June 9, 2007

HERO – Brian Horton


It is May 1983 and Luton Town have defeated Manchester City at their pokey Kenilworth Road kennel, a late Radi Antic strike ending a five game winless run and elevating the plucky Bedfordshire side above their illustrious Mancunian foes.

As the final whistle pheeped and David Pleat cavorted onto the field of play dancing a bizarre jig of delight – like Riverdance on mescaline – it was not the jubilant Yugoslavian goalscorer that the current day anodyne radio commentator and erstwhile kerb crawler aimed for, but rather a slight but powerful bearded man with a bald head and a grimace of delight.

David Pleat’s true hero that day was Brian Horton.

Fast forward 24 years and Brian Horton is retained by the Tigers as assistant manager to the tanned purveyor of glory and garbage Phil Brown. Horton, now 58, is a journeyman manager that knows the ropes and has the ire, desire and fire to motivate players to give the extra drops of sweat and effort that separate the winners from the also-rans, the goal scorers from the flatterers to deceive, the last day survivors from the last day relegation fodder.  Brian Horton has toured the football league managing sides, from lowly Macclesfield Town through Oxford, Huddersfield, Brighton and Port Vale to the self-same high rolling Manchester City side that Horton’s efforts at Luton had once consigned to the Second Division.  Yes this bloke knows his way around, knows the job, knows the ropes.  The first managerial rope he clambered up was at Hull City.  And it was a glorious time.

Born in Hednesford, grim Staffordshire coal mining town, Horton began his footballing career playing for his non-league hometown club before 300-odd games for each of Port Vale and Brighton saw him carve a reputation as a tough no nonsense defensive midfielder.  His final three seasons as a player were spent at Luton and pinnacled in perhaps the finest achievement of his playing days, that last day relegation survival that he will always be associated with.  After another solid season as captain in the Luton engine room Horton, now 35, was looking for fresh challenges.

Meanwhile further north on the East Coast things were rumbling – was it ever thus?  The Tigers had enjoyed a splendid season under the tutelage of the inspirational yet eccentric Colin Appleton, and only a last ditch failure to clinch a 3-0 victory at Burnley on the last day of the season denied the Tigers promotion to the old Second Division.  A talented young side had propelled City away from the dark days of receivership and North Stand demolition that blighted the early 80s – these Tigers were going places.

With the dejected City players still soaking their aching limbs in the Turf Moor communal bath, Appleton was resigning his managerial post only to reappear the very next day as Swansea City’s new boss.  This upset was furthered in early August when prize asset Brian Marwood – a rare breed indeed, a genuine goal scoring wide player – was sold to Sheffield Wednesday thus allowing the gurning Durham coaster to airbrush his formative years at Boothferry Park from his career, a habit he still persists with on TV to this day.  It was therefore a big challenge that Brian Horton accepted when he was appointed as Hull City’s player-manager on the 12th June 1984.

His first acts as manager were measured.  With Marwood gone the remaining foundations of Appleton’s squad – Norman, Skipper, McClaren and Whitehurst as the spine, Roberts and Askew as the creative forces – were retained and added to in only limited fashion as blonde midfielder Neil Williams was signed from Watford and aimless wideman Mike Ring was signed from Brighton.  The opening game was a dour 0-0 against a Lincoln City side that was then drubbed home and away in the League Cup, Gary Strodder contributing to City cause one of approximately 100 own goals that the centre back donated during his career.  The first eight games saw City lodged in mid table but City’s form improved in early October with four wins and two draws in seven games, moving the Tigers to 6th in the table.

Saturday 10th November 1984 saw City travel to East London to take on Orient at Brisbane Road, a side in the bottom three managed by dour Geordie Frank Clark but benefiting from the erratic but extravagant skills of Barry Silkman.  They had a goalkeeper on loan from Arsenal called Rhys Wilmot who was legendarily calamitous and they were leaking goals aplenty – 28 in their opening fifteen league games.  So perhaps the most surprised of all were the home fans when the O’s cruised to a 3-1 lead at half time and made it 4-1 through Silkman midway through the second half.  Horton’s Tigers then launched one the most remarkable comebacks of the decade as waves of attack and a dose of suspect goal keeping saw City rattle up 4 goals in quick succession to seal an unlikely 5-4 win.  Your correspondent, recently ripped from the bosom of his family and deposited in a student let a few stops up the Central Line, witnessed the proceedings in awe and duly saw his love for the Tigers rekindled after a three year lapse.  I’m still paying the price for that result.

This unlikely win galvanised Horton’s side further and an unbeaten run that stretched from late October to mid January propelled his side to second in the table with Whitehurst, Askew and Flounders contributing the goals.  After a weather-induced 3 week lay-off a messy 2-4 reverse at Reading’s Elm Park halted the run abruptly with Dean Horrix and Trevor Senior – both infamous in their own ways – bagging braces.  Two further defeats against Bradford and Gillingham saw City slide to fifth, enticing Horton to drop himself from the team and focussed on his touchline duties alone for the rest of the season.  A nine game streak of seven wins and two draws saw the Tigers rebound back into a promotion spot.  After the obligatory loss at Ashton Gate Horton’s side won another five on the spin including thrilling defeats of Orient (5-1, Whitehurst hat-trick), Preston (4-1 at Deepdale) and Wigan (3-1).  The fifth of those wins, at Walsall’s Fellows Park, sealed mathematical promotion thanks to a solitary Peter Skipper strike.  Eleven months into his tenure Horton had achieved promotion back to the Second Division, a tremendous feat albeit achieved with a squad largely assembled by his predecessor.

A week later City had capitulated in meaningless fixtures against York and Brentford and as City fans sunned themselves at Griffin Park the appalling news of the Valley Parade fire filtered through.  Three weeks later football’s death toll was increased by the disgraceful scenes at the Heysel Stadium perpetrated by the same moronic Liverpool supporters that no doubt robbed and rioted before this season’s European Cup Final.  Always scum.  Against this backdrop Horton plotted his first campaign back in the second tier.

The previous February Horton had signed a tall and elegant defender called Richard Jobson, who promptly went AWOL from training after a handful of starts and was left in the reserves as Stan McEwan regained his first team berth.  Jobson thus was regarded as a player of suspect temperament, a bizarre claim looking back as one remembers one of the most reliable and attractive defenders in the modern era to don the amber and black.  Horton returned to Luton to sign the extravagantly chinned striker Frankie Bunn, instantly dubbed The Wild Bull (by me, mainly).  Within two weeks of the season’s start he had also clinched the signing of elegant Caledonian midfield playmaker Bobby Doyle.  All the building blocks of an attractive attacking side were in place – and they soon delivered.  Winless in the first six games, City then eked out victories against Millwall, Carlisle and Palace – the latter inspired by perhaps the most powerfully struck free kick ever witnessed on a football pitch, propelled by Stan McEwan.  By mid-November two wins and a draw against London teams had seen the Tigers rise to 10th place.

Jobson and McEwan were contributing goals to replace the regular strikes of Billy Whitehurst who was sold to Newcastle around Christmas.  These goals from defence supplemented the efforts of Andy Flounders as City continued to prosper, a 4-1 New Years Day win at Oakwell lodging in the mind thanks to Bobby Doyle’s swaggering dribble and expertly placed shot contributing one of the goals.  Only a 0-5 twatting at Millwall spoilt City’s record during the festive period.  By early March exciting wins against Shrewsbury and Stoke had moved Horton’s side up to fifth place – remember that there were no play-offs, the top three went up without recourse to gut-wrenching trips to Wembley.  Horton signed the talented Garry Parker from Luton – amid rumours that his expulsion from Kenilworth Road was down to the consumption of recreational drugs – to add further swagger to the midfield but ultimately the momentum couldn’t be maintained and four consecutive winless games in early April allowed Wimbledon to ease away and finish 10 points ahead of the Tigers in the third promotion place.  Nevertheless the final position of sixth represented City’s highest League finish since the first decade of the 20th century and constituted a tremendous managerial achievement for Horton on the heels of promotion.  He had managed to maintain a winning momentum from the previous season – albeit after a shaky start – and created a side that posed an organised and potent attacking force.  City were unremittingly on the up.

Well not quite, of course….

Horton had used himself sparingly as a player during this first season back in the second flight and he started only six games the following season.  The spine of the side was now rock solid – Norman in goal every week for six years, Jobson and Skipper allowing nothing to pass, Doyle, Parker and Roberts pulling strings in midfield.  Ray Daniel had been added to the squad – another signing from Luton – to add versatility down the left.  Only up front were we suspect with the variable Bunn, the limited Saville and the lightweight Flounders struggling to score regularly.  Bunn’s regular misfiring was commented upon by your author in a fanzine piece penned around this time – it was a measure of Horton’s passion that he took the time to ring me at my home and harangue me for my ill-treatment of a player that was going through a crisis of confidence.  I responded immediately, lavishly and pluckily by muttering about three words, all of them “sorry”.

1986-87 started with two wins and a draw and the Tigers were second – untold riches.  Three defeats followed and mid table obscurity was regained.  Successive heavy defeats at Palace (1-5) and Sheffield United (2-4) saw City slide to 17th.  Through February and March eight matches yielded only 2 wins and 3 goals and the Tigers slumped into the bottom 5.  Action was clearly needed from Horton and in mid-February Charlie Palmer and Alex Dyer were signed from Derby and Blackpool respectively.  After a bedding-in period their presence made enough difference to halt the slide.  Dyer contributed 4 goals in the last three games to elevate City to 14th while Palmer’s arrival allowed Jobson to move to the centre and replace the ageing McEwan.

By now Horton’s judgement was under occasional scrutiny.  The Tigers eased into the Fifth Round of the Cup with road trip victories at Shrewsbury and a very scary Swansea.  Only lowly Wigan stood between City and a lucrative Sixth Round tie against eventual semi-finalists and local rivals Leeds United.  The Tigers crashed 0-3 at Wigan’s Springfield Park bog, the withdrawal of the influential Askew coinciding with a glut of second half goals.  The optimism and attacking football was seemingly over and Horton’s tactics became increasingly defensive, no doubt a reaction to the necessity of staving off relegation and the relative riches at the back compared with the limited offer up front.

The priority for the summer of 1987 was clearly reinforcements amongst the strikers.  It didn’t happen.  Flounders had left for Scunthorpe towards the end of the previous season and striking duties were again shared between Dyer, Bunn and Saville.  This lack of penetration, coupled with Bobby Doyle suffering a career-ending lunge at the hands of lunk-headed Doncaster defender Dave Cusack in a pre-season friendly, seemed to indicate that a season of struggle beckoned.  But Horton galvanised his established squad once more and the Tigers were defeated only once in the opening 15 League games, finding themselves second in the table by the end of October.  The stand-out moment was clearly a 2-0 win at Elland Road, Alex Dyer contributing a twisty slippery dribble and goal that was immediately placed amongst the most joyful legendary City moments.  Three defeats in November halted progress somewhat but by the end of the year City were well established as a promotion challenger in sixth place.  The problems up front were still evident though – Dyer had contributed six league goals but Bunn had only struck 4 and Saville had scored just 3; it was midfielder Garry Parker who was top scorer with 7.

On New Year’s Day City travelled to play Aston Villa, who were going well in the top 3.  After City missed an early penalty Villa swotted the Tigers aside and ended 5-0 winners, 80s/90s City nemesis Warren Aspinall contributing two goals.  This reverse clearly stunned Horton and his Tigers.  Leeds were gloriously thumped 3-1 at Boothferry Park in the very next game – Andy Payton potting an early goal in his first senior start – but after this win a three match Cup tie against First Division strugglers was lost and the Tigers’ League form collapsed.  By early April City had been winless for three months with only four draws to show from 12 games – an horrific 2-6 reverse at Bournemouth was perhaps the low point.  Despite the superb form in the opening three months of the season, supporters were by now increasingly exasperated with Horton who appeared helpless and unable to take affirmative action to improve form.  During March much needed surgery to the squad saw the acquisition of midfield dervish Ken de Mange from Leeds, fading wingman Peter Barnes from Manchester City, young left back Wayne Jacobs from Sheffield Wednesday and the returning Keith Edwards from Aberdeen – finally a goalscorer!

Mid April saw the Tigers take on Swindon Town at home, a night match precipitated by postponements during a long cold snap in late January.  Horton dropped the stalwart Garreth Roberts and started with youthful winger Leigh Jenkinson.  Jenkinson scored but City capitulated horribly and were spanked 1-4.  It seemed that no amount of tinkering could change things.  City chairman Don Robinson was reputedly furious with this embarrassing cuffing and flew into a rage after the game, inviting Horton to resign immediately after full time.  On learning of this the City players accepted full responsibility and pleaded with Robinson to reverse his rash decision.  Don calmed down and sought out Horton, apologised for his haste and offered to reinstate him at the helm.  Horton – a proud man – summarily refused and resigned from his job.

A messy ending to a managerial spell that saw so much success.  I can recall relief at Horton’s dismissal at the time, fearing that he simply didn’t have the ability to stem the tide of bad results, but many City supporting friends were far less sanguine and felt that Horton had been a blameless victim while the players repeatedly let him down.  This suggestion was given significant credence when 11 days later City humped Huddersfield 4-0 with returning hero Edwards scoring twice.

The Tigers were not in danger of relegation even after such a poor run of results and ultimately finished 15th.  Eddie Gray took the City manager’s seat that Summer while Brian Horton was appointed Oxford United’s boss the following October where he enjoyed five successful years before being lured into the big time by Manchester City.  He experienced success at Maine Road for a season and a half with an entertaining brand of football that exploited the pace and crossing ability of wide players Nicky Summerbee and Peter Beagrie.  Howevcr a run of poor form similar to that experienced at City was once again Horton’s downfall and he was sacked at the end of 1994-95 season.

Brian Horton quite clearly benefited from the excellent young squad that he inherited from his predecessor Colin Appleton.  However he moulded that squad, added a wealth of young talent to the shape of players like Jobson, Doyle, Parker and Dyer and made City hard to beat.  For a long while this defensive solidity formed a base for exciting attacking football and City experienced levels of success that hadn’t been experienced since the club’s formative seasons 80 years earlier.  Horton’s demise was messy and unfortunate but he now returns to City with a welcome, his place in City’s notional hall of fame cemented for ever more.

Brian Horton – Hull City hero.  I should say so

Mike Scott

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Filed under: Heroes & Villains — Andy @ 9:39 pm

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