KEVIN STEWART, having been asked to mark Hull City’s season out of 10, takes his time before delivering a verdict that is as honest as it is telling.
“I would have to say ‘three’,” says the £4m summer arrival from Liverpool. “It has to be low. We expected to be higher (in the table).”
Such honesty is refreshing. The Tigers head into their final assignment of 2017 sitting 19th in the Championship, just four points above the relegation zone.
Even allowing for the upheaval of last summer that saw Leonid Slutsky’s appointment followed by a near total overhaul of the squad, Hull were not expected to struggle to this extent in the Championship.
Nor, it should be said, were Middlesbrough and Sunderland, the other two relegated clubs who, like Hull, changed their manager before the second half of this season had got under way.
“It can be a mental thing,” says Stewart when asked why all three relegated clubs have failed to make the desired impact now back in the Championship.
Some clubs come down and are expected to go straight back up. But many don’t. Villa didn’t go straight back up (last season), and clubs do find it hard after they come down.Kevin Stewart
“You are low on confidence when losing every week. As a group, you feel, ‘Here we go again’. For us, that meant conceding in the last few minutes. We got to (the end of) games and were thinking, ‘This could happen’.
“Now, though, we have that clean sheet (against Derby in the Boxing Day goalless draw) and that is a good thing for us. It shows we can prevent it happening.
“Some clubs come down and are expected to go straight back up. But many don’t. Villa didn’t go straight back up (last season), and clubs do find it hard after they come down. They lose a manager and a lot of players. It is like starting from scratch.”
With the Championship season now past the midway point, Hull’s points tally may be meagre, but they remain the great entertainers.
Thirty-seven goals have been scored by the Tigers this term in 24 matches, while the opposition have managed to find Allan McGregor’s net 41 times.
Only Nottingham Forest of their second term peers come even close to those 78 goals, though it seems things are starting to change under Nigel Adkins.
Certainly, the Hull defence has tightened up markedly with the last three outings – all against teams currently residing in the top six – having seen just two goals conceded.
One of those came via a calamitous mistake from McGregor, too, and there can be little doubt that Adkins has brought a semblance of order to the defensive chaos that characterised much of Slutsky’s reign.
The flipside, however, is that Hull have not scored in three outings. True, chances were created and spurned against Cardiff City, Leeds United and Derby County.
But if Hull are to plot a path to safety in the new year then Adkins has to get his side firing again.
“The manager is positive and it feels like he has come in knowing we are talented group,” adds Stewart, whose season has been disrupted by injury. “
He hasn’t come in and thought, ‘We haven’t got the players’. We have gone back to basics, focused on the right things and been really positive.
”Maybe the way he does things has been the biggest change, a lot more suited to us. He is more relatable to the group and people are taking on board what he says.”
Stewart’s first start under Adkins came in the Boxing Day draw with Derby, having played for an hour at Elland Road a few days earlier. He linked up well with Seb Larsson both times and his wish for 2018 is a run in the team.
“It can be difficult (when in and out of the team),” continues the 24-year-old. “Moreso before, when I came back into an out-of-form team. It has been easier for me to gel with the boys the way the team has been playing.
“It is a shame we didn’t start like we are playing now a bit earlier. If we had, we could be in a very different position (in the league).
“We will keep getting better and start turning those draws into wins – and the ones where we lost in the last minute will be turned into draws.”
There is no better time for Hull to rediscover their scoring touch than today at home to Fulham, as victory will be an ideal way to sign off what has been a tough 2017.
“We have to build on the Derby game,” says Stewart. “Playing against a good team like them and getting a draw, people who didn’t watch the game might have thought we held on.
“But it wasn’t like that. We outplayed them and deserved to have won. It is good for us that we showed we can compete against the top teams.”