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Aug 1, 2014

Tigers on edge after Huddlestone's horror

Steve Bruce's 100th match for Hull City ended in a goalless draw after Tom Huddlestone missed a penalty in the Tigers' Europa League qualifier on Thursday.

It was just after 1am on Friday morning that Hull City touched down at Humberside Airport. Minds and bodies were tired from the opening exertions of the Europa League and all the players wanted was to be back at home. None more so than Tom Huddlestone.

A picture of dejection, the England midfielder sat alone as his teammates waited in groups around the baggage carousel. "Chin up, Tom," said passing one supporter who had travelled on board the club's flight out of Slovakia. The best he could muster was a forlorn smile of thanks.

Huddlestone was hurting and events of the previous night were to blame. On the hour mark of City's European debut he was given the chance to write his name in club folklore when stepping up to take a penalty that could have all-but ended AS Trencin's hopes of a famous upset.

The spot-kick was too gentle. Goalkeeper Milos Volesak dived low to his left but could only push it back into Huddlestone's path. It was then it got embarrassing. Six yards out he pounced on the rebound but somehow managed to smack the crossbar of a largely unguarded goal and sent the ball high into the Zilina night sky. The 600 or so travelling fans behind the goal stood with hands on their heads unsure quite how the chances had come and gone.

Huddlestone was quick to say sorry. On his Twitter account, he wrote: "Can only apologise to everyone for a lapse in concentration and thinking I had scored the rebound before I had. Ridiculous on my behalf."

The contrition was entirely unnecessary from City's midfield talisman but at least served as a timely reminder just how the Europa League is being approached by Steve Bruce's men. They want a run in this often maligned competition and a fall at the first hurdle is unthinkable.

That remains the case heading into the second leg next Thursday. A 0-0 draw away to Trencin failed to see City stamp their Premier League authority on a side assembled on a fraction of the budget but parity means they will begin the return leg as firm favourites to take another step towards the Europa League's group stages.

As Huddlestone will attest, they really ought to have one foot in the play-off round already. While his was the most costly miss, a succession of half chances were passed up throughout a cautious contest.

Trencin were a limited opponent, struggling to ask questions of Allan McGregor, but the runners-up in last season's Fortuna Liga do have fitness levels in their favour. Where City only returned from their summer breaks three and a bit weeks ago, Trencin's season is already five competitive games old. "They ran around like whippets," observed defender Alex Bruce.

That energy will be back on show at the KC Stadium next week but the gulf should be reduced by the first meeting of the sides. City will surely be sharper for the experiences of the first leg and any unwitting complacency will now have been shed by a night in the Stadion Pod Dubnom.

Although a goalless draw was not what the travelling supporters had in mind when starting their journeys to Slovakia this week, there is little chance of them forgetting this landmark trip in a hurry. In the years to come they will be able to boast how they had been present for City's European debut and in some ways, that made the scoreline irrelevant. Just being there was what mattered.

They certainly had fun. Zilina's Marianske Square, lined by bars and restaurants, hosted supporters throughout the afternoon. Flags were everywhere declaring the temporary invasion and reports suggested some establishments had been drunk dry of local ales. At around one Euro a pint it was perhaps no surprise.

The first introductions to European football were everything supporters had hoped for and now they crave more. Finish off the job they started against Trencin and City will have another two-legged tie standing between them and a place in a four-team group that will run through to December. Maps of the continent will be filed away for now but surely not for long. A 110-year wait for this stage deserves more than just one jaunt overseas.

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