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Mar 6, 2014

Hull out to exorcise quarterfinal demons

The last time East Yorkshire played host to an FA Cup quarter-final, Gordon Banks was the visiting goalkeeper. No, really. Not since Hull City lost 3-2 to Stoke City in March 1971 have the Tigers been this close to a FA Cup semi-final on home soil.

- Report: Pardew fined for Meyler headbutt

Sunderland's visit to the KC Stadium on Sunday is a tie some City supporters have waited 43 years for. Only once, in 2009 when losing 2-1 at Arsenal, has an FA Cup adventure stretched this far.

Now, somehow, it feels like City's time. A kind draw has pitted them against lower league opponents all the way to the last eight, albeit away from home against Middlesbrough, Southend and Brighton, and this weekend's date with a Sunderland side twice conquered in the Premier League again makes them favourites to progress.

That really is a first. This is only City's sixth time in the quarter-finals, but on each previous occasion they have been the firm underdogs to reach the last four. Newcastle United were toppled in 1930 to reach the semi-finals for the one and only time, but every journey this far since has ended in sorry disappointment. Against Manchester United in 1949, Chelsea in 1966, Stoke City in 1971 and Arsenal in 2009, City could not quite overcome the big guns and bowed out fighting.

Those great near misses should at least point towards an overdue change in fortune for City. Lady Luck has seldom been an ally on the FA Cup front and their last three quarter-final exits have all been riddled with controversy.

The defeat to Chelsea in a Boothferry Park replay, four months before England's World Cup win, held no complaints, but the original tie has haunted its veterans. After Ken Wagstaff's late brace had cancelled out goals from George Graham and Bobby Tambling, Cliff Britton's revered City side bemoaned a late decision by referee Jack Taylor to deny the Division Three side a stoppage time penalty. Andy Davidson, the club’s captain, had no reservations in branding Taylor a "cheat".

Five years later, the same sense of injustice befell many of the same players. That 3-2 loss to Stoke at Boothferry Park had much to do with the visitors' fighting quality emerging, but a hotly-contested winner infuriated the locals. As did player manager Terry Neill's disallowed goal that would have earned a replay.

Defeat to Arsenal in 2009 underlined City's luck in the FA Cup. Despite leading for over an hour through Nick Barmby's deflected goal at the Emirates, Robin van Persie's equaliser set up a tense finish that peaked with William Gallas snatching a winner from an offside position. Chaos broke loose as City protested after the game, with Cesc Fabregas accused of spitting at Tigers' assistant boss Brian Horton. Not for the first time, the FA Cup quarter-finals had left a bitter taste in the mouth.

Surely, City's fortune has to change. Surely. A club that has only ever visited once before -- in the 2008 Championship play-off final -- has been handed an invite to return on Sunday, and those elusive FA Cup semi-finals have never felt closer in 84 years.

That's not to take Sunderland lightly, of course. In the two Premier League games between the sides this season City have held a numerical advantage in 132 of the 180 minutes, capitalising with six points that currently provide the difference from City in 12th and Sunderland in 18th. The Tigers won't be alone in hoping for a change in fortune.

But this needs to be City's day with home advantage. Unlike Sunderland, the relegation fears of Steve Bruce have subsided considerably inside the last month and with a free-hit against Manchester City to follow in the Premier League next weekend, there is little sense in resting players for the final 10 games of the season. The romantic stakes are now too high.

The absence of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic, both cup-tied and ineligible, blunts City's attacking options considerably and places a burden on the gifted Sone Aluko, who will partner either Yannick Sagbo or Matty Fryatt. Elsewhere, it would seem flawed for Bruce not to roll out his biggest hitters as City strike for Wembley.

This is the furthest Bruce has been as a manager and the furthest many of his players have been, too. Wembley has appeared on the horizon for them all and a failure to take the last step would only be another chapter in a FA Cup history pockmarked by woe.