Is it really more of a worry to be trophyless for nine years than it is to be trophyless for 110 years? Well, given that by definition, a trophyless 110 years equals a trophyless club, probably so. Hull City still haven’t won a major trophy and the relief that Arsenal fans no doubt feel that this self-perpetuated monkey has been shaken off their backs after nine years will be huge. It’s amazing how important the domestic cups suddenly become when you stop winning them.
Nobody should begrudge Arsenal their victory. They have class in their camp, if not always in their manner, and the gulf in ability was no more obvious than when Arsène Wenger brought on Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky for the second period of extra time. To be able to introduce players that good, against players who even when on an equal fitness level aren’t close to their level, is the luxury that a huge club can always choose to exploit. Finally, aided by (if not as a direct consequence of) these alterations, Arsenal took the lead for the first time in the game and won it.
City were magnificent, of course. Steve Bruce had astutely been playing the part of a bashful character all week, deflecting any attention over his achievements this season wholly towards his players. The belief in them, and the belief of them, had been evidently growing through the week and all the predictable nerves befitting such a unique occasion were being channelled positively. The flimsiness of the way they ended the Premier League season was understandable; and now, more importantly, it was a means to an end. The FA Cup final was the end, and it was all anyone – player, supporter, probably even manager, when he writes his memoirs he may admit to that – was thinking about. And now it was here. In our consciousnesses, it would be here to stay.
A month ago we were stressing about whether we would be able to put out any kind of strong team, as player by player fell to injury. Yet the return of pretty much everyone to something resembling fitness was an unexpected, and yet somehow risibly predictable, bonus for Bruce, who had to tread carefully when it came to making sure head always overruled heart. Sone Aluko was nearly fully fit but still not firing, a decision needed to be made. Robbie Brady was in full training but woefully short of practice and a proper test, a decision needed to be made. Paul McShane was in full training but risking a quick repeat injury by playing, a decision needed to be made. Bruce duly made his decisions – he didn’t pick any of them, and in Brady’s case, didn’t even think a 15-minute cameo was in him and kept him in his Wembley suit for the day.
And yet he did pick James Chester, recently hamstrung for the second time this season and not even on the same radar as Brady, McShane et al for a comeback and yet, there he was, back in the centre of defence, where he belonged and where we’d happily see him remain for the next decade. The guaranteed striker, in the now overquoted absence through ineligibility of Nikica Jelavić and Shane Long, was Matty Fryatt but, despite picking three at the back, Bruce had no place for a second centre forward, instead deploying Stephen Quinn as a flame-haired free spirit between midfield and attack, expected to support Fryatt wherever possible while also adding his known bite to the engine of the team when Arsenal’s possessional squeeze was on. Of all the players aiming to play their way into the FA Cup final team, Quinn was one we hadn’t considered, and one can only imagine how blue the air turned when Aluko was informed he was a sub and Quinn was in the place that was tailor-made for him.
Bruce, however, had a plan. And so, it was kind of a 3-5-1-1, or a 3-6-1, depending on whose boot was controlling the football. City’s history-making starting XI stood side by side for the national anthem – proud, symbolic, idolised – as thus:
Chester Bruce Davies
Elmohamady Livermore Meyler Huddlestone Rosenior
With that XI, you could easily guess who the substitutes were.
Arsenal retained their FA Cup goalkeeper in Lukasz Fabianski but otherwise played a very strong side, with any of the outfield players able to make a claim to be in Wenger’s best available XI. They started very sluggishly, however, as if their being told they are strong favourites for the FA Cup had somehow made them think that turning up to the match would be sufficient. City made them pay early, brilliantly, devastatingly.
An early cross from Ahmed Elmohamady hit the roof of the net with Fabianski backpedalling, then City forced a corner after just two minutes. Quinn swung it out to Tom Huddlestone on the edge of the box and his low volley, going wide, was diverted in to the opposite side of the net by Chester, justifying any concern about his being rushed back into action instantaneously. Naturally, everyone at the City end of Wembley went loopy.
One of the quickest goals in an FA Cup final ever had been scored by a Hull City player. And not just any Hull City player, but one of the longer serving Championship graduates who had made the step up with some ease. Now he had created his own bit of Tigers history.
And before the minutes had reached double figures, there was a heart-bursting second goal to celebrate. Another set-piece nearly got David Meyler a sight of goal, and it was half-cleared to Quinn. He double-dummied Aaron Ramsey brilliantly to chip it back in towards Alex Bruce, whose header bounced back from a combination of post and Fabianski’s glove. Davies fired in the rebound from an acute angle.
Two set pieces, producing two goals, scored by two centre backs, for 2-0. Emotionally, everyone was now in a maelstrom. A passing knowledge of how City have always operated through the generations, something that you daren’t think about when you’re 2-0 up in an FA Cup final, was ingrained within us. Don’t mention typicalcity, a single word constructed via two conjoined words that required a hashtag years before Twitter was thought of. And as ten minutes of the game still hadn’t passed, we knew the remainder of the half, let alone the match, was now going to be absolute agony.
For all that, a third goal from a third centre back nearly followed when Bruce, who had never scored for City, aimed a looping header over Fabianski but this time Kieran Gibbs was on the line to nod it clear. Had the least distinguished (but actually, probably the bravest) of our defenders managed to score as well then some kind of global footballing record was probably in the setting.
The problem, should you be
negative pessimistic defeatist cynical realistic enough to dream up problems when you’re 2-0 up in an FA Cup final, was that City’s impact was being very obviously restricted to set-pieces, and with 75 minutes to play and an underwritten footballing fact that Arsenal would have a massive percentage of the possession, there wasn’t much more safety in 2-0 than there was in 1-0. Arsenal would have to work harder, of course, and City would at least know what they had to defend, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop the Gunners reacquainting themselves with the occasion.
On 16 minutes, it happened. Bruce fouled Santiago Cazorla just outside the box, and the Spaniard himself took the free kick which seemed to flatten the feet of Allan McGregor as it found the top of the net, via a Scottish fingertip, even though the ball was fairly centrally aimed and had no obvious curl or dip on it. Sorry, but the keeper should have had it. And now the deficit was halved, and it was nigh on impossible to imagine City being still ahead at half time.
Arsenal should have equalised when Ramsey missed his kick from a Lukas Podolski break and cross, and that was a proper let-off. Huddlestone then half volleyed a chance from distance over the bar as City took a step back and restricted themselves to sponging up the Arsenal wave and just letting fly a few longer balls and longer shots. Fryatt got less support from Quinn during this period but would have been told by his manager this was likely to happen.
The tempo as half time neared was incredible as Arsenal strafed City and the Tigers mettlesomely repelled them. It was fascinating to watch if you weren’t a City fan, but torturous and exceptional in even measure if you were. Crosses were butted out by Davies and Bruce, Liam Rosenior tackled like a tank, Meyler chased down everything and everyone. And as half-time neared, momentarily it looked like Huddlestone had put Fryatt through as he shook off Laurent Koscielny, but the flag went up for a foul as the City striker began his one-on-one run to goal.
The whistle at the break naturally engendered a huge ovation from the Tiger Nation and everyone’s thoughts were the same: now we have something to lose. At zero minutes, it was predominantly about the achievement of getting there. At 45 minutes, that had gone out of the window. This was now eminently winnable, and yet even though the scoreline was in City’s favour, a win still seemed a thousand miles away. You can imagine, coincidentally, Sheffield United fans feeling the same way against us at the interval in the semi-final.
Arsenal attacked relentlessly but with little in terms of promise or end product, and with Olivier Giroud starting to throw himself around and annoy the referee Lee Probert in doing so (not to mention the City support), it looked like they were ready to go underhand in their attempts to equalise. City were under pressure as a team but McGregor didn’t have to do a lot, with some really tragic finishing from Arsenal, and the goal wasn’t being peppered. Huddlestone, at the other end, blootered a single chance over the bar after excellent hold-up work from the indefatigable Fryatt and a cross from Elmohamady as City enjoyed a moment of respite that was rare but welcome.
A substitution was required – Arsenal had already made one – when Bruce couldn’t continue, having had long treatment for a knock earlier in the game, and he trudged off to massive applause. The FA Cup final will, hopefully, complete the making of Bruce junior, a player whom the suspicious and less enlightened have always slightly mistrusted but who the football observer of acumen sees for his willingness to turn black and blue in his role as a defender and treat strained cartilages, busted noses and deep cranial lacerations as an occupational hazard. He is a defender. And at Wembley, boy he defended. From one strong enforcer to another it went, however, as McShane came on, shifting to the right side of the trio with Chester taking the spare Bruce role.
Arsenal’s change – Yaya Sanogo for the rubbish Podolski – was a way of breathing new life into their attack. City’s change, though enforced, was a clear sign that the manager felt the three at the back system was doing just fine, and Rosenior and Elmohamady were guarded in their forays down the flanks in order to support them. Only on counter attacks did it really look like a three, to be truthful. City now had two attacking full backs, rather than wing backs. With Meyler and Jake Livermore dropping deeper too, it was clear that while Arsenal would have felt they were being challenged, almost brazenly, to equalise, City’s plan was sensible and stoic. After all, they were still winning. But how long for?
It could have been a lot longer if Livermore, unheralded but quietly effective throughout, had shown more composure when presented with a shooting chance on the edge of the box by an Elmohamady break and an inside ball from Quinn, but he exhibited uncharacteristic haste and spannered it so conclusively he conceded a throw-in. Not the time, nor venue, nor occasion, to do that.
And then, naturally, the leveller did come. Just 19 minutes remained. It will stick in the craw forever that City were 19 minutes away from winning the FA Cup, but even so at the 71 minute mark, as Arsenal forced a corner, it still felt inexorable that it would get to 2-2, though when it did so it was distinctly unpretty. Cazorla curled the corner in, Bacary Sagna won the aerial duel with Rosenior to head goalwards and Koscielny, standing right in front of McGregor, pirouetted to turn the ball in, taking a real kick across his shins in the process. While Koscielny recovered and undoubtedly decreed that the bruises were worth it, the City manager thundered from the touchline that the corner should not have been given. He was absolutely right; but the sporting circumstances also dictate that City could and should have defended the corner more adeptly, especially as Sagna isn’t the biggest player in Arsenal’s ranks.
Now, what was the plan? Shove a load of forwards on, as is Bruce’s endearing wont, and try to win it in 90 minutes? Shore it up further, risk an onslaught and try to force extra time? Who knew? We didn’t, because even though there was ample attacking talent on the bench – Aluko, George Boyd, Yannick Sagbo, Robert Koren – we’d already replaced one defender and there was still the fear that Chester, who had not played for (basically) ever, could break down. It was a horrible fate to tempt but it needed to be considered, and so Maynor Figueroa continued to warm up more than any other sub.
Nevertheless, Bruce had room for at least one attacking change and Quinn, who was simply stupendous (and set up basically every chance we’d created, including the two goals) was withdrawn for Aluko to make his entrance. One would like to suppose that Bruce told him to “go on and win it for us”, or words to that effect, the sort of instruction a fragile type like Aluko wants to hear as he tries to balance his fury at not starting the game with his determination to make an impact and prove the manager wrong. And, just like in the semi-final against Sheffield United, he gave the opposition something ample to think about.
That was only once Arsenal had ballooned a gilt-edged chance to win it over the bar. The gawky but effective Sanogo, ball tied to his laces, whizzed in and out of the area to eventually lay a simple pass into the path of the fast-arriving Gibbs, who saw stars in his eyes and ended up nearly hitting them with a truly awful finish, the kind that would give even a full back who has never scored more than one goal in any competition nightmares forever, especially in the event of defeat. After all, can you imagine Gordon Smith sleeps well at night, even now?
McGregor then made a good save from a Giroud volley, and City countered and won a corner which Elmohamady took. Arsenal defended it well, but from the Egyptian’s second cross Davies won the header but aimed it too high. With five minutes left, it was clear – and maybe Arsenal nor their fans fully appreciated this – that City still believed it was winnable in 90 minutes. Not as much as Arsenal, perhaps, but winnable nonetheless.
Sanogo whipped one across goal and just wide as the injury time board was ready to go up, but the five extra minutes yielded just one chance, which Giroud aimed tamely at McGregor. So, extra time.
With just one card left to deal out and a centre back on his last life, it seemed difficult to believe that Bruce would make a change. What he did need to do was rally everyone round for one final time. Aside from Alf Ramsey’s famous words before extra time in the World Cup final (“You’ve won it once, now go out and win it again”), we never get to hear, or later know, via direct quotation or even articulate paraphrase, what managers say to their buggered, aching, boiling, emotional, frustrated, pained players during that couple of minutes when calf muscles have to be reinvigorated and liquids consumed. We’d like to think, however, that Bruce simply said something on the lines of “Keep going lads. They’re proud, I’m proud, and now go make us all prouder.” Heaven only knows whether, in his big heart of hearts, Bruce believed his side could actually do it in extra time. They were drained and faced 30 more minutes of which the principal task would be to chase and hassle and tackle and stretch. There would be negligible rest or repose; attacks would happen seldom and when they did, bodies wouldn’t be easy to get into position. At 2-2, with the knowledge that the 90 minutes had made everyone already an icon of the club, the fans could, perhaps, relax a bit more, though nobody would dare admit it.
What exacerbated the situation further was that Arsenal still had two more substitutions to make and had an array of talent at their disposal. Bringing on one of their many internationals at 100% fitness to run at a 30% Davies or a 10% Chester was a terrifying prospect. And McShane, not at 100% even when he came on, was not going to do it alone.
Davies was genuinely befuddled by now, and he made a real howler in controlling a ball early after the restart which allowed Ramsey to break and centre for Giroud to head against the bar. Relief, for everyone, but especially the City captain. Nobody had goofed badly for City until this moment, and it dawned on everyone that it was quite possible an Arsenal winner, which we all knew was more likely than a City winner, may be as much down to a knackered City player cocking up somehow as any spark of Arsenal brilliance. We all held the seat fronts and our nerves and, as the sunshine that had drizzled the stadium all day finally popped into view on its way to another hemisphere, our breath.
Bruce had to bite eventually, and Boyd got himself ready. Rosenior, who had taken a whack and also needed treatment for cramp, was taken off. It was ostensibly a straight swap but we needed Boyd to have the mantra of “run at them!” ricocheting around his eardrums as he jogged into the action. With Aluko unpredictable in the middle and Boyd far from unadventurous on the flank, again there was an attacking edge available to City – if they could just get the ball.
Giroud blootered one high and wide just before the whistle signalled the end of the first period. Much as Arsenal represent gracelessness in football, as evidenced by the attitude of their supporters in pretty much every game we’ve played against them since 2008, there was something generally clean and unproblematic about the players on show at Wembley. Giroud was the exception. He was unlucky to hit the crossbar but his finishing was generally poor, his malpractice in mid-air as City defenders dared approach him was embarrassing and his moaning to the referee hideous. But it must be said that there was little else about Arsenal’s players to dislike on the day. Don’t think for a moment it makes Arsenal likeable, mind. No sir.
And so, 15 minutes away from glory, despair or penalties, the cavalry arrived. Wilshere – the seventh best midfielder in the England squad for Brazil, but miles better than any of our midfielders when they’ve all used 85% of their physiological resources – came on. So did the useful, if somewhat unsung, Rosicky. Nothing could emphasise that Arsenal were sure of their own victory more than introducing these two against a side who had, in the main, done 105 minutes in the heat and seen their big early lead eased aside and the early adrenaline seep away. And the killer blow came four minutes into this last exhausting period.
It was a smart goal and, as the only one not come via a set-piece, the best of the game. Wilshere and Sanogo approached it with grace to the edge of the box, Giroud took the ball momentarily to the right and then backheeled it back inside for Ramsey to stab it instantly past McGregor, who would not have expected the shot so quickly. He was helpless, the ball was in and the game seemed, very simply, over. The distress at the other end was overwhelming and even with 11 more minutes to play, it didn’t feel like City could restore parity. It had taken 109 minutes for Arsenal to have the lead in the game but have it they did.
City did try. Davies was shoved up front alongside Fryatt. Boyd’s role as an attacking full back ditched the bit about being a full back. And Arsenal seemed to try on City’s behalf, with the previously immovable Per Mertesacker showcasing the mobility of a giant banyan when stumbling on what wasn’t even a moist surface and allowing Aluko to sprint towards the ball on the left flank. Fabianski unwisely charged out and Aluko skipped past him and, with help not arriving (mixture of unexpected attack and fatigue saw to that, though Davies and Fryatt was just approaching the edge of the box), the City sub tried to score from a long and tight angle and very, very nearly managed it. The ball looked in. It wasn’t, by just a few inches.
As the 120th minute approached, Sanogo had a chance to seal it but McGregor saved his shot. Ramsey, presumably because he’d scored the winner, was announced as Man Of The Match (he wasn’t even a candidate, in truth), then a final, desperate City attack down the flank saw the cross cleared to Aluko, who having gone to ground in helping the attack, rose quickly to receive the ball and arrowed a low shot for the bottom corner. You know what? It was in. It looked in. The keeper seemed unsighted for a split second but just got down to make the save. It was very, very close – and yet a million miles away as the whistle shrilled a minute later.
Defeat in an FA Cup final for City shouldn’t be hard to take. When you think of the crap we’ve been through over the years, even winning a single FA Cup tie was seen as an achievement. Remember that farcically long period after 1989 when we couldn’t get either past, or to, the third round? This kind of context appeals only to the neutral or the non-football fan, we know that, yet in the cold light of day it will emerge as something to soothe the pain and disappointment we feel as the Tiger Nation exits London en masse and returns to ordinary life in the homes, schools, workplaces and vehicles of Hull and the East Riding.
But, well, we were 2-0 up. We were 2-0 up way too early, as if that’s somehow something to bemoan (it bloody isn’t), but we were 2-0 up, and not many games, let alone FA Cup finals, end with victory for a team who had to overhaul a two-goal deficit. Liverpool managed it against West Ham in 2006 but never once led in the game and needed penalties, and at least we didn’t do it as suicidally as Sheffield Wednesday in 1966, who lost their two goal lead to Everton, and the FA Cup itself, in the final 30 minutes of normal time. There will be some Wednesday fans to this day who won’t have got over that. Blackpool were 3-1 down in 1953 and won 4-3, but fortunately for Bolton Wanderers fans, few people know the identity of the beaten side that day because of the emblematic status afforded to Stanley Matthews, 38 years old and a perennial FA Cup loser until that day.
So we cry the tears, salute the players (every man Jack of whom were brilliant), canonise the manager and congratulate the winners with a heavy heart but with our eyes wide open. Most of all, we use this occasion, and the drama within it, as yet another springboard to bolster our club’s profile, chances of success and continued development within the ever-toughening upper echelons of English football. It’s amazing what doing well in football matches can do for your football club, you know, and ultimately it is, and can only be, triumph on the pitch that brings in the adulation and riches that smaller clubs like Hull City crave. Nothing else. Really, nothing else. We have made a lot of friends and attracted many an admirer with this FA Cup run and garnered a few heroes within it, too. It has brought us European football, something that none of us would have expected to see in our lifetimes.
We still have no silverware, and perhaps the present rawness of defeat means we do care about that a bit right now, but, well, eventually we won’t care again. You know the rest.