Keeping the faith and aiming to end year on a high

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ELDIN JAKUPOVIC will be glad to see the back of 2012.

As someone who will end the year as Hull City’s first-choice goalkeeper, such a sentiment may seem strange but, as the 27-year-old readily admits, the journey to today’s derby encounter with Leeds United has been a tortuous one.

First, Bosnian-born Jakupovic had to endure the financial problems that befell Greek side Aris Thessaloniki. Then, after being released amid a brutal austerity package designed to save the ailing club, he came to England in the hope of winning a contract.

A trial with the Tigers followed and when Nick Barmby gave the thumbs-up towards the end of last season, his luck seemed to have improved.

All that changed, however, when Barmby was unexpectedly sacked days after the end of last season to leave Jakupovic’s future once more in limbo.

Frantic calls were then made to try to drum up interest elsewhere in England.

Ipswich Town were keen but then the Tigers came back in to offer a two-year deal that was gratefully accepted.

Again, Jakupovic’s frustration seemed to be at an end only for him quickly to be relegated to the club’s second-choice goalkeeper behind, first, Ben Amos and then David Stockdale.

Weaker characters might have given up on ever making it at Hull but Jakupovic, who along with his family fled Bosnia at the age of four to escape the rising troubles in the former Yugoslavia, was made of sterner stuff. That patience was rewarded just before Christmas when Stockdale’s recall by Fulham finally brought his Tigers debut in the 2-1 win at Derby County that nudged Bruce’s side up to second in the Championship.

A first clean sheet followed in the goalless draw with Leicester City to ensure Jakupovic and Hull will host Leeds United in the final game of 2012 still occupying an automatic promotion place. It represents a welcome turnaround for the goalkeeper but, even so, he cannot wait to hear the chimes of Big Ben signal an end to 2012.

“For me, 2012 hasn’t been a great year,” admits Jakupovic, whose two years in Greece also saw him play for Olympiakos Valou, a team who were relegated to amateur football after a match-fixing scandal. “It was very difficult in Greece. Everything was tough, not just the football but life as well.

“Then I came here and the first three or four months were not so easy. To not be playing was very difficult, especially as it was a new country to live in. But my chance is now here so I want to prove myself.”

Jakupovic, who is a Switzerland international after moving to the country from his Bosnian homeland, has certainly made an encouraging start with four points from his first two games.

A stellar performance against Leeds United would surely boost his hopes of holding on to the goalkeeper’s jersey in the New Year, when Bruce is expected to try to bring Stockdale north again from Fulham.

“I am really looking forward to the Leeds game,” says the Tigers goalkeeper, who also counts Lokomotiv Moscow and Grasshoppers of Zurich among his former clubs. “It is a local derby, and I know what they are like from my time in Greece. There was a fire once and we had to wait on the field.

“In Russia, they were also special but I do believe derby games are harder here. They are more physical and you have to be ready for 95 minutes in English derby games and not just 90.

“We know it will be hard against Leeds but if we play like we did in the first half against Leicester then everything will be good.”

Today’s derby will be United’s fifth visit to the KC Stadium and the two teams boast an identical record with one win apiece, two draws and a goals aggregate of 4-4.

For Jakupovic, the visit of Leeds is a chance to end what has been a largely miserable 12 months on a high.

He said: “My time in England has been very difficult, especially the last couple of months. But the manager was talking to me and saying to keep going in training. He said I had to be ready for my chance. And when it did come, he said I had to take it.

“The goalkeeping coach was the same. He (Gary Walsh) has been very good and helped me a lot, even though at times it has been difficult to stay patient.

“My chance finally came against Derby and I felt to be ready. I had seen (from the bench) that the game in England is faster and more physical than I have been used to.

“Maybe that was a problem in the beginning. I know a lot of players who have played in Russia and now come here to England, at Chelsea and a few other clubs.

“At the beginning, they didn’t play but now Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic is one of their main performers.

“Now I have played two games and feel good. I am looking to my third one against Leeds. I need to again prove what I can do.

“Derby was my first game and we won, so that was okay. Against Leicester (on Boxing Day), before the game we spoke about needing to take the three points and we took only one. So, that was disappointing.

“But we should be happy with a point because both teams played good, fast football. Both had a lot of chances to score.

“The conditions were difficult in the second half. The weather had been nice at the start of the Leicester game but then it changed. This is football but it wasn’t easy for goalkeepers.

“It was also difficult for the rest of the team, as it wasn’t as easy to pass the ball. But the good thing was that although we couldn’t win, we didn’t lose. A draw was a fair result.”

Victory in today’s lunchtime kick-off will represent not only a good end to the year for Jakupovic but also Hull as a club due to it meaning Bruce’s men would go into 2013 at least a point clear of the field in second place.

Such a lofty position has already led to supporters dreaming this may be the season when Hull win a return to the Premier League.

However, Jakupovic insists: “We are now second in the league but I still think it is too early to think about where we are. There is so much football still to play.

“We just need to focus on winning one at a time, though what I do believe is we have the team to make something big here.”