Hull struggle with the big boys

Keenan and Brent deep in thought.

It seems to be just idiotic exchange between Gareth Keenan and his former boss David Brent. They are scouring a dating website as Brent searches frantically for date to bring to the Wernam Hogg Christmas party. Brent lists one of his interests as travel. When Keenan questions the validity of this claim, Brent mentions Hull as one of the places he has travelled to. His ire is raised by Garth’s constant probing until Brent comes out with the immortal line:

Well it’s not like Hull came to me. Oh look, here comes Hull down the motorway.

It’s a line that still makes this column chuckle. Hull City’s Premier League adventure has not quite provided as many laughs, but if there’s one thing you could not accuse them of is being boring.

When Dean Windass lashed in a stunning volley at Wembley in May 2008, Hull City were on their way to the Promised Land. A city of roughly 260,000 inhabitants would experience football in the Premier League for the first time. Previously the biggest city in Europe not to have a football team in the country’s top division, the Tiger were looking forward to joining the big names in the upper echelons of English football.

A number of things were unique about Hull’s promotion. Although they had never been at this level before, the club possessed this aura of organisation and humility. There would be no caviler expenditure, no players would be allowed step out of line. Players like Andy Dawson and captain Ian Ashbee would now have played for the club in all four divisions, Ashbee as captain. These types of tales appealed to the romantic in us all.

There were masses of untapped potential in terms of new fans. The Premier League, with all its glitz and glamour, would attract supporters who previously would have only ventured towards the KC Stadium for to follow the city’s rugby league team. The stadium itself was deserving of Premier League football and there was a buzz of anticipation around the city before the opening game of the season against Fulham. The Tiger’s subsequent victory 2-1 victory over the Cottagers heightened enthusiasm levels further.

Manager Phil Brown had brought in a strange concoction of players, ranging from extravagant Brazilians (Geovanni) to stalwarts of the league (George Boateng). For the first few months it seemed to be working, with Hull up to third in October. The highlight to date being a stunning 2-1 victory away to Arsenal. Geovanni’s 30-yard screamer at the Emirates was amongst the goals of the season. However, since then things have gone rather pear-shaped.

Hull were never going to keep up that level of performance. The initial excitement of the opening games of the season was always going to have a certain cup-tie feel to them. Any win was to be considered a giant-killing, a victory against the odds. However this David versus Goliath mentality was not going to get them through the whole term without some major setbacks. A 1-0 defeat at home to Bolton in November was considered not good enough. But this pressure was not just coming from the terraces.

Beginning of the end for Phil Brown?

One of the defining images of the season was at Eastlands on Stephen’s Day 2008, when Brown gave his infamous half-time teamtalk on the pitch. Hull were 4-0 down to a rampant Manchester City and manager had a few home truths to deliver. It was a unique approach to man-mismanagement. For a player to be berated by their manager within the confines of a dressing room in front of team-mates and staff is embarrassing enough; for it too happen in front of 45,196 strangers goes beyond humiliation.

Brown, with his side-kick Brian Horton, was quickly turning his side into an irritant. The novelty of having a new team in the league was swiftly wearing off. Horton even decided to criticise Cesc Fabergas’ dress-sense after a contraversional FA Cup exit to Arsenal. The perma-tanned Brown was showing all the charm and wit of his mentor Sam Allardyce. On the pitch, Hull went from an attractive, care-free side to one that was getting duller by the game.

Despite a run of one win, a highly fortunate 1-0 win at Fulham, in their last 22 league games, the Tigers avoided relegation with a rather merge total of 35 points. It was clear that all was not well within the squad. Brown began making Geovanni the scapegoat for many of his side’s failings. The number 10 was often up on the fourth official’s board to be substituted as Hull slipped to the yet another defeat. Whilst the Brazilian was not in the scintillating form of the autumn, he was the one creative player Brown had at his disposal. Geovanni is not a Brazilian of the Robinho/Ronaldo ilk who plots a trip home from Europe every February for the carnival. Settled down with a young family, Geovanni did his best to dispel the stereotype of South Americans who would not fancy the harsh British winters. His manager remained unconvinced.

With a year’s experience in the Premier League, Hull now needed to acquire the players that could ensure survival in the division. Recruitment for 2009 began with the £5million January purchase of Jimmy Bullard from Fulham, on a £45,000-a-week contract. With 15 games in 18 months, he has not proved value for money. On the rare occasions Bullard has appeared in a Hull shirt, he has been entrusted with the responsibility to make the team tick, with everything going through him. During his frequent absences, there is nobody with his passing range or ability from set-pieces. With the financial peril the club now faces, Bullard is seen as an indulgence that Hull could have done without. Supporters are not shy in letting the Londoner know their feelings.

Hunt: A rare productive purchase

The summer’s transfers were not much better. Eight players joined the club, with only Steven Hunt proving value for money. The Ireland international has been a rare beacon of light in an otherwise miserable 2009/10 campaign. Forward Kamel Ghilas cost £2 million after failing a medical at Blackburn and hasn’t started in the league since October. American striker Jozy Altidore is considered one of North America’s most promising players and his loan from Villarreal was seen as a coup for the club.

Brown’s and his predecessor Iain Dowie’s use of the 20-year-old USA international has been highly questionable. Asked to play as a loan striker or with the statuesque Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, the youngster was given a harsh education to English football. His frustration was evident for all to see after his red card against Sunderland for a disgraceful head butt on Alan Hutton. Altidore is a polite, honourable young man whose action’s that they were totally out of character.

The problems of the previous campaign became even more apparent in the early part of the 2009/10 season. By the end of September, City had been hit for five by Tottenham, four by Sunderland and six at Anfield. 18-year-old Liam Cooper made his league debut in the 6-1 defeat, in which Fernando Torres ran riot. Cooper has played once since, his confidence understandably shattered by such a chastening introduction to the professional game.

Hull's first Temporary Football Management Consultant

By March, Brown’s position had become untenable and he was embarrassingly put on gardening leave. Further humiliation followed, when the ever articulate Iain Dowie was brought in as Temporary Football Management Consultant. As corporate a job title as one could imagine, Dowie brought nothing to the club, apart from his ability to be involved with relegated clubs. Hull’s demise this season means that in four of the past six seasons, Dowie has been involved with a team relegated from the Premier League. Monday’s draw at Wigan was the final confirmation that Hull would be playing in the Championship next season.

Lessons have been learned in their two year Premier League odyssey, both on and off the pitch. A bloated squad led to Hull having the seventh biggest wage-bill in the league, with certain players such as Nick Barmby and Richard Garica making minimal contributions. With debts of £35million plus to contend with, along with the forthcoming fall in revenues, cut-backs are inevitable at the KC Stadium. New chairman Adam Pearson has a ruthless streak that Paul Duffen seemed to lack. The club face an uncertain future, but they will be better prepared if the can return to the harsh reality of the top flight.  In the words of the Brentmeister general: This is big boy s**t.

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