Recent Eye Witness Assessments have featured Brighton and Ipswich, both sides who might consider themselves to have an outside chance of the Championship play-offs this season. But what of another club who, somewhat against the odds and despite stiff competition from more fancied and well-funded rivals, managed to make it out of the second tier via automatic promotion last term? Hull’s trip to St James’ Park last weekend presented me with an opportunity to run the rule over Steve Bruce’s charges at first hand.
Four points from the Tigers’ opening four games suggested a solid if unspectacular start to life in the top flight, though that hardly told the whole story. A maximum was reaped at home to Norwich, and another should have followed when Cardiff, the side who pipped them to the Championship title, were the visitors to the KC Stadium. The fact that the fixture list sent them to Stamford Bridge and the Etihad in their first two away games mitigates against the brace of defeats that were suffered. Aside from a testing opening half-hour at Chelsea, the team performances were indicative of a competitive edge and fearlessness that should stand them in good stead in the bid for survival.
All that said, the Tigers’ team bus arrived on Tyneside with its passengers hoping to win on the road in the Premier League for the first time in 21 attempts. Newcastle supporters, still feeling flush with satisfaction at the previous weekend’s controlled victory over Aston Villa, had every right to expect a victory for their charges.
That things panned out rather differently was thanks in large part to Hull’s summer signings. All managers of newly promoted sides have to grapple with the same tricky quandaries: how much loyalty and faith to show those for whom promotion was the fruit of considerable labour, and which players to shove unsentimentally to one side, their purpose served, in favour of new higher-calibre recruits capable of preserving the club’s elevated status.
Central midfield was clearly an area Bruce had identified as in need of strengthening, and last Saturday saw him pair permanent signing Tom Huddlestone with loanee and former Spurs colleague Jake Livermore. The combination worked a treat. The latter grafted unselfishly to patrol the space in front of the back four, thereby handing Huddlestone a creative freedom usually denied him at White Hart Lane, where forward-thinking midfielders and playmakers have hardly been in short supply. It was a freedom the bouffant-haired sometime England international savoured, showing off his elegant skills on the ball and a full repertoire of passing that was only thrown further into relief by the home side’s aimless, floated punts in the vague direction of Papiss Cisse, Loic Remy and substitute Yoan Gouffran.
Of the other new recruits on display, Curtis Davies is a player who has flattered to deceive at this level in the past, with more than a whiff of the Titus Brambles about him (by which I mean 89 minutes of composure and control and then one catastrophic lapse of conversation). Sadly for those of us of a black and white persuasion, that lapse never came and this was not a game after which he’ll have been moved to describe his own performance as being that of a “pub team player“. Keeper Allan McGregor, meanwhile, looks a good signing but could hardly be rated given that he was underworked all afternoon, both of the home side’s goals owing much to good fortune.
What will have been particularly encouraging for Bruce – in addition to the fact that his side coped admirably even when deprived of the Premier League experience of Robert Koren and Maynor Figueroa – was that at least two of last season’s Championship squad are showing signs of taking the step up in their stride. As solid as Davies was, he was outshone in central defence by his partner James Chester. A Tigers fan had told me prior to the game that the former Man Utd man has been their star performer for the past couple of seasons but is now looking fallible against top-flight strikers, liable to concede daft and costly free-kicks. Well, not on this evidence – he didn’t put a foot wrong, and can count himself very unlucky that Yohan Cabaye’s shot ricocheted off his leg directly to Remy for the Frenchman to put Newcastle back into the lead.
Equally impressive was another player recruited from Bruce’s former club. Robbie Brady punished poor defending to drill the ball between Tim Krul’s legs for the first equaliser and made life such a misery for his marker Mathieu Debuchy that the £6m French international was hauled off to spare his blushes at a time when Newcastle were chasing the game and should really have been making offensive changes.
The one area of real concern for Bruce will be the strikeforce. It’s not as though he doesn’t have a host of forwards to choose from – more that it’s not yet clear whether any of them can make the vital contribution in terms of goals that the Tigers will need to remain in the division. Last Saturday the nod went to Mackem loanee Danny Graham, who hadn’t scored since leaving Swansea in January. Whether it was his latent Toon sympathies, a concerted effort to underperform his opposite number in the Newcastle side (Cisse) or just plain inherent uselessness, Graham was diabolically bad. From where we were sat, high in the Leazes End, we couldn’t see any signs that he might be the solution for Hull – even though, as a fan behind us quipped, we could see his massive eyebrows.
Thankfully for Hull, they had another forward who made amends. Sone Aluko had shown himself to be a willing runner all game, stretching and pulling our defence out of position when released into space (usually by Huddlestone), but to that he added the stunning volleyed finish that settled the match. That it was substitute George Boyd who had the vision to pick out Aluko is an irony that won’t (or shouldn’t) be lost on Forest’s board.
So, can Hull survive? On this evidence, possibly yes – though they should bear in mind that not many Premier League opponents are likely to prove such willing fall guys.