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 naïve 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.