HULL CITY: FROM WORST TEAM IN ENGLAND TO THE LEAGUE LEADERS
At the end of last season, Hull City must’ve been one of the worst clubs in England to be around, with the Tigers winning just one of their last 20 games of the campaign.
It was a run which saw them drop from just outside the play-offs at the turn of the year to an eventual relegation to League One.
Their winning team in the first half of the season was inspired by the form of attacking players Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki, but they were both sold at the end of the January transfer window.
The general feeling was that the deals meant the end of Hull’s chances of a return to the Premier League and that the north-east club would finish mid-table.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Things immediately started to unravel at the KCOM Stadium as a 5-1 loss to Brentford made it four defeats on the bounce.
They did manage to collect a couple of draws from the next three, including a thrilling 4-4 with Swansea, but four more losses followed, the Tigers conceding nine goals in the last two.
The pandemic-enforced break then arrived, and it gave Hull a chance to take stock. The club were probably hoping the season would be decided on points-per-game, with their run of form sure to end in an unlikely relegation if it continued.
That was how it transpired, with the season restart after three months off initially proving more positive with a win over Middlesbrough, the club’s first in 14 games.
Reality quickly set in though as they lost the last six matches of the season including an embarrassing 8-0 defeat to Wigan to finish bottom of the table, something even the most pessimistic fan wouldn’t have predicted after the January departures.
Somewhat surprisingly, manager Grant McCann stayed in the job, perhaps an admission from the owners that the situation they found themselves in was mostly their own doing by selling Bowen and Grosicki. The pair still finished as two of the club’s top three goalscorers.
The decision to keep McCann has certainly paid off in Hull’s first campaign in the third tier since 2004-05. Although they’ve gone under the radar a lot of the time, the 2014 FA Cup runners-up sit top of the table, eight points ahead of third.
They’ve scored the most goals and have the second-best defence in the division, but are far from promoted yet, having played two games more than Sunderland in third have.
At one point a couple of weeks ago, you could’ve made the argument for Sunderland and second-placed Peterborough being the two favourites to go up, highlighting further the superb re-building job McCann has done.
Despite the relatively short turnaround between seasons, there was quite a significant turnover in players, with the likes of Jackson Irvine, Eric Lichaj and Kevin Stewart being released.
That was followed by some very impressive additions that really caught the eye. Lewie Coyle, Richie Smallwood and Greg Docherty were joined through the door by Mallik Wilks, who had previously flattered to deceive at times during his short career.
However, Wilks has been one of the success stories of the season in League One, contributing 18 goals and constantly looking a danger to opposition defences.
In addition to that, several other players have emerged from the shadows to become key men for Hull in the last few months.
Keane Lewis-Potter put a dispute around his contract to one side to focus on on-the-pitch matters and has found the net 11 times, while at the other end, Matt Ingram, Jacob Greaves and Callum Elder have all caught the eye.
Ingram had struggled to find a home since first bursting onto the scene at Wycombe, but has started in goal in Hull’s last 15 games, conceding just seven goals.
Meanwhile, centre-back Greaves has made the step up after an excellent loan spell at Cheltenham, and Elder is enjoying the best spell of his career after being on the books at Leicester until he was 24.
It was a slightly stop-start first half of the season for McCann’s side, but the team are really gelling now and are unbeaten in nine.
Although maybe not always dominating games, the Tigers are becoming experts at brushing teams aside with a minimum of fuss, exemplified by two 3-0 wins in the last week.
That’s a recipe for success, and with five games to go, Hull are looking the most likely winners of League One, which would complete a remarkable transformation from that disastrous relegation.