FOR 108 minutes and 34 seconds, this really was the best trip Hull City have ever been on.
The Tigers, appearing in their first FA Cup final, had not so much taken the game to Arsenal as gone for the jugular from the off.
Two goals ahead inside eight incredible minutes through defensive pair James Chester and Curtis Davies, City may have eventually been pegged back to force English football’s showpiece into extra-time.
But, as the second period of that additional half-hour got under way, the dream of becoming Yorkshire’s first Cup winner in 42 years was still very much alive.
Then, though, came the ultimate sucker punch, as some typically incisive inter-play by Arsenal culminated in Olivier Giroud back-heeling to Aaron Ramsey, who made no mistake with his first-time shot.
And despite Sone Aluko twice going close to sending the final to penalties for only a third time in the competition’s history, there was to be no way back for a Hull side that had fought like Tigers to frighten the life out of their well-armed, big-game hunters.
As the final whistle blew, David Meyler and Ahmed Elmohamady immediately slumped to the floor in a mixture of despair and exhaustion. The other City players, however, remained on their feet, defiant to the very end.
They had every right to proudly stand tall. For two hours of quite enthralling football, Hull had gone toe-to-toe with one of the best club sides in the world and played a full part in one of the Cup’s all-time classic finals.
Of course, on Saturday night the knowledge that they had just been involved in a truly epic contest was of scant consolation. Steve Bruce made that clear when asked about the runners-up medal that he was clutching while speaking to The Yorkshire Post in the bowels of Wembley.
“This means p***-all to me,” was his rather blunt verdict while staring at what is, nevertheless, his first medal as a manager.
Now, though, the dust is starting to settle on Hull’s first major final in their history and that disappointment must now be mixed with a huge sense of pride.
Pride at the manner in which Arsenal, a club whose record signing cost just a million or two less than the KC Stadium, were given the fright of their lives.
Pride over the terrific performance that saw Bruce’s players match for so long a team who had just secured a 17th year of Champions League football thanks to ending the season as the Premier League’s form team with five straight wins.
And pride at how City as a club shone in front of a global TV audience of 500 million, their huge bank of supporters showing true class to remain behind after the final whistle to not only applaud their heroes but also the Gunners lifting the Cup.
Plenty, therefore, for Hull to cling to during a summer break that will now be shortened by the need to take part in the Europa League third qualifying round.
Eight minutes into the final and it hadn’t been a two-legged qualifier on July 31 and August 7 that looked to be City’s destiny but the group stages as Cup winners after a pair of set-pieces had exposed Arsenal’s defensive frailties.
First, Stephen Quinn’s corner was returned into the penalty area by Tom Huddlestone and Chester reacted quickest to turn the ball into the net with a first time shot on the turn.
Then, with the estimated 30,000 army of fans who had descended on the capital from East Yorkshire still celebrating the opener, the Tigers doubled their advantage when Davies pounced to fire in from a tight angle after Alex Bruce’s header had struck a post.
Cue pandemonium at the Hull end and stunned disbelief at the other. Not long after, only a goal-line clearance from Kieran Gibbs prevented Bruce from making it a notable hat-trick of all three centre-backs getting on the scoresheet.
Had that gone in, surely Arsenal would have had no way back.
Instead, the shaken Londoners finally stirred on 17 minutes when Santi Cazorla curled in an exquisite free-kick. The Gunners, belief restored, poured forward but it wasn’t until 19 minutes from the end of normal time that the equaliser came. Again, a Cazorla set-piece created the opening as the Spaniard’s corner was nodded down by Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny did the rest from four yards out.
That meant extra-time. City were clearly dead on their feet by now and the first few minutes of stoppage time brought a series of tired mistakes from those in amber and black.
Giroud headed against the crossbar after one such loose pass by Davies before Cazorla latched on to a Paul McShane error to curl a shot just over.
It meant the whistle blowing to signal the first period of extra-time being over came as a blessed relief to the Yorkshire club.
The dream was still alive. But then Ramsey, City’s tormentor in the two league meetings between the clubs, struck with a first-time drilled shot that crept inside McGregor’s post.
Aluko twice went close at the death, the first a shot from a tight angle that curled just wide after he had capitalised on a slip by Per Mertesacker to skip past Lukasz Fabianski. A drilled effort from 35 yards then, because the Arsenal goalkeeper had seen it late, caused more alarm than it should before being held at the second attempt.
Now, the game really was up. It had, in the words of the Sloop John B song that the club’s supporters have chanted joyously on their travels during all three seasons in the Premier League, been the best of trips. Albeit this time, it had ended in heartache.