After 105 days of footballing isolation, we hoped for an emphatic assertion that Hull City are picking up, but the answer only made you more concerned.
It was no disaster of a performance, but the Tigers could really have done with making a statement on their return. They did. A 1-0 defeat to Charlton Athletic dropped them into the Championship relegation zone for the first time this season.
They have eight games to get out and stay out. It is enough – only two goals’ difference is keeping Middlesbrough’s heads above water – but they exhibited all the frailties shown in 2020 BC – before coronavirus.
As Grant McCann stressed, Hull will definitely get better physically. The problem is, so will everyone. Hull’s mental state is the worry.
Neither side carried much threat, but switching off twice in a matter of seconds allowed the Addicks, robbed of top-scorer Lyle Taylor, to lead and it was always expecting a lot for Hull to score two.
It is no surprise they are in the vulnerable category after all the blows the Tigers have taken but when coach McCann was asked, “Are you okay, Hull?” his answer was less than convincing.
“If I didn’t have any hope I wouldn’t be sat here,” was his response but when asked if he thought his team would recover psychologically for Saturday’s trip to Birmingham City, he was less reassuring: “We’ll know when we go into the next game.
“The league is tight down there, you saw with Charlton today, they moved up four places.”
It does not matter how tight the league is if you are not picking up points, and Hull look tentative.
It is hardly surprising. Every time they get up from a punch, they get knocked down before even finding their feet.
If an open transfer window gave them the shivers in January, Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki’s departures floored them. Nobody else is capable of significant goal returns and they play like they know it.
The Covid-19 hibernation brought relief from torrid form and wiped a crippling injury list. When this game was meant to be played, on March 14, you feared a home defeat on the back of the embarrassing hammering at Stoke City could imperil McCann’s job. How and when can you make those decisions now?
Charlton seemed to emerge from lockdown with the bigger problems, Taylor, David Davis and Chris Solly opting out of playing again this season. Pah, said Hull, is that the best you can do? Four of their players did the same, and Barnsley put the brakes on Mallik Wilks extending his loan, although McCann has not given up hope they might change their mind.
It was not just any players they lost, either. Eric Lichaj was their captain, Jackson Irvin vice-captain, Wilks the most potent player since January and Marcus Maddison might be frustratingly hit and miss, but others are miss and miss.
Reece Burke’s injury delayed his return, and Leonardo Da Silva Lopes called in sick.
The quietness of the Tigers was noticeable compared to Charlton, whose goalkeeper Dillon Phillips and manager Lee Bowyer made themselves heard throughout.
The whole point of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is to be bombastic psych-up music, but Hull played their walk-on tune at a sensible volume considering the only fans in the ground were cardboard. Even walk-on was stretching it, both sides ambling on with the 26s, Tomer Hemed and Callum Elder, trailing way behind their team-mates.
The silence during Adedeji Oshilaja’s lengthy treatment was disconcerting. Hull were 1-0 down and needed geeing up, but all that seemed to be said was some instructions from McCann in Elder’s shell-like. Bowyer complained playing behind closed doors meant the opposition dugout could hear his every instruction, but McCann is the quiet, steely type. His voice rarely echoed out.
Wilks, in what will probably be the penultimate match of his loan, particularly as parent club Barnsley moved two places closer, was behind much of Hull’s best early work along with Elder but it came to nothing.
“Callum put six crosses into the box and we had one first contact,” moaned new captain Jordy de Wijs.
If Phillips only needed two decent saves, from Dan Batty and Martin Samuelsen, opposite number George Long was hardly overworked either.
He made a good tip-over when Hull overdid the social distancing on Aiden McGeady, but gave the corner a gentle slap when it needed a firm punch, and Jason Pearce stooped to head his first goal since April, 2019.
“We trained it on Friday,” said an exasperated de Wijs. “Everyone knew what they had to do.
“It’s not the way you want to start. It’s really frustrating that you don’t concede many chances and they still score and win the game.”
There was one huge positive, de Wijs’s central defensive partner Angus MacDonald not only playing for the first time in 22 months after recovering from cancer but doing so brilliantly, sliding into an excellent block to deny Hemed, then heading a dangerous cross away from him.
It was not all doom and gloom but neither are Hull showing signs of recovery.
Hull City: Long, Pennington, MacDonald, De Wijs, Elder; Batty (Lewis-Potter 73), Kane, Bowler (Scott 56); Toral (Honeyman 56), Wilks (Samuelsen 85), Eaves (Magennis 56). Unused substitutes: Tafazolli, Burke, Stewart, Ingram.
Charlton Athletic: Phillips, Matthews, Lockyer, Pearce; Oshilaja (Purrington 71), McGeady (Field 82), Pratley, Cullen; Morgan (Doughty 61), Bonne (Jonathan Williams 82); Hemed (Aneke 72). Unused substitutes: Amos, Sarr, Oztumer, Davison.
Referee: D England (South Yorkshire).
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