Five Years On – A Different Kettle of Fish

A lot of water has flowed under the Humber Bridge since David Lloyd’s purchase of Hull City brought to an end Martin Fish’s long involvement with the club. Here, the affable accountant talks about the difficulties that beset his tenure as Tigers supremo.

What were the circumstances of your being appointed chairman?

Martin Fish: I was invited onto the board in 1987 by Don Robinson and it went from there really, it was a quick escalation to becoming chairman due to a combination of circumstances. Don left the club in 1989, he’d had enough by then and Richard Chetham followed through, and then he had a heart attack in 1991, at that stage I was Vice Chairman and looking after things in his absence. He couldn’t carry on so consequently I took on the chairman’s role in 1991 and continued till 1997.

Was it with reluctance that you took the chairmanship?

MF: It wasn’t something I’d expected, I’d only come on to the board in 1987, so in four years… I’d never expected to be in the position of chairman. It was at a board meeting when it was proposed and the hands went up quick before I had a chance to say anything. Someone had to do the job, Richard couldn’t do it and someone had to keep the club going so I took it on, but I never expected to be the chairman, no.

Were you a lifelong City fan prior to joining the board?

MF: Oh yes, I saw my first game in 1951, 1 saw the end of Raich Carter’s days playing, I supported them from that stage, nine years old I was then. That carried all the way through, I went to away games and everything, my wife was with me, home games, away games, everything. So yes I was a lifelong supporter.

What was the root cause of the financial problems between 1992 -1994?

MF: I think the difficulty was that there was no money available, the Needler family owned the club, they had put a lot of money in over the years, Harold Needler of course built Boothferry Park, and I think they had decided not to put any more money in.

So I was left with a situation where I was trying to run the business purely on gate money, transfer revenue etcetera. Hence, we had to sell players, I had to run the business as a business, and as an accountant it was second nature in a way, but in football that’s very difficult.

It’s nice to have a chunk of money to have a go at, because in those days it wasn’t easy to make money. We were getting very low gates, we were losing the best players, that wasn’t attractive to supporters and they stopped coming and it goes on and on.

It was a rolling thing, it wasn’t easy and the problems centred on the fact we couldn’t pay the Inland Revenue and the VAT and we were back and forth to the High Court.

I raised money by way of debentures, I did everything I could, I sold players when I had to sell them, I didn’t want to but needs must. At least it kept the club ticking along until I could do a deal with David Lloyd and get all of the money. All the creditors were paid, I made sure of that, I got the money from David Lloyd and paid them, rather than leaving him to pay them.

I left the club knowing it was safe, all clear of debt. It was a hard time, and that’s the reason I had to stick with the management because I couldn’t pay big compensation money, I didn’t want to rock the boat, so we drifted on that way. It was a drift on, I accept that and it wasn’t easy, I did the best I could in the circumstances.

You had plans to redevelop the east side of Boothferry Park, didn’t you?

MF: Yes, a new stand that would have contained 6000 people and ran from one end of the east side to the other unlike the Kempton. It was a beautiful thing and we were going to do it. I already had grants for over a million pounds promised from the Football Association.

We got brewery money proposed and I think we were only short of about £200,000. Then the decision came that the Needlers wanted to sell up and get out of it. My ideas came at a time when unbeknown to me the Needlers were thinking ‘no we’ve had enough of this’ so it went on the back burner.

What effect did Christopher Needler’s departure have on the problems?

MF: There was obviously some animosity toward the Needlers, and I’ll never forget Mrs. Needler telling me even Harold Needler had to put up with jibes all those years ago. So she had seen her husband and her son go through the kind of things I was going through, and I think she honestly thought ‘well, enough is enough, we’ve done what we can and we’ve put money in there’.

They did a marvellous job but I think there was a time when she and Christopher felt that this was the time, for me to go through another series of barracking, then perhaps it needed a new brush, and that was the decision.

Terry Dolan’s management caused you a few problems…

MF: I had a principle in the way I’d run the club, in that I believed the manager should manage, I never interfered. I’d go down and say hello to the players and wish them luck and all the rest of it before the games, but I never, ever interfered with decisions, because I think if you appoint a manager you let him manage.

He was able to work on virtually nothing, I told him when he was appointed in fact, I told him that he would have to work with nothing, he’d have to work with players, and when you think y’know, Dean Windass, Linton Brown, he found some players and got some value for them, Alan Fettis and Roy Carroll, the goalkeepers, all of them, they were found by Terry and his team.

It was a good team really, in the sense that I had a series of managers, not just Terry Dolan, but Jeff Lee, John Cooper, Simon Cawkill, and we had meetings and they were responsible for their own departments, Terry’s being the team.

He worked very well with me, I thought a lot about him, I still do, he’s at York at the moment doing a similar job, no money but working hard, working with the players, it was a good relationship but unfortunately the crowds wanted to see attractive football, wanted to see us winning and some of the football, he will accept, wasn’t the best in the world, but it was grinding out results. Towards the end it was more of a survival battle, for players and money.

Terry Dolan taking commission on transfers, is that a normal practice for managers to do so?

MF: I won’t say it’s normal practice, but you can have in a manager’s contract something to say he gets a certain percentage of transfer fees.

Terry had that kind of clause, but there was a minimum figure involved, and it never in fact really got paid out, because he never hit the minimum figure, we always sold for just below. That [clause] was hyped up by the press, they thought they’d hit on something that applied to every transfer and it didn’t.

He did get a bonus in one particular year, I think it was probably the Windass sale and one or two others, it was nothing like the size the media talked of, that was really a reward because he never really got an increase in salary, so got it instead of that:

Terry Dolan received a new three-year contract shortly after relegation to the Third Division, a decision that didn’t go down well with supporters…

MF: I quite agree that it would seem strange to supporters but you have to look at it in context, there was no spare money to pay off contracts for a new manager if I’d brought one in, I couldn’t have paid compensation out for the balance of his contract, and I felt under the circumstances we were working under it was worthwhile continuing because he’d built up the nucleus of a team, a new manager comes in and wants to change it, he wants his own players, you can see how many changes there have been recently at the club when a new manager comes in.

That costs money, fortunately for Adam Pearson he has the money to do that, I hadn’t, I hadn’t any money so I had to stick with what I had. What I was saying to the supporters was ‘support me, stick with it, we are building up some players here’, one example is the Roy Carroll situation. It absolutely amazed me … the clause that I’d built into that contract when he was sold to Wigan would have made Hull City a lot of money, but unfortunately a deal was done by a successor for nothing like the club could have got.

What effect did the fans abuse have on you?

MF: I could stand the abuse to a point, it got a little bit ridiculous when I had to have police protection at certain away games. I’m a big fellow, I have broad shoulders and I can manage it, but when it starts to reach to home that is where I draw a line. I certainly didn’t deserve a double decker, open topped bus coming outside my house one Saturday afternoon, with my wife and daughter trapped in the garage unable to get out.

That is something I won’t forget and I won’t forgive, it doesn’t need all that. The other things… sending cod’s heads to visiting chairmen etc … I had some lovely letters from the chairmen; particularly Jimmy Hill, that you put up with because of my name though it’s not very nice for the clubs that you’re visiting, but I forewarned all the chairman that it was going to happen.

Was there a point when you considered throwing in the towel?

MF: No, I’m not that type, I won’t throw in the towel, I always see a thing through. Whilst I said to my wife that it would not happen again, and it shouldn’t have happened because the police had messed it up, they should have controlled that bus, but there was a change of shift and suddenly they crept in. I said it would never happen again and I was going to make sure it wouldn’t, but you have to bear in mind that.was in the June and by the July we’d sold the club, we were well on in negotiations with David Lloyd so I knew it was coming to an end.

What were the circumstances of David Lloyd coming in, how did it all transpire?

MF: We heard Lloyd was interested, one or two other people who were interested as well, but Lloyd was the only one coming forward. He had a link in Hull with Tim Wilby and the rugby side and it partly came from there as it was Tim Wilby who came and said ‘We could be interested in this’. I remember saying ‘Who’s we?’ and he said ‘David Lloyd and I’.

Then we went into what were quite involved negotiations and I can remember having to be in Hull, then off to Hertfordshire for a meeting, back to Hull and then to London to report to Christopher Needier all in the same day. We got there in the end and Lloyd certainly had the money and it was a question of negotiation from there on.

Do you think David Lloyd had the interests of Hull City at heart?

MF: I can understand you asking that question and I would say yes initially, he showed he had the money and he was certainly enthusiastic, no question. Alright he’d been involved with tennis which is a very different sport to soccer, but he was already involved with the rugby.

I obviously couldn’t foresee the kind of situation, the kind of man he was etcetera, his reaction, his temperament, that came later and I was very disappointed to see the way it all turned out. There was no indication of that when we were negotiating. He genuinely believed he could get the club moving and I had no reason to doubt him at that stage.

What were the circumstances of the decision to give Bradford fans the South Stand?

MF: I’m pleased to be able to put the record straight because a lot of wrong things were said there. The situation with the Bradford match was that I was told by Brian Calam, the police’s chief operations man, that they were expecting some trouble at the game against Bradford.

In midweek, and there were people who heard all of this, John Cooper is one, and he came on the phone, Brian Calam, and he said ‘we’re going to have to switch ends’ and I said ‘what do you mean?’.

He says ‘we’ll have to put the Bradford supporters in the South Stand and the Hull supporters in the North’ and I said ‘I’m going to have a riot on my hands if you do that’ and he says ‘well, it’s up to you, that’s the way we see it to avoid the trouble and if you can’t do that I’m going to hold you responsible for anything that happens on Saturday. Any injury and you will be held personally responsible’.

Consequently, with that responsibility which I couldn’t take on, it meant that if anyone was injured the police would walk away and blame me. I said ‘You’re giving me no choice, you’re putting a gun to my head and I’m going to have to agree to it, but you’re going to create a greater riot by doing it rather than just keeping it as it is’.

I had pressure from Geoffrey Richmond at Bradford as well, he says ‘we’ll be bringing loads and loads’, of course they were heading for promotion and he said ‘you’d better give us more seats’.

I said ‘I can’t, I can’t give you any more, but the police may well decide it at the end because without police backing we can’t hold the match’. That is what happened, I had to concede to that. What annoyed me was although Brian Calam went to the local paper and said ‘blame me for this’ which is quite true, the way it was written he wasn’t ever blamed for it, it was me! It was interesting that he became involved with David Lloyd shortly after that.

Did you feel unfairly treated by the local press?

MF: I think an element of the local press treated me unfairly, you have to understand that they have to find headlines, they have to print whatever they can print, I do know that it wasn’t so much the reporters, it wasn’t Colin Young, Peter Whitfield and so on, but there was a gentleman who is no longer at the local paper who was very much against me.

That I do know, I had it confirmed by one of the reporters who said he was under tremendous pressure to publish all the bad stuff about me, he wanted me out. I didn’t know that until after I’d gone in fact, but I knew there was something. I gave them enough information to print, but the papers have a way of twisting that round and I couldn’t understand it. I’d say to Colin Young and Peter Whitfield ‘Why are you doing this? Why can’t you just print what I’m trying to say?’ and they’d say ‘Oh the editor comes in and he has to fine tune it’ and I’d say it’s not fine tuning it’s twisting it and sometimes articles written by Colin Young were rewritten by this assistant editor.

What happened to the plaque above the players tunnel?

MF: We had an approach from some museum, we got offered £10,000 and a replacement, a plastic one so there was still something there although it wasn’t the original.

This museum was collecting quite a number of them, I think they’d got Doncaster’s and one or two others. But that .£10,000 went into the club, whether people had said I’d pocketed that I don’t know but it’s not true. It was paid into the club account, Tom Wilson who was the secretary can vouch for that as he took the initial call.

When he told me about it he said ‘what do we do? and I said ‘I’m afraid we need the £10,000, if we put a replacement there people aren’t going to notice’ and no one did notice for many months and then it all came out.

But there was nothing sinister about it, it was the fact that we were looking for whatever we could, people might say it was selling the family silver but that club was in danger of going under and that I could not live with. I had to make sure that the club survived because it was my life, or it had been and I was not prepared after all that time I had put in to see that happen.

There was an instance at the High Court where the club very nearly did go out of existence…

MF: Yes, that was a very tricky day. It didn’t help to have some of the action group around, watching the proceedings and having a go at me. It was very difficult, these situations aren’t rubber stamp jobs, they are hearing 300 cases a day, winding companies up.

The judge sits there and he hasn’t got a lot of time to make a decision, normally they get confirmed as wound up or are granted a period of time, it might be six weeks, it might be two months and another hearing is heard then. In this case it was deferred to an afternoon session meaning they want to take a look at it in more detail. That brought a real problem because we didn’t know how the afternoon session was going, the judge clearly wasn’t happy about what was being said, it was all to do with the sale of a player and we couldn’t give an exact date of when it was going to happen, and we couldn’t prejudice negotiations by saying too much about it in the court and the judge didn’t particularly like that.

I got hold of my QC and I said ‘this is how far we can go, and really it’s just unfortunate that we’ve got these other people in the court as I don’t want this to get out, it’s a private court hearing and if the sale is prejudiced then we might not get anything and we go under. The QC put our case across very well and we got the adjournment we wanted. The player was sold and the debt was paid, but it was a very close run thing, the closest Hull City came to going under.

Do you feel the events since your departure have in some way vindicated you?

MF: I’m not happy to have seen the way the club has gone on, through David Lloyd to the Buchanan era, I want to see the club succeed and I hope Adam Pearson and his managers can achieve the success they deserve, then I can think that what I’ve done has played a small part in that. It’s been very disappointing to see, David Lloyd tried his best, I’m afraid Mr. Buchanan and his people… Tom Belton aside, I knew Tom Belton from when he was at Scunthorpe, he got out knowing that it wasn’t right.

That was very dangerous for the club, it could well have gone under, some of the things that had gone on and that would have been a tragedy. I don’t know if it vindicates me, I hope that people see that what I was doing was to the best of my ability, but it doesn’t give me any satisfaction to see the club have difficult times because the supporters don’t deserve that. I want to see someone succeed and the city of Hull happy.

Interview by Martyn Hainstock