In the latest of our looks at our competition in the race to the Premier League, ITWM is joined by Marcus Dysch (@MarcusDysch) to look at the fortunes of Hull City.
Among the media buzz surrounding Wilfred Zaha, the controversy of the Pozzo family and the fireworks of Leicester’s form book, Hull have flown under the radar for the majority of the season. It is only recently that people have started to notice the excellent season that Steve Bruce’s side are putting together – odd considering that they’ve rarely been outside the top six all season. It seems it took that old chestnut of foreign pizazz to perk up the ears of the press, with Yorkshire-born Egyptian businessman Assem Allam, chairman since 2010, using the January transfer window to bring in three of his countrymen. Egyptian revolutions are ten-a-penny these days, but it’s rare to find one on the fertile banks of the Humber. To find out how the season has gone thusfar and how their promotion push is looking, we asked Marcus Dysch to give us the low-down…
ITWM: Hull sit third in the league at the moment, with only goal difference between them and an automatic promotion spot. After finishing just outside the play-offs last year, is this how you expected the season to go?
MD: Not really. I think most fans expected it to be a transition year. There was a lot of ill-feeling around the club after the way Nick Barmby was dismissed at the end of last season. People were sceptical about Steve Bruce’s real desire to drop down to the Championship and I think many wondered whether he’d even stick around all season. Then there was the issue of the number of new players coming in and the changes to both the line-up and formation. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen it going this way, but once we’d got off to a positive start it was full steam ahead. Fans have been pleasantly surprised by how well it’s gone so far.
You’ve been in the play-off positions since the end of October and a fixture in the top three since Christmas. What’s the vibe amongst fans? When things are going well there’s often a feeling that things could all go wrong at any minute, are there any signs of that at Hull?
I get a feeling there’s almost a sense of disbelief. We’re winning games and racking up points at a level we’re completely unaccustomed to. We almost all always have a feeling it could go wrong at any moment with City – the “typical City” syndrome that came with 100 years of underachievement. But realistically on the pitch, bar one or two blips like the apocalyptic opening ten minutes at Bolton, Bruce has them playing consistent stuff and picking up regular wins. There’s no real reason why we should blow it between now and the end of the season. We’ve not had any real terrible patches during the campaign and when we’ve gone “too long” without a win we’ve usually bounced back with a sequence of consecutive wins. If we carry on like that for another two months we should be fine.
There aren’t too many teams who would turn down having Robert Koren, Sone Aluko and Robbie Brady in their team. Who’s been the star player so far this campaign?
It’s largely been a team effort from start to finish. The arguably main players from last season – James Chester, Jack Hobbs, Robert Koren – have stood out again, but the squad has a lot of strength in depth now and the additions of Alex Bruce, Brady, Aluko, Stephen Quinn and others have helped a lot. We’ve also had the re-emergence of Paul McShane, and improvements from the likes of Corry Evans have aided us. You have to remember also that Matty Fryatt and Joe Dudgeon, two of our top players, have missed almost the entire season through injury, and Aluko only had brief spells in the side because of injury as well. Whatever we achieve at the end of the campaign will be thanks to the entire squad pulling together.
There’s been a bit made in the media recently about the three Egyptians that the club have taken on loan including two from Al-Ahly. Mohammed Gedo in particular has started well with three goals in three starts. Just how much of an impact have they had in the last few weeks?
Well Gedo arrived and scored three in three home games, helping us win all of those matches, so it’s impossible to ignore his impact. Ahmed Elmohamady has been one of our most consistent performers since arriving from Sunderland and has a good chance of being player of the year I should think. Fathi hasn’t had much of a look in, but has a lot of experience for a lad his age. Steve Bruce knows the Egyptian market better than almost anyone, and coupled with our Egyptian owners, the Allam family, it seems they are going to turn to the country more often. If the imports are as successful as these guys then no one will complain.
Fourteen of your nineteen wins so far this season have been by one goal – is this a sign of a professional team who know how to see out a game, or a lucky one?
We are, in the large part, very strong and consistent at the back, and we have, largely, failed to take our chances up front. We don’t concede many, and we don’t score many. I don’t think that’s an issue of luck, it’s probably more a degree of professionalism and some efficiency. I’m concerned that goal difference could come in to play later in the season though.
Looking at the side’s remaining fixtures, it doesn’t look like the most challenging of run-ins, although the last four games are all against sides who will still be in the promotion or relegation picture. What do you see as they key games? Are there any sort of sides that you’ve struggled to deal with this season?
I’m not sure you can say there are anything other than challenging games in this league. There’s not a lot of consistency in results. The old adage stands better here than anywhere – anyone can beat anyone on their day. We went to Bolton on the back of three home wins, and found ourselves 3-0 down in the first ten minutes. I don’t know the stats but I don’t think we’ve done any better or worse against teams almost regardless of their league position. We tend to struggle more against the sides lower in the table actually. The match at Palace and the home game with Watford obviously stand out. I really hope it doesn’t come down to the final game against Cardiff, but I think it would be very presumptuous to believe we’d both be promoted by then, so it could be all to play for.
Do you have any injury worries going in to the business end of the season? Do you think you have the squad to keep the standard of performances high until the start of May?
As mentioned, we are without Matt Fryatt, Joe Dudgeon and Sone Aluko, probably all out for the rest of the season. It’s a pity because they’re three of our biggest players. But Bruce has built a big, strong, competitive squad. Adding Boyd from Peterborough was something of a masterstroke, and there is quite a bit of depth. Players like Tom Cairney and Olofinjana can’t even get a game – once they would have been certain starters. Barring a total disaster we should get through to the end of the season OK.
Who’s got to step up and perform if you’re going to cement a place in the top two?
We need goals. We rarely concede more than one, but we rarely score more than one. Robert Koren has had a slight dip in form in recent weeks and will now need to be influential, especially with Aluko out. Jay Simpson’s form has gone as well. Thankfully Gedo has made a magical start since arriving from Egypt. Boyd looked superb in the short spell he had against Bolton. Remarkably it could be those two new signings who have the biggest say in how our season concludes.
How do you see it going? And what would you be happy with?
My head says we have been consistent enough to just about scrape into second, but it will be very close. Someone always makes a late run, and with City there’s usually a way to cock it all up when it matters most. So my heart leans towards finishing third. What happens then in the play-offs is anyone’s guess. As I said before I don’t think anyone could have predicted a season as successful as this. It would be hard to complain even if we end up with nothing. And promotion would mean a hell of a struggle next season I suspect. Staying up would not be easy. So what is the best bet for us? I really don’t know. Promotion would be a just reward for how hard Bruce and his squad have worked. If we just missed out it would be a great shame after a brilliant season, but I don’t think I could honestly say I would be heartbroken.
Finally, what do you make of Watford; both as the league’s undisputed entertainers and pantomime villains?
A lot has been made of their use of loan signings, and they have been singled out by the media for a lot of criticism. But realistically Watford haven’t broken the rules – they have just made the most of the situation available to them. We have a number of loan signings and a number of them have been in and out of the club regularly in order to fit around transfer windows and deadlines and so on. Is there a big difference between what we’ve done – signing so many of Bruce’s old players from Sunderland and bringing in two lads from Egypt – and what Watford have done? I don’t suppose there is. My concern for Watford would be if they do go up, and all the loanees leave, then what? You’d have half a squad and would probably be left with a number of players who had hardly featured in this campaign. Not ideal. The Football League has had its eye off the ball on this one – the rules clearly need tightening.