Living on the edge
David Meyler and Hull are in a battle that means more than just top flight survival
A friend was once in the same hotel as a Premier League team on the final day of the season. The club needed to win to avoid relegation and as he shared a lift with the players on the morning of the game, he felt their attitude and demeanour would guarantee success.
"Who wants this?" one would roar, to be told by his team-mates that they all wanted it, one thousand per cent. "I am pumped, I am facking pumped," another said. "I'm 'avin' it,'" he added for emphasis. As my friend saw them climbing on to the bus with one final defiant, "We do not lose this!", he was sure they would return victorious, so he was slightly surprised to hear that, in fact, they'd lost 6-0 and had been relegated.
Defiance and positive statements are often all a club can offer as they prepare for a day when they might leave the Premier League. "Pressure is for tyres," David Meyler said at the KC Stadium on Friday, but it's also for humans. It couldn't be any other way, not when there is a human cost to relegation.
This is not the story of the wounded pride of dropping out of the Premier League or the cliche that "nobody wants it on their CV", but as Steve Bruce explained, if Hull City are relegated, people at the club - which may or may not include the manager - will lose their jobs.
Hull has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK, nearly double the national average, and the boarded-up buildings on the road to the KC Stadium tell the story of decline. It used to be very different. Hull was once an industrial force and its port brought trade and later whaling to the area. The fishing industry prospered in the 19th century as fishermen from other parts of England moved to Hull to fish the 'silver pits' in the North Sea and it continued to be central to the city until the war.
The travel writer, Jonathan Raban, wrote many years later that the "fishy culture had settled deep into the brickwork of the city. When the wind blew from the south, one breathed dead fish. Fish got into the drawers of socks and shirts . . . on hot summer afternoons the reek of cod was so thick in the air that one could have bottled it for fish manure. No stranger stepping off the train could possibly have been stupid enough to ask what Hull 'did'. Hull went fishing".
If a stranger steps off a train today, he might not get as simple an answer to the question. On the station concourse, there is an elegant statue of Philip Larkin and a reminder that Hull will be the UK's City of Culture in 2017. Larkin arrived in the city in 1955 - "I like it because it's so far away from everywhere else" - but even today there is the sense of a place where "silence stands like heat".
Two years ago, The Economist caused anger in the city when the magazine said the government should stop trying to save "failing" places like Hull and Middlesbrough and instead help the people who live there to essentially get out.
"It is absolutely disgusting and there is no evidence for any of this," a local councillor said, while a Hull-born contestant on The Apprentice described the article as "insulting".
Five years ago, a local businessman who was born in Egypt, Assem Allam, bought the football club. "I am not a football fan," he told the BBC last year. "I have never been a football fan. But I am a fan of our community, a fan of this city. I bought the club because I didn't want to see it die, I knew it would damage the community if the club failed."
By that stage, Allam had angered supporters with his plan to change the name of the club to Hull Tigers. The plan was rejected by an FA council last year, but Allam won an appeal on a technicality, but he has yet to submit a fresh application. Recently, community groups were upset when they were forced to give up use of the Airco Arena beside Hull's stadium as the club wanted to build a 3G pitch for their academy. Both the KC Stadium and the Airco Arena were built by the council using public money in 2002.
On Friday, Steve Bruce insisted that these things were not an issue as the club fought for survival. "At the moment we can put all these, if you like, side issues out of the equation. We're doing our upmost to make sure that we stay here.
"This is only the fourth year in the club's history that we've been in the top flight and we don't want to lose it." When Shane Long left for Southampton last summer, Hull signed Abel Hernandez for £10m, which brought their spending for the summer close to £40m.
Bruce spoke frequently on Friday about the players who earned Hull promotion in 2013 and how much he can rely on them. This season, he had hoped to rely on those players a little less, but the arrival of Hernandez, Robert Snodgrass, Hatem Ben Arfa, Gaston Ramirez and Mohamed Diame didn't have the effect the club had hoped.
Snodgrass was injured on the opening day of the season, Ben Arfa was released from his season-long loan after three months, while Hernandez went from October to late March without scoring a goal.
Paul McShane, Meyler, Stephen Quinn and Robbie Brady were in the team that drew with Cardiff City to guarantee promotion two years ago and Bruce has needed them again this season.
"Seven or eight of the players who got promotion were in the side that lost at Tottenham and I always know what I'll get from them. They're great lads, but they need a hand, but the big players we brought in fell by the wayside for one reason or another."
Meyler says the players feel the weight of responsibility. "Everybody wants us to do well and we know what's at stake."
It has been a strange season for Meyler. He started for Ireland in Germany, captained his country in the friendly against the USA, but says he is in a "state of shock" at how Hull's season has unfolded. "There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I'd sacrifice things like captaining Ireland if it meant Hull stayed in the Premier League."
Meyler has always been guided by his father, John, a highly respected hurling figure. "I talk to him about four times a day, I think he's got free calls to me. My father is a great mentor, not only a father, but not many people can call their father a good friend.
"I speak to him about anything. Obviously he's a coach in a different sport and he'd be the first to admit that I've taught him a lot and he's taught me a lot. But we know what we've got to do, regardless of what he says, what my friends say. We know we have to beat Manchester United. My mother could tell me that."
Hull ended last season in the FA Cup final and they returned early in the summer to prepare for the Europa League. "I'd rather win this than the FA Cup," Meyler says.
But the long season may have had an effect. They have drawn away at the Etihad and the Emirates and beaten Liverpool at home.
The backing of the supporters will be vital as they attempt to beat Manchester United, while hoping that Newcastle United fail to beat West Ham. "They are an extraordinary fanbase," Bruce said. "They really are terrific. They probably grew up with the club being in the lower regions and that's where it stems from. I've been at clubs where if we'd produced a performance like we did against Burnley a couple of weeks ago, they'd have torn the stands down and rightly so, but they've stayed with the team."
Bruce, of course, has never beaten Manchester United as a manager. He needs his friend, Sam Allardyce, to stop Newcastle United, which shouldn't be difficult if form has anything to do with it. "They're on a terrible run, but the reason we're in the bottom three is because we've been on runs like that, too. It can happen very easily. You never see it coming."
Meyler has had dark days against Manchester United in the past. "Second of May, 2010," he says when asked about the first of two injuries to his knee which threatened his career. He was playing against United for Sunderland that day when he sustained an injury which Bruce, who was his manager at Sunderland at that stage, described as "horrific". In January of the following year, he damaged ligaments in the same knee.
"What can you do? I often say to my father that we all deal with setbacks, but it's how we come out of them that defines who we are as people. There's no point being negative. Look at us all standing here, life could be a lot worse, lads. I know how important Sunday is. It won't be the end of the world if it doesn't go our way, but I was born a winner, it's in my family and I expect my team to win."
The city of Hull and its football team will hope there is a reward today for positive thinking.
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