Hull City AFC at Wembley. Before the game yesterday, we exhorted ourselves to relish the experience of seeing our beloved side grace the national stadium, to not permit dismay at the Allams’ antics or the relative frequency of our visits mask the stunning surreality of City actually being there.
However, those past visits have also brought with it a certain understanding of what a play-off final actually is. Once you’ve taken a selfie on Wembley Way and gaped in wonder at just what an astonishing stadium it is, there’s a match to be played and a prize to be won. Or lost. At no point is that enjoyable. It’s agonising, gut-wrenching stuff. We knew what was coming.
Did Sheffield Wednesday know? It cannot be disputed that they were up for it – indeed, based upon on excitable social media comment they could comfortably have sold out several dozen Wembleys alone. And however gauche they were on Twitter their fans were brilliantly loud inside the ground, a slightly saddening reminder of what we were in 2008.
By contrast, we feel almost careworn. Wednesday are a coming (or perhaps reviving?) force, and their return to the top flight after a lengthy absence is just a matter of time. We’ve been there. Done that. Seen both the glamour and the seamier side of the mid-2010s top-flight. Neither the journey nor the destination are new.
Also not new is the rotten attitude of the owners, with whom we’ve been engaged in an exhausting cold war for three energy-sapping years. They’ve alienated so many, both the passionately engaged and the loosely attached – how could there NOT be thousands of empty seats?
But enough! Because amid the off-field controversies, ticketing chatter and faintly distasteful focus on this being the “richest game ever”, there was an actual football match. Steve Bruce had some sizeable decisions to make prior to it.
Some were forced upon him. The ongoing injury to Allan McGregor necessitated Eldin Jakupović deputising, as he has throughout the play-offs. But there were hefty dilemmas elsewhere. Three stood out: Clucas for the slightly underperforming Snodgrass? Bench a permanently inconsistent Diamé? Beef up the midfield by swapping Huddlestone for Meyler?
Big calls for a big match. In the end, Steve Bruce gave the XI that limped over the line against Derby another go, resisting the temptation to freshen things up and going for might be considered his biggest stars.
Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal made a single change to the side that did enough in the second leg of their play-off against Brighton, bringing Sam Hutchinson back into the side for Álex López.
It was a warm afternoon in the capital, with frequent spells of sunshine dazzling those clad in black and amber. City began kicking towards the half million or so Sheffield sorts and had the first effort on goal, a rasping drive by Tom Huddlestone forcing a save from Keiren Westwood. However, Wednesday were generally making a bright start, and they had a real opportunity on ten minutes. Dawson was correctly cautioned for clobbering Fernando Forestieri, presenting the Italian with a sickeningly handsome-looking chance from the resulting free-kick. However, his shot was too central to be a serious danger, even if Jakupović looked a little uncertain when paddling it over.
That was a worry, with Dawson having to spend the whole of the rest of the game on a caution and tasked with supervising Forestieri, a notorious diver. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t settle quickly, Diamé becoming the next to cough up a dangerous free-kick. This time Ross Wallace had the shot, and again Jakupović’s positioning was good and his handling was, well, good enough.
Not a great start, and those familiar concerns about City beginning a game slowly were hard to keep at bay. Happily, those set-pieces were the only threats we faced in the opening exchanges, and as the first half wore on City began to impose themselves with greater success.
On 28, a Snodgrass corner found Abel Hernández being loosely guarded by the Sheffield defence and his header had to be cleared off the line. From the resulting mêlée, involving Michael Dawson, hands were raised seeking a penalty – it was impossible to tell from our distant vantage point at the time, though the message quickly came through from those watching back home that it’d have been exceptionally harsh.
City were the growing force in the game as Wednesday began to falter, and increasingly the game was being played at the far end to us. A sharp Diamé through-ball caught out the Wednesday defence, who were only able to slow it – Hernández collected possession and swished a left-footed shot when perhaps a right-footed effort would have been better; Westwood had raced off his line to deflect it over. A great save, though Hernández has scored harder chances this season.
A minute later Moses Odubajo cut in from the right and sent a curling left-footed shot comfortably wide of Westwood’s near post – not the greatest effort, but City were increasingly getting into shooting positions and Wednesday began to look a little ragged.
Back came City again, applying the first concerted pressure either team had managed to this point. Diamé, influential and bristling with determination, fastened onto possession and executed an array of stepovers to advance goalwards, only for his eventual left-footed shot to thud against the motionless Westwood’s near post. A great piece of play and so close to the game’s first goal.
On we went, with Westwood again the Sheffield saviour – this time haring off his line to block Odubajo when it seemed for a moment he’d have a shooting opportunity. Excellent goalkeeping, though he may have justly wondered why his defence wasn’t providing better cover.
There was just time before the break for Tom Lees to steer a header from a corner straight to Jakupović before the whistle blew for the interval, and we retired to Wembley’s vast concourses to reflect on what’d gone before us.
But first, a word for Wembley. Not our first such observations, for it’s become thrillingly familiar territory for the Tiger Nation. But it still possesses the ability to awe. The stands are vast, steepling upwards seemingly forever. The views are terrific. The noise, whoever’s making it, is fantastic. The concourses are enormous and stylishly appointed. Even little things, such as the unfussy and low-key stewarding and the speed of refreshment dispensing, are impressive. It is a wonderful venue, and we should fervently hope that we make many more visits during these (on-field) halcyon days.
The mood among the City fans was good, too. The Wednesday din wasn’t being duplicated at our end, for reasons that ought to keep Ehab Allam awake at night, but it seemed fairly clear that City were on top on the pitch. But could we convert it into a victory and a third promotion to the Premier League?
Neither manager made a change at the break, and the first opening of the second 45 came fairly quickly when a rapid clearance upfield by Westwood was miscued by Dawson, presenting Forestieri with a run on goal. However, for all his guile he isn’t blessed with blistering pace and Curtis Davies was able to scurry back, snake out his left leg and divert the ball out for a corner. A fantastic covering tackle – had this gone wrong it’d have been a penalty and red card, however the City centre back was impeccable in his timing. Not even Forestieri claimed a penalty on this one.
That alarm notwithstanding, the pattern of the game hadn’t changed noticeably from its pre-interval disposition, with City enjoying possession in more advanced areas and Wednesday struggle to construct anything meaningful close to the Tigers’ area.
Shortly after the Forestieri scare, Dawson could have scored himself – a Snodgrass cross evaded everyone apart from him, and while his first touch was assured and his shot low and hard, Westwood had yet again raced into action and blocked the shot. More outstanding keeping.
Wednesday were beginning to look tired. When, we mused, would Carvalhal change things and give his toiling side a necessary boost?
On 58, the best chance of the game came to Andy Robertson. Odubajo crossed low from the right, and for a moment it seemed as the though the full-backs were going to combine as they did for the decisive third at Derby a fortnight earlier, but Robertson clumsily spooned his shot over from barely ten yards. A horrible miss, and thousands of heads went into thousands of pairs of hands.
Meanwhile, the Wednesday fans were making a terrific racket despite seeing little of the action at close quarters. Our on-field supremacy was encouraging the City fans as well, and the atmosphere inside the ground was quite fantastic, a real pleasure to experience.
The brush with disaster that’d come with the Robertson chance finally prodded Carvalhal into action, and on 63 he withdrew the ineffective Wallace for Jeremy Helan. It helped a bit too, as City didn’t create a clear chance in the minutes after his arrival – the next effort was actually from a man in blue, the tireless Hutchinson blasting over.
We were not to be denied for long. On 72, a poor clearance was collected by Robert Snodgrass. He cut inside, drew two markers and shifted the ball right to Diamé, in a couple of vacant yards of space. He took one touch and almost instantly crafted a simply gorgeous curling shot that flicked the tips of Westwood’s fingers and nestled happily in the net.
The City fans convulsed with manic joy, limbs contorting in utter ecstasy as our new Wembley hero was mobbed by team-mates and substitutes alike in front of us. 1-0 City, and a goal of Windassian quality once again saw us lead a Championship final at Wembley.
For Wednesday, a shattering blow. They reacted quickly, bringing on Atdhe Nuhiu for Hutchinson, who’d spent the entire afternoon gamely seeking to stem the tide and received scant assistance.
City were in a gloriously strong position. Leading a game they’d had the better of with barely a fifth remaining and possessing a strong defence surely capable of shutting out a side for twenty minutes or so, it must have felt a tall order for the Wednesday millions.
The next chance fell to the Tigers when Huddlestone fed Odubajo on the right, however he slashed his shot into the side-netting when a little more composure could have ended the game.
Surprisingly it was still mostly City. Loovens had to block a Hernández shot, however with ten minutes remaining Steve Bruce began systematically dropping anchor with three substitutions designed to make an already secure defence essentially impregnable. Off went Snodgrass for Clucas, a little miffed at being withdrawn, then Meyler for Hernández, and finally Maguire for Diamé.
This was pretty risky stuff from Bruce, leaving City almost wholly shorn of attacking players – how would we cope in extra time if Sheffield Wednesday burgled an equaliser? They’d brought on Lucas João for Pudil in one final roll of the dice, neither side saving a substitute for any additional period – this was high stakes big lads’ stuff. It was unbelievably exciting and miserably stomach-churning all at once.
Five minutes of injury time.
Harry Maguire headed the ball away, a lot. He does that. If magically transplanted into pre-decimalisation football, you just know he’d prosper more than anyone else in City’s squad. He’s even got a proper olden times centre-half’s name and he must have loved the half-hearted jeers he received for his Sheff Utd past.
Luckily, Wednesday played thoughtfully into our hands, chucking lots of high stuff up for Maguire and his fellow colossi to head clear.
Tom Huddlestone did lots of attractive and damaging passing. Meyler raced around a lot. Clucas looked both touchingly grateful just to be out there and possessed by demonic energy. And then there was Moses Odubajo, who was everywhere, doing everything and looking every inch a Premier League player.
One more chance as time seemed to stand still when a loose ball fell for Keiran Lee on the left. He teed up Helan on the edge of the area and seventy thousand people held their breath…he screwed the ball over to the dismay of the Sheffield gazillions and the utter delight of everyone else.
Thirty seconds later, Hull City AFC were back in the Premier League.
Suddenly we can look forward again. The astonishing TV riches will make our huge debt manageable. Our club will be an appealing prospect for new owners to rid us of the Allams. We will be back in the Premier League, an unthinkable prospect fifteen short years ago, mixing it with some of the biggest clubs on earth. The 2017 City of Culture portfolio contains a Premier League football team in our very own home city.
We have a future again.
It’s been a strange season, and not awfully enjoyable for large parts. The team has shown sporadic excellence but have often unperformed, while Steve Bruce has not always inspired confidence. The club’s owners and management nakedly despise the fans and continue to spite them at every opportunity.
And yet, it’s ended like this. It’s ended with Michael Dawson aping his older brother Andy by lifting a trophy for City at Wembley. It’s ended with the most successful manager in our history repairing his reputation by gaining a quite amazing fourth promotion to the top division. It’s ended with Jake Livermore’s personal and professional salvation. It’s ended with Mo Diamé, Tom Huddlestone et al finally, finally delivering when there were no second chances. It’s ended with the Hull City Association Football Club winning a Championship play-off final at Wembley courtesy of a resolute performance and a magnificent goal to gain promotion to the top tier. And we, the supporters of this marvellous, maddening and truly unique club, have hope again and a summer of celebration to look forward.
Enjoy that summer, Tiger Nation, and thank you to Steve Bruce and his team for giving it to us. And let us dream dreams of what may be around the corner…