There is only one pertinent question when it comes to knockout football; Who wants it more?
Only, the answer can be different, depending on when the question is asked. At 4.07pm, the answer was Sheffield United, who were a rolling tide of desire, energy and heart in the first half. At 5.07pm though, it was Hull City AFC, chastened by an opening 45 minutes that ended with us trailing to a League One side, who dug deep and willed themselves back into a game that teased us with the promises of potential glory.
For any City fan of long standing, the concept of being the favourite in an FA Cup semi-final is a paradigm shift that the subconscious has trouble adapting to, but yet here we were, a team who have scratted around without winning anything of note for 110 years, facing a team with one league championship and four FA Cup triumphs on their honours list (even if those honours were won during the last Ice age) and yet they and not us were considered underdogs.
For an underdog to triumph, they must play exceptionally well while the ‘giant’ plays as poorly as they can. That definition is an effective précis of the first half, but let’s flesh it out a bit and discuss the key moments…
Tiger Nationals, 26,500 of them, were ensconced in the easternmost side of the national stadium, bathed in sunshine as the two teams took to the field. A minute of silence in remembrance of 96 football fans who journeyed to an FA Cup semi-final but never came back spontaneously became a period of applause.
City’s starting 11 were stood in a curved line on ‘our’ side of the centre circle, and they were: Harper; Figueroa, Davies, Chester, Rosenior; Meyler, Huddlestone, Livermore, Elmohamady; Boyd and Sagbo.
The game was played at two paces early on: ours and theirs. From the outset, Sheffield United men harried and hustled City who tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a slower tempo and pass the ball about nonchalantly. Nigel Clough’s side were having none of it and their high-octane game deeply unsettled The Tigers.
Nobody personified the flustered start more than Maynor Figueroa, who in the last few games seemed to have recovered from a poor run of form to regain the cool consistency that impressed early in the season. Here though he resembled a barbiturate addled sloth tormented by amphetamine fuelled whippets.
When The Blades took the lead in the 19th minute, there was a grisly inevitability about it. Defender John Brayford, a man possessing a luxurious hipster beard and slicked hair (a look perfected by Scandinavian craft beer brewers), had a short throw-in returned to him, and unchallenged he slung in a cross towards Jose Baxter that James Chester tried to shepherd away, but Baxter nipped in to touch the ball past Harper, frozen on his goal-line. 1-0 Sheffield United, and not altogether undeserved.
City fans were as nervy as City’s players, being outsung by their South Yorkshire counterparts who also outnumbered us. Despite the wake up call, The Tigers continued to snooze, unable or unwilling to match the early pace set by the ‘plucky’ underdogs, and our fans, noisy in colour but not in voice, were consumed with the prospect of existential, Kafka-esque despair.
Yet a move that finally reminded everyone that City have Premier League class ‘in their locker’ restored the Tiger Nation’s hope: on 42 minutes, Livermore advanced from the half-way line down the right flank, using Elmo for a quick one-two before sweeping a pacy yet turf hugging ball beyond George Boyd and two Blunts rear-guardsmen, inviting Yannick Sagbo to fire a high, left footed drive beyond ‘keeper Howard. 1-1.
Hope might well spring eternal, but it is also a fragile thing, and as City complacently resumed their plodding pace, Sheffield United went up a gear and promptly retook the lead. Jamie Murphy bombed down the flank, outpacing Elmo and and out-muscling Liam Rosenior before putting the cross in between Livermore and Figueroa, a corridor of irresolution, and while they dithered, the improbably named Stefan Scougall walloped the ball into the netting. 2-1 to the underpigs.
Half time was whistled and the Tiger Nation hit Wembley’s wide-open spaces (the concourses I mean, the pitch after all is barely wider than most league grounds, despite the oft-parroted punditry myth), seeking solace in overpriced booze and hoping to drown the sickening mixture of disbelief, fear and rage that filled stomachs. Unbeknown to us, skipper Curtis Davies was utilizing rage to motivate his colleagues, while Steve Bruce used the break to make two changes. Off came Figueroa (who had been hapless) and Boyd (who’d been mostly anonymous). In their places came Matt Fryatt and Sone Aluko.
The screaming and the substitutions paid immediate dividends, though your reporter was more determined to not waste £4.80 of long queued for and barely started beer than to see the restart, so missed the second equaliser, aware of it’s happening via a crowd roar muffled by thick concrete. In my absence, Matt Fryatt had swept home a hacked at pass/shot by Chester after a corner-kick induced melee in the box. 2-2, The Tigers were level, and this encounter started to assume a different, more pleasing shape.
Having struggled to get into the game before now, City flexed their muscles and took control of it. It might have been a combination of City dialling up the pace and United finding they could no longer maintain their freneticism, but we now matched The Blades for application, and this allowed our greater technique to become evident.
Boy was it evident when we took the lead for the first time…Tom Huddlestone twice exchanged one-two passes in quick succession, the first with Curtis Davies, nominally in the opposition’s half, the second with David Meyler, who delayed the return ball with a drag back before sweeping the allegedly mango coloured ball into the path of the once-‘fro’d face of the club. Huddlestone danced past the outstretched leg of a defender, taking on two more, neatly shielding the ball from them, before showing himself to be the coolest man in all of the SW1P postcode area by completing the attack with finesse and élan, deftly lifted the ball past Howard. The Tiger Nation shrieked with ecstatic glee, 3-2 Tigers.
City were purring now, swaggering even, and more goals seemed not just possible, but likely. 64 minutes into the game, Sagbo was withdrawn, giving a run out to Stephen Quinn, a somewhat underused figure in an excellent season. A most heartening element of a fine campaign this year has been the way that players who were instrumental in our promotion year, reduced now to the peripheries, have stepped up when called upon. They haven’t bitched, they haven’t demanded a move, they’ve just kept their heads down and pitched in when Steve Bruce has remembered them. Quinn would illustrate that amply and quickly.
David Meyler, near the right touchline, placed the ball ahead of Livermore and trailing defenders, and the man who has shown an expensive penchant for destroying cameras, hooked in the most photogenic of crosses. The centre was met by Quinn, who in mid-air, twisted his body so he could place a diving header well beyond the ‘keeper’s grasp. 4-2 City, and though Quinn’s celebration was modest in respect for his former club, the glee of City fans was unrestrained. Now the game had the amber hue we’d all hoped for.
To Sheffield United’s credit, they refused to go meekly into the night, and with the game nearly over they gave their fans one last vision of an improbable (but not impossible given their first half showing) giant killing. A diving header was blocked by Chester, but Murphy was quickest to react and lashed the ball beyond Harper to make all 26,500 of us shift uneasily in our seats. 4-3.
Our discomfort didn’t last long however. City broke on the counter, with Elmo cushioning a through ball to Meyler who in composed manner swept the ball home to restore a two goal margin and finally put a sword through Sheffield United’s valiant heart. 5-3 to the triumphant Tigers.
City then, are FA Cup finalists, and no matter how many times that is written or spoken, it is still hard to truly take in. It’s as if, unable to believe in such a beautiful destiny, we are all expecting to be cruelly awakened by Keanu Reeves who’ll explain it was all a computer generated fantasy.
But it is true, Hull City will make a third visit to the most prestigious arena on these shores to contest that sexy, curvaceous pot of silver known as the FA Cup in five weeks. Steve Bruce, who has already taken us further in the cup than any other manager in club history and looks set to guide us to a best ever final league position, now has a crack at immortality as Hull City manager. He will plot the tactics (and hopefully have more inspired substitutions lurking in his subconscious) that we hope will best Arsenal, our FA Cup final opponent.
Who wanted it more? It took them a while to find their voice, but eventually our heroes issued a full throated cry that resonated across the land: “Hull City AFC”, that’s who.