Matt Woodcock: Hull’s giant leap of faith in the future

Flags laid out on the seats for the Hull City fans
Flags laid out on the seats for the Hull City fans
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SUCH has been the recent revival in the fortunes of Kingston-Upon-Hull that the city would certainly be enraptured – but not surprised – if Curtis Davies lifts the FA Cup at Wembley today for the first time in the Tigers’ 110-year history.

It has been that kind of season for Hull City. It has been that kind of year for the city. Many Hullensians bear the scars of all the times they’ve had to pinch themselves in the last 12 months. Good news is everywhere. Winning this historic silverware against Arsenal, then, would be most appropriate. Hull is a city in the middle of a civic, economic, cultural and certainly football revival. It is now said to be the UK’s fastest emerging city.

Hull’s problems, of course, are well known and regularly documented. For years now, it has carried the unwanted (and unfair) status as one of the “worst places to live in Britain”. Socially and economically, the city is at the bottom of most lists it wants to be top of and top of most lists it wants to be bottom of. But things are rapidly changing and improving. And I can prove it.

Steve Bruce is my Exhibit A. He has revolutionised Hull City. Unexpectedly promoted from the Championship last season, his team have treated fans to the club’s best ever season. Premiership survival, a first ever FA Cup Final, qualification into next season’s Europa Cup, and all achieved by a squad with few stars but immense passion, verve, and crisp passing ability.

This, it must be said, in the face of an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious dispute over the club’s Egyptian owners’ fervent desire to change the name to Hull Tigers. Lesser managers than Bruce would have been distracted and diverted by such an incendiary issue. He has remained football-focused throughout.

I wrote to him recently, both to congratulate his success but also to invite him to address our men’s group about leadership and motivation. From his inspiration of the team to the way he communicates and carries himself off the pitch, he has much to teach us (he’d make a great vicar – his church would be packed!).

Bruce actually characterises something much greater and, dare I say it, more significant than Hull City. There’s a distinct “Hullness” about him: honest, gritty, genuine, ambitious, pioneering and unafraid to have a go. If it’s not labouring the point, even his face is a bit like Hull – a bit battered, but steely, focussed and endearing.

If Bruce – with the financial backing of City’s owners, the Allams – has resurrected an unfashionable team, Hull’s political, economic, and cultural movers and shakers are slowly resurrecting an unfashionable city.

An announcement by the then Culture Secretary one glorious morning last November has certainly helped. The judging panel who chose Hull over Swansea, Leicester and Dundee as the UK’s City of Culture for 2017 were convinced by the bid’s compelling theme that the city was “coming out of the shadows”. Its impact on Hull’s economy is estimated at £60m. Vitally, it is also anticipated to leave a lasting legacy, creating a more vibrant, sustainable cultural sector; improved quality of life for local people and increased access to tourism and cultural-sector jobs. The plans for 2017 include a 365-day programme, with an estimated 1,500 special events, including 15 national and international commissions, 12 artists’ residencies, 25 festivals and eight major community participation projects, plus conferences and broadcasting events.

The successful culture bid was helped, I’m sure, by evidence of what the city is already offering. An impressive picture emerged of Hull’s thriving theatre community, unique arts extravaganzas like the Freedom Festival and new, pioneering, grassroots music festivals like the Humber Street Sesh, which saw 25,000 music fans descend on the old Fruit Market last summer.

However, to really step into the sunshine, Hull needs significant economic investment and more jobs. The stench of a once mighty fishing industry gone rotten has lingered too long.

Ironically for a country which obliterated huge portions of the city’s docks during the Blitz, it is a German engineering giant who could now be its economic saviour. Siemens is investing £160m across Alexandra Dock, in east Hull, and nearby Paull. Associated British Ports (ABP), which owns the dock, is investing £150m in the “Green Port Hull” development. Up to 10,000 jobs could be created when everything is taken into account. Other wind turbine manufacturers are already blowing in for a look at investing.

For Hull, in economic terms, this is a game changer. Of course, none of this just happens. Hull’s MPs, the city council, and the wider business community must take huge credit.

At Holy Trinity, we have also sought to join Hull’s good news revolution. Our huge building – the largest parish church in the UK – is now used for cultural, and educational reasons, as well as spiritual ones. Theatre productions, rock gigs, fashion shows, banquets, and art installations are now regular features of church life.

At Christmas, we walked real camels, sheep and a donkey through the city centre for a huge live nativity play. About 4,000 people descended on Holy Trinity last month for the Hull Camra real ale and cider festival. Taking my turn behind the pumps, I served pints of Vicar’s Tipple to all manner of folk – including leather-clad members of the biker gang, Satan’s Slaves. They didn’t prepare me for that one at vicar college!

Increasing the building’s use has led to a doubling in our visitor numbers. Those attending our Sunday family service have also nearly tripled in the last 18 months. Perhaps this points to the beginnings of a spiritual renaissance in the life of the city to accompany all the flourishing elsewhere.

Certainly I can’t be the only one on my knees this morning, praying for Bruce’s boys to bring home the Cup. It is not entirely ridiculous that the Almighty could be a Tigers’ fan. After this extraordinary year in Hull, anything is possible.

• The Reverend Matt Woodcock is a minister at Holy Trinity Church, Hull.