IN a town that is home to one of Europe’s biggest car plants, Hull City stalled in their quest to motor into the Europa League play-off round.
The Tigers had been expected to slip through the gears with ease against FK AS Trencin, last season’s runners-up in the Slovakian League, and make next week’s return leg in Yorkshire virtually obsolete.
But, instead, Hull laboured to the extent that it was almost possible to believe they were playing with the handbrake on.
Last night’s game – played in Zilina, Slovakia’s third largest city and home to Kia Motors’ European base – was just about shaded by the Premier League side who can, at least, look back on a second-half penalty miss by Tom Huddlestone that the one-time record signing then compounded by firing the rebound against the top of the crossbar.
This could prove costly next Thursday should Trencin, who visibly grew in confidence the longer the first leg went on, snatch an all-important away goal and pile the pressure on the Premier League outfit.
Certainly, manager Steve Bruce is taking little for granted.
He said: “I was always a bit worried and asked myself several times, ‘Are we undercooked?’ It can be a big ask, especially with us only having been back at work for two weeks.
“The Slovakian season is under way and you could see by their fitness levels they were sharper than we were and that was to be expected.
“Overall, we will be better next week.”
Hull may have been newcomers on the European stage last night, but five of the starting line-up had played in either the Europa League or Champions League earlier in their careers.
That meant there were few nerves in the opening stages. Unfortunately for the noisy crowd, there was precious little invention either, with the first half quickly descending into a lacklustre affair.
Hull, with new signings Robert Snodgrass and Tom Ince left on the bench as Bruce stuck with the players who had reached the FA Cup final in May, lacked the fluidity that the locals had been expecting of a Premier League side. Maybe, though, this should not have been a surprise considering this was their first July start to a season since 1980 when the club competed in the Anglo-Scottish Cup.
Sone Aluko did bring a sprawling save from Milos Volesak that required the Trencin goalkeeper to get quickly to his feet and then drop on the ball to prevent the on-rushing Liam Rosenior from tapping in the rebound.
That apart, however, the Tigers managed just a couple of headers by David Meyler from set-pieces that flew well wide.
The hosts offered even less in an insipid opening 45 minutes, Trencin clearly lacking the confidence to take on their illustrious visitors from England.
The upshot was Allan McGregor being called into action just once, to take a simple catch from a header by centre-half Ramon just after the half-hour.
The hope for the 8,254 crowd – a commendable number considering Trencin’s average last term in their own town was under 3,000 – was that things would improve after the break as temperatures finally dipped.
That proved to be the case and, initially, it was the hosts who stepped up a gear.
First, an awful attempted pass by Alex Bruce 10 yards from his own penalty area saw possession presented to Trencin.
A couple of neat passes later and some clever footwork from Patrik Misak left the Tigers seemingly vulnerable only for Tom Huddlestone to whip the ball off the Slovak midfielder’s toe as he shaped to shoot.
Clearly buoyed by the scare he had given Hull, Misak decided to try his luck just a few minutes later with a 30-yard shot that flew just an inch or so wide of McGregor’s post.
It was a let-off and one that Hull should have capitalised on just after the hour when a clumsy foul by Ramon saw Shane Long crash to the floor inside the penalty area and referee Davide Massa point to the spot.
Huddlestone stepped up and saw his spot-kick saved by Volesak but, even then, there was a chance of redemption for the midfielder when the rebound fell kindly to him.
However, as the 600 or so visiting fans prepared to celebrate their club’s debut goal in Europe, Huddlestone could only fire against the crossbar with the goal at his mercy.
It was an incredible miss and one that would eventually cost Hull both a first leg lead and an away goal.
Hull did battle hard to make the breakthrough, with Ince unfortunate to see his firm header unwittingly blocked by Long in the six-yard box.
There was, though, to be no late redemption, meaning both teams go into the second leg with all to play for in the battle to remain on course for the group stage.
FK AS Trencin: Volesak; Cogley, Ramon, Klescik, Rundic; Lobotka; Kubik (Malec 67), Hajradinovic (Opatovsky 87), Misak (Mondek 84), Simon; Holubek. Unused substitutes: Semrinec, Skovajsa, Baris, Madu.
Hull City: McGregor; Davies, Brice, Chester; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Livermore, Meyler (Snodgrass 65), Livermore, Rosenior; Aluko (Ince 65), Long (Jelavic 86). Unused substitutes: Harper, McShane, Boyd, Sagbo.
Referee: Davide Massa (Italy).
Price of beer offers Hull City fans extra cheer: Page 22.