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Friday, February 6, 2009
Updated: February 24, 11:18 AM ET
Meet Hull City: America's New Team, Albeit From Britain

By Jeff Bradley

The scene is familiar, but from what? Could it be? Yes, that's exactly what it is. It's the climactic scene from Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! It's five days before Christmas 2008 and a whole lot of people—in this case, fans of Hull City, a soccer team in the English Premier League—are having their holiday ruined. Playing the role of the Grinch is a team called Sunderland, which comes to Hull in a sour mood, languishing near the bottom in the EPL. Right now, they're dominating the Tigers on Hull City's home field. Hull City's fans, though, are full of Yuletide cheer. And why not? Their team is coming off an impressive 2-2 draw at first-place Liverpool. Earlier in the season, the club traveled to the Emirates Stadium in London and defeated Arsenal. Sure, the team lost at Manchester United, but scored three times against mighty Man U, earning a ton of respect in the one-goal defeat. Hull is now favored to beat Sunderland, but even with the home sell-out crowd of 25,000-plus on their feet, Sunderland thumps the Tigers, 4-1, tallying three goals in the game's final 12 minutes, all at the end of the field where Sunderland's fans are standing. The celebrations are raucous as the 2,000 or so red-and-white-clad away fans enjoy the opportunity to drown out the home crowd with their songs and chants. That's when, with apologies to the Good Doctor, there was a sound. It was a sound most American sports fans would find implausible in defeat. Like all those Whos down in Whoville, the fans of Hull City rose en masse. "City 'til I die!" the song began. "City 'til I DIE!" Then, it became deafening. "I know I am, I know I AM! I'm City 'til I DIE!" Two choruses, then three, then four. And then, as if a conductor was giving them cues, the song changed. "We love you City, we do! We love you City, we DO! We love you City, we do. OHHHHHHHH! City we love YOU!" Over and over again, full-throated and glorious as the final whistle blew. The Hull City players lifted their heads as they walked off the field, raised their hands and applauded, the same way they did at the beginning of the match, when they were serenaded (as always) with Elvis' "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You."

SOME CONTEXT

Pop Quiz: What's the dumbest saying in American sports? Easy.

"Second place is for losers."

It's this lack of perspective that now has New York Giants fans calling this past season a disaster, as if a 12-4 regular season was just a series of warm-up games. It's this outlook that has baseball fans singing, "Wake me up when September ends," and college hoop fans snoozing until they can see a bracket.

Promotion and Relegation

In England, a system known as "promotion and relegation" is in place. All professional soccer clubs have the opportunity to elevate themselves to higher leagues with success on the field. At the end of each season, the best teams from the second, third and fourth-tiers of football celebrate the fact that they're "going up."

And it's this rationale that, season after season, year after year, in all of the sports that Americans love, sends fans of all but one team home less than satisfied.

It's time for an attitude adjustment.

The Magazine would like to invite America to get behind a team that could change the way we look at sports and a group of fans who can laugh at even Cubs fans for calling themselves "long-suffering."

Meet Hull City: America's (new) Team.

If it seems incomprehensible that fans could stand up and sing after a three-goal defeat, it helps to know the backstory. This is, after all, the first year in the 105-year history of Hull City that the club is playing at the highest level of English soccer, the Premier League. Not long ago, they were scraping a bottom that's nearly 100 teams deep. And one loss—even to a toad like Sunderland—is hardly enough to make City fans forget their fairy tale journey to the EPL.

What would constitute a successful season this year? For Hull fans, anything above the bottom three.

Second place is for losers? Ha. Seventeenth place would be cause for a massive celebration.

Hull, as pictured in early 1935.

HARD-LUCK HULL CITY

Situated in Northeast England about 20 miles from the North Sea, Hull is the seventh-largest city in Britain. It's a city full of history, much of it sad. Hull went from being one of the UK's most important port cities to being thoroughly bombed during World War II. The Hull Blitz left nearly two-thirds of the city's population homeless. It built itself back up to become a major fishing hub, only to lose the industry in the mid-70s when the Icelandic Cod Wars led to prohibitions on fishing within 50 miles of the country. The last three decades have seen Hull try to rebuild itself around a university and a cultural center. "Unfortunately," says BBC broadcaster David Burns, the voice of Hull City, "it seems whenever Hull has gotten national publicity, it's been for things like rampant obesity, teen pregnancy and drugs." A book written in 2003 entitled "To Hull and Back (via 49 other c**p towns in Britain)" described Hull this way: "Hull smells of death&on Judgment Day, the town should be leased out to Satan, to provide housing for the damned." Turns out the authors had never even been to Hull. Even with this rep, the Third Division—essentially the fourth tier in English professional soccer leagues:mdash;is no place for a football team representing a city of Hull's size. Yet that's where Hull City found themselves during the 1998-99 season. Look back at the teams Hull matched up against that year: names like Mansfield Town and Torquay United and Scarborough. Clubs that now toil in the low, semi-professional ranks playing before friends, family and pets. Through the system of relegation and promotion in English soccer, this could've easily been Hull City's fate. "When you fall down to Third Division," says Duffen. "It can be near impossible to get yourself up again."

THE JOURNEY

When Hull City went to Old Trafford to play Manchester United on November 1 of last year, the Hull Daily Mail was full of stories on The Great Escape and Warren Joyce, who now coaches Man U's reserve team. Back in December of 1998, Joyce became player-manager for Hull City and rescued the Tigers from the indignity of being bumped down to "conference football" (basically a division made up of mostly semi-pro clubs) and, perhaps, extinction. "It was a joint fight, players and fans," Joyce recalls, "joined together to try and keep the club in the league. Even then we had tremendous support." Legend has it that Hull City supporters began to serenade the team with the theme song "The March" from The Great Escape that season. That, and the steady leadership of Joyce helped the Tigers to a 21st place finish in the 24-team league, good enough to keep if alive for another year. But the club was still on shaky ground. Former British Davis Cup captain David Lloyd, had owned the team for a spell, but by 2001 he'd given up his stake in the team while remaining owner of the stadium, Boothferry Park. In February of that year, he locked Hull City out of its home ground for a day because the new owners had failed to pay rent. There was legitimate fear the Hull City would be liquidated. On the field, however, Hull City began to show a little more promise, finishing sixth to earn one of four spots in the "promotion playoffs." They did not earn promotion that season, however. In December of 2002, the city of Hull opened the 25,000-seat Kingston Communications Stadium, which was seemingly built more for Hull's two professional rugby clubs. The new ground gave Hull City a bit more vibrancy, even if the team was still a fourth-tier side. The results started to improve and, in '03-'04 and '04-'05, the Tigers jumped a division a year, all the way from the basement level of the Third Division to the penultimate league, known as "The Coca Cola Championship." This was living. "For us, the supporters," says lifelong Hull City fan Ian Garmston, "Getting to play teams like Leeds United and Southampton, teams with real history, was quite a thrill. Staying in The Championship…that was a great goal for us. That'd have been quite satisfying."
Phil Brown, the manager of Hull City, is beloved by fans for his active involvement in contests.

THE MAJESTY OF WINDASS

During a particularly bleak period in Hull City history in 1995, the Tigers sold a local lad—a volatile striker, named Dean Windass—to Aberdeen, a team in the Scottish Premier League, for 700,000 pounds. Windass was the closest thing Hull City had to "a star" at the time, but the money would go a long way towards keeping the club afloat. "I said back then that Hull City was a sleeping giant," Windass remembers. "Being a Hull lad and a Hull City fan, it meant a lot to me that I could help the club." Windass plays hard, wears his emotions on his sleeve, is not afraid to scream at referees (he once famously received three red cards in one match, and also incited a small melee by allegedly squeezing an opponent's testicles) and is known to enjoy a pint or three. After his sale from Hull City, he would go on to have a stellar (albeit well-traveled) career. From Aberdeen to Oxford United to Bradford City to Middlesbrough to Sheffield Wednesday to Sheffield United to Bradford City, Deano scored buckets of goals. Just when it seemed Windass was past his sell-by date, he returned to Hull City in January '07. Deano's return brought a smile to fans' faces, but it seemed more nostalgic than anything else. But nostalgia can be magical and, in this case, even mystical. At the age of 37, his face creased with experience and his belly beginning to hang over his shorts, Windass was poised to become a legend. As the '06-07 season was winding down, Hull City found themselves falling toward the relegation zone, despite Windass' seven goals. With two games remaining in the season and a drop in league's looming, the Tigers traveled to Cardiff City in need of a victory. Windass came through, producing the game's only goal to give Hull City an all-but-insurmountable cushion and assuring another season in The Championship. "Those are the games that take years off your life," says 38-year old supporter Chris Ashton. "For every one of 90 minutes your stomach is tied in knots." Staying in The Championship validated coach Phil Brown as the right man to lead the team during the following season. The fans loved Brown's intensity on the sideline—he sometimes jumps for head balls as if he were playing and delights in getting a few touches on the ball when it comes out of bounds toward him —and that he seemed to have a lot of football fan in him. Brown would begin to work with the team's new chairman, Paul Duffen, a Londoner who (along with two other men) had bought the team. Duffen had made his money as CEO of Catalyst Media Group and immediately began to talk about taking Hull City to a place it had never been before: the Premier League. "It sounded good," says Ashton, "But did it sound real? How could it've? After one hundred and four years?"

THE GOAL

The Brits have tweaked the promotion and relegation system over the years. They still reward the teams that prove it over a full-season (the top two) with automatic promotion to the higher league but, in the case of The Championship division, they take the teams that finish 3-6 and have a good, ol' game of knock-out with the final promotion spot decided in a one-game playoff at London's Wembley Stadium. So it was last May 24th when some 38,000 Hull City supporters dressed in black and amber made the four-hour trek to London to see their club face Bristol City at Wembley, to play on turf that Hull City had never before sunk their studs into. During the regular season, Hull had finished third, marking the club's highest league finish in 98 years. Bristol City was right behind them in fourth. Both took care of their opposition in the two-game, aggregate goals first-round series.
Windass after his goal in the playoff final.

Now, 90 minutes of soccer would decide who'd take the trip of a lifetime, to the Premiership, for the 2008-09 season. Late in the first half, Windass (who else?) cracked a volley from 18 yards, hitting it pure and perfect to the upper corner, giving Hull City a 1-0 lead. With his hair bleached white, his arms well-tatooed, looking as much like the lads in the stands as those on the field, Windass celebrated like a child, carrying a teammate on his back, arms outstretched. "A Windass-Wembley-Winner!" Burns shouted into the BBC microphone. Hull dug in and fought for the rest of the match, making Deano's goal stand up and sending Hull to the Premiership. "It changed my life," Windass says. "To score a goal like that, at Wembley, for the team you grew up supporting, it's Roy of the Rovers stuff." (Roy of the Rovers would be a famous comic strip in England about a striker, Roy Race, who had a flair for the dramatic.) "To see the look of joy on people's faces, I'll never forget it."

THE FUTURE

Looking back on the whirlwind of the past year—Windass' goal, the club's debut in EPL, playing Man U. to within one goal—current manager Phil Brown puts it in perspective: "Mick Ronson grew up in Hull, and he was the guitarist for David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. And Mick was known to wear platform shoes. Now, it seems all of Hull are wearing platform shoes, walking tall!" The renewed spirit of the city is undeniable, but the performance on the pitch has been less inspirational since that match in Liverpool. Six losses and two draws in their last eight Premier League matches have pushed Hull City down the standings into 12th place—better than many thought they'd do this year, but only six points clear of the drop back down to the Coca Cola Championship. Windass is gone now, too. The club decided to loan-out Deano because, even as he approaches his 40th birthday, his ego says he's a full-time player and not a reserve. The Tigers are still alive in the FA Cup, having advanced to the fifth-round for the first time in 20 years, but their big January signing, midfielder Jimmy Bullard whom they purchased from Fulham for a Hull City-record five million pounds, has a torn ACL and could miss the rest of the season. If Hull City, with 13 games left, can stay in the Premier League—which means anything better than 18th place—there's talk of adding 7,000 seats to the stadium, which will sell out instantly, creating more revenue for better players. Just being in the EPL is estimated to be worth 60-million pounds in sponsorship and TV money. But no matter what happens, Hull seems like a changed city. In the words of CEO Duffen: "I've run three businesses, but this is the only one where I've actually been able to bring people happiness."

Sounds pretty great to us. And that's why we'll be following Hull City down the stretch on The Mag.com, in their quest to stay in the EPL. Hey, with America behind them, they can't lose!