Hull City ended their “quiet” January transfer window by sneaking through two low-key signings. Goalkeeper Dusan Kucak from Legia Warsaw for a small six figure fee and Manchester United’s Nick Powell on loan until the summer.
While the Slovak Kuciak is low-key because he’s plied his trade in Eastern Europe for his entire career, the lack of fanfare surrounding Powell is strange but unsurprising. If he’d signed for The Tigers two years ago, it would have felt like a major coup where now it’s simply a shot at redemption for a prodigious talent whose career is going downhill faster than Jon Parkin on specially reinforced skis.
Go back to 2012 and Nick Powell had the world at his feet. In May, his sublime goal, and sixteenth of the season, won the League Two play-off final at Wembley. In July, he joined Manchester United for an initial four million pounds. September brought a Premier League debut as a substitute vs. Wigan and a debut goal. In October he made his England U21 debut – having appeared for the national team previously at U16, U17, U18 and U19 level.
He was 18 years old. He was confident, bordering on arrogant. He stood a sturdy six feet tall and had undoubted ability in both feet. There were question marks over his best position but Sir Alex Ferguson thought he’d become a central midfielder telling the press after the aforementioned debut "We hope Powell fills Paul Scholes' boots. For an 18-year-old boy it has been a terrific day."
From those early highs added to a tremendous cameo in a 4-5 League Cup defeat to Chelsea and a fine performance away to Galatasaray in the Champions League – a promising career unravelled slowly but surely. There was little sign of that in the autumn of 2012, nor of the attitude problems that would end his loan spell at Leicester two years later.
Powell: “My dad will keep me in touch, I’ll tell you that. I’m just going to go home, have this great feeling and I’ll keep myself on the ground. When I first came on it scared me a little bit, to be fair, because I’m only used to 5,000 people now and then, but it’s a great atmosphere – the fans are great.”
Injury curtailed his first season at Old Trafford and in the summer, Sir Alex Ferguson retired and was replaced by David Moyes. Powell was sent on loan to recently relegated Wigan where he had a productive season, bagging twelve goals including three in the Europa League group stages. Wigan boss Owen Coyle was enamoured with him, feeling he could polish up a rough diamond:
“I've given him a platform to showcase his talents and Manchester United will get back a more-developed player with more experience and a player who can challenge; as we've done before with the Sturridges and the Wilsheres. There's no doubt from me he can have a huge career. He's got so much belief and ability in him and hopefully I can give him more and it benefits the football club.”
Sadly his Wigan spell ended with a whimper as failed to regain his starting berth after injury and then admitted a charge of drink-driving receiving a fourteen month ban and a £5,000 fine. Another season at United brought another manager in Louis Van Gaal and Powell’s stock continued to fall with each passing month. In his only appearance of the season, United were beaten 4-0 by MK Dons in the League Cup before he went on loan to Leicester and managed just forty minutes of football in three months. That spell ended prematurely as then Leicester manager Nigel Pearson was said to be unimpressed with Powell’s attitude to training and poor time keeping.
Serious hamstring problems kept him out for nine months in 2015 but he did return late in the year to make a couple of very odd substitute appearances in defeats against Wolfsburg and Bournemouth.
With his United contract dwindling down, Hull City have offered Powell an escape from Old Trafford and a chance to get some “game time” at the KC Stadium. That would once have been a highly exciting prospect for Tigers’ fans. Instead it was met with apathy. City need a striking option according to most fans and, most importantly, Steve Bruce. A midfielder who has barely played for eighteen months doesn’t exactly float the boat.
However, it seems certain that Steve Bruce will use Powell as a forward. That may not be a bad idea. When he became the latest name to roll off the magnificent production line at Crewe Alexandra – Dario Gradi was sure his game was set-up to score goals:
"When he does ridiculous chips and flicks I tell him, 'don't think you're going to score like that.’ He has now accepted what I've said to him that his future will depend on him scoring goals. I think he understands that now. Instead of ridiculous and outrageous shots, he's actually trying to put the ball in the back of the net which he has the ability to do, there's no doubt about that."
That advice was clearly sound because Gradi turned Powell from a player who scored precisely zero goals in 2010/11 into the forward who scored sixteen the following season – several of them sensational.
Steve Bruce will look to take a similar tact with the player whose ability was beyond question. Ferguson took five minutes to decide that his touch and vision made him a player he wanted. Bruce has to coax that back out of him while ensuring his attitude doesn’t derail not only him but Hull City’s cohesive and confident squad.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Powell will be to again get used to training every day at a high intensity while preparing, seriously, for crucial games coming thick and fast. Yet at that the same time, that may be exactly what he needs to regain his love for the game he has a natural ability to play. And play very, very well.