‘We’re all going on a European tour’ has been regularly sung by excited Tigers supporters since qualification for next season’s Europa League was assured. Richard Sutcliffe reports.
THE Europa League may be considered as very much the poor cousin to the Champions League thanks to a bloated format that condemns teams to what seems like an interminable number of games through autumn and winter.
But try telling that to Hull City as the East Riding club prepares for its first tilt at European competition thanks to the run to the FA Cup final.
Win tomorrow and the Tigers will go straight through to the group stage. Lose and two qualifying rounds will have to be negotiated.
Either way, it promises to be a time to savour for a club whose only previous foray into Europe was three games in the 1973 Anglo-Italian Cup.
Captain Curtis Davies, a veteran of the continent’s second competition with Aston Villa and Birmingham City, knows what to expect and he believes the experience will be something that no-one at the KC Stadium will ever forget.
“I look back on Birmingham’s time in the Europa League most fondly,” said the 29-year-old, who was part of the Blues side that competed in the 2011-12 group stage after Arsenal had been beaten in the previous season’s League Cup final.
“I didn’t play at Wembley (due to being Cup-tied) but it was a great day for the club and I was pleased for everyone,” Davies recalls. “From a personal point of view, I was probably happiest because it meant we played in Europe.
“It turned out being really enjoyable. When I was at Villa, we’d played in Europe but everything was surrounded in expectation. Villa had to get past the group stages and then do well in the knock-outs.
“They had the trophies in the cabinet to think like that. Anything but a quarter-final was a disappointment in the fans’ eyes.
“At Birmingham, though, things were different. It was more of an adventure. A lot of people expected us to get blown away as a Championship team.
“But after drawing 0-0 against Nacional (in the first leg of the qualifying round) and then beating them 3-0 at home, we thought, ‘We are not too bad in this competition’. Nacional had finished fourth in Portugal but we had blown them away.”
That victory put Birmingham through to the group stages, where they were placed in Group H with Belgian side Bruges, Maribor of Slovenian and Portuguese outfit Braga.
Even though the Blues had been relegated since lifting the League Cup, meaning they had to juggle the demands of Thursday night competition in Europe with a 46-game Championship season, Davies and his team-mates relished the challenge.
“There were some good days away for the fans,” he says. “Or so they told us, anyway. But we enjoyed it from a football point of view.
“People would say it must be a distraction but it wasn’t. It was exciting. We used the squad. Most clubs wouldn’t rest people for the European games but we did.
“We would have got through to the knockout stage with just one more point (Braga and Club Bruges qualified for the knockout phase). Next season, we have to treat it more like Birmingham did than Villa. Even though Hull would have eight less league games.
“This might sound silly but I think if we approach Europe like we are going to be serious candidates to win it, that could play havoc with our league form.
“The draw is important, too, as the travelling can take it out of you. If you draw teams from Belgium or France or wherever, that isn’t too bad.
“But if you go to Greece or Ukraine or Russia, that means coming back in the early hours. With the time difference, getting the lads ready for the Sunday would not be easy.
“We had Maribor, Bruges and Braga. They were all decent trips for the fans and, most importantly, they were close for the players.
“But when I was at Villa I went to Moscow and that is a hell of a journey. If you go to those places, the time difference makes it hard on its own even without the travelling.
“Getting training into you is not easy in weeks like that. That is why we might have to prioritise the league. That said, it is down to the manager to decide what to do and how we approach it.”
Davies may have enjoyed his European experience with Birmingham but the collapse of the Midlands club since lifting the League Cup a little over three years ago is surely a cautionary tale.
To go from beating Arsenal at Wembley under Alex McLeish to within one minute of being relegated to League One, as the Blues were earlier this month, is a spectacular fall from grace in such a short space of time.
Davies left St Andrews in the summer of 2013 after Steve Bruce bid £2.25m for a defender who has enjoyed such a fantastic first season at the KC that he recently swept the board as the ‘Player of the Year’ awards night.
He is, therefore, surely the perfect man to assess whether there is anything Hull can learn from what happened at his old club.
“You definitely can’t take anything for granted,” he said.
“But the management team here is far superior. With the management team at Birmingham, I think winning the League Cup played on their minds too much.
“In my opinion, the manager always tried to get back to that Cup final team. His mind told him that those players beat Arsenal in the Cup final so it must be the best team he had.
“Psychologically, that was how he was. And I thought that was detrimental to the team. He was playing people injured just because they won the Cup and that ended up costing Birmingham.
“This manager is not like that. He knows that if someone needs resting, he will do. Tom got rested for a big game earlier this season.
“Same goes if someone needs pulling out for a game, our manager is bold enough to do that.”