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Hull Tigers Burning Bright
by Paul Gardner, May 27th, 2008 7AM



Who'd have thought it? Hull City in the Premier League! After 104 years of trying, Hull has made it into the top division for the first time. Years and years back, when I thought maybe I could be the English Ogden Nash, I dedicated a few far from flattering words to Hull:

Is dull
But Leicester
Is not much beicester

I wasn't thinking of soccer at the time, nor could I know that Hull would achieve an honored place in the history of poetry because Philip Larkin was to work in the University library there for some 30 years until he died in 1985.

But it is soccer that has cruelly linked the cities and brought them, Hull and Leicester, to my notice again this year. Which has seen not only the amazing triumph of Hull, but the sad decline of Leicester City, which sank -- for the first time ever in 124 years of existence -- into the third division.

You really do have to marvel at what Hull has achieved. I'm looking now at a story from January 2001, with the headline: "No money available to pay players as Hull close to collapse." A mere seven years ago, and things were that bad. Hull was then a third division club with debts of some $4 million, whose stadium, Boothferry Park, had been repossessed.

The curtain was coming down in a hurry for the Hull City Tigers. It didn't happen that way because -- don't ask me how -- a succession of owners and investors and coaches and players somehow wriggled their way past every obstacle, both financial and on the field -- to land a place in the Premier League.

Nor has it been an obvious, slow steady ascent. Forget the crisis of 2001 -- things were still desperate just one year ago. That was when Hull was fighting for its life to remain in the Championship (the second division). At the end of the season Hull was in 21st place -- and the three clubs immediately below it were all relegated to the third division.

If that sounds like the great escape, it wasn't, because Hull had already had one of those, a capital-letter Great Escape in 1999. Then the club was in the fourth division (to disguise the ignominy of, it was called Division 3), in last place for much of the season. With just four wins in its first 24 games, with attendances rarely creeping above 5,000, Hull was in danger of dropping out of the football league structure altogether.

That didn't happen either. Evidently a lot of people have believed in Hull's soccer club over the years. Not least the town of Hull itself, which, in 2002 opened a new 25,000 capacity stadium -- the KC -- for this oft-beleaguered club to call home.

A digression (and a dig at the blockheads in this country who insist on using the letters FC to describe a soccer club): actually Hull shares the KC with a rugby league club, whose official title is Hull FC. The soccer club, is -- officially -- Hull AFC, an association football club.

So this year has seen the miracle that no one, surely, could have foreseen. Maybe it's part of the definition of miracles that they are never foreseen, but this one is so unlikely as to defy anything other than the wackiest of dreams. From virtually last place in the second division last year -- to the EPL later this year. But -- this being Hull - not by the direct route. Hull put its fans through the excruciating tension of a playoff final against Bristol City, at Wembley no less.

I guess it's OK for a miracle to show off a bit, so that game hit the headlines as "the richest single game of world soccer" -- it was reckoned that the EPL place at stake was worth $120 million to the winning club. Hull took the jackpot with an agonizingly knife-edge 1-0 win in front of over 86,000 spectators. But that one goal was itself a mini-miracle-within-a-miracle, a brilliant full volley from the edge of the penalty area, scored by the 39-year-old Dean Windass who was making his first-ever (and no doubt his last-ever) appearance at Wembley in a 17-year-career that has seen him play for seven different clubs. And -- honest, I'm not making this stuff up -- Windass is a local lad, a true Hullensian, who started his soccer life with the club back in 1991.

Hull in the Premier League. It beggars belief. Can they stay there? Unlikely, I should think -- but everything I've written above is nothing more than a history of Hull achieving the unlikely. A tale of the Tigers being tigerish. We shall see. For the moment, I have to revise that early versification. Sorry, Leicester -- I really am.

Hull, now
Is not so dull, now
But Leicester, to be perverser,
Has gotten a whole lot werser.

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