From taking in the serene setting of the golf course to the sights and sounds of over 10,000 fans, last month Tom Huddlestone announced his return to Hull City and the Sky Bet Championship – where he has made memories to last a lifetime.
More than 500 days after kicking a ball in the professional game, the midfielder’s career came full circle when he returned to East Yorkshire in mid-August, four years after departing Hull City in favour of a move back to to boyhood Club Derby County.
His mental wellbeing took a hit during that isolated period, having spent more than a year out of the game, but the former Tigers skipper always knew where he wanted to be and that was in the Championship.
“I found it tough, to be honest,” he conceded. “There were a couple of spells last year where I was losing enthusiasm to keep myself in shape and almost falling out of love with football and becoming resentful towards watching football. If I was watching football, I was just waiting for that opportunity.
“It was very difficult with the Covid pandemic because it wasn’t like I could even get away and let my hair down, or even go and see family and friends. It was a tough year with the two of those things combined.
“Like a lot of people, I got into cycling – but I don’t think my bike has been out for a while now – and continued to play golf when the courses opened so mentally, the golf for three or four hours just walking around and switching off for a bit was a lifesaver. The Euros helped to get the excitement back for football, too.”
However, the Championship was the preferred destination for Huddlestone, who cited ‘long-term enjoyment’ as his reasoning for pursuing a move back to the second-tier.
“It’s definitely one of the most exciting Leagues in Europe,” he said. “You look at the League table now and you’d maybe say Fulham and West Brom are the two standout teams, and the other 22 places are probably up for grabs.
“In March or April time, I said to myself I wanted another year or two playing, whatever level I had to drop down to, even though I knew I could perform to a good level within the Championship.
“It looked like nothing was going to happen and I had to be proactive in terms of texting the one of the coaches at Hull who I knew from my time before, just to see if there was a possibility to train to improve my fitness and show my qualities.
“I thought I’d be able to gauge after training for two or three weeks whether I could still cut it at Championship level, and whether I still had the enthusiasm and desire. I thought I had and that was confirmed to myself.”
The now-34-year-old is well versed in the ways of the second-tier, having made his Championship debut on the opening day of the 2003/04 campaign.
He later earned a move to the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur in 2005, before becoming re-acquainted with the EFL in 2015/16 when Huddlestone won promotion from the Championship with new team Hull City.
After suffering relegation from the top-flight the season prior, the Tigers – who preserved the makeup of their Premier League squad – bounced back at the first attempt via the Play-Offs.
“Without being overly cocky, I didn’t think we could lose the Final and it’s one of the first games that I’ve gone into it and thought, ‘there’s no way we can lose this’,” Huddlestone recounted. “Not just hoping or wanting to, but I just didn’t think we could lose that match.
“The Semi-Finals against Derby was a different story because they battered us twice in the season in the League games.
“The first game at Pride Park was quite even, but we scored two goals and they had a corner last minute. We broke and Andy Robertson made it 3-0. As nice and comfortable as that was, it almost put is in a tricky position in the second leg because it was: do we sit on the 3-0 lead and if you concede one then so be it? But Derby had our number that year.”
Having overcome his ex-employers Derby in the Semi-Finals on a 3-2 aggregate score-line, 90 minutes stood between Hull and Championship glory, with Sheffield Wednesday masquerading as the final hurdle.
He continued: “It was a strange feeling after the Derby game because we’d reached the Final but everyone was sat there as if we’d been beaten 5-0. Nobody was celebrating and it was quite surreal but we had a bit of time before the Final so we had a couple of days off.
“You realise – along with the Champions League Final – you’ve got one of the biggest games in European football. You’ve got to put getting up to the Premier League out of your mind when you’ve got one game to make the other 48 count.
“Even for the teams that might be comfortably in the bottom half at Christmastime, you know if you can string a little run together, you’ve got half a sniff of promotion by finishing in the top six. Anything that’s gone before is down to three lots of 90 minutes basically.”
And for Huddlestone, there was the added weight of his Hull City future depending on the outcome.
“At the time, it was a tricky position for me,” he explained. “My contract was coming to an end and having spoken to Steve Bruce, it was a case of if we go up, there will be a contract offer there for you but if we don’t go up, there probably won’t be. So, there was a lot riding on it from a personal point of view.
“To achieve something like that felt like a bit of redemption, having been in the squad and the team that got relegated the year before, we had a point to prove to ourselves as a group.
“I say it a little bit tongue-in-cheek but if you’re not going to win the League, you might as well go up via the Play-Offs for the whole experience. The atmosphere and the pressure of those three games is an unbelievable addition to the English game because it adds so much excitement.”
Roll back almost two decades and Huddlestone made an instant impression on the division, going on to be named in the 2004/05 Championship Team of the Year in just his second full season after graduating from the Rams’ youth ranks and rubbing shoulders with some of his childhood greats.
And he has a lot to be thankful for, with the EFL and his respective Clubs paving the way to an international career with England, among other achievements.
“Getting in the Derby team three or four weeks after leaving school was a dream come true. Derby had not long been relegated so it was a case of getting a few of the senior players off the books which opened the gateway for myself to get given that opportunity on a regular basis.
“One of our first games was against Millwall when Dennis Wise was player-manager and I managed to get his shirt afterwards. You had icons that you’d watched for years. For example, watching Paul Ince in Euro ’96 and I was playing against him when he was at Wolves. There were a lot of good senior players in the Championship at the time.”
But for now, the Tigers star turns his attention back to Hull City and the season-in-hand.
“I had a great social media reaction when I was training and then re-signed for the Club which has given me a lot of confidence,” he said. “To be back out there, coming on against Derby and starting against Bournemouth, it makes all the hard work over the last 12 months worthwhile. The fans have always been good with me at Hull and I want to repay that long faith.
“On paper – and in reality – we’ve had a tough start to the season. In the last game, we put in a good performance against a good Bournemouth team who are pushing for promotion and it’s something to build on once the international break is over.
“After the past season I had, the enjoyment factor is back there in terms of going in every day and training, being around the lads, and getting all those competitive juices flowing again.”
With Grant McCann’s men sitting 18th in the second-tier standings and looking to return to winning ways with the help of experienced professional Huddlestone, in his own words, it’s not over until it’s over in the Championship.