Too little, too late from Grant McCann as spectacular disintegration leaves Hull City on the brink

On January 11, Hull City entertained Fulham at the KCOM Stadium knowing that victory would take them to within touching distance of the Championship's top-four.

Josh Magennis in action during Hull City's home defeat to Luton Town. Picture: Getty Images

The Tigers went on to lose the game 1-0, but despite that result they still found themselves just three points shy off a play-off berth when the full-time whistle sounded.

Grant McCann's team were, at that stage of the season, undoubtedly promotion contenders. They were a club looking upwards.

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Relegated from the Premier League in May 2017, they looked to be in with a realistic chance of mounting an assault on the top-six and regaining their top-flight status.

To have suggested at that point that City were in any danger of being sucked into a battle to beat the drop would have seemed utterly ridiculous.

Yet, 18 games later, having having won one just once and added only six points to their then total of 39, the East Yorkshiremen will almost certainly be playing their football in League One next term.

Their disintegration has been spectacular, their implosion unprecedented. It is difficult to comprehend that such a bad second half to a season is possible at this level of football.

The departures of Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki during the January transfer window were undoubtedly the catalyst for Hull's slide down the table.

Any team would suffer if you removed it's two most influential players, but the reason that the Tigers have struggled so spectacularly is because they have failed to evolve and adapt to their star duo's absence during the six months that followed.

The reason that City were so devastating as a counter-attacking force and able to take apart the likes of Preston North End and Fulham (away) was largely due to the devastating pace of Grosicki and the threat that Bowen carried in and around the 18-yard box.

At times, they were unplayable, with Bowen simply too good for Championship defences. That he is already impressing for West Ham in the Premier League will come as little surprise to anybody who has followed his progress in amber and black.

In short, those two players were the main reason that McCann's preferred 4-3-3 system worked during the first half of his year in charge at the KCOM Stadium.

Without them, City haven't carried the same threat. In fact, they're a different animal entirely. It's not just that the players who have replaced Bowen and Grosicki in the side are not as good, it's more about the fact that they don't boast the same qualities.

The warning signs were there for all to see when Hull were taken apart by Brentford in front of live Sky TV cameras less than 24 hours after the winter transfer window closed.

That 5-1 thrashing was followed by a dreadful run of pre-lockdown form which saw them ship four against Swansea and Leeds United, then five again on the road at relegation rivals Stoke.

The Tigers were too easy to get at, too brittle at the back, and without the threat of Bowen and Grosicki, there was nowhere near enough coming the other way to worry opponents. That threat on the break, that devastating pace and fleet of foot in the final third, it was all gone.

McCann can be forgiven for initially wanting to give the players he had left time to try and deliver, but even after three months off during the worst period of the coronavirus crisis, he has persisted with a system that clearly doesn't suit the group he has at his disposal.

It's not his fault that his two greatest assets were stripped away, but the blame lies with him, as the club's head coach, for not realising sooner that something needed to change in terms of the way he sets his side up.

It took an 8-0 humiliation at the hands of Wigan Athletic last week for him to try something slightly different in a must-win game against Luton Town on Saturday afternoon.

The Northern Irishman made six changes to the starting XI and deployed his charges in something resembling either a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-3-2-1.

Not exactly worlds apart from what Tigers fans have been used to seeing, but this was a system that at least saw Hull's widemen offer their respective full-backs with some kind of protection in areas where they have been exposed for fun in recent months.

Goalkeeper George Long, who has looked thoroughly unconvincing during this wretched run, was replaced, as were McCann's two first-choice centre-halves, captain Jordy De Wijs and Reece Burke.

Two holding midfielders provided additional security in front of the back-four and helped create a solid platform, while George Honeyman - the club's most consistent performer of late - was afforded the freedom of the number 10 role to go and try to make something happen in the final third.

In Tom Eaves, Hull have a centre-forward who looks well out of his depth at this level, but they at least played to his strengths in the first half by delivering crosses into the box at every opportunity.

The result was a showing which carried a little bit of promise. Ultimately, however, these changes proved to be too little too late.

City really had to score while they were in the ascendancy during the opening stages. When they didn't, it was inevitable what was going to happen.

Honeyman forced Sam Sluga to tip over an early goalbound free-kick, then drew another decent stop out of the visiting custodian with a wicked inswinging delivery from a similar position on the left flank.

Those incidents occurred inside the first three minutes of the contest, however that was literally that in terms of the hosts looking like they were going to breach the away defence.

They never got going in the second period, never once threatened to exert any meaningful pressure or force a breakthrough in a match they desperately, desperately needed to win if they wanted to stay up. Meanwhile, Luton got better as the contest wore on.

The Hatters also failed to create a single chance of any note for a long time and were definitely fortunate to keep 11 men on the pitch when James Collins was somehow only booked for leading with his head during an off-the-ball clash with Angus MacDonald, but they dominated the ball after the interval.

In the end, Nathan Jones' troops could have won by two or three. City eventually had to throw caution to the wind as they tried to generate some forward momentum, and as soon as they did that, the visitors began to open them up with ease.

Danny Hylton and George Moncur wasted clear opportunities to break the deadlock before Kazenga Lua Lua eventually did, sending a low strike from outside the box beyond the despairing dive of Matt Ingram in the 86th minute.

Five minutes of stoppage-time followed, though City's spirit was visibly broken by conceding and despite the fact that saving their season effectively depended on them mustering some kind of a response, quite predictably, none was forthcoming.

Defeat leaves McCann and his men 23rd in the table and needing to go and win at promotion-chasing Cardiff on the final day of 2019/20 to have any chance of surviving.

They will also have to pray that the Hatters lose at home to Blackburn and Wigan Athletic fail to beat Fulham.

Given that the Tigers have only tasted victory once in 19 attempts, their chances don't appear great.

Factor in Luton having suffered only one solitary defeat in eight matches since the season resumed and the form of Wigan, beaten once in 14, and the picture only gets bleaker as far as Hull are concerned.

The third tier is looming large.