The 2003-04 season was a huge success for both Hull City and Arsenal but at opposite ends of the football spectrum. Richard Sutcliffe speaks to captain Ian Ashbee about bridging that gap.
TEN years ago today, the red half of north London was waking up with an almighty hangover.
A 2-1 victory at home to Leicester City the previous afternoon had seen Arsenal make history as the first team since Preston North End in the very first year of the Football League to remain unbeaten through an entire top-flight season.
Gunners supporters had, unsurprisingly, partied long into the night, hence the sore heads around N5 as May 16, 2004, dawned.
Two-hundred miles to the north and a week or so earlier, Hull had staged its own sporting celebrations after the city’s football club had claimed a first promotion in almost two decades.
The Tigers had finished runners-up in the basement division and the delirious scenes that met the goal that clinched promotion - Ian Ashbee’s 76th-minute strike at Yeovil Town in the penultimate game of the season – showed just what some long overdue success meant to supporters.
What none of those celebrating fans at Huish Park or Ashbee himself as he disappeared under a mountain of elated team-mates could have imagined is that just a decade on and the Tigers would be facing Arsenal in the club’s FA Cup final.
“It is pretty incredible, isn’t it?” said the 37-year-old former midfielder when speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of tomorrow’s historic visit to Wembley.
“While we were fighting to get out of the bottom division in 2003-04, Arsenal were having that incredible season. We would watch them on television and think, ‘Hell, this lot are some team’.
“No way did any of us think as we scratched around in the lower leagues that, one day, we would be playing Arsenal in the same division. And not only that, but beating them.
“Never in a million years did we also think that within 10 years Hull would be facing Arsenal in a Cup final. Things like that just didn’t happen, even if when I signed for Hull (in 2002) I could see the club had massive potential.
“The new stadium was in the pipeline and, to me, the club looked ready for take-off. It just needed that on-pitch spark and Yeovil turned out to be it.”
Hull spent all but the opening few weeks of the 2003-04 season occupying an automatic promotion place. But, once the run-in truly started to gather pace, Peter Taylor’s side started to stumble.
By the time the squad headed to Yeovil on May 1, nerves were jangling like never before thanks to the previous half-dozen games having yielded just one win and seven points.
Such a paltry return had all but handed the title to Doncaster Rovers. The big worry, though, was that Torquay United and Huddersfield Town could both pip City to a place in the top three. Cue Ashbee’s stunning 20-yard strike in Somerset and the start of a rise that, even allowing for the relegation from the Premier League of 2010, is nothing short of remarkable.
“Yeovil changed everything,” recalls Birmingham-born Ashbee, the driving force of the City midfield who can proudly boast that he not only captained the East Riding club in the top four divisions of English football but also scored at every level, too.
“Hull City took off that afternoon. You only have to look back to see that. From there we won a second promotion a year later and then went up at Wembley in 2008.
“Suddenly, Hull – a city that, like Birmingham, had become used to getting a bad press – was being talked about for all the right reasons.
“That day at Yeovil is something I will never forget. To be fair, we should have gone up at least a couple of games earlier but we didn’t have the experience or know-how at that time to get over the line. It meant the pressure was on.
“Thankfully, we got there in the end and I would say that Yeovil is the second favourite memory of my nine years at Hull City. And that isn’t by much with Wembley in 2008 only just pipping it.
“The special thing about Yeovil is that it was the first promotion. Everyone remembers their first time and footballers are no different. You could see what it meant to the fans. And it was great that I had been able to play my part by scoring the goal.”
Even after promotion, the thought of Hull – the biggest conurbation in Europe never to have hosted top-flight football at the time – facing Arsenal and their ilk in league combat was fanciful.
A second runners-up spot, however, in as many seasons then took Taylor’s men into the Championship.
A mid-table finish and then an heroic – and successful – fight against relegation later, left the Tigers, by now with Phil Brown at the helm, ready to fight for the ultimate prize... promotion to the Premier League.
As in their back-to-back successes, Ashbee led from the front in 2007-08 as the Tigers battled through to the Championship play-off final.
Dean Windass then scored, in true ‘Roy of the Rovers’ fashion, the winner for his home-town club and continue a journey that, for Ashbee, had begun in inauspicious fashion courtesy of a red card on his City debut at Boothferry Park against Southend United in 2002.
Not, however, that the Tigers captain was in any mood to ease up with that first season in the Premier League bringing 31 appearances and a wealth of memories. The happiest of those came against Hull’s Cup final opponents.
“When we got into the Premier League, I was determined to take everything in – good and bad,” recalls Ashbee. “But football doesn’t work like that.
“There is always another game a few days later and things happen so fast that things tend to whizz past. Winning at Arsenal (2-1) was a bit like that, as was winning at Tottenham (a week later).
“Both were massive achievements but we had to move on quickly.
“That said, our win at Arsenal remains my third best memory as a Hull player behind Wembley and Yeovil.
“We were only the second team to beat Arsenal at the Emirates and no-one gave us a chance. I can’t blame people for that. We were up against (Cesc) Fabregas, (Robin) van Persie, William Gallas and all these other star names.
“The key was that we believed we belonged on the same pitch. Without that belief, we would have had no chance. But we believed and came away with all three points.
“The big thing I remember from that day at the Emirates is running, running and running.
“We had a system that saw me, George Boateng and Dean Marney cover so much ground.
“It was highlighted on Match of the Day that night just how far we had run. But every bit of the effort was worth it as days like beating Arsenal don’t come along too often.”
Since that September, 2008, triumph at the Emirates, Arsenal have won the last five meetings between the two clubs and are also hot favourites to triumph at Wembley.
Ashbee, however, insists his old club should not be written off.
“Hull have a chance in the final,” he continued. “But it will be tough, as Arsenal have come into form at just the right time.
“They beat us 3-0 the other week at the KC but it was never a 3-0 game. Every time they went up the pitch, they scored.
“The final is very different and I do have a feeling for Hull.
“I keep thinking Arsenal will go in front but Hull will come back and win 2-1.
“It would be brilliant if we could get the Cup back to Hull.”