WE are told, all too frequently, that the English Premier League is the best of its kind in the world. It’s in your face, day-in, day-out and you cannot get away from it. But there is a tendency for English football to believe its own hype, something that loses credibility when the national team under-performs in yet another major competition, or the nation’s clubs fall short in the UEFA Champions League.
We headed for Hull just a few days after a mixed week for English clubs in Europe – Arsenal had ponced a draw with PSG, City had drawn in Germany and Tottenham had gone out of the Champions League cheaply. Only Leicester City had won in Europe’s major competition. The Premier League still has a point to prove.
What could Hull City and West Bromwich Albion do to show us that the Premier was alive and well and strong in depth? We were ready to be entertained, but expectation had to be tempered.
Albion had just beaten Burnley 4-0, their second successive win, and their fans were crowing about centre forward Salomon Rondon, who had scored one of the goals. “Who’s the best striker in the Premier League….do do Rondon, do do Rondon”, a rendition that would have gladdened Phil Spector.
That win took Albion, led by Tony Pulis, up to ninth in the Premier. There’s a big difference between where teams like Albion are and the top clubs, the Premier is a two-speed league and the best that most can hope for is to stay away from the drop zone.
Hull City will be hoping to do just that in their first season back after relegation. So far, the signs are that 2016-17 might be a tough one for the club. Despite winning promotion at the first attempt, these are slightly troubling times for Hull. Their owner, Assem Allam, wanted to change the club’s name and branding, which did not go down well with the locals. Since then, he has been in talks to sell the club to Chinese investors. When we arrived at the ground, the KCOM Stadium, a helicopter hovered overhead. “It’s the new owners,” said one Hull fan, perhaps thinking wishfully.
The KCOM is certainly an improvement on Boothferry Park, which acquired the air of Reginald Perrin’s Sunshine Desserts in its later years, the missing illuminated letters of its signage resulting in “Fer Ark” or “Bothferry”. The new site, initially called the KC (Kingston Communications) Stadium, was funded by the council and the sale of a stake in Kingston Communications, and was opened in October 2002.
The relocation acted as a rebirth for Hull and by 2008, they were in the Premier, ending the old claim that Hull was the biggest town/city not to have hosted top flight football. This is Hull’s third spell in the Premier and the novelty may have worn off somewhat. Average crowds have declined every season, from the 24,816 recorded in 2008-09 to the 22,348 figure so far in 2016-17. The last two crowds before meeting WBA were sub-20,000 – the Guardian said on the morning of the match that they had been “hampered by injuries and beset by supporter unrest”.
They had won just twice at home in the Premier, but to be fair to the Tigers, they had already met Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea at the KCOM. After playing WBA, they could look forward to a Football League Cup quarter-final against resurgent Newcastle United.
The season had started quite encouragingly, however. After mysteriously losing manager Steve Bruce in the summer, Mike Phelan, another of Sir Alex Ferguson’s acolytes, was appointed caretaker boss. Hull began with two straight wins, including the opener against champions Leicester, but won just once more after those successes.
West Bromwich Albion’s season looked to have turned around with two successive victories, 2-1 at Leicester and that 4-0 drubbing of Burnley. This had, apparently, quietened the Hawthorns regulars, although they seemed pretty noisy on the train into Hull!
And so, the game itself. A catalogue of misplaced passes and aimless crosses characterised the first period. We had to remind ourselves that this was the Premier League, for the quality was that low. Hull’s fans were fantastic, though, getting behind their team for the entire game. There was some irony in their backing, such as over-enthusiastic celebration of a tackle being won, a clearance or an attempt on goal: “We’ve had a shot on goal…we’ve had a shot on goal.”
West Bromwich Albion, who dominated possession in the first half, took the lead on 34 minutes when Gareth McAuley headed home from a corner. It all looked too easy.
But Hull were much better in the second half and levelled with 18 minutes to go, skipper Michael Dawson shooting into the net after Robert Snodgrass’ free kick was knocked down by Congolese forward Dieumerci Mbokani. A point apiece from a poor game.
Walking back from the ground was all very Lowryesque, a human tide edging across the railway bridge and towards town. The jaunty and optimistic sound of Sports Report could be heard from someone’s kitchen or car – a few years back, everyone would be straining their ears to hear the scores, but the age of instant media has taken away the exclusivity of the eager fan with a transistor radio clamped to the ear. With collars up and hands in pockets, all you could hear were the mumblings acknowledging that Hull had saved a valuable point. It’s probably going to be like that all season at the KCOM.