Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Hull City 17/18 Review: Part 3 - The Power of Positivity

After Hull City dispensed with the services of Leonid Slutsky, as detailed in part two of the season review, they turned to former Scunny manager Nigel Adkins to manage the circus the club had become. 

Not that any sympathy is forthcoming for Adkins who knew exactly what he was walking into having loomed in the shadows as Slutsky endured a difficult last few weeks in the job.

His appointment was the worst kept secret in football; though I couldn’t help praying there was a better kept one on the horizon. I’m not a fan of Adkins. He’s a clown, aptly. An overly positive, evangelistic bellend. He did a great job at Scunthorpe and a better one after that at Southampton. But he had miserable records at Reading and Sheffield United that would have dented the unerring self-confidence of anyone else. Sadly, he was – and remains – as good as Hull City are likely to get in the current climate (Cloudy with a chance of Allams).

The new manager took charge of his first game at home to Brentford and immediately set about trying to tighten City up defensively with mixed results. A battling 3-2 win over Brentford after trailing to a David Meyler own goal was followed at home by solid performances in draws with Derby and Fulham and pathetic efforts in stalemates against Reading and Leeds. Visits to Cardiff, Leeds, Bolton and Sunderland brought four 0-1 defeats as City ended January in very worrying shape.

A leaky defence had tightened up but Adkins had also squeezed the life out of a prolific attack. Off the pitch, January failed to deliver the quality reinforcements the squad desperately needed with the owners choosing to rely on players getting fit while awaiting the end of some large contracts come July. A pursuit of Aberdeen centre-half Scott McKenna ended in failure with City instead signing Angus MacDonald from Barnsley – a fairly shrewd signing overall. Harry Wilson’s arrival from Liverpool received little fanfare but would prove a masterstroke.

Adkins, to his credit, did slowly make his mark on the squad and in spite of every couple of steps forward being followed by a stumble, a touch of resilience began to appear. With a growing squad to manage as players returned to full fitness, Adkins’ team selections were inconsistent with changes for the sake of it a regular feature and that didn’t help the bi-polar nature of the team. City lost at Preston, won at Nottingham Forest, surrendered at Middlesbrough, beat a decent Sheffield United team and then could only draw with Barnsley – who were poor and eventually relegated.

Some of the problems with the squad were solved. Adkins identified that Ola Aina was not a left back – though so could have Stevie Wonder – and restored and helped improve Max Clark. He kept faith with the inconsistent Henriksen who began to deliver impressive performances in the centre of midfield going backwards and forwards. He gave the impressive Wilson his head. Unfortunately, Jarrod Bowen struggled under him, perhaps under pressure to work harder going backwards, he ostracised Meyler and later let Dicko rot for some reason and he threw new signing MacDonald under a bus after the defeat at home to Millwall.

From there, City won four of the next seven and picked up battling draws at home to Villa and at Champions-elect Wolves. The 4-3 win over Norwich was the first time in over three decades that City had come back from two down to win a game and featured some sublime attacking and hideous defending. The Tigers sumptuously hammed Ipswich away (3-0), QPR at home (4-0) and Burton away (5-0) in the highlight of the season but showed a lack of bottle in a 3-0 battering at Birmingham in the spring snow.

The season petered out with two home defeats to Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff and draws at Brentford and Bristol City. The latter being the first 5-5 draw in the club’s history and a thoroughly insane afternoon. The last few games were played amongst the backdrop of the mass of out of contract players being linked with moves away and featured more unexplainable team selections with some players whose City careers appeared over being left out but others playing all the way to the end.

The end of a near-catastrophic season was most welcome. Nigel Adkins ensured City “achieved” safety in the Championship. It wasn’t anything near what they set out to achieve if you believe Ehab Allam’s big talk from September (and honestly, why would you?) but it was a small crumb of comfort for a club who took years to be dragged out of the doldrums by club legends like Adam Pearson and Peter Taylor.

There is no point speculating as to whether Adkins deserves a full season at the helm. There is no ambition amongst the club’s board to go and get a better manager nor back him to the extent it has previous managers and little appeal otherwise in taking over a club fractured by acrimonious decisions off the pitch that have halved the number of match going supporters and to which promised solutions are being dragged out.

So we’re stuck with him. And he is certainly stuck with us. It’s a horrible job. He’s about to watch Abel Hernandez, Michael Dawson, Meyler, Seb Larsson, Allan McGregor and probably Max Clark and Moses Odubajo leave along with the four loan players and a host of youngsters. For all his underachievement, he’ll still struggle to keep Kamil Grosicki and there could be interest in Jarrod Bowen, whose 15 goals were the highlight of the season along with the form of McGregor and Wilson.

The rebuilding job is big on a small budget. There are some talented players left behind but many haven’t shown that talent in black and amber. He also needs to find a whole new defence and a solution to the malaise that infests the City Vice-Chairman and his comically named “recruitment” team every time there is a transfer window.

City can’t afford to waste another summer, to go into another opening game with a five-aside team or to gamble on a few names they found on a scrap of paper in Steve Bruce’s waste-paper bin on transfer deadline day. It’s too much to ask for City to show ambition but surely organisation, common sense and protection of their interests should be a given. If Nigel Adkins can somehow achieve that – he’s a better manager than I’ve ever given him credit for.

Happy summer, City fans.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Hull City 17/18 Review: Part 2 - From Russia with Crud

As explained in part one of the Hull City 2018/19 seasonreview, Ehab Allam acted decisively in replacing outgoing manager Marco Silva with former Russian national team coach Leonid Slutsky. 

There was a delay in Slutsky’s appointment, for unknown reasons, but he was immediately identified as the preferred choice an no-one else was considered. Unfortunately, that would be where the decisiveness ended. Slutsky suffered the indignity of seeing players sold from under him time and again, most embarrassingly during the club’s pre-season trip to Portugal.

A number of departures were expected but the failure to replace them until well into August and the replacements being far from ready for action didn’t help at all. Slutsky’s pre-season, including that camp in the Algarve, was a complete waste of time and come the first day of the season he had a small, under-prepared squad. League form was mixed in August but it was in the League Cup where the problems with the squad were exposed for all to see. A squad of U23s had to take on Doncaster in the League Cup because senior players were already over-stretched with the early schedule. It was a clear message being sent to the ownership of Slutsky’s discontent at the hand he’d been dealt and, while the youngsters performed with distinction on the night, another embarrassing episode forced by our clueless “Vice Chairman”.

A largely miserable September followed as Slutsky shuffled his pack with regularity trying to find anything to build on. Mostly it was akin to filling your broken down car up with Cola to see what happens. A 0-5 hammering at Derby wasn’t as bad a performance as the scoreline suggests but it was the game that exposed Michael Hector as a modern day Neil Whitworth. City were better in vain at Fulham and were overawed in a David Meyler inspired 1-1 draw with Sunderland.

After a 1-1 draw at Reading thanks to Sone Aluko missing a sitter, the home defeat against Preston told us everything we didn’t want to know about this team. Preston, who’d eventually fall just short of the play-offs, had no stars and probably no player you’d swap for any of ours on paper. However, they were well set-up, quick on the counter, worked incredibly hard and took their chances. They were everything we weren’t. City’s problems were at board level. The whole club was a mess. The relationship with the fans was none existent and the atmosphere poisonous. Slutsky was left without his own backroom, backed in the transfer market far too late and with players he didn’t chose. But it was still worrying that his team made mistake after mistake, constantly looked wide open and failed to put in the effort required as a bare minimum.

One of the few highlights of the season came in the response to the Preston defeat – a 6-1 hammering of Birmingham. When City were allowed to play by meak opposition, they looked sumptuous and took apart Birmingham in the way Jon Parkin destroys a fish supper. Fabulously worked team goals from Markus Henriksen and Seb Larsson, two midfielders short of confidence in the early season were the icing on the cake. A trip to Norwich after the October international break failed to end run without an away league win that stretched back to the 2-0 victory at Swansea the previous August, thanks to a 94th minute concession from a long throw, but that run did end at Barnsley thanks to Fraizer Campbell’s phenomenal finish from six inches.

Was that the turning point? Er, no. Mid-table Nottingham Forest over-ran us on our own patch on the telly, Middlesbrough came to the KCOM and dismissed us with ease and then were battered at Sheffield United despite Kamil Grosicki’s superb opener conceding four times to Leon Clarke. Yep. Leon chuffing Clarke. Slutsky probably should have gone after that. There was no turning back despite his affable personality and the effort he put into the job and integrating himself into the local community.

He continued to try to change our fortunes but the team looked as ill-equipped in most games regardless of personnel. Attacking came easier but the side lacked balance and know-how and despite playing attractive football and scoring goals for fun, results didn’t improve. The players brought in during the summer being far short of what was needed didn’t help. Michael Hector’s form fell off a cliff once the kids went back to school – maybe he’s a teacher on the side? Kevin Stewart never looked fit, never looked confident and never looked capable of anchoring the midfield. Jackson Irvine was in and out of the side and never in the right position. Ola Aina was thrown in at left-back to try and solve the defensive issues and he was poor enough in his favoured position. Fraizer Campbell was another who was nowhere near fully fit and a shadow of the player we’d had a decade earlier despite always putting a shift in. Stephen Kingsley got an injury early into his City career and never recovered. Only Seb Larsson made a positive impact. It was doomed to fail.

We were the better side at home to Ipswich but drew 2-2 because of our deficiencies at the back, the better team at Millwall but drew 0-0 and by far the better team for seventy minutes at home to Bristol City but lost 2-3 having been two up to a team whose togetherness and belief was evident as our fragile lot crumbled. Ironically, Slutsky’s final game saw his team finally show some backbone in rescuing a 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday. He was sacked on December 3rd with the team 20th in the Championship.

It was the right decision. It was a brave appointment and one that could have succeeded if the people running the club put a single thought into anything other than annoying the fans and buying expensive toys. But with what he had to work with and the support he had, it just wasn’t working. The shadow cast by his replacement being the ugly shape of “Mr Motivator” Nigel Adkins made you question whether it even mattered but as a cold, hard decision – it had to be made.

I really liked Leonid Slutsky. Not just because he went to Hull Fair and spoke in amusing broken English but because he was a thoroughly decent man who adored the opportunity the club gave him. His happiness shone like the Spurn Lightship – when it worked – but he was quickly broken by the imbecile we call a “Vice Chairman” and didn’t have the knowledge of the English game to grind his way out of trouble. Those above let him down, that’s obvious, but the players did too. The new arrivals were almost entirely pointless, the players he’d banked on loaning from Chelsea were useless and players he inherited like Henriksen, who took a huge amount of time to adapt, and Grosicki, who’d rather have been in Guantanamo Bay than the KCOM Stadium, meant struggle was obvious and relegation had become far more likely a proposition than troubling the play-offs.

We needn’t have worried though. Outside the KCOM Stadium sat a man whose house has mirrored floors, walls and ceilings with a copy of “101 things Ghandi would say if he was a football manager” in the glove box and “I am the one and only” belting out of his iPhone.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Hull City 17/18 Review: Part 1 - Groundhog Summer

I've reconsidered referring to last pre-season as “Groundhog summer” because that’s not correct – it was actually a brand new low. 

Some tubby fella and Leonid Slutsky.
Relegation in 2015 led to the departures of James Chester, Robbie Brady, Nikica Jelavic, Dame N’Doye and Tom Ince, the releases of Stephen Quinn and Paul McShane and frustration in the transfer market for Steve Bruce as Ehab Allam botched a move for Andre Gray. The horrendous period after promotion in 2016 through Ehab’s mismanagement led to Steve Bruce leaving, Mo Diame going to Newcastle and new manager Mike Phelan being left with just twelve fit outfield players for the start of the Premier League season. Both amidst acrimony off the pitch with the introduction of the club’s membership scheme which abandoned concessions coming on the back of the failed battle to change the club’s identity.

Things surely couldn’t get any worse. Could they?

Yes. Yes, they could. Marco Silva had almost worked a miracle in keeping the club in the Premier League and his stock was at such a level that he was never going to sign on for a battle in the Championship. He jumped before the end of May, turning up at Watford, and the playing squad weren’t far behind him.

We knew loan signings Andrea Ranocchia, Omar Elabdellaoui, Lazar Markovic, Dieumerci Mbokani, Alfred N’Diaye and Oumar Niasse would be leaving Hull quicker than John Prescott with a meal ticket. The departures of Harry Maguire and Andy Robertson to Premier League clubs for big money were predictable too. As was the loss of Josh Tymon, the club’s most promising youth prospect in a generation, who Ehab had failed to tie-in to a professional contract. But the alarm bells started screaming when Championship stalwarts Tom Huddlestone, Curtis Davies and Ahmed Elmohamady decided there were better options in the same league and Eldin Jakupovic preferred a role as Leicester City’s third choice goalkeeper to his prospects here.

The response on the manager front was decisive with Leonid Slutsky identified quickly as the favourite for the role but it took longer than it should have done to sort it out. Slutsky, the former CSKA Moscow and Russian national manager, would be the first Russian to manage in England which looked a gamble at Championship level but his pedigree was obvious. An infectious personality with a smile as wide as the Humber and a heart as big as the bridge, Slutsky was an immediate hit. But it didn’t take long for his smile to fade when the reality of the situation hit. It started quickly - unlike Marco Silva six months earlier though, he was unable to bring in his own backroom staff and didn’t appear to have control over transfer targets.

That responsibility fell to Lee Darnborough - a puppet employee of Ehab Allam laughably titled “head of recruitment”. Having lost more than a full first team of players and with interest in talented players who remained like Kamil Grosicki and Abel Hernandez, good recruitment was vital. Instead, Slutsky suffered a baptism of fire at the humiliating pre-season training camp in Portugal where he found half his squad made up of youngsters from the U23 squad. Huddlestone walk out mid-camp to join Derby while Robertson and Jakupovic watched on ahead of moves to Liverpool and Leicester respectively.

Ondrej Mazuch, on trial from Sparta Prague, and Ola Aina, the first of three Chelsea loanees, were the only additions to the City squad supposedly preparing for the new season while Kevin Stewart (Liverpool £4m) and Fraizer Campbell (Palace free) would sign before the squad came home.
On arriving back in England, City took on Nantes in their only “home” pre-season friendly. A game strangely played at Hull KR’s KCOM Lightstream Craven Park. It was a soulless, goalless experience that told us nothing about the squad other than that it was short of cover in numerous positions and would rely on young players to fill the gaps. Only Michael Hector (Chelsea loan) boosted the squad for the opening game.

The season started proper with a creditable 1-1 draw against Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa at Villa Park. Fortunately, it was shown live on Sky TV because listening to it on the radio in the local area was made impossible after Ehab Allam chose Viking 2 to cover the games in a fit of pique after Radio Humberside questioned his incompetent running of the club during their broadcasts. City dismantled Burton and Bolton at the KCOM Stadium before August was out. Those games sandwiched a balmy evening defeat at home to Wolves, which showed we were miles and miles off the best side in the division, and a late loss at QPR. The surrender at Loftus Road was the real marker for the season ahead. City played well and led but squandered a win and then a point with na├»ve defence and questionable mentality.

As usual, the woefully unprepared “management” did the bulk of their transfer business in the final week of the transfer window signing Jon Toral (Arsenal £3m), Dicko (Wolves £3m), Jackson Irvine (Burton £2m) and Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea (on loan) to add to Seb Larsson (Sunderland free) and Stephen Kingsley (Swansea £3m) who’d signed after the opener at Villa. Not that it was all good news. This spree of signings was funded by selling Sam Clucas to Swansea for £17m.

Irvine and Larsson were the only two of eleven signings not to be a disappointment. Some were only slightly unsatisfactory but others, like Stewart, flopped majorly.

In what seemed like positive news, the club somehow kept hold of Kamil Grosicki despite the Polish winger openly expressing his bewilderment at the club’s implosion on Twitter. David Meyler’s tweet telling ‘Turbo’ “You’re going nowhere, go to bed” on deadline day was the highlight of the summer. Abel Hernandez also stayed beyond the end of the transfer window but only because an injury late in the Wolves game put him out for six months. Had he not been injured, he would have left anyway but that didn’t make it any easier to take as the realities of the Championship and the abysmal planning for the season bit hard.

City headed into a tough looking September fixture list in sixth place in the Championship. Two games later, they’d hit the bottom half of the table and never get out.

Tranmere 0 Hull City 3: Short and sweet match report

City progressed in the League Cup on a first visit to Tranmere for 14 years since a Craig Fagan inspired win in League One en route to b...