Hull City 2 Preston 0: Black clouds banished providing Tigers can hold on to their stars

IN stark contrast to the mood of the red and white hordes trudging dejectedly away from Wembley in the wake of Hull Kingston Rovers’ record Challenge Cup final loss, smiles abounded back in the East Riding.

Hull City's Michael Dawson
Hull City's Michael Dawson

Many belonged to gloating fans of Hull FC, some of whom had draped banners on a couple of bridges over the A63 in the early hours of Saturday proclaiming their support for Leeds Rhinos.

It was not, though, just the keenest rivalry in rugby league that had put a spring in the step of sports fans on the banks of the Humber with the city’s football devotees also having plenty to be pleased about come 5pm on Saturday.

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A steady, if unspectacular, victory over Preston North End meant the Tigers would end the season’s opening month occupying an automatic promotion slot in the fledgling Championship table.

Clearly, the campaign is still in its infancy and too much should not be read into just five games. As if to underline that point, 12 months ago a Nottingham Forest side destined to finish 14th were leading the way with a 13-point haul that included an away win at eventual champions Bournemouth.

But there is an undoubted sense of satisfaction at the way City have responded to the psychological hammer blow that was last May’s relegation from the Premier League.

“The vital thing this season was to get rid of the doom and gloom,” said manager Steve Bruce. “We have begun to do that with the start we have had.

“I believe the supporters can see we have brought in some good young players. We all know it is a long way back (to the Premier League) but we are up there.

“This is a difficult league, as we have known for years. So having a good start was vital. We have rolled our sleeves up and, against Preston, we looked a genuine, honest team. Preston did well but I felt we always had a bit more to offer.”

The black cloud hanging over Hull’s encouraging start is, of course, what happens between now and tomorrow’s 6pm transfer deadline.

Nikica Jelavic, the subject of unsuccessful bids from West Ham United and one unnamed foreign club, is one big name whom Bruce expects to leave even though neither weekend offer “came close” to triggering the Croat’s buy-out clause.

But the striker, left out against Preston, is far from the only Tiger being coveted right now with Ahmed Elmohamady, Abel Hernandez, Tom Huddlestone and, perhaps most worryingly of all, captain Michael Dawson, all linked with possible moves in recent days.

If – and Bruce admits that it is a big ‘if’ with more than 24 hours still to go – the Tigers only lose Jelavic then they will surely be in a strong position to mount a challenge.

Lose two or three more, however, and the Hull chief is the first to admit he will not have much time to bring in any replacements.

“Everything could change very quickly,” admitted Bruce, who confirmed City have made a bid for Legia Warsaw goalkeeper Dusan Kuciak.

“So, overall planning – which a manager wants to have in mind – has always been clouded by, firstly, have I got the money to replace these people and, secondly, are they going to go for their valuation?”

Against Preston, Hull were functional rather than free-flowing. After Simon Grayson’s men had started the stronger of the two sides and Allan McGregor had saved smartly from Chris Humphrey, Bruce decided to re-jig his side into a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sam Clucas moving from the left flank to a central role.

The switch worked a treat, as the increased numbers in midfield helped negate North End and provide the impetus for the hosts to take charge.

Mohamed Diame was, until running out of steam after the break, instrumental in City’s dominance with some delightful touches and a turn so sharp that John Welsh was left so confused he did not realise where the Senegal international had gone for a couple of moments.

Clucas and David Meyler also used the ball well so perhaps the only surprising element of the opening goal was that, from a Hull perspective, it was quite fortunate.

Certainly, Hernandez knew little about how Neil Kilkenny’s attempted clearance cannoned off his chest and into the net after Clucas’s corner had caused confusion in the Preston six-yard box.

Hernandez should have added a second just before the interval only for the £10m club record signing to somehow fire straight at prone goalkeeper Jordan Pickford when it seemed easier to score.

For a time early in the second half, this woeful miss promised to be costly before City nerves were calmed by Curtis Davies’s first goal since putting the Yorkshire club 2-0 ahead in last year’s FA Cup final.

It was a cracker, too, with the Tigers defender volleying an unstoppable shot past Pickford after losing his marker at Clucas’s corner. For Hull, second place going into the international break was assured and the hope of greater things to come.

“There is way more to come from us,” said Moses Odubajo, a £3.5m summer arrival from Brentford. “Everything is a bit hectic right now because of the transfer window.

“It (speculation) can affect players. Sometimes, when players are hearing things, subconsciously it gets to you. It is always there in the back of their minds.

“Some of the lads here might know there are big clubs looking at them and if they are close to going then it will affect their performances.

“But, once the closes and we know who is going to be here, you will see us knuckle down and gel more as a group. We will crack on from there.”