Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hull City: The best and worst of 2015

I'm jumping on the year end awards bandwagon to present a best and worst of another topsy-turvey year in the life of Hull City A.F.C.

(c) Getty Images

Best Player

Michael Dawson. The skipper struggled through the first half of last season but once he settled he became the most important player in the team and has continued to be following relegation to the Championship. That he’s playing in the second tier at all is a bloody travesty, in truth, but I’m delighted that he is and the club needs him fit to maintain an automatic promotion challenge.

Worst Player

Maynor Figueroa. A player whose City career went downhill faster than Leigh Jenkinson in rocket boots. Figueroa returned from a loan spell at Wigan to play four games in 2015, we lost them all and he was more interested in crippling opponents than playing well.

Best Goal

Tom Huddlestone vs. Middlesbrough. It wasn’t the most crucial goal, City being 2-0 up at the time but it was one of the sweetest strikes of a football you’ll ever see from one of the most gifted yet feckless players to ever wear our colours. Honourable mention to Jelavic’s lob over Tim Howard on New Year’s Day, Meyler’s volley against Ipswich and Andy Robertson’s lovely finish at Griffin Park vs. Brentford after Sam Clucas provided the assist of the year.

Worst Gaffe

Allan McGregor vs. Wolves. It couldn’t be anything else. McGregor has recovered from this incident to have a very good season so far but it was truly horrific. Dropping a harmless cross heading straight for you with no opposition player anywhere close isn’t something I’ve even seen in junior football.

Best Signing

Sam Clucas (£1.3m from Chesterfield). Making good signings hasn’t been a good habit for the last couple of years. There have been too many expensive mistakes and too many players bought on reputation. This was a signing from the lower divisions of a player with honesty, versatility, athleticism and a desire to be better. He’s had some great games and some poor games but he never gives anything less than his all and he’s someone you can get behind as a fan.

Worst Signing

Ryan Taylor (Free from Newcastle). Why? Just, why?

Best Win

Hull City 2-0 Everton (01/01/2015). It was tempting to go for our second consecutive home victory over Liverpool or the dispatching of excellent Middlesbrough and Brentford sides this season but I had to pick this one. It was an utterly comprehensive victory over a highly rated Everton team and the scoreline could, perhaps should, have been more convincing. Their big players barely got a kick and we were outstanding in every department. This Hull City team would have stayed in the Premier League. We never saw it again.

Worst Defeat

Rotherham 2 Hull City 0 (19/12/2015). This one is too raw to go over again. In a year of many lows – this was too abysmal to contemplate. That pathetic home defeat by relegated-by-full-time Burnley in April was nailed on for this a fortnight ago.

Best Away Day

Brentford. A fun trip in great company with an excellent away pub and the always popular 3am arrival at home. Helped by City being irrepressible in defeating a really good home team.

Worst Moment

Relegation from the Premier League. There were plenty of contenders for this, on and off the pitch. Our manager defending a convicted rapist was a low, defeat to Burnley and at Charlton, Leeds, Rotherham and Preston, watching Liam Rosenior and Paul McShane depart, the owners unsubstantiated claim that threats from fans forced them to stay away from games, Jake Livermore’s failed drug test and then the heartbreaking reasons for his personal issues coming out and many more.

Regardless, I still pick relegation. Some people claim it doesn’t matter to them and that’s their choice. But it matters to me. It matters that my club is the best it can be, it matters that my City is on the map and in the national conscience and that the ground and area are full every Saturday (or Sunday, Monday night, Tuesday, etc!) with home and away fans. The income is massive too given the debt still owed to the owners. There is no benefit to relegation. None.

Best Moment

The FA say “No to Hull Tigers” again. I’ve no desire to go over old ground but this remains important to me.

The aforementioned wins over Everton, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Brentford as well as the vital double header against QPR and Aston Villa in February which saw Dame N’Doye make a massive impact was another. The return of Jake Livermore from suspension and Robert Snodgrass from injury have been great to see as was the short lived elevation of young players such as Greg Luer and Calaum Jahraldo-Martin into first team contention.

Honourable mention should also go to whoever did the transfer negotiations in the summer. A horrible situation was somewhat salvaged with very good fees being received for Tom Ince, James Chester, Robbie Brady and Nikica Jelavic.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

What do Hull City need to do in the January transfer window?

I've asked four questions about The Tigers' business with the transfer window set to open again. In addition to my own thoughts are some ideas and comments from the "Tiger Nation" on Twitter.

What areas do Hull City need to strengthen?

The Tigers always need a striker. Even when we’ve bought one, we still need one. It is genuinely the case again though. Chuba Akpom isn’t the answer as a partner or alternative to Abel Hernandez. The Uruguayan is the best we have and his return of ten goals from eighteen starts this season is outstanding. However he struggles to complete games, has difficultly with playing Saturday-Tuesday as demanded by the Championship and keeps jetting off to the other side of the world. So other than young Greg Luer and the so far untried Adama Diomande, we have few options.

Bruce likes to use attacking midfielders as second strikers so the likes of Diame, Aluko, Maloney and Snodgrass fill gaps but they’re not really the answer.

Barring injuries and sales (more on that below), City have solid defensive options. There is only one out and out left-back in the squad though. I’d be looking to improve that situation but Steve Bruce seems happy to rely on versatile players like Sam Clucas and Moses Odubajo to fill gaps.

Aside from the striker, I think the biggest problem Bruce has is in midfield. Jake Livermore is currently the outstanding player in the squad and David Meyler is generally a reliable partner for him but given the decline of Tom Huddlestone – there is no cover and no competition. It’s difficult to demand Bruce makes a signing because of the dent Huddlestone makes in the wage bill but it might just be the difference between promotion and another season in the second tier.

@mattyhumpleby "not anywhere I'd say we need someone desperately. With everyone fit I still believe we have the strongest squad in the league"
@Chris_Ransom "think we've needed an experienced No10 all season."
@david_penter "A centre half (and leader) - can't rely on Dawson staying fit, cover at LB and proven championship striker"
@Deoxyribo87 "an experienced captain like midfielder and a striker."
@sash338 "Another left back needed"

Will Steve Bruce be given funds to buy players?

I’m sure the manager is banging on some doors asking this question as it stands. Only the Allams know the answer. They have stopped attending matches and Assem Allam seems to have lost all interest in it day to day since his re-brand plan was foiled but they still wish to sell the club and would surely be in a better position with Premier League football and the record television income behind them.

At this point, investment would be a gamble. The Allams are owed around eighty million pounds by the football club and despite relegation clauses limiting the playing staff’s wages and sales totalling almost twenty-five million quid in the summer, the club is still carrying huge costs on vastly reduced income. Unless there is surplus on the balance sheet (unlikely) then any money promised for transfers in the January window is going to be added to the club’s massive debt to Allamhouse. That sort of gamble would make promotion imperative. In all likelihood, Bruce is going to be working in the loan market or having to generate cash from sales before he can buy.

@BriHanhanrahan "squad is good enough as is!! Can't expect Owners to put anymore money in - must be biggest wage bill in league."
@Ull_91 "we will have to sell to buy, so say buy to hudds and diame and maybe even elmo"

Who needs to go?

Several players are out of contract in the summer and aren’t worth a new deal regardless of what division The Tigers are in next season – Tom Huddlestone and Sone Aluko most obviously. If either of those have admirers, I’d take any reasonable offer. Ryan Taylor, Calaum Jahraldo-Martin and Conor Townsend are probably not going to get another deal at City but don’t especially have a sell-on value.

Other sales would depend on the willingness of players to sign the new contracts that Bruce said the club were discussing with the squad recently. Curtis Davies and Ahmed Elmohamady should be sold if they don’t want to stay and replaced whereas David Meyler and Allan McGregor would be worth keeping until the summer and losing for free. That’s not to suggest that they won’t sign new deals. Meyler seems particularly happy at City and Curtis Davies recently said he “loves the club”.

As I recently wrote here after the Rotherham defeat, I’d actively look to move on Mo Diame. His talent is unquestionable but he’s difficult to accommodate in the team and can have little effect on games as a result.

Abel Hernandez, Jake Livermore and Michael Dawson all presumably still have buy-out clauses in their contracts following relegation last season and any interest in either of those three would be very unwelcome.

@RicardoHCAFC "Huddlestone for me. He's not in the team. He's on good money and we can get a fee."
@Football_Musing "ship Elmo, Hudd, Davies, Aluko & probably Akpom too."
@dan1el88 "if we can rid of a few, I think we'll have funds! Huddlestone should go"
@hullcityfan789 "send Akpom back and replace him as first priority, I'd sell Hudds & Davies, bring in experience to replace them"
@bentos_j "I would let Elmo, Diame, Hudds and Aluko go. Cancel Akpom loan. Davies dependent on contract talks"

Any specific players we should go for?

There aren’t many players who’d “guarantee” promotion but I really think Charlie Austin is one. He’d be expensive and probably have Premier League offers so it’s highly unrealistic but in a dream world – I’d buy him.

In reality, City are probably going to be looking at Premier League loans or another mystery foreign gamble in the Proschwitz/N’Doye/Diomande mould. Patrick Bamford, who recently cut short a loan spell at Crystal Palace and has scored goals in the Championship consistently in previous loan deals, immediately comes to mind but his former clubs Middlesbrough and Derby will be actively courting him I’m sure. His former teammate at Palace and ex-Hull City loanee, Fraizer Campbell, is someone we can’t got a transfer window without being linked with and despite every fibre of my being telling me to dislike him – I’d still take him.

A couple of left-field suggestions. Peter Odemwingie doesn’t get a game at Stoke City. He’s 34 now but still has some of the pace that made him a huge threat a couple of seasons ago. If Bruce wants someone with physical presence then Cardiff’s Kenwyne Jones is a player he’s worked with before who they’ve let out on load previously despite him being a regular starter there.

In midfield, I’ve written several times about my admiration of Mile Jedinak. The Australian international was once the lynchpin of the Crystal Palace midfield but has fallen down the pecking order there. He’d be a tremendous addition to our team and would bring fight and leadership as well as technical abilities.

@dazzar86 "It's a shame Fulham's Dembele would cost a fortune - he'd be the perfect partner for Hernandez."
@AidanMcDonald2 "Loans for Chester and Patrick Bamford"
@steveacko1975 "definitely Bamford and Chester on loan. Aluko and Huddlestone out. Maybe try for Ross McCormack..makes his own chances."
@paulwyld "I'd like to see us get rid of a few 'big names' and go all out for Jordan Rhodes"
@Benj_Green "Crouch till rest of season would be perfect, and it's more than possible to sign him"
@adam_brookes "Look to bring in Bamford/Lafferty."
@15wilson "Would look at Clough at Bolton, team that's in desperate need of the funds so may be open to selling. Young, direct attacker."

Monday, 28 December 2015

Preston 1 Hull City 0: Another away day horror show from The Tigers

Hull City suffered another miserable away day at Deepdale as Paul Gallagher's second half goal helped Preston to a 1-0 win.

This was my first visit to Deepdale. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to avoid it previously. It’s a nice enough stadium. It’s not remarkable. It looks like four Subbuteo stands with K’NEX running along the top and in the corners. If anyone out there fancies making grounds out of matchsticks – this is the one to start with. Making stuff out of match sticks has always seemed like a tedious hobby but I’ll tell you what, it damn sure beats watching Hull City away at the moment!

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Ahmed Elmohamady – Harry Maguire – Curtis Davies – Andy Robertson
Robert Snodgrass – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Shaun Maloney
Chuba Akpom – Sam Clucas

There were three changes from the Boxing Day mauling of Burnley. All predicated by concerns over the fitness of the players with the games just forty-eight hours apart. Whatever the reasons, it would be silly to blame the team selection for the horrors of the next ninety minutes. Players left out were present in the previous away-day horror shows at Leeds and Rotherham. There aren’t eleven players failing City at the moment but a squad full.

The only mystery in the first half was how on earth City got to the break with the score reading nil-nil. Preston had four excellent chances and the fact they squandered them probably goes some way to explaining their lowly league position. Adam Reach hit the first one over from ten yards after Will Keane’s shot deflected straight to him. Keane then ran off Davies who recovered his position and Keane laid off to Garner whose shot deflected off Davies and wide. David Meyler then gifted Garner the best chance of the lot dribbling along his own goal line towards McGregor and then, for some unexplainable reason, leaving the ball to Keane to cut back for Garner to shoot wide. Inspired by this generosity, Shaun Maloney then played in Keane who took on Davies in the area but pulled his shot wide.

In amongst those gilt edged chances, McGregor punched away a speculative effort from Garner and collected Reach’s shot on the rebound. In the attacking thirds – it was one way traffic. Preston aren’t a great side, the league table doesn’t lie in that regard, but they are a young and vibrant team who work hard and that was enough to unsettle the City side who failed to cope with their pressing game. There was a sense of entitlement on display. We expected them to be a pushover and when they weren’t – we had no answer. I’ve seen that complacency several times this season, most disappointingly at Charlton and Rotherham.

Livermore apart, every outfield player was awful but Meyler and Andy Robertson were outstandingly awful and Akpom showed he has all the fight and aggression of a Strictly Come Dancing competitor. I’d never accuse Harry Maguire of lacking desire but he still has a naivety about his game. He was easy to run off and left Davies a lonely figure in defence. Clucas busied himself but had no effect on the game. Maloney was poor for his second consecutive start. Elmo was as woeful as he’s been for most of the season.

For five minutes before the break the game was played to an eerie silence. Their fans were just quiet. Ours, previously boisterous, were utterly dumbfounded.

Half Time: Preston North End 0 Hull City 0

For once, Steve Bruce made a change at half time. Meyler was pulled for Huddlestone. The biggest issue I had with the change was that it left us playing the same system we’d started with when their three in midfield were swarming around us and Keane and Reach, playing wide of Garner, were able to move between the lines with consummate ease. We should definitely have pulled Maloney too and matched up three on three in midfield.

The change did produce a bit of a response from The Tigers and Huddlestone showed some urgency we’ve not seen from him for a while. He even chased down a back pass at one point. A Huddlestone volley was pushed around the post early in the half and Maloney slid Akpom through after good work by Clucas but although he stuck the ball in the net, he’d been flagged offside much earlier. Akpom made way for Hernandez on 63 minutes – at least half an hour after the City fans started calling for him to come on – but the tide was turning Preston’s way again. The breakthrough came minutes later when Huddlestone clumsily committed a foul on the right edge of the box. Daniel Johnson, who’d given some of ours a run for their money in the “biggest stinker” stakes in the first half slid the ball across for an unmarked Paul Gallagher to shoot home [1-0]. It was such a simple set piece, well worked from their point of view, abysmal from ours.

Bruce chucked on Diame for Maloney and he set up a chance that Hernandez wasted by not even connecting with the ball and later laid off for Hernandez to shoot low from eighteen yards but Pickford saved comfortably. The biggest act of drama for the visitors came in stoppage time and even that might have been irrelevant had Harry Maguire not nutted a goal-bound header off the line after McGregor decided he felt left out and punched poorly. City won a corner on the left with second remaining. Robertson took it, for lord knows what reason, and delivered well. It fell to Snodgrass who scuffed a shot and Hernandez back heeled it goal-ward only for a defender to smash it off the line. Davies, who was on the line himself, was adamant that it had crossed and the referee blew for time immediately and found himself surrounded by angry City players. Robertson received a post-game booking for his trouble.

Full time: Preston North End 1 Hull City 0

I make the Burnley game and the second half against Reading our only good performances in the last eight games. Three of those have been atrocious and another two really, really poor. This team borders on being schizophrenic. How can we dispatch promotion contenders with ease sandwiched between horrendous losses at possible relegation fodder? There is certainly an element of the squad whose attitude seems poisonous consistently but there are many, many more who do not perform to their potential week in and week out. It’s getting to the stage where I think that either the players aren’t as good as their reputation suggests or the manager is incapable of getting the best out of them. With every performance, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the latter.

I’m not suggesting Bruce should go because on the whole, I’m still leaning towards happy with our lot. But questions have to be asked because we’ve been on a downward trend for the better part of two years and the recent away defeats have been the worst performances of Bruce’s reign. There is currently a lack of momentum that shows no real sign of being reversed. Something has to change and it has to change quickly if the ambition of everyone at the club is to win promotion. The manager has to demonstrate that he can get the best out of these players and address the issues in the squad with whatever his January budget is or we’ll have to find someone else who can. Our away form has been distinctly average for the first half of the season and, looking at the fixtures, the big tests are still to come.

I like to try and find some positives doing these things and I’ve got two. The first is that we are still in the top four of the Championship. The top six was what I said I’d be happy with after that tumultuous summer. The second is Jake Livermore. He gave everything again today when he may as well have played by himself. And more importantly, it was he who was dragging players away from the referee at the end and trying to ensure his mates kept themselves out of trouble. The FA might still be sending a charge sheet our way but such a calm head in trying circumstances was admirable.

We’re away next. On the telly. Three points guaranteed.

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