Mike Phelan stopped the Tigers’ rot with victory over Southampton before the international break and go into the crucial match as favourites
17 November ~ If there was one get-out clause that could mitigate Hull City’s recent appalling run of defeats, it was that none of them was against a side who are expected to be closest to the relegation spots this season. This weekend’s trip to Sunderland offers up no excuses for defeat, however. City must win it, should win it and may even expect to win it.
There won’t be many matches this season where Mike Phelan’s men will go in as favourites – even the forthcoming League Cup quarter-final against Newcastle United, lest we forget, a Championship side, has shorter odds on the Magpies – but this journey to Wearside is one of them.
Sunderland are bigger in every way. Crowds, stadium, wage bill, expectations, history, ego, manager’s name. They have one of the most prolific modern-day strikers on their books and a goalkeeper in the England squad. And yet they are a bigger basket case than anyone else in the Premier League.
Their manager looks weary and put upon, whereas Phelan is, publicly at least, looking a bit more composed. He’s had a lot to deal with since he was first given the job on an interim basis in the summer, not least because he works for the Allams, a family whose continuing indecision over proposed takeover after proposed takeover is making every supporter more fearful for City’s long-term health than ever.
Since finally getting the job permanently, Phelan has seen the defeats stack up, with fears over some rather odd selections and tactical decisions, and his recent claim that entertaining football will get the fans back into the thousands of empty seats at the KCOM (a tactless soundbite that has all the hallmarks of an order sent down by Ehab Allam) didn’t go down well.
Yet ahead of the international break, the rot stopped with a jammy but welcome 2-1 win over Southampton, which included a 30-minute defensive masterclass as the visitors heaped on the pressure but couldn’t find the second goal.
Sunderland did the same with an unexpected win at Bournemouth and now the two go head to head, 20th v 18th, with a win for the Tigers set to give them an eight-point cushion over their hosts, while the Black Cats can get to within two if they pull it off.
Sunderland know they are laughed at by divisional rivals, whereas City are patted on the head condescendingly and assured it might be better next time. Even though neither option is especially pleasant, most neutrals would imagine that being patronised is a mildly preferable option to being openly mocked. And while relegation battles are rarely such in November, you can imagine the losers of this weekend’s game, if there is one, will fear the worst afterwards. Matthew Rudd