By Matt Scott
When Hull City were relegated from the Premier League in 2010, it was estimated they were £40 million in the red and on the brink of going out of business. Three years later, the Tigers will return to the big time in the rudest health the club has ever been in.
If they came into the Championship in shambolic fashion, they stumbled out of it in stunning circumstances.
Leading champions Cardiff 2-1 in stoppage time, the Tigers were given a penalty that would add a glorious third to the scoreline. The pitch was invaded prematurely.
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German striker Nick Proschwitz, who had earlier netted just his fifth goal of the season, saw his effort from 12 yards saved by David Marshall. The Bluebirds went up the other end, got a penalty of their own and scored it to leave Hull’s top-flight spot hanging in the balance.
Meanwhile, 200 miles away, Watford still had 15 minutes to play as they took on Leeds, needing a goal to leapfrog Hull and secure a spot in the Premier League. The Hornets failed. Ross McCormack lobbed debutant keeper Jack Bonham to consign Gianfranco Zola’s side to the play-offs and confirm Hull’s place among England’s elite.
Upon gaining control at the KC Stadium in December 2010, Assem Allam said he wanted to "give a present to the fans of Hull City". After the 73-year-old cleared the club’s debts, paid a £1m tax bill with his own money and financed a squad that has delivered Premier League football, it would be fair to say the Egyptian has delivered one heck of a gift-wrapped time to the Tigers’ faithful.
It's not been plain sailing, though.
Two campaigns of squad rebuilding and consolidation under Nigel Pearson and Nick Barmby looked to be ruined at the end of last season as the former England midfielder was dismissed by his home-town club for questioning the financial backing he had received from Allam, compared to what had been promised.
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A club legend had been disposed of. Uncertainty swelled across supporters' message boards. A mooted move from the KC Stadium, after just a decade there, looked to be an expensive and unnecessary plan. Steve Bruce was hired and seen by many as another costly gamble that could see the club plunged back into crisis.
It turns out Hull and Bruce are a perfect fit. Looking to rebuild a fractured reputation after being sacked by Sunderland, the former defender immediately targeted his own top-flight comeback.
The day he was hired, Bruce said: "I'm looking to bring back the Premier League days if we possibly can, that's the reason I'm sitting here, for the challenge of it."
Questions remained. Did Bruce still have the passion for a battle in the second tier? How was his knowledge of the level after spending the best part of a decade away?
Nobody need have bothered asking. Summer recruits Sone Aluko, Ahmed Elmohamady and Stephen Quinn became mainstays. The Egyptian, brought in on loan from the Stadium of Light, proved to be crucial as Bruce set his side out in a hugely effective 3-5-2 system.
A run of eight matches without defeat at the back end of 2012 propelled Hull into second, a position they would hold until five games from the final day.
With promotion a possibility, Bruce proved his transfer nous again, backed by Allam. David Meyler was brought down from Wearside in exchange for £1.5m to add presence and stamina to the midfield.
Peterborough favourite George Boyd and Egypt striker Gedo boosted a flagging goal tally after Aluko picked up a season-ending Achilles injury in March.
It may not have been pretty - 22 percent of Hull’s Championship games ended in 2-1 wins, whle 17% resulted in 1-0 successes - but Bruce and the club have proven many wrong.
With a tremble to his voice after seeing his third promotion to the top-flight as a manager confirmed, the 52-year-old placed his latest triumph above any previous achievements.
He beamed: "Overall, over the 15 years I've been doing it, this is the biggest one because nobody gave us a chance. It's just absolutely, totally ridiculous.
"I've said for weeks there's going to be twists and turns and by God there was nearly big twists and turns. I've never witnessed or experienced anything like that."
Bruce can ill-afford to relax, however. Loanees have made a huge impact at the club this term, but first-choice goalkeeper David Stockdale, Elmohamady, Boyd and Gedo are yet to have their long-term futures officially sealed in east Yorkshire. However, having turned the temporary deals of Meyler and winger Robbie Brady to long-term signings in recent years, a good precedent has been set.
The Tigers were promoted with a goal difference of just plus nine and must find a regular scorer for the top-flight. Gedo and Aluko have done well in fits and bursts, but both players’ fitness is anything but consistent.
The disastrous results of the Tigers’ previous trip to the Premier League, and a hardwired expectation of the worst, could lead to many supporters quickly forgetting the euphoria of promotion and seeing the top flight with dread.
But, for now at least, in the offices of owner and manager at the KC Stadium, the smiles will stretch as wide as the Humber Bridge.
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