Hull seek end to Cup final horrors

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It was JB Priestley who perhaps best caught the singularity of Kingston upon Hull when he described it as “Not quite Yorkshire, not quite anywhere else” in his travelogue English Journey.

Seventy-odd years on, it remains a world unto itself with its own railway franchise, white phone boxes and an official name almost universally shortened to Hull.

If you seek its like, travel up the east coast to Newcastle upon Tyne. Apart from the similarly common shortening of the name, other features shared with Newcastle include trading links with Scandinavia, an emblematic bridge and attachment to sports teams who play in black and white.

Hull rugby league club cannot admittedly match Newcastle United’s command of its city – eastern districts remain devoted to rugby league rivals Hull Kingston Rovers. Each, though, have their own distinctive signature tune – for “Blaydon Races” read “Old Faithful” – and a history blighted by London stadiums.

Hull’s return to league’s greatest day out after a 20- year gap – they play Leeds in Saturday’s Challenge Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff – could not have been better, or more urgently timed. Next year the final returns, after seven years away, to Wembley.

Hull went to Wembley six times between 1960 and 1985, the last four times in the space of five seasons. They won the Cup once – in a replay against Widnes at Elland Road in 1982. As a ground jinx, its closest parallel is Newcastle United’s five FA Cup finals at Crystal Palace in seven seasons from 1905 to 1911. They, too, took the trophy once – beating Barnsley in a replay at Everton in 1910.

Each of those early 1980s defeats was excruciating – the ultimate fans’ horror of losing to Rovers in 1981, coming unstuck as prohibitive favourites against Featherstone in 1983, then losing possibly the greatest final of the lot, against Wigan in 1985. To succeed today Hull must see off not only league’s current dominant force – Leeds – but also a history of Cup defeats that predates the Wembley era. In all they have lost 10 out of 12 Challenge Cup finals, including a hat-trick of losses between 1908 and 1910.

But there are good reasons for optimism in west Hull. The Cup itself has changed, with this final the first to be played in summer rather than spring after a decade in which its traditional late April climax sat incongruously with the new March to October season.

Hull coach John Kear’s bald pate, the most distinctive in the game, conceals formidable contents. This week he has played down his un-Hull-like record in finals, notably his scheming of Sheffield’s victory over Wigan – the greatest shock since 1983 – in 1998.

Rather more relevant is last month’s semi-final victory over holders St Helens which, in a previous incarnation as national coaching organiser, Kear might well have written up as the definitive demonstration of how to beat the game’s greatest big-match performers.

Leeds are no less formidable, but perhaps not the irresistible force of the early season, and they lost 42-10 to Bradford last week. If Kear can deploy his analytical skills to similar effect, and players such as New Zealand veterans Richard Swain and Stephen Kearney, half-back Richard Horne and loose forward Paul Cooke, repeat the sustained intensity displayed against St Helens, there is every chance the Millennium Stadium will be echoing to the unfamiliar sounds of “Old Faithful” come 4pm.

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