Love those Tiger feet: Hull's unexpected success
Hull City were widely expected to repeat the car-crash Premier League campaign endured by Derby last season but instead they lie sixth. Glenn Moore reveals their secret
Not content with climbing three divisions in five seasons, Hull City have made a better start to life in the top flight than all but two of the 50 teams promoted in the Premier League era*. How the Hull have they done it?
1. A bit of magic
Phil Brown was Sam Allardyce's assistant for many years and as Hull manager he has followed the Bolton model, not so much in the style of play but with his recruitment. Like Allardyce he has looked around for players who have a touch of class but whose careers have stagnated. Perhaps they need a little loving, maybe they needed the kick up the backside that rejection from their last club gave them and are determined to seize a second chance. Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo and El Hadji Diouf were among the players Allardyce signed. Brown put his faith in Geovanni, the one-time Barcelona starlet who began promisingly at Manchester City last season then faded. The Brazilian has responded with two crucial goals, both from outside the box, with his right foot at the Emirates last week and his left on opening day against Fulham.
2. Shop early, and often
The club that is promoted through the play-offs is usually hamstrung by their late accession as many players are already fixed up. Brown managed to sign six players by mid-July, three more by the end of the month. This meant that unlike, for example, David Moyes at Everton, he had time in pre-season to bed recruits into the team.
Eventually, Brown brought in 13 players for £7.9m, three on loan. None have cost more than Anthony Gardner, £2.5m from Tottenham. There was more cash available; he would have gone to £9m for Fraizer Campbell alone. However, like Tony Pulis at Stoke, he found it hard to convince players to sign. Further spending is likely in January, especially if Hull maintain their good start as it will be easier to attract players.
3. Be ruthless
Dean Windass is a legend at Hull. Nicky Barmby is another hometown hero. Windass, whose goal secured promotion in the play-off final, has played 34 minutes this season, coming on as a substitute during the 5-0 home thrashing by Wigan. Barmby began in the team but was swiftly dropped and has not regained his place. The pair may be local icons, but Windass is 39, Barmby 34. Brown's selection is evidently on merit, not reputation.
Brown spoke, after winning promotion, of giving the players who did it a chance to enjoy the rewards. He did begin with seven survivors from last season and picked nine, plus two subs, against Wigan. Five players were dropped after that match and the team that beat Arsenal featured six survivors and five new signings.
This may be the right balance. As Reading found, it is not easy to integrate new players into an established team. However, a core needs to be retained and the ever-presents have been with the club for some time – Boaz Myhill, Andy Dawson and Ian Ashbee for at least five years, Michael Turner since 2006. Hull have come from behind against Fulham, Blackburn and Arsenal, which suggests team spirit is good.
4. Adopt smart tactics
Obvious, but easier said than done. Brown has rotated his players and his formations. Arsène Wenger did not expect Hull to play two strikers, and Geovanni behind them, last weekend. Most teams play one striker at Arsenal, but it is a one-trick tactic. If they concede first, as Hull did, they do not have the weapons to get back into the game. Brown has generally looked to attack, playing two strikers and encouraging width.
Brown has also encouraged his team to play less direct football than last season, recognising that surviving in the top flight requires craft as well as graft. The likes of Geovanni and Peter Halmosi like to get on the ball and play. Where Hull have struggled is at the KC Stadium. At home there is an onus on them to attack and opponents have exploited that. But they get good support and their home form should improve.
5. Facial hair
Brown (left) was clean-shaven when the season started. Then came a moustache. A Rafa Benitez-style goatee followed. The hairier he got the better Hull played. Which could be a problem as Brown, who along with several colleagues had forsworn their razors in aid of the Everyman cancer charity, shaved this week. Will Hull's luck now run out?
*Brian Sears writes: Only Blackburn (1992-93, finished fourth) and Nottingham Forest (1994-95, third) have eclipsed Hull's start of 11 points from the opening six games. No promoted team has been relegated that season after starting this well.