West Ham v Hull City: Omens of perilous position have not escaped Mike Phelan’s attention

Hull City manager Mike Phelan (Picture: Tony Johnson).
Hull City manager Mike Phelan (Picture: Tony Johnson).
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FOR so long, talk of The Great Escape approaching Christmas time would revolve solely around when the classic film was due to get its latest festive airing.

This tale of bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds became as integral a part of the holiday season as mince pies and turkey so it is perhaps no wonder that actors Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson et al have become so embroiled in the nation’s conscience.

Recent years, however, have seen a different connotation emerge, namely, whether the side sitting rock bottom of the Premier League at Christmas can go on to pull off their own ‘great escape’ from relegation.

Only three clubs have managed the feat in 24 years, which is why 20th place is where no one wants to be when Santa and his sleigh take to the sky in a week.

Hull City certainly do not. This, though, is the very real possibility facing the Tigers going into the final round of top-flight games before Christmas Day.

If bottom club Sunderland better Hull’s result today at West Ham United and Swansea City at least match it then history will be firmly against Mike Phelan’s men in the battle to stay up.

Not that the 49-year-old Lancastrian is allowing any negativity into his thoughts ahead of today’s first visit to the London Stadium. He, instead, wants to focus on the huge shot in the arm victory over the Hammers would provide heading into the busy festive season.

“We have harnessed everything we possibly can with this group,” said the Tigers’ head coach when asked about the club’s prospects of survival. “We have known from day one about the challenge it is going to be for us to stay in the Premier League.

“Results haven’t gone our way at times, but we have still got a fabulous opportunity because no one has really pulled out of that area down at the bottom.

“That might happen over Christmas because wonderful results happen during that period. We are coming up to a window of opportunity and if we take it we have got a great chance.

“If we don’t, then it will be a case of galvanising the troops again and going for the run-in.”

The tough task that will be facing either Hull, Sunderland or Swansea is vividly illustrated by 15 of their predecessors in bottom place at Christmas having gone on to finish in the same position.

Another four had risen to 19th by season’s end, while two more went down as the third bottom club. Only West Brom (2004-05), Sunderland (2013-14) and Leicester City (2014-15) have pulled off the ‘great escape’, meaning Hull today really do need to end their current six-game losing streak on the road.

Phelan will be lifted by the availability of Dieumerci Mbokani after suspension, as he was by Hull’s attacking efforts in the midweek loss at Tottenham Hotspur.

“I feel as though we are improving,” said the Hull chief, whose side’s FA Cup third-round tie against Swansea City could be played out to the backdrop of empty seats after Hull City Supporters’ Trust called for a boycott in protest at the club’s owners.

“I feel disappointed that we haven’t gained more points. We have given goals away when we shouldn’t have and we should have scored more. All in all, we are where we are because we haven’t done enough of those things correctly.

“The players know we haven’t won as many as we want. There have been times when we should have done better and we’ve taken our punishment when we haven’t played so well.

“Because it is so tight between the clubs from halfway down to the bottom, we are still in there with a survival chance. We take that as a plus, we have still got an opportunity.”

Phelan has a number of questions to ponder. Does he stick with the 3-5-2 formation that has brought plenty of attacking threat in the last two games but also seen six goals conceded? Should Mbokani come straight back into the side? And, how best do Hull add to West Ham’s woes in their new home?

“We have options in the forward line and on the bench,” he added. “Most Premier League teams can make hugely strong substitutions. We have introduced youth, but at times you need experience.

“It gives you options to change things and it gives you freshness when you need it. The experience is also invaluable during certain points of a game.”

As for visiting a stadium that hosted the 2012 Olympics before an extensive refit allowed West Ham to move in last summer, Phelan added: “I have not been before and am looking forward to it.

“Everyone talks about it very highly and, hopefully, we can go there and have some fond memories.”

West Ham have won just three leagues games in their new home and supporters have found it hard to settle.

Despite that, Phelan added: “Just because they have shifted stadiums, I don’t think those issues are something we should think about too much.

“It is a football match on a football pitch with a very passionate crowd and a game that is there for two teams to be competitive.

“You can got to any football ground now and because of expectations, whether it is the top or the bottom, supporters can create an atmosphere. It can be for you, it can be against you.

“I don’t buy into the idea of doing things differently because you are away from home. There is no reason why we can’t be competitive there if we prepare right.”

Hull need to back up their manager’s words today, as the stakes are high.

Lose today in East London as results go against them elsewhere and what should be a time for peace on earth will be in danger of more resembling hell on earth for Hull thanks to history suggesting plotting a route out of relegation trouble will be every bit as arduous as staying out of Gestapo hands proved for McQueen and his pals in the classic film.