WHEN Manchester City beat Everton to confirm Arsenal’s place in this season’s Champions League qualifying round, a consequence was Hull City being guaranteed a first taste of European football.
Almost immediately, Tigers’ supporters began scanning the list of teams set to compete in the 2014-15 Europa League and plenty of mouth-watering trips soon leapt from the page.
Milan and the San Siro was one. As was Kiev’s magnificent Olympic Stadium, the venue for the Euro 2012 final.
Moscow, Florence, Seville and Vienna were also potential destinations that caught the eye, while anywhere close to the ports of Zeebrugge or Rotterdam was always going to be high up on the wish list of supporters.
No wonder, therefore, that Lokeren, located in northern Belgium, proved such a popular draw yesterday as what felt like most of the East Riding descended on the East Flanders region.
The town’s main square was a sea of amber and black from early in the morning and, as numbers rose with each half-hourly train that arrived from either Antwerp or Gent, so did the volume levels.
As had been the case in Zilina three weeks earlier, every vantage point was filled with flags – including one that contained not only a host of famous Hull triumphs and the appropriate year but also the mischievous message ‘RIP Leeds United 1969-2004’.
A giant marquee had been erected under which it was ensured English throats did not run dry and this plus the presence of a noisy band of Lokeren fans meant there was plenty of banter between the two sides.
Hull were not the first English club to play in Lokeren. Both Newcastle United and Manchester City had visited in the past and returned home with victories.
But, judging by the bemused stares of the locals, the Yorkshire club’s support is the only one that included a grown man dressed head to toe in a Tiger outfit plus team shirt and shorts.
It was one of several surreal sights for a local population who had welcomed around 600 Toon fans in 2001 for an Intertoto Cup tie and a near 4,000 strong travelling army from Manchester two years later.
Back then, the Daknamstadion had not been fit for purpose.
For Newcastle’s visit, one end of the stadium was a disused open terrace of just 10 steps, while the Blues fans who made the trip for their club’s UEFA Cup tie were left puzzled by the sight of a double decker bus parked on one touchline.
The mystery was solved when the visiting English press turned up to find the top deck was their vantage point for the game.
Eleven years have elapsed since then and, thankfully, yours truly and co were housed last night in a much more traditional press box. Improvements had also seen a new stand completed just in time for Hull’s visit and it was packed to the rafters with noisy home fans.
The hordes from Hull more than matched the locals, though, with the afternoon’s beer consumption being reflected in the club’s back catalogue not so much being sung as bellowed.
That was until the blunder by goalkeeper Allen McGregor that handed Hans Vanaken a chance he simply could not miss.
The Lokeren fans roared so loudly that it must have rocked the foundations of the brand new stand.
It meant a desultory trek back into the town centre for the 1,236 Hull fans as they reflected on a disappointing result.
The belief was still there, though, with many insisting Hull can finish the job next Thursday and leave supporters dreaming of visiting one of football’s true cathedrals in the group stage.