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Aug 8, 2008

Raw Tigers face a battle

No longer the largest city in Europe never to grace the top flight, Hull City have had a long wait for the big time.

It marks the completion of a meteoric rise for a club which just five years ago finished in the bottom half of English football's basement division. They also came within hours of going out of business and have had to sell simply to stay afloat.

Since 2003 the club has been rebuilt from top to bottom, changing ownership and moving to a brand new stadium.

The Tigers arrive in the Premier League transformed with real cause for optimism and the support of the whole city. Season tickets sold out immediately and anyone wanting to try and grab one of the few match-day tickets available ahead of each home game will have to be quick off the blocks.

It's a measure of their success that four players - Boaz Myhill, Ryan France, Andy Dawson and inpirational skipper Ian Ashbee - could go on to have played in all four divisions for Hull. At present, only Sean Davis at Fulham has managed to do that with one club.

Hull had struggled after being promoted from to the Championship as League One runners-up. In 2005/06 they finished 10 points clear of the drop zone but it was only in the final part of the season that they secured their place. Peter Taylor opted to leave the club for Crystal Palace and the decision to appoint Phil Parkinson was a disaster.

Parkinson lasted just six months before being replaced by his number two, Phil Brown, and the former Derby County boss performed miracles to pull to club to safety. They could still have mathematically faced relegation on the final day but for Leeds United going into administration.

The East Yorkshire side were nothing more than rank outsiders for promotion in 2007/08 after finishing 21st the previous season. But Brown made several inspired summer signings which transformed their fortunes. Wayne Brown, Richard Garcia and Bryan Hughes were signed for a mere £450,000 combined and their impact across the season was a revelation.

However, the two signings which earned the club promotion were from such different ends of the footballing spectrum that they could be father and son. Hull-born Dean Windass, previously sold by the Tigers to Aberdeen in December 1995 to save the club, had already been central to survival after returning on loan from Bradford.

Even though the striker had already turned 38, Hull were still prepared to pay £150,000 to get him permanently. It proved to be incredible business.

Despite the forward still playing when most of his contemporaries have long-since hung up their boots, Windass proved that determination and desire can achieve great things. He scored 15 goals in all competitions - including one in the play-off semi-finals and the all important winner against Bristol City at Wembley Stadium in the final. It was also the club's first-ever visit to the national stadium.

Then there was Frazier Campbell, who moved to Hull in October on loan from Manchester United. Such was the striker's impact, who had just turned 20 when moving to the KC Stadium, that the loan was extended for the season. His pace and strength on the ball put fear into many defences. He bagged 15 Championship goals from just 32 starts and was without doubt the player who created the drive and impetus to make it into the Premier League.

Hull's hopes of keeping hold of Campbell for 2008/09 seem to be slim, with the player desperate to make it at Old Trafford and Sir Alex Ferguson vowing to give him the chance to impress. Remarkably, Campbell did not make the PFA Team of the Season. Remarkably for a promoted side, Hull did not have one representative.

While Windass and Campbell earned much of the praise on the pitch, manager Phil Brown is now a club legend in the dugout. Originally Sam Allardyce's assistant at Bolton Wanderers, Brown looked to be damaged goods after an ill-fated, seven-month spell in charge of Derby ended with the sack in January 2006 after just seven wins from 33 matches.

Brown was out of the game until October 2006 when he was appointed as first team coach at Hull to aid Parkinson. A little over five weeks passed before Parkinson was ousted and Brown came in as caretaker. Three wins and a draw from the first six matches earned him the job permanently and the 49-year-old Geordie has not looked back.

With 35 wins from 81 games, his 43 per cent win ratio is impressive especially when consider that Hull spent six months battling relegation.

The boss uses much of what he learned from his Bolton days, taking great care in player conditioning, diets and forward planning. It's proved to be hugely successful but life will be far more difficult in the Premier League.

The pre-season form of ex-Manchester City midfielder Geovanni, who joined the Tigers on a free transfer in July, suggests there will be a reliance on him to open up defences and create problems with Campbell back at Manchester United. The Brazil international, part of his country's squad at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and also the 2001 Copa America, once cost Barcelona £12million before moving to Benfica for £11million.

Geovanni struggled to make an impression at the City of Manchester Stadium, with the likes of Blumer Elano and Martin Petrov stealing the limelight, but at Hull he will be the hub of the midfield, able to play in the centre or on the right wing. His career has stalled since leaving Benfica in 2006, so he must reignite his career after failing to live up to those high price tags in Spain and Portugal.

There is little doubt that survival will be classed as a success for Hull in their maiden Premier League campaign. Contrary to what some believe, it seems unlikely they will be anywhere near as woeful as Derby were last season. Can they stay up? They have a chance.

Brown has made some astute signings in Geovanni, Bernard Mendy, George Boateng and £2million record signing Peter Halmosi and they already look better equipped than the Rams ever were.

Added to that, the Hull board and their manager are working in unison rather than as a fractious unit. It's amazing what harmony and belief can achieve.


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