THERE are daunting starts to a season and then there is Hull City’s return to the Premier League.
As if kicking off 2016-17 with a match against the champions was not tough enough, the Tigers’ next half-dozen outings will bring encounters against four sides with hopes of not only achieving Champions League qualification but also lifting the title plus a visit to the Yorkshire club’s bogey ground of Turf Moor.
If Steve Bruce, who continues to mull over his future at the KC Stadium amid the ongoing uncertainty surrounding a possible takeover, did not appreciate just how tough life will be back among the elite before then he certainly does now.
Meetings with Leicester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea at the KC Stadium before the second international break of the campaign in October plus trips to Liverpool, Swansea City and Burnley (where City have lost on 10 of their last 12 visits) mean they will be up against it from the very start.
In contrast, Middlesbrough –back in the Premier League following a seven-year absence – have, on paper, a chance to acclimatise to their new surrounds thanks to a kinder start.
First up are Stoke City at the Riverside, followed by trips to Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion and Everton. Crystal Palace are also due on Teesside during the opening month.
Even allowing for meetings with Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United on September 24 and October 1, Boro’s schedule in those first seven weeks offers a decent opportunity to garner early points and lay down a marker in the quest to stay clear of trouble.
Tigers fans can be forgiven for casting envious glances up the A19 at such a gentle return. Based on the final league table of 2015-16, City’s own start is the toughest of all top flight clubs.
The Yorkshire Post has ranked all 20 teams by where they finished last term, with Burnley, as champions of the second tier, 18th, Middlesbrough 19th and play-off winners Hull 20th.
Adding up those rankings and dividing by seven to represent the number of games each team will have played by the season’s second international break provided an average position for each clubs’ opponents.
Hull, with an average ranking of 8.00 due to facing Leicester (1st) and Arsenal (2nd) in the early weeks, top the table, just ahead of Southampton (8.14) and Watford (9.14). Middlesbrough’s own start is ranked the 12th toughest, while West Brom (13.42) have potentially the easiest along with Everton (13.28). The highest-placed team from 2015-16 that the Baggies will face in the opening weeks is seventh-placed West Ham, while Ronald Koeman’s men will face five clubs who finished 14th and below last term.
City’s other daunting run comes in January and February when consecutive trips to Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, the Emirates and the KP Stadium will test the squad to the full.
The festive season is always a big highlight of any campaign and both Yorkshire clubs have potential crackers to enjoy in the final week of the year. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are due at the KC on Boxing Day, followed five days later by Ronald Koeman’s Everton.
Boro are on the road, heading to Burnley’s Turf Moor on December 26 and then Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve. Aitor Karanka’s men, of course, claimed a famous victory at the home of the Red Devils last season and the match will pit the Spaniard against good friend – and former Real Madrid colleague – Jose Mourinho. The Teessiders then round off the holiday season at home to champions Leicester.
The Premier League’s first all-Yorkshire encounters in seven years will see Boro host City on Saturday, December 3 and then travel to the KC on Tuesday, April 4, one of just three scheduled midweek league fixtures for the duo before the many changes for live TV broadcast kick in.
Other highlights for the county’s travelling fans in next term’s Premier League will be a first visit to the Olympic Stadium, West Ham’s new home. Boro head to Stratford on October 1, and Hull will do the same on December 17.
The flipside to the respective starts to the season for Yorkshire’s top-flight duo is the run-in. Boro have it tough, with Arsenal and Manchester City due at the Riverside in the final five weeks and Karanka’s men also facing trips to Chelsea and Liverpool. Anfield is a ground Boro have not won at in 26 appearances, a run that stretches back to March, 1976.
Hull’s final half-dozen games, meanwhile, include trips to Stoke and Crystal Palace plus home matches against Watford and Sunderland.