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Tigers went to Hull and back
During the 2012 Olympics, it did not go unnoticed that one particular corner of the UK was celebrating with particularly proud fervor. Two or three hours north of where it was all happening in London, the people of Yorkshire watched the medals their sons and daughters were racking up with relish. Somebody calculated that at one point, Yorkshire had more medals than that sporting powerhouse Australia. In the end, if Yorkshire was the independent country some half-jokingly preach it should be, it would have finished 12th on the medal table.
Historically, Yorkshire has figured prominently on England's sporting map, but the last few years have been a struggle for its football teams. A glance at English football's top tier from the last season before it was rebranded as the Premier League saw two Yorkshire teams in the top three. In 1992, Leeds United were champions, and Sheffield Wednesday finished third. Two Yorkshire teams were sitting pretty above the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham.
With Sheffield United finishing that season in 9th place, Yorkshire were very well represented. But these days, the idea of three Yorkshire clubs punching their weight in the top ten in English football is the preserve of dreamers and nostalgics. It has been a tough decade for its clubs. Since Leeds were relegated in 2004, most seasons have gone by without any Yorkshire presence at all in the Premier League.
Yorkshire's finest, right now, is Hull City. Back in 1992, when Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United were in their pomp, Hull were in the bottom half of the old third division. They played at a crumbling, ramshackle ground, Boothferry Park, with modest crowds to match their uninspiring team. They were virtually broke, and would face a couple of winding-up orders and a relegation to the bottom division, before long. The future certainly did not seem to be painted in the orange and black stripes of the roarless Tigers.
It was around this time that an old friend of mine, a businessman from Hull, came up with a madcap plan to buy the club, bring in some glamor and set the wheels in motion to launch Hull towards a Premier League future. We thought it was bonkers. All the same, he managed to set up a meeting with the agent of the iconic Paul Gascoigne, who was to be a figurehead for the masterplan. Needless to say, nothing came of it.
Hull would journey through a series of takeovers and some close shaves with liquidation (at one point they were locked out of Boothferry Park) until, suddenly, they began to climb upwards. By 2008 they were pinching themselves. Hull made it to the Premier League for the first time in their history. They enjoyed a thrilling two-year adventure, before they slipped back out.
AROUND THE WORLD ...
And now, they are back, after a promotion push that defied belief. As it came to the climax, it's little wonder the pressure was so overwhelming that Hull's manager, Steve Bruce, looked away from the pitch and buried his head into the arms of his support staff. He simply couldn't stand to watch.
Bruce, in all his years as an impassioned yet unyielding Manchester United defender who played with heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, had seen plenty of drama in his time. He had experienced enough variations on the theme his old manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, calls "squeaky bum time". This was too much, though. This was torture.
Hull were on the verge of promotion. There was a pitch invasion, with elated fans unable to contain themselves, when they were awarded a 90th-minute penalty. Score, and the ticket to the Premier League would be rubber stamped. Miss, and the nerves would be frayed until the final whistle. Some pundits find delight in defining moments like this as "the £120 million kick", such is the windfall that comes the way of clubs who bounce up into the big time. Bruce was all over the place as he waited for the pitch to be cleared of over-exuberant Hull supporters.
Nick Procschwitz, a journeyman German striker in his first season with Hull, stepped up to take the kick. It was understandable if his boots felt carved of concrete, and his legs made of jelly...
His penalty was saved. And the high, churning drama of the occasion was twisted again as Hull's opponents Cardiff pelted up the other end, won a penalty of their own, and equalized.
Now, Hull’s fate was out of their hands as Watford, their rivals for the automatic promotion slot, had to finish their game against Hull's Yorkshire neighbors - Leeds. For 15 unbearably tense minutes Hull's players and fans waited, powerlessly, to see if Watford's result would go their way. "We had people walking up and down the tunnel and in corridors, others hiding in toilets. It was incredible, but we got what we wanted in the end," said Bruce. The pun about going to Hull and back was apt.
When the celebrations quieted down, Hull turned their attention to next season in the Premier League, and to striking the right balance between caution and ambition to keep the club in the top division for a longer stretch. Bruce wants Hull to quietly establish themselves, rather than to gamble and face potentially disastrous consequences if it goes the way of, to use a striking current example, QPR.
"If you think we are going to start signing people for $20m, you are very mistaken," Bruce said. "What we can do, though, is do a Wigan or a West Brom. By that, I mean build the club into something better. Make it bigger and stronger. And put Hull City in a really, really strong situation and in healthy shape.
"It is a fine line to get it right. If you give people big contracts, big wages and go down then you are lumbering your club. So, we won't do anything silly. We will make the best assault we can on the Premier League but I won't be going down the route of sending the club close to oblivion."
A careful, restrained ride through the Premier League? After the last few weeks of gut-wrenching drama getting there, most Hull fans would happily settle for that.
Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.
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