x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hull's moment of truth

Six games in, the abiding image of Hull's season had appeared to have been etched in the memory.

Six games in, the abiding image of Hull's season had appeared to have been etched in the memory. When Daniel Cousin soared above William Gallas to head in City's winner at the Emirates Stadium, it ranked as the climax of a meteoric rise. Some three months later, a very different impression was created, and it is one they cannot now shed.

Trailing 4-0 at the interval at Manchester City, Phil Brown delivered his team talk on the pitch in front of the away supporters. A public chastisement in front of the travelling fans left former players aghast and Hull's footballers privately irritated at their humiliation. It is not the sole reason why Hull, briefly level on points with Liverpool and Chelsea in October, are on the brink of the relegation zone as they face Stoke City today.

Yet it was a defining moment in their campaign, as a descent that began gradually may involve a precipitous plunge back into the Championship. They are now 17th - still two or three places higher than the pre-season predictions - but struggling to arrest the longest decline in the division. Once, in popular perception, fearless upstarts with an attacking ethos, they have now acquired a reputation as sore losers. Whereas Brown's brand of bold management was richly rewarded in a golden autumn, now his risks look misjudged.

While pragmatism, rather than maverick management, has prospered in the relegation battle, Brown paid £5million (Dh27.7m) for a midfielder limited to 37 minutes football by a knee problem (Jimmy Bullard) in a transfer window when today's opponents, Stoke, acquired a proven Premier League goalscorer, James Beattie, for rather less. George Boateng has described it as the biggest game in Hull's history. His fellow midfielder, Richard Garcia, concurred: "It's definitely up there," said the Australian, admitting that the victories at Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle appear distant days.

"It almost seems like years ago," he added. "In the first half of the season we were flying high. When results aren't going for you it seems longer and longer." Games have been lost, and so has some of the neutral support. Hull have four successive defeats and a solitary win in 18 league matches while, amid suggestions that the initial praise went to his head, the limelight has lingered on Brown to the extent that his ever-present tan and more outspoken comments have attracted derision.

Nevertheless, Hull's players have another explanation for their slide. While commitment has been evident, especially from their seasoned professionals, they have a meagre tally of two goals in six games. "We have been playing really well but we haven't been scoring goals," added Garcia. "Goals are like gold. The encouraging thing is that the performances have been there and that the attitude has been good."

The same can be said at the other end of the table. Liverpool go to West Ham aiming, if only temporarily, to reduce the gap to Manchester United to three points. If Fernando Torres has recovered from his latest hamstring problem, he can partner Steven Gerrard for the first time in more than a month, though Xabi Alonso has been ruled out. The stakes are high, just as they are for Hull.