Friday, August 1, 2008

Premiership Preview--19. Hull City

The most profitable single game in the world was won, not Manchester, not the New York Giants...Hull City last season, as the Tigers' 1-0 Coca-Cola Championship playoff final victory over Bristol City at Wembley will net the East Yorkshire club an estimated $120 million when all is said and done. Longtime Hull player and hometown boy Dean Windass scored the winning goal for his club, allowing the 39-year-old striker, who was once sent off three times in one game, to experience the joy of playing in the Premier League one more time.

That large profit has barely been tapped into so far this summer by manager Phil Brown, but he's still managed to bring in seven players, several of whom will play significant minutes this season. George Boateng's arrival from Middlesbrough gives the club a solid, reliable defensive midfielder, a must-have for a team that simply doesn't have the quality to go toe-to-toe with many of the other Premiership outfits. Geovanni came off the bench a whopping 17 times for Manchester City last season, where he was blocked by more talented central midfielders like Stephen Ireland, Michael Johnson, Elano, and Dietmar Hamann, but he'll be a useful, experienced player for Hull. Bernard Mendy should start immediately at right back, and the on-loan Anthony Gardner will fight it out with Wayne Brown to start alongside Michael Turner at center back.

Jay-Jay Okocha, who was great for PSG, Bolton, and Nigeria as an attacking midfielder in his prime playing days, was released this summer, but appeared in only 18 games for Hull last season and is now 34 years old. He's the only loss of any note, so Brown has the same core group back and he'll look to make further improvements if necessary.

As Hull's defensive record last season will indicate -- 47 goals conceded in 46 games was third-best in the Championship -- their back line is their strongest asset and it'll only improve this year with extra competition for places. Tony Warner came over from Fulham on a free transfer, but he'll back up American-born Welsh international Boaz Myhill, the club's Player of the Year in 2005-2006, in goal. The 6'4" Turner started 47 games for Hull last year, and either Brown or Gardner, at 6'5", will play next to him, as I mentioned earlier. Ricketts is the incumbent at right back, having also started 47 matches a year ago, but he can also play left back and take over for Andy Dawson, who is decent but could get exposed by Premiership wingers. That would allow Mendy, who has plenty of top-level experience from his time at PSG, to slide in at right back, as I mentioned earlier, and the already-solid back four would improve even more.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-5-1):
GK: Myhill

RB: Mendy
CB: Turner
CB: Gardner
LB: Ricketts

RMF: Richard Garcia
DMF: Boateng
CMF: Ian Ashbee (captain)
CMF: Dean Marney
LMF: Geovanni

ST: Windass

Expect this lineup to change regularly, as Bryan Hughes will play some games at left wing, Nicky Barmby will play in central midfield, and Caleb Folan and Craig Fagan will also get their chances up top.

Hull's schedule opens nicely; they'll have a good chance to pick up points in at least three of their first four games, if not all four: Fulham, @Blackburn, Wigan, and @Newcastle. The Tigers have only three sets of consecutive games all year against teams that finished in the top six last season, with Everton and Arsenal involved twice each (November 20/27 and January 10/19, with a game against Aston Villa right before that on December 28), and Villa twice as well (Dec. 28 and then May 2, a week after Hull goes to Liverpool). This helps Hull considerably because there's no real long stretch of matches where they can't pick up points, but aside from that opening run and one in March (Mar. 4 @Fulham, Mar. 14 vs. Newcastle, and Mar. 21 vs. Wigan) there's no real long stretch where they can rack some points up either.

Bottom Line: There's a clear gap in talent between Hull and Stoke City, so expect the Tigers to be closer to safety than the basement. This team doesn't have any individual standouts but are 15-16 players deep, which helps considerably when the fixture list becomes congested during the winter. If they go into January with a chance to stay up, expect them to buy some more reinforcements, but unless someone can score upwards of 10 goals, I just can't see how they can escape the drop. They'll be an interesting, scrappy team to watch, but don't have the necessary offensive firepower.

Remember to check back tomorrow as the countdown to the top continues with my predictions for 18th and 17th place. Not much separates the two spots in terms of points, but they're worlds apart in terms of financial benefit.

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