Even as they wrapped it up with a 2-1 win at Lincoln City, Hull City tested their fans but they are back in the Championship, a division they should never have left in the first place.
This story began 16 months ago, when Coyle was a Fleetwood Town player.
Last year started with a 1-0 win at Hillsborough moving the Tigers within a point of the Championship play-off positions. Then, the most coach Grant McCann had to grumble about was car parking arrangements.
The sale of New Year’s Day goalscorer Jarrod Bowen was inevitable, but it dragged out until a few hours after the transfer deadline, giving Hull no chance to spend their £18m. To compound it, they solid Kamil Grosicki that morning, too. Between them, the wingers had two-thirds of Hull’s league goals that season.
They effectively sold their right to compete for the play-offs but what followed was not inevitable – six points from 20 games seeing them relegated in bottom place. Managers can survive results like July’s 8-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic – ask Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl – but relegation too?
There has been a push for fans to have more say in the running of clubs in light of the failed breakaway European league, but had it been left to them, McCann would have been out of a job.
It felt like March’s home game against Charlton, on the back of a 5-1 loss at Stoke City, could seal his fate but by the time it was played in June, the world had changed. A global pandemic stripped the terraces of dissenters and paying off sacked managers became a lot less enticing. The local newspaper was banned for its criticism – and ridiculously still is – but McCann limped on.
To galvanise and refocus the club in such a short pre-season, was remarkable. Key players were kept – the scorers at Lincoln, Josh Magennis and Mallik Wilks, started at Wigan along with George Honeyman and Reece Burke, who replaced him at half-time at Sincil Bank.
Winners with League One nous were added. Coyle, whose crosses created Magennis’s acrobatic opener on Saturday and the penalty Wilks calmly slotted, was one, although fellow signing Josh Emmanuel was first-choice right-back until January. Coyle wore the armband with Richie Smallwood returning from injury, but the latter was influential before being sidelined and even when he was. Greg Docherty added quality and youngsters such as Keane Lewis-Potter, Jacob Greaves and signing Alfie Jones flourished.
Maybe it would have been different had Hull lost at Sunderland in the League Cup on the opening day but goalkeeper Matt Ingram – who swapped places with George Long in the pecking order – was outstanding to take the Tigers to a penalty shoot-out he helped them win and the team returned to the KCOM Stadium without at least some of the doubts of the previous campaign and the frustrations and anxieties of disgruntled fans to battle.
“All I felt from day one was positive energy and aspirations to get straight back up,” said Coyle. “It was a fresh start for the boys and a chance for new faces to come in and help achieve the goal we all agreed on. We had a meeting in Scotland (in pre-season) and wrote down where we wanted to be now and we’ve done it.”
Hull have scored more goals – 77 – than any English side, yet there is still a functional feel to much of this team, their defensive record League One’s best. But they have forwards in Lewis-Potter, Magennis and Wilks full of flair and goals – a club record 54 between them.
Magennis demonstrated that after just five minutes at Lincoln, stretching out a boot high but way too far in front of his man to be dangerous to volley in. From there it ought to have been a party in the sunshine but McCann’s conservatism got the better of him. Honeyman was on a booking and very close to another but replacing him at half-time with centre-back Burke sent an invitation Lewis Montsma took, volleying in at a corner. Only then did Hull buck up, Wilks restoring the lead when substitute Tom Eaves – another 2019-20 survivor – was bundled over. Lincoln’s Brennan Johnson hit the post in the final minute.
This Tigers team, though, has character. Coyle showed it displacing Emmanuel and the squad did, responding to February’s 1-0 defeat to Ipswich which left them third having played at least two more games than those around them with 13 matches unbeaten.
“We said had we really come that far to throw it away?” said Coyle. “We all knew what we were fighting for and we made a promise to do everything in our power to get it done so we could all look each other in the eye and say we gave it our best shot as a group.
“I’ve had to persevere on a personal level this season. Josh was absolutely fantastic, you only had to look at his stats, but I came to the club with high hopes of playing week in, week out. I wasn’t just going to sit back and let it happen.
“My old man, my mum and everyone in my family taught me to persevere and that good things happen to good people.
“I’ve come out the other end smiling and been part of a fantastic journey to the Championship.”
For McCann and for Hull, redemption has been achieved. The gloss of Hull’s first league title since 1966 awaits.
Lincoln City: Palmer, Poole, Montsma, Eyoma, Edun (Jones 73); Grant (Bramall 62), McGrandles (Bridcutt 73), Scully (Hopper 78); Johnson, Rogers, Morton. Unused substitutes: Sanders, Anderson, Long.
Hull City: Ingram, Coyle, Alfie Jones, Greaves, Elder; Slater (Crowley 68), Docherty, Wilks, Honeyman (Burke 46); Lewis-Potter (Whyte 65), Magennis (Eaves 74). Unused substitutes: Long, Smallwood, Emmanuel.
Referee: S Purkiss (London).
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