Fifteen years ago today, Hull’s KC Stadium opened its doors for the first time as a Football League venue.
Hartlepool United may not have been the most glamorous of opponents on such an auspicious occasion, but the North East side had spent Christmas Day atop the basement division so represented a significant scalp.
Hull City, in contrast, had struggled for much of the campaign, but Peter Taylor’s side still did their new surroundings proud with a 2-0 victory in front of an ecstatic 22,319 crowd.
Eighteen months later, Hull’s £44m sporting Mecca was celebrating its first promotion and by 2008 Premier League football had arrived in the city.
Those heady early days in West Park will seem a long time ago today when the Tigers host Derby County. Sure, Championship football will be on offer rather than the fourth tier fare of Boxing Day, 2002, but this has been a season of struggle for Hull following relegation from the Premier League.
Saturday’s defeat at Leeds United, however unjust it was on the balance of play, left the Tigers sitting 19th in the table and just three points above the relegation zone.
For a club who hosted Pep Guardiola and Manchester City exactly 12 months ago, it is a big fall from grace, but one that Nigel Adkins, the club’s fourth manager in the past 12 months, believes can be turned round on the back of encouraging performances in his first three games at the helm.
“Let’s not think we are too good to go down,” said the Tigers’ chief. “We are well and truly aware that we need to pick up points.
“The players have done very well in the last two games with regards to the progression, but we have got to win games.
“What I will say is we are on the right track to win games because of the togetherness and desire to work hard for each other. We know exactly where we are in respect to this division and we have got to pick up points.
“But it is how you pick up the points. If we can keep on putting in a performance like we did at Leeds, creating treble the opportunities of the home team, it will be another big step.”
Today’s festive clash will bring not only reminders of a happier recent past, but also a flashback to what was arguably this season’s lowest moment for the Tigers.
Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies being in the visitors’ ranks will spark memories of Hull reaching the FA Cup final, playing in the Europa League and a couple of triumphs under the Wembley Arch. Both, however, played for Derby in September’s 5-0 hammering of Leonid Slutsky’s men as Hull missed a penalty and conceded four times in the first half.
Fikayo Tomori was an unused substitute that night and he believes the Rams should expect to face a very different Tigers side to the one that imploded so badly.
“The season hasn’t been what we were expecting so far,” said the Chelsea loanee. “We had a bad start and now we are trying to turn things around.
“It is a results business and we need some. Derby are in form, but after what happened last time we played Derby then we need to show we have grown.
“I believe we have. Derby will face a different Hull to the game down there. We have grown a lot and gelled. Games and training sessions have helped us do that. There has been a change of manager, too, so that means more ideas. We take confidence from that.
“It is the same with our performance at Leeds. If we keep playing like that, the results will change.
“If you didn’t look at the table (on Saturday), you wouldn’t know if we were up there (towards the top of the table) or Leeds.”
With ten wins from their last 13 outings, Derby head to the KCOM in fine form. Gary Rowett’s men are third in the table, just three points behind the automatic promotion places, but Adkins is adamant his players are up to the challenge.
“Tell me an easy game in the Championship,” he said when asked if this was a bad time to face the Rams. “There isn’t one. That is the beauty of what is a fantastic division to be involved in. Everyone knows each game will be competitive.
“We won our first game against Brentford, who are a very good side, but we have shown in the last two games (1-0 defeats at Cardiff and Leeds) that we can still be competitive right until the final whistle. That is important.
“I am looking at where progression has been made in terms of performance, attitude and desire to do well. The players and staff have been outstanding.
“Everyone is pulling together and working hard, giving us an opportunity to move forward. Rather than it being the other way, where it is negative and everyone wants to pick holes in it.”
Last six games: Hull City DLDWLL Derby County WLWWWW.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).
Last time: Hull City 0 Derby County 2; May 17, 2016; Championship play-offs.