The Championship Play-off Final (at Wembley) – Saturday 24th May 2008
How curious it is that as we celebrate our finest hour, thoughts turn to days gone by. Martin Fish and his regular trips to the High Court; Terry Dolan’s gutting of our squad and our morale; the relegations of the 90s; David Lloyd’s petulant idiocy; the wickedness of the Sheffield Stealers; the Great Escape; being locked out of Boothferry Park; the Bradford riot; the heart-breaking and seemingly irreversible decline of our club.
And not just the big events either. It was the small miseries too. The numbing defeats at places like Macclesfield, Lincoln, Rushden, Mansfield, Cheltenham – poor teams beating our poorer team, and seasons passing in grim frustration as the years ticked by.
For it began to appear we were unalterably cursed. Recalling those events is still not difficult; summoning up the intense and bitter despair of yesteryear will never be hard when the feelings were so powerful. Nothing seemed able to halt our spiralling woes, and even those who stayed so loyal must have started to wonder if we would ever see the sun shine on us again.
That loyalty, that steely determination to keep the club going somehow, has been rewarded in the most stunning way. Of course we could never have envisaged this – but footballing fortunes can swing in the most alarming fashion, and after 104 years, they have finally taken an almighty lurch in our favour.
For Hull City have been to Wembley and accomplished promotion to the top flight for the first time, in the same unforgettable afternoon. In front of 86,703 at England’s national stadium, by far the greatest gathering for a City match in history and half of whom were assembled sporting our favours in the largest mobilisation of the Tiger Nation of all-time, we can say with pride – we are Premier League.
Rumours of the team selection reached us the night before the match, with the unsurprising decision by Phil Brown to retain the same XI that swept past Watford in the semi-finals, meaning that on a hot afternoon in the capital the Tiger fielded: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Hughes, Barmby; Windass, Campbell.
On the bench for City were Duke, Doyle, Marney, Fagan and Folan – meanwhile, Bristol were lacking beanpole defender Jamie McCombe, missing through illness. Fontaine replaced him.
Before kick-off we had yet another illustration of how this was no ordinary afternoon as the vast crowd raised itself for a lusty rendition of God Save The Queen – and did one discern the first visible signs of emotion amid a highly charged City crowd as the national anthem was played at the national stadium and we braced ourselves for a crack at the top flight? Or perhaps it was the glare of sun making eyes look a little more moist then usual…
City kicked off attacking the Bristol end, as full as our own, and it was they who looked the better side in the early stages of the match. Garcia flashed a volley from outside the area which went miles over in the first minute – then Dele Adebola, as is his wont, stampeded through a worryingly flimsy challenge to fashion the chance to shoot – however, Brown recovered his station just in time to provide ample distraction so that the shot trickled through to Myhill.
City were looking uncommonly anxious though, and Nick Carle had the next chance when he wriggled free of a challenge on the edge of the area, although Brown slammed into him just at the point of shooting, again doing just enough to hassle Carle into dragging his shot narrowly wide.
City had their first chance of the game with twenty minutes gone, our first corner of the afternoon being floated in by Hughes, where Turner thudded a header a yard wide – from this observers’ vantage point in the right-hand corner of the City end, it had looked in. Telling, in conceding this corner, the excellent Bradley Orr had taken a meaty whack to the side of the head which would become more significant later in the game.
The Tigers were coming into the game much more now, with Hughes’ neat passing beginning to see more promising ground-based assaults on the Bristol back line. Ricketts was also managing to come forward, and his foray on the left in the 25th minute saw a tasty cross headed narrowly over by Richard Garcia.
Equality of possession and territory now accomplished, the match drifted through a watchable but chance-free spell. Pre-match giddiness about Wembley now spent, the football was now the sole focus for both sets of fans, from whom the noise was unrelenting. After the earlier aerial bombardment, both sides were looking to play more open and expansive football – one trusts that any neutrals present will have found it engrossing fare.
Then, just as we seemed to be trundling along to half-time, came a moment we will never forget.
Nick Barmby sent Fraizer Campbell haring into the space on the left – he skipped past a couple of challenges, advanced to the goal-line just inside the area and, with a brace of Bristol sorts closing in, he looked up, chipped the ball back to Dean Windass, thundering in at the edge of the area…and he smote a searing volley from eighteen yards that flew past Basso into the net, and sparked riotous scenes of jubilation at the other end of the stadium.
And right we were to explode with joy – City led, led at Wembley, led in the game to settle the Premiership’s final member next season, and led with a fabulous goal from our home town hero, and the forty-thousand or so City fans generated an ear-splitting cacophony to herald this momentous event.
With the celebrations still in full flow, Bradley Orr fell to the turf in some distress – the City players were among those demonstrating some concern, and after being administered oxygen he was stretchered from the pitch after a lengthy delay, to be replaced by Lee Johnson.
It required six minutes of injury time to be seen through; City cruised through these comfortably enough, and referee Alan Wiley signalled the end of the first half, to raucous applause from the City fans.
The half-time pint was an unusual experience. Luxuriating in Wembley’s vast concourses, a rather disbelieving “fucking hell” seemed the most popular refrain. Not just the score either, but the entire experience to date. Whatever the arguments about Wembley’s location, its cost, its lengthy period out of service, never let it be said that it is not a truly amazing stadium. The sightlines are fabulous, the noise rolls around in a quite inspiring way, the giant screens are not the distraction they are at other grounds – even secondary considerations such as the concourses, the staff, the stewards (who permitted standing much more than you often find), the tannoy, all is fantastic. To see close to forty thousand people from Hull creating a sea of amber and a wall of sound in such a magnificent venue was lump-in-throat stuff.
And now were a half of football away from the Premier League. 104 years of hope distilled into 45 minutes. We re-took our seats, and braced ourselves for the long three-quarters-of-an-hour of our lives.
Bristol didn’t formerly lead the division for no reason, and they again started the half the better of the two sides, although with quite imperious Turner and the resolute Brown marshalling City’s rearguard action, it wasn’t until Mr Wiley generously awarded them a dangerous free-kick six minutes into the half that they had a chance – Noble fired it straight at Myhill.
This was proving to be a useful weapon for Bristol, and they were awarded another free-kick minutes later, this time taken by white-booted fop and one-time City wannabe Michael McIndoe. This was deflected by the chest of Wayne Brown, though a few red types rather ambitiously requested a penalty instead of a corner. This still saw a threat to goal when the otherwise quiet Trundle headed the ball just wide after dangerous delivery.
City had been struggling to string anything together at the other end, but as in the first half, we gradually came into the match as players on both sides began tiring in the merciless heat. Campbell had a chance after going on a mazy run, but his shot was scuffed and it bobbled into the hands of Basso.
Both teams made changes as the half wore on – Sproule replaced Noble fo Gary Johnson’s men, while Phil Brown withdrew first Nick Barmby for Craig Fagan, then with twenty minutes left, Deano left to a deafening ovation in favour of Caleb Folan.
Yet another dangerous free-kick was served up to Bristol which the manager’s son Lee hit straight at the wall, but with their need becoming more urgent and our priorities switching from looking to score to looking not to concede, the greater part of the action once more began taking place at the far end of the pitch.
Trundle was next up to try his luck after skilfully cutting inside from the left – unfortunately for him, this necessitated shooting with his right foot, which he is notoriously incapable of doing and Myhill cheerfully scooping up his weak effort. He was tested a few minutes later after a long range shot by McIndoe, but this was again a comfortable save for Wales’ number one.
Fagan, a lively and disruptive presence on the City left, drew a caution for Ivan Sproule after beating him to ball on the left – despite failing to convince to date in his spell at The Circle, his wingplay yesterday was ideally suited to the conditions. Fast and full of running, the wearying legs of the Bristol backline must have hated him. He could even have made the game safe after being teed up by Garcia, but his shot went straight at the keeper.
And now there are ten minutes remaining.
The half has quite surprisingly sped by, but time is slowing as we get closer. Nerves are beyond frayed, they are shattered, in pieces. Many more are standing now, a few have partially disrobed, and we are hoarsely bellowing desperate messages of encouragement. Still Bristol come; still we stand firm, but we are creaking just a little.
Folan requires treatment for an injury – this goes on for some time, and he recovers enough to continue but fails to make any further impact. And now Bristol almost live in our penalty area, and when a dragback to Trundle saw the tubby scouser smack a shot at goal, it seems destined to destroy our dreams, until suddenly Michael Turner leaps in with an almighty intervention, flinging his body at the ball and diverting it over. Interesting, Wayne Brown races over and embraces his defensive partners – he too recognises a truly colossal moment, and we sense that the day may be ours.
Now there are five minutes left.
It is agony. The perversity of success is all around us – we lead at Wembley, and forty thousand Yorkshire folk all look distinctly unwell as we manfully repel Bristol’s attempt to snatch it from us. Sam Ricketts is the next to effect a stunning block, beating Byfield to the ball after a low cross from the right evaded Brown and Myhill.
The ninety are up; Mr Wiley has decided four more will be added. About right.
It’s horrible now, absolutely gut-wrenching stuff. And yet we nearly settle the issue when Bryan Hughes flashes a free-kick narrowly over the cross bar. Bristol respond by tearing up to the other end, and Byfield blazes a great chance over.
Campbell sees yellow for an impetuous lunge and is lucky not to see another one for rather ill-advisedly bellowing his dissent at the referee; Phil Brown then takes him off in favour Dean Marney.
Byfield misses again.
City fans are embracing already; not in anticipation, but for mutual support. We beg for full-time.
Marney chases a long ball up front and inserts a crashing tackle that pins Bristol back in their own half. We cheer loudly.
A cross from the right after neat build-up play hangs horribly in the air – it is in Myhill’s zone but will he come? He does, he rises, hearts stop, but the ball sticks and Wayne Brown leaps on him and we howl with relief.
The four minutes are up.
And so are City.
The instant Mr Wiley ends the match, Dean Windass races from the bench and sprints over to us, only to collapse to the turf and sob. He’s not alone – in the stands tears are flowing from young and old, male and female, hardcore and gloryhunter.
Wherever one looks, flags, scarfs, shirts and being waved, songs are pealing out, a huge mass of amber humanity rejoices and embraces in the greatest moment in our history.
Deano is still on the ground weeping – last season he kept us up in the Welsh capital, this time in the English capital he has taken his own club to the top flight and the emotion continues to overwhelm him.
More festivities are due – and here it comes, the proudest moment in our history as Captain Fantastic, Ian Ashbee, our totemic leader, mounts the Wembley steps along with his team-mates, into the Royal Box…and we see him lift aloft the trophy, actual silverware, at Wembley Stadium, and our cheers must be audible back in Hull.
For Hull City are in the Premier League, and no amount of repetition of that fact will ever grow tiresome over the summer. We can leave the forensic examinations of our chances of staying up for another day. Let’s treasure this one. Let’s savour the memories of our triumph.
City versus Manchester United. Liverpool v City. Trips to Goodison Park, the Emirates, White Hart Lane. Tick grounds that even the hardiest ground-hopper will never have managed with the Tigers. National exposure for our club and our city. Global audiences for our games. Riches beyond measure for the long-term building of a major footballing force in East Yorkshire.
And as our thoughts drift to the glittering future that awaits, they also return to the past. The better aspects of it this time – Warren Joyce, Adam Pearson, Justin Whittle, Gary Brabin, Peter Taylor – people who saved the club and began its resurrection so that we could at least have the chance of one day achieving what we have. To them, our thanks.
And our thoughts return to the past in other ways. One thinks of the generations of City fans who’ve come, spent their lives in support of the club and passed on without ever seeing anything like this. How many old boys still with us must have feared City would never make it during their days? Hell…I am 26 and never thought I’d see the Tigers in the top flight. To be of the generation that finally makes it, over a century after the adventure started, is beyond description.
So to the current squad, captain, manager and chairman, at whichever part of the journey they joined us on, whatever their future holds and however the next chapter of the story unfolds – for providing quite possibly the happiest moment of this humble and humbled observer’s life, for the greatest episode in our club’s history, for one of the greatest days in our whole city’s long history, our sincere and profound thanks. (AD)