At the time of year traditionally reserved for treasuring memories, counting blessings and celebrating with loved ones, it feels like for the second year running the “FC family” could be a bit guilty of overindulgence.
It’s easy to forget that for a significant proportion of our fan-base, pre 2016 the club had only delivered two major trophies within living memory – the 1991 Premiership and the 2005 Challenge Cup, and both of these experiences were quickly followed up with extended return periods of disappointment and frustration as key players exited and mid table mediocrity (at best) defined our existence.
I suspect I’m therefore not alone in having had the subconscious expectation that this pattern would repeat itself and that the unfettered joy and delirium following our first Wembley win would be followed by a struggle to make the eight, an injury crisis, an off the field scandal or all of the above. Call it defence mechanism, expectation management or simply a method to preserve our own sanity, but avoiding hopes being raised also prevents them from being dashed.
In this context what transpired in 2017 was equally, if not more, miraculous than the 2016 heroics and personally my confidence in the squad to deliver had rarely been higher as the season progressed. With a clear change of strategy away from the “all guns blazing” early season to a more measured, “peak for the cup” mentality with confidence instilled from previous year’s success, it felt throughout that we had the measure of our opposition, even if we didn’t always get the result.
Consistently outperforming media darlings Castleford when going head-to-head, adding a genuine game breaker in Albert Kelly and with Mahe Fonua and Sika Manu pretty much wreaking havoc it felt like finally we had a multi-dimensional squad deserving of its top four place. The leadership group within the squad added a real and consistent grit to the squad; in days gone by when the likes of Fitzgibbon left the pitch there was almost a leadership vacuum with players looking at each other rather than stepping up to lead by example. Now if Ellis went off, we had Houghton, Taylor, Sneyd, Minichiello amongst others all of the mind-set that this was their team and regardless of who was alongside them they’d be able to galvanise the troops.
Clearly all was not plain sailing. Magic Weekend was a shambles and the Headingley Hoodoo is now assuming the proportions of the Wembley one before it. But the loss in this year’s Super League semi final there was a huge contrast to the play-off defeat under Agar, the first of Pearson’s tenure. It felt like we really deserved a seat at Super League’s top table; this wasn’t a one off but the fruition of years of incremental squad building to land a pack as good as any in the competition, two contrasting, excellent halves and a back line with power. The commitment, energy and bloody-minded determination of this year’s cup run was a joy to behold and cemented more memories to savour for a lifetime. All our thanks and good wishes to the club to have made this transformation happen; to every member of the squad, the coaching and conditioning staff who’ve revolutionised us on the field.
However I can’t finish without mentioning and thanking the two people without whom I really believe this would not have been possible. I remember vividly Gareth Ellis’ account of the video call he had with Adam Pearson as he was considering his options for a return to Super League having conquered the NRL. Effectively it took him minutes to decide that Hull FC was the right destination for him, as the ambition AP articulated resonated with him instantly.
In hindsight those few minutes will take on legendary importance as the conversation hat changed our club’s course. So thank you and Merry Christmas to Adam, for creating a compelling vision and having the dogged perseverance to get the team in place to deliver it. And the same season’s greetings and appreciation to our retiring captain. Gratitude for what he’s done to blaze a trail for the club’s playing roster, to rally the troops and drive performance through relentless effort of his own can’t be adequately expressed. Enjoy your retirement Gareth and if you bring a fraction of your playing gravitas to bear in your new club role, I reckon 2018 could be a good one.
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