Steve Bruce must pick Hull up vs. Aston Villa after Europa League heartbreak
"If only ...?" The perpetual lament of the downtrodden football fan has been well repeated in 2014 by Hull City fans, who will remember this as a year in which those aching sentiments dominated everything else.
On May 17, City lost an FA Cup final they'd led 2-0. It was shattering, but there was pride in the performance against Arsenal, honour at being there for the first time and the thrilling prospect of European football on the horizon. Fans of the club spent much of the summer wistfully thinking "if only" that 2-0 lead hadn't been overturned; if only that 110-year wait for a major honour could have finally ended; if only it could have been us. It wasn't, but there were still so many positives to take from the experience that few seriously held it against the club.
On Aug. 28, City were knocked out of the Europa League in the qualifying rounds, to KSC Lokeren. The Tigers lost 1-0 in Belgium and won 2-1 at home, which ensured an exit on away goals. And this time, the "if only" feeling might never go away or be properly exorcised.
If only Steve Bruce had taken the competition as seriously as he said he would and not fielded close to a second XI in Lokeren. If only Tom Huddlestone, his most experienced European player, had started either of the games. If only Nikica Jelavic, the club's best striker, had started either of the games. None of the above happened, and Hull was miserably out of Europe before the tournament had properly begun.
While the defeat to Arsenal stung, it was not wholly in the control of those at City. This was. Nine changes were made on Thursday to the side that started the first leg. Steve Bruce prioritised Stoke City at home over the continuation of the club's first ever European adventure, and there is a genuine feeling of loss and desolation (and a little anger) in the city of Hull as a consequence.
Quite how everyone, fans and players, pick themselves up for the trip to Aston Villa is anyone's guess. Perhaps it's no bad thing an international break arrives straight after this fixture and everyone can use that fortnight to clear their heads (though that in itself is a powerful argument against Bruce's harmful squad rotation).
But the manager has prioritised this game over everything else, and it's therefore essential that something is taken from it. There'll be a new boy on show too: With James Chester suspended following his red card against Stoke, new signing Michael Dawson could go straight into the side.
And what a coup he is. To sign the Tottenham captain at a time when his powers remain formidably intact is quite something. Just his name alone guarantees him affection from City fans, for he is the younger brother of Andy, who spent 10 years playing in East Yorkshire and is widely regarded as a club legend. If he can have anything approaching the impact of his big brother, he'll be a special player.
Villa are in good heart, however. Many tipped them to struggle this season (including this humble observer), but four points from their opening two games has probably persuaded their supporters that more is on offer this season than grim survival. Fans of both sides will be hoping that in the final account of 2014-15, this was a mid-table battle rather than a relegation six-pointer.
Villa have also not conceded this season, and with the Tigers scarcely prolific up front, something we've touched upon before, it'd be a brave man who bets on a Hull City player scoring at Villa Park for the first time since 1973.
The prize is obvious: seven points from the first three games, with two weeks off to bask in that achievement. It would guarantee nothing. It certainly wouldn't make up for the colossal disappointment felt by so many at European football being lost. Nonetheless, those dismayed City fans would feel a little better. After all, it'd be a shame to have an "if only" in the League, too.