With the dreams of International football and Euro 2020 now deferred for another year, the Sky Bet Championship is back from its near three month hiatus – and what a fixture to start for both Hull City and Charlton Athletic.
Surely to be dubbed as the relegation clash of the weekend – and only the first of nine games for every team in the Championship – pressure will be riding on both Grant McCann and Lee Bowyer to get off to a flying start in each sides bid for survival and avoid dropping down to League One.
Both sets of fans – no doubt watching from TVs and computer screens at home – will likely be nervous wrecks come 3pm this Saturday.
Story behind the game
As the postponement of football was announced back in Mid March, both Hull and Charlton were becoming rather nervous as the number of games were starting to run out. Hull were especially feeling the pressure. Decimated by both injuries and transfers – star men Kamil Grosicki and Jarrod Bowen left in January for West Brom and West Ham respectively – Grant McCann’s side were statistically the worst in the division, with no wins since New Year’s Day in the League. Charlton were hardly in better shape. Despite winning two games from their previous five before the lockdown struck – with wins in February against Luton Town and Nottingham Forest - they sit two points worse off than their East Yorkshire rivals.
Back in December, a very late Keane Lewis Potter header (that was eventually given as a Dillon Phillips own goal) salvaged a 2-2 draw for the Tigers at The Valley. McCann will want his side to show the same fighting spirit in this game – although Bowyer will be hoping for no repeats of any drama, should his side give themselves a chance of winning at the KCOM Stadium.
The statistics do not look particularly good for either side. Hull have lost 10 out of 19 games played at home. That is the most in the entire league. Not only that, but they have conceded the most goals (33) at home along with Barnsley and Queens Park Rangers, and have won the least number of points at home out of any team in the league. 21 points out of 57 available does not suggest the KCOM is a fortress. In addition, Charlton sit 22nd in the away performance table rankings so far. They have only won three games away from The Valley this season, and have drawn four and lost eleven. Only Luton, Barnsley and Stoke City can claim to have worse away records.
McCann is to be without now ex-captain and vice-captain Eric Lichaj and Jackson Irvine, as well as Steven Kingsley and Marcus Maddison. All four players failed to secure contract extensions to keep them at the club earlier this week. Jordy De Vjis – the newly appointed skipper – and Reece Burke are available in the heart of defense, as well as a number of other players who did manage to sign contract extensions. Kevin Stewart will no doubt be important in the midfield, as may Mallik Wilks, should Barnsley allow City to extend his loan which is still up in the air. Many City fans will be desperate to see James Scott – yet to play for the club after signing from Motherwell in January – as well as Keane Lewis Potter, with the young local striker proving to be a thorn in the Latics’ side back in December.
The visitors will be without key players too – the much-documented Lyle Taylor will be unavailable after failing contract talks, as well as Jonathon Leko and Connor Gallagher both now back at their parent clubs (West Brom and Chelsea respectively). This will be a massive blow to Charlton, who have relied on Taylor for many of their goals earlier in the season. Boywer will no doubt look to Andre Green, Macauley Bonne and Aiden McGeady to provide the creativity and goals in their place.
(4-3-3) Long; Pennington, De Vjis, Burke, Elder; Stewart, Da Silva, Toral; Scott, Bowler, Eaves.
(4-3-3) Phillips; Matthews, Lockyer, Pearce, Doughty; Pratley, Cullen, Williams; McGeady, Green, Bonne.
Jon Toral v Darren Pratley
Toral is undoubtedly a massive talent – with Barcelona and Arsenal on his previous club list – but the midfielder has struggled with injuries throughout his career at Hull. He has only started six games this season, but could prove to be the match winner with his undoubted quality on the ball. With Jackson Irvine now departed, McCann will surely look to Toral as almost an unknown quantity to give that extra bit of creativity in the final third of the park. Ex Bolton Wanderers defensive midfielder Pratley will no doubt be a physical challenge to Toral, but having hardly been used this season, Hull fans may fancy their chances of a rare start for the Spaniard.
Aiden McGeady v Matthew Pennington
The story of two loan players – McGeady on loan at Charlton from Sunderland, and Pennington on loan from Premier League outfit Everton. After turning 34 in lockdown, the Irishman McGeady has nine years on his counterpart - but both were at Everton during the 2014 season when McGeady transferred from Spartak Moscow. The ex-team mates will no doubt be eager to get one over on each other, and with only a dozen or so appearances between them this season, perhaps the restart could bring the best out of the two loanees.
What the managers have said
McCann spoke in his press conference about the departures of Lichaj, Irvine, Kingsley & Maddison, and reiterated that he only wanted players who were committed to keeping Hull in the League.
“Yes, we’ve lost some players but I would rather focus on the nine players who have signed and committed themselves to the Club. It’s testament to them that want to stay here and help the team for these next nine games. So, we’ll concentre on the nine who have stayed. We’ll look to get the best out of those, along with the rest of the group, in the remainder of the season.”
On the prospect of playing Charlton, McCann was upbeat.
“Everyone in the group is really looking forward to the game. We’ve had a good few weeks of training and some good friendly games to help us prepare. We’ve trained at the KCOM as well and we understand what everything will look and feel like with no fans inside.
”I’ve been really impressed with the mentality of the group since they’ve come back. They understand we’ve got nine big games, starting against Charlton at the weekend, and we want to get off to a good start. As I say, it’s a game that we’re all looking forward to and hopefully we can come away with the right result.”
When asked about how big a challenge is it for opposition manager Lee Bowyer to keep Charlton up, he was determined that his players have got what it takes.
“It’s going to be tough, there’s no getting away from that. But, as a group we have a good togetherness and good fighting spirit. We’ve been under pressure before – last season – I think we’ve learnt a lot.
“In some teams, once we get to the nitty gritty – i.e. this Saturday – some players aren’t going to be able to handle the pressure. That’s just natural. Some will grasp it, and some will fade away from the pressure. Im just hoping that my group stick together – which I know they will – and they will come through it. But its going to be tough, not just for us, but for all teams… it’s going to be difficult to sustain the level, especially towards the end of the games.”
On the circumstances going into the game, Bowyer felt it could help them, although losing his attacking threats was a big blow.
“I think having no crowd, it might help the youngsters… they will get on the ball and try to make things happen. I believe we have enough… we have near on a full squad as it stands today. We’re just going to need a bit of luck, and all teams are going to need luck. [On Lyle Taylor, Jonathon Leko and Connor Gallagher being unavailable] Losing those three players, they were our main scorers.”