Who’d have thunk it, Steve Bruce, the old bruiser, perhaps the last Manchester United central defender genuinely out of the old school: football hipster. Bruce was never technically the strongest as a player and has rarely been considered a coaching innovator, yet has consistently impressed in his flexibility as manager of Hull City. Bruce’s bravery in deploying a back-three in the Premier League this season matches the curiosity of the side doing so in the Championship last.
Bruce’s approach will pose a different challenge to United – one of breaking down a defensively sound, if inferior opponent, and doing it on the road. After all, Hull boasts one of the finest defensive records in Europe having conceded just three times at home this season. In that just one home defeat has come – a surprise defeat to Crystal Palace in November.
Indeed, Hull has garnered 20 points this season, more than half way on to the 40 that typically guarantees Premier League survival. After all, since the Premier League shifted to 20 teams, just three have gone down with more than 40 points: Sunderland on 40 in 1997, Bolton Wanderers on 40 in 2003, and West Ham United with 42 in 2003.
With a home match to come against Fulham before New Year’s day Bruce has good reason feel confident of his team’s chances of remaining in the top division. Little wonder the former Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland manager is achieving plaudits this season.
It is an opportunity in the top division that might not have come Bruce’s way had Hull not been promoted last season. After all, the 52-year-old was sacked as manager of Sunderland in November 2011 with the Mackems bottom of the Premier League. It was a humiliating end to his time on Wearside, which preposterously Bruce claimed was due to his Newcastle roots.
“Steve Bruce has done a good job with Hull – he has really brought them back,” Moyes said Monday.
“They looked as though they were dipping and going in the wrong direction. I think he has done a great job in getting momentum going again. They have got some good players and they will be a hard team to beat, as they have had a decent first half to the season.
“You have either got to score plenty of goals or not concede goals – it is one or the other. If they have a good base and are hard to beat, that is something they can build on and hope for that odd goal here and there to win the games. We know it will be a tough game at Hull.”
United travel east still nursing a rash of injuries, although striker Robin van Persie is not far away from full fitness and will feature early in the New Year. However, Marouanne Fellaini will miss another two months having undergone wrist surgery this week. Nani and Nemanja Vidić also remain on the sidelines.
Injuries leave Moyes short in central midfield, although with three games to come in six days from Boxing Day to New Years the Scot has little choice but to rotate.
Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones may again get the nod in central midfield at Hull, although Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Anderson are also available. Michael Carrick is close to a return and there is an outside chance he may feature at Hull.
Elsewhere, Ashley Young is pushing for a start having scored twice in as many games, while Shinji Kagawa has sat out much of the past month with illness and is due some game time in a busy period.
“Robin is progressing, he’s coming on, and he is feeling quite good,” said Moyes.
“He had a similar injury at Arsenal on his thigh, so it is something we have to be sure about [before he returns]. It wouldn’t be much good if it got repeated, so we will try to take it steady. Obviously the medical team are controlling, but we speak to Robin as well about how he feels. We’re doing everything we can to make sure he’s well looked after and well treated.
“We just couldn’t get [Fellaini] recovered from his back injury. We thought his back would be okay after 10 days but it wasn’t getting any better, so we made a quick decision to get his wrist operated on, to get it done quickly.”
Meanwhile, Bruce could field an unchanged side for the fourth game in succession, although former Red Robbie Brady is unlikely to be fit, while Sone Aluko and Stephen Quinn are both out. Former Reds James Chester, and Paul McShane will feature in the matchday squad.
It has been a campaign in which expectations on the pitch are being met from a newly promoted side, although there remains some angst on the terraces with owner Assem Allam having applied to rename the club ‘Hull Tigers’. The FA will rule by next summer – in the meantime Hull supporters’ vociferous campaign to retain 100 years of tradition is gaining momentum.
Still, with United in town supporter unrest will be put aside for a moment, with Hull seeking a first victory against the Reds in 38 years.
“Over the Christmas period, we host the champions and they’ve run into some form which you would expect them to do,” said Bruce.
“Traditionally it’s the biggest gate you have and it’s just a great occasion for all of us. When Man United come to town, it’s the biggest and best occasion. For all of us at Hull, what better thing to have than have them on Boxing Day.
“We’re all getting used to David Moyes standing there but the change has happened. Let’s enjoy the challenge and see if we can take something off them.”
History points to an away victory, with United having beaten the Tigers on the last seven meetings. Hull won a Division Two encounter at Boothferry Park in 1975.
Today, the the home side has made a new fortress at the KC, with Bruce surely confident that while United remains favourites to secure another crucial three points it’s unlikely to be anything as one side as the last meeting between these two sides – a 4-0 United victory in 2010.
Hull City v Manchester United v West Ham United, Premier League, KC Stadium, 12.45pm, 26 December 2013
Hull (3-5-2): McGregor; Chester, Bruce, Davies; Elmohamedy, Livermore, Huddlestone, Meyler, Figueroa; Sagbo, Graham. Subs from: Harper, McShane, Faye, Rosenior, Koren, Fryatt, Boyd
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Giggs, Jones; Valencia, Kagawa, Young; Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Ferdinand, Buttner, Januzaj, Zaha, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Welbeck, Hernández
Hull 5 Draw 3 United 16
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Bennett, S Ledger
Fourth Official: D Whitestone