Thursday, January 8, 2009
Surprise package may be unravelling
The Chinese may beg to differ but 2008 was the year of the Tiger or, at least, the 12 months of the 11 Tigers. That much was assured on the May afternoon at Wembley when Dean Windass ended Hull City's 104-year wait for top-flight football.
And there would be other indelible images of progress to follow: Daniel Cousin soaring above William Gallas to head the winner at the Emirates Stadium, Geovanni delivering goals of implausible brilliance against Arsenal and Tottenham and the league table showing Hull sharing the lead in the Premier League with Liverpool and Chelsea.
Set against that, 2009 is certain to involve an element of anti-climax. The pertinent issue is how disheartening a return to reality proves. A glance at the updated standings, showing Hull in eighth, may foster optimism. They are on course to emulate other fearless arrivistes, Wigan and Reading, whose initial taste of Premier League football culminated in a top-half finish.
Yet greater analysis of the facts and figures may produce a different conclusion.
After their superlative start, Hull have only won one of their last 12 games. Their tally of 27 points would produce considerable margin for error in the majority of seasons. In this, however, only seven points separates them from the relegation zone.
While the most improbable aspect of their rise has been their prowess on their travels - it is entirely possible that the eventual champions will unlike the Tigers not win at the Emirates Stadium, White Hart Lane and St James' Park, let alone score twice at Anfield and three times at Old Trafford - promoted teams' best chance of survival tends to come their own terrain, and only Blackburn have garnered fewer points on home soil.
There are reasons to believe Hull's harder home fixtures lie predominantly in the second half of the season, beginning with last week's defeat to Aston Villa. Revenge may be an issue for Arsenal and Tottenham when they venture north, the title for Liverpool and Manchester United when they head east. The seemingly winnable meetings with Blackburn, Stoke and West Brom take on a greater significance given the difficulty of the other games.
In their methods, as in their results, Hull have challenged orthodox thinking. Theirs is an attacking ethos that has enchanted neutrals, but has made clean sheets comparatively rare. Yet when wins become scarce, the hard-fought 1-0 tends to be the likeliest means of victory, a scoreline Hull witness comparatively rarely. That they are among the division's more open teams can both surprise their supposed superiors and invites the risk of a thrashing.
The consequences of the most recent remain to be seen though Phil Brown's sit-in at Manchester City, when Hull trailed 4-0 at the interval, left professional footballers aghast. Indeed, it was a decision that was so unexpected that it achieved the impossible by provoking Alan Shearer into an interesting piece of punditry. Should morale be fractured, much of their strength will have been splintered.
Another factor in Hull's fate is the group of players who have collectively overachieved so far. Brown has talked more of borrowing than buying new recruits, and his funds may be tied up in turning existing loan signings into permanent additions. By its very nature, however, overachievement is a temporary phenomenon. Ipswich discovered as much when they followed a fifth-place finish with a swift return to the Championship in 2002.
Paul McShane, for instance, is a player whose obvious commitment didn't render him immune from catastrophes in his stint in the Sunderland side. Thus far, he has been more reliable for Hull. In the centre of the defence, Kamil Zayatte was initially resolute alongside the outstanding Michael Turner. However, a fallibility has crept into the Guinean's game recently, culminating in the own goal against Aston Villa and there are signs that Hull have missed the sidelined club record buy Anthony Gardner.
Among many with unlikely tales to tell, the personable and estimable Ian Ashbee possesses perhaps the most improbable. A player whose own supporters queried his selection in the lower reaches of the Championship has acquitted himself commendably.
Yet when Ashbee and George Boateng have been overpowered, there may be a requirement for more youthful legs at the heart of the midfield. And whereas Hull have a legion of interchangeable players who favour the flanks, they have few specialists in the centre.
Moreover, their fine form notwithstanding, how many of Hull's squad would earn a place in the teams of many of their Premier League counterparts? Were they available, would there be a scramble for the services of the majority?
It means Hull need to continue to defy the odds. In other campaigns, another nine points may suffice. This year, they may require another 13 points to ensure their Premier League status is maintained.
Problems at Portsmouth, the struggles of Stoke, Middlesbrough's mediocrity and Blackburn's bad beginning may yet prove to be Hull's salvation but there is work to be done for a side who have spent much of the time in a position that would entail European football.
Hull welcome Manchester United to the KC Stadium in their final game, a match that could be either the fairytale finish or the depressing denouement to the story of the season.
Much about Hull has defied logic, and so they would again if the club manage to combine a role as the season's surprise package with relegation and a return ticket to the Championship .