Near Death to Near Glory- 1971-1990
A fifth placed finish in the 1970-71 season had built up hopes around the city that their club could finally achieve top-flight football for the first time in their history. This attacking team, led by the great partnership of Wagstaff and Chilton, supported by the upcoming Stuart Pearson, plus midfielders, Ken Houghton and Ian Butler were setting the Second Division alight.
The first season of the 1970s had been encouraging for Hull City and although they had dropped out of the promotion hunt and finished 5th, they still had something to work with the following season.
As with many sides who bear the “best team outside the top flight” tag , the scouts come flocking to see what all the fuss is about. Chris Chilton’s goalscoring exploits were well known throughout English football and previous offers from both Leeds and Tottenham had been rejected by both player and club. In 1971, however, Chilton was prised away from Boothferry by Coventry City and so the famous strikeforce was broken up. The striker remains the club’s record goalscorer, netting 222 times from 1964 to 1971.
Stuart Pearson would step into Chilton’s shoes for two seasons, before joining Manchester United as part of their Second Division side of ’74. The aging Ken Houghton crossed the Humber to finish his career at Scunthorpe in 1973, while left winger, Ian Butler went up the A1079 to end his career with York City in the same year.
The breakup of this team led, inevitably to a period of mediocrity through the early to mid 70s with the team finishing no higher than 8th in 1975.
Chairman. Harry Needler died suddenly and his son Christopher took over as chairman in 1976, while John Kaye had taken over as manager from Terry Neill in 1974. Needler junior did not share his father’s enthusiasm for football and was rarely seen at home games, which rankled much of the City faithful. He kept a stake in the club right up until 1997, where he still maintained an influence on its future.
The performances on the pitch were declining too and by 1978, after a succession of short term managers, including Bobby Collins, Wilf McGuiness and Ken Houghton, the Tigers were relegated to Division Three.
Relegation brings with it two big problems for any football club. Firstly, players are usually on high wages for the division they are now playing in and secondly declining ticket sales because of the poorer standard of football on view. In Hull’s case there was a third problem; their standing in the city with their sporting public. The late-70s and early 80s was the period of Hull domination of Rugby League, the pinnacle of which came with their big showdown in the Challenge Cup Final of 1980. The city was going Rugby mad, with the cross-river rivalry at its height as both FC and KR consistently challenged for honours, drawing in the crowds along with it. While it is wrong to blame Hull City’s near extinction in the early 80s on rugby league, the fact that it co-incided with the height of FC and KR’s domination of their sport must have had some effect.
The financial situation at the club became increasingly more dire as the whole of the club’s playing staff were put up for sale. Basic equipment such as studs for football boots, in-soles, footballs etc were paid for through a whip round of the players, most of whom did not know whether they would be paid the following month.
In February 1982 the receivers were called in after Hull sank further into the financial mire and the football league when they were relegated to Division 4. Boothferry Park became an empty shell of a ground, with only 4,000 turning up for home matches against the likes of Torquay United, Northampton Town and Rochdale. A symptom of the asset stripping in the club, which would linger as a constant reminder of this grim time was the destruction of the North stand, complete with an imposing clock to make way for a supermarket.
The new “Grandways” end of the ground was completed in 1982 and was now merely the back wall of the supermarket, with a few miserable rows of uncovered terracing in front for away fans to stand on, often getting soaked by the rain blown in off the North Sea. The once expansive car park was covered with new “retail outlets,” and club offices, which vastly reduced the number of available spaces for fans . The once imposing atmosphere of Boothferry Park was never to be the same again.
Despite the ongoing mess around them, the players bonded and finished 8th in the 4th Division. A striker signed from the non-leagues, Les Mutrie became an unlikely hero, when he embarked on a Jamie Vardy-style 9-game goalscoring run of his own, a club record to this day. Mutrie, alongside the free-scoring Gareth Edwards kept the club well away from the bottom of the football league.
By this time, City were under the stewardship of Welsh manager Mike Smith, although his unpopular training regimes divided an already uncertain dressing-room. Smith, used this time of adversity to blood some youngsters, including Brian Marwood, Garry Swann, Garry Roberts and a young midfielder called Steve McClaren. Added to this was the signing of a robust centre forward in the shape of Billy Whithurst, signed from non-league Mexborough Town.
The future of the club was still very much in doubt. Business leaders in Hull showed no interest in taking on the city’s football team and it seemed as if the club was being left to slowly drift away. A funeral march through the streets of Hull was organised by beleaguered supporters, desperate for the press to give their dying club some attention.
Up on the coast, Scarborough FC were enjoying the best years of their otherwise pretty non-descript history. They had won back to back FA Trophies and been on a famous cup run in 1975 where they reached the Third Round Proper, shown live on the BBC. They had also been selected to play in the newly formed “Alliance” League, more commonly known as the Vauxhall Conference. Their chairman was a flamboyant figure, who went by the name of Don Robinson, as highlighted by the BBC cameras no doubt.
By May 1982 a beleaguered Christopher Needler called Robinson and asked whether he was interested in buying Hull City. Robinson made the short trip south in a jiffy and a deal was done. Hull City had a new owner and chairman in the shape of the ex-professional wrestler, rugby league player turned businessman.
This new era at the club would certainly become one of the most interesting ones the city had ever seen. The teacher-like Smith was sacked and Colin Appleton replaced him. City stormed to promotion in 82-83 with the likes of Marwood, Billy Askew and Billy Whitehurst coming to the fore. The chairman became one of the fans, insisting on buying his own season ticket, appearing on the pitch on a white horse and was even seen selling raffle tickets at the Boothery Park Halt railway station, until this closed in 1986.
A marquee signing was made in the shape of former Liverpool legend Emlyn Hughes, who turned out nine times for the Tigers in 1983. A crazy era for the club was confirmed when upon narrow failure to win promotion to Division 2 by one goal in 1984, led to the resignation of Colin Appleton. He was replaced by the then unknown Brian Horton as player manager.
The club continued to move upwards and promotion to Division 2 was secured in 1985 with the formidable Whitehurst top-scoring with 24 goals. Perhaps the pinnacle of the Don Robinson era was the 1985-86 season when Hull finished 6th in Division 2, prompting memories of the Waggy and Chillo days with increasing attendances once again at fortress Boothferry. The profile of the club was ever increasing too. An Anglo-American cup tie against the Tampa Bay Rowdies came with the declaration that he wanted Hull City to become the first football team to play on the moon!
A series of mis-haps and controversies would bring the Robinson juggernaut juddering to a halt. Cult hero Billy Whitehurst was sold to first division Newcastle in 1985 which was poorly received by fans, although he would later return in 1988. An insistence on the traditional amber and black strips to incorporate the red of Scarborough was also a bit of a downer. A sponsorship deal with a local poultry company which involved a photo shoot of Garreth Roberts playing football with a giant turkey further heaped ridicule on this ever more bizarre, but publicity- savvy regime.
Performances on the field were becoming more inconsistent too. A good start to the 1987-88 season saw Hull near the top of the table, but a three month mid-season winless run finally called time on the Horton era in April ’88. He was replaced by Leeds legend, Eddie Gray at the helm. League form failed to improve under his stewardship as City finished 4th from bottom, just one place above relegation in the 88-89 campaign. The highlight of Gray’s tenure was a plum 5th Round FA Cup tie against Liverpool which Hull led 2-1 at half time in front of a bumper crowd of over 20,000 at Boothferry Park. The Reds rallied in the second half to overcome the Tigers 3-2, but not without an almighty scare. Liverpool would of course progress to that fateful FA Cup Semi Final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough…
The Liverpool match of 1989 would mark the end of the Robinson era, but not without one last piece of controversy. In 1990 he was struggling to find a sponsor, so in his wisdom decided to emblazon the word, “Humberside” across the front of the player’s shirts. At the time this manufactured county forced upon the people of East Yorkshire since 1974 was a dirty word, perhaps even a swear word. Ongoing local campaigns to restore the region back to Yorkshire and detatch itself from North Lincolnshire were in full swing. The new shirts were seen as offensive to City fans and the people of East Yorkshire, many of which supported Hull; most especially as they were launched on August 1st, of all days…
The good times couldn’t last forever though and as the sun set on the Robinson era at City ever darker clouds were gathering which would bring Hull City to its knees, only this time it would take more than a flamboyant businessman from Scarborough to save them once again as Hull City and English football moved into a more challenging new era…