Marco Silva had used the word quite deliber-ately. At his first meeting with the media as Hull City’s head coach, on Jan 6, he declared the club would need “a miracle” to remain in the Premier League.
“I had read it in some of the newspapers,” Silva explains. “But this word, for me, is an example: how hard is our task? Many, many people didn’t believe it is possible.”
Not so many disbelieve now. Hull, anchored to the bottom of the league on that bleak January morning, are now out of the bottom three, two points above Swansea City ahead of their trip to Stoke City on Saturday. Incredibly Hull have given themselves a chance; Silva, meanwhile, is one of the hottest managerial properties in the country.
This is his first interview since arriving in England and, as with every other aspect of how he goes about his job, he has prepared meticulously – unlike many pundits, who poured scorn on his appointment.
“What [sic] is this geezer?” spluttered Paul Merson on Sky Sports, in a now-infamous on-screen rant. His colleague Phil Thompson was also quick to pitch in, declaring “He’s not got a clue”.
Silva’s response is withering. “People have asked me this question and the fact is: they didn’t do their homework about my career, did they?” he says politely:
“But, honestly, it’s not important and it doesn’t make a difference to my job. It was zero, zero motivation for me [to prove them wrong]. If I needed this motivation to work then it’s not a good sign. It had zero effect on my career, on my job. Nothing.”
If English football’s more insular characters were suspicious about Silva’s arrival, Hull’s players were quickly won over, courtesy of a stirring address to them on his first day.
“The first approach was to pass on the message: everything is difficult but it is also possible,” Silva says. “It’s clear. We were the team who were last in the table. But it’s possible. And I believe – because if I did not believe then I would not be here. And I am not crazy.
“The other thing I told them was: ‘I want your minds to be open because we will change many things’. And we have – nutrition, training – and the final thing I asked is the attitude every day. And the passion. The passion. Because I have one way: bring your real game to every training session. In every dimension: technical, tactical, physical, psychological. This is what I want and at the same level as in a match.”
Silva’s own backroom team also buy into that philosophy. Assistant head coach Joao Pedro Sousa, first-team coach Goncalo Pedro and goalkeeping coach Hugo Oliveira are all sitting in the next room, working, as he talks in his office. The week before they arrived was spent analysing the team, the club, what was needed in the January transfer window and whether they could save them from relegation.
“I studied quickly, fast, and I could identify the problems the team had,” Silva says. An FA Cup win in his first game – against Swansea – set the tone, with five league wins in 12 offering a glimpse of salvation.
“But nothing is finished,” Silva says, preaching caution. “I want to stay focused. We have done until now very good things; changed many things and all the Premier League now believes we are here to fight, to fight. That’s a big change. Maybe three months ago nobody believed. Inside this club we started to believe and if people know better my job now then it’s normal, I feel it’s a normal situation.”
A brief recap of his career suggests the extraordinary transformation at Hull is, indeed, “normal”. At Estoril, Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos he enjoyed astonishing success. He led struggling, tiny Estoril from the second tier of Portuguese football to fifth and then fourth place in the top division and into Europe, then won the Portuguese Cup at Sporting, the club’s first trophy for seven years, and last season took Olympiakos to a 43rd Greek title, winning 28 of their 30 games – finishing 30 points ahead of main rival Panathinaikos. His coaching career came after ending his modest playing days, as a right-back with Estoril, at 34.
“I was more tactical than technical, for sure,” he says when I ask how good he was. At each club he demonstrated the same driven work ethic, meticulous planning and willingness to gamble. At Hull, though, he found a deeper issue – the anger and disillusionment of supporters, weary of the regime of controversial owner Assem Allam.
“I started to understand more after the first game we played at home against Swansea,” he says. “I felt the situation and the connection and the atmosphere was not good. We had to change that.
“So I thought if we started to show the fans that we will fight, OK we may not stay in the Premier League, but we needed to have that connection with them again. The results are one thing but it’s important for me how we achieve the results.
“In three of the games at home we have been behind – against Bournemouth, against West Ham, against Middlesbrough – and we have won. That means a lot. It also helped us reconnect with the fans and the atmosphere now is really very different.”
A positive style of football helped. “I have one idea: if you play better then you have a better chance to win,” Silva says. “So my teams are dominant and I want them to be like that.”
The transfer window was open when Silva arrived so he could make changes – although he also had to deal with the sale, for £20 million, of Hull’s two biggest players: Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore.
“We wanted both players to stay,” Silva says. “We tried. But they had good financial proposals from the other clubs and there was a big, big difference to what we could pay. They also said ‘It’s one big chance for us to improve our careers’ and wanted to leave. They are good players and behaved well but they forced – not in the wrong way – the moves. It left me with a big problem.”
If it felt like a surrender, it emphatically was not. In came seven players, mainly on loan, players such as Liverpool’s Lazar Markovic and Everton’s Oumar Niasse, who followed a familiar Silva template: gifted but underachieving and unwanted by their clubs; players with a point to prove. Silva cites Markovic as the prime example.
“He just wanted to play and really didn’t care about the position the club was in,” he says. “Like every player they only have to prove to me, every day, that they are able to play in the first XI. They don’t have to prove to anyone else. Just me. And it’s not easy to play for me.”
Silva is demanding. Training is intense, he bolstered the squad specifically to add competition for every place in the team, and he confirms that he does pull players, physically, into position on the practice pitches.
“It is the best way to make an impact, to make the players feel and understand what I want them to do and to help them improve,” he says.
Silva always had the “goal” of working in the Premier League and wanted to be only the third Portuguese coach – after Jose Mourinho, whose advice he sought before taking the Hull job, and Andre Villas-Boas, who he also knows well – to work here. Even so much focus has centred on the fact that Silva only signed a contract until the end of this season. Will he stay?
“The deal we have is to focus on the goal,” Silva says. “And what is important is the moment; not the future for me and for the [vice] chairman [Ehab Allam]. My focus to come here is to change the situation of the club.
“All the other issues are not important. I understand all the scrutiny and people want to know but it’s not important for me, for the chairman or for the club at this moment.
“We are preparing the present and the future of the club and the chairman, when we meet, he knows what we want. I am happy here at the club and happy at Hull City and this is the truth.”
Silva adds: “I have the goals and targets clear in my mind. But at the moment it’s not important to talk about this. The club is in the Premier League and if we want to keep it in the Premier League we have to work hard and not lose focus.
“For me, it’s ambition. You want more, always. When you achieve one step you need to get the second step. It’s not just about the games because I want that day-by-day here [at the training ground]. Every club is fighting hard, which makes those details even more important – one step and then the next step and the next step. And I am not satisfied – ever – I want more, always.”
If he keeps Hull up will it be his greatest achievement?
“It’s a difficult question,” Silva says. “In my career I have achieved important titles. So this is a big fight but I only want to talk about that in the future. First I need to work and fight and if I achieve this goal then, after, I will tell you.”
Hull City vs Swansea City: Who will survive?
By Jason Burt
Hull City – Marco Silva: Has transformed Hull’s fortunes, style of play, team and the atmosphere around the club in just a few short months. Has changed everything. The 39-year-old Portuguese is driven, organized and positive and also has the charisma which suggests that he is destined for greater things. Feels akin to Mauricio Pochettino in his approach.
Swansea City– Paul Clement: Inherited a situation almost as dire as Silva’s at Hull and also had an instant impact as he re-organised an under-performing, ragged team giving them far more positive tactics and a greater defensive base. Undoubtedly a good coach, albeit a rookie still as No1. However may come to regret not making more changes in the January window as Swansea have dipped since their initial bounce.
Hull City: Marco Silva builds from the back and needed more strength in-depth and competition for places. In came Andrea Ranocchia – who has been superb and also has a goal threat - to form an excellent partnership in central defence with Harry Maguire, with Michael Dawson and Curtis Davies, regarded as first-choice not so long ago, as back up.
Swansea City: It could be Swansea’s biggest regret that despite signing Martin Olsson at left-back in the January window they did not bring in any central defenders. It has been a problem all season and although they tried, none were signed. Consequently no Premier League team has conceded more goals – 67, three more than Hull – and that could prove to be a telling flaw.
Hull City: Again Marco Silva increased his options in the January window with Oumar Niasse and wingers Lazar Markovic and Kamil Grosecki adding far more pace and power to a team lacking in options and appearing very one-dimensional. Silva wants to attack and score goals and that was shown in the recent win over Middlesbrough.
Swansea City: Swansea are hugely reliant on two players – Fernando Llorente and the outstanding Gylfi Sigurdssson. They have sorely missed Llorente, out injured but now fit, of late, and have no alternative to the striker, while Sigurdsson’s contribution in a struggling team has been extraordinary. If opponents can stop those two then Swansea struggle even more.
Hull City: Three successive home wins have lifted Hull out of the bottom three. They now need to start picking up points on the road – they have not done so since drawing at Manchester United on Feb 1 – but there is real momentum and belief. In truth their home form could, however, be enough if it continues.
Swansea City: Losing away to Hull last month was the start of a slide that has seen Swansea collect just one point – in a goalless home draw against doomed Middlesbrough – from five matches. Paul Clement had an immediate effect with five impressive wins but form has dived and belief has been damaged as they have slipped back.
Hull City: Home matches against Watford and Sunderland appear to be key. Win those and Hull will expect to stay up if they can also gain a point or more away to Stoke City, Southampton or Crystal Palace. They end the season at home to Tottenham Hotspur. The impossible appears possible.
Swansea City: There are winnable games – although they would prefer to play Watford and Sunderland at home, as Hull do. They are also away to Manchester United. Their home fixtures are against Stoke City, Everton before ending the season against West Bromwich Albion. It feels a slightly more difficult run-in than Hull’s especially given current form.
Hull City: 43/50
Swansea City: 35/50