With just over two weeks to go until the start of the season, Hull City fans are preparing themselves for League One football for the first time in 15 years. They last played in the third tier of English football since the 2004/05 campaign, when they gained promotion for the second season running under Peter Taylor.
A lot has changed since those days, when Hull City were the sleeping giants of the lower divisions. Peter Taylor's achievement of taking the Tigers up from League Two up to Championship safety in just over three seasons will long live in the memories of the fans, and many see him as one of the best managers the club ever had. However, City under Steve Bruce were also a massive success overall. This article covers the 2013/14 season, and discusses whether it should be that season that is viewed as the greatest in the Tigers' history.
Promotion for Bruce at the first time of asking
Steve Bruce came into the club in June 2012 after club legend Nick Barmby had been dismissed by the owners. His first season in charge couldn't have gone any better, as - despite drawing at home to Cardiff City - the Tigers won automatic promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. Ross McCormack was the Leeds United player that was the unlikely hero, scoring the winner against Watford to send City to the promised land once again.
It could and perhaps should have been so much easier for City on the day, as German Nick Proschwitz had the chance to put the Tigers 3-1 up towards the end of the game, only to miss his penalty. Nicky Maynard levelled from the spot in the dying embers of the final game of the season to send Hull City's fate into the hands of rivals Leeds United, who obliged in style by taking advantage of poor keeping from the young Watford Keeper Jack Bonham. For the Tigers - who celebrated long into the night - the prospect of the Premier League under Bruce was an exciting prospect, as the pre-season period saw lots of exciting arrivals.
Bruce means business in pre-season
Steve Bruce knew that he needed to recruit well to ensure the Tigers competed in the elite league, rather than just make up the numbers. Allan McGregor was the first player to sign at the start of July that showed Bruce's intentions. It was his double swoop from Tottenham Hotspur, however, that really got tongues wagging. Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore arrived in East Yorkshire with City fans excited for the season ahead.
August - September: An excellent start
Despite an opening day of the season defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the Tigers only lost twice in the league in the opening two months of the season (the other defeat came against Manchester City on the final day of August). Bruce's men took two wins and a draw from their opening three home games. First, they beat Norwich City 1-0 with ten men for the majority of the game after new signing Yannick Sagbo saw red early on. Robbie Brady's penalty was enough for to earn their first win. A 1-1 draw with Cardiff City in mid September suggested Danny Graham wasn't having the best of starts to his Hull City career.
However, the Tigers had a strong end to September. First, they went away to Newcastle United and ran out 3-2 winners - Sone Aluko scored the winner, striking a superb volley into the top corner. It was a goal that was worthy of winning any game, and City took their momentum into their next home clash against West Ham United. As against Norwich, it was a penalty that won it for the Tigers, with Robbie Brady scoring from the spot to leave Sam Allardyce fuming with the referee's performance and put Hull up to seventh position at the end of September. An excellent start indeed from Bruce's men - but things were about to get much tougher.
October - November: The bubble bursts
After such a good start, it was expected Hull City's form would dip at some point. A 0-0 draw with Aston Villa at home certainly wasn't a bad result, but the next five games saw one solitary win - against Sunderland. A bad tempered game saw the visitors down to nine men before the end of the first half, with Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena both shown red cards. That 1-0 win was the only positive result in this period, with the Tigers losing to Everton, Tottenham, Southampton and Crystal Palace.
Why the sudden slump in form? One of City's key players - Robbie Brady - missed this period of games, and while it is not the case that City were a one man team, the fact that Brady and Ahmed Elmohamady were such overlapping full backs to provide width and create chances showed that Bruce's team struggled for creativity when the Irishman was out injured for much of October and November. Something else was needed for Bruce's men - and that was to come in December.
December: Nine points gained, records broken
Hull City hosted Liverpool on 1st December 2013, and many expected a routine victory for the visitors. There are - as many people have said - no easy games in the Premier League, however. The Tigers shocked the Reds, running out 3-1 winners with Jake Livermore, David Meyler and a Martin Škrtel own goal proving the difference. If ever a big result was needed to show the Premier League that City meant business, it was this game - and it came in style. It was their first ever win over Liverpool, with the KCOM in full voice throughout.
City lost 2-0 to Arsenal the follow match, but the next three saw them pick up three consecutive draws against Swansea City, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion. Two home games in the space of three days over the Christmas period saw the Tigers lose 2-3 to Manchester United - despite being 2-0 up on 13 minutes - before the next record was broken against visitors Fulham on 28th December.
The first half of the Fulham game was a dull one, with the scores locked at 0-0 as the second half kicked off. What happened in the next 40 minutes or so was beyond any Hull City fan's wildest dreams, as they scored six unanswered goals to register their largest ever top-flight win. Elmohamady, Robert Koren (2), George Boyd, Tom Huddlestone and Matty Fryatt all scored to make sure the Tigers rounded off 2013 in style. For the City fans, they perhaps took the most pleasure out of Tom Huddlestone's first goal for the club. The Hull midfielder had not managed to find the net since scoring in Tottenham's 3-3 draw at Arsenal in April 2011 - and celebrated by cutting his hair, as he had promised to only have a trim once he had netted for the Tigers.
January: No wins in the league, but the start of a cup run - and new signings
The first month of 2014 brought mixed memories for City fans. Their four league games in January saw them fail to get a single point, or score a goal. They lost to Liverpool, Chelsea, Norwich and Palace, but there were other signs that the club was still in good shape. The first of these came in the FA Cup, where they defeated Middlesbrough 2-0 at the Riverside. Little did City fans know that this would be the start of their most successful cup run in history.
The other positive to take from January was the arrival of two new strikers. Nikica Jelavić and Shane Long both arrived in the middle of the month, signing three-and-a-half year deals to suggest to the Tigers fans that Bruce saw what needed to be added to the squad - a goal threat. Ironically both would be cup-tied for Hull City as they defeated Southend United 2-0 in the Fourth round of the FA cup, but it took until February for either of them to start to make an impact.
February - March: Improved league form; an even better cup run?
February saw only one defeat in the Premier League - at home to Southampton. A draw against Tottenham Hotspur and wins against Sunderland and Cardiff edged City away from the drop zone, but it was the FA Cup where Tigers fans were daring to dream. Yannick Sagbo proved to be the unlikely hero away at Brighton and Hove Albion, scoring late on to earn a replay at the KCOM. Hull won 2-1 in East Yorkshire to set up a Quarter Final tie with Sunderland, who they had already done the double over in the league.
March saw only only one win in the league - against West Brom - losing to Newcastle, Manchester City, West Ham and Stoke - but they beat Sunderland 3-0 at the KCOM in the quarter final of the cup to ensure they would play at Wembley for the first time since the 2008 Play-off Final against Bristol City. Despite the poor league form, Bruce's team were 14th in the league at the end of March, with the prospect of an FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield United in the capital. The drama was only just starting.
April: The Cup overshadows the league
The Tigers started April as they meant to go on - beating Swansea 1-0 at the KCOM to move up to 12th as their date at Wembley drew close. George Boyd was the hero, with Hull now nine points clear of the drop zone. As 13th April drew closer, Tigers fans looked to their team to produce a knockout display against their League One opponents at the time, Sheffield United.
It was a nightmare first half for Hull. The Blades took the lead when Jose Baxter stabbed in, and although Hull levelled through Yannick Sagbo's close-range finish, Stefan Scougall smashed in to restore Nigel Clough's side's lead. Enter Matty Fryatt and George Boyd to change the game for the Tigers at half time, with Bruce correctly identifying areas to improve.
City scored twice in the first ten minutes of the second half and when Stephen Quinn headed in to make it 4-2, Hull were on the brink of their first ever FA Cup final. Jamie Murphy's late strike gave United hope, but it was David Meyler who made it 5-3 in stoppage time to send the Hull fans into delirium and into the final of the FA cup.
Hull won only one more point all season in the league, with a 2-2 draw away to Fulham proving to be enough to make sure the Tigers were safe for another season. Fittingly, it was the new boys Jelavic and Long that scored the goals in the last 15 minutes, moving City six points clear of the bottom three. As the season moved into May, only one things was on the fan's mind - the FA Cup final.
May: The most successful season ever?
The question posed at the beginning of the article of whether the 2013/14 campaign is no doubt one that will spark debate among Hull City fans. Their league form has never been good towards the end of the season in their Premier League years, and so it proved to be this time around too - defeats against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Everton saw them stumble over the line somewhat, no doubt distracted by their cup run.
One thing cannot be argued with, however. In terms of a league finish, Bruce had secured the Tigers their highest ever placing in league football. West Brom - the only team able to catch City - lost at home to Stoke, but Norwich's final day defeat meant both teams were safe and Hull City finishing 16th in the Premier League.
The cup run also made the season a success. Bruce admitted himself after the final league game of the season that the FA Cup was a massive distraction, and was relieved it didn't impact on his side's finishing position in the league.
"We've got to the Cup final, everybody's talking about one thing, and it looked like that today," said Bruce after the Everton defeat on the final day of the season. "It's been a huge distraction, but thankfully now it's upon us. We've sort of limped over the line, which is always disappointing, but overall this season we've done fantastically well."
Ultimately, Hull City paid the price in the final for scoring too early. To be 2-0 up in the first ten minutes against a side with the quality that Arsenal had was always a dangerous position to be in so early on, and when it went to extra time, it felt like the Tigers just didn't have that extra five or ten percent needed to find a winner. However, one positive thing did come out of the defeat - the chance to enter the UEFA Europa League in the third qualifying round in the 2014/15 season due to Arsenal's Top Four finish meant they would qualify for the UEFA Champions League instead.
Still, to secure the highest Premier League finish in the club's history; to get to an FA Cup final and be in a winning position for much of the game, and to qualify for a European competition in one season was a tremendous achievement by Steve Bruce and his team. This, surely, is the club's greatest recent season - and one that seems very far removed from the situation the club currently find themselves in: facing Gillingham away on the opening day of the season on 12th September.