MATCH REPORT – City 4 Watford 1 (6-1 agg)

The Championship Play-off Semi-Finals (2nd leg) – Wednesday 14th May 2008

Forty minutes played, and we are in an ecstasy of agony. Watford lead one-nil on the night, our aggregate lead halved and looking unbearably fragile. The small band of Watford fans sense a stunning comeback is on, while we fretfully chomp on fingernails and ruefully reflect upon City’s infamous capacity for doing things The Hard Way.

An hour later, we are running rampant, and the biggest party in the Circle’s short live is in full flow. And Hull City are going to Wembley.

Phil Brown selected the same XI that won so handsomely at Vicarage Road on Sunday, our vividly-hued manager sticking faith with: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Hughes, Barmby; Windass, Campbell. For Watford, Adrian Boothroyd was able to call upon John Eustace following the rescinding of his weekend red card, and Darius Henderson, his suspension having being served. The injured Danny Shittu was replaced by Jay DeMerit, Mariappa also came in for Lloyd Doyley.

The Tigers came out to an explosion of noise, a crowd containing some 22,000 City fans in a febrile mood. However, with so little to lose following their cuffing on home territory three days earlier, Watford had no option but to charge forward in search of a miraculous comeback. It showed; and Watford have correctly been scorned for their abysmal style of football this season, they actually succeeded in several instances of ball/grass interfacing.

For a few horrible moments, it seemed like their attempt to breach the City defence would be aided by the departure of Wayne Brown – he was felled by a high boot courtesy of Nathan Ellington, and although the City fans howled for justice to take the form of a rectangular piece of red plastic, the excellent referee Mark Clattenburg sensibly kept his cards to himself.

City were visibly nervous though, and fell behind on twelve minutes. The Tigers cheaply squandered possession on their right, and a very tidy move saw the ball finish at the feet of Henderson, who expertly steered the ball past the isolated Myhill.

The Watford fans, few in number but creditably solid in support, cheered wildly. We fretted, and generally felt a bit queasy.

And justly so – City were looking as anxious and disjointed as we’ve seen in some time. Watford were creating little, but the momentum was with them and with City’s passing erratic we were ceding possession and territory with alarming regularity.

Many of our troubles came on the right, when the superb Jobi McAnuff was given Sam Ricketts an uncommon chasing. With Garcia a little off the pace, the Tigers looked fearfully unbalanced, and while the Tigers began to see a few half-chances fashioned as the half wore on, a low panic was starting to gather in the stands. Surely – SURELY – we couldn’t come so far, achieve so much, come so close, and stumble in the final stretch?

Half-time was looming, just five minutes away, when the Tigers raised themselves and capitalised upon Watford’s squall of domination finally blowing itself out. Firstly, Deano had the ball in the back of Lee’s goal, although Mr Clattenburg has spotted an earlier foul whose occurrence had eluded the notice of this observer. However, with a horrible interval being faced up to, the Tigers scored.

A long ball from Dawson – how we chortle at Watford being undone in such fashion – was badly headed by Bromby, inviting Lee to charge out to collect it. However, his judgement was severely awry, allowing Garcia to steal in, loop a header high, and suddenly from nowhere Nick Barmby thundered in to head home from about a yard, and spark scenes of wild celebration among the City fans.

Half-time, and yes! all was well with the world. Watford’s players had trudged off with their heads discernibly lowered, cursing their appalling defence’s inability to keep us out. City sprang cheerfully from the park, relief and elation in equal measure.

Would the Tigers hold on? Even with the benefit of hindsight, yes. Watford had had their spell, their lack of self belief was tangible as the second half opened, and an engorged Circle eagerly anticipated the party to follow.

And what a party it was. The East Stand finally found a rival to its years-long vocal dominance in the South Stand, the patrons of each disregarding the away fans and chanting to each other. Little was happening on the pitch save for a gentle increase in City’s domination, and so the noise levels continue rising, building to the explosive climax we were now awaiting.

Well, perhaps some things did occur on the verdant greensward. The excellent Priskin (why does Boothroyd not start him?) came on for the anonymous Mariappa and forced a neat intervention from Myhill with a sharp shot. City reacted to this change of personnel by introducing the fired-up Folan for Dean Windass, whose leisurely saunter from the pitch was serenaded with a fearful tumult of applause.

With sixty-five minutes gone and Watford looking increasingly resigned to their fate, Turner was cautioned moments after a surging run from Folan, both incidents combining to lift the pace of the game. And on 70 minutes we led, won the tie, and sparked scenes of near-unprecedented fervour.

Ricketts, as is his wont, thundered down the right, carved a yard (or five) of space, and sent over a perfect cross. The Mighty Caleb had thoughtfully engineered for himself a similarly abundant degree of isolation, and his powerful header flew past Lee, City led 2-1 on the night, 4-1 on aggregate, the tie was over, City were going to Wembley.

Not that we wish to dwell too gloatingly upon this moment, but truly it was one to savour – a goal celebration whose recollection in years to come will become the stuff of near-myth. Arms pumped madly. Unhinged cries of delight threatened to bring the sky falling in. The sense of maddening delight meant that no physical demonstration could do it justice. Even now, in the first re-telling of it, the hairs stand on end; a little shiver of happiness races down the spine; a beatific grin lights the face.

The Circle was now partying. East, South, West, North – all stands were stood, singing, jumping, cheering. Modern all-seated stadia may sometimes impose un-football-like decorum upon their patrons, but not always – and as the noise rolled deafeningly around our home in a way it never has before, it truly felt like a coliseum.

Nick Barmby, half-forgotten a few months ago, now elevated into the upper reaches of Tiger acclaim, jogged off to an ear-splitting ovation in favour of Craig Fagan, then Fraizer Campbell was withdrawn for Nathan Doyle.

However, events on the pitch were almost becoming secondary as songs of glory filled the night air. In several areas of the ground, nascent gatherings were forming at the front, a full-time pitch invasion the obvious intention. These were being well stewarded, although it was quite clear that nothing was going to halt post-match incursions on a grand scale.

Indeed, some didn’t even wait that long, for with two minutes remaining City scored again. Garcia collected the ball, slalomed through a trio of shattered Watford defenders and coolly slid the ball past Lee before haring away in delight as the crowd erupted yet again. A few hundred City fans in the North and East stands ran onto the pitch in ill-timed celebration, an act not appreciated by most, although they were quickly escorted from the pitch. None were ejected. It wasn’t that sort of night.

It got better in the last minute, as the groups preparing to race for the centre-circle swelled – the ball fell to Doyle after a Fagan dart forward was just about halted; he smacked a left-footed shot at Lee, a cruel deflection sent the ball past the spot he’d just vacated, and City led the tie by a crushing 6-1 margin.

Again some supporters entered the pitch – these were swiftly cleared, before Mr Clattenburg (already halfway off the pitch) ended the match suspiciously early, we roared in triumph, and seemingly a split-second later half the stadium appeared to be on the pitch, celebrating one of the finest moments in our history.

And that it is. Our past, while long and proud, is not overburdened with glorious interludes. There’s almost a perverse pride attached to that. No trips to Wembley; no domestic cups; no top flight football; yet the club remains inexplicably well-supported. And rarely has that faith seemed more well-placed.

For we are going to Wembley. The self-declared home of English football has never before hosted this country’s most exasperatingly under-achieving club. But now it will. In shortly over a week, 36,000 will depart this city and head to London in support of the Tigers.

It will be a memorable and emotional occasion. All those trips to Macclesfield and Bury; those gut-wrenching flirtations with financial ruin; the plunge to the foot of the League; Terry Dolan; the decay of Boothferry Park; the sense that it was simply never going to be us, that our club was irreversibly doomed to a meagre existence. All gone.

We shall savour next Saturday, of course. Not for decades will so many Hull-folk have gathered in one place to support City. We’ll take souvenir photographs, there may be some slightly slack-jawed gaping at Wembley’s vast opulence, and we shall generally act like the stereotypical exciteable Japanese tourists.

Until 3pm. For then, there begins the most important ninety minutes of football we’ve ever known. And by its conclusion, after 104 years, Hull City could finally be in the top flight. (AD)