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Apr 17, 2014

Buoyant Hull ready for FA Cup final preview

Ever since Steve Bruce was Manchester United captain in the early 1990s, he has used a phrase for trips to Wembley. After Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal victory over Sheffield United, the Hull City manager will be “smelling the hot dogs” at least once more. Before that, Premier League safety is the target and a positive result in Sunday’s dress rehearsal with Arsenal can confirm it.

Bruce’s achievements in following last season’s promotion from the Championship have won the admiration of Gunners boss Arsene Wenger. “I believe the real job of a manager is to take the best out of the potential of the team," Wenger told his Thursday news conference. "Steve Bruce has done extremely well. He's one of the remarkable managers of the season because they are safe and Hull have reached the FA Cup final.”

East Yorkshire’s hub used to be known for rugby league, the music of the Housemartins, the art of Throbbing Gristle, and the poetry of Philip Larkin. Until Hull’s 2008 promotion to the Premier League, the city was the largest in population to never have a top-division football club. City were forever “on the edge of things,” as Larkin described his adopted home.

May 17 will still see a city divided; at 5pm BST, the same kickoff time as at Wembley, Hull FC take on Hull Kingston Rovers, in Super League’s Magic Weekend in Manchester. "The fixtures were finalised in January and it's not possible to change now," an unsympathetic Rugby Football League spokesman said this week.

Defender Andy Dawson played in four divisions for City before finishing his time on Humberside last May, after 10 years at the club, including two seasons competing in the Premier League against younger brother Michael, the Tottenham captain. Now player-coach at Scunthorpe United, he pronounces himself “delighted” with his former club’s progress to the Wembley showpiece.

“I have a lot of affection for the club,” Dawson tells ESPN FC. “I still have a lot of friends there, and it's absolutely fantastic for the city. It's an absolutely incredible achievement but it doesn't surprise me. I said after a couple of rounds that I had a feeling their name was on the cup and I hope I'm right.”

Philip Buckingham, ESPN FC’s Hull blogger and Hull Daily Mail correspondent, says the local mood is “incredibly buoyant” in the city at present. “Though there's still a bit of disbelief around,” he adds. “People are thinking that these types of things are not supposed to happen to Hull City.”

The manager is all but granted the freedom of Hull. “People love his honesty,” says Buckingham of Bruce. “He's an engaging man, and understands the roots of the average football fan. There's a warmth about him that makes it incredibly hard to dislike the guy. His man-management does seem to be excellent, his players don't have a bad word to say against him. He gives them all a chance and doesn't sling players to the fringes.”

“I only had one year with him, but he was absolutely fantastic with me,” confirms Dawson. “It was my testimonial, and he did everything he could. He was a great man manager, open and honest.”

Bruce’s success comes against a troublesome backdrop: Egyptian-born owner Assem Allam's attempts to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers, a proposal first introduced in August, were blocked by the Football Association after a controversial fans vote earlier this month. “My personal view is that fans have not been able to enjoy the season as much as they should have,” Buckingham says. “How prominent the issue is blows in and out like the tide.”

Allam’s money saved City from the financial ruin of a two-year stay in the top division blanched by the overspending of previous chairman Paul Duffen. Egyptian émigré and industrialist Allam has lived on Humberside since 1968, but the local businessman wants to take Hull global with a name change he believes can pull in lucrative marketing opportunities around the world. Many fans remain in uproar, while Allam continues to threaten to walk away should he not get his way.

"I understand both sets of arguments, but without the owner we wouldn't be preparing to play in an FA Cup semifinal," offered a diplomatic Bruce in his pre-semifinal news conference. Indeed, Allam funded the summer purchase of Tom Huddlestone, and the January additions of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic, who have all played their part in the club’s success.

But similar chaos has littered the club’s recent history. Fifteen years ago, Hull were in the bottom division, playing in a prehistoric, bombed-out stadium at Boothferry Park, constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and relegation, until a slow-burning revival took them to the promised land in 2008.

Perma-tanned manager Phil Brown staged an impromptu karaoke performance when his team stayed up on the final day of the 2008-09 season, having won just one match since he erred with a half-time Boxing Day team team talk on the pitch in a 5-1 defeat to Manchester City. Despite the club’s subsequent fall, and such antics, Brown remains a popular figure. “He'll always be welcome back here,” says Buckingham of the current Southend United manager.

"He has done a magnificent job as Hull City manager and deserves all the credit he gets,” was Brown’s testimony to Bruce in the Hull Daily Mail last week. The two share something of a mutual admiration society; in the press room at West Ham last month, Bruce enveloped his predecessor in a manly bear hug.

After the regret of losing his job as Sunderland manager in January 2012, Hull have seen Bruce resurrect both his reputation and club. Promotion was only secured in the final minutes of last season, but consistency has kept his team from danger through the campaign. “They have bought some very good players, a lot of quality,” Dawson says. “They beat Liverpool at home [3-1 on Dec. 1]. It will be tough on Arsenal to go there, City are a very difficult team to beat.”

Safety first, then the smell of hotdogs can beckon Bruce and Hull City to Wembley.