What is at the heart of football’s enduring appeal? Unpredictability, that’s what. Anxiety inducing, hope inspiring, potential misery wielding and glory promising unpredictability.
Everyone in the city had their go at soothsaying in the run up to the regular season’s final day, so did a slew of media pundits, but no one foresaw Watford losing two goalkeepers to injury, necessitating the use of a teenage debutant replacement and delays in their game against Leeds. No one predicted City would go a goal down, pull level, take the lead, get a penalty that if scored would put the win beyond doubt only to miss it and almost instantly concede a penalty at the other end that would jeopardise automatic promotion.
Let’s face it, not even the supercomputers at the CERN labs in Geneva could have theorised that set of variables, nor predicted the physiological and psychological effects of a 90 minute game + the wait for the Watford result, as 20,000 Tiger Nationals felt like they may pass out, cry, vomit, orgasm and bab themselves all at the same time.
So how did we get to this frenzied state that now has a city delirious and existentially joyful over promotion to the Premier League? Let’s try to make sense of the sensory overload…
We knew the permutations; if we beat champions Cardiff then we’re up no matter what, second place is ours. It would also be ours if Watford lost to Leeds, though that seemed improbable, but if we drew and Watford won then it’d be down to the play-offs, and given our stalled momentum that seemed a fearful prospect after occupying second place for so long.
After two horror shows against bottom feeding opposition that had frittered away a seven point lead, Steve Bruce knew he had to shake things up, and boy did he… The manager installed a flat back four after a season of a three man defence, and Robbie Brady, a left wing back in the 3-5-2 system, was deployed further forward, and no longer restricted to a flank, he had freedom to move around, with George Boyd ostensibly replacing him on the left. Talismanic midfielder Robert Koren was out despite the best efforts to get him fit, Jay Simpson replaced the fitness lacking Matt Fryatt and Liam Rosenior took his customary right back slot in a four man defence, with Corry Evans dropping out of the eleven.
On this day of destiny, albeit destiny delayed by events in Hertfordshire, City carded: Stockdale; McShane, Faye, Chester, Rosenior; Boyd, Quinn, Meyler, Elmohamady; Brady and Simpson.
In glorious sunlight, the KC Stadium looked resplendent. Though the clacky-clapper things left under the seats were annoying to hear, they looked quasi-impressive when all held aloft as the players took to the field, the stands turned to amber. More important than visuals in the stands however was the atmosphere, not being made by cardboard devices but emanating from throats, and it was pleasing to hear the Tiger Nation in full voice, brushing aside nerves and trepidation to back our boys in a buoyant ground.
City looked suitably energised and piled forward, playing towards the Cardiff fans, who were (except for those dressed as bananas or Elvis) mostly decked in blue like their players.
Rosenior hit a snap-shot fairly wildly over but swayed by appeals the ref awarded a corner as amber smoked swirled around the East Stand. A well worked move from that was equally well defended, before a fired up Paul McShane blasted a cross-shot into the box, inspiring smitten City fans to threaten riots if he was to be sold.
Ahmed Elmohamady and Rosenior combined well, leading to a cross that was headed away. A delicious first time ball from Simpson set Stephen Quinn away but an errant touch robbed him of a run at goal. David Meyler knocked a ball long to an energetic Brady who chested the ball onto his feet ready to drive boxward but a blueshirt’s outstretched leg took it away.
City’s enterprising nature was much appreciated, although it occasionally made us susceptible to a counter attack, Aron Gunnarsson hit a low shot that pinballed off Abdoulaye Faye’s legs deflecting it wide for a corner as breaths were sharply taken in. David Stockdale collected that kick and sent Elmohamady off on a run with a thrown pass, the Egyptian giddily sprinted forward and in his haste put his cross not near enough to Simpson and it was cleared. It was great to see Elmohamady fired up though, exceptional for most of the season he has faded considerably of late, so the sight of him in full flow was a delight.
Elmo won the ball in Cardiff’s box and fed Brady who had a shot blocked, leading to a Bluebirds/Dragons breakaway but that was quickly snuffed out and City pressed again as the game pulsated, a McShane shot was charged down. Boyd sprinted after a ball down the left flank, and a stepover froze his marker, giving him space to find Brady, who curled a fizzing drive not far over.
Word about Watford’s keeper woes was filtering into the stadium and increasing hopefulness; First choice Manuel Almunia had knacked a hamstring warming up, putting back up Jonathan Bond in nets. However a collision with teammate Ikechi Anya early in the game meant a somewhat unexpected debut for a teenager who had likely expected to be goofing around in the stands eating pies.
The players in our game wouldn’t have known this but were perhaps aware of the odd vibe in the ground and the game entered an odd spell where neither side could do anything right, Cardiff keeper David Marshall had a mix up with a defender that led to the ball being sliced away for a throw, and as City pressed anxiety set in, exemplified when a simple pass from Brady to Elmo was whacked out of play. Faye headed to James Chester but a moment of hesitation surrendered possession cheaply before Faye cleaned up.
City were still fashioning chances though, and a rasping Brady drive was beaten away by Marshall before Elmohamady picked up a yellow card for checking across a Cardiff man. The promoted side’s fans were in mischievous mood and suggested Watford were 1-0 and then 2-0 up in chants, they weren’t though, in fact Leeds had opened the scoring at Vicarage Road, and buzz about that swept around the ground as Faye made a last ditch challenge in our box to concede a corner. In surreal scenes, City fans were exulting as City players defended a corner, Faye’s clearance quelled danger, but Simpson was prone on the turf.
Whatever afflicted the forward, a magic sponge wasn’t enough to put it right and Simpson was replaced by Nick Proschwitz. The half ended goalless, and with the first half at Vicarage Road still in progress, Tiger Nationals were hungry for updates. News, when it came, was not positive, Almen Abdi had levelled for the home side on the stroke of half time in Hertfordshire.
So as the second half was ready to begin at the KC Stadium, things were as they were before kick-off. A win means promotion regardless, a draw and we’re relying on Leeds to best Watford, a defeat and a point is enough for the Hornets to displace us on goal difference. Former City hero Fraizer Campbell had warmed up without a bib or training top throughout the break, suggesting he’d start the second half for Cardiff. That prospect was ominous enough without the need for some City fans to motivate him by branding him a ‘greedy bastard’. Sigh.
Soon after the restart City had a half-arsed penalty shout when Brady tumbled in the box, the ref didn’t give it and rightly so but, had he, I doubt anyone of an amber and black persuasion would have felt guilty about it, so desperate were we to have our nerves calmed and buttocks unclenched a bit. No such luck, and not long after those same buttocks were clenched to forming diamonds out of coal lumps level when Campbell was set on goal by Korean Kim Bo-Kyung’s superb through ball and the ex-Tiger nonchalantly passed the ball beyond Stockdale and into the net. 1-0 Cardiff, and as it stood, we were third and headed for Leicester on Thursday.
Parts of the West Stand thought we’d reclaimed parity when Nick Proschwitz stabbed at a McShane header but he’d put it excruciatingly outside of the post and not in. The German tried to make amends when Brady’s through ball on the turn created a shooting chance but the strike was too tame to cause Marshall problems.
Marshall was on hand again to parry away a Meyler drive soon after but Quinn was alert to pickpocket the defender first to the rebound and deliver a ball to Proschwitz in the six-yard area. Unfazed by the attention of Gunnarsson on his tail, our £2.6M Teuton clipped the ball beyond Marshall into the corner of the net to enrapture the Tiger Nation. 1-1, and it was on again.
The momentum pendulum was swinging our way and after Faye formed a flesh and bone barrier to a Fraizer Campbell shot, City took their business to the other end of the pitch, where Quinn’s shot was deflected wide for a corner. Brady’s delivery was good and McShane, sneaking behind a defender then slapping down his despairing grasp nudged the ball across goal and in, sparking utter pandemonium in the stands as stranger hugged stranger, united by a shared love and bond and the raptures of a 2-1 scoreline.
Football…bloody hell? You’re not kidding Fergie, but the drama was not over, there were at least 27 minutes to go and more twists in the tail of this most important of matchdays. If you watched the split-screen drama of the Premier League title deciders last season you will have marvelled at the sheer unfictionable improbability of it all, but spared a thought for those in the stadium emotionally invested in proceedings as it must have been hell.
That hell now had manipulative ambassadors at the KC Stadium and Vicarage Road that were punching the nervous systems and tying knots in the guts of City and Watford fans. Faye tracked back heroically to foil a Campbell run and Rosenior charged down a shot before Meyler was adjudged, unfairly to have handled outside of the box. Did the ball strike his hand? Yes. Was it intentional? Never, he knew nothing of it, but regardless City faced a dangerously placed free kick. They survived.
Nerves weren’t just fraying now, they were melting, they were sending out bolts of electricity and commanding teeth to destroy fingernails. In Geneva, CERN’s computers were giving off smoke and setting off klaxons, they hadn’t found the Higgs boson, they had detected the varied emotions of City fans given atomic form colliding at the speed of light.
News of the dismissal of Watford’s Troy Deeney quickly reached Hull and added to bewildering mix of computations, while at the Circle a red card was also flashed, as Cardiff’s Andrew Taylor, already booked, was sent off for illegally halting Elmohamady’s run as he sprinted for a Boyd pass.
With our game nearing a climax, Meyler chased down a punt that was collected by Marshall and was bundled needlessly to the floor by Nugent. Penalty! Some City fans thought the whistle was for full time and invaded the pitch prematurely, meanwhile Meyler wouldn’t hand over the ball to Proschwitz, Steve Bruce’s elected penalty taker (he instructed Rosenior to tell Proschwitz it was his to take) causing further mental distraction for the kick taker as stewards and police ushered fans off the playing area. When some semblance of order was restored Proschwitz stepped up to take the spot-kick. It was placed well enough, to Marshall’s left, but at a height that was saveable and save it Marshall did.
There’s a phrase used to describe the loss of situational awareness by combatants in battle during heavy fighting, the fog of war, and something similar was happening here, some fans were so keen to get on the pitch they’d not checked to see if the game was over, players were disturbed by the ensuing mayhem and penalty miss, news from Watford was scarce as mobile broadcast towers became overloaded by thousands of people in a confined space look to their phones for information and the whole situation was one of utter chaos. The fog of final day.
The game though continued, there was time left on the clock, time that Cardiff used to attack. The ball was hoyed long into the penalty area, the ball pinged off heads, knees and, according to the ref, Faye’s arm, and he pointed to the spot. Cardiff penalty.
Already wrenched guts were wrenched even further when Maynard slammed the ball past Stockdale for 2-2. City had taken control of their own destiny heroically in this game and now had it snatched from them by a cruel bounce. Now we were destined to wait agonisingly for news from Watford.
Our game ended and again there was a pitch invasion, but what those people were celebrating could be snatched any moment if Watford scored. The feeling inside the KC Stadium was as if the universe was holding its breath, as City fans tried desperately to make sense of the senselessness they’d just witnessed.
An eternity passed, a decision was made not to show events at Watford on the big screen so phones were clutched to ears as relatives at home were turned into impromptu commentators. What news? Leeds have scored! Watford have lost and City have done it!
Delayed gratification? This turn of events would teach Sting a thing or two about delayed release of joyous energies, following the Tigers is tantric on this day, and CERN’s probability mapping software? Flawed, they never saw this coming, that’s for sure, nobody did, and that’s why people who love sport love sport, our ignorance of what is to come makes these moments emotionally charged in a way that few occurrences in life can match.
Hats off to every one of City’s players today, they gave it everything, and even if the result wasn’t what we wanted you cannot fault the performance, it was superb, nobody can doubt that City’s players wanted this regardless of the nervy mis-steps of the last few weeks. Brady looked ready to drop when he left the pitch, bodies were weak but minds were strong. This feels dirty, but thanks Dirty Leeds, just don’t think we don’t still loathe you.
More to the point, thank you Hull City; thank you the family Allam, thank you Steve Bruce and coaching staff, thank you to every player who has sweated in the cause of Hull City this season.
City are Premier League.