Steve Bruce has defied all expectations but will hope the Europa League does not lead to the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 14th (NB: this is not necessarily Louise Taylor’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 16th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5,000-1
André Villas-Boas, Michael Laudrup and Owen Coyle all began last season looking forward to Europa League campaigns but it was not too long before all three were sacked by Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City and Wigan Athletic respectively.
Excited as Steve Bruce is by the potential prospect of sides such as Internazionale visiting the KC Stadium, Hull’s manager knows that European involvement will inevitably make his job that much more difficult – not to mention dangerously vulnerable.
The debilitating Thursday night/Sunday afternoon treadmill was not wholly responsible for any of those three aforementioned dismissals but, in each instance, it played a part. After all, on paper Newcastle United’s class of 2012-13 should never have been involved in the relegation dalliance that almost cost Alan Pardew his job after they struggled to cope with the joint demands of the Premier League and a run to the Europa League quarter-finals.
Presuming AC Trencin are seen off in the second leg of a third-round qualifier at the KC Stadium on Thursday – Hull are strong favourites after the away leg finished 0-0 – they must survive a further play-off round before entering the group stage. A little bit of Bruce may, privately, feel that a stumble might not be entirely calamitous.
Yet there is something hugely romantic, life affirming even, about Hull’s decade-long journey from the Football League’s bottom tier to the Premier League, an FA Cup final – they lost to Arsenal in May – and a first European adventure.
As Ian Ashbee, who scored the goal that clinched promotion from League Two at Yeovil in 2004, says: “If someone had told me then I’d be watching Hull in Europe, I’d have laughed. I’d have told them they’d been drinking. The potential was there and it was a much bigger club than League Two but Hull nearly went out of business in those days. They were difficult times – but now the Europa League has put us back on the map again.”
During the past 10 years Hull have been promoted to the Premier League twice, the second time under Bruce’s guidance and last season they delighted in confounding the doubters who claimed they would not be good enough to survive.
Cleverly alternating between a back three and a back four, and frequently playing a pleasing brand of attractive, passing football, Hull contained an element of surprise, with Curtis Davies excelling in central defence and Tom Huddlestone, Bruce’s £5m headline signing from Tottenham Hotspur, dominating games from central midfield.
Bruce, though, has always claimed teams are only as good as their strikers and was suitably grateful when Hull’s Egyptian owner Assem Allam provided him with £14m last January to purchase Shane Long from West Bromwich Albion and Nikica Jelavic from Everton.
Hull duly succeeded in staying up but, after spending much of the campaign in mid-table respectability, had to ultimately settle for a rather disappointing 16th position. Of their last five league games, four ended in defeat and one in a draw. The big mitigating factor is the distraction of the FA Cup final – Roberto Martínez has told Bruce he is convinced his then Wigan side were relegated in 2013 purely because the players became preoccupied with their looming showpiece against Manchester City.
Even so, Hull’s manager is well aware that teams who finish league programmes poorly tend to start the subsequent ones badly, too. In an effort to change this narrative – not to mention guard against the dreaded “second season syndrome” – he has strengthened his squad appreciably.
Jake Livermore, who impressed in midfield alongside Huddlestone last term while on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, has arrived on a permament deal as have Robert Snodgrass, the Norwich winger, Tom Ince, the Blackpool winger, Harry Maguire, the Sheffield United centre-half and Dundee United defender Andrew Robertson.
Livermore and Snograss alone have cost a combined £15m, while the highly rated Ince’s fee will be adjudicated by a tribunal. As generous as Allam is, Bruce – who has decided it is worth playing the premium to buy British this summer – knows the club’s benefactor will not always have such deep pockets, and is making stringent efforts to upgrade a latterly sub-standard youth policy.
Damningly, Hull have not had a local talent emerge from the youth ranks to make more than 20 appearances in a season for 14 years and a current absence of home-grown players in their first-team squad dictates that they are only permitted to use a maximum of 21 players in the Europa League rather than the usual 25. This is because of Uefa’s home-grown players rule, which demands a minimum of four in any squad must have been produced by the club’s youth system. At present no one at Hull fits that description.
They are now the only club with a category three academy in the Premier League but Bruce’s appointment of Tony Pennock as head of that set-up last February is designed to improve the situation as swiftly as possible, with the aim being to secure category two status within the next year.
More immediately, Bruce will trust that his squad’s “British core” will help sustain last season’s outstanding team spirit, that unsung first-team stalwarts such as David Meyler and Ahmed Elmohamady will remain quietly effective and that his fairly seamless amalgam of “old school”, very human man management, with cutting edge sports science will continue to pay dividends.
Last season Bruce proved he was a much, much better manager than he had appeared towards the unhappy end of a far less imaginative and innovative stint at Sunderland. His challenge now is to repeat the feat against a potential Europa League backdrop.