2020/21 Preview – Hull City

Host of Express FM’s Football Hour and pundit on Pompey Live, Jake Smith continues his club-by-club preview ahead of the new League One season.

Intro: Founded in 1904 in Kingston upon Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Hull City find themselves in the third-tier for the first time since 2005, when they won promotion as runners up of League One.

Hull are known as ‘The Tigers’ and this is represented by their traditional home strip, which has featured amber and black stripes for the majority of the club’s history. Only twice have Hull ventured away from their historic home colours, running out in blue and white strips in 1935-1936 and 1946-1947. Having said that, Hull City donned white shirts and black shorts in their first ever game against Notts County in 1904, switching to the stripes after that match.

The club have lingered largely in the second and third tiers of the English game but have spent an accumulated five seasons in the Premier League, first playing in the top-flight in 2008 – finishing 17th and avoiding relegation in their debut campaign.

The Tigers are now run by Assem Allam, who has been owner and the chairman since his takeover in December 2010 – A decade later and fans of the club are not too fond of the Allam family. The questioning surrounding their regime began in 2013, when Allam applied to change the identity of the club, attempting to rename them to ‘Hull City Tigers’, removing ‘Association Football Club’.

The Premier League denied receiving contact from the club and insisted on continuing to refer to them as Hull City, however a year later, the chairman tried to rename the club again, this time simply ‘Hull Tigers’ on the grounds that the shorter the name, the more powerful the company sounds in marketing.

Allam continued to babble on about how the word ‘City’ was too commonly used in football and having it within his club’s name would not make them stand out from the crowd, further insisting that if he had taken over Manchester City then he would have changed their identity to ‘Manchester Hunter’.

Fortunately, the attempts fell through amid strong opposition from the fans, who banded together within supporter groups to liaise with stakeholders and The FA to ensure the name remained as Hull City AFC.

Hull fans will be grateful for, but understandably still not totally happy, with the knowledge of being the more stable of the three relegated clubs of last season. Both Charlton and Wigan supporters are fearing that their clubs may not start the season due to ownership and financial implications, whereas at the KCOM the lack of communication, ambition and investment are factors which have put a decline on the relationship between the board and the fans.

Home Ground: KCOM Stadium, Kingston upon Hull (East Riding of Yorkshire), 277 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 25,586

2019/20 Table Position: 24th (Relegated from the Championship) – 45 points after 46 games.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: Hull City Wins: 13 – Draws: 20 – Portsmouth Wins: 21

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Portsmouth 2-0 Hull City, 27th March 2012, Championship

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Saturday 19th December, 2020 – KCOM Stadium

Saturday 23rd January, 2021 – Fratton Park

Manager: Former Peterborough United and Doncaster Rovers manager Grant McCann has been in charge of The Tigers since June 2019, when he signed a one-year rolling contract.

The 40-year-old was seen, at the time, as a clever appointment by the Allam’s and news of McCann’s arrival initially excited supporters, who saw him as a promising, up-and-coming boss. However, with promise and potential comes lack of experience and an understanding of the game compared to managers with more impressive CVs from their times in the dugouts.

A gamble is what the Northern Irishman’s appointment turned out to be, despite signs of implementing a respectable brand of football in League One. The Championship turned out to be too much for McCann, who led Hull to relegation in his first season in charge.

Assam and son/vice-chairman Ehab placed their faith in McCann following the tail-end of last season – this turned out to be another decision which faced quite the backlash from supporters, the bulk of whom had wished for a fresh face ahead of their League One venture.

McCann, who played as a midfielder for teams such as Cheltenham Town, Scunthorpe United and Peterborough United, has managed just 14 victories from 50 games in charge of Hull City so far, accruing a win percentage of just 28%.

One To Watch: Young winger Mallik Wilks is tipped to continue his already impressive start to life in the professional game in the upcoming season.

The 21-year-old Leeds-born winger has the capability of playing up-top, though is known to thrive better on the flanks in more recent seasons.

Wilks was a part of the Leeds United academy and was promoted into the first-team in 2016, though failed to break through and make an appearance for the club. Loans at Accrington Stanley, Grimsby Town and Doncaster Rovers – where he was converted for the first time to a winger and away from his usual striking position – allowed Wilks to announce himself to the footballing world and earn a permanent move away from Elland Road.

His switch from the West to the South of Yorkshire was made official in July 2019, when Barnsley revealed Wilks to supporters ahead of their return to the second-tier. Within six months, the versatile forward found himself out of favour at Oakwell and was shipped out on loan to Hull City, where he acclimatised quickly and grew fond with supporters throughout his half-season loan spell. He signed for The Tigers on a permanent deal following the club’s relegation to League One.

Wilks wore the No. 43 shirt last term for Hull, though that is likely to change in 2020/21 now that he is a permanent member of the squad.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): Reported Pompey target Richie Smallwood appears to be Grant McCann’s most impressive signing so far this summer. The 29-year-old midfielder made the switch to the KCOM on August the 11th from Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers, where he made 78 appearances between 2017 and 2020.

Smallwood, who came through the Middlesbrough youth system, was immediately made club captain as a result of his hard-working, committed and rottweiler-like style of play – he resembles similar attributes to former Blues captain Michael Doyle, who now plies his trade at Notts County.

The 5’11” powerhouse would have been an ideal candidate to play alongside Tom Naylor, however the move failed to gather momentum and Hull City came knocking, luring the midfielder to Yorkshire on a 2-year deal with the option to extend by another season.

Season Expectation: As a club relegated from one of the most competitive divisions in the world, the expectation to bounce straight back up weighs heavily on the shoulders of Grant McCann and his troops. However, the strained connection between those at the top and those paying their wages is something which could have an effect on proceedings on the pitch.

Hull are a club in decline, having failed to establish themselves in the Championship following their most recent relegation from the top-flight, now finding themselves in a League One which happens to have a handful of “big clubs” attempting to win promotion at the end of the season.

Grant McCann finds himself also having a mixed relationship with supporters, the majority of which voicing their concerns towards the gaffer’s tactics, which led to such a poor end to their 2019/20 campaign – Hull managed a measly 6 points from their final 20 matches, winning once, drawing three and recording 16 defeats within that time, including an 8-0 thumping behind closed doors away to also-relegated Wigan Athletic.

Nonetheless I can see The Tigers having an average campaign, sneaking into the top-six by virtue of a strong end to the season, led by what has so far been a decently assembled squad.

My Predicted Finish: 4th (Play-Off Winners)

How Hull City Could Fare Next Season – The Roar of a Loyal Supporter

Sports Journalist Tom Griffin is a supporter of Hull City and has had his work published for Hull Live and Vavel, utilising plenty of his reporting skills whilst following The Tigers. Tom has been regularly attending matches for over a decade so is no stranger to the many ups and downs his club has experienced.

Undoubtedly the biggest downfall Hull have faced in recent history is their relegation to League One just a couple of months ago. A sour relationship between the board and the fans has likely played a part in the club’s dismal demise, along with the lack of ambition shown by the owners, but keen fan Tom highlights what needs to change ON the pitch to ensure The Tigers improve in 2020/21: “The biggest alteration that needs to be made this season is rediscovering a winning mentality. Whether that is winning in the Carabao Cup, the EFL Trophy, FA Cup or the league, this side needs to win games and fast.”

The English Language graduate added: “This current squad and manager inherits a losing mentality, winning just 1 of the last 20 matches. While in their first 4 games, City play 3 of the 4 promoted teams and this could be seen as an opportunity to get points on the board early.”

Tom also addressed the situation regarding the club’s captaincy heading into the forthcoming campaign: “Having lost our captain Eric Lichaj and vice-captain Jackson Irvine at the end of June, we were forced into making a decision on a new captain. We appointed Jordy De Wijs, but it became apparent that he didn’t possess the requisite leadership expertise to move this team forward.

“Subsequently”, Tom continued, “we were relegated and De Wijs was stripped of his captaincy. Until last week, we were uncertain as to who was going to succeed the Dutchman, but the club announced Richie Smallwood as the new captain. Smallwood joined from Blackburn Rovers this summer and the 29-year-old is no stranger to the role of captain, having led out his previous club on multiple occasions.

“The club has been devoid of a successful captain for years and supporters hope that Smallwood can fill a void in that area and, while it is expected that he will bring a presence on the field, his character off it will be just as important in the atmosphere of the dressing room.”

Tom uses recent examples of relegated clubs failing to win promotion in their first season down to emphasise why he believes the upcoming season may not be the walk in the park that some fans at the KCOM are expecting: “Bouncing back at the first time of asking is a touch ask, especially looking at Sunderland and Ipswich of recent times or Sheffield United, Leeds United and Norwich City in seasons gone by. Therefore, I expect us to finish mid-table.”

The supporter is not anticipating too much of his side in 2020/21, instead keeping his expectations realistic: “I expect us to finish mid-table. I feel this season is about rebuilding and with a relatively young side, expecting promotion is a tough ask.”

From the signings made to date, which include Mallik Wilks (Barnsley), Lewie Coyle (Fleetwood Town), Festus Arthur (Stockport County), Josh Emmanuel (Bolton Wanderers), Greg Docherty (Rangers) and Richie Smallwood (Blackburn Rovers), Tom is looking toward the former ‘King of Ewood’ to make the biggest impact: “The last time he played in League One, he was influential in Blackburn’s title-winning campaign, earning plaudits for the nature of his performances.”

Further singing Smallwood’s praises, Tom went on to say: “He leaves everything on the field and will be the driving force in the engine room. He does not shirk responsibility, having already taken the role of captain, while his sought-after tackling ability will give City the upper-hand in midfield battles. The robust midfielder will fit perfectly into McCann’s infamous 4-3-3 system, operating in the No. 6 role where he will be tasked to protect the backline.

“While it would be easy to say Mallik Wilks is expected to have more of an effect due to his goal contributions for Doncaster Rovers, Smallwood offers more in terms of his responsibility on and off the field. He will set the bar for the level of performances he will expect his side to reach.”

Tom also warns opposition fans of the threat posed by new signing Greg Docherty, who joined City from Rangers earlier in the window: “The 23-year-old is the quintessential midfield all-rounder and thrived in his role under Jack Ross. He isn’t a pure creator in the mould of a No. 10, nor is he a defensive barrier like a No. 6. Docherty, however, is more a No. 8 in the way he is capable of playing box-to-box, helping out in a number of different areas of the pitch, adding an end product to his game.

“The young Scot netted 3 and assisted a further 5 times in 8 matches for Hibernian last season. He also endured a fruitful loan at Shrewsbury Town at this level, so he isn’t short of League One experience.”

The City supporter also reckons that, unlike anyone else in the squad, Docherty will bring goal contributions from his midfield position and expects him to drive from deep – exploiting his energy and ability to provide true quality in the final-third.

The salary cap has been a frequent topic of conversation among previous supporters I have spoken to in past articles, though Hull fan Tom is not convinced that the implementation of said restrictions will change the way his club goes about their transfer business: “The salary cap that has been imposed hasn’t really affected dealings in the transfer window. We’re in a safe position financially compared to a lot of other clubs in this division and we can spend money while complying with the salary cap.

“Last summer we brought in a lot of League One players and, much like Ipswich Town who did similar in the season prior, we were relegated. The Tractor Boys were unable to bounce back and I don’t expect Hull to bounce back either, but we are certainly building a side that will compete, should the manager be able to instil a winning mentality.”

Despite these comments, Tom also fears the downsides the salary cap may have on smaller clubs in Leagues One and Two: “A salary cap in a lower division essentially increases the skill gap between the two divisions.” – He stressed.

“Going forward, it will benefit the owners in their quest to lower the wage infrastructure, but could hamper any future success. Should Hull City eventually win promotion from League One, the salary cap that has been imposed will mean bringing in a lot of new players to be in a position to compete at a higher level.”

When pressed for a prediction on where The Tigers will finish come the end of the season, Tom responded: “I predict 11th.”

You can follow Tom on Twitter – @_journotom    

Photo: Hull City AFC

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