Michael Turner arrived at Hull City in June 2006. Phil Parkinson paid Brentford £300,000 for the tall central defender, a direct replacement for Leon Cort, who'd followed Peter Taylor to Crystal Palace for a fee of £1.25m. Turner made his first appearance for the Tigers at West Street, the home of Winterton Rangers, and scored. His competitive debut came a month later in the opening fixture of the 2006/07 Championship season, away to West Bromwich Albion. He made a solid first impression on the traveling Tigers fans but it didn't last. City lost the following home game to Barnsley, squandering a two goal lead in the process and Parkinson's team never recovered. Turner, along with fellow new boys Sam Ricketts and Dean Marney struggled to adapt to life in the Championship and the team as a whole struggled to find any form.
Turner had added pressure. Leon Cort's boots were big ones to fill and the Cort-Delaney partnership at centre half had played a big part as City consolidated their place in the second tier in 2005/06. By comparison, the lanky Turner was lightweight, easily bullied by strong centre forwards and struggled to match the pace of smaller ones. While his height meant he won a large percentage of aerial challenges, he was never particularly convincing. His positioning was poor, he was always stretching or stooping to win headers and he failed to read the game. In truth, his performances were reminiscent of those of Cort early in his Hull City career. Cort had initially struggled in League One following his free transfer move from Southend United but had improved immensely under Taylor's tutelage. The difference, of course, was that Turner came into the City side at a higher level. He faced better strikers who punished smaller mistakes. Turner's most obvious flaw was his ability to use the ball, or lack thereof. He was uncomfortable in possession, unable to bring the ball out of defence and aimless in his distribution. Whether that was due to a lack of ability or a lack of confidence, it was harmful to the team as a whole, particularly because those alongside him weren't much better on the ball. Giving the ball away cheaply meant doing more defending, a viscous circle. The team and Turner individually were highly inconsistent throughout the season, but up to Christmas, were almost consistently poor.
Turner wasn't helped in those early days by having to play alongside several different partners. He had short spells alongside Damien Delaney, Danny Coles and Sam Collins before the arrival in September of Danny Mills. Mills had a positive influence on Turner, taking some of the focus and a lot of the pressure off him. Despite the continued poor form of the team, Turner put in some positive performances that showed he had some potential to play at the higher level. Against Peter Taylor's Crystal Palace, he did a terrific job against the physical presence of Shefki Kuqi. The game also saw him score his first City goal, a 90th minute equaliser, canceling out an earlier strike by Leon Cort, ironically. A fortnight later, he put in a terrific performance against Rowan Vine of Luton Town, a tricky, pacey forward who didn't stop moving for 90 minutes. Unable to match the striker for pace, Turner showed promising ability to read the strikers movements and to find the right position from which to oppose him. He tackled well and hard and patiently wore Vine down as the game went on. Following a mixed run of results and his second goal of the season, another 90th minute equaliser at Norwich City, Turner and City hit rock bottom. A crushing 5-1 defeat at Colchester and a 4-2 home defeat to Southampton put paid to Phil Parkinson's time in charge at the KC. Turner was woeful at Layer Road but slightly better against the Saints. Regardless, he was a part of a very poor defensive unit which in turn, was a part of a very poor team.
Phil Brown took over as caretaker manager and made it clear immediately that he was not happy with Turner's form, dropping him to the bench for the visit to Plymouth and the home win over Cardiff. Turner was recalled by Brown for a trip to Leeds United, as Danny Coles moved into midfield. He gave a promising performance which showed some of Phil Brown's early influence, encouraging the defender to keep things simple. It also saw Turner pitched alongside Damien Delaney, who was magnificent on the day, and they formed a reasonable understanding as they played consistently together. The New Year brought more good performances than bad. Aside from an abysmal team effort at Barnsley, the City side improved as Turner did as an individual. He had more belief in himself and confidence in his ability to play, no longer was he almost literally shaking at the thought of playing in the Championship. He improved physically, showing better upper body strength, as well as technically, making few mistakes and using the ball simply as often as he could. It was on the day that the Tigers avoided relegation that Turner turned the corner in the hearts and minds of the City supporters.
With the Tigers having to win at Cardiff City to avoid relegation, Turner gave his best and bravest performance of the season, playing a massive part in keeping a vital clean sheet as Dean Windass' second half goal kept the Tigers up and relegated Leeds United. In November, Turner was a pale shadow of a player, the smallest 6' 5" player in the game and a nervous wreck. At the end of April, he was a man mountain. A hulking centre half who refused to be beaten and put himself in the way of everything and anything that came near him. He had plenty of limitations, but mentally, he was well on the road to becoming the player Phil Parkinson thought he could be when he trusted him to replace 'Corty' at the heart of City's defence. Huge credit for the turn around has to go to Phil Brown, who took him out of the line of fire at a crucial stage and rebuilt his self-confidence. A former defender himself, Brown worked hard with Turner on the training ground. Damien Delaney also deserves a large amount of credit for his part in Turner's development. Delaney became the consistent partner Turner needed and did a fine job of supporting him through games. Delaney took on the responsibility of marshalling the defence and distributing the ball, allowing Turner to concentrate on his own job.
One of Phil Brown's priorities in the summer of 2007 was to find a centre back who was proven at Championship level and had great leadership skills. He chose Wayne Brown, who cost £400,000 from Colchester United. Brown would prove to be an inspired signing. What he lacked in height and pace, he made up for in determination, ability to read the opposition and the ability to coax the best out of those around him. As a defensive unit, City improved immeasurably with Brown providing the know-how. Despite being the best City defender through pre-season, Turner was mystifyingly dropped by Phil Brown for the opening league fixture of 2007/08, a home game against Plymouth Argyle. With Wayne Brown having picked up a small injury in pre-season, Brown chose Coles and Delaney to start against the Pilgrims. It proved to be a terrible decision and Turner was recalled the following week and has played every league game since, barring the away trip to Bristol City after he picked up five yellow cards. While the Tigers form was patchy throughout the first half of the season, Turner's wasn't. With a natural leader alongside him taking all the pressure from him, Turner could concentrate on improving his game. He was unbeatable in the air, he was no longer bullied by big target men and he was rarely out-done for pace. He wasn't quick, but his ability to read attacking runs improved by the game.
Turner scored his first goal of the season in November. A headed winner at Burnley four minutes into stoppage time gave the Tigers a priceless away win and started a run of three successive wins and five games without defeat. That run came to a screeching halt with two successive drubbings, 3-0 at Preston North End and 4-0 at Southampton. Turner was forced off injured at half time in the latter game and the Tigers collapse in his absence showed just how crucial Turner had become. The Tigers won 3 times in 4 games over Christmas, put up a terrific showing against league leaders West Bromwich Albion and then won back to back games at the start of February to put them in contention for a play-off place. Windass, Folan and Campbell grabbed the headlines but the defence, and particularly Turner, proved the sound backbone. At the end of February, the Tigers won away at West Brom, a result that sent the belief of the team and the fans through the roof. Turner became a terrific attacking weapon as the team climbed from play-off outsiders to genuine title contenders. He scored in four successive home games, thumping headers against Scunthorpe and in a 5-0 hammering of Southampton, a superb looping header in the first 60 seconds of a 3-0 win over Watford and a crucial 90th minute equaliser against QPR. Coupled with his immense defensive performances, Turner was a massive part of the team as the Tigers just missed out on automatic promotion but recovered to batter Watford over two legs and beat Bristol City at Wembley to win the play-offs and promotion to the Premier League. His contribution was such, that Turner was awarded 10 Player of the Year gongs, including those voted for by the Hull City fans and, perhaps more importantly, by his team mates. That he was excluded from the Championship team of the Year was an utter travesty.
Back in August, while reviewing the Tigers' squad for their maiden voyage in the top flight, I asked myself whether Turner was Premier League quality. The answer?
"Surely. Turner was the best defender outside the top flight last season. He's dominant in the air and getting better and better at reading the game. He's brave and shows a determination to stop goals going in."
Thus far, it has proven to be a correct prediction. Turner has taken to the top flight like the proverbial duck takes to East Park pond. Since his nervous top-flight debut against Fulham, he's barely put a foot wrong. He's come up against a level of centre forward of quality far beyond anything he's ever faced before and he's produced a string of terrific performances. He scored his first top flight goal at home to Everton and followed it up with a winner against West Ham, both headers from corners, Turner's specialty. A first goal on the road came in November. A typical thumping back post header, again from a corner, that put City on the road to a good away result. His performances have not gone unnoticed; Turner is no longer the invisible man in the City team. Newspaper reports have linked him with Manchester City and Liverpool, stories that would once have been incredulous, now make sense. There's also been a clamour for him to be picked by England manager Fabio Capello. Originally a cheeky terrace chant; the band-wagon jumping Hull Daily Mail have now started a 'campaign' to bring Turner to the attention of Mr Capello. While it's totally understandable, Hull City have never, after all, had a current player represent England, it's perhaps one step too far. Despite his massive improvement, it's obvious from seeing England defenders up close this season that Turner lacks the finesse on the ball that others have. He's terrific in the air, but international games aren't known for aerial battles. Turner is surely worth a look at, one of the numerous friendly matches would provide a good opportunity for him, but it's hard to imagine he could be one of the 3 or 4 centre backs in the first team squad for England. After that defeat at Colchester in November 2006, you could have called anyone of the City fans in the crowd that night and they would've gladly driven him anywhere he wanted to go, anywhere but Hull anyway. To go from that position to hearing the words "Turner" and "England" in the same sentence inside two years just shows the rapidity of his rise.
Gone is the weak centre half signed in 2006, Turner is the immovable object at the heart of the Hull defence. He's rarely in a poor position. He reads the game; he makes half the number of tackles and twice the number of interceptions. His tackles are impeccably timed. Before, he'd concede soft free-kicks by climbing or holding strikers, now he's more intelligent and sly. He's comfortable in possession, not brilliant, but capable. He plays the game simply and he rarely squanders possession. Most importantly, Turner has shown that he has the heart of a lion, or should that be a Tiger? He'll put his head in the way of the ball, or his body or his legs, whatever it takes. He'll throw himself in front of anything that comes between the attacking team and his goal. He has that quality that a great defender has to have. An absolute hatred of conceding goals, a desire to defend, the will to not be beaten. No-one does his job for him anymore, not any part of it. He talks for himself, he makes his decisions and he's the leader at the heart of the City defence. There is only one Michael Turner.