Championship 2021/22: Revitalised Hull City out to banish the memories of relegation surrender

Grant McCann leads a Tigers side high on confidence after bouncing back at the first attempt.

Few teams make an instant return to the Championship after dropping into the third tier, but Hull City became only the eighth team in as many seasons to achieve that feat when they were crowned champions after beating Wigan Athletic.

Earning promotion from a division as a 'big' club is far from easy, but Hull carved their exit from League One with a style that few teams could oppose. After bowing out of the Championship with a distinguishable lack of desire, Hull are returning to the second tier with a swashbuckling swagger.

Playing out from the back - but not overplaying - while pressing in numbers and attacking with purpose, Grant McCann's men were the second-highest scorers in the division with 80. Only Blackpool could better the Tigers' defensive record of 38 goals conceded.

McCann's forward line of Keane Lewis-Potter, Mallik Wilks and Josh Magennis was accountable for a half-century of goals, but Hull's success was a reflection of a collective group rather than the displays of individuals.

The preparations heading into the season were crucial in rebuilding team morale after a damaging relegation. McCann felt it was important to inspire a response to the harrowing surrender that ended with relegation from the Championship - the Tigers won just one of their last 20 games having been on the verge of the play-offs on New Year's Day.

He did so by drilling inspiration into his players in the shape of a motto. 'Surrender the Me for the We' were the words that helped unity become the central demand.

After promotion to the Championship, the message will be the same. McCann insisted that those who earned promotion will play their part in the Championship. "We wanted to recruit players where, if we went up, they'd be good enough to play in the next division," said McCann.

Greg Docherty, Wilks and Jones all capable of a step up

Recruitment was the key to Hull's revival, identifying areas of improvement and nailing their strategy.

Greg Docherty was arguably the most successful of City's summer acquisitions, arriving from Rangers for a fee of £400,000. The 24-year-old has impressed with his bursts of pace from midfield, which he allies with an equally impressive final ball.

Docherty struck an almost telepathic partnership with George Honeyman in the middle of the park, with the pair blessed with similar levels of dynamism and energy. Success next season will hinge on how City's young squad adapts to a higher level, but Docherty is a player who has the attributes tailor-made for the step up to Championship soccer.

When Alfie Jones joined City on a free transfer from Southampton, he was expected to provide back-up to the centre-back pairing Reece Burke and Jacob Greaves.

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The 23-year-old was made to wait for his time to shine but when it arrived he proved to be a level up on Richie Smallwood at the base of midfield, while giving Burke a run for his money at centre-back.

If City ever needed a calming presence, Jones was there to dictate proceedings, while his positional awareness and unselfish work often went unnoticed. Smallwood's injury in early February only furthered his impact on the team, showing that he's both an accurate distributor of the ball and a player capable of breaking up attacks.

It is no coincidence that Hull won 11 out of 15 games when Regan Slater replaced the injured Smallwood and Alfie Jones slotted in at centre-back. Hull will look to add numbers in the middle of the park, but you'd struggle to find a free transfer that could match the versatility and quality of Jones heading into the Championship campaign.

Many of Hull's squad have their best years to come and this is certainly the case with 22-year-winger-forward Mallik Wilks. Wilks has an undoubted eye for goal, as 22 in all competitions will testify, but has much more to his game.

He is a great carrier of the ball, often bullying his way past defenders and winning the majority of his duels with the opposing full-back. He's built up an on-field understanding with Keane Lewis-Potter, as well as an off-field bromance.

Although sometimes rash with his final product, Wilks is beginning to pick the correct option with more regularity as emphasised by the number of assists he's chalked up. From having two assists to his name in March to ending the season with nine in all competitions, Wilks is regularly sacrificing individual gain for the benefit of the team.

The third tier is known for its physicality, but when Wilks was tested in that department, he passed it with flying colours. The Championship is more than winning physical battles, however, and Wilks will be judged on whether he's capable of finding the back of the net with fewer opportunities to do so. That's if he is still at Hull City, of course, with Premier League sides Newcastle United and Crystal Palace reported to be keeping tabs on the Leeds-born attacker.

Lewis-Potter and Greaves, both graduates of the club's academy and still only 20, featured for the bulk of the season. Also interesting Premier League clubs, there is a genuine expectation that both can go on to become top-flight players.

The Championship is the next step in the development of Greaves, who spent the 2019/20 campaign at Cheltenham in League Two. For Lewis-Potter it will be a second shot at the level, having mainly featured from the bench in the relegation season.

The academy talent breaking into the squad has been a breath of fresh air for everyone associated with the club and their development has been helped massively by several experienced heads.

The absence of leadership was filled in the close season, a central component to their revival. Richie Smallwood has become a driving force as captain while Honeyman, this season's undoubted talisman, was the player who set the standard on the pitch. Hull-born full-back and stand-in captain Lewie Coyle has also been a revelation on and off the field.

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Two main areas to strengthen

For Hull to make the step up to the Championship, added quality is needed in the heart of their defence. For all the defensive attributes that Burke, Greaves and Jones offer, none of them are a commanding presence.

Although Greaves is developing into just that, Hull needs a centre-back at the peak of their powers. Defending set-pieces was the Tigers' Achilles heel this term, conceding a third of their goals from dead-ball situations. If Hull are to compete defensively, an experienced Championship centre-back is needed to add extra competition, and steel.

Hull added loan players to their squad in January in the shape of attacking midfielder Dan Crowley and the more defensively minded Regan Slater. McCann could look to pursue a move for the latter, who has come into his own in recent months, should Sheffield United be willing to negotiate. But a failure to do so would mean there are gaps to plug in central midfield.

The East Yorkshire side will also look to add depth to their midfield with a holding midfielder to start ahead of Smallwood, a player for whom the Championship always seems a step too far.

The ideal target would be someone comfortable at receiving the ball on the half-turn, who is excellent at reading the game and has a solid range of passing. This sort of player would come at a price, but the signings of Docherty and Jones prove that great business can be done without blowing a big hole in the budget.

What to expect?

A look back on the last seven seasons shows the average finishing position for the League One champions in their debut Championship season is 16th.

Wigan are the only title winners to suffer a subsequent relegation - in 2016/17.

Wolves carried on where they left off after winning the title in 2014/15, finishing seventh, while Sheffield United concluded their debut campaign in 10th before being promoted to the Premier League the following season.

There were suggestions from some that Hull City's title win was helped by having no supporters in the stadium, with the players able to focus on the task at hand without facing pressure from inside the ground.

The supporters will return next season eager to see McCann's brand of easy-on-the-eye soccer in the flesh. However, credit is still in short supply for the Northern Irishman with memories of the 2019/20 collapse still fresh.

The foundations are there to become a stable Championship club, with improved youth facilities churning out talented players and an admirable and sustainable transfer strategy.

The model can be likened to Luton Town, who have comfortably stayed in the Championship for successive seasons after winning League One in 2019. Luton have kept a core of their side from their time in the third tier while adding quality loan signings from the Premier League and seasoned Championship players.

A lot will hinge on how Hull utilise the transfer market and getting business over the line early, like they did last summer, will be crucial to the embedding period. McCann said he has built a team that can compete in the division above, so he believes his current crop of players have what it takes.

Off-field issues

For all the optimism on the pitch, fans know they are never far away from controversy off it with owner Assem Allam and his son and vice-chairman Ehab in charge.

Wounds from the bid to rename the club Hull City Tigers are still raw. The manner of Steve Bruce's departure following promotion to the Premier League did little to help heal the rift between the fans and owners, while previous manager Nigel Adkins also left in acrimonious circumstances.

A failure to follow through on pledges to sell the club and a controversial membership scheme sowed further disharmony and it wouldn't take much to break the uneasy truce afforded by their promotion campaign.

McCann has already indicated the money won't be there to fund a promotion tilt. Supporters expect a club with Hull's stature to be challenging in the upper end of the Championship, but a team can only be taken so far when operating on a shoestring budget.

For all the Andy Robertsons, Harry Maguires and Jarrod Bowens progressing from Hull, there have been plenty of David Milinkovics.

Prediction

McCann and his staff nailed the recruitment last summer and will have surely learned from the surrender of two seasons ago.

Harmony off the pitch may prove as important as who they put on it. But, with an exciting crop of young talent coming through and a few key acquisitions, a comfortable mid-table finish should be seen as progress.

Final position: 15th

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