Riding relegation at Hull
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a sign of things to come. The Tigers managed to score just three goals over their next seven home matches, securing a lone victory over Derby County. After the last of these setbacks, a 1-0 defeat to rivals Scunthorpe in November, Hull found themselves clear of the relegation zone only through goal difference, and Pearson found himself in the ignominious position of being publicly supported by his opponent Ian Baraclough, who would last just four months before being sacked himself.
Results have picked up since then, and fans harbour real promotion hopes – Hull went into this weekend’s clash with Middlesbrough just two points off the last playoff spot. But their home form hasn’t improved too much, as they’ve secured just 28 of their 63 points at the KC Stadium. In fact, they’re one of only two teams in England’s top four divisions with a higher points total away from home (the other being League Two strugglers Macclesfield).
After their last league match, a convincing 3-1 victory over Doncaster Rovers, Pearson noted that “our biggest problem at home this year has been our inability to score goals.” He’s not wrong – Hull have scored just 18 goals at home this season, the worst record of any team in the Football League. Leading scorer Matty Fryatt, signed in January, has accounted for four goals in nine home starts; the rest of Hull’s strikers (all eight of them) have combined for five goals at home.
Of course, it’s not just the strikers who are to blame. Creating chances, no matter where they’re playing, has been a problem for Pearson’s side. Inspirational playmaker Jimmy Bullard made only five starts, in part because of yet another knee injury; before he was loaned to Ipswich. The occasionally brilliant John Bostock was also in and out of the side before returning to Spurs in January. The team’s lack of true wingers seemed to be solved with the emergence of Cameron Stewart, whose loan deal from Man Utd was soon made permanent, but he is out for the season after suffering a knee injury in February. Ashbee’s midseason transfer request and James Harper’s inconsistent form haven’t helped in the middle of the park.
As if that weren’t enough, Hull have had defensive concerns as well. They have used eight different players in the heart of their back line; four of them were loan signings, three are currently out on loan, and one has left the club permanently, a troubling 100% turnover rate. This is in stark contrast to their successful promotion campaign three years ago, when Boaz Myhill, Michael Turner, and Wayne Brown consistently anchored the defence throughout the season.
Pearson deserves huge credit for taking a side with so many issues – I haven’t even mentioned their goalkeeping problems or their financial concerns going into the season – and getting them into a position to compete for promotion. It hasn’t been easy. Pearson has had to mix and match his tactics this year; at one point, he even experimented with a back three, using sweeper James Chester to neutralise Norwich playmaker Wes Hoolahan in a recent 1-1 draw. He’s named a total of 36 players in his matchday squads – only the bottom three have used more – and made a total of twenty new signings.
As fans of Middlesbrough, Sheffield United, and Derby County will tell you, it’s not exactly easy to win immediate promotion after being relegated from the top flight. Hull certainly have their work cut out for them, but in Nigel Pearson, they have a manager who has successfully negotiated two relegation battles, won a League One title, and came so close to reaching a playoff final last year; it’d be hard to bet against him.