THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Try to forget the stereotypes. On one hand, a team from a much derided city with a sparkling stadium seemingly on the up. The other, historically rich perennial play-off contenders suffering a dreadful start. By Taylor Parkes

Before the opening of the Humber Bridge in 1981, Hull was near-impossible to reach from much of the rest of the country. Stuck out on the pointless curve of the East Riding, half-moated by the fat slash of the Humber estuary, reaching Hull by car required a miserable detour of many miles. With half the town smashed by Nazi bombing raids, post-war Hull offered little incentive – if you just wanted to smell a fish dock, you could go to Grimsby. So, aside from the seafood trucks, little traffic passed through for many years, and Hull became known mainly for its  lonely coastal desolation. Even today, after major redevelopment, Hull can feel slightly less than welcoming: entering the city from any angle brings a sense of gathering gloom, and the place still carries a reputation as a bleak north-easterly desert, home to hardy, wind-picked fighting boys, or incurable misanthropes thirsting for solitude (most famously, talented racist Philip Larkin)

Of course, this is largely nonsense. Much of Hull has changed beyond all ­recognition. There are bright museums, luxury flats, sleek bars and a well regarded university. Still, travelling fans could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as they step out of the station and walk to the ground through an area combining the uglier aspects of 1970s Poland and the lunar surface. This is old‑school. The only building on Anlaby Road that doesn’t look like post-war newsreel is the gleaming, clean-sliced cliff of the Royal Infirmary, dropped in among boarded-up pubs, crumbling flats and a gas showroom called “Flames Of Hull”. Keep walking and you come to a concrete flyover that seems to lead to Hades. Turn right, and the KC Stadium may save your day.

Perhaps it’s just the contrast? Rising out of waste ground like pure excitement, the KC turns its surroundings to magic: very high in the “deVries Honda West Stand”, looking over the opposite lip of the stadium, you can see out to the horizon past that flat, austere landscape hymned by Larkin as a place where “luminously-peopled air ascends... where only salesmen and ­relations come”. The only thing to spoil the effect is the groundsman’s handiwork – the pitch is mown in concentric circles like the ones that strain your eyes in Pro Evolution Soccer, looking like a prop that fell out of a hypnotist’s bag.

Hull can certainly boast one of the country’s more bombastic MCs, and the corniest intro tape in the world: a horror-movie voice booming “Tigers, Tigers, burning bright...” No immortal hand or eye to frame their fearful symmetry, Hull City jog out as a cuddly big-cat mascot high-fives half the family enclosure. On the far side of the stadium, a giant screen shows the match live, in blown-up webcam quality – it looks so much like YouTube that, during breaks in play, you half expect a fat-faced American teenager in a headset microphone to explain how the World Trade Centre was brought down by Masonic UFOs in the pay of Israel (in fact, whenever a player receives treatment, it shows adverts for the Stagecoach bus company, run by wacky, wage-slashing Christian homophobe Brian Souter, which is not all that far off).

The first minutes of the match are not promising, suggesting that Hull’s reputation as a rugby town is grimly appropriate: Preston kick off and launch a long ball that is slapped down by a leaping forward, rising as if from a line-out, to a gale of abuse. Moments later, Hull goalie Bo Myhill earns the first applause of the afternoon as he drop-kicks the ball out of the ground. From here, we watch it bounce slowly down the corrugated roof and roll into already-­darkening trees. The cold is ominous.

In fact, this turns into a decent game, providing you’re not a Preston supporter – today their Finney-mocking performance is never less than wretched. Meanwhile, Hull appear to be solidifying into a decent side – one that would still be eaten alive in the Premier League, for sure, but with little to fear where they are right now. Unless anyone knows better, much of the credit must surely go to Phil Brown, who took on ­management duties with the club in the relegation zone and has since hauled them halfway up the table. As one would expect from a side coached by a Sam Allardyce alumnus, their play is tough and economical rather than tactically sophisticated, but right here it works brilliantly.

Prowling the touchline in skinny tie, drainpipes and winkle-pickers, scowling and pointing with bug-eyed, granite-faced fervour, Brown looks rather like the owner of a 1960s dance hall; watching the players in amber and black – a flock of journeymen and raw teens, missing Nick Barmby and Henrik Pedersen through injury, Jay-Jay Okocha grounded on the bench – it’s hard to credit the sharpness of today’s performance to anyone else. Barring calamity, he may well establish a reputation here.

In contrast to Preston’s anonymous disarray, Hull look disciplined and almost slick. Ian Ashbee, controversial club captain and resident tough guy, times his tackles well and uses the ball with unexpected insight; in midfield, the short-arsed but quick-­thinking Stephen McPhee knows exactly when to burst forward. Fraizer Campbell, the latest of those frail but skilful Manchester United youngsters who can’t crack the first team but find their level on loan, lighting up the forward line of Championship sides, plays up front alongside the local hero – a now almost immobile Dean Windass – and somehow it works beautifully. After 11 minutes, McPhee hares away from his marker to play a startlingly precise through ball for Campbell, whose shot rebounds off Andy Lonergan in the Preston goal and loops into the air. It’s no stretch for Windass’s grizzled skull and Hull are one up.

Ten minutes later, the Preston defence (most of whom look about 12 years old) let an easy cross go free, Youl Mawene pulling off a memorable air-header, and the increasingly influential Campbell strolls in for a second. It’s slaughter. Even when Myhill lets a loose ball bounce around the Hull penalty area, Preston’s forwards judder and cluck like startled hens until the thing is hooked away. The PNE wide players might think their strikers are 11 feet tall – going on the crosses they’re putting in – but they’re playing like footballing midgets. Up the other end, a marvellous link-up between Campbell and Dean Marney breaks down, but suggests that, given time to get used to each other, Hull could really impress.

The floodlights come on and illuminate the November trees, the same rich russet colour as the redbrick houses and office blocks fading into the afternoon. As if charmed by its footballers’ good fortune, Hull begins to look oddly beautiful. The referee chucks Windass under the chin after a slight disagreement; Preston’s Andy Carroll leaps on to a free header and knocks it down neatly into Myhill’s gloves. Even when Preston bring on Patrick Agyemang, a frighteningly strong runner who remembers how to play, the game is going only one way – Hull’s Michael Turner, a genuinely impressive defender, locks on to him and damps down. Just past the hour, second-half sub Andy Dawson hits a gorgeous free-kick that swerves past Lonergan and effectively kills the match. All that remains is for Okocha to take the field and take the piss, doing up his laces as the crowd sing his name (and the big screen advertises a fly-on-the-wall book about life at Hull City, with the unsettling title Behind the Tigers).

Okocha is finished as a top-class player, and was never the type who could just dig in and “use his experience”. His first touch is balletic, chesting down on the edge of the box, swivelling and sending in a cracking volley; from the subsequent corner, he comes short to collect the ball and fumbles it out of play for a goal-kick. The fancy touches earn wild cheers, like a dying Larry Grayson croaking “shut that door” to a cabaret audience, but Jay-Jay is not the player of old. Five minutes from the end, he even goes up for a header.

At full time, the press file into a tiny, pale blue room full of dirty teacups and discarded team sheets, for the least glamorous press conference imaginable. The formidable Phil Brown strides in, effing and blinding exuberantly, and turns his gruff charisma on fin-haired kids from the local paper and an elderly gent with an old-fashioned microphone. He speaks with calm confidence, sunken eyes glinting just brightly enough to remind all present that he could kill them if he wanted, then leaves. After this, mouse-like Preston boss Paul Simpson cuts a tragic figure, shagged out from ­dressing-room shouting and looking oddly vulnerable, as though on the verge of tears. He croaks about how his side “deserved to lose”, for “the worst performance of the season so far”, the minority calling for his head have become a majority etcetera.

Even as he’s speaking, a stout bald man is running around at the back of the room, hissing into his mobile – “monitor Radio Lancs!” – as the rumour of Simpson’s imminent sacking starts to build. You’d have to be a hard-hearted man (or a Preston fan) not to feel sorry for him as he shuffles out – three days later, his contract is terminated. Every-one else packs up and heads into the icy night, except for the suited and booted club representative, who rips open a bag of crisps and settles down to watch Stoke v Sheffield United on a TV in the corner of the room, till the cleaners arrive to turf him out.

I head back up Anlaby Road, to eat an awful pie and watch bus loads of locals ferried from the twinkling town centre out to doughy suburbs. At the station, there’s time for a drink in the Royal Hotel (“a larger loneliness of knives and glass/and silence laid like carpet”), then the loud train south. Something to go to Hull for, besides the slavery museum – you live and learn.

From WSC 251 January 2008

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