Late starters Hull City had finally managed to establish the code of football in the city after a long struggle for recognition. Now they had to prove that they could sustain themselves in the Football League. A botched move to a new ground, Boothferry Park would threaten to hold the club back from reaching the top of the English game.
A Club in Limbo 1930-1946
Hull City, by hook or by crook had managed to establish itself as a viable sporting alternative to rugby league, with a solid, but unspectacular start to life as a football league club. An FA Cup semi-final appearance in 1930, but relegation to the Third Division North had seen the club’s mixed fortunes continue well into the 20th Century.
Despite the fire at their Anlaby Road Ground in 1914, they had managed to retain a home, albeit as tenants to the adjacent Hull Cricket Club. This agreement had worked out far better than their arrangement with Hull FC at the Boulevard and the football team was allowed to flourish, uninhibited by their landlords.
In the mid-1920s though there was trouble brewing. The Anlaby Road sporting complex ran very close to a railway line, but until now this had never been a problem. The land surrounding the line into Hull’s Paragon station, including the football and cricket pitch was owned by the London & North Eastern Railway Company. In 1926, the cricket club was served with a notice that the company wished to get rid of two nearby level crossings. The work in order to do this would cut right across the pitch, making it impossible for sport to be played there. This alerted the board at Hull City into action and plans began to try and find a new home. A short term solution may have been to move back into the Boulevard, but neither party wished to go back to this uneasy arrangement. Other sites were explored for a new ground to be built and during the club’s famous cup run in the 1929-30 season, it was announced that land had been bought at Boothferry Junction, a mile or so further up Anlaby Road. The new stadium would be called Boothferry Park.
The building of this new ground was fraught with difficulties from the outset. Relegation to the Third Division hardly helped and financial problems at the club in the early 30s delayed its construction. The club was now in limbo. Building their new stadium was delayed, while the constant threat of train tracks invading their pitch at any given moment were never too far away, even though the level crossing work had been delayed. A two-week ground closure in 1934, due to crowd trouble further added to the club’s misfortune.
On the field the 1932-3 season brought some happier news as Hull won the Third Division North title by two points to gain promotion back to Division Two. They spent two mediocre seasons in this league before falling back through the trapdoor once again to Division 3 N in May 1936, where they remained both sides of the war.
Due to further financial difficulties, work on Boothferry Park had halted completely, with just the playing surface and parts of the terracing installed. The club remained in limbo and action needed to be taken. A £6,600 loan from the Football League finally meant that work could begin once again with the ground scheduled to be opened in time for the 1941 football season. This mid-decade delay, however, was to prove costly as another unforeseen problem hovered on the horizon- The German Luftwaffe.
Anlaby Road was bombed during the Blitz of Hull and stands were damaged, at a cost of £1,000, which was too expensive to repair. This forced the club to salvage what they could from the old ground and hasten their move to their half-built new stadium. The problem was that being at war meant the construction of Boothferry Park was delayed once again, due to both the scarcity of building materials during the conflict and a lack of manpower to work on the project. This left Hull City FC, temporarily without a home and almost non-existant as a football club, when they had to pull out of the wartime leagues because they could not field a team.
Finally in 1946 the cobbled together Boothferry Park opened, albeit with just one stand and turnstiles salvaged from their old ground. There was a race against time to get the ground ready in time for the resumption of the Football League and Hull’s first fixture against Lincoln in August 1946. At last though, Hull City had a home to call their own. Now at least they could concentrate on footballing matters….
Boothferry Park took 17 years to complete between 1929 to 1946. Picture credit: Roosterrulez wikipedia creative commons
The Raich Carter era and the greatest team never to be promoted? 1946-1972
In the years after the war, Boothferry Park was finally completed and could hold an impressive 55,000 people when full. Its capacity was put into practice when it held its largest ever attendance of 55,019 against Manchester United in the FA Cup of 1949, still a club record to this day. The icing on the cake was the addition of a train station at the back of the East stand, known as the Boothferry Park Halt, which transported fans from Paragon station to the ground from 1951.
This year ushered in a new era for the club, one which would affect the club for generations. Pre-war financial problems were put to bed when the club was bought by The Needler family, who owned a successful gravel company business; not to be confused with the chocolate makers who also operated in the city at this time.
Harry Needler became the chairman and employed the services of Raich Carter as a player and then briefly as a manager in the 1949-50 season. The Inside forward had been capped 13 times by England and had won the FA cup with Sunderland and Derby, but his best years had been hindered by war. Carter is regarded as one of the best players ever to pull on a City shirt, albeit in the depths of the Division Three North. His leadership both on and off the field propelled City from obscurity to promotion contenders during the painful post-war years and helped boost the morale of a city which still lay in rubble after the war.
Carter joined initially as a player for £6,000, but took over from Major Frank Buckley as player-manager in April 1948. The inside left’s performances were drawing the crowd and attendances at Boothferry Park were consistently over 33,000.
The 1948 team built around the now 35 year old Carter won the Third Division North and crowds flocked to see their hero in action, boosting both the popularity of the club and football in the city.
The 1949-50 season saw City finish in a promising 7th position in Division Two, with Carter top-scoring with sixteen goals. For the first time in a generation it looked like Hull City could be going places.
But then…in September 1951, Raich Carter resigned, citing differences between him and the club’s boardroom. He briefly returned as a player and helped inspire City to a surprise 2-0 win at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, but eventually he escaped to the unlikely place of the League of Ireland outfit Cork Athletic. Carter would soon return to Yorkshire and manage Leeds United later in the decade, but it is the City of Hull in which he is most remembered and celebrated. After a largely mixed managerial career he returned to the city and was a regular attender at Boothferry Park, until his death in 1994. In total he made 136 appearances in a Tigers shirt, scoring 57 goals.
In goal was another legend, goalkeeper, Billy Bly, who made 403 appearances for the club between 1938-59. Every pre-season the Billy Bly memorial trophy match is still played to this day between City and North Ferriby in his honour.
With Raich Carter gone, a slump in form ensued,with the club finishing lower and lower in the table as the 50s wore on, until eventually relegation back to Division Three North in 1955-56. The club yo-yoed once again from Divison Two back down to a new national Division Three again by the end of the decade.
In 1961, the club appointed Cliff Britton to be their new manager and armed with an injection of cash from the Needlers, he set about creating a side which would take the club up the football league ladder. Two signings would define an era for City fans. Ken Wagstaff was purchased from Mansfield Town for £40,000 along with midfielder, Ken Houghton. Together with youth product, Chris Chilton they would prove a potent attacking force who would terrorise lower league defences, which would almost..nearly, but not quite propel Hull City to Division One.
Hull stormed to the 3rd Division title in 1965-66, with an unstoppable Wagstaff topping the goalscoring charts with 31 goals. Coupled with this they went on an FA Cup Run to the Quarter Finals, where they finally succumbed to Chelsea in a replay, after giving the Londoners an almighty scare in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.
As the 60s wore on, Hull became more established in Division 2 and consolidated season upon season, until the first campaign of the 1970s. By now Cliff Britton had been moved “upstairs,” to a General manager’s role and Terry Neill was recruited to become player-manager, one of the youngest ever at just 28 years old.
Cheered on by a packed Bunker’s Hill stand, the Tigers sniffed top flight football for the first time in their history. Houghton, to Wagstaff and Chilton! The classic combination were unpicking the lock of every defence in the league. The problem was and a reason cited by older City fans today is that this Hull side lacked the defensive quality to keep enough clean sheets in order to mount a serious title challenge. The monies accrued throughout what was a relatively successful decade for the club was spent on improvements to the ground, rather than on the team. Perhaps this was a hangover from the rushed job that Boothferry Park had been during the war years.
The dawn of the 1970s were to bring new hope and some famous faces to the hallowed turf of Boothferry Park. In pre-season, Hull City had been selected to play in the pre-season tournament, “The Watney Cup,” which comprised of teams who had scored the most goals in their respective divisions, but had neither won the title or were playing in Europe. Their semi-final clash saw the mighty Manchester United come to town, complete with Law, Best and Charlton. The Tigers held them to a creditable 1-1 draw and the tie was decided by a brand new invention which had been introduced by FIFA- the penalty shoot-out. Boothferry Park therefore has the distinction of the first ground in English football to hold a penalty shoot out. The first player to convert a spot kick was one George Best, while Hull keeper, Ian McKechnie missed the decisive penalty to send the visitors through to the final. – Now there’s a good pub quiz question!
Despite the attacking football from the Tigers that season their promotion challenge petered out and they managed to finish 5th in Division Two, the highest since they lost out to Oldham by 0.29 of a goal before the First World War. In the 1970-71 season, City managed another berth in the FA Cup Quarter Finals, going out to Stoke City 2-3 in a cracking cup tie at Boothferry Park. The City team consisting of Wagstaff, Chilton, Ken Houghton, goalkeeper Ian McKechnie, Stuart Pearson and Ian Butler was, for a very long time the most successful and entertaining Hull City team in living memory. For a very very long time, this was about as good as it got for Tigers fans, as Hull City would sink further and further into the mire in the final decades of the 20th Century. It seemed like only a miracle could ever fulfill their dreams of shaking off the tag of being the largest city in Europe, never to have hosted top flight football…
David Goodman “Hull City FC: A History, Amberley Publishing (2014) Chapters 1&2 via Google books
David Clayton “The Hull City Miscellany,” The History Press (2012)