When Mike Phelan was given the chance to lead Hull City back into the Premier League, he will have hoped a caretaker reign would extend to two attractive fixtures at the front end of his diary.
After the looming international break there is a trip to Phelan’s boyhood team Burnley, where he spent his formative years as a professional footballer, but first, on Saturday evening, comes a date with the club that went on to define him.
Manchester United was where Phelan spent 19 years as a player and coach. Between 1989 and 1994 he was part of a side that began Sir Alex Ferguson’s gold rush, winning the FA Cup, European Cup Winners Cup, League Cup and a maiden Premier League title, before returning to the coaching staff at Old Trafford in 1999.
A gradual climb up the ladder saw Phelan eventually serve as assistant manager for the last five years of Ferguson’s time at Manchester United, winning the Premier League crown three times. And then it all ended three years ago. The appointment of David Moyes found no room for Phelan in the United backroom setup, ensuring it was not only Ferguson that departed after lifting the Premier League trophy as the finale to the 2012-13 season.
Phelan’s path has since crossed that of his former club just once (a day that saw Hull City relegated 18 months ago following a 0-0 draw at the KCOM Stadium), but Saturday’s tea-time reunion promises to be far more special.
As the Hull City caretaker who has somehow cajoled 13 fit senior players into winning their opening two games of the Premier League season, Phelan deserves his chance to take a shot at Manchester United. A third consecutive win would seem a remote possibility, but it grows increasingly foolhardy to write off a team with such a habit of upsetting the odds.
Phelan, who continues to use the car parking space allocated for Hull City’s assistant manager, has predictably stressed this weekend is not about him. “I don’t think there is anything I have to prove to Manchester United, my whole chapter of being part of the club’s history stands on its own,” he told the Manchester Evening News this week.
“I am not in it on Saturday to gain any credibility out of it. I have done my job at United and did it reasonably well. But I may have to beat them to get the job at Hull. That’s the only reason I want to win.”
Phelan does not necessarily need to topple Jose Mourinho’s side to land the manager’s role on a long-term basis with Hull City, but a third consecutive victory would surely remove all doubt over his future. Delivering nine points from a possible nine would be in the realms of working a miracle. Looking beyond that man would surely be unthinkable.
No matter what happens on Saturday evening, Phelan has already won over Hull City fans. In the past two outings, wins at Swansea and then in the EFL Cup at Exeter, travelling supporters have chanted “We want Phelan in” as a serenade to their unassuming caretaker.
There is no longer a candidate available that could make such a compelling case to succeed Steve Bruce, and there is even an argument for Phelan to be named manager of the month for August already. Others might end this first segment of the Premier League season with more points on the board, but none have handled the adversity thrown at Phelan.
Hull City remain a club gazing down at its navel in the closing days of the summer transfer window. They have their transfer targets and have also tabled bids, according to Phelan, but still supporters wait for the club to make their first signing since January.
Late activity could see a threadbare squad bolstered before Manchester United arrive in town but as it stands there will be just 14 senior players fit and available. The one positive is that defender Harry Maguire’s return from injury means it is no longer just 13.
Hull City are likely to field a side assembled for somewhere in the region of £40 million on Saturday, a figure less than half of what it cost Manchester United to sign Paul Pogba from Juventus this month. With the hosting club yet to spend a single penny this summer, it is one of the biggest financial mismatches the Premier League has ever seen.
Not that Phelan will mind too much. The visit of his former club is another free hit for a team that has shown immense character in beating Leicester and Swansea in previous weekends. The 53-year-old will just hope they’ve got one more performance in them as Manchester United present the chance to secure a first management role.
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