All Hail Hull City
On a recent Sunday morning in November, I found myself at Nevada Smiths, Lower Manhattan’s church of televised European soccer. I was there for one reason, and it wasn’t the restorative Guinness I nursed, delicious though it was, even at that early hour. I wanted to watch Hull City A.F.C. (Association Football Club) face off against a talented, if mercurial, Manchester City. I had been following the feel-good story of Hull since the start of the season (mid-August), but had yet to actually watch a game; it was high time I checked out a match for real.
Hunched up to the bar, I derived a full-circle thrill in recalling that the only live English football match I have ever seen was this same Manchester City club, twenty years ago on Boxing Day, away at Stoke-on-Trent, a small, working-class city in the West Midlands. That cold December day, I had piled into the world’s smallest van with a half-dozen rabid Man City fans—including my best friend from high school, a Mancunian by birth who had since moved back to his home-town—sporting large, fluorescent-yellow, blow-up bananas (don’t ask), eventually cramming shoulder-to-shoulder into the fenced-in, “look-ma-no seats,” away-fan terrace, trying to learn the dozens of Man City fight songs. Cliché though it may be, I was completely taken aback, intimidated even, by the intensity of the fans, both home and away. I can truly say I had never, before or since, experienced anything like it at any sporting event.
One-third of the way into this 2008 version of the madness that is the English Football season, Hull City’s scrappy, overachieving soccer has been nothing short of inspirational. Having now reached the point of full-on sartorial identification, i.e., hoping to dress in Hull finery, I went to the club’s website to order their distinctive black-and-amber-striped home jersey. I wasn’t too surprised to see they were out of stock. I reasoned that if a guy like me—a relative neophyte to the burning passions of the Premiership, England’s top-flight soccer league—if a guy like me wanted to purchase a fetching Hull jersey and couldn’t get one, then they probably hadn’t made enough of the things at the start of the season.
As a sporting city, Hull is perhaps better known for rugby, and specifically for a fierce rivalry between its two Super League sides Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers. Maybe this is because the soccer team, Hull City A.F.C., has been around since 1904, but this is their first-ever season in the top-flight league. Every single one of their 104 previous seasons had come and gone playing in the lower leagues of the Football Association (FA). Until last year, that is, when they earned the right to play in the English Premier League (EPL).
To say that the footballers of Hull City have far exceeded their lowly, pre-season expectations is an understatement. Hull currently sit in sixth place (out of twenty teams) in the Premiership table. But Hull’s “We’re here!” Horton-Hears-a-Who moment came in their sixth match of the season, on September 27, in the midst of a table-climbing six-game unbeaten streak. That day, the Tigers of Hull City stunned the soccer world by beating mighty Arsenal 2-1 at the Gunners’ home ground in North London. Arsenal had lost only once at Emirates Stadium in their previous 59 matches.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Arindam Rej called this result “the most stunning in Hull’s 104-year history” and “arguably the biggest shock result in the history of the Premier League.” Fans of pop-culture ephemera will appreciate the fact that Rej headlined his article “London 0-4 Hull,” the title of the debut album from the Hull-based 1980s pop band, The Housemartins. At the time the article appeared, Hull had played, and beaten, four of London’s five Premiership teams—Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, and Arsenal. A subsequent loss to London’s fifth team, league-leaders Chelsea, kicked off Hull’s current four-game winless streak. (In a strange coincidence, Rej might have opted for his headline “The People who Grinned Themselves to Death,” the name of The Housemartins’ second album, but obviously had to go with the one-in-a-million chance to use the other. Perhaps he’s saving this for an article about Hull fans.)
To the uninitiated American sports fan, the complexity of the English football season is downright Byzantine. In addition to regular league play, all 92 teams in the four professional English leagues are invited to at least two inter-league tournaments. These are the League Cup (also currently known as the Carling Cup, for its paid sponsor, this involves just the 92 pro teams) and the FA Cup (which includes these 92, plus hundreds of semi-pro and amateur teams). An American equivalent? None. But imagine: Major League Baseball hosting an ongoing, in-season tournament that included all 30 MLB teams, plus every Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A team. (This would inevitably set up memorable, if hypothetical, showdowns between the Toledo Mud Hens and the New York Yankees. Great theatre, for sure, but not always great competition.)
Additionally, the top eight or nine teams in the Premiership compete in various club tournaments sponsored by UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations). All of these tournaments—both the inter-English and pan-European—run concurrently with the regular season. Oh, and the top footballers play for their king and/or country in qualifying matches for international competitions like the quadrennial World Cup, Euro Cup and Africa Cup of Nations.
To the American sports fan, the most foreign aspect of English football is this little matter of promotion and relegation. From top to bottom, the four professional leagues in England are The Premiership, with twenty teams, and The Championship, League One and League Two, with twenty-four teams each. At the end of each season (in May), the top three or four clubs from the second, third and fourth tiers get promoted to the higher league, while the three or four bottom clubs from the first, second and third tiers face relegation to the next league down. Again, there is nothing comparable in American team sports, but let’s continue with our baseball analogy: the 2008 Seattle Mariners, Washington Nationals, and San Diego Padres? They would be banished to Triple-A for next season, to be replaced by the three best teams from those leagues.
At the end of last season, Hull City, playing in the second-tier Championship league, earned the right to Premiership promotion by wining a one-game playoff against Bristol City at Wembley, England’s iconic national stadium in north London. Besides the pride and prestige of playing in the top-flight, promotion is also a huge financial windfall for the club. According to the website The Political Economy of Football (www.footballeconomy.com), that one win for Hull City A.F.C. will add a projected £44 million in revenue to club coffers, an increase from £16 to £60 million.
Much of that increase derives from lucrative television contracts; the same website cites television-contract figures for last season’s best and worst teams. Premiership champions Manchester United earned £49.3 million, while at the opposite end of the table, last place Derby County collected £29.1 million. (Derby won only one league game, out of 38, thus spending one year in the Premiership before relegation. They limped their way to an abysmal season-total of eleven points—like most soccer leagues, the EPL awards three points for a win, one for a draw—a total which every EPL team this season has already tied or surpassed. So historically awful was their Premiership experience, that the term “Doing a Derby” is now used by soccer scribes to refer to a promoted team who will likely be relegated again after one season.)
There is another financial incentive of playing in the EPL: finish in the top eight or nine, and the club will play in “Europe,” as it’s simply called in fan vernacular, in either the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup tournaments. How much of a boon is this extra competition? Again according to the Political Economy of Football, in addition to their Premiership television-take, Manchester United earned tens of millions of pounds more in television money for winning the Champions League last season.
Then there’s the bump in merchandising money. Some teams design a third uniform, in addition to their home and away kits—shirt, shorts, socks—for exclusive use in European competition. For example, this season, Liverpool, who wear primarily red, and occasionally a gray second jersey, play in the Champions League in an aqua-colored green jersey. Needless to say, this brings in loads of extra money from those fans who just have to have all three jerseys.
Judging by the number of out-of-stock items at their online store, I imagine that Hull City has sold more jerseys and other merchandise this season than any other in their history. (Email entreaties for merchandising-sales data to both club and league officials went unanswered.) Not only is Hull’s home jersey currently sold-out, but so too are many other items one might wear on cool Autumn days, in Hull or New York: fleece zip-ups, track suit-tops, anoraks, scarves, hats, gloves, hoodies, etc.
Back at Nevada Smiths on this sleepy Sunday, there are no Hull jerseys in evidence, but there also don’t seem to be any Hull fans. The cheers in the bar come mostly for Manchester City. The bulk of the EPL matches are played on Saturday, Nevada’s big day; much like the terraces at English stadiums, the bar is packed shoulder-to-shoulder every Saturday morning. But this Sunday, there’s only about twenty people, mostly there for the Hull v Man City match, but a few are here to cheer on a Bundesliga game between Cologne and Werder Bremen. I sit at the bar and watch a sometimes sloppy, mostly entertaining match. Hull, playing at home, leads 1-0, but then falls behind after Man City’s sublime Stephen Ireland nets a pair of first-half goals. Hull rescue a point with a second-half equalizer off a free kick by Brazilian national Geovanni.
I’ve seen my first Hull City match, but have yet to see my first, real-live Hull City jersey. I’ll return to Nevada’s, perhaps for next week’s Hull match (away at Portsmouth, three points and three places below them in the table). The dogged team from east Yorkshire, home to the dour, mid-century poet Philip Larkin and the happier, late-century Housemartins, the club with four of five early-season wins over their wealthier London brethren have won me over. I’ll be pulling for them the rest of the season, hoping they can at least stay up in the Premier League, to continue to earn enough points to avoid “doing a Derby.” No one expects them to win the league but, hopefully they’ll end up at least mid-table. And, who knows, perhaps they can even find a way to sneak into Europe. Can’t a Hull fan dare to dream?