A right-thinking member of society wouldn’t regard a visit to Leicester City as “interesting”. There is little wrong with Leicester the city, but plenty with Leicester City, if you get my drift. Members of the Tiger Nation will howl with horror at memories of the first visit to the Walkers Stadium – or Walkers Bowl, or Fosse Soupdish, or whatever they initially called it – when this most patronising of all clubs refused to believe that we could bring all the fans we did.
You may recall this. Pay on the day was an option and so, not remarkably, a lot of Hull City fans chose to pay on the day. To Leicester, this was not just more than a lot, but more than they expected for a club that was so ickle and weeny. So, 15 minutes before kick off, queues started to form and there were distinguishable chortles from the Leicester stewards when fans asked if it would be at all possible to open a second and third ticket window for the away end. There were plenty visible that were closed, see. The answer was no, and a considerable number of Hull City supporters finally took to their seats 20 minutes and more into the game, despite arriving at the stadium in ample time.
That was in March 2006, under our beloved former Leicester manager (who was afforded alternative tributes from the Tiger Nation of “There’s only one Peter Taylor” and “You’re shit and it’s Taylor’s fault”, depending on the scenario). Leicester won the game 3-2, with one of their goals coming from Joey Gudjonsson while standing on his own halfway line. City went fourth bottom that day but successive home gimmes against Plymouth Argyle and Crewe Alexandra made sure of safety and Taylor exited the club with his reputation higher among the fans that with his chairman.
Since that day, we’ve been twice more.
This Saturday’s game will be our fourth, and with another former Leicester manager now in charge of the Tigers, again we find ourselves contemplating an “interesting” trip to Leicester’s soulless ground and condescending attitudes. It is pure luck that each of our games in this lower reach of the East Midlands has produced real talking points, as the host club does its level best to suck any kind of life out of the travelling football supporter. Little things like a fascist attitude towards standing, a dislike of anyone partaking in lawful alcoholic refreshment within half a mile of the venue, the deployment of an enormous tattooed man with a drum who wouldn’t have looked out of place being the rhythm king for a bunch of galley slaves in Shogun, and a worry that plastic bottles of water acquired on the premises will have someone’s eye out and so when one asks for such a beverage, they open it, pour it into a paper cup and offer it, at which point the customer declares they wanted it for later in the game – when the kiosks are, of course, closed – and so they won’t purchase it now, thank you, thereby wasting a few pence worth of wares due to their own juvenile rules.
Er, anyway, each of our games have been interesting, that was it. The most recent trip was under Phil Brown in the promotion season of 2008, when City were already certs, albeit without the sums quite backing it up, for the play-offs and swatted aside a relegation-haunted Leicester courtesy of goals from Dean Marney – who also fluffed a penalty – and Caleb Folan. A significant result but within a season of even more significant results it falls down the list a little, and so to a year beforehand we go.
September 2006, with Phil Parkinson at the helm and just one point from the first six matches. The Tigers journeyed to the Lineker Sideplate for a midweek game that, frankly, didn’t exactly fill us with confidence. Memories of the previous trip’s shortcomings – on and off the pitch – were still fresh, added to the worryingly statuesque start to the season under a new manager whose name inspired confidence but whose methods were beginning to grate.
The week before he had used the last breath of transfer window to purchase two fresh strikers in Nicky Forster and Michael Bridges. Both were gifted and experienced, with Forster a grizzled old stager and pal of the gaffer’s, and Bridges a twinkletoed performer whose predicted rise to the very top had been halted by a catastrophic sequence of injuries. Both cost real money too, but were required courtesy of Darryl Duffy’s bad finishing, Stephen McPhee’s bad back and Jon Parkin’s bad attitude. Add to this Parkinson’s bizarre insistence on ignoring Stuart Elliott – his later recovery from the reported reflux problem showed a lack of understanding on the manager’s part, at least – and the reason for a lack of goals had become obvious.
City had other newbies struggling to settle, with Marney already tempering his appetite for hard work with a tendency to swing wildly at balls irrespective of his intentions, almost never finding the required target, while central defender Michael Turner was, simply, one of the worst buys in the history of trading. He was a Ratner’s decanter as far as the Tiger Nation was concerned, partnering the M&S prawn sandwich that was Sam Collins. For the trip to Leicester, Marney was left out. Bridges and Forster, having debuted in a narrow defeat at Birmingham City together three days before, started up front. The – by far – least heralded but – so far – most productive of the summer signings, David Livermore, was in the centre of midfield.
The Tiger Nation were in quite phenomenal voice. Leicester dominated the first half but chances at either end were scarce. Collins was the star performer, putting his head with alarming regularity where some studded footwear would have been more appropriate, and it would be this display, pretty much alone, that would emphasise the honesty, courage and lack of nonsense in his game that made him appreciated by the Tiger Nation still wondering why we sold Richard Jobson. And with Turner, evidently a better footballer but so far not proving a better defender, struggling to get his act together, the presence of Collins was all the more a relief.
Half time arrived, and though a healthy glut of travelling supporters went down to the concourses to be showed how to piss, what to buy and where they could breathe, a substantial number remained standing and a cry of “Parkinson’s Black and Amber Army” began. It got louder and louder until it felt like the whole Tiger Nation cocooned in that corner of the Shilton Tureen that you never see on telly was joining in. This was evidence of the class that Hull City fans can exude at isolated times. The team was devoid of ideas and confidence, the manager already seemed to be losing his way and, lest we forget, the game was not actually going on and only men with pitchforks trying to seem important were atop the playing surface. But on and on it went, right up to the point when the players re-emerged for the second half. It was as if the soullessness of the occasion and venue had prompted the Tiger Nation to lend their hosts some soul for the night. And the team was inspired.
On 58 minutes, Bridges scored one of the best Hull City goals ever. A wild statement, perhaps, but in terms of importance, quality and emotive meaning it was impassable. He collected the ball deep in the inside right channel, worked his way across the pitch to a central position and then, from 25 yards at least, unleashed a shot that ticked all the boxes for curl and power. It was the most gorgeous sight as it swerved a perfect arc at just the right moment to nestle in the top corner of the net – at the Tiger Nation’s end of the park, too – and as the players piled on top of Bridges, the visiting fans piled on top of each other. It was one of those celebrations that great fictionists could not reproduce in prose.
And, if the singing was loud at half time, it had nothing on what the Tiger Nation’s lungs mustered for the rest of the game. Despite there being half an hour left, despite City’s lack of a winning habit thus far, the points felt secured. Boaz Myhill only made one telling save in the remainder of the match and six wholly unnecessary minutes of injury time, bordering on the torturous, passed by uneventfully.
Let’s think. Wembley, the two matches against Watford that preceded it, the home win over Leeds, the win at Cardiff that saved the Tigers and sent Leeds into League One, maybe Norwich away recently (I wasn’t there). Those games will be the only ones at this level that have produced bigger cheers at the final whistle than this September night at the Mark Morrison Wok. At the time, it felt like the most significant result in the world as the early battle to avoid relegation finally began. Of course, it would be without Parkinson and Bridges; and with Phil Brown and Dean Windass, that the Tigers would win that battle with that aforementioned double glory day in Wales. Parkinson was gone by December, Bridges would never produce anything remotely resembling that kind of craft in Hull City colours again, Collins returned to bit-part bag carrier status before heading out while Turner eventually emerged under Brown as Jobson’s direct clone.
And so back we go to Leicester, with their prohibitive ways and, rather deliciously, the home debut of new manager Sven Goran Eriksson. This will knock the return of Nigel Pearson, for all his public criticism of Leicester’s ways recently, into a cocked hat as far as the headline writers are concerned. Unless we win. So let’s do just that – and then get out of there as quickly as possible afterwards. Oh, and take some bottled water with you for the journey home.