By Chris Harris
Is the party over for Hull City?
The Tigers' maiden top-flight campaign began as a celebration with six wins in their opening nine games, including a stirring victory at Emirates Stadium. But now the champagne has gone flat, the balloons have burst and the hangover threatens to tarnish those autumnal memories.
After challenging for Europe in September, Phil Brown's team are now fighting for survival. Just four points separate Hull from the relegation zone and even their record January capture of Jimmy Bullard - a real statement of intent - has become a source of frustration. Bullard won't play again this season.
So perhaps tonight's FA Cup tie is a welcome distraction for Tigers fans. Not only does it give them a chance to dream of Wembley, it's a timely reminder of their stunning win at the Emirates in September. They travelled to North London more in hope than expectation last time; this time Hull might just fancy their chances.
We caught up with Phil Buckingham of the Hull Daily Mail ahead of the Quarter-Final tie. Read on for his take on Hull's up-and-down season, Phil Brown's tactical shift, the story behind Bullard's injury and the Tigers' approach to the FA Cup.
THE STORY SO FAR
"Hull felt a little bit hard done by after the 3-1 defeat to Arsenal in January. They held their hands up and said that man-for-man and talent-wise Arsenal were the better side. It was those two late sucker -punches that left a bit of bitter taste in the mouth. They felt that they should have had a penalty when it was still 1-1 and, while no-one at Hull would say they weren’t deserved, the two late goals were a bit disappointing. Now they are four points off the drop and Phil Brown, the manager, has come and said that he thinks any of the bottom nine teams could have a relegation battle ahead of them. I think Hull are well-placed and the point against Newcastle on Saturday was a good one. I think it will go right to the wire, it’s not a matter of being overly concerned I just don’t think anyone is confident that they’re anywhere near the finishing line yet.
"Hull have more wins on the road than they do at home and it's difficult to explain why. Towards the start of the season I think it was only Chelsea who had a better away record than Hull. It has dipped recently but they have enjoyed going to London and their win at Fulham last week was their third win in the capital this year. The pressure and the onus is more on them at home and perhaps they struggle to deal with that. Teams go to the KC Stadium and invite Hull to do all the attacking work and that’s not where their strengths lie. They prefer their own counter-attacks and they don’t get as many opportunities to do that at home."
"Phil Brown played a 4-3-1-2 at the start of the season but not any more. Saturday was the first time he has named an unchanged team since the start of December. Of course all the chopping and changing brought some erratic results, most of them poor. He seems to have settled more for 4-4-2 again now. The brave approach got found out after early season and an awful lot of teams took the points off Hull. The last time he played a 4-3-1-2 was West Ham away when they went down to a comprehensive defeat so I don’t think you’ll see that formation at the Emirates.
"They’ve lost that element of surprise that was there at the start of the season. They just came out all guns blazing and Arsenal were the prime example of a team not giving them the respect they deserved. Tottenham a week later were another one and then West Ham following that. There is only so long that can go on for and man-for-man, Hull have never professed to be one of the best in the league but they overcame teams with a bold approach and good, old-fashioned hard work."
"Jimmy Bullard's injury just after he signed in January was a real unfortunate one. The club went out on a limb to pay £5million for a player which is twice what they’ve paid for anyone before. I think he lasted 29 minutes of his debut at West Ham. The club are desperate to put that one to bed while there’s football still to be played but you won’t be seeing Bullard until November or December which is a cruel blow after spending so much money on a star player. No one was complaining when they signed him, it was Hull’s marquee signing, but unfortunately sometimes in football these things happen.
"People asked how he passed the medical and I’m not a doctor but I felt like one after covering that story for so long. Basically, it wasn’t the ligament where there was the fear – there was a slight cartilage tear and players can play with that for five or 10 years. Brown states that he played with a cartilage tear throughout his playing career and only just now has he got it fixed. But when Bullard went down at West Ham he ruptured his cruciate which is a completely coincidental injury. His knee had to be restructured but the medical only uncovered a cartilage tear and nothing to do with this cruciate ligament."
"Well Hull certainly don’t give everything to win the FA Cup and they’ve made wholesale changes throughout their cup ties this season of which this will be their sixth. In every game they’ve made at least six changes but that’s not to say they don’t take it seriously. They’ve got a fairly big squad for a newly-promoted team so they have had chances to shuffle it about. I think they’ll be fairly strong down at Arsenal but as Brown says, the onus is on the Wigan game on Sunday.
"You do get more serious about the FA Cup at the Quarter-Final stage but Hull’s focus for the year has always been staying in the Premier League and the FA Cup is just a bonus. I remembered sitting down in January when they played Newcastle home and away and I didn’t think they would come through those. They have done very well to get this far and it has taken a lot of fans by surprise. It’s worth remembering that this is the first FA Cup Quarter-Final they have reached since 1970. They’ve broken that many records as a team of late, this is another one. But I don’t think many fans are holding out much hope against Arsenal."
THE EMIRATES EFFECT
"Will Hull have higher expectations now after winning at the Emirates? I think it will take a couple of years at this level to really change the mindset, certainly going to places like Arsenal. Just because they’ve won there already this season I don’t think anyone will travel with expectation, it still is a hope thing. It does give you a spring in the step knowing you’ve done things there before and Hull City have shown that nothing is impossible this year.
"But I think they are being very bullish about their chances and they can go down to the Emirates with no fear. It’s worth pointing out that it’s not only Arsenal that have come a cropper against Hull because Liverpool couldn’t see them off at Anfield and it finished 2-2, Chelsea only managed a 0-0 and at Man United they were narrowly edged out 4-3. This isn’t a team to go to a big ground and be like a rabbit in the headlights – they will be bold when they can."