When Hull City football club’s Marlon King slotted in a soft shot into the bottom corner of the West Bromwich Albion net two weeks ago, he sealed a comfortable 3-0 win for his club. The match was Hull’s ninth in this year’s Premier League of English football and the victory meant that the Tigers — so called for their striped amber and black jerseys — now found themselves in an unlikely position on the Premier League points table.
Meteoric: Hull’s committed fan base has been amply rewarded by its recent success in the big league. Ian Kington / AFP
By the end of that week’s round of games the Tigers were joint second on points along with Chelsea, behind toppers Liverpool.
After spending over a century languishing in the subordinate leagues, and almost shutting a decade ago, Hull City FC was promoted to this year’s Premier League season with little expectations.
Now fans can barely believe their team’s performance. While it remains to be seen if Hull can maintain its position at the top of the table — there are 27 games left in the season after all — Tigers fans were more than up to their next challenge. After the Albion victory, chants of “Bring on the Chelsea!” rang through the stands (Hull went on to lose that one 3-0 but remain fourth on points after 11 games).
The story, nay fairy tale, of the Tigers is one that plays itself out with utterly satisfying regularity in football. Teams with little money, and no stars, suddenly find themselves pushed into the harsh world of top-flight football. And then, contrary to expectations, the teams play out of their skins.
One such great football fairy tale was that of the little-fancied Italian side Chievo Verona that entered the Italian Serie A in 2001 for the first time. Chievo finished a surprise fifth, and has since remained in the top flight, barring last season.
Hull is not alone in unexpected achievement. Pop across to Germany and another fledgling squad of barely-knowns, 1899 Hoffenheim, is scripting a miracle story of its own. Housed in the small suburb of Hoffenheim and, like Hull City, promoted into the big leagues just this year, Hoffenheim currently leads the German Bundesliga after 11 games.
The 26,000-plus capacity ground Hoffenheim plays in now sells out for matches. Not bad for a suburb that only has around 3,300 inhabitants. Fans of the team are known to appear for games with T-shirts bearing the caption “The entire village is here!”
Success at the highest levels gives Hull and Hoffenheim a chance to earn and invest much more money than before. A team in the English Premier League can expect to make upwards of £30 million (around Rs25 crore) a season in just television fees. One step below, in the lower leagues, that number steeply drops to just over 1 million.
But smaller teams are also prime hunting grounds for the bigger sides that snap up players and coaches with expensive contracts.
“The traditional top teams are also very good at catching up,” warns Radhakrishnan Sreenivasan of TV channel Neo Sports. Sreenivasan, who anchors shows on football and cricket, reckons that unless teams such as Hull reinvent themselves, their novelty will wear off very quickly: “Wigan Athletic and Reading both had great first seasons after promotion and then faded away after that.”
With at least two-thirds of both the English and German seasons still to go, it is too early to say if the Tigers and Hoffenheim will stay on top. But fans will be glad for the likes of Hull and Hoffenheim. The highly corporatized world of club football surely has room in its business plans for the odd underdog and the associated drama.