Sunday, 17 November 2019

Hull City: The season so far...

Hull City headed into the third international break of the season in the middlest of mid—table. 12th in the table (equal 11th if you like) with six wins and six losses and six points off the play-offs.

Image result for george long hull city

Jake Livermore’s winner at the KCOM last week, once a source of great joy for City fans, ended a run of three successive wins but a very respectable performance against the league leaders has done nothing to dampen the guarded optimism that is returning on and off the field. The Tigers deserved at least a point having matched the visitors in most departments and had Kamil Grosicki tucked away the best chance of the game in the first half – who knows what might have happened? On paper, WBA are far superior in every department, but a well-organised, high energy City team made them look ordinary.

A year ago, City sat 23rd after 16 games with 15 points before making drastic improvement through December. This season, despite the loss of popular gaffer Nigel Adkins in the summer and his replacement Grant McCann having to oversee another summer of squad churn and uncertainty over the future of key players, the results and performances have been much more promising. McCann favours a high pressing 4-3-3 system which isn’t dramatically different to Adkins’ approach but has increased the demands on the players when they don’t have the ball to go and win it back.

We’ve seen the benefits of pressing high with City winning the ball back in the opponents defensive third and creating plenty of chances while reducing the pressure on our own back four. The cost of such an approach is that it’s very hard to keep it up for ninety minutes game in and game out. We’ve seen City fade in games such as Bristol City and Wigan at home to lose or draw games. While individually, players like Kevin Stewart and Kamil Grosicki have appeared to be running on empty at times. McCann removed and revitalised Stewart and the team but Grosicki is irreplaceable and continues to soldier on. A very good recent article on Hull Live (stop sniggering) highlighted the demands on Grosicki from City and the Polish national team in the past few months.

The squad do appear to be getting used to the high demands and have showed in recent games, including the few defeats or draws, the ability to keep hammering on the door until the last whistle. That’s in part due to the improvement in fitness levels but also because the squad as a whole are improving individually. At the start of the season, our best 11 was arguably ten who were here last season and a striker. Jarrod Bowen, who continues to be far too good for this level, and Kamil Grosicki are the most important players in the squad along with the centre halves. That’s changed over the course of just a few months with several summer signings now showing real worth.

Callum Elder has been a revelation in all of his appearances. It’s harsh on young Brandon Fleming who never lets anyone down and was particularly outstanding in the home win over Sheffield Wednesday but Elder has justified the decision. His defending has been exemplary in what we know is the hardest part of the pitch, defending behind Grosicki, but going forward he’s even more impressive and has formed a partnership with Grosicki and Irvine very quickly.

Leo Da Silva Lopes had a tough start at City and frankly, looked out of his depth six weeks ago. Playing in the advanced midfield role didn’t suit him at all but since he replaced Kevin Stewart as the holding midfielder, he’s excelled. His athleticism is very useful in front of the back four and his strength is definitely winning rather than retaining the ball. Stewart is still the best option in the role, but Leo is a good deputy and against a decent side in WBA, they showed promise as a pair.

Josh Bowler is another who looked off the pace in a bit-part role but has done really well since Jarrod Bowen moved into the main striking role. There is still a lack of end product from Josh in general but he’s constantly improving, and it was nice to see him get his first goal for the club.

Despite a much better start than last season, there is still plenty of room for improvement which is encouraging in itself. The most obvious place is up front where neither Tom Eaves nor Josh Magennis have pulled up any trees despite both being wiling, hard-working, likeable front players. Josh has arguably done better despite his lengthy suspension for his second stupid red card of the season. City have looked a better outfit though with Jarrod Bowen playing up top though with his mobility. We lost a lot of players in the summer and it’s hard to argue that we’ve missed too many of them, but we’ve definitely missed Fraizer Campbell. Not only was he a threat with his pace and intelligent runs in behind but his link up play was superb – particularly feeding Grosicki and Bowen. Bowen up front gives us the closest replacement to Fraiz.

It will be hard to do anything about it in the January window on what continues to be a very limited budget. The same can be said for the role just behind the front man which Jon Toral made such a difference in for a few games before another injury. We don’t really have another playmaker in the same style and Toral, for all his quality, is unreliable. That will most likely be a case of crossing our fingers and muddling through. George Honeyman is another proper grafter but lacks the same vision and flair. There’s a potential improvement to be had in the manager recalling Markus Henriksen to the squad while he’s still here but that appears to be a situation where no-one is willing to compromise and it’s daft, but we live with it.

The other worry on the injury front is Jordy De Wijs who is, along with his partner in crime Reece Burke, becoming irreplaceable. We are a much, much, much better side with those two as the centre back pairing and De Wijs’s regular knocks are a big danger.

There are seven games left until Christmas which is also, nicely, the halfway point in the league season. City face surprise strugglers Middlesbrough (a) on one of our real bogey grounds (just 1 draw in 11 league visits), title chasing Preston (h), Barnsley (a), Stoke (h), Leeds (a), Charlton (a) and Birmingham (h). They’re all potentially tricky fixtures and yet you could make a case for City turning over any of them. That may seem like fence-sitting, but City are just that sort of team. Four wins and a couple of draws would take City close to play-off contention. I’ll hope for that.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

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 back to back promotions under Peter Taylor.

Prenton Park is a terrific little ground. It evokes memories for me of the sides of Johnny King and, later, John Aldridge that pushed for promotions to the top flight in the early 90s. We arrived about 17 hours before kick-off so we wandered off to find a pub in nearby Bebington and were greeted with incredible "Scouse" hospitality. Funny, friendly people. Didn’t serve food though as the “chef” had just decided to go home. Less jokes, more grub!

Grant McCann made 11 changes from the starting line-up against Reading on Saturday and gave full debuts to 7 new signings. It worked a treat in a thoroughly entertain first half in which The Tigers’ youngsters and debutants ripped into the hosts and left them reeling before dropping off it completely after the break. Where have we seen that before?

City: Ingram, McKenzie, Fleming, Tafazolli, Pennington, Lopes, Honeyman, Toral, Bowler, Milinkovic, Magennis.

City led within seconds of the kick-off as a poor kick from their keeper Davies was seized upon, Milinkovic slid it wide to Fleming and he delivered a wicked cross that Toral powered home with a textbook header. I was caught out by such a classic centre-forward’s header from the Spaniard. It was 2-0 almost immediately as City swamped them in their half, won possession high up the field and after Magennis’s shot was saved, Milinkovic scored via a rebound off the keeper and then himself.

It was a tremendous start and but for some sloppiness in possession at the wrong times, it could have been 5 or 6. The pressing game when we don’t have the ball was impressive and improved by the very busy Honeyman and Lopes. When we had the ball, there were players flooding forward to provide options including the two young full backs. Davies denied Toral at the near post after a bewildering piece of skill from Bowler on the right and then stuck out a boot to save an own goal after Magennis harassed a poor back pass out of Monthe. Toral and Magennis had shots just off target after City picked up the ball in their half through Magennis and then Honeyman nicking the ball in dangerous areas. 

At the other end, it was pretty serene apart from times when Corey Blackett-Taylor got on the ball and ran at McKenzie with frightening pace. Blackett-Taylor was released by Aston Villa and looks a great prospect for Tranmere if they can sort his inconsistent end product. He forced a good save from Ingram - his only one of the half. Just before the break, Tafazolli made it 3-0 with a towering header from a Milinkovic corner. That had been coming.

Like Saturday (and the Saturday before) City didn’t really come out for the second half. Possession was handed over to Tranmere time and again through hurried clearances or poor passes and it kept coming back. Aside from Lopes and Tafazolli, none of the outfield players, so impressive in the first half, produced anything. Like in the second. When we did have the ball in their half, Bowler and Milinkovic often lost It trying ridiculous things. Fortunately, they never found a breakthrough to start making things interesting but they came close several times with Ferrier hitting the bar, Ingram producing a terrific full-length diving save with his right hand and Tafazolli blocking a goal-bound shot in the six yard box.

Eaves and Dicko replaced Milinkovic and Magennis before Batty came on for Toral. Batty helped get City further up the pitch and assisted Lopes in breaking up play while Eaves got hold of the ball in their half more than Magennis had managed in the second half. Dicko was Dicko.

So, we ran out pretty comfortable winners in the end and progress to a glamour tie … away at Preston. Ho hum. A Tranmere fan approached us after the game and said “Ah, we let you win there”. He then wandered back over and added “…by being shite at defending”.

Everyone will be interested in how the new boys got on. Ingram was pretty comfortable. He made two decent saves and kicked well but wasn’t overly busy for all their possession. Pennington has a real look of James Chester with his style of play and haircut but doesn’t quite have that quality. He was keen to take the ball forward though and battled the powerful Ferrier throughout. Tafazolli was untroubled for the most part, dominated in the air and threatened at set pieces. I like him.

Lopes and Honeyman added lots to the midfield. Honeyman was all over the pitch in the first half, with and without the ball, harrying them into mistakes and reading where they were going to play. He used it simply and effectively. Lopes covers the ground well too, looks energetic and has a real maturity about him for such a young player. His passing can be sloppy but there’s a really good player in there. Bowler is quick and has tons of ability but, like Milinkovic, makes poor decisions at times and is too often trying the hardest trick or pass unnecessarily. Magennis was very good in the first half leading the line, nicking the ball from defenders and holding it up nicely but disappeared after the break in part due to the awful service but also what looked a lack of match fitness.

Fleming had a really solid game. He’s got a lovely left foot and demonstrated that early but defended very well. He needs a loan in League One because he’s more than capable of playing that level and the games will do him so much good. McKenzie had the misfortune of marking Blackett-Taylor and got roasted for pace at times. He also had some good moments though and was very good on the ball. I just fear for him that he’s constantly moving position – as he did in the Under 21/23s before – and not being allowed to settle anywhere. He could do with a consistent run of games too.

Man of the match: Leonardo da Silva Lopes

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Hull City 2 Reading 1: Short and sweet match report

City survived a second half Reading fight back to earn Grant McCann a first win as Tigers’ manager, but it was far too close for comfort.

Reading have an eclectic side mixing some local youngsters with a bunch of foreign players, many signed on loan, and the always impressive John Swift holding things together in midfield. They looked like strangers for most of the first half but there was obvious talent in the side and when (if) they gel, they’ll be effective. They don’t lack pace and City did well to more than cope with it for the first hour.

It was a grey and blustery but still somewhat day. The wickedness of the wind demonstrated in the first half when a man’s hat blew off in the East Stand and flew back about 20 rows. The East Stand is now at least well enough populated that there were people there to throw it back.

City: Long, Lichaj, Kingsley, Burke, De Wijs, Stewart, Batty, Irvine, Bowen, Grosicki, Eaves.

The City side looked similar to last season with two holding midfielders but lined up subtly different with Batty and Irvine behind Eaves allowing them to get involved higher up the pitch when we had the ball and to press on without it. More than once, Batty was the furthest man forward chasing down the defenders and goalkeeper. That change was demonstrated clearly in the moment Eaves pounced on a dozing defender to win the ball back and Grosicki played in Batty whose shot deflected just wide.

It was Eaves first start after his move from Gillingham and he was impressive in his movement and hold-up play. He tired in the second half, his lack of pre-season showing, but did enough to suggest he’ll be very useful to those around him. City’s first site of goal game when he neatly headed Stewart’s lofted ball into Bowen’s path but the full back nicked it off his toe.

City’s bright start was rewarded when Bowen opened the scoring after just 6 minutes. Burke intercepted a through ball, it fell for Irvine and he played a 1-2-3-4 with Grosicki down the left-hand side. Grosicki cut into the penalty area and surprised the keeper with a near post shot that squirmed through him and Bowen tapped it in from inches.

We were then denied a blatant penalty when Yiadom handled Grosicki’s cross – VAR would have given it! – before making it 2-0 through an Irvine header from Bowen’s cross after good work from Lichaj on the right.

It stayed that way into half time via two let offs. Lucas Joao, a new signing from Sheffield Wednesday, hit the post when in on Long and then De Wijs was lucky to only pick up a yellow card after piling recklessly into Boye.

The second half started comfortably enough with half chances for Bowen and De Wijs. Yiadom could also have seen red after swinging an arm in Irvine’s face but the ref saw it as a Yellow to the chagrin of the East Stand. The game then swung Reading’s way. Meite latched on to a long ball and made sure he fell over the approaching Long. It wasn’t a penalty but the danger wasn’t heeded and a similar switch into their right channel caught the City defence narrow. Joao took it down nicely, waltzed inside Kingsley and buried it for 2-1. Kingsley is still the weakest link in the City side. His late yellow card for hacking Yiadom down twice came because he got beaten far too easily.

Toral and Dicko replaced Batty and the tiring Eaves, who’d given the ball away poorly in the lead up to their goal, but were as effective as a British prime minister during EU exit talks. Reading already had Pele on and then introduced Puscas at half time. He was the next to get in on our left from a terrifyingly simple ball and Long came to the rescue to smother. Honeyman was the next City debutant, replacing Grosicki, and his first involvement was to try and save a throw-in in our half putting them one on one with Kingsley. A ridiculous decision but in-keeping with our second half.

We rode out the storm in the last 10-15 minutes and could have made it very comfortable through a wicked curling Bowen strike that fell just wide. There was one last scare as an Adam free-kick dropped in the box and was poked against the bar.

So, a good start for Grant McCann whose desire to press high and play forward quickly was demonstrably effective in a very good first half but the lack of the fitness and personnel to carry it out for the whole game was in evidence in the second. That will hopefully improve as the new additions are integrated into his squad over the coming weeks. In all, it was an encouraging start. It’s a real shame only ten thousand fans saw it.

Man of the match: Kevin Stewart.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Hull City's transfer window: Have The Tigers done enough?

The Tigers (almost) completed a drastic squad overhaul with four signings on transfer deadline day.

Markus Henriksen is still expected to leave before the end of the transfer window which will mean eleven senior players have left the club since the end of last season while ten have arrived to replace them on permanent or loan deals.

The club have worked under severe, self-imposed restrictions this summer. The last of the parachute payments from the Premier League were received in January and as Jarrod Bowen wasn’t sold, as many expected/feared, the club are operating on a severely restricted budget with no large income from player sales save for the sell-on clauses on Daniel James and Harry Maguire that will drip feed into the revenue column over the next few years.

Long gone are the days when the Allams would gamble future income on trying to achieve promotion – they’ve long since lost interest in that and we have to accept it. I certainly won’t bleat about it. Assem Allam made it clear when he couldn’t change the name of the club to Hull Tigers that it would be run as a business for the benefit of two people going forward and I’ll accept that level of pettiness over changing the name of our beloved club.

So with those constraints in place, how well have the new manager Grant McCann and the recruitment team done? They’ve certainly achieved the aim of building a squad solid in number while reducing the wage bill but is there enough quality?

Few of the ten players who have arrived are established Championship ready players. The sad truth is that we’re not in the market for those players. They either cost millions in transfer fees or demand wages we won’t pay. We’re also not in a position to win a squabble with other clubs over players who are coveted. We saw in the straight fight with Barnsley for Mallik Wilks how unattractive a proposition City are for one reason or another. So we’ve had to, and sorry for using such a terrible phrase, “think outside the box” in order to make a small budget go a long way. A big part of that has been signing players well known to the manager from having previously worked with them or being aware of them in League One last season. I’m not a huge fan of usurping a recruitment strategy in this way but needs must. It does mean the manager will have to take his share of the responsibility if it isn’t successful.

The first arrival of the summer was goalkeeper Matt Ingram (QPR Undisc.). He’s come in to back-up George Long who was being readied to take over as number one last season with David Marshall’s impending departure. As with Fraizer Campbell, City just weren’t prepared to stomach Marshall’s “Premier League wage”. Ingram isn’t a first choice keeper at this level but he’s solid enough and has good experience at the levels below. Will Mannion will be third choice and he’s still very promising. With an array of very good young goalkeepers below them in Charlie Andrew, Harrison Foulkes, Harvey Cartwright and David Robson, this is the least of our worries.

Defensively City struggled last season once Aston Villa recalled Tommy Elphick. His “replacement” Liam Ridgewell was a huge let down and he was released along with Ondrej Mazuch while Todd Kane returned after his loan. None were a loss. They did leave us light on numbers defensively but that has been addressed with the recruitment of Ryan Tafazolli (Peterborough Free) and Matthew Pennington (Everton Loan) at centre half. Tafazolli was managed by McCann at Posh but trialled over the summer. Pennington has good Championship experience from loan spells at Leeds and Ipswich in the past couple of seasons and will threaten the Reece Burke/Jordy De Wijs partnership. He’s a player City have wanted for a couple of years.

The signing of Aussie left-back Callum Elder (Leicester Undisc.) could be particularly important as Stephen Kingsley has rarely impressed and while Brandon Fleming is a useful back-up, he’ll benefit far more from getting out on loan and playing regularly. Elder has played briefly at this level in several loan spells having featured much more in League One. On the right side, City will depend on new skipper Eric Lichaj for his assuring performances and experience with Robbie McKenzie as his able and versatile back-up. We’ll likely see both in other positions at times as well as Burke and Pennington who can both cover full-back.

It’s a defence still lacking the veteran centre-half we had, temporarily, in Elphick but it shows a lot of promise. Burke in particular improved immeasurably last season and given Hull City is now a proving ground for the best defenders in the country – he looks capable of joining some good company in the future.

Midfield is interesting. City’s signings in this area George Honeyman (Sunderland 400k) and Leo da Silva Lopes (Wigan Undisc.) were both maligned by supporters of their previous clubs when leaving. Neither had a brilliant last season with Honeyman part of a Sunderland side that failed to get out of League One and Lopes joining Gillingham on loan after his big-money move to Wigan didn’t work out. In some ways, it’s irrelevant. Both can play. Lopes is a 20-year old with over 100 league appearances. Honeyman is still only 24 and has scored 12 goals from midfield in the last couple of seasons. Importantly, both have been signed for their stamina and athleticism to play in a team that presses high to win the ball back. Lopes is very well known to McCann and Honeyman is an “outside the box” signing that others weren’t looking into.

There’s a very good question to be asked of how many of the recruits will actually start games. On the face of it, City are solid enough in midfield with Jackson Irvine being one of the first names on any team sheet and Daniel Batty and Kevin Stewart looking a reasonable defensive axis. Jon Toral being fit again brings flair to the team playing off a striker or at the front of a midfield three. Aside from the indefatigable Irvine though, there is a lack of athleticism in that group. Honeyman and Lopes will certainly solve that problem and bring competition for places. Toral has been particularly unreliable in fitness terms too.

That just leaves the front line and you’d hope this is where City will cause other teams problems. Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki are our best players and amongst the best in the league. It’s a miracle that they’re still here and we need to enjoy what will surely be their last year (or half a year?) in black an amber. Josh Bowler (Everton Loan) looks a very addition on the early evidence and will provide a good back-up or alternative to Grosicki and Bowen.

Through the middle, Tom Eaves (Gillingham Free) is an exciting signing. I’m still stinging from the departure of Fraizer Campbell who would lift this team to another level but I’m equally thrilled that we’ve brought in a striker who gets on the end of crosses and scores goals with his head. We’ve not had that for so long and when your strength is in the wide areas – it makes a lot of sense. Josh Magennis (Bolton Nominal) will be a decent back-up. He’s also a threat in the air, is used to playing on his own up front and can play wide. His goal record is reasonable if unspectacular but there aren’t many better available for pennies. Both look a far better prospect than Nouha Dicko who it’s easy to forget cost us the thick end of four million quid.

I’ve (harshly) failed to mention Angus MacDonald and David Milinkovic. MacDonald has been missing for so long through injury that its hard to remember his strengths. Milinkovic has been a waste of everyone’s time so far. Youngsters Max Sheaf and Jacob Greaves going on loan to Cheltenham Town is really good news for their development. Hopefully Keane Lewis-Potter and Fleming will find suitors too.

I don’t know if the recruitment will be good enough – no-one does. Everything about this squad from the manager down is 50/50 at best. It could easily punch above its weight like last season and could easily get sucked into a relegation scrap. But given the financial constraints in place along with the overall feel of a club with owners who aren’t interested and fans who are dwindling in number - they’ve certainly made a good fist of things.

I particularly like the look of things in midfield. Again, there’s no obvious leader and a quality on the ball is a slight worry but it’s a young, vibrant group who could be far more effective unit than the sum of its parts. That is what we’re looking for. No matter what the cost of putting them together, that’s what all successful Championship teams are.

Phil Brown: Hull City's Mission Impossible

Ten years ago this week, Hull City parted company with Phil Brown. He was undoubtedly, to that point, the most successful manager in th...