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May 4, 2014

Dust off your passports, the Tigers are in Europe

From Yeovil to Europe. A story that began a decade ago at Huish Park with Hull City’s promotion out of Division Three has now been granted an unlikely chapter on the continent. “Remarkable,” said manager Steve Bruce, the man who has made the last steps possible. Ridiculous, more like.

Everton’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester City on Saturday evening was the talk of the Premier League as Manuel Pellegrini’s side took a giant stride towards the title and in turn assured fourth-placed Arsenal of another season in the Champions League.

Yet there was also ramifications to be felt in East Yorkshire. The Gunners in the Champions League means Hull City, as FA Cup finalists, are sure to be one of the Premier League’s three representatives in the Europa League. Hull City in Europe. Say it a hundred times and it still might not sink in.

It was a fitting week for an all-time high. On Thursday it was the 10th anniversary of this scarcely believable journey beginning in a corner of Somerset, where Ian Ashbee’s late winner earned a 2-1 win over Yeovil Town. That was City’s first promotion since 1985 and the end to the darkest of days that had seen the club teeter on the brink of extinction.

From that big bang at Yeovil has come a whole new universe where its end is still not in sight. Promotions followed in 2005, 2008 and 2013 and precede a first FA Cup final two weeks from now. Europe is the beautiful and unfathomable by-product. Outsiders will view City’s place in the Europa League as an accident waiting to happen for a squad low on numbers, but try telling that to the loyal patrons of Boothferry Park and the KC Stadium. The May Day weekend has been spent researching exactly where their adventures may take them in 2014-15. If you can’t pronounce it, let alone spell it, then all the better.

Anything to forget the ills of Villa Park on Saturday afternoon. City were dreadful in an uncharacteristic demise. Against an Aston Villa side who we were told would lack confidence and guile, the Tigers were soundly beaten to fall to their lowest position in the Premier League since September.

Bruce was asked if the prospect of Europe was enough to cheer him up but it did little more than draw a tiny smile. Bruce accepted the inevitability of the FA Cup final becoming a distraction but it did not prevent him from tearing strips off a lethargic group of players. The warnings were read that any more of those performances could well bring about a Wembley omission. The games at Manchester United and at home to Everton this week provide the chance to fine-tune preparations before facing Arsenal on May 17 and despite both fixtures being rendered academic by the failings of the doomed bottom three, Bruce will pin a clear significance to delivering improvements.

Selecting his best XI or even his best formation has become troublesome. Fresh injuries to James Chester and Sone Aluko could deny Bruce two of his most gifted assets at Wembley, while a lack of form to others will be a worry.

Everything, of course, is relative. Bruce would have chopped off limbs to be in the position he now finds himself if asked in August but he has worked too hard to let this season end on flat notes. Unless they can find a win against either United or Everton they will head back to Wembley without a win since beating Sheffield United in the semifinal there three weeks ago. Bruce is not going back for a day out and craves the return of momentum in the next seven days.

A big week looms but there are still opportunities to revel in these crazy times. Exactly a year on from an absurd conclusion to the Championship season, one that ended with City winning a promotion like no other, the Tigers were granted another term in the top-flight on Sunday afternoon.

It needed a helping hand from Chelsea, who held Norwich to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge, to finally get over the finishing line but the Tigers have shown themselves to be at home in the Premier League all season. Next year, somehow, has the potential to be even more memorable. Now, where’s the passport?