THE Premier League has never seen anything quite like it. Nor has Tom Huddlestone.
Today, Hull City will return to the top table of English football with just 13 fit senior players, no new signings and a caretaker manager whose future beyond 3pm is unclear.
No wonder Huddlestone’s friends and neighbours have not been able to resist making a few light-hearted jibes during the past week. “A lot of people have been asking if they can bring their boots and get a game,” laughed the Tigers midfielder. “There might be a few people bringing their boots against Leicester.”
Never has the phrase ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ been more fitting for a football club going into a new top flight season. Hull, after a summer that saw arguably the most successful manager in their history walk out and crippling uncertainty surrounding possible takeovers dog the club’s every turn, are in a mess.
Every senior outfield player bar Shaun Maloney is likely to start this lunchtime’s game against champions Leicester City, many of which will have to play out of position just to ensure Mike Phelan can get a team out with a semblance of a workable formation.
The bench, meanwhile, will be filled by Maloney, a third-choice goalkeeper in Dusan Kuciak, who is yet to play in England, and five youngsters with a combined total of zero league appearances.
Huddlestone admits the lack of new faces is “surprising” but insists the players on duty against the Foxes possess a strong bond.
“I live in the area and the mood is different to what it should be for a newly-promoted club,” added the 29-year-old. “But that is understandable.
“When you lose a manager, it is usually when you are in a bad situation, when you have lost five or six on the spin.
“We are on the back of a play-off final win and a relatively good season, but we have still lost a manager. It is a strange situation to be in, but we have just got to knuckle down and do our job regardless of what is happening behind the scenes.
“There has been one main positive to have come out of what is happening. The lads, the ones that are left, have probably got a little bit closer. We are willing to die for each other at the minute and, hopefully, we can take that into the season.”
This esprit de corps among the players who will today look to nullify Jamie Vardy et al was never better illustrated than during the club’s recent tour of Austria.
The mood back home among supporters may have been mutinous – protests are planned by supporters at today’s match – but the squad made clear that Hull’s travails had not dented spirits when Curtis Davies tweeted a photo of nine players under the tagline ‘Hull City Squad – 2016-17’. Reminded about the image, Huddlestone’s face breaks out into a smile.
“It wasn’t pre-planned,” said the midfielder ahead of his 11th season in the Premier League. “We went up the same mountain the previous year and I don’t think anyone took a picture.
“This year, the lads thought we would get someone to take a picture. There was obviously a few more players back at the hotel so it was a light-hearted joke.
“Curtis’s caption probably took most of the headlines but a few of us tweeted the same picture. At the time, we had just lost a few players so it was backs against the wall.”
Hull head into the season as the only top-flight club still to make a signing. Considering the impressive levels of recruitment by major rivals such as Middlesbrough, does Huddlestone feel let down by the inertia in the transfer market?
“I wouldn’t say we feel let down but we do know that we need strengthening,” he replied. “A couple of years ago we probably had too many players going into the season, but this year is the total opposite.
“As a newly promoted team, we know we are going to need reinforcements regardless. But we have also lost three or four players to long-terms injuries, players that would have been in the starting XI if they were fit.
“We definitely need the reinforcements as soon as possible. It is surprising, to be fair. You see the likes of Middlesbrough having a right go. They are signing four or five international players who have done it at the top level for years.
“Any team, in each window, needs one or two reinforcements, especially when you are down to the bare bones like ourselves.”
Phelan, put in temporary charge following Steve Bruce’s exit, deserves immense credit for engendering such a strong bond between the players during this difficult time. Beyond today’s game, however, the 53-year-old’s future remains uncertain and Huddlestone is adamant that the club needs more clarity.
“I think he has done well,” added the midfielder. “He has got a few new ideas that the lads have adapted to and if he is to get the job, it is just a shame that he wasn’t given it straight away.
“The players and staff just want clarity. Whatever route the chairman wants to go down, we want it decided as soon as possible. We need that clarity to move forward as a club and a squad of players.”
As for today and the challenge of stopping a team that finished 10 points clear last season, Huddlestone added: “We have got a decent starting XI, but below that it’s untried players. It will be difficult if substitutes are needed.
“The lads have done a bit of team shape (work) this week and we feel quietly confident going into the game.
“The spirit is good. There has been unrest above our heads, but from a playing point of view we’ve stuck to our jobs well.
“We feel like we can stay up. We feel as though we need four or five reinforcements, but with the starting XI we have got, we feel like we can give anyone a game.”