Hull City limp into finale of season that was destined to collapse
The writing was literally on the wall for Hull City from the very first weekend. Daubed in four-foot lettering on the side of the KCOM Stadium, unedifying protests had been made against the club's owners, Assem and Ehab Allam, in the hours before the visit of Leicester City kicked off a new Premier League season.
City looked like an unhealthy addition to the top flight in August, unfit for survival and at war with itself. And so it came to pass when relegated in a 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace last weekend. So long and farewell, the Premier League told its dysfunctional addition.
The Tigers, in truth, did well to leave their fate unclear until the penultimate round of fixtures. A team that began the season with just 13 senior professionals available to Mike Phelan (a caretaker boss for more than 12 weeks) had no right to keep the fight alive so long. All footballing theory said they should have been gone by Easter.
Credit goes to Marco Silva, City's largely unknown head coach when appointed in January, and his honest and committed bunch of players, but a season built upon wet sand always was destined to collapse. The only question was when.
Back-to-back defeats against Sunderland and Crystal Palace were the eventual tipping point this month, allowing Swansea to ease clear with a game to play, yet far more damage was done back in July and August.
City effectively stood at the foot of Everest in preseason and made decisions that would all but guarantee failure. Rather than strapping on crampons for the climb, they opted to go with a flimsy pair of plimsolls. A thick jacket? Nah, a jumper should suffice. The lack of preparation and planning would bring about their inevitable downfall, caught in the cold of winter.
Silva's astute appointment in the first days of 2017 brought warmth and more solid footing but by then it was too late. After 20 of the 38 games, City had taken just 13 points. Belief was in tatters and, try as he might, Silva did not quite have enough time to change things.
Some will point to the disastrous defeats against Sunderland and Palace and suggest City should still be fighting on the final weekend, but the slender margin for error was down to the mistakes of others.
The mind goes back to October, November and December, a spell that once saw City taking just seven points from 54 available. They lost timidly to the likes of Watford, Sunderland and Middlesbrough and were routed away to Bournemouth. Phelan struggled to keep it all together with ragged resources at his disposal, then had to fight the loss of his entire backroom team.
January had a restorative impact, with Silva being supported with the addition of seven new players, but even there was some self-inflicted damage. Both Robert Snodgrass (top scorer by a distance) and Jake Livermore (an England international two months after leaving) were sold.
If that felt like the white flag being hoisted, Silva proved plenty wrong. Winning six, drawing three and losing eight of his 17 Premier League games, his points per game ratio would have comfortably delivered survival if spread over an entire season. That will also ensure he sticks around in the top flight with fresh opportunities arising elsewhere. The Championship has little interest for a manager of his reputation.
That almost certainly will mean that Sunday's visit of Tottenham brings a farewell. And not just for Silva. The six loan signings on City's books no longer have a future at the KCOM Stadium, while Harry Maguire, Andy Robertson and Abel Hernandez all will be expected to move on to fresh challenges.
It all points to a sombre atmosphere hanging over this meaningless match and, looking further ahead, toward a wholly uncertain summer. Relegation is nothing new after falls in 2010 and 2015, but this will take strong minds and ambition to bring a recovery in the Championship next season.
City, in the end, have got their just deserts. Any club that spends the best part of six months in the bottom three can have few complaints when condemned to relegation. If only they had acted sooner.
Philip Buckingham is ESPN FC's Hull City blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @PJBuckingham.