As goalkeeper George Long pointed out, with the margins tight in Hull City’s Championship play-offs push it will not take a huge amount to tilt the balance.
Without quite seeing it through into the FA Cup fifth round, the Tigers showed on Saturday what they are capable of with a passionate, sold-out KCOM behind them and Jarrod Bowen in their ranks. Retaining some of those fans and their talisman will be crucial to achieving this season’s top-six ambition.
Hull could not claim they deserved to go through at Chelsea’s expense, but made a team chasing Champions League qualification work right until the end for this victory.
The Blues rested eight players, but still had a World Cup winner in Pedro, Michy Batshuayi, a scorer at the last tournament and in most domestic cup matches he plays, a former Real Madrid midfielder in Mateo Kovacic, whose first-half passing was sublime, and four of Gareth Southgate’s exciting England squad in Ross Barkley, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and ex-Hull loanee Fikayo Tomori.
Hull were without eight players through illness and injury and their goalscorer Kamil Grosicki was only fit enough for the bench after fluid on the knee.
Feeding off the pumped-up crowd – Hull’s first capacity attendance since their Premier League days – the hosts started well, but once Chelsea led after six minutes, spent half an hour fighting to stop the roof caving in.
Kovacic’s brilliant pass fed Cesar Azpilicueta, whose cross Mount plucked out of the air. Reece Burke got in the way of Chelsea’s first shot at goal, and Ryan Tafazolli the second, but only deflected Batshuayi’s effort into the net for his 15th goal in 18 domestic cup games.
From there it was more down to the lack of cutting edge their manager Frank Lampard bemoaned than Hull that Chelsea did not add to their lead. This said, George Long rushed off his line to deny Barkely and Mount.
Although Long ended the half with another save to beat away Azpilicueta’s near-post shot, in the last ten minutes there were signs Hull were getting to grips with their task. Inevitably it was led by Bowen, sure to be the subject of eight-figure bids before Friday’s 11pm transfer deadline.
Coach Grant McCann has said repeatedly the Tigers do not want to sell, but not that they will not.
“If someone comes in with money that the club can’t turn down then I’ll have to think about it,” he said. Any club with a pound for every time McCann has been asked this season could probably meet the asking price.
Bowen has not scored since the day the window opened, his 17th goal this season. He has remained silent, but inevitably some have put the word out that he wants to move. Whatever the truth, there is none of the unprofessionalism that sometimes comes with a footballer wanting out.
Given that tomorrow’s Championship game against Huddersfield Town is far more important, McCann could have left Bowen on the bench as in the third-round tie at Rotherham United.
“I have seen it before where players get a sniff of bigger clubs coming in and they knock the manager’s door down,” said McCann. “Jarrod just gets on with his training every day.
“He knows that good things will happen to him, hopefully with us, but if not then good luck to him. What will be, will be.
“Jarrod loves playing for Hull. He is concentrating on his football. He has said to me on numerous occasions that he wants to stay here and have that promotion push, but, listen, I’m a realist.”
Unsurprisingly, Long is a fan too.
“His performances have stayed consistent, he scores goals most weeks so you can’t ask for much more than that,” he commented. “Any speculation around him, it is not important. His job is scoring and contributing to the team.
“I think he will be playing top-level Premier League very soon. Hopefully with us, but I don’t think you get that without consistent hard work and Jarrod puts it in day in, day out.”
Bowen led the way as Hull returned for the second half far more assertive.
It was he Kovacic fouled for the free-kick Herbie Kane curled wide, and McCann picked his 53rd-minute touch from a pass by Leonardo Da Silva Lopes – who Hull seem to have fought off interest in – as his highlight of the night.
Bowen had a shot deflected, then another over after his dribble pierced Chelsea’s centre.
After 19 minutes of not being in the half, Chelsea scored again. Eric Lichaj caught Mount, and no one picked up Tomori at the far post when Barkley delivered the free-kick.
It was game over, but no one told Hull.
Grosicki came off the bench to score a free-kick with a deflection even bigger than Batshuayi’s.
“You could hear the roar everywhere,” marvelled Long.
Josh Magennis shot over and Grosciki wide in the final 12 minutes, and Tafazolli won a couple of nod-downs his team-mates could not collect.
“I could feel the fans with us,” said McCann. It was hard not to.
Now comes the acid test. Hull have home games against Huddersfield Town and Brentford this week to eat into the seven-point gap to the play-off places (they have a game in hand too). How much nearer to Saturday’s 24,109 will the gate be than the average 11,628?
Can they keep Bowen? If not, they need to reinvest at least some of the money well, and time is running out. This is a big week in the Tigers’ tale.