The Championship Play-Offs: Hull’s Fractured Relationships
There seems to be an inherent contradiction at the heart of the Football League Championship play-off final. In the hours and days building up to the match, commentators are very quick to tell us just how much a place in the Premier League will be worth to the winners. A combination of the continuing upward spike in the value of contract revenues and the apparently infinite capacity of broadcasters to over-hype whatever is put in front of them has ensured this, and there is an entertaining game to be had in guessing what the most outrageously over the top back of a cigarette packet mathematics to appear amongst the back pages of the tabloids on the morning of the match itself. A gazillion pounds per year? Why not? I mean, who really cares if “a gazillion” isn’t even a real number. It sounds impressive.
Somehow or other, we’ve all been blinded by these numbers. We ooh and aah at them as if they’re fireworks exploding in a night sky rather than asking not unreasonable questions concerning why Premier League football clubs should receive such offensively huge amounts of money whilst the rest have to scratch around in the dirt for the apparent benefits of football’s version of trickledown economics. But these numbers aren’t meaningless. They are very big numbers and, whilst the difference between watching a team bumbling around the bottom of the Premier League and scrapping away at the top of the Football League Championship might be close to academic at a club like Hull City, who have performed a reasonable amount of bouncing between the top two divisions in recent years, but it certainly matters to the players, who may have bonuses, better contract terms and much more riding on it all on top of the quaintly outdated concept of “professional pride”. Small wonder, then, that the match itself usually ends up being such a travesty.
This year, it was Sheffield Wednesday’s turn to freeze on the day. They took more than 44,000 supporters to Wembley, a turn-out that does the club considerable credit, but on the whole the team, which had been effective and clinical in finishing off Brighton & Hove Albion in the semi-finals, failed to turn up for this match, barely troubling the Hull goal and only really threatening with a snap shot in stoppage-time which might on another day have made for a mightily unfairly given penalty kick but didn’t on this occasion. Hull City, on the other hand, had a few half-decent chances and hit the outside of the post before a seventy-second minute goal from Mohamed Diame, who was probably the best player on the pitch over the course of the ninety minutes, sailed over the Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and in. Westwood, who up to that point had been excellent in providing what felt at times like a one-man resistance to Hull’s attacking endeavours, deserved better than to be beaten from distance for the only goal of the game.
The vast size of the Sheffield Wednesday support served to emphasise the number of empty seats at the other end of the pitch. Hull City took 25,000 supporters to Wembley themselves, and those who didn’t bother to take the time to think about this at all seemed to take it as proof the club’s “small club” status – for yes, there are people for whom such concepts are somehow important – rather than consider the reasoning as to why this might be. The Football League’s timing of a five o’clock kick-off on a Saturday evening – because floating voter television viewers who can’t be persuaded to watch are way more important than those who pay through the nose to attend them, as we all know and are repeatedly reminded of by schedulers – probably didn’t help, and it’s unlikely that the cost of tickets – a bargain, at between £36 and £98 – did either. Add to that the cost of Saturday evening trains from London and, because football supporters can’t be trusted to consume alcohol without setting each other on fire, tipping the train over on its side as it approaches a sharp bend, or something, those trains were “dry”, and the idea of travelling all that way to London to be treated as an open wallet who aren’t trusted to behave like adults starts to become somewhat less appealing.
On top of all of this, there are further complications at Hull City, of course. For one thing, supporters could initially only apply for tickets if they were season tickets holders, though season ticket holders could apply for three tickets each. This meant that supporters who might have been season ticket holders with good reason – ie, an inability to get to matches every other weekend for whatever reason – couldn’t initially purchase tickets. And on top of all this, there remains considerable disquiet at the way in which the Allam family has been running the club, with wounds sewn the time of the owners’ weirdly determined attempts to get the club’s name changed to “Hull Tigers” or “Hull City Tigers” despite significant opposition from supporters and the FA blocking the attempts. Even now, when some supporters had to be relocated within Wembley Stadium for this match, the letter sent to those affected led with “Dear Hull City Tigers Supporter”.
Assem Allam wasn’t at Wembley Stadium this afternoon. He is said to be “seriously ill”, although no-one seems to identify what the affliction that he is suffering with is at present. The relative lack of sympathy for his condition, of course, tells its own story about the deterioration in the relationship between those that run the club and its supporters. Having been up for sale for the last couple of years, it was reported last week that takeover talks had finally started, though what stage they’re at and – more crucially than anything else – who they’re being held with have not thus far been made public. There are two ways to view this afternoon’s result from that particular perspective. Those who prefer their glasses half-full might suggest that a place in the Premier League obviously makes the club a more saleable prospect.
Those of a less sanguine complexion, however, might well argue that rejoining the Premier League at this of all times offers a considerably greater incentive to the Allams to stay at the club, with more money than ever pouring through its accounts with the Premier League’s new television contract kicking in and the Premier League being more likely to bring in more of the “new” type of supporter who care little for tradition when they can sit in a bowl watching happy-clappy top flight entertainment. The costs of the things that members of the Allam family said at the time that they were trying to crowbar through the name change have not been forgotten, and it’s unlikely that they will be for the time being. Small wonder, then, that there were empty seats in Hull’s end at Wembley Stadium this afternoon, bonds lost forever in the face of modern football club ownership.