Hull City will be playing in front of a global audience of millions tomorrow in the FA Cup final. Richard Sutcliffe looks forward to a day that the sports fans in the city will never forget.
‘Last one out of Hull turn out the lights.’
So read the most iconic banner in the history of Yorkshire sport on the morning of May 3, 1980, as what felt like the entire city headed south ahead of the rugby league Challenge Cup final.
For the first – and only – time, Kingston-upon-Hull’s two rugby league teams were set to do battle at a sold-out Wembley. Tens of thousands of Hullensians decamped to the capital for the day, most passing under the home-made banner that had been draped across the A63 that leads out of the city, to share in an occasion that few envisaged ever happening again.
Thirty-four years on, however, and Hull is braced for another full-scale evacuation in support of its sports teams.
This time, the destinations are split with fans of Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers heading to Manchester for a derby game that is likely to be a highlight of the annual Magic Weekend. Supporters of Hull City, however, will descend on Wembley for what, even allowing for the 1980 Challenge Cup final that Rovers won 10-5 – Roger Millward pictured lifting the trophy – has to be the biggest event in the city’s sporting history; the FA Cup final.
Normally an occasion involving others, the Tigers will tomorrow end a 110-year wait to compete in English football’s showpiece game.
What a treat it promises to be, as Steve Bruce’s men look to pull off the sort of shock that has helped the Cup’s popularity endure all around the world.
When beating Sheffield United 5-3 at Wembley on April 13, Hull ensured Yorkshire would have a finalist for the 25th time.
The county’s proud Cup heritage includes no less than six previous winning teams and 11 triumphs overall. The Wednesday – the club’s name didn’t feature its home city until 1929 – were the trail-blazers with a 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1896.
Steel City rivals United, clearly not wanting to be outdone, replied with two successes of their own in 1899 and 1902 before Wednesday evened up the Cup wins tally at 2-2 by defeating Everton in 1907.
Bradford City and Barnsley then became the first two clubs to lift a trophy whose design has endured to this day with back-to-back triumphs in 1911 and 1912 to continue an excellent showing by the White Rose county that continued well into the 30s – Huddersfield Town beating Preston at Stamford Bridge 1-0 in the 1922 final and the Blades, who had won in 1915, and Owls triumphing in 1925 and ’35, respectively.
Since the Second World War, however, pickings have been less rich with just seven appearances in the final by teams from within the Broad Acres. Worse, still, just one of those ended with the Cup heading to Yorkshire, thanks to Leeds United’s triumph in the 1972 Centenary Cup final.
Middlesbrough are our most recent finalists but their 1997 game with Chelsea is best remembered for Roberto Di Matteo’s strike after just 42 seconds being the then fastest goal in a Cup final. Likewise, Sheffield Wednesday’s appearance in the 1993 final is remarkable only because it was the last final to go to a replay.
An ideal opportunity, therefore, for Hull to restore Yorkshire pride at Wembley by beating Arsenal. Not that it will be easy, as was underlined last month when the Tigers performed admirably but still lost 3-0 at home against Arsene Wenger’s side.
Aaron Ramsey, fit again after missing a big chunk of the season, was in devastating form that afternoon, just as he had been during the Gunners’ comfortable 2-0 triumph over City in December at the Emirates.
The Tigers simply could not keep up with the Welsh international as he broke from deep to support lone frontman Olivier Giroud and the trio of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski that were employed just off the French striker.
Neither the back four nor the midfield were able to stop Ramsey so it will be interesting to see what tactics Hull chief Steve Bruce employs.
The manager is the first to admit he got things badly wrong in the semi-final against Sheffield United, who bossed the first half. So, it is perhaps understandable that Bruce has been slightly cagey when it comes to discussing what approach his side will take tomorrow.
Even second-guessing his likely starting XI has not been straight-forward, with the return to fitness of Allan McGregor, Paul McShane and Sone Aluko giving the Tigers chief options he could only have dreamed of a few weeks ago.
That said, having a near fully-fit squad – even Robbie Brady, who underwent surgery on his groin less than three months ago, has been back on the training field this week – does brings its own problems in perhaps too much choice.
Does Bruce opt for a straight 4-4-2? Does he use son Alex as a protective barrier in front of the back four to try and deny Ramsey, Ozil et al space? Does he start both Matty Fryatt and Sone Aluko after the manner in which the pair transformed the semi-final against the Blades?
Much, no doubt, will be made before kick-off of how Wembley’s wide open spaces will suit the Gunners – and how the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil will capitalise on this to push Arsenal towards glory.
The problem with such thinking is that it is not backed up by cold, hard figures. The Wembley pitch, in fact, measures 115 yards by 75 yards – making it smaller than the KC Stadium, which comes in at a yard shorter than the national stadium but also three yards wider.
Regardless of the result, Hull City’s appearance in a first FA Cup final will be further proof of just how far the football club has come.
On the day when what felt like the entire city decamped to London for the 1980 Challenge Cup final, the Tigers beat Southend United in what was effectively a decider as to who went down from Division Three that season and who stayed up.
The attendance at Boothferry Park for such an important game? Just 3,297, then the club’s second lowest league gate. Hull City, whose biggest game will be watched by millions around the globe tomorrow, have come a long way since then.