DEAN WINDASS’S taste of European competition at this time of year began in a rundown stadium where the scoreboard, floodlights and many of the seats had been stolen during the close season.
It would later see 22 visiting supporters from Lithuania go missing in Bradford amid suspicions of a plan to seek asylum and end in the heaviest rainstorm Valley Parade had seen in years.
But, as his home-town club prepare for their first foray into the Europa League tomorrow night, Windass insists Hull City will love every minute of doing battle on the continent.
The Tigers fly to Slovakia this morning ahead of taking on FK AS Trencin in a third qualifying round first leg tie. Around 500 fans are expected in Zilina, a town that lies 45 miles to the north of Trencin, for a tie that has been moved to the 11,000 capacity Stadio pod Dubnom in Zilina due to the club’s own stadium failing to meet UEFA requirements.
Just as Bradford did 14 years ago when stepping behind the old Iron Curtain to take on FK Atlantas in the first round of the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Hull are about to embark on an adventure that supporters are likely never to forget.
“Hull’s bread and butter this season has to, once again, be the league but competing in Europe is going to be great for the fans,” Windass, a veteran of two spells with his beloved Tigers, told The Yorkshire Post.
“Certainly, none of them will have dreamed this as being possible in the days when we were still at Boothferry Park.
“I have spoken to loads and they can’t wait to get there. I am sure they will have a bit of a disco and a few beers because watching their team in Europe is something they have never had before. They will want to make the most of it, and quite right, too.”
Hull will tomorrow night become the fifth Yorkshire team to play competitively in the continent. Sheffield Wednesday were the trail-blazers in 1961-62, the Owls reaching the quarter-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – which was renamed the UEFA Cup a decade later – before bowing out 4-3 on aggregate to eventual runners-up, Barcelona.
Since then, Leeds United have competed in Europe 18 times – lifting the Fairs Cup twice and reaching the old European Cup final in 1975 – while Middlesbrough, the region’s most recent competitors, battled through to the UEFA Cup final eight years ago.
Bradford’s own foray into Europe came in 2000 when, after avoiding relegation from the Premier League, they accepted an invitation to take part in the Intertoto Cup.
Which is how, come July 1 that summer, the City squad – many having just cut short their holidays after only finding out late that the club had entered the competition – and new manager Chris Hutchings found themselves looking around a dilapidated Zalgiris Stadium on the eve of the match.
For Windass, the impending start of Hull’s travelling odyssey has brought back memories of his time playing in Europe with Bradford.
“Hull City are stepping into the unknown, just as we did at Bradford all those years ago in the Intertoto,” said the 45-year-old, who also appeared in the UEFA Cup for Aberdeen.
“We didn’t know anything about the opposition, what their qualities were or anything like that. Playing in Eastern Europe can also be hostile, which was certainly the case in Lithuania for that first round game. They didn’t seem very pleased to see us.
“That is why I am sure Steve (Bruce, Hull’s manager) has spent the past couple of weeks since the draw getting as much information as possible about this Slovakian team.
“The Premier League is so massive these days that they will know everything about Hull City. But the advantage for Hull is that they are away first.”
Asked for his abiding memory of playing in Lithuania, Windass instantly replied: “Me bending one in the top corner to make sure we won the first leg 3-1.
“No, seriously, it was just how different things were. I’d played in Europe for Aberdeen but that was against Brondby and this was on a different scale.
“The stadium wasn’t up to much but the main thing was we put on a professional display and won quite comfortably.”
The Bantams completed the job by winning the return a week later 4-1, after which all 22 of the visiting Lithuanian supporters failed to turn up for their scheduled flight home. They resurfaced in London a month later, insisting they had been sightseeing in the meantime.
Bradford’s own travels in Europe proved less eventful with a comfortable second round win over Dutch side RKC Waalwijk being followed by a two-legged semi-final tie against Zenit St Petersburg.
And it was against the Russians that the dream ended, as Hutchings’s side crashed to a 4-0 aggregate defeat with the second leg in Yorkshire being played in a heavy storm.
On the challenge facing Hull in Europe this term, Windass said: “Hull have to be professional and I am sure they will be.
“Not only in terms of getting a first leg lead and an away goal or two, but in that the players won’t want to let the fans down. Not after all the money they will have spent getting there in the first place.
“Hull won’t be match-fit, not at this stage. That is one thing I remember from being with Bradford, just how hot it was (in Lithuania) and how our match fitness wasn’t quite there.
“That only really comes after four or five games so maybe Hull won’t be as sharp as they should be.
“But they should have more than enough to get through and I am sure Steve will be saying to the players, ‘Get through this qualifying and we can look forward to some big, big nights’. I mean, just look at the teams Hull City could face if they get to the group stage or maybe even further.
“Can you imagine Inter Milan or one of those other big teams coming to the KC? It would be incredible.”