Those who watch the FA Cup for the romance might not have been too happy with Hull City's semifinal victory over Sheffield United. At the moment the fourth goal went in, millions of "Will Nigel Clough Complete the Family Silverware?" opinion pieces cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. Coming just the day after Arsenal managed to avoid making an Arsenal of themselves, and while the title race was unfolding elsewhere in the country, their advancement to a first-ever Cup final happened almost on the quiet.
In some ways, that's been the story of Hull's season. Preseason predictions are always a ridiculous business, but the presumption was near-unanimous that Hull would immediately return from whence they came. Yet the admirable and capable manner in which they've set about proving those predictions wrong -- with five games left they sit in 13th, six points clear of the relegation zone with plenty of inferior teams below them -- has been overshadowed by the rumbling argument over whether their owner, Assem Allam, should be allowed to change their name to reflect his own personal tastes in branding.
Now that Allam's been told that he can't have his own way, let's correct that. Even if they lose the FA Cup final -- and, let's face it, the possibility remains that Arsenal only avoided making an Arsenal of themselves in order to make an even larger Arsenal of themselves later on -- Hull have had an excellent season that has surpassed the expectations of many, perhaps even themselves. And in doing so, have thoroughly restored the standing of their manager Steve Bruce.
In a world where managers are either brilliant or dreadful, Bruce is something of an interesting case. After his early years in management, when he became notorious for hopping from job to job, he seems to have settled down, and leaving aside the miserable end of his time with Sunderland -- and the sacking which he has blamed in part on his being a Newcastle fan -- his record at Birmingham (promotion to the Premier League, three straight mid-table finishes, then relegation followed by immediate re-promotion), Wigan (Premier League survival, then 11th place) and now Hull is one of fairly consistent (if not entirely glamorous) achievement.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Hull this season has been their marked success in the transfer market. Their summer business was largely excellent: Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore added class to the midfield; Ahmed Elmohamady and Maynor Figueroa knew the manager and the league; Curtis Davies has been a revelation in defence; and Allan McGregor, former Rangers keeper, was remarkable value at just £1.5m from Besiktas. While Danny Graham was predictably ineffective up front, the double outlay in January on Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long proved masterful; with six goals between them in the eight games they've started, the former no longer looks the ghost of the player he was at Everton, while West Brom's decision to let the latter go looks less explicable with each passing game.
These players have been used wisely, but also with variety; Bruce began the season with a back four, before reintroducing the back three that had proved successful when chasing promotion. And while there have been slip-ups -- their failure to capitalise on Vincent Kompany's red card while playing at home against Manchester City sticks out as a missed opportunity -- the general theme has been one of clever, imaginative, responsive management. Huddlestone, at the heart of the midfield, has been effusive in his praise of Bruce -- "I think the manager has been brilliant with the players he has brought in and the way he has utilised the squad." -- and on the evidence available, that stands as something more than simply Man Praises Boss, World Keeps Turning.
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Talking to the Guardian before the semifinal, Bruce reflected on his changed personality: "I don't think I lose my temper as often as I used to now but, back then, I needed someone with grey hair, with experience, to help me, to tell me certain things didn't matter, didn't make a difference. Today I'm the one with grey hair." He has also commented that starting in the Championship with Hull gave him a freedom to experiment with his side, allowed him to move beyond the simple need to avoid defeat, to survive, that is the lot of most of the bottom half of the Premier League.
It would be pleasingly paradoxical if the fact of starting outside the Premier League left Bruce better prepared to survive within it. Certainly, this older, wiser Bruce strikes a contrast to the last time Hull ventured into the top flight. Then, the entirely magnificent, entirely preposterous Phil Brown strode into the Premier League, loudly declared that he didn't see what all the fuss was about, and promptly set about embarrassing first his supposed betters and then himself. Twenty points from their first nine games -- including famous back-to-back away wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur -- had them sitting in third at the end of October; 15 further points from the rest of the season saw them finish in 17th, evading relegation by a single point.
Bar disaster, there should be no such plummet this season, and it looks -- another prediction, yes -- as though the foundations and the spine of the team will be in place for the seasons to come. Events at the top of the league will presumably see the Manager of the Year award go to Anfield, but Bruce has surely earned himself the right to be mentioned in the conversation. And that's without the FA Cup final being taken into account: should Hull manage to upset Arsenal in the final, it'll be one of the more remarkable footballing achievements of the last few years, as well as very, very funny.
But even if they miss out on silverware, at the very least Bruce has dispelled the image that followed him out of Sunderland: that he was unimaginative, inflexible and tactically retrograde; that he was poisonously old-school. Indeed, perhaps Hull's biggest concern at the moment should be that Alan Pardew continues to pillock himself into oblivion. Bruce has been linked with St. James' Park before, and is now a more attractive proposition than ever.