Philip Buckingham: The enigma of Hull City's Robert Koren
IF EVERY promotion bid requires a wise old head to navigate a march down the final straight, Hull City have few more qualified for the role than Robert Koren.
Twice the 32-year-old won a place in the Premier League with West Brom in 2008 and 2010, while captaining Slovenia at the 2010 World Cup finals also sets him far apart from the rank and file.
Such experience has justifiably earned Koren the armband for much of his third season at the KC Stadium. But, just as the reckoning looms large, his position as a leading light in Steve Bruce’s side is under increasing scrutiny.
As omissions against Charlton and Burnley have proved of late – the first time he was named as a substitute in the league since his debut in August 2010 – Koren’s presence is no longer a given. That is a judgment based purely on form.
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City, without question, have come to expect more from a player as gifted as Koren.
In 120 appearances since arriving in the wake of Premier League relegation in the summer of 2010, the playmaker has been an inspiration behind the club’s three-year rebirth.
Only James Chester comes close to challenging him as the most important player of this Championship era. Yet, just as it begins to matter most, Koren has been found wanting.
After playing his part in Stephen Quinn’s winner within a minute of emerging off the bench at Turf Moor, the veteran was recalled to the side beaten 2-1 at home to Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
Even with City’s palpable sense of injustice when surrendering a half-time lead, it was a decision that lacked vindication.
Koren, back on the right of an attack-minded trio, only ever briefly ventured in off the periphery of the contest, struggling to make his mark on a busy midfield battle.
The link-up play with George Boyd and Gedo, so often a strength of his, was consistently short of incision, and his goal threat was limited to a first-half free-kick comfortably saved by Karl Darlow.
Koren has been usurped as City’s creative poster boy.
Boyd, the scorer of the opening goal, has enjoyed a magnificent start to life with the Tigers and threatens to push Koren into the shadows.
Finding a space for both players at Huddersfield in 12 days’ time will prove difficult for Bruce to justify on this form.
Koren is City’s enigma, majestic one week, indifferent the next.
Boyd has a similar charm within his make-up and with substance prioritised over style during April’s hard yards, one may have to make way for the other more often than not. On this evidence, there is only one pressing his claims at present.