Perhaps of all the Yorkshire football clubs, Hull City has faced the biggest battle for attention from its local sporting public. Caught between one of the fiercest rugby rivalries in the country, Hull’s football team has constantly had to adapt in order to survive.
A City of Amateurs
It may seem surprising, but the city of Hull made a contribution to the very roots of the English game. This comes in the shape of Ebeneezer Cobb-Morley. He was born on Princess Street, Hull in 1831, but his family relocated to London in the 1850s. It was here that the qualified solicitor, and became involved with football when he helped to found Barnes amateur football club. He was a strong believer in having a strong set of rules for the sport, which should be written down and adhered to. It was this will which led Cobb-Morley to draft the first FA rules for football in 1863. This led to the famous meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in London, which led to the formation of the Football Association. He was a decent player himself and scored a goal in one of the inter-code matches for London against Sheffield in 1866. While Sheffield can rightly lay claim to having a strong influence on the rules of Association Football, it is perhaps a little known fact that much of the original FA rules were written by a man from Hull.
Back in his home city, football had yet to take off. The city was dominated by rugby, after the formation of Hull FC in 1865 and most of the locals followed them. Then, in 1882 came Hull Kingston Rovers, which eventually divided the city on either sides of the river, East and West. During this time Hull, rather like Leeds, had a string of small amateur football clubs, but not one all encompassing one which would represent the city as a whole.
There are several claims made about who is the oldest football club in Hull. One of the favorites is Hull Town, which formed in 1879 by members of a cricket club in the same name to occupy them during the winter months. This club actually appeared in the 1883-4 and 1885 FA Cups, succumbing to local opposition in Grimsby and Lincoln respectively in the early rounds. Town eventually faded into oblivion by 1889, despite a brief re-emergence in the mid-1890s. Other amateur clubs came and went, such as Hull Brunswick and Albany Soccer Club, which were for a time associated with Hull KR, as the city grappled with the process of forming a professional team for the football league. Out of the ashes of several amateur clubs emerged the strangely named Hull Comets, which seems about 100 years before its time (and a name Mr Allam would approve of I’m sure.) The Comets became successful in the phalanx of local leagues and cup competitions either side of the Humber. In their first season they won nineteen out of twenty-four games and over the next few years became a dominant force among the 51 registered amateur clubs in the Hull area. One of the club’s principle rules was that they should always wear an amber and black home kit. At this point in time, while other Yorkshire teams, such as Sheffield Wednesday, were challenging for the FA Cup, the Hull Comets were competing with local teams like Hessle and Withernsea for trophies such as the Beverley Hospital Cup! The question in the city was if a professional club was formed in Hull, would anyone actually turn up and watch? As quoted in David Goodman’s book, “Hull City AFC A History,” Amberley (2014) Ch1, “Unless the public will support such clubs like Comet they cannot expect “real” football to flourish in the city.”
By 1901 there were 1,100 registered players in Hull, spread over the 51 local amateur teams. Hull Comets changed their name to the more drab, Hull Association FC. The re-named team made it to the final of the Hull Times Cup against Grimsby West Marsh Social. The showdown was held at the Boulevard, home of Hull FC. This attracted a crowd of 2,000, partly due to it being also a charity game to raise money for the victim’s families of those killed at a Scotland v England match at Ibrox due to a stand collapse.
This turnout further encouraged a “proper” Hull football team to be created. In 1902,the name was changed to Hull City and the club cemented themselves as a dominant force in the local leagues. They won the Beverley Hospital Cup, the East Riding Senior League and made it to the latter stages of both the Hull Times Cup and the Scarborough & East Riding Cup. Some believed it was only a matter of time before Hull City became their representative in the Football League.
A meeting on the 28th June 1904, resulted in the formation of Hull City AFC. A deal was struck with Hull FC for City to become tenants at the Boulevard for a £100 per year.
Application for membership of the Football League was still a long way off. First of all needed a credible home ground and a professional playing squad, who would be able to compete with other more established clubs.
Recruitment adverts went out across the country to entice players to move up to East Yorkshire and turn out for the fledgling club. How many would respond?
The Early Years and Acceptance into the Football League
Hull City AFC, not for the last time in their history, had landlord issues. The attitude of the two rugby clubs, backed by the Northern Union did not look kindly on this new sporting institution in the city. Their view was that rugby was the more established code in the area and that the public would always choose this sport over football if given the choice. They were also determined that Hull would never become like Bradford, where football had taken over like when Manningham RLFC became Bradford City FC. They poured scorn on Hull City’s ambitions to become a football league club and surmised that the city’s isolated geographical position and lack of a proper fanbase would ensure any application for a place in the Football League would be rejected by the FA.
In consequence, Hull FC refused to move their own fixtures in order to accommodate Hull City’s needs to host high profile matches to support any future application for a place in the Football League, build up a fanbase and give the players who had answered their adverts, a run out. The football dream in Hull was in danger of ending before it had even started.
The recruitment process had gone well though and several players had joined from established football league clubs, such as Geordie Spence, the former Preston and Southampton captain, Jimmy Whitehouse, a keeper from Aston Villa, joined by enough players with football league experience to form a credible squad.
During the 1904-5 season, Hull played 44 friendly matches, the first of which was against the former Football League champions and one of the oldest clubs, Notts County. The club were eager to impress the Hull public and were determined to put on a show. Pouring rain threatened to dampen the occasion, but a crowd of 600 mainly curious rugby fans turned up to watch this “new” code being played. The basic rules of the game were put on posters around the ground and in the free match programme for those watching football for the first time. The result was a 2-2 draw, with the visitors leaving impressed that football in Hull had potential. Another high profile match was a game with another newly formed Yorkshire team, Leeds City. Both cities would meet on several occasions over the years in their ambitions to climb the football league ladder.
The early years of the club have also thrown up myths about what colour kit the early Hull City teams wore. There is evidence to suggest that during the “friendly season of 1904 they wore a white kit, before adopting the now famous amber and black stripes. It was also in these early years that a local journalist from the Hull Daily Mail nicknamed the club, “The Tigers,” something which has stuck right throughout their history.
The big plan was slowly working and at the end of the 1904-5 season the club felt ready to apply for membership of the Football League. Despite the rugby club’s misgivings, Hull City was admitted into Division Two of the Football League, although not without some palpitations along the way. Leeds City and Chelsea were ushered seamlessly into the league, but Hull had to wait for the result of a vote as to whether the Second tier should be expanded to accommodate them too. Thankfully, the decision fell in their favour and so Hull could start the 1905-6 season as Football League Club.
Early Progress 1906-1930
Hull City desperately needed a new ground in order to escape their reluctant landlords. Land was bought on Anlaby Road, opposite The Circle cricket pitch and a new ground was developed.
Anlaby Road football ground opened on 24th March 1906 and had a capacity of 16,000, enough to establish themselves as a Football League Side. Their first competitive game was a 4-1 demolition of Barnsley in front of a jubilant 8,000 people.
Hull’s pre-war league performance was steady, finishing in the top half of the Division 2 regularly through the first decade of the 20th Century. In the 1909-10 season, City missed out on promotion by a mere 0.29 of a goal to Oldham Athletic on goal average, finishing in third place.
City ended the 1914-15 campaign positively and ended up down in seventh only by goal average. They even reached the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup, losing out to Bolton Wanderers. Not bad considering the Beverley Hospital Cup was considered the biggest tournament in town, just twenty years earlier. Hull could also boast their first goalscoring hero, in the shape of Sammy Stevens, who bagged 84 goals in 150 appearences either side of the Great War. Who knows how many more he could have got without this interruption.
Pre-war, it was clear that Hull’s location in a city with two rugby clubs also vying for attention could hinder their chances of success. While City were in profit, partly down to the frugality of chairman, Alwyn Smith, attendances at Anlaby Road rarely reached over 10,000. The chairman did his sums and figured that if Hull FC or KR were at home on the same day as City, then the attendance could be as much as 2500 lighter than if City was the sole attraction on a Saturday afternoon for the Hull public. (Goodman 2014 Ch2) The strength of the two rugby clubs would always seem to have a gravitational force on the football club, perhaps right up until modern times with the birth of summer rugby league.
After the war, Hull continued in the Second Division, but slipped from pre-war promotion contenders to mid-table mediocrity throughout the 1920s. Then came a curious season in 1929-30. In the FA cup they reached the semi-finals, knocking out Leeds United, Manchester City and the furthest the club had reached since it entered back in 1904, but their league form slumped, which meant relegation to the newly created Division Three North. There was also another problem haunting the club, one of which they had no control over and threatened to put the future of the club in serious doubt.
Written Sources for this article
David Goodman “Hull City FC: A History, Amberley Publishing (2014) Chapters 1&2 via Google books