted from the spot and Hull's misery was complete.

Attendance: 39,748

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Man of the match: Milner

Match rating: 5/10