Face tough test against KSC Lokeren
21 August ~ Hull City's Europe League tie at KSC Lokeren has been deemed too unexciting for ITV's thrill-packed Thursday night schedule. But for those of us who spent a chunk of their 1970s and 1980s childhoods surreptitiously listening to other British clubs' adventures in Europe on a crackly transistor radio secreted under the bedcovers, a trip to a rickety old stadium in Belgium is an almost unimaginable delight. Hull spent most of those decades bumbling round the lower divisions between bankruptcies. Consequently, their ticket allocation for the first leg in Flanders sold out rapidly.
Inevitably, the cabins on the giant North Sea Ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge were also quick to go. It will be a momentous sight to see it filled with fans from its home port for the first time ever, rather than gaggles of Rangers or Manchester United fans passing through.
Aside from the sense of occasion, the game should be good too. An in-form, top-five Belgian team such as Lokeren looks an intriguingly even match for a side from the lower half of the English top flight who are still figuring out how to handle two-legged European ties.
Steve Bruce has spent the summer constructing a squad equipped to handle a potential ten extra games before Christmas and the City side will see many changes from the one that started at QPR last Saturday. Rather than rotation or playing the reserves in a supposed lesser competition, this is more a sign of City's strength as a unified squad that is not reliant on any particular handful of players. A similar side overcame AS Trencin of Slovakia in the first round and won impressively in a friendly at Stuttgart ten days ago.
As Bruce says: "I will give everyone who got us into Europe the chance to play. I think that is what gives us the spirit that we play with at the moment. They all know they are going to get their chance. [There are] people I left off the bench at QPR, George Boyd in particular, who have done wonders for me since I came here."
The pacy, young Ivorian striker Yannick Sagbo is another City player who looks well equipped to trouble Lokeren. Although he is still finding his feet in English football, he previously excelled for Evian in France and has returned from the summer break looking lean and sharp. He is likely to form a threatening looking attacking duo with Sone Aluko, who has recently returned to full fitness and the Nigerian squad.
If City can handle the occasion and the different demands of European football, then their attacking firepower could prove the difference between the two sides, not least because Lokeren recently sold their leading striker, Hamdi Harbaoui. His 22 goals in 33 games last season played a big part in their Belgian Cup triumph and fifth-place league finish.
However the tie turns out, the City fans carousing in the town square in East Flanders on Thursday night will raise a glass of Belgian beer to the club's owners (despite the ongoing renaming row), management and players. Their achievement in making European football something that no longer only happens to other people deserves our recognition. Paul Knott