Hull City had staved off closure already in the 1982 and enjoyed a brief resurgence under Colin Appleton and Don Robinson (plus Brian Horton) in the middle of the decade. When both men left the club within days of each other in 1989, coupled with the ever changing landscape of English football at the time, Hull City faced an uncertain future. What followed over the next decade was the most unprecedented period of turmoil, which I don’t think any other club in the football league has been through and still lived to tell the tale.
To Hull and Back 1989-1997
The early 1990s was a changing time in football. An era of sink or swim for many football league clubs. If, you had a good chairman, a decent team on the pitch and some money in the bank, your chances of survival were much greater in this brave new world of the post-Taylor Report, Premier League football and Sky Sports.
At Boothferry Park things were not going so well. The late 80s had seen Hull sink lower and lower in the second division, with their best players from earlier that decade moving onto better things. A succession of managers also came and went during this era. Brian Horton was sacked in April ’88, to be succeeded by Eddie Gray and then a returning Colin Appleton. None of these changes sparked any upturn in fortunes, as the Tigers sank to 21st in the 1988-89 season. The game was up for the chairman too. After a home defeat to Brighton Hove Albion in October ’89, Don Robinson resigned, with Colin Appleton soon to follow. The two men who had saved Hull City back in 1982 walked out of Boothferry Park within days of each other.
Owner, Christopher Needler had to act quickly to install a new regime at both boardroom and dugout level. The answer came in the shape of his own brother-in law, Richard Chetham. His first act was to appoint Stan Ternent as manager. Things improved and a 14th place finish in 1989-90 was better than 21st, if anything. A returning Billy Whitehurst and a cup run which ended after giving Liverpool a mighty scare further encouraged the Hull faithful that things were slowly progressing.
The manager was, at this time, being backed in the transfer market by the owner. The recruitment of Peter Swann for £200,000 became a favourite with the fans, unlike the £150,000 capture of misfit David Bamber. In the youth ranks players like Andy Payton came to the fore and top-scored two seasons in a row between 1989-1991. A manager splashing the cash does not always bring results though.
The 1990-91 season took a disastrous turn and the somewhat inevitable happened. Relegation. Ternent had already been shown the door in January ’91 after a poor run of results, but new manager Terry Dolan could not save them from falling into Division Three. In the boardroom, another unforseen change. Chetham had to retire on health grounds, paving the way for an accountant and board member, by the name of Martin Fish to take the reigns as chairman, on behalf of the owner, This brought together the partnership of Dolan and Fish which would dominate the club for the majority of the decade.
If Don Robinson was Delboy, then Martin Fish was Walter Mitty. A quiet, well-intentioned individual, who cared about the club, but ultimately lacked the craft and vision needed by a chairman in the ever shifting sands of 1990s football. Dolan had joined the club after leaving Rochdale under a cloud and was still a relative unknown quantity. Money was a problem too. Investment from the owner dwindled as the decade wore on, into both the team and a now dilapidated Boothferry Park. Attendances were falling, largely due to the declining standard of football and a team put together on a shoestring.
Initially, to their credit, under Dolan’s management, Hull punched above their weight, worked hard and brought through a couple of players which could at least bring some much needed revenue into the club. The first was youth product, Dean Windass, who instantly stood out as a player who could certainly play at a higher lever, the other was Alan Fettis, a goalkeeper snapped up from Northern Irish outfit, Ards. The rest of the team, built around these two were a hotch potch of journeyman footballers, hunches from the non-leagues, the odd youth prospect and a series of month-long loan deals, especially from rivals, Leeds. Another promising youth product, Leigh Jenkinson was jettisoned to Coventry City in order to balance the books in 1993. Finishes of 9th and 8th in the 93-94 and 94-95 seasons respectively, largely down to the goals of Dean Windass brought some air of respectability to the club. To many observers, Dolan was doing his best on the limited resources in which he had been given. The financial constraints on the manager were there for a reason. The club was once again dire straits and letters from the taxman were forming a increasing pile on Fish’s desk. Over the next few years the club would come close to extinction three times as the High Court attempted to wind the club up. As has been revealed since the club were only minutes away from total liquidation.
Raising cash to satisfy the courts had to come in player sales. Their most marketable assets, Windass and Fettis were sold off, some say, for less than their market value. The former was sold for £650,000 to Aberdeen, while Fettis brought in £250,000 much needed readies. After initially supporting and sympathising with the regime, the Hull fans started to turn against their chairman and manager after their two best players had left the club. Finishing bottom of the renamed 2nd Division in the 1995-96 season hardly helped, largely due to the absence of their talismans. The long-ball style of football which Dolan had employed was also brought into question, along with other controversies from the chairman. This included the decision to let Bradford City occupy the home end of Boothferry Park, as the promotion seeking side had brought a large crowd with them from West Yorkshire to the already relegated City. Another was the sale of a historic railway plaque, which had come from the old Boothferry Park halt station, to a private collector in Lincolnshire.
Fourth tier football, some increasingly poorer quality of player wearing the amber and black, coupled with the ongoing lack of investment, bad results on the pitch and by 1997 a real chance that Hull could do the unthinkable and go out of the football league altogether, led to one of the biggest and sustained fan protests against a chairman and football manager in living memory.
A campaign group, “Tigers 2000” made up of hardcore support was set up and material was printed to lead the protests. “Fish Out” posters were put up beside the A63 and beyond. Away grounds and pubs became littered with “Fish Out,” stickers. the more extreme fans even took to some rather nasty tactics to oust the beleaguered chairman and manager, when rotting cod heads were posted through the Fish’s letterbox. A “Sack Dolan” sticker was even placed on the manager’s bald head at an away game against Torquay. English football, the length and breadth of the country now knew about the increasingly nasty “Fish/Dolan Out” campaign.
The club’s decline from a stable Second Division Club in 1987, to the bottom tier of English football in just ten seasons provided fertile ground for discontent, revolt and vitriol; coupled with a poor team and a dilapidated stadium.
Boothferry Park, like many other old football league grounds had been hit severely by the Taylor Report. Whole swathes of unsafe terracing, plus the entire East Stand had been closed due to safety concerns, leaving just the West (“Best Stand”) and the Bunkers Hill end of the ground; plus the miserable supermarket away end being accessible for supporters.This of course had an impact on gate receipts, another primary source of income in an era before merchandising had really taken off. The future of both manager and chairman became untenable and Christopher Needler, also feeling the ire of the supporters, decided to sell the club, finally ending his family’s 40-year association with Hull City. A new era dawned for the Tigers, as the beleaguered chairman and manager left the club upon the sale of the club to a mystery buyer.
False Dawns and Great Escapes 1997-2001
The new owner was former tennis star and gymn entrepeneur, David Lloyd and for a short time some optimism was in the air as the 1997-8 season kicked off. With both Dolan and Fish gone and a multi-millionnaire chairman at the helm it seemed as though all their worries would disappear wiith the stroke of a pen. Instead, Hull City entered into one of its most bizarre and almost fatal periods of its chequered history.
From the well-intentioned, but ultimately out of his depth Fish, to the hard-nosed ruthless millionnaire, Lloyd. One of his first acts was to appoint the untried former England international and ex-Rangers star, Mark Hateley as player-manager. Unfortunately for the Boothferry faithful he was to be no Raich Carter! A 22nd placed finish, only thanks to greater turmoil at Brighton and Doncaster Rovers below them, ensured Football League survival. Amazingly he was allowed to carry on, as off the field problems started to mount once again.
Off the field, the Lloyd era was failing to materialise into little more than a strange war of words played out in the press and aimed directly at Hull City’s fans. It was almost like if Martin Fish was exacting some kind of weird revenge dressed as a millionnaire.tennis entrepeneur!
Throughout the Tiger’s history there had always been an uneasy relationship between the football club and its two rugby playing neighbours, most especially Hull FC, who occupy the same side of the city. Stretching back to the early days of the club and the bad deal they had as tenants of the Boulevard was still in its fabric, even though those days were barely in living memory. Not only that, come Saturday afternoon, for much of their history, Hull had to battle for the sporting public’s attention and where they chose to spend their money on live sport.
The dawn of super league and summer rugby had meant these clashes would happen less and less, but still, FC, who were then known as Hull Sharks, would have an influence on the football club’s future. Lloyd had already bought a share of Hull Sharks and his masterplan was to try and merge the two clubs, in a money-making enterprise which nobody on both sides of the fence wanted or trusted. Threats by Lloyd to close the clubs down if the fans did not back his proposals, along with some rather choice words about the people of the city, led to one of the most famous and effective fan protests ever carried out by any supporters in the world.
The scene, strangely was not “fortress Boothferry,” but the Reebok stadium, home of Bolton Wanderers before a League Cup Tie in 1998. As the bemused home fans looked on, several hundred tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch from the away end, just before kick-off. The protest was one of the most successful in football league history. It was genius, in the sense that David Lloyd was known for being the Davis Cup Captain, so the tennis balls were highly symbolic and crucially it made national headlines. Soon after, Lloyd retracted on his merger plans and sold the club to a local businessman from Scunthorpe (of all places) Tom Belton and two of his henchmen, Nick Buchanan and Stephen Hinchcliffe.
As Belton and co were introduced to the media, coupled with a double page spread featuring them pictured at Hull marina talking about how they were going to take City into the Millennium with a brand new shiny stadium and a ‘winning’ team on the pitch, it turned out that Lloyd still had the keys to the castle. This meant he still owned the ground and could still hold some kind of sway over the club’s future. Belton’s new regime would, as it turned out, be mere tenants at Boothferry Park and rent would have to be paid to Lloyd in order to keep City in their home for the past 53 years.
One of the first acts from the three musketeers was to sack the hapless Hateley, as Hull’s league form at the start of the 1998-9 season had left them bottom of the football league by November. His replacement was the captain of the team, Warren Joyce, a tidy midfielder with an eye for goal and part of the team since 1996. While he was one of City’s better players, he had no managerial experience whatsoever.
What followed on the field is still talked about by older Hull City fans today, even in times of FA Cup Finals and Premier League football. The 1998-99 season should have been the one that saw the club slide into the Conference and potential ruin. Forget being the biggest city to never have had top flight football, they would face the ignominy of being the biggest city not to be in the football league.
When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. Joyce, along with assistant manager, John McGovern, who was brought in to add some experience to the set up, galvanised their limited resources to mount an incredible run of results which would keep Hull City afloat, at least on the field..
Joyce and McGovern recognised that to get themselves out of this unholy mess they needed a team of street fighters, who could battle, scuff, kick and scrap their way to victory. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but it was to be mighty effective. Into the club came midfielder, Gary Brabin, a former nightclub bouncer, Justin Whittle, an ex soldier The combative Mark Greaves was reinstated at centre-back and power was added up front in the shape of Colin Alcide to partner the talented, but physically lacking, David Brown.
Out went some of the Hateley flops, who in their view were considered not tough enough for this league. Initially the team’s poor form continued, but as so often, the seemingly unimportant FA Cup would galvanise the squad as they made it to a third round tie with Aston Villa. Despite a creditable 3-0 loss, it was a game in which City would not look back from. Back to back wins over Rotherham and Hartlepool, the first time they had achieved this in two years got the ball rolling. Further crucial victories at Yorkshrie rivals Halifax, 1-0, Leyton Orient 2-1, Southend 1-0 and Plymouth by the same score propelled the Tigers up to parity with fellow strugglers Scarborough and Carlisle. Then, in April 1999, a showdown with the Seagulls at Boothferry was watched by over 10,000 squashed into what was left of the ground. A 1-1 draw with the seasiders virtually guaranteed survival, something which was confirmed at home to Torquay, where David Brown’s goal ensured the “Great Escape” was complete. That season of course was memorable for the bizarre goings on in the Scarborough- Carlisle game on the final day of the season, in which the loser would be relegated to the Conference. Jimmy Glass, Carlisle’s goalkeeper famously scored an injury time winner to send Scarborough down. Not many football fans outside of East and North Yorkshire remember that for much of the 98-99 season that team should have been Hull City, who finished in a lofty 21st position, five points from safety. Scarborough would go bust just eight years later… Cruel is football.
Along with City’s drama on the field, there was still plenty of shenanigans taking place in the Boothferry Park boardroom. The good cop of the new regime, Tom Belton was to be knifed in the back by his two henchmen, Hinchcliffe and Buchanan in a bloody coup in August ’99. What is more rumours were circling about new chairman, Nick Buchanan’s business practices. Who were these people suddenly running the football club? One thing for sure was they were not laden with cash, nor did they own the ground.
For the next two years it became barely significant what happened on the field of play. A consolidated 14th place in Division Three by the summer of 2000 hardly mattered, because once again the very survival of the football club was in doubt. Despite his hard work, Warren Joyce was shown the door in April 2000 and replaced by the experienced Brian Little.
Throughout this period the things that happened to City off the field is probably a book in itself. Where to start? Several winding up orders by the Inland Revenue for £1m worth of debts, plus an unpaid VAT bill to the tune of £500,000…oh and David Lloyd wanted his rent for the ground…
On surely one of the most bizarre incidents in football league history, Hull City players and staff arrived at work on the morning of 24th May 2000 to find they could not get into the ground or their offices. Whatsmore there were bailiffs sat in the car park. Lloyd had acted swiftly to claim his debts owed to him in rent. He had also wreaked revenge on the club’s refusal to bow down to his merger plans.
Lloyd was paid off and the gates opened once more, but Hull City were far from a “normal” club. Another lock out by Lloyd in February 2001 was a constant reminder of the club’s perilous position, this time with serious consequences. Just days before the club were due to entertain Leyton Orient in the league and hours before their latest high court hearing. What a mess! Hull City were placed in administration and put up for sale. There were no less than twelve potential buyers bidding to take on the poisoned chalice of owning Hull City and by the 8th March the shareholders and administrators had agreed on a buyer.
Four days later, City’s knight in shining armour would be revealed as Adam Pearson, the former commercial director of rivals, Leeds United. Over in West Yorkshire, things couldn’t have been more different. The Whites were punching above their weight to reach the semi finals of the Champions League, although as we now know were merely dancing on a volcano. Pearson had jumped ship from the Titanic into a small fishing boat.
His first mission was to pay the players, who were still owed money in backdated wages. The second thing he needed to do was buy the ground off the hated Lloyd and send his bailiffs packing once and for all. These were the same players who were performing well on the pitch. Little had galvanised his squad to a 6th place finish and a shot at promotion via the playoffs, something the club could only have dreamed about two years ago. Although they lost out 2-1 on aggregate to Leyton Orient in the semi final, progress on the field was finally being made and at least the club was still in existence. With Pearson’s undoubted wealth and further investment in the team promised, plus a Premier League manager at the helm, suddenly the future looked very rosy indeed.
Cover picture credit: Rooster wikipedia creative commons