Friday, 13 November 2015

Hull City: Ten Tigers out of contract next summer

For all the good things going on around Hull City at the moment – there is a potentially ugly situation lurking in the background.

Since the Allams purchased the club in 2010 their footballing decisions have been immeasurably better than those made in the boardroom. However one area they have struggled with – or simply do not place importance on – is the renewal of contracts. Only a handful of players including James Chester, Liam Rosenior and Alex Bruce have had their deals renewed since the Allams arrived.

Matt Fryatt and Stephen Quinn have walked away in the past two summers and others such as James Chester and Robbie Brady have had to be sold because the single year remaining on their contracts has left the club unprotected.

The situation looks set to be worse than ever this summer with ten senior players out of contract. Given the individual circumstances surrounding each player, the reduced wages currently being paid and the uncertainty over the level of income the club will receive next season – there isn’t a simple answer.

Here’s a look at the ten players in question:

Ahmed Elmohamady

It’s hard to imagine a City team without “Elmo”. He’s become a fixture of the team for the better part of three years and his energy, athleticism and versatility make him a vital part of the team. The word is that he changed his agent in the summer and, despite him making signs of his happiness in Hull, his manager felt his “head had been turned” by transfer speculation.

Securing Elmo should be number one on the club’s priority list. He’s often the best attacking weapon in the team and it would be a major blow to lose a player of his quality. Either for nothing at the end of the season or more worryingly – for a relatively small fee in January. Elmo’s low risk and large reward.

David Meyler

His contribution has often been under-valued since he joined City from Sunderland along with Elmo in the autumn of 2012. It seems some feel that City have achieved promotion, survival, a Wembley final and European football in spite of a player who has clocked up a hundred appearances in black and amber without ever letting anyone down. Hopefully the team’s resurgence in the past few weeks since Meyler and the returning Jake Livermore revitalised our midfield has made admirers out of some doubters.

Meyler is settled at City and always committed. He’s nowhere near the highest earner and, most importantly, he’s worth having whether City stay in the Championship or get promoted again. There’s no excuse for not sorting this one out ASAP.

Curtis Davies

Davies’ return to the kind of form he showed during his brilliant first season in Hull has put the club in a position no-one expected last summer. After that superb debut season, the big central half quickly fell from grace. Some pointed to his disappointment at not being offered a new contract in the summer of 2014 while I always felt the arrival of Michael Dawson on the sort of money Davies was hankering for pushed his nose out of joint.

Whatever the reason, he disappointed massively last season and spent half of it as a mere spectator. He’s turned that around since the departure of James Chester opened up a major role for him again and has reminded everyone of just how good he is. Whether he’ll now stay beyond the summer is doubtful though. He’s commented openly about the lack of a contract offer from the club and doesn’t appear to feel particularly wanted. He has elements of his life down South and in the Midlands and I think he’ll move on.

Tom Huddlestone

The enigma. How on earth a player with the natural ability Huddlestone possesses has ended up in the Championship is a quandary. That he’s currently struggling to get a game at this level, albeit in what is currently the best team, is mystifying. However that is the situation he finds himself in and no-one who has watched him regularly for the last twenty-two months would offer any sort of argument against it being completely just.

His contractual situation isn’t a simple one for either party. City wouldn’t want Huddlestone’s wage on the books if they remain in the Championship and it’s debatable whether they’d see him as a worthwhile investment in the Premier League these days. Tom isn’t going to sign a deal on the reduced wages he and his team mates currently find themselves. Sadly it seems inevitable that they’ll part ways in June. Tom should have been the most talented player any of us had ever seen represent The Tigers. Shoulda. Coulda. Wouldn’t.

Allan McGregor

Another whose City career has been revitalised after a poor season last time and an appalling start to the current one. He tested Steve Bruce’s management and the gaffer showed faith in him when he needed it and has been rewarded. In August, McGregor’s standing amongst City fans ranged somewhere between Paul Duffen and Mark Hateley. However since he re-found the form that had fans purring two years ago – we’ve formed a case of mass amnesia.

Even a month ago I doubted whether anyone, fans or management, cared whether he left in the summer. There’ll be very few now who feel that way. He’s another for whom the situation isn’t simple. He’s on reduced money and probably has one decent move in him before he spends a decade wandering the six yard boxes of the Outer Hebrides or wherever it is that Rangers are playing that week. I think he’ll only stay if City are promoted.

Eldin Jakupovic

This season’s penalty hero has never made a big impression on Steve Bruce and never got a sniff of the first team in the league even with Allan McGregor’s troubles this season. He is a cheap and cheerful back-up goalie though and there’s a good chance he’ll be offered something. Especially if City are promoted and look to carry three ‘keepers again. He may fancy going somewhere he might actually play though.

Sone Aluko

Once the most exciting member of The Tigers’ forward line, Aluko has struggled for form and fitness for the better part of three seasons. Having made such an explosive start to his career here, it will be a shame to see it go out with a whimper but his bit-part role doesn’t do much to suggest that keeping him beyond the end of the season is on anyone’s agenda.

He had a chance to make an impact after relegation with the club playing at a level at which we’ve all seen him excel. He’s not grasped the mettle and it’s hard to make a case for him doing so at this point.

Ryan Taylor

When he joined in the summer everyone was worried about his fitness coming off two serious knee injuries. That hasn’t been a problem so far. He’s just struggled to get into the team. Taylor is known for his versatility but at the moment, he’s just not as good as someone else in several positions. He’s the wrong side of thirty and, in truth, has been one of the poorest signings Steve Bruce has made here.

Calaum Jahraldo-Martin & Conor Townsend

The summer could be the end of the line for exciting winger CJM and athletic left-back Townsend. Both turn 23 before the end of the season and despite strong performances for the club’s U21 side and never letting anyone down during fleeting first team appearances both are as far from a senior breakthrough as ever.

Sadly we’re at the stage where both need to move on and find regular first-team action if they aren’t going to get it at City. Townsend has been unlucky not to have had an opportunity before now and you certainly feel like if it was going to happen for him then it would have been earlier this season when The Tigers’ squad was paper-thin.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Hull City 3 Middlesbrough 0: The view from the stands

Hull City remain top of the Championship table after a resounding victory over the bookies favourites for promotion – Middlesbrough.
I’ve said after several of the recent victories that I felt there was still quality to come from this team and today we saw that as they faced their toughest test of the season so far and passed it with flying colours. From the moment they broke Boro’s resistance – City strolled it. Tested just once, they out-classed a very good opponent and could have won by more than the three goals.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Harry Maguire – Andy Robertson
Ahmed Elmohamady – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Mo Diame

The first half an hour was hard-fought and good quality. On paper, this was two of the best teams in the division going head to head and the reality didn’t let us down with each attacking but showing respect for the other’s ability and working hard to get back into shape when they lost the ball. In typical Championship fashion it was a physical battle as well as a test of footballing ability. Any doubts over that were ended ten minutes in when Adam Clayton stuck his studs in Mo Diame’s chest. It was stupid rather than malicious but it set the tone for a feisty encounter. That the referee thought it was unworthy of a yellow card was a puzzling to say the least.

Middlesbrough, with their nine men behind the ball out of possession, were a tough nut to crack and despite some imaginative play from The Tigers and numerous corners they struggled to penetrate the wall of red. Boro did start to get some joy on the counter as City committed men into attack and Diego Fabbrini in particular exploited the space between our defence and midfield to cause problems. He may have the mullet of a seventies rocker and spend more time falling over than a WWE wrestler but Fabbrini has a touch of class and twice played David Nugent in behind with fine passes. The first time Nugent struck wide of the far post from a tight angle and the second he was offside but no-one had realised and McGregor denied him with a lightening quick (and slightly two footed) sliding tackle.

A foul on David Meyler lead to a City free kick 25 yards out just to the right of goal. Sam Clucas struck it beautifully and was denied by a flying save from Konstantopoulos. From that point on City took a grip of the game. Elmohamady should have scored but shot weakly when freed by Clucas and then Elmo flicked on Clucas’s corner but no-one followed in behind. Middlesbrough continued to hold a solid defensive shape and worked hard to kick the ball in midfield with occasional successes but City passed the ball with conviction and were able to keep creating attacking positions. Sadly a large percentage of our crosses were over-hit, from both open play and corners, but the questions continued to be asked.

Elmo and Hernandez contrived to miss the next decent chance as the former headed Clucas’s corner just beyond the far post with the latter connecting only with the post when he had the opportunity to knock the ball in. I tweeted after last week’s game with MK Dons that two thirds of City’s league goals this season have come in the last fifteen minutes of each half and after adding to that at Brentford, we did so again today. Middlesbrough had displayed impressive defensive concentration throughout the half but proved unable to maintain it with time running out. Fabbrini ran into Livermore in midfield and threw himself to the ground. The occasionally questionable referee recognised that the Boro man had initiated the contact (in layman’s terms – cheated) and waved play-on. City switched the ball to Elmohamady who curled an absurdly good cross from outside of the area but very central in behind the back four and Mo Diame arrived unnoticed to volley home with the keeper stranded [1-0].

Half time: Hull City 1 Middlesbrough 0

Like many recent games the expected response from the team trailing didn’t really materialise as City continued to dominate possession and mixed it up physically when required. Meyler and Livermore controlled the midfield with Jake in particular impressing with his work when Middlesbrough had the ball and his quality and composure in all areas of the pitch when we had it. The fast-improving Robertson cleverly read and picked off a Stewart Downing pass to launch an attack that saw Elmo just fail to meet Clucas’s lovely cross and then Robbo slid in to rob Downing of the ball when he thought he was away down their right.

Diame shot over from distance and then volleyed a good chance over from inside the box after Livermore and Hernandez had combined brilliantly to set it up. Dawson headed Clucas’s set piece straight at Konstantopoulos and then picked up a booking for a pull back on Fabbrini on a rare Boro break. The defining minute for the contest arrived shortly after. Downing lifted a ball to the far post from a harmless looking position and George Friend arrived to volley goalward and force a fine save from the once maligned McGregor. The applause had barely died down when Odubajo and Livermore combined to create a shooting opportunity for Meyler. His shot was heading wide when Clucas diverted it into the bottom corner from twelve yards [2-0].

With the game seemingly safe, Steve Bruce was able to make use of his outstanding options from the bench and at varying intervals sent on Akpom, Huddlestone and Hayden for Hernandez, Diame and Meyler. All three departed to standing ovations as the crowd appreciated the individual efforts of all of the players in a complete team performance. Hernandez got stuck into Boro’s defenders from early in the game and made runs wide and in behind to keep them working and drag City into good positions. Diame showed his class - which is absolutely top level – and was involved in most of City’s best moments.

Odubajo made a goal-saving challenge on Albert Adomah, after the ball had flukily found the Boro winger, for his second brilliant bit of defending in the game before City wrapped the game up. Just seconds after he had Akpom’s pass nicked off his toe inside the box, Tom Huddlestone picked up the ball from Elmo, after a defensive gaffe, and from around the corner of the penalty area lashed the ball into the far corner with the keeper left standing [3-0]. It was a sensational finish. The type we all know Tom is well capable of but see far too rarely.

Full Time: Hull City 3 Middlesbrough 0

The win leaves City at the top of the table going into the international break – ahead of Brighton on goal difference. The return of 34 points from 16 games is in advance of the two points per game you generally aim for in a promotion campaign. We’re unbeaten in ten league games and twelve all together. We’ve not conceded in 450 minutes of league football and have conceded only four times in the last 1110 minutes in all comps. Allan McGregor has seven clean sheets in ten league games.

It’s difficult to imagine how the situation could be any better. The only real negative is that we’ve only just passed the first third of the season. There’s still a hell of a long way to go. City are now the team to be shot at. The pressure increases in every game. Rivals and spectators are taking notice by the game. This team and the management has been questioned since the start of the season. Did it have the gumption for a season in the Championship? Did the players have the heart for a fight almost every Tuesday and Saturday? Did the manager half the balls to recover from the biggest disappointment of his career?

They’ve risen to all of those challenges. But all they’ve done is create more. More pressure. More expectation. If today is anything to go by - that will just drive them to greater heights.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Brentford 0 Hull City 2: The view from the TERRACES

Hull City hit the top of the Championship with an impressive 2-0 win at Brentford – a fourth successive league victory without conceding a goal.

That’s right, top of the league. It was a complete performance full of class at the brilliant Griffin Park. Brentford’s tight little ground is well known for having a pub on every corner (though one of them is currently closed) but its proximity to local houses meaning it’s barely visible from most angles, it’s quaintly shaped club shop and its brilliant little terraces make a must do experience these days.

Brentford are a tidy side as their league position in each of the last two seasons suggests and were going for a fourth successive win themselves. They play neat and incisive football around the box but aren’t afraid to launch the ball into the box from all angles at set pieces. It was a tough and varied test of City’s promotion credentials and they came through it with flying colours.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Alex Bruce – Andy Robertson
Ahmed Elmohamady – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Chuba Akpom

Brentford edged a first half that City grew into after weathering an early storm. McGregor twice denied Djuricin with hands and then feet before an injury to Alex Bruce forced Harry Maguire into the action. I like Alex and he never lets us down but he’s a substitution waiting to happen. Maguire impressed again with his composure and positioning which meant he was rarely stretched. On the rare occasion he made a poor decision, backing off Vibe along with Dawson, McGregor saved comfortably again.

The Tigers were limited to half chances, Clucas and Akpom just failing to connect with crosses from the other and Hernandez shooting over from distance when others were well placed. Meyler appealed for a penalty for handball after his strike was charged down in the box but the ref, who was sensible throughout in fairness, waved it away.

Half time: Brentford 0 Hull City 0

Djuricin started the second half as he did the first and beat Robertson will on our left before shooting wide. It was their last attack for an age as City took control of the game. Visibly stepping up a gear against capable opponents isn’t something we’ve seen from many City teams down the years but this one did it with ease and you sensed there was more to spare too. Their keeper Button remained untested but the football was vibrant, Meyler and Livermore opened up the game and full backs overlapped on both sides to give the men in possession an option. Akpom was busy, took the ball well and moved past defenders easily but made poor decisions around the box.

Meyler had two shots blocked, Clucas looped Robertson’s cross over the bar and after Clucas slid Robertson in beautifully – a defender reached the ball along with Hernandez. Kerschbaumer replaced Vibe for the hosts who sensed the huge shift in momentum and were trying to arrest it. It didn’t work. Odubajo forced a decent save after playing a neat one-two with Hernandez before the pressure finally told.

Clucas picked up the ball and carried it down the left before playing a magnificently weighted pass on the run into space for Robertson who didn’t even have to take a touch, he just lifted it inside the near post [0-1]. Button had gambled on Robertson crossing and the young Scot called his bluff with a tremendous finish. That pass though. It was utterly gorgeous. I’ve been impressed with Clucas since long before he joined City but I wasn’t sure he had moments of this quality in him.

Brentford managed a brief response as a Kerschbaumer shot swerved away from McGregor but against the post and then City charged down an indirect free kick in the box awarded after McGregor picked up a back-pass. Given the length of time it took for the ref to get the wall back ten yards – stoppage time should still be being played. Diame replaced Akpom who was tiring and had been booked. He immediately created a shooting chance for Livermore, kicked “off the line” by a defender, but was barracked by some idiots in the City end for being “lazy”.

Huddlestone came off the bench for Hernandez as City went striker-less again and as some fans got antsy that the team might be sitting back, they instead took a stranglehold on the game with Diame utterly unplayable. Button saved a controlled Huddlestone volley from a cleared corner and then Meyler shot straight at him before the second goal arrived. A right wing corner was half cleared with Diame fighting for the loose ball. Maguire shot from twelve yards or so, Button failed to hold it and Clucas pounced to tap into the empty net [0-2]. The City fans went mental again and, with Brighton drawing at Hillsborough, the opportunity was taken to gloat about being top of the league. It doesn’t happen often.

Brentford were desperate for the final whistle and grateful to Button for keeping the score down. He managed to get a boot to Meyler’s goal-bound strike with his left foot and then punched away Diame’s shot at the near post after the Senegalese tank had turned Ryan Woods inside out.

Full Time: Brentford 0 Hull City 2

City’s form in the last 10 league games now reads: LWDDWDWWWW.

We’ve conceded four times in those ten games keeping six clean sheets. There is a real sense that things are clicking into gear and the team passed their toughest test of the season with flying colours at Griffin Park. However the next test is upon us immediately with promotion favourites Middlesbrough arriving at the KC on Saturday.

That’s for another day though. For now we need to savour a fantastic away trip to that London in good company watching City win from a proper terrace. Not even the desperate need of the Highways agency to close every motorway in the country every night could spoil that. And The Tigers being top of the league. Despite four promotions in the last eleven years – that’s still an all too rare occurrence.

Did I mention that we are top of the league?

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