Hull City must get out of the blocks fast in Championship survival bid

IF the coronavirus lockdown brought a bit of footballing respite for relegation-threatened Hull City, there will be no easing back into the final nine matches of the season.

On way back: Hull City's Jordy de Wijs. Picture: PA
On way back: Hull City's Jordy de Wijs. Picture: PA

Players whose campaigns had largely been written off when the Tigers were stuck in a downward spiral in early March have been given another opportunity and Grant McCann will need them.

With such a short lead-in, it is unrealistic to expect any Championship footballer to be firing on all cylinders on June 20, but Hull cannot afford to be bested by Charlton Athletic that afternoon.

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They might have had home advantage – which even when fans were allowed into the KCOM Stadium did not seem to help City as much as it ought to – but when the Addicks were due to come to East Yorkshire on March 14, it was as favourites to take the three points.

Goal threat: Hull City's Josh Magennis. Picture: PA

Lee Bowyer’s men may have just dropped into the relegation zone, but they knew victory would bring them straight back out at Hull’s expense. This was a City side reeling from a 5-1 defeat at Stoke City which had embarrassed travelling fans telling them they were not fit to win the shirt. The Tigers’ last league win was at Hillsborough on New Year’s Day, when Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki were both in black-and-amber. That really does feel an eternity ago.

Now the importance of staying out of the relegation zone on any given weekend is far greater than we thought then. We all desperately hope not, but what is left of this bizarre season could become a game of musical chairs. If a second Covid-19 spike causes the season to come to a premature and this time surely permanent stop, we now know it is the Football League’s wish for the teams in the bottom three on points per game to be relegated.

Challenging for the play-offs at the turn of the year, Hull have not been in the bottom three all season. June 20 would be an awful time to start, particularly when their next home game will be on July 2 against Middlesbrough, currently above them on goal difference.

The match after that is at West Bromwich Albion (July 5), chasing Leeds United down for the title.

Hull City manager Grant McCann: Praised. Picture: PA

Assuming we are able to get the nine games played, a good start will be important for the morale and momentum that counts for so much in relegation battles. Someone is bound to come on strong and Hull need to be able to keep them at arm’s length.

If the start is tough, the finish is no stroll in the park for McCann’s men either. Wigan Athletic host Hull’s penultimate away game on July 14, with Luton Town 2019-20’s final visitors to the KCOM four days later. The Latics have got used – a little too used – to high-pressure season finales as they yo-yo between the Championship and League One, as Rotherham United are doing again.

Luton have a change of manager in Nathan Jones, which in normal times has a habit of giving beleaguered sides a lift. Remember normal times?

Hull have reasons to be cheerful, too, and it is important they not only remember them, but capitalise.

In March, it looked a tall order for many if any out of influential centre-backs Jordy de Wijs and Reece Burke, captain Eric Lichaj, loanees Herbie Kane and Josh Bowler and Jon Toral to play again this season. The unfortunate James Scott’s debut looked like almost certain to be delayed until 2020-21.

While Hull’s team will be much stronger, Charlton will be without the talismanic Lyle Taylor, plus Chris Solly and David Davis.

Quite apart from doing without Taylor’s goals, the damage to morale of the Addicks’ top-scorer saying he would rather duck out of a relegation battle, not through fear of infection but because he worries it might harm his chances of a transfer elsewhere, may be huge.

Negative thoughts are also a danger at Hull, where the board’s objections to playing again became public knowledge.

In an interview with The Yorkshire Post early in the lockdown, a leading mental performance consultant was full of praise for the way McCann was looking after his squad, and the Northern Irishman needs to have them flying out the traps, desperate to play again, not fearful of what could happen either in a footballing or health sense if they do.

With human beings, it is easier said than done.

The lockdown has gone on for too long to be beneficial to any footballer, but the Tigers must embrace it as a chance to reset, and get back to being the players they were when they had the reassurance of Bowen’s and Grosicki’s goals around them.

Eaves and Josh Magennis must show they can make up the shortfall in goals. Loanees Mallik Wilks, one of the few Tigers in good form before lockdown, and Marcus Maddison have points to prove. Gerhard Struber, coach of Wilks’s parent club Barnsley, has made it plain he has no future at Oakwell.

With his Peterborough United contract in its final days, Maddison will soon be an unemployed footballer, and needs to show he can apply his talent consistently at Championship level.

Midfielder Leonardo da Silva Lopes and goalkeeper George Long’s seasons have been too good to end in relegation.

Burke and George Honeyman will remember how much relegation to League One hurts, and not want to be put through that again.

Even with 20 per cent of the season left to play, Hull have no time to waste.

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