It’s four years since two Spurs midfielders lined up for England in successive friendly matches, eager to show Roy Hodgson that they could become regulars for the Three Lions. Great friends making their way in the game at White Hart Lane, with big dreams for club and country.
For Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, those dreams went unfulfilled. Unlike Eric Dier and Dele Alli, their successors in the Tottenham midfield, there was no seamless transition to the international stage.
Livermore played just once for England, in a friendly against Italy in Switzerland, just a couple of months after Euro 2012. Huddlestone’s international career came to a juddering halt in Stockholm not long afterwards, in a 4-2 defeat to Sweden – the night when Zlatan scored THAT goal, and three more for good measure. Ibrahimovic played a part in ending the England hopes of several players that night. Ryan Shawcross, Steven Caulker and Carl Jenkinson haven’t played for the Three Lions since then either, Caulker despite scoring on his only England appearance. Wilfried Zaha and Leon Osman played just once more.
Had things been different for Huddlestone and Livermore, now 29 and 26 respectively, they could have still been in the Spurs midfield to this day. The fact that they aren't helped to pave the way for the emergence of Dier and Alli, two players who ultimately appear to possess the greater natural talent, and who have taken Tottenham to the next level.
The slide to the Championship
Huddlestone had played pretty regularly for Spurs before injuries started to get in the way – starting home and away against Inter in the Champions League. Livermore had only started seven Premier League matches before his England call-up, but Hodgson clearly felt he had potential. In the end, neither could turn that potential into a long career at the very highest level.
Unimpressed, Andre Villas-Boas allowed both to join Hull within a year of those England appearances – Huddlestone for £5.25m, Livermore initially on loan but then for around £8m a season later. They helped Hull to the FA Cup final in 2014 – one they so nearly won – but things unravelled from there.
For Livermore, that was much to do with the tragic events that followed just days after that Wembley appearance, when his baby son died during birth. The resulting depression saw him turn to cocaine, leading to an FA suspension – just when Hull were fighting relegation from the Premier League, unsuccessfully.
Things haven’t been good for Huddlestone either; dropped from the Tigers starting line-up for a significant period this season, his first outside the top flight since his teenage years with Derby and Wolves. Out of contract in June, it was starting to look like his Hull career was over.
And yet at Wembley, as Hull edged out Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship play-off final, there they were in the Tigers midfield, Huddlestone and Livermore. Back together in the starting line-up in recent times – and now back in the Premier League.
Mohamed Diame rightly took the headlines for his stunning winner, but his colleagues in midfield were similarly influential as Hull looked comfortably the better side, and one more equipped to cope with the top flight next season. Huddlestone was the man directing traffic from a deep-lying role, punching out passes in trademark quarterback fashion. Livermore was never far away, ready to take the ball from his pal and forage forward.
When the game’s only goal went in, the emotion of the day seemed to get the better of Livermore. As Diame and team-mates charged off to celebrate, Livermore stayed right where he was, collapsing to the turf and staying there for what seemed like an age. Huddlestone appeared to offer comforting words, then another ex-Spurs man Michael Dawson volunteered a hug as the match drew to its close. They know everything Livermore has gone through over the past two years.
Tigers been there before
It is players like Huddlestone and Livermore who will give Hull real hope of survival next year; players who have played at the highest level and have considerable Premier League experience. Of the others in the Tigers’ starting line-up at Wembley, Dawson, Diame, Curtis Davies and Ahmed Elmohamady all have well above 100 appearances in the top flight to their name, while leading scorer Abel Hernandez now jets out to represent Uruguay at Copa America.
Together with the emerging Sam Clucas – a former Hereford, Mansfield and Chesterfield midfielder who has gone from the Conference to League Two, League One, the Championship and now the Premier League in successive seasons – they are players who helped Hull beat both Burnley and Middlesbrough 3-0 this season. The Tigers can be erratic, but on their day they are highly capable.
A bigger worry may be a club that appears divided, a club whose problems will not all be solved by promotion. While Sheffield Wednesday were backed by 45,000 fans making one hell of a racket on their first trip to the new Wembley – the last professional club in Yorkshire to pay a visit – Hull had only 26,000 present. Large chunks of the Tigers end went unused, their support drowned out by their counterparts.
“The Sheffield Wednesday support was absolutely magnificent, I thought it would take them over the line if I’m being honest,” admitted Hull boss Steve Bruce, while making no mention of his own club’s fans. Thankfully for Bruce, supporters don’t win matches – players do.
Hull visited Wembley for the FA Cup final two years ago but their lack of support was also perhaps symptomatic of a feeling of discontent among many Hull fans, with the fall-out from Assem Allam’s controversial attempts to change the club’s name to Hull City Tigers seeing average gates at the KC Stadium drop to 17,199 – only the 12th highest in the Championship. Fans have been angered further by a plan to scrap season tickets next season and replace them with a monthly membership scheme, with only a limited number of concession tickets available for youngsters and senior citizens.
Hull need Bruce to stay
Allam is now ill and was not at Wembley for the play-off final, with speculation that a deal to sell the club to new American investors could be close. Even that could pose problems, with Bruce concerned that new owners may want to bring in their own manager. After victory he dropped hints that he wanted reassurances over his future, or he could quit.
A change of manager certainly seems unnecessary at the KC right now. Bruce has guided Hull into the Premier League twice – albeit with a relegation in the middle – and now secured promotion in each of his last four seasons in the Championship. The first two came with Birmingham City.
Pundit Ian Holloway’s suggestion that Manchester United should have considered Bruce for their managerial vacancy over Jose Mourinho might have been stretching it a bit, but the 55-year-old has undoubtedly cemented his reputation as a reliable and successful boss. Should he ever leave Hull, there will be no shortage of takers.
Bruce also indicated that the Tigers must invest and invest wisely in their squad if they are to go into the Premier League with real confidence. They were forced to sell Robbie Brady and James Chester after relegation, and would seemingly need to replace them and add others now they have the funds from the £372 trillion Premier League TV deal at their disposal – enough to sign 10,000 Lionel Messis and rebuild the city of Hull in solid gold. Possibly.
Central midfield could be sorted if Huddlestone signs a new deal, and then both he and Livermore produce the form Bruce knows they are capable of next season. They may not have had the same success as Dier and Alli, but they’ve earned their shot at Premier League redemption.
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