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May 18, 2014

Pride outweighs dejection for tamed Tigers

At roughly the same time as Arsenal were parading the FA Cup through streets of Highbury and Islington on Sunday afternoon, the 12.47 from London Kings Cross rolled into Hull’s Paragon Station. Events of the previous day had threatened to make it a sombre, flat affair. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Although only half a dozen of Hull City’s defeated squad had made the prearranged rail journey back to East Yorkshire, with others choosing to begin family holidays immediately, the returning heroes were greeted by in excess of 600 supporters. Their arrival had not been publicised and only gathered attention through word of mouth on social network sites, but fans felt obliged to say thank you all the same.

The spontaneous show of support was the final act of a wonderful weekend in the life and times of Hull City. The 110-year search for silverware did not meet its end, but pride emphatically outweighed dejection.

- Brewin: Drought over - Bentley: Arsenal must strengthen

City had travelled to Wembley and looked Arsenal in the eye. Only when Aaron Ramsey delivered a 109th-minute winner did Steve Bruce’s side blink. The Gunners had been the better side, controlling possession and slowly releasing air from the tires of their unfancied opponents, but Bruce’s men emerged from a first major final with immense credit.

For all the headlines of a nine-year trophy drought coming to an end, it was as much City’s day as it was Arsenal’s. A club that had only ever reached one FA Cup semifinal before this season (and that was all the way back in 1930) had played their part in an all-time classic. The legs might have failed them but the hearts pumped until the very end. The Tigers always believed in a miracle few thought possible.

For 71 minutes of an engrossing affair there was panic on the streets of north London. The fright began when James Chester and Curtis Davies exposed Arsenal’s mediocre defensive shape to give City a 2-0 lead inside eight minutes. One end of Wembley rejoiced while the other fretted, but both sets of supporters were united in their disbelief.

The reaction was inevitable: Santi Cazorla’s excellent free kick beating Allan McGregor from 25 yards, yet the Tigers would not surrender their lead without a gallant fight. The outstanding Davies typified the resistance, unflappable and calm in the eye of a building storm. He was not alone, either. Alex Bruce and Chester were excellent defensive colleagues, while David Meyler and Stephen Quinn galloped around midfield in a refusal to let Arsenal settle. Matty Fryatt, the man Lukas Podolski had never heard of, was another tireless figure at the head of City’s attack.

By the time Arsenal finally breached the dam through Laurent Koscielny’s close-range finish, the tank had emptied. They deserved extra-time, confirmed by Kieran Gibbs’ dreadful miss, but City had nothing left to give. The one blessing was that it was a moment of class from Ramsey that won it and not the mistake of a fatigued defender. Even then there was a chance to send it to penalties. Sone Aluko’s attempts to find an open goal from a tight angle had hearts leaping into mouths.

The full-time whistle brought one set of players sinking to their knees. The silverware they had dared to dream of had come and gone. The consolation prize was a runners-up medal few expected from their time at the KC Stadium and the respect of a region they had made proud.

A devastated Bruce suggested that was insufficient in the hours that followed defeat, but at some stage of his summer holidays will come the perspective of what he and his side achieved at Wembley. At the end of the club’s greatest season -- Premier League survival and European qualification -- came one of the club’s greatest days. Not bad considering he has only been two years in the job.

So what next? “A holiday,” said Bruce. After that is a season perhaps of even greater excitement. Three weeks after returning for preseason training, City will join the Europa League at the third qualifying round along with Real Sociedad, PSV and Lyon. Supporters cannot wait to learn where a new campaign will begin on July 31.

The summer will be the shortest in City’s history but that will do little to blur the memories of the weekend. For anyone fortunate enough to have been among the 89,345 inside Wembley, they will always have May 17, 2014.