Bruce to work his magic despite exhausting European schedule

AS strangely life-affirming as Hull City competing in Europe just 10 years after leaving the basement division is to the football romantics among us, the potential for things to go wrong at the KC Stadium this term is hard to ignore.

Hull manager Steve Bruce.

Striking a balance between the increasing demands of the Premier League and competing in the – certainly in this country – often unloved Europa League is far from easy.

Just ask Andre Villas-Boas and Michael Laudrup, two managers who began last season looking forward to leading their respective clubs in Europe’s secondary competition only to lose their jobs long before winter had turned to Spring.

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Both men could not put their departures down solely to competing in Europe. But it definitely played a part in some below-par league performances, with neither Tottenham Hotspur nor Swansea City coping well with the often debilitating demands of a Thursday/Sunday schedule.

Spurs, for instance, lost heavily at home to West Ham (0-3) and Liverpool (0-5) three days after playing in the Europa League. Villas-Boas’s men were also beaten by Arsenal and Newcastle in the immediate aftermath of European ties and, as Tigers fans will testify, needed a hugely debatable penalty to beat Steve Bruce’s men on the final Sunday of October at White Hart Lane.

Swansea fared little better, winning just one of the six league games that followed ties in the group stage.

The worry is that something similar awaits City, who – should they see off Belgian side Lokeren over two legs later this month – are due to be away from home after five of the six group games scheduled before Christmas. It is a potentially exhausting schedule and one that Bruce is rightly wary of, even at this early stage.

That said, though, it is also worth pointing out that instances of teams being relegated from the top division in the same season as they competed in Europe are rare.

We have to go back 12 years, in fact, to a campaign that saw Ipswich Town reach the UEFA Cup third round but then finish third bottom in the league. Blackburn Rovers also went down in 1999, having been beaten in the first round by Lyon but, otherwise, teams competing in Europe have proved durable on the domestic front.

What will stand City in good stead is Bruce’s work in the transfer market and his insistence on strengthening the British core to his squad.

Jake Livermore, Robert Snodgrass and Tom Ince are all stellar signings, the sort of which any Premier League manager outside the top six or seven would be delighted to make.

Left-back Andrew Robertson is also a useful addition, last season’s PFA Player of the Year in Scotland having arrived to solve what has been a problem position for the club, while the £2m fee that brought Harry Maguire to the KC could prove money well spent.

Not overly blessed with pace, the former Sheffield United defender does have excellent awareness and, in Bruce, he now has the ideal role model to help untap his undoubted potential.

Just how much Maguire, only 21 despite more than 150 appearances to his name, features in the Premier League remains to be seen.

But the other four summer arrivals seem certain to play a big part as Hull look to build on last season’s encouraging return to the top flight.

The key was a strong start, City winning four of their opening 10 games to establish a place in mid-table that only really slipped during the run-in.

A fixture list that numbers Stoke City, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Southampton among the first five visitors to the East Riding offers an opportunity for a repeat in the opening couple of months and Bruce’s men must take advantage.

If Hull can do that, the memories of a slump in form during the second half of the season – they took just 14 points from the final 19 games – can be banished for good.

Crucial will be how Nikica Jelavic and the replacement for Southampton-bound Shane Long fare up front. On that score, Bruce has revealed his intent by targeting Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck in a £14m deal.

Even if that does not come off, such a bold move makes it clear City won’t be idle in their quest to find a proven striker and that the club won’t be resting on its laurels.

With that in mind, this correspondent confidently expects Bruce to once again work his magic this season and comfortably keep the Tigers in the top flight.

Tigers prediction: 13th.