As a player with experience in the blue of Chelsea and the orange hue of Hull City, Fikayo Tomori is well-placed to discuss our FA Cup meeting with the Tigers and reflect on how his season at the KCOM Stadium helped shape him…
Of Tomori’s three loan spells in the Championship, it was perhaps his year in Hull that received the least attention at the time and thereafter, even though the young defender believes it was a formative stage in his development.
After six months at Brighton in the second half of the 2016/17 season, Tomori had made just two league starts for a Seagulls side that achieved promotion to the Premier League quite comfortably.
It would have been a risk for him to remain on the South Coast and continue his battle for a starting spot in a team fighting for top-flight survival so he returned to Chelsea that summer and was part of the men's first team squad that travelled to Asia in pre-season.
Regular football was the priority for the upcoming campaign and the opportunity to make up a trio of Chelsea loanees at the KCOM Stadium was too good to turn down. Yet it was far from a plain-sailing start under Leonid Slutsky, the former Russia national team coach who had taken the reins that summer but failed to make it to Christmas, and Tomori admits the experience helped shape him in more ways than one.
‘It was a bit of an up-and-down season,’ the 22-year-old tells the official Chelsea website in an exclusive interview ahead of our visit to Hull in the FA Cup fourth round. ‘It was my first full season on loan so I was just trying to do as well as possible and play as many games as I could.
‘Being really far away from home for the first time, it was a bit of an adjustment at first but it was good and I enjoyed it. It was a good loan for me overall.
‘I was there at the same time as Ola Aina and Michael Hector so that made it a lot easier for me. I didn’t live too far away from Ola so we spent a lot of time off the pitch together as well and that helped us both.
‘It’s obviously not London,’ he says when asked about the city of Hull. ‘They like their football and it had quite a northern feel. It was something different for me. It’s not as busy as London, which I kind of enjoyed.’
While last season’s exploits under Frank Lampard and alongside Mason Mount at Derby County were considered by many as a breakthrough for Tomori, the England international feels a lot of the groundwork for his impressive time at Pride Park were laid in East Yorkshire.
‘It was really important, although in a different way to my season at Derby where we were going for the play-offs,’ he explains. ‘There was a lot of positive thinking throughout the whole season and winning lots of games, which brings happiness to the dressing room.
‘At Hull, we were floating above the relegation zone for quite a lot of the season and there were times where we’d maybe slip in there. The place would be a bit down because it was a difficult situation and I wasn’t in the team week-in, week-out like I was at Derby either.
‘That brings out the mental side of having to keep on going, improving yourself and making sure that you’re ready for whenever you’re called on. You’re desperately trying to get into the team so that was something different for me and something that shaped me a lot.’
Our most recent meeting with the Tigers came in the FA Cup that season, though the on-loan Chelsea trio were prevented from playing against their parent club at Stamford Bridge. Ironically, 18 months later, Tomori was reprieved a similar absence when Derby came to SW6 in the Carabao Cup, with him and Mount granted permission to be involved.
‘As soon as we were drawn against Chelsea, there was that question of whether we could play,’ remembers Tomori. ‘It was disappointing when we were told that we weren’t able to but it gave us another kind of motivation to push a bit harder.’
Many of those in the Hull dressing room in 2017/18 have since moved on, a reflection of the rapid player turnover in such a hectic and demanding division, although there will be some familiar faces for Tomori to catch up with this evening.
‘There are a few players still there. Jarrod Bowen, he’s firing the goals in, Kamil Grosicki, Jackson Irvine.
‘Their threat is with the wingers,’ said Tomori when assessing the dangers presented by the side currently mid-table in the Championship.
‘They have a different manager to last season so they have a different style of play but we know it’s the FA Cup. It’s a competition that is long in the history of English football and it gives an opportunity for lower-league teams to play against clubs from the Premier League.
‘It’s a chance for them to get a scalp but we also know it’s a chance for us to progress and reach the next round.’
Tomori’s first appearance in senior football came in the FA Cup fourth round three years ago, a forgettable outing on a collective and individual level. Brighton were beaten 3-1 by Lincoln City, a non-league side at the time, with Tomori’s own-goal handing the Imps the lead.
Yet most of his cup football experiences have come as the underdog, which he knows means a very different approach is needed now as a Chelsea player.
‘There’s an expectation for us to do well in this competition and for us to beat the teams ranked lower than us. At Derby, we went to United, Southampton and Chelsea as the underdogs because we were playing against Premier League teams. We went there with a freedom and that played into our favour because we were able to go out and express ourselves.
‘There is a different kind of pressure here because we’re expected to win but at a big club, that’s just the expectation you have to carry. In the last round, we managed to get the job done so hopefully we can do it again.’
Read: All the stats needed ahead of today's game