HULL CITY didn’t enter the FA Cup until the old competition was in its 35th season.
That was in 1905 and, in the intervening years, the Tigers have rarely shown any inclination to make up for lost time. Until now.
After more than a century of trying, City are on their way to a first FA Cup final thanks to a devastating 20-minutes that simply blew away Sheffield United.
The Blades had headed south yesterday hoping to make history themselves by becoming the first team from the third tier to reach the final of English football’s oldest competition.
And for 45 minutes, Nigel Clough’s side looked on course to do just that as goals from Jose Baxter and Stefan Scougall either side of a Yannick Sagbo strike threatened to send Hull the way of Aston Villa and Fulham.
But then after Steve Bruce, angry at his side’s limp display in the first half, brought on Matty Fryatt and Sone Aluko at the interval and switched formation, there was no stopping the Tigers.
Just 210 seconds of the second half had elapsed when Fryatt justified his manager’s belated faith with a typically predatory finish from close range after United had failed to clear a Tom Huddlestone corner.
Five minutes later, Hull were in front for the first time as Huddlestone turned goalscorer after the midfielder held off a last-gasp challenge from Michael Doyle and then curled an unstoppable left-foot shot beyond goalkeeper Mark Howard.
City’s fourth – and the goal that finally broke Sheffield’s steel-like spirits – came midway through the second half, as Fryatt sprang the offside trap to collect a David Meyler pass before crossing for Stephen Quinn to head past Mark Howard.
There was still time for both sides to score a goal apiece in the closing stages, Jamie Murphy giving United brief hope in the 89th minute before David Meyler settled matters in the third and final minute of stoppage time. It was a breathless finish and one totally in keeping with a game of two halves that had swung one way and then the other to keep the 71,821 crowd fully entertained.
Meyler’s late strike meant the dream was over for United, who like the nine previous teams to reach the semi-final of the world’s oldest knockout competition from the third tier had found that final step just beyond them.
Despite that, Clough’s men emerged from the first all-Yorkshire semi-final in a generation with huge credit.
For the opening 45 minutes, the League One side dominated to make a mockery of the two-division gulf.
United’s game-plan was always going to be similar to that of previous ties against sides from a higher division. Namely, keep things tight in the first quarter and then, as the game begins to open up, hope to utilise the skills of Ryan Flynn and Jamie Murphy out wide to open up the opposition.
With that in mind, City’s tactics in the first half were baffling.
Not only did Steve Bruce opt to play with just Sagbo up front, something the Tigers have rarely done this season even at the Emirates, Anfield et al.
But the Premier League side also spent much of the opening 42 minutes pumping aimless high balls at Sagbo.
Such an approach suited United’s defence to a tee. Neither Neill Collins nor Harry Maguire are blessed with too much pace but what they can both do is head a ball. And that is how the Tigers came to be caged until Sagbo, finally given some decent service courtesy of a delightful pass from Jake Livermore, rifled an unstoppable shot into the roof of Howard’s net.
It brought the East Riding club level, United having taken a deserved lead on 19 minutes when a quick throw by John Brayford had caught George Boyd napping.
As the ball was returned to the Cardiff City loanee by Conor Coady, Boyd took too long to close down Brayford who was able to pick out Jose Baxter with a near post cross.
The Bootle-born forward did the rest, nipping ahead of James Chester to bundle the ball past Steve Harper before poignantly kissing the black armband in honour of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough.
Going ahead was no more than the Blades deserved and it was against the run of play that Hull hit back through Sagbo.
So, when United went back in front on the stroke of half-time, justice was done.
Hull were again undone down the flank, this time on their right as Murphy skipped past Liam Rosenior before picking out the on-rushing Scougall who thundered an unstoppable shot beyond Harper.
Changes were badly needed for the Tigers and Steve Bruce used the interval to do just that as Fryatt and Sone Aluko came off the bench. City also switched to a much more familiar 4-4-2 with Sagbo moving towards the left, a position he has played earlier in the run to Wembley at Southend United.
Quick-fire goals for Fryatt and Huddlestone vindicated Bruce’s major diversion from his pre-match tactical plan.
At 3-2 down, United were far from finished and it took a combination of Sagbo and Rosenior on the hour to muscle Flynn out of the way as the Scot prepared to shoot following an incisive pass from Conor Coady.
Quinn, a former Blade, headed the fourth goal midway through the half but there was still time for Murphy to smash in an 89th-minute strike to give United late hope.
Meyler, though, then settled matters to send the City fans away dreaming of the ultimate. An FA Cup final triumph against Arsenal on May 17.