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Jul 29, 2014

Bruce to celebrate special century

Steve Bruce is set for his 100th match in charge of Hull City as their European adventure begins Thursday.

It is safe to assume that most Hull City supporters were unfamiliar with the small town of Zilina until very recently. Situated in the north of Slovakia, less than an hour's drive from the borders of Poland and the Czech Republic, it has a population similar to that of Scunthorpe. All very inconspicuous to the untrained eye.

But not anymore. It is here that City begin a whole new adventure -- one never envisaged, let alone enjoyed, during the club's 110-year history. Zilina is where Europe suddenly opens its doors to the Tigers.

On Thursday evening, Slovakian side AS Trencin make the short journey to the Stadion pod Dubnom, home of MSK Zilina, where they will host City in the third qualifying round of the Europa League. It is hard to know quite how many away fans will be present -- 500 to 1,000 perhaps -- but the enthusiasm to be there has been contagious.

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Ever since manager Steve Bruce's side ended the 2013-14 season as FA Cup runners-up to Arsenal, the date of July 31 has been circled on calendars around East Yorkshire. Only last week was it finally confirmed that AS Trencin would be the first opponents of a new season and now the excitement is building. Fans are flying to countless European destinations within touching distance of Zilina to be part of a landmark occasion.

The airports of Prague, Vienna, Krakow and Bratislava will all see City fans coming through their arrival gates before journeys continue to northern Slovakia. You suspect some would happily hitchhike.

In the back of minds there is a fear of what a season in the Europa League would do for Premier League fortunes, but all of that can wait this week. Who knows when this chance will come again for a club of City's stature? Even Manchester United cannot take European football for granted.

The palpable sense of anticipation is not confined to the terraces, either. Bruce has assembled a squad of players with only limited experience in European football. Beyond Allan McGregor, Tom Huddlestone, Curtis Davies, Jake Livermore and Steve Harper, no one can count continental appearances on two hands.

Chances such as these may not come along again in a hurry, and that is the emphasis Bruce will place on Thursday evening's fixture. The City boss knows his side will be undercooked on the back of a three-week preseason, yet he surely has far more talent at his disposal than does his Trencin counterpart, Martin Sevela.

A squad that survived its first season in the Premier League at a canter has been enhanced by the summer arrivals of Robert Snodgrass and Tom Ince, and nothing in Trencin's ranks ought to scare City over two legs -- not even the superior fitness levels the Slovakians are expected to have following a handful of competitive fixtures this season. The Tigers are the bookmakers' favourites with good reason. That is not to say Bruce is taking Trencin lightly, and there are two reasons for that. Not only is Thursday's fixture Bruce's first European escape as a manager, but it also brings up his 100th game in charge of City.

You need only look at Bruce's opening match as manager to appreciate how good the century has been: from a penalty shootout win over Rotherham United in the 2012-13 Capital One Cup to the Europa League inside less than two years.

Bruce has no desire to see the record tail off now, not with a place in the group stages still four games away. The bigger picture will certainly not be straightforward. Other clubs bigger than City have struggled to balance the demands of domestic and European football in recent times, and all within the club are wary of the pitfalls.

In 682 games as a manager Bruce has never led a side into Europe, but he can delve into memories of his time as Manchester United captain for guidance. At Old Trafford he was part of a side that won the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup against Barcelona, so he should be more than your average greenhorn. That's the theory, but now comes the acid test.

This, incidentally, is the earliest City have started a season since 1980. Then, the prompt opening commitment came on July 28 for the visit of Grimsby Town in the Anglo-Scottish Cup. The Europa League is a long way from those days, and this is a fixture well worth a premature end to summer. Wagons roll to Slovakia.