Football: Joyce's Tigers tale in need of revision

Tomorrow's third-round tie links the two clubs at opposite ends of the League - and comes as a blessed relief for Hull. By Jon Culley
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IT IS said that there are some people at the top of English football who would do away with the FA Cup, driven by their elitism to regard everything outside the Premiership and European Champions' League as less and less relevant.

What a sad fate that would be for the competition that is the essence of football tradition, sounding the death knell for such dwindling romance as remains in a game seduced by commercialism. There would be none of those marvellous, giant-killing dramas that bring winter Saturdays alive; ties like that for which Villa Park is preparing would simply not happen.

Tomorrow's third-round match between Aston Villa and Hull City represents the very top of the Premier League against the very bottom of the Nationwide: first against 92nd in the English pecking order. It would be difficult to come up with two other clubs whose respective circumstances are so vastly different: Villa rolling their dice among the biggest players, the Tigers merely rolling, from one week to the next, trying to win themselves the hope of a future. Yet for 90 minutes all other distractions will be suspended as 11 men meet 11.

"For us, it is just a fantastic occasion, a day that will make us some money and a game we could even win," Warren Joyce, Hull's player-manager, said.

"It is a break, a chance to play without pressure. But it should not distract attention from the real task ahead of us, which is to get enough points to keep us in the League."

Joyce was obliged to confront reality seven weeks ago when Mark Hateley, the high-profile manager brought in by the Hull's former owner, the tennis entrepreneur David Lloyd, was dismissed by the consortium that had just bought Lloyd out.

The 33-year-old former captain, who served Bolton, Preston, Plymouth and Burnley before moving to Boothferry Park in 1996, had by then effectively become Hateley's assistant. Were it not for his popularity on the terraces - he was Hull's player of the year last season - he might not have survived the shake-up, but, after impressing the new regime in his period as caretaker, Joyce was confirmed as the new man in charge.

"It is not an easy situation," he said. "But then you have to be realistic and accept that the opportunity would not have cropped up if we had not been in a mess."

Lloyd's reign had been a traumatic one. The Great Britain Davis Cup captain, who made a fortune from a string of indoor tennis centres, pumped pounds 4m into a dream of transforming City from footballing outpost into a major concern. But he was opposed in his plans to quit Boothferry Park and blamed by supporters for City's decline on the field. Local distrust of the Essex boy turned close to hatred when he accused Hull people of "living in the dark ages".

Lloyd threatened to close the club but was dissuaded at the 11th hour when Tom Belton, the potato farmer who was once chairman of Scunthorpe, arrived with a 12-strong consortium to buy him out.

City are no longer on the brink but after four consecutive League defeats they enter 1999 six points adrift of next-to-bottom Scarborough, requiring dramatic improvement if they are not to start next season in the Conference.

It is a fate Joyce refuses to contemplate. "If I thought we couldn't stay in the League I'd might as well not be here," he said. "But we have not been losing by big scores.

"Mark left me with some players with a lot of potential but there were not enough men about the place," Joyce said. "Ben Morley, who scored our first goal at Luton in the last round, is only 18 and we have half a dozen others in the squad aged 20 or less. We needed some experience."

Armed with a modest transfer pot, Joyce paid pounds 60,000 each for defenders Jason Whittle (from Stoke) and Stephen Swales (from Reading) and a further pounds 25,000 for the Scarborough forward Gareth Williams. And he persuaded John McGovern, the manager who launched his career at Bolton, to become his right-hand man.

Having learned to coach at Manchester United's school of excellence - he worked there while playing for Burnley - Joyce has come to the job with a clear philosophy. But given that circumstances force him to continue playing, the touchline experience of McGovern is vital.

"Combining two roles has made it harder still," he said. "Better player- managers than me find it tough to do both jobs and there are only three of us on the staff - John, myself and Rod Arnold, who looks after the youth team.

"On any given day I might be training in the morning, sitting on the phone all afternoon and watching a game at night. If I get an injury, just finding the time for treatment can be a nightmare."

He watched Villa lose at Blackburn last Saturday evening, after dashing from Hull's match at Chester in the afternoon, although having seen Villa on television so many times there was little to find out that he did not already know.

"We'll give it our best and try to win as we would any other game," he said. "But whatever the result it is a chance for the club to make some cash and for the 6,000 fans coming with us it is a day out to enjoy.

"The fans have been different class since I've been in charge. And the directors have given me a lot of support, too. After our game at Scunthorpe, when the lads worked hard and were unlucky to be beaten, several of them came down to the dressing-room afterwards. You don't get that too often when you have lost.

"They deserve a good day, too. We're all in this fight together."