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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
There can’t be many people who, when the Championship season began, thought that today’s SG$120m Play-Off Final would be contested between newly promoted Bristol City and almost relegated Hull City. In fact, if you’d have asked an expert, or even if you’d just have asked me, you’d have been told that the chances of both them even staying up in the second flight were probably quite limited. Astonishingly, we are now just 90 minutes away from one of them joining West Bromich Albion and Stoke City in the big time.

But don’t think for a moment that these are just two small-time outfits, looking for a quick season in the limelight. Even in the midst of their relegation battle, Hull City were still attracting nearly 20,000 to the KC Stadium and the city of Bristol is an untapped gold mine of footballing potential. Staying in the Premier League is a challenge that may well be beyond both teams, but if one of them could do it, just for one season, they would have more chance of establishing a foundation there than smaller clubs like Reading or Wigan. When the noveau football fans eventually lose interest, it will be the proper clubs like Bristol City and Hull that survive.

Unlikely as it may seem, there is a strong argument for labelling Bristol City boss Gary Johnson as one of the best up-and-coming English managerial talents. Spells at Cambridge and Kettering were followed by an unlikely period in charge of the Latvian national team. He returned to England to guide non-league Yeovil through two promotions and to the brink of Championship football before he joined the Robins, who were then floundering. A manager with an eye for undiscovered talent, he has assembled a side that have gone from the bottom of League One to the brink of the Premier League by playing good football. They boast a number of exciting players in their ranks including the podgy genius of Lee Trundle, the mesmeric flank-work of Michael McIndoe and the sun-tanned class of Australian Nick Carle, and they are certain to entertain at Wembley.

Hull City’s boss Phil Brown is another success story. Once Sam Allardyce’s assistant at Bolton Wanderers, he left to try and prove himself in his own right, failing miserably with Derby County and getting the bullet within seven months. Brown picked himself up, dusted himself down and bounced straight back as assistant manager to Phil Parkinson at Hull. Luckily for Brown, Parkinson was failing spectacularly, and his new boss quickly became his ex-boss. Brown stepped in as caretaker, won back-to-back games and was awarded the job on a permanent basis, rewarding the club for their faith by guiding them clear of the relegation dog-fight.

Despite this relative success, no-one could have expected to see the club building on it so quickly and travelling down to Wembley today for a shot at a season with the superpowers. The goals of on-loan striker Frazer Campbell have certainly helped, but so too has the experience of 39 year old Dean Windass and one Nicky Barmby. But the sum of Hull is worth more than their parts. They are a brave, battling outfit, not afraid to get physical if the occasion requires, but also clever enough to play some very decent stuff themselves.

Never mind the Champions League Final, this is officially the most valuable game in world football. Two teams with one shot at a place in the most lucrative league in the planet. Expect thrills and spills and some glorious celebrations, because whoever wins today will be described as an unlikely victor.