As yesterday’s warming summer sun beat down on the M5 and Bristol neared, this – we solemnly told ourselves – was a useful reminder of where Hull City AFC have come from.
Beating Swansea to set up a third-versus-second tie against Manchester United on Saturday is all well and good, but previous generations had much thinner fare to feast upon.
Yet, Exeter was never one of its less palatable components. A pleasant, prosperous-feeling town with evident history and charm, only its considerable distance prevented it being one of the more agreeable fixtures in the bad old days.
Therefore, when Exeter v City was settled upon during the League Cup draw, why would you not want to go? A reminder of where we came from (and, if the sabotage of the Allam family had proven successful, a signpost of our future), an open terrace, a fine day and the prospect of safe cup passage.
All came to pass, too. Mike Phelan showed that he has real promise as a top-flight manager with his contribution to the pre-match formalities, obligingly assuring us that he’d “field a strong side” and “take things seriously”, platitudes that are so widespread one wonders whether they’re formally mandated by the League Managers’ Association.
What was truly surprising was that he apparently meant it. Granted, the malice of the Allam family has left him without serious selection options, but that led us to suspect more alterations to the XI that beat Swansea in order to protect his remaining first-teamers, not fewer. Instead, “only” seven were made, as City lined up:
Elmohamady Livermore Maguire Tymon
Meyler Maloney Olley Diomande
Three debutants in that eleven, captained by Ahmed Elmohamady, and we began attacking the end furthest from the 300 City fans present.
Things aren’t going terribly well for Exeter this season, already second bottom of the fourth tier, but they justifiably fancied an upset and began hotly in pursuit of it, supported by an intermittently boisterous home end.
When it arrived however, the first real chance fell City’s way. Diomande found space and slashed a shot from an acute angle against Pym’s crossbar. However, the Exes came back, and took the lead on 25 minutes. Jake Taylor fastened onto possession 25 yards out, perhaps more, and smote a fantastic shot past Kuciak and into the top corner.
A fine goal for which thoughtful assistance by a dithering City midfield needn’t be downgraded in our admiration. Sadly for Taylor and the still-celebrating Grecians, the lead lasted a minute.
Piecing it together from our awkward viewing angle well over 130 yards away was tricky, but a right-wing cross found Diomande and seconds later he was being congratulated by his team-mates amid a penalty area of crestfallen redshirts. Whatever happened, we’ll take it.
It brought about a pretty frenetic period of play, with both sides committing pleasingly to attack. Harley wasted a great shooting opportunity for Exeter when finding space on the edge of the City area, but City were inadvertently boosted when the unfortunate Josh Tymon was replaced on the half-hour by Andy Robertson after suffering injury.
As half-time approached the match steeply fell away as a spectacle, a warm evening perhaps contributing, and by the break both sides had clearly settled for parity at the interval.
That gave us a chance to gaze around what it was once de rigueur to call the Real St James’ Park. It’s changed little since our last visit, now an alarming 14 years distant. The large home terrace is impressively imposing for a side at this moderate level, and probably provides one of the best standing views in English football.
The sides are more compact, but the real surprise was in the away terrace. This was never large, but appears to have been oddly downgraded. Formerly tight to the pitch and with crush barriers studding the concrete, there’s now a sterile area between the stand and the grass, while the barriers are gone. It calls to mind North Ferriby’s modest Church Road, and represented a peculiar step backwards.
Nonetheless, it was an authentic standing area. One day, City fans will be stood on a proper terrace for the final time. We won’t know it at the time of course, but as the authorities’ wrongheaded fixation with prohibiting the traditional standing area shows no sign of abating, let’s celebrate those that remain. And who knows, the couple of hundred East Yorkshire folk using it may just have found themselves part of a standing collective for the final time at a City game.
Nostalgia complete: to the second half! Already, the prospect of extra-time loomed, adding further inconvenience to long-distance traveller. However, Exeter started the next 45 looking likelier to prevent it, with a succession of long-shots that seemed rather closer to Kuciak’s goal than he’d have liked.
On 57, Greg Luer went down and didn’t get up, requiring lengthy treatment before being replaced by Tom Huddlestone. Unintentionally, that was to prove the game’s pivotal moment – and we mean no disrespect to young Luer, a player of decent promise. However, Huddlestone’s introduction meant that City began to control possession and the pace of the match in a way the game but limited Grecians couldn’t counteract.
Diomande failed to fully connect with a deep Robertson cross, Olley had a pretty weak-looking shout for a penalty denied by referee Mr Woolmer and Huddlestone struck wood with a shot that appeared to deflect towards Pym’s near post.
All City, but extra-time was beginning to seriously discomfit those with 300 miles to cover at the end, but eventually City’s dominance was rewarded with a second goal. Some agreeably slick passing on the edge of the area, not dissimilar to City’s second at Swansea moved the tormented Exeter defence all over, culminating in Diomande crashing a shot past Pym from about a dozen yards.
Goal celebrations against bottom tier opposition in the League Cup are necessarily muted affairs, though this was met with considerable relief. Exeter were crushed though, and began to labour badly. A third and decisive goal always felt likely, and arrived when Snodgrass won, took and scored with a free-kick on the edge of the area with nine minutes left.
City could have scored a few more had they really wanted to, but that’d have been harsh on Exeter and probably unreflective of a game the Tigers deserved to win, but not by vulgar margin.
As it was, we filed out contentedly into the still-mild Devon night, a good evening’s work behind us and trying not to think of the long journey still ahead.
Sustaining a couple of injuries hasn’t helped, but at the risk of sounding unkind, they’re not to our leading lights. Maguire was back, and looked fit. Diomande’s confidence can only be helped by scoring twice more, while it will have been an evening bursting with pride for the young debutants.
The Mike Phelan success story continues, City are in the Third Round of the League Cup, we got to stand on a terrace in a nice town – and maybe, just maybe, we’ll never again watch a Hull City match with the Allam family in charge of our club.