“I’m not a hero. Them soldiers in Iraq, they’re heroes.”
Through the haze of the music being piped into earphones, I became aware of a voice, a broad Yorkshire accent, and a slightly forced attempt at modesty. It was Dean Windass’ voice. It was coming from someone’s trousers. Worse, it was coming from my trousers.
Cue what was probably only a few seconds of panicky self-consciousness that obviously felt longer. The eyes of a train carriage rattling towards Guildford probably weren’t on me, but it felt as though they were. This is why Dictaphones have ‘hold’ buttons. This is why they should be used, and not just to save battery life. This is why the best place to keep recording devices doesn’t tend to be a jeans pocket, where they can be turned on accidentally. Eventually, fumblingly, this one was turned off.
Windass had been speaking a couple of hours earlier in Wembley’s comparatively cavernous mixed zone. He had not actually been asked to compare himself to members of the armed forces, but military metaphors can abound in football. In any case, his attempts at persuasion probably failed. To thousands from his native Hull, Windass was a hero.
Somewhere along the line, the Championship play-off final has replaced the FA Cup final as the greatest day of the domestic season. It is now all about the money, but still seems to have the importance, the romance and the sense of narrative the older competition used to possess.
Hull City had been formed 65 years before Windass was born and 104 before the day at Wembley that made him the modern-day equivalent of men who determined the destination of the Cup in previous generations.
Created in 1904, promoted to the top flight for the first time in 2008, Hull’s was the sort of story the play-offs tend to produce. Many of the more improbable promotions – Watford in 2006, Burnley in 2009, Blackpool in 2010 and Huddersfield in 2017 – have come via the end-of-season knockout competition. The format seems to favour outsiders. It certainly adds to the drama.
There is a tradition of veteran strikers getting play-off final winners – think Kevin Phillips, Neil Shipperley or Bobby Zamora – or of eccentric journeymen, like Steve Claridge, sending clubs into the Premier League. Windass belonged in both brackets.
Some play-off finals are genuinely great games; Bolton 4 Reading 3 in 1995, for instance, or Charlton 4 Sunderland 4 three years later. Others have great moments or produce great stories. Hull against Bristol City is firmly in that category.
Incidents were few and far between. The exception occurred in the 38th minute when Fraizer Campbell skipped into the penalty area, spun back and chipped a cross to the edge of the box. Windass met it with an emphatic volley that flew past Adriano Basso.
It was a high-class goal. The rough-and-ready image of a former building-site worker should never disguise the way he was a skilled technician, but Windass could camouflage his own craft. With his bleach blond crew cut, he was not growing old gracefully. A few months later, he would contrive to get booked while warming up, ensuring he was not brought on. He was a footballing pensioner with a child-like desire for attention.
There can be talk of average age in sides. Hull had a strike partnership with an average age of 29.5, albeit with an idiosyncratic slant. Campbell was 20. Windass was 39. Each was an inspired signing, Campbell borrowed from Manchester United and Windass bought from Bradford. Nearing middle age, he capped an improbable rise. Four years earlier, Hull, a staple in lists of supposedly crap towns, had a club in the fourth tier, punching below its weight, as it had for much of its first century.
A personal stake, however small, had begun in 2005. Hull were promoted from League One. I went freelance. It was factually accurate to say I was offered work at the KC Stadium. It was probably also true that no one else wanted it. It was a long way from anywhere. It wasn’t anyone’s patch. There wasn’t very much happening, but this was in the era when far more papers felt a duty to cover unexciting Championship clubs. I could fill corners of pages with pieces that were usually angled on Hull’s opponents, who often appeared more colourful.
Hull manager Peter Taylor assembled a big squad with a considerable number of interchangeable League One players. He liked signing players from Port Vale. It felt as though many of the rest had also played for Port Vale or soon would.
Hull finished 18th, a triumph after seeming to spend much of the season in 19th. In a division with three teams who were far worse than them, they were never in much danger of relegation. It probably summed up their dull competence that their campaign began and ended with 0-0 draws. But after back-to-back promotions, quiet consolidation was an achievement, one which resulted in Taylor being lured to Crystal Palace.
I spent less of the subsequent two seasons in East Yorkshire, missing much of Phil Parkinson’s ill-fated reign. Phil Brown was his successor, initially as a caretaker. He had seemed damaged goods after failing at Derby. He had then been passed over for the Bournemouth, Carlisle and Wycombe jobs. He inherited a relegation battle and promptly sent for Windass, then pushing 38, to keep Hull in the Championship.
A man who, two years before his return to City, had already been voted their fourth greatest player, ended up taking them out of it.
Because of Hull’s remoteness, their subsequent rise escaped the attention of some, but they were transformed from the understated club I first encountered. They had been given an injection of charisma. Windass was one quotable curiosity and Brown another. His two predecessors had been cautious in their rhetoric and, in Taylor’s case, his tactics. The bubbly Brown was a fount of ideas, the good, the bad and the ridiculous. He had complete faith in his own judgment.
It was evident he relished being a manager: not just a tactician or a training-ground coach, but every aspect of the job. He liked the publicity. He was a throwback to the days when managers tried to project their characters and when the biggest compliment was to be granted the prefix “Big”, whatever their actual height or waistline.
He steered Hull to third place in his first full season in charge, but there seemed a grim inevitability when they were paired with Watford in the play-off semi-finals. It was oddballs against long balls; surely Aidy Boothroyd’s direct side would prevail. Hull won the first leg 2-0, with the ageing locals Nick Barmby and Windass scoring.
But when Darius Henderson, the epitome of Watford’s ugly approach, put them ahead at the KC, reality seemed set to intervene. Instead Hull scored four goals, their fans mounted three pitch invasions and they were Wembley-bound for what was already the richest game in world football. Viewed today, it seems rather quaint that it was billed as “the £60 million match.”
Windass had cost Hull just £150,000, or 0.25 percent of the prize for promotion. That reward had seemed something of a poisoned chalice when Derby, the previous play-off winners, mustered a mere 11 points and took years to recover. Windass’ goal was a wonderful moment, the culmination of a slow-burner of a career and something that immediately felt special. Hindsight showed it formed part of a broader tale of endearing weirdness.
Seven months later, Brown would be conducting a half-time team talk on the pitch. A few months after that, he marked staying up – and losing to a severely weakened Manchester United side – by singing on the pitch.
And five months after Windass scored in the Wembley sun, Hull were level on points with the team top of the Premier League.