Alas, Steve Bruce, we knew him well, but the question of whether the former Manchester United great faces relegation on Sunday is very much to the fore. Hull’s survival is dependent not only on beating Bruce’s former side at the KC Stadium, but in Newcastle United dropping points at home as well. Bruce has never enjoyed victory over United; it may take the swing of outrageous fortune to end that run.
Hull’s slide has come on the back of six defeats in the past eight games, including each of the last three. It leaves the Tigers on the precipice of a drop into the Championship and the vast reduction in income that inevitably comes. Relegation will be tough on Bruce, although Hull has so rarely impressed this season that it would not feel unfair. This, despite Newcastle’s cataclysmic run of nine defeats and one draw in the past 10 matches.
Still, Bruce’s side was unfortunate in defeat at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend after dominating for large periods only for two quick Spurs goals to end the game early in the second half. Victory over United will require a similar level of performance.
Meanwhile, the Reds are highly unlikely to make third place in the Premier League, which may yet instill a sense of complacency in Louis van Gaal’s side. United must beat Hull by at least six goals and hope that Arsenal loses at home to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday. Neither result is probable, leaving Van Gaal’s squad with one foot on the beach and a mid-August Champions League qualifier to ponder.
Bruce, meanwhile, seeks one final surge. It is, he says, a “one game season after 37 games” – one that could keep his side in the nation’s top division and, in all probability, Bruce in a job next week.
“It’s a big positive that this game is at home,” said Bruce on Friday. “We’ve got one of the giants of English football coming to us and we hope that with the fans right behind us and the players ready for the challenge ahead, we can upset the apple-cart.
“We have to believe that there is one final twist in this and it needs to go our way. This club has seen its fair share of last-day drama in recent years and it has worked out well for us. I remember Phil Brown singing in 2009, and it was the same teams involved that day as this week, which is quite remarkable. We hope it is the same final outcome this time, but we know we have it all to do because we have to win on Sunday.”
Van Gaal is sympathetic, but remains professional. After all there are many United fans that no only hold Bruce in high regard, but might well enjoy Newcastle’s relegation. Such is the nature of schadenfreude and contempt for Mike Ashley’s peculiar brand of club ownership.
“I have said to the players in spite of him being a Manchester United guy, we have to do what everybody is expecting from us,” van Gaal said. “We have the same approach as ever. We have to give our utmost best. We have to do that for the honesty of the league. I have to play my strongest team because we have to give everything for all the other Premier League clubs and especially Newcastle United. We have won six points off Newcastle and we have to win six points off Hull, I think.”
Closer to home, Van Gaal’s players also hold one last chance to impress before a summer transfer window that is likely to bring further evolution of the Dutchman’s squad. It will be, said Van Gaal last week, a “tough summer” for some of his players. Radamel Falcao and Rafael da Silva are heading for the exit, with a clutch of others uncertain about their Old Trafford future.
On the pitch United will make a late call on David de Gea, who was substituted last weekend with a hamstring problem in what was probably the Spaniard’s last match at Old Trafford. If De Gea is unfit Victor Valdes will again deputise for the Real Madrid-bound stopper.
“He has trained today but only with our goalkeeper trainer. He still has a little problem so I want to wait a day longer because I want him to play against Hull City,” said Van Gaal. “I think De Gea is a better goalkeeper. It’s also our last match of the season. I think you have to put out your strongest team because it’s very important for Hull.”
Elsewhere Wayne Rooney is available after injury and will play, with Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini competing for two spots in Van Gaal’s attack. Falcao and Robin van Persie may well start on the bench in what could be their last games in United’s red shirt.
If the game means little for many, then momentum heading into the summer counts for something at least. After all, the Reds have won just once in the past five games – a steak that also includes three defeats on the spin. It is an end of season collapse that means Van Gaal’s side will probably face a tough Champions League qualifier early next season.
“We don’t have a great deal to play for but, as the manager has said, we always play for that pride,” said defender Chris Smalling, who has emerged from the season with significant credit. “We’ll be going out there to make sure we finish the season on a high, and for all those travelling fans who come, we will give them something to sing about.”
Meanwhile, Bruce needs one final performance this season in a desperate last bid to stay in the division. In truth there have been too few this season; a failing mostly of his players’ quality, but also of a manager who has been unable to draw inspiration from his side at a crucial time.
Bruce could name an unchanged side for Sunday’s game after last weekend’s positive performance. Jake Livermore is suspended because of a failed drug test, but Bruce enjoys a fit squad.
“We worked so hard to get here, but when you get to the Premier League you find it is even harder to get the results you need,” said Bruce. “But we will try, that’s the business we are in. By that I don’t mean we will be going gung ho against United. They have better players than us, so that would be a mistake. What we need is a performance, not just a show of fight, and we need the composure to take our chances.
“After that,” says Bruce, his side needs “a bit of luck, because it must be our turn.”
Hull (3-5-2): Harper; Chester, Dawson, McShane; Elmohamady, Mayler, Huddlestone, Quinn, Brady; N’Doye, Jelavic
United (4-1-4-1): Valdes; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Rojo; Blind; Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Hull: Jakupovic, McGregor, Bruce, Figueroa, Rosenior, Robertson, Aluko, Sagbo, Hernández, Dudgeon
United: Lindegaard, McNair, Evans, Blackett, Januzaj, Lingard, Di Maria, Wilson, Falcao, Van Persie
Hull 5 – Draw 3 – United 19
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistants: H Lennard, D Cann
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Hull 1 – 1 United
£1 bet club
Marouane Fellaini to score first @ 9/1
Running total: £5.50 up
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