Tigers could be promoted this weekend
19 April ~ Only about a dozen League clubs can have an objectively successful season. So the accepted lot of most fans is for summer optimism to be steadily deflated over the next nine months. All the more reason, then, for Hull City supporters to treasure a rare season that has comfortably exceeded expectations. These were low in the aftermath of the unexpected sacking of local hero Nick Barmby during the close season, some eccentric comments by chairman Assem Allam and the frightening names that were being touted as the new manager.
As the bookies odds testified, few fans were predicting a play-off challenge and almost no one was backing the Tigers for automatic promotion. It is with some lingering surprise, then, that City fans find themselves contemplating tonight's home game with Bristol City while six points ahead of third-place Watford, with only three matches left.
At the risk of presumptuousness, the usual post-season question has already been inverted and people are asking “what on earth has gone right?” The most important factor is that the Allam family made an inspired managerial appointment in Steve Bruce and have backed him impressively since. Bruce, with his open, honest and enthusiastic manner, has proven the perfect choice for the club and the city.
Bruce's team has allied an abundance of quality, attacking footballers such as Ahmed Elmohamady, Robbie Brady and Robert Koren to defensive solidity and a strong mentality. The latter has enabled the team to overcome numerous setbacks, including a large number of injuries that would have derailed a weaker group. The medical staff have been performing unlikely repairs on damaged central defenders for several weeks now. And, even more significantly, the absence of the squad's main goalscorer, Matty Fryatt, from pretty much the whole season was compounded by Sone Aluko, the standout candidate in a strong field for player of the season at the time, missing the second half of it.
Fryatt and Aluko's injuries have been a factor in the team's only real failing; a tendency to convert a low proportion of their chances. But even this has been mitigated by the well-judged acquisitions during the season of Egypt international striker Mohamed Gedo and the classy George Boyd from Peterborough.
The mental strength of the squad has been evident in the way that they have consistently bounced back from defeats and avoided the sustained slumps that have afflicted most of their promotion rivals. Rather than fretting about the pressure, the players have spoken constantly about enjoying the experience of a promotion campaign and of aiming up rather than worrying about holding off the clubs below them.
Despite the current players' apparent reliability, longstanding City fans are conditioned by experience to see the next two games being against the bottom two teams in the table as a cause for concern rather than confidence. Their fears are also partly rational in a superbly competitive division with only 13 points separating Leicester, currently occupying the final play-off place, and Huddersfield, who are third bottom.
Nonetheless a win against Bristol City could be enough to see the Tigers promoted this weekend and ready to consider a friend's suggestion: that we should politely ask if we can keep the cheque from the Premier League but stay where we are in the Championship next year, on the grounds that is much more fun to be part of. The idea may not be supported by the majority of fans but it says something about English football that someone who wants to see his club be the best they can be is more than half-seriously suggesting it. Paul Knott