A full season’s work, for both Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday, comes down to this. One game this afternoon at Wembley Stadium for the right to play in the 2016/17 Premier League.
If we’ve become a tiny bit blasé about being at Wembley on account of our three recent visits, it’s worth repeating the phrase “Hull City are at Wembley” to yourself, until the sense of preposterousness that existed pre-2008 returns at least in part.
Hull City are at Wembley.
That’s the occasion dealt with, then. Now for the football. It’s a match that could shape our history for a decade and more. If we fail to return instantly to the Premier League, a fairly clear path towards decline can be charted. Gates will fall as the Allams seek to wipe out future support by withdrawing child discounts. Players and management will leave in search of bigger and better. It isn’t hard to suppose that our next departure from the Championship will be via its trapdoor.
But…if we win, we return to one of world football’s finest leagues, earn riches galore with which to stabilise the club’s vast debt and hopefully entice new owners to the club. In a couple of months, we could be in the Premier League and free of the Allams. What a prize!
To do that, we must overcome a Sheffield Wednesday side we’ve neither beaten nor been beaten by this season. Their mood is somewhat different to ours. Without a deflating play-off second leg defeat, with responsible owners and having sold all of their tickets (you may just have heard about that…), the momentum is probably with them. They’ve had a very good season, too. Some have remarked that by being just 90 minutes away from promotion they’re “ahead of schedule”, but that’s testament to the impressive work that Carlos Carvalhal has done in reawakening them from a decade-long slumber.
Fernando Forestieri is their major threat, and the focus of so much discussion too. A player of rare ability at this level, admiration for him is necessarily tempered by his distasteful habit for simulation. Nonetheless, given a free role to cause damage, he is perfectly capable of that and will require close attention, from both City and the referee.
The Owls, who finished sixth this season, have a fully fit squad to choose from, a rare luxury at this time of the year. However, save for the injured Allan McGregor, Steve Bruce also has no absentees. The main dilemma is whether to start Mo Diamé, quite possibly the best and also most exasperating player available to him; and whether David Meyler or Sam Clucas are worthy of recalls in the aftermath of the near-death experience against Derby.
It’s Wednesday’s first visit to the new Wembley, and their first to any of its incarnations in a generation. Whether that counts for anything is anyone’s guess. The bookies make City 8/13 favourites for promotion, with 5/4 available on Sheffield’s blue half making a long awaited return to the Premier League. Seven of the last dozen second tier play-off finals have been 1-0. It’s going to be tense, nerve-racking and thoroughly exhausting – so let’s go do it…