"It's written in the DNA of this club to do it the hard way" - Steve Bruce, April 2013
Never was a truer word spoken. And never will Saturday 4th May be forgotten in Kingston-upon-Hull, East Riding Of Yorkshire, Centre Of The Universe. The most unpredictable club in the world aiming for promotion from the most unpredictable league in the world. What could possibly go wrong?
For The Tigers, the mathematics were quite simple. A victory over Cardiff City = promotion to the Premier League. Any failure to do so would have to be matched by Watford for us to be successful. "The form book went out of the window" and "it's like a cup final" may be cliches but they were appropriate. City failed to win or even score in three games against Wolves, Bristol City and Barnsley, three of the four poorest teams in the league. Two of those performances were woefully shy of the standards we'd set during the season and anxiety had well and truly set in. We feared that they'd "hit the wall" as athletes often do or that the pressure of having had a golden ticket for the Premier League thrust upon them two weeks ago had proven too great. They didn't want it, they'd bottled it, blown it, choked, you name it, they'd done it. None of that mattered though. All we needed was one last performance. Despite their promotion having been confirmed weeks earlier we couldn't rely on Cardiff not turning up. They're the best team in the Championship on merit and their manager is a consummate professional. We had to win. Probably.
The atmosphere at the KC Stadium prior to kick-off was amazing. It was by far the best I've witnessed since we moved homes 10 years ago, including that play-off semi final against Watford in 2008. There was an electricity in the air. Despite the negativity in the streets, the workplaces and on the internet in the previous week, there was a positive energy around the stadium. A belief, I think, a collective belief. The sun soaked half the ground, the early kick-off didn't affect the merriment, the clapper-banner thingies left out for the kids made a racket and everyone was in good voice. The Cardiff fans stood in the North Stand looking ridiculous in fancy dress but not giving a damn. They were here for the party and to perhaps spoil ours. The segregation meant the sell out crowd was around 23,800 (that needs sorting) and despite our bravado, we were bricking it.
Despite having played with wing backs all season, the rumour pre-match was that Bruce was planning to play a back four and move left wing-back Robbie Brady up front. Brady has the ability to play as a forward but to change things so drastically on the last day of the season took balls the size of grapefruits. It would prove to be a move of genius, or the act of a desperate man.
Tigers 4-4-2: [G] Stockdale [D] Rosenior, McShane, Chester, Faye [M] Elmohamady, Boyd, Quinn, Meyler [F] Brady, Simpson.
I'm not sure there's another manager in the league who'd dare be so different and so bold in a match of such enormous importance. I'm also not sure how many times in his career Paul McShane has played as a left back. The idiots who'd decided we were a negative side because we performed poorly on TV a few times and haven't scored a lot of goals would have to eat their words. That perception really bothered me. It shouldn't really I know we were second in the league for a reason but it did. We've played some of the best football anyone has played this season, at times. The Leeds home game was the most complete Hull City performance I can remember. The destruction of Birmingham, twice, the win at Elland Road, the victories at Watford and Forest, going toe to toe with a terrific Leicester side on Boxing Day, slaughtering Millwall, whacking Bolton and Blackburn. None of those were on Sky so they don't count. I hoped we'd turn it on for the cameras on the final day. I hoped people would see what this side is capable of. Even though I shouldn't really have cared.
The first half passed without too much incident from our end. The Tigers played well. None of the tension of Oakwell came through, we moved the ball well on a pitch that's improved a lot in the past month and created a few opportunities. David Marshall was only called upon to make one save but save for a few moments when Cardiff broke at pace, we were in control. Andrew Taylor picked up a yellow card for blocking off Elmo who was then booked himself for a trip in their half. A nonsense decision. The crowd played their part, replacing the moans and groans at mis-hit passes and over-hit crosses with applause and encouragement. Before half time, Jay Simpson pulled up with an injury, looked like a hamstring, and was replaced by Nick Proschwitz who it's safe to say hasn't provided value-for-money for his £2.6m transfer fee.
The real drama of the half came 200 miles away at Vicarage Road. The Cardiff fans, enjoying our tension while they sat without a care in the world, had some fun by cheering in unison and chanting "1-0 to the Watford". 21,000 people checked their mobile phones while staining their underpants! It was a wind-up but a good one. News then came through that the Watford 'keeper had been seriously injured and there was a ten minute delay in their game (which ended up being 16 mins of first half stoppage time). I must have said a hundred times "We have to win this now, we can't be waiting around at the end for their game to finish, THAT WOULD BE AGONY!". No one listened. There was a cheery mood around the KC Stadium at half time though, courtesy of a Leeds goal at Watford. Yes, we cheered a Leeds goal (very loudly). Ten Hail Mary's all round. News of the goal spread as people listening to pocket radios leaped up and everyone else slowly caught on. I love it when that happens. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the KC that felt slightly premature. That was confirmed as Watford equalised during half time.
The second half kicked off with the situation just the same as at the start. Cardiff introduced a substitute. Fraizer Campbell. You might have heard of him. He received a mixed reception. I applauded him, I wasn't tempting fate. Unfortunately, fate didn't need tempting, she was already hanging over the KC Stadium on Saturday lunch time spitting on those in black and amber. Within three minutes Cardiff knocked a long pass between our centre halves, Campbell raced onto the ball and finished first time beyond Stockdale. For the first time in the afternoon, Watford were up, we were in the play-offs.
I had a moment of doubt, I admit. We don't win from behind. We've done it rarely in the past three seasons. A Leeds win at Watford was still as likely as Marlon King going a season without being arrested. We were in massive, massive trouble. If this team deserved to go up to the Premier League. If they had it in them to turn around three and a half matches without a goal or a win, now was the time to show it. Now was the time for heroes. Just for one day?
Step forward Nick Proschwitz. He'd caused them a few problems since his introduction. He worked his way into the game nicely and had caused enough distraction to allow Robbie Brady to get on the ball around the penalty area and give them problems with his dribbling ability. I thought we should have had a penalty when Brady was brought down in the box. I was a long way away but the Cardiff players' guilt was immediately evident. Just before the hour, a Tigers corner was cleared to the edge of the box before Kim presented it to Stephen Quinn. He curled in a delightful low cross and Proschwitz got enough on it for it to nestle in the corner of the net. Pandemonium ensued. I've not heard noise like it at the KC.
If you doubted the spirit and bottle in this Hull City side, and some have, the next five minutes would smash all of those doubts to smithereens. We put our foot on the accelerator and went for it. Another Tigers corner. A superb delivery from Robbie Brady put it low, six yards out, Paul McShane met it with his out stretched boot and it wandered into the same corner of the net. Redemption. It blew the roof off the place. I jumped around like a maniac. I cut my thumb, I don't know how. I kicked my trainer down the steps. I hugged a complete stranger in front of me. It was pandemonium times two. Of all the people to score the goal, McShane deserved it more than anyone. He's taken a kicking the last two years and he's accepted it without ever causing a fuss. When given a small opportunity to rescue his Tigers career, he took it. Both hands. A year ago, the thought of McShane getting a new City contract was utterly ridiculous. Now, we demand it. The chorus of "Don't Sell McShane" was long and loud. I joined in, breathless from jumping around like a lunatic and crooking like a sick frog. Ashbee at Yeovil, Barmby at Bradford, Deano at Wembley. This was up right up there. What a moment. It's beyond description. Enough to bring a tear to a grown man's eye.
Promotion was back in our hands. News came through that Watford were down to ten. Cardiff lacked a bit of interest. We were coasting. The ground was rocking and as the clock ticked past 80 minutes, the pitch invasion readied itself. Fathi replaced the excellent Brady who took in a standing ovation. Then came the most incredible few minutes of the season. Remember that quote from the beginning? The easy way was about to present itself to us. In stoppage time, David Meyler was shoved over in the box. Penalty. Some thought it was all over and invaded the pitch. The game was held up while the stewards and Police cleared the pitch. Nick Proschwitz spotted the ball, went to the 'keepers left and saw his shot palmed away. That was the moment to seal it. We'd have to hang on now. We hung on for about 20 seconds. A shot from the edge of he box smacked Faye on the arm. Penalty to Cardiff. It looked harsh. It was torture. It was unbelievable. And yet, given that this is Hull City, quite believable. Nicky Maynard sent David Stockdale the wrong way. It was out of our hands.
The whistle went. The pitch was invaded halfheartedly. I wandered across it. My web connection had gone 10 minutes earlier. My texts wouldn't send and I couldn't call my brother to get him to commentate on the Watford game. All I could do was stand on the pitch, ignore Cardiff fans cheering in unison again to wind us up, and wait. This could have been the most glorious moment of the season. Instead, it was the hardest. It felt like an eternity. Occasionally the PA produced an update of the time remaining at Watford. Then it happened, Leeds United scored again. This time it spread it like wildfire. We could see from the pitch the groups of people huddled around listening going wild. Cheers flew up from around the TV's on the concourses. For the third time of the afternoon, it was utter mayhem. Watford, down to ten, needed to score twice. It was ours. That was confirmed minutes later. The Allams looked delighted. The players came out of the directors boxes and took the deserved ovation. Steve Bruce eventually joined them to an incredible roar. I looked up and saw the scene on the pitch on the big screen. It was incredible.
I stayed around as long as they'd let me. The Allams were still cheering and waving long after most had gone home. An impromptu game of football started up in the North Stand goal. I've no idea where the ball came from. Eventually the stewards got fed up of stewarding and insisted we all clear off to the pub.
I couldn't be prouder of this group of players. This is the biggest achievement in the 109 year history of Hull City AFC. We shouldn't lose sight of that. Had they failed to go up, I would have been distraught for them because they put so much in. No-one gave them a prayer. It wasn't quite as big an "against the odds" story from the inside though. Despite the massive odds offered outside of East Yorkshire and despite bookies fancying promoted clubs for promotion more than us, we should remember we finished 8th last season. We were at the very least the 8th best side in the league when it started. Not second though, we were nowhere near the second best team, Steve Bruce has done that. From the first week in the job, he identified the gaps in the squad and he went out and filled them. He's been measured in defeat, he's been gracious in victory and he's driven the group of players on to achieve. The Allams have backed him in a way you never felt they'd back Nick Barmby and have also got their just rewards.
The performance on the day was pleasing. No-one can doubt that we deserve to finish second. They can't doubt our quality or positivity. The goals for column may still be unimpressive but it was never for the lack of trying. I thought Robbie Brady was the pick of the players. He justified Steve Bruce's decision. He drove at them, he worried them and, for the most part, he made good decisions around the box. Everyone played well though. Stockdale showed great distribution that's oddly been missing from his game before now. Liam Rosenior stepped in like he'd never missed a game. McShanecould have played left back all his life. Boyd was refreshed and worked up and down the line. Meyler and Quinn were busy, carried the ball well and offered options all the time. Elmo was another who made the most of his second wind. Simpson and then Proschwitz took the hard knocks up front. The German did the better job though, he troubled Turner with his height and held the ball up. Debate about who is and isn't a Premier League player is for another time. They deserve their moment of glory first.
Hull City are a Premier League team again. It's still only ten years since we didn't even make the Division Three play-offs. After falling out of the Premier League last time with serious money issues, I wasn't sure at times that we'd even have a club in three years. We do have a club. It's healthy and it's thriving. Those fans who were there against Brighton on the first day of the season and every step of the way since deserve this moment. You backed them and believed when not many (relatively) did.
Thank you Nigel Pearson.
Thank you Nick Barmby.
Thank you to every player for the contribution the past three seasons, big or small.
Thank you Mr Allam.
Thank you Steve Bruce.
Thank you Paul McShane.