Earning their stripes

When Chelsea take on Hull in the FA Cup there will be three very interested observers, with Ola Aina, Michael Hector and Fikayo Tomori on loan at the Tigers this season.

Although the defensive trio are ineligible to play against their parent club for this fifth-round tie with the Blues, they have found regular playing time in the Championship during the current campaign, often making up three quarters of Hull’s back four.

While the Tigers are experiencing a tough campaign, having been sucked into the relegation fight, it is all invaluable experience for the youngsters, and the defenders have certainly been doing their bit to help Hull’s cause, especially since the appointment of Nigel Adkins as manager.

They have conceded just five goals in their last eight matches, with at least two of the Chelsea loanees starting every game, including a crucial clean sheet as the team won 2-0 away at Nottingham Forest last week, Hector and Aina both playing the full 90 minutes at the City Ground.

As the last of the trio to sign for Hull back in the summer, it should be no surprise that Tomori’s decision to move to the KC Stadium was heavily influenced by the chance to play alongside his Blues colleagues.

‘I spoke to both of them before coming here and it’s good to have some familiar faces here,’ said Tomori, who is in his second spell in the Championship, having helped Brighton earn promotion in the second half of last season. ‘It was a factor in me coming here. To be fair, Ola has been on at me to come up ever since he made the move!’

The two know each other well having come through the Academy ranks at Cobham together, winning the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League twice each as team-mates with the Blues.

All three players have maintained their close ties to Stamford Bridge during their loan spells too, as Tomori explains.

‘Chelsea are in contact a lot, they’re a big help,’ he added. ‘Tore Andre Flo came over and talked to me about my game. I get a lot of texts asking how I’m getting on. I also get sent clips, so in that respect they’re very helpful.’

For Aina, that bond with the Blues even saw one of his former Chelsea team-mates help decide his international future, opting to represent his parents’ homeland Nigeria alongside John Mikel Obi. His form for Hull this season saw him make his debut for the Super Eagles in the 1-0 win over Zambia in October, which secured their place at this summer’s World Cup.

‘The one person that I would say influenced my a little bit is Mikel,’ explained the full-back. ‘I was first talking to him three years ago about it. Now it has finally happened. Anything that comes from Obi is respected and I was happy that he invited me to come and join the team. He is the skipper, everyone respects him entirely, as they should. He is loved throughout the camp.

‘Me and Victor (Moses) are very close too. Obviously, I spent the whole of last season with him, we built up a bit of bond. He is an important player.’

Aina has clearly grown into his role at the KC Stadium as well, with his performances last month earning him nominations for both the club’s Player of the Month and Goal of the Month awards, the latter coming for his first-ever goal in senior football, which gave Hull a 1-0 win over Blackburn in the FA Cup third round.

Hector is comfortably the most experienced of the loan trio, having passed the 100-appearance milestone in the Championship recently with Hull, having spent three previous seasons competing at that level with Reading, as well as having a full campaign of top-flight German football under his belt with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2016/17.

As such, he’s the perfect person to judge their, and Hull’s, prospects for the rest of the season after this FA Cup tie.

‘There’s quality and experience of both the Championship and the Premier League in the squad, I feel as though we can turn this around,’ said the Jamaican international.

‘You can’t be stupid enough to think that relegation isn’t possible. No-one is safe, but we know we’re good enough to put a run together and pull away from the bottom half of the table.’