Spirits were high on Humberside on New Year’s Day. Hull had just beaten Sheffield Wednesday and the Tigers were sitting only a point outside of the Championship play-off places following an eye-catching first half of the season under Grant McCann (W11-D6-L9).
However, fortunes have nosedived at an alarming rate since. City suffered four straight defeats to plummet down the second-tier standings and pounds were then deemed more important than points as dynamic duo Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki were sold in January’s final hours – that calculated gamble is now in grave danger of backfiring.
The Allams – Hull’s owners – effectively surrendered an assault on the top-six, preferring to settle for consolidation in the Championship in the process. Even so, a crippling injury list, a major crisis of confidence, and the disturbing loss of form (W0-D2-L8) has seen the Tigers collapse into the relegation reckoning.
Outside of the Premier League campaigns, this is now Hull’s longest run without a victory since 1995. Performances at the KCOM Stadium have flopped – City have picked up one point from a possible 18 in front of an increasingly exasperated home crowd since before Christmas, and more than half of all games played on East Yorkshire soil have now been lost.
Defending has gone to rack and ruin in a spell littered with injuries to key personnel, while all attacking threats have disappeared with the exit of Bowen and Grosicki. Just eight goals have been scored in the last 10 games and four of those came in a freakish contest against Swansea. Five times the Tigers have failed to score in their rotten recent run.
Outplayed and outclassed against Leeds, McCann opted for a new-look formation in the search for an overdue reaction. Rather than the 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 shape City have stuck with for the duration of the campaign, the Northern Irishman opted for a narrow diamond in midfield, with Martin Samuelsen starting behind of Josh Magennis and Mallik Wilks.
The Hull boss said the reason behind it was to limit the dominance of midfielder Kalvin Phillips and during the first half, it worked, with Samuelsen also getting some creative freedom in the number 10 role. However, Leeds’ second strike led to an inevitable capitulation of structure and a collapse in the all-round performance of the Tigers.
McCann has urged his team to play without fear as they approach a make-or-break period of the campaign. Three of City’s next four games will see the Tigers pitted against teams currently below them in the table. As well as travelling to Stoke, the Humbersiders host Charlton and Middlesbrough on consecutive Saturdays leading into the international break.
A turnaround is clearly possible and plausible but evidence available suggests Hull’s quest to preserve their Championship status will go right to the wire. Value might have already evaporated on the Humbersiders in the relegation market – City were 275/1 for the drop in mid-January – but 10/3 (Bet365) quotes on McCann’s men falling into League One still stands out with Barnsley, Luton and Wigan all displaying resurgent qualities in recent weeks.
Newport’s faint League Two play-off prospects were surely extinguished on Saturday as the Exiles were handed a 5-0 shellacking at crisis club Oldham. Post-match County manager Michael Flynn suggested his squad is lacking in character and that the players do not appear to be backing him and his staff, whilst also questioning his own future at Rodney Parade.
The Welsh outfit, who were also beaten 4-2 at Grimsby last midweek, have now lost five successive away league games, and have recorded just four triumphs from their last 21. That rotten recent run has seen Newport slide down the table to 16th, ending any realistic hopes of matching last season’s incredible last-gasp run to the play-off final.
“We had different characters last season and a different team ethic,” said the Exiles boss after the battering at Boundary Park. “I didn’t see that performance coming, but that’s probably me being naïve. I take responsibility. They’re my players, I back them and it doesn’t look like we’re getting backed back at the minute.”
Goalkeeper Tom King and his defence have been County’s most effective department throughout the season and they still have the joint-second best goals-against record in League Two. But the usually rock-solid back line has shown all the strength of a wet paper towel over the past week with nine goals conceded in those last two road trips.
Scoring goals has been a problem all year, with bottom club Stevenage still the only side in the division to net fewer than the Exiles, but they now appear to have problems at both ends of the pitch. On Saturday, Flynn’s men were dominated from start to finish, offering little resistance to the Oldham tide, whilst managing just one attempt on-target throughout.
The match at Oldham was Newport’s ninth in February and County have 12 more games to cram in before the end of April. The team have been struck by an ongoing injury crisis and there’s no doubt County have looked fatigued recently, suggesting the side are easily opposed in upcoming weeks as they settle themselves for a place in mid-table obscurity.