Got to get you into my life

Better than a dream

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Rob Hulse raising his fist in the air, celebrating scoring for Leeds

Leeds United’s first season in the Championship after relegation from the Premier League in 2004 was a confusing time for any fan, let alone a kid being taken to Elland Road for the first time. I’d only just started to properly understand who Mark Viduka and Alan Smith were by the time Leeds were falling apart and out of the top flight, into a season in which 37 different players appeared for the club and plenty more came and went without making it onto the pitch.

I’d never heard of Steve Guppy before he scored the first goal I ever saw live at Elland Road, in a 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest. The equally unfamiliar ‘star’ signing, Brett Ormerod, made his Leeds debut on my second visit, wrestling the ball off Jermaine Wright to take a penalty against Sunderland, then missing in a 1-0 defeat. I can’t say I knew much about Wright either, but given he belonged to Leeds as ‘permanently’ as such a transient time allowed, it felt like injustice that Ormerod didn’t let his teammate take the penalty and miss instead.

Michael Ricketts, Julian Joachim, and Danny Cadamarteri weren’t the most electrifying strikeforce to excite a young supporter, but it didn’t matter. I was being taken to my first Leeds games by a school friend and his dad. When I got dropped off home after the Forest game, I immediately scribbled all the chants I’d heard with swear words over the cover of the match programme. I didn’t know who the majority of the players were, but I knew shouting ‘who the fucking hell are you?’ at the away team and their supporters was fucking brilliant.

Fun footballers eventually started arriving. David Healy joined and was capable of finishing the chances that were beyond Ricketts and co. Aaron Lennon began to show up on the right wing, skinning full-backs, destined for the England team. At the start of February, left-back Michael Gray was brought in on loan and wasn’t Stephen Crainey.

A week after getting Gray, Leeds made another loan signing — their eighth of the season. Ormerod had long since returned to Southampton, while Nathan Blake had joined, scored the final goal of his career, ruptured his hamstring, and been sent back to Leicester in the interim. Supporting Leeds at that time was a grounding experience. Given the precedent that had been set, I knew it was wise not to get my hopes up about Rob Hulse, signed on loan from West Brom, even if I was still a couple of weeks away from my 11th birthday.

I’m not sure what I’d have made of Hulse’s signing now. He had been West Brom’s top scorer the previous season, winning promotion to the Premier League, but had struggled with a stomach injury and been reduced to the fringes of their first team. Hulse had rejected a permanent transfer to Stoke because he thought Leeds were a bigger club, at a time when Ken Bates had stopped serving champagne in the boardroom, promising to give the saved costs to the groundsman, and stopped selling match tickets in the North East Upper for the upcoming visit of Reading, hoping to stop fans standing up during the game. If only the hyper-cynicism of the Bates years had set in I’d have been telling Hulse to save himself and go to Stoke. Thankfully I held on to my innocence until I was a couple of weeks away from my 12th birthday.

Hulse’s debut provided the excitement on the pitch to match the thrill of the atmosphere off it. Reading, with Andrew Hughes in midfield, were in the play-offs, while Leeds were still nervously counting their buffer to the relegation zone under Kevin Blackwell. Putting Hulse with Healy up front, Leeds finally had two players who could make league positions seem meaningless: strikers who could score goals. Healy opened the scoring in the first half, bursting onto Lennon’s flick close to the halfway line, leaving two Reading defenders on the floor behind him, and finding the bottom corner. Goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann later moaned that Healy “shinned it”, as if that meant it shouldn’t count.

After barely playing all season, Hulse warned it would take him time to regain his match fitness, and said after the game that he wanted to “crawl” back to the dugout after the first ten minutes. The second half provided his second wind. Ten minutes after the break, he linked up with Healy by the left touchline and drifted inside towards the edge of the penalty area, waiting for a pass. Wright duly knocked the ball back, allowing Hulse to take one touch, then another, then rifle a shot into the far corner. There was now a striker with blonde highlights in his hair, running around Elland Road whirling his shirt in the air. After I’d been introduced to the art of centre-forward play by Michael Ricketts, it was as mind-blowing as Bob Dylan giving The Beatles their first spliff.

I was still high from Hulse’s first goal when, just a few minutes later, he combined with Healy again, the latter arcing a pass over Reading’s defence with the outside of his boot. Pace wasn’t Hulse’s strength so, with a defender catching up with him before he reached the penalty area, he lashed the ball into the top corner from even further out than his first. Presumably this was exactly how it felt seeing Tony Yeboah in a Leeds shirt for the first time.

Afterwards, Leeds assistant Sam Ellis described his new striker’s debut as “better than a dream”. Hulse said:

“It was massively emotional for me. To play and then to score is just the greatest feeling. It’s been an emotional twelve months with injuries and not playing and it was wonderful just to be out there. It’s been a very difficult time and I’ve only got through it because I’ve surrounded myself with people who believe in me — my family and friends — and they’ve played a massive part in keeping me going. It was a great start here at Leeds. But please don’t expect that every week!”

With a few minutes remaining, I left the ground with my friend and his dad so he could beat the traffic home. As we were walking back up Beeston Hill, we heard another celebration and rushed back to the car so the radio could tell us what we’d missed. Substitute Lloyd Owusu had pulled one back for Reading with a cheeky backheel. The relief! I was delighted Reading had scored, not Leeds, not Hulse. If Rob Hulse was scoring goals, then I knew it was something I couldn’t miss. ⬢



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