AMID all the ‘Pep v Jose’ hyperbole that, this week, has all but reduced one of English football’s biggest derbies to an after-thought, Mike Phelan’s return to the club where it all began as a teenager was never going to grab the headlines.
For Hull City, however, today’s trip to Burnley could prove even more pivotal to how their Premier League season pans out than the battle between the game’s two managerial superpowers will be to the Manchester duo’s own chances.
Not only are the two clubs who meet at Turf Moor likely to be embroiled in the relegation battle despite an encouraging start to the season.
But, from Hull’s perspective, the fact their next three fixtures after today are another trip along the M62 to take on Liverpool that is sandwiched between the visits of Arsenal and Chelsea to the KCOM Stadium means a potentially huge 90 minutes awaits in Lancashire.
Claim a rare win at a ground that has brought 10 defeats from their last dozen visits and Hull have a trio of free hits before the next international break.
Lose, however, and the need to take points off at least one of that trio of Premier League big hitters will be obvious. Phelan, for his part, is relishing the return to the club he joined as a 14-year-old.
“This could be said to be a big game,” admitted the 53-year-old at the end of a week that brought an impasse in talks designed to see him installed as Steve Bruce’s permanent successor – and the Premier League manager of the month award.
“I don’t consider us favourites (at Burnley). They won the Championship last year, we finished fourth. But, equally, I don’t think it is a game we should be worried about.
“We are in good form and in good spirits. Plus, through what we did in the (transfer) window, we have given ourselves a better opportunity to be competitive.”
Boosting Hull’s hopes of victory at what has proved to be their bogey ground over the past three decades or so is the half dozen signings that were made in the final 36 hours of the window all being available.
Of those, goalkeeper David Marshall has perhaps the best chance of forcing his way into a starting XI that remained unchanged as six points were taken off champions Leicester City and Swansea City before the loss to the FA Cup holders.
That Hull fielded the same side in the opening weeks was, of course, down to necessity with Phelan having just 11 fit senior outfield players available for the first two of those games.
But Phelan is big on loyalty, as he showed when starting his career at Turf Moor as a teenager.
After making his debut in January, 1981, Phelan’s second season ended with a Third Division championship medal.
Burnley, however, were relegated 12 months later and by 1985 had dropped into the basement division for the first time in the club’s history. Many of the big money signings brought in during what proved to be the ruinous reign of John Bond were long gone by the time of that second demotion, but Phelan stuck around until the finances were so tight that the £60,000 fee that took him to Norwich City helped keep the Clarets afloat.
“I grew up supporting Burnley on the terraces,” says the Nelson-born former midfielder, who still lives in the area.
“I went there as a kid at 14 and trained with what were then the apprentices. For a local boy to break through was quite an achievement.
“Being at Burnley taught me a lot about being a footballer. Like most clubs, Burnley have changed over time, but it has also kept its traditions really well.
“It is a club that serves the local community really well. There are issues over in that area, but the football club is proud.”
One of the 168 league appearances Phelan made for the Lancashire club came in a fixture that has gone down in Hull folklore for all the wrong reasons.
Hull, needing to win by three goals at Turf Moor in the final fixture of the 1983-84 season to clinch promotion from Division Three, went ahead early on through Brian Marwood.
He added a second midway through the second half, but, despite throwing everything at the home defence, the Tigers came up short and Sheffield United went up in their place by the slimmest of margins. Never has a 2-0 win felt more hollow.
The 3,000 Hull fans at Turf Moor may never be able to banish the memory, but Phelan, judging by his non-plussed reaction to a question about his own take on that summer’s night of 32 years ago, has managed to do just that.
He does, though, admit that Hull’s record at Burnley needs improving in a meeting that could pit Will Keane against his brother – and Burnley defender – Michael.
“Will’s record is pretty good against his brother,” said the Hull chief before adding with a smile: “Or that’s what he keeps reminding me, at least.”
Hull may have left it late to enter the summer transfer market, but Phelan believes the capture of Keane, Marshall, James Weir, Dieumerci Mbokani, Markus Henriksen and £13m record signing Ryan Mason will stand the club in good stead.
“We have brought in a bit of youth and brought in players who really want to be here,” he said. “They want to perform and want their careers to be kick-started and be successful.
“We are not deluded about what we have to do. We have to stay in the Premier League. We have worked hard to get here and the challenge now is to keep going forward.”