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May 24, 2008

Windass sends Hull to promised land

Hull City 1-0 Bristol City

It had to be him. It just had to be. North Ferriby and Wembley are as far apart as, for much of their existence, Hull and the Premier League have been, but Dean Windass' career has been an exercise in the unlikely.

He saved the most improbable development until last, however, delivering the most glorious swing of a right boot in Hull's history. Come the final whistle and the guarantee of top-flight football, Windass led the charge towards his supporters, before collapsing to the turf.

In many respects, it was the culmination of a career. His has been a life that, besides three stints at Hull, takes in North Ferriby United and bricklaying. Without him, Hull would not even have the foundations of a club. Twice he has been their saviour, his sale to Aberdeen in 1995 ensuring the club's continued existence and his goals last season preventing an unwanted return to League One. His is a unique tale, surely never to be repeated.

Some would say that is a good thing, but Windass is a one-man answer to suggestions there are no characters left in the game. As befits a 39-year-old who numbers lager among his interests, the ageing eccentric is an antidote to the studied blandness of many who have followed more conventional paths to the Premier League.

Irrepressible as ever, his dishevelled charisma helped take Hull there. Such pace as he had has gone and even in the first half, he had appeared to be puffing heavily. This, it seemed, was one game too many. Nonetheless when Nick Barmby released Fraizer Campbell and the on-loan Manchester United forward evaded two would-be challengers before showing the composure to deliver a measured cross, Windass met. The sweetest of volleys was a reminder that he is a gifted technician, something his antics have often obscured.

It was his 201st career goal, though longevity is not accompanied by dignity. Some notions are anathema to Windass. Growing old gracefully appears to be one, judging from the 39-year-old's decision to dye his hair blond. Retiring is another, and the man Phil Brown has jokingly insisted wants to break Stanley Matthews' record and become the oldest player in the Football League, is on the verge of joining an exclusive club.

Only Gordon Strachan and Teddy Sheringham have played Premier League football after their 40th birthday. Should Windass do that he, like Hull, will merit recognition.

As a city and a football club, it is hard to get more unfashionable than Hull. It is an ever present on lists of crap towns. When it was flooded last summer, there was a sense that much of the rest of the country neither noticed nor cared. Now the cliché of putting the club on the map applies. On the tube journey to Wembley, a group of Tigers supporters had to explain to an Australian where Hull is.

So it was appropriate that Windass scored the winner. A vocal defender of his birthplace, his loyalty is not just to the club. Some would deem 'Mr Hull' a double-edged comment. Windass would regard it as a compliment. So, too, would Barmby, the other hometown boy.

'It was written by the Gods. It was either going to be Dean Windass or Nicky Barmby,' said Brown. 'It is very fitting that Dean Windass got the winning goal.'

Windass added: 'It feels unbelievable. I don't think there is anyone left in Hull today looking at how many supporters we've got here. To score the winning goal is fantastic. We've worked hard from the start of the season and we've got our rewards for that.'

The concern for Hull lies with the precedent and there are parallels with Derby. They, too, had a three-year plan and went up in one. Brown, Sam Allardyce's long-time assistant, concentrated on his former club instead.

'That's the model now, Bolton Wanderers. Everyone talks about Derby, but the model is the success stories of Bolton, Portsmouth and Reading,' he insisted. Few expected Reading, or indeed Wigan, to make the Premier League. Fewer still thought Hull would, but as clubs from two of English football's forgotten outposts met, this particular tale of two cities culminating in, rather than Dickensian poverty, enormous wealth. For Hull, the prize is worth £60 million. For Bristol City, the consolation prize is another year in the Championship.

Manager Gary Johnson said: 'It took a brilliant goal to beat us from a vastly experienced player. In all other respects there was nothing between the teams. We've only been in the Championship one year and with some fine-tuning and one or two new players we'll be ready for the challenge next season.'

Hull's challenge - surviving in the Premier League - is bigger still.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Turner - One magnificent late block to deny Lee Trundle was an indication of why Turner scooped Hull's Player of the Year awards.

BRISTOL CITY VERDICT: They actually created the more chances and played much of the better football. Like Hull, they have surpassed expectations. To get automatic promotion next year, however, a more clinical goalscorer may be required.

HULL CITY VERDICT: The question that will now be asked is how many Premier League footballers they possess. Arguably the best is Campbell, but he is only on loan. The goalkeeper Boaz Myhill also qualifies as, probably, does Turner. That still leaves plenty of work for Brown to do in the summer. The sentimental will hope to see Myhill, left-back Andy Dawson and captain Ian Ashbee in the Premier League, along with Windass and Barmby. The pragmatists may not.


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