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Aug 20, 2014

Hull's Europa excitement builds

Hull's fans are taking the chance to see their side in Europe.

Over the years, those who travel away with Hull City have had numerous essential requirements: mental fortitude, gallows humour, prematch refreshments; postmatch refreshments most weeks, too.

No one ever told these fans they may need passports, but now they are required. This week sees the Tigers' second competitive fixture on foreign soil, in Belgium, as they prepare for the UEFA Europa League playoff round -- success in which would see the club enter the group stages, with the attendant glamour and riches; plus a million pounds at stake just for making it through.

All over East Yorkshire, City folk are packing their bags and preparing for a second foray onto the European mainland. It isn't quite an exodus; the qualifying stages of this tournament arrive at breakneck speed, with planning a logistical nightmare -- and anyway, Belgian league side KSC Lokeren's modest arena can house only 1,200 away supporters.

Nonetheless, last week saw City fans queuing from 5 p.m. and right through a sodden evening in order to get their hands on a ticket. Plenty are travelling without one, but why the big interest?

Never underestimate the power of novelty. As Hull enter their fourth season in the Premier League, some of its lustre is wearing off. Any City fan of a reasonable vintage will have seen enough dark days to ensure they never take top-flight football for granted, but it is no longer brand spanking new.

European football does have that shiny newness, and it's no exaggeration to say it has captured the imagination of the city. The club sold out its  third qualifying round home leg against Slovakian side FK AS Trencin, no mean feat given the short notice of the fixture and the opposition.

KSC Lokeren come next, and Hull won't play another side requiring fewer road miles this season -- at under 50 miles, that's less than any side they will encounter in the Premier League. For the uninitiated, Hull's passenger ferries to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge are something of a rite of passage in the city; most people have probably done them at one time or another, and it's the favoured means of travel for many this week.

That helps to explain the clamour: a local bus to the ferry terminal, a short train journey in Belgium, and you're there, with the bulk of the journey undertaken in surroundings more agreeable than anything you'd experience for a domestic fixture.

This soaring interest is important for those who are urging City to take this competition as seriously as possible -- with sellouts at home and a scramble for tickets away, Steve Bruce knows that progress in the Europa League matters to supporters, and in turn will convey that keenness to his side.

He'll also want an improvement on the previous round. As before, Hull are away first, but this time one suspects he'll covet more than a goalless draw. The blank in Slovakia left City vulnerable to an away goal, and they came within 10 minutes of a dismayingly early exit when one arrived. This time, without being excessively cavalier, the Tigers could do with a goal. Any kind of win would present Lokeren with a desperately difficult task back at the KC Stadium, but even a scoring draw at the Daknamstadion would make City strong favourites.

Lokeren should not be discounted, however. The Belgian League may not be particularly strong and there's little doubt Hull's opponents would finish 20th in the Premier League were they to enter it, but they still have enough about them to bloody the nose of any side that takes them lightly.

Luckily, their European experience is surprisingly modest. This is their first game in this season's tournament, while last season saw them immediately exit at the hands of Polish side Viktoria Plzen. They hadn't tasted European action since 2005 prior to that, when they suffered a 6-1 aggregate defeat to Young Boys in the ill-fated Intertoto Cup. This isn't as new to them as to Hull City, but it isn't far off.

Right now, passports are being double-checked all over Hull as they embark upon the latest chapter in a story they were never supposed to write. Let's hope this is just the end of the beginning, and not the beginning of the end.

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