“My God, that lad can score goals. No matter how he gets the ball, you just know he’ll put it in the net. He doesn’t miss.” – the dead-on opinion offered by one bloke at Boothferry Park in 1990.
I’ve never forgotten this, possibly as much for the fact that I was standing in the salubrity-free surroundings of the South Stand lavatories at the time, having a half-time slash. Payton had scored a one-on-one chance with exceptional ease and we were leading. I don’t know who this fellow was, or indeed who he was talking to. He may have been offering this opinion to every person within earshot as he filled the porcelain. But as I relieved myself at the adjacent urinal (we’ll leave the bogs behind shortly, promise) I found myself truly enlightened about Payton’s ability, beyond the basic teenage hero-worship. That day I started to learn the game properly, and I became Payton’s biggest fan.
Born in 1967, Payton was a confident Lancastrian who came to City at 16 as an apprentice. He had been on schoolboy forms at his local club, Burnley, who let him go in 1982 and would have to wait another 15 years before getting the chance to correct their error.
Brian Horton was soon talking up the potential of the fleet-footed striker and by 1987-88, after years in the youth teams, some eye-popping reserve displays and a couple of benchwarming experiences in the first team, he was itching for his full senior debut – and we were too.
Leeds United visited Boothferry Park three days into 1988, predictably showing the air of superiority and arrogance which their unclean supporters had cultivated meticulously since the Revie days, even though they weren’t greatly better off than City any more and, for all their fruitless play-off dramas and Cup semi-final heartbreaks the previous year (two campaigns which ended ideally if you were a member of the Tiger Nation), were notable only for their ordinariness. City had done the deed famously at Elland Road already thanks to Alex Dyer’s heel-toe magic and Garry Parker’s persistence, and so now Boothferry Park was set to host the return. Horton picked Payton, just 20, to start.
He scored after two minutes. Poacher’s effort it may have been, steering in a far post gimme as Leeds still decided whether they could be bothered, but it set the tone for a memorable 3-1 win (Richard Jobson’s 25 yard volley was one of the most gorgeous things a 14 year old could ever see from the Well) and for a new City star to be born, right there.
Horton used Payton sparingly for the rest of the season, with only one more goal coming his way as City’s form declined sharply, leading to the manager’s ludicrous dismissal in the April. But City fans had seen enough to make their decision on the lad with the cocky demeanour and victimisable mullet.
There was serious competition, of course. Horton’s strike pairing for most of that season was Frankie Bunn and Dyer, with Andy Saville adding a third option. Bunn was sold to Oldham midway through the season and Keith Edwards, barracked like hell over some domestic issue by City fans when Leeds visited, returned to the club. Before any new understandings could be forged, Horton got the boot and the summer allowed new manager Eddie Gray to rethink – and it involved Payton being used for pace rather than prolific scoring.
The lukewarm 1988/89 campaign, heightened only by the FA Cup run, saw Payton deployed in part as a right winger with strictly controlled licence to wander inside and form a three-pronged strikeforce with Edwards and initially Dyer, Saville or the outrageously ungifted Mackem lummox, John Moore, signed by Gray in the summer. The infamous sale of Tony Norman in order to bring in two seriously overweight chancers changed this sum-of-parts policy at Christmas, and now Payton had to look enviously from either the touchline or the bench as Billy Whitehurst became the most effective and forgivably graceless striker in the squad, all over again. He and Edwards got bagfuls of goals, including the two which beat Bradford in the fourth round of the FA Cup and petrified Liverpool prior to exit a month later in a match which made Barry Davies drool and caterwaul in the commentary box.
Payton’s saving grace as he aimed to claim the centre of the attack again was Gray’s willingness to flog the others in the same boat. Dyer, a strong and awkward figure with a fine first touch, went to Crystal Palace to become a perpetual 14th man, while Saville – nobody’s favourite City centre forward – went to Walsall on the same day that Gray signed Payton’s key to prosperity, Peter Swan. To the manager’s credit, he recognised Moore’s inability to play football almost as quickly as the City fans did, and got shut after fewer than a dozen starts and one goal (which was a deflection off the back of his head on a Ken De Mange shot anyway). Payton now had to cope solely with Edwards and Whitehurst, as Swan had been signed as a defender and Ian McParland, a player of terrific ability which he largely was to waste in a City shirt, was being deployed in midfield since his own arrival mid-season.
City had a torrid, victory-free ending to a season which had promised much, to the extent that Gray got an unexpected bullet in the summer. Colin Appleton’s ill-fated second spell at the club did at least allow Payton to play up front semi-regularly after he sold Edwards, a feat which was largely unnoticed as City couldn’t win a game. The change in the boardroom which saw Richard Chetham take the chairmanship and immediately give Appleton his cards proved to be Payton’s turning point. In came Stan Ternent, and he instantly sold off the ageing Whitehurst, told Swan he was more effective up top (until injury prompted the purchase of the super-greedy malingerer Dave Bamber), stuck McParland on the bench and gave Payton the free-scoring responsibility he craved. City stayed up, despite being without a victory until November (a run which ended in Ternent’s first game with Payton scoring as a sub in a memorable 3-2 win at Bradford) and the youthful, utterly self-believing striker ended up with 17 for the campaign, a goal for every two starts. Bamber got three…
Payton’s qualities – quick, cultured, utterly focussed – became as sure a sight as the ball nestling in the opposition net when he was in possession of it. He did his share of goal-hanging (which some pompous types see as a striking weakness that flouts the rules of purism; not that it ever prevented Edwards ever being described as anything but a supreme finisher) but his anticipation of a chance around the six-yard box was flawless and City gained points and plaudits from many a tight occasion thanks to their striker’s reading of the situation.
But it was the 1990-91 sunken season which, perversely, made Payton’s name nationally. City were a desperate team under the profligate Ternent and yet receiving surprisingly few sneers and brickbats outside its own support because of this extraordinary young goalscorer who was threatening to prove that one man could make a team. He scored all types of goals that season – poacher’s tap-ins, spot-picking first-timers, opportunist efforts from defensive panics or wayward, direction-free crosses (remember, Leigh Jenkinson was around), flying headers, one-on-ones of the type which Edwards had so loved and, just occasionally, efforts of amazing individualism, including one which started at his feet on the halfway line – a patch he only tended to frequent because the offside and kick-off rules meant he had to – and ended with four defenders decked and the net bulging at Boothferry Park.
Payton was earmarked as one of the nation’s burgeoning scoring talents, and with City not making progress as a club – the David Hirst inspired 5-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in which Payton scored an expert equaliser of brief hope wasn’t even the nadir (that was the 7-1 stuffing by West Ham a month later) – and starting to see the budgetary excesses of Ternent bounce back at them, it seemed inevitable that the young striker’s continued employment at Boothferry Park wouldn’t last. Ternent, who Payton publicly admired and defended for years afterwards, was sacked after a despicable New Year’s Day 5-1 defeat at Portsmouth. And you can guess who scored City’s goal.
After Chetham’s axe fell on Ternent, the arrival of Terry Dolan and a comparably mild revival couldn’t heal the wound enough to prevent the drop. Payton and the feted Swan played on and picked up 37 goals between them, and Payton’s personal statistic of 25 goals in a relegated and helpless team credited only Payton, his terrific partner and minder in Swan, and the gifted midfield creator Leigh Palin, not anyone who had coached them that season. City fell into the third flight for the first time in seven seasons and another rebuild was in the offing. Unless City could start 1991-92 well and risk the lack of funding on a promotion campaign, it was set in stone that a team befitting Payton’s abilities (despite rightful claims he was an individual rather than a true team player) would soon be tempting his club into a deal.
Swan was sold to Port Vale in the summer, with none of the cash being freed up for Dolan to recruit a worthy replacement, and City began 1991-92 not badly, but not especially well either. Promotion was certainly not going to happen. So, with the club in limbo and the outlook bleak, Payton’s time was abundantly up. He played ten times, scored eight goals, signed off with the winner in a 1-0 victory over Chester at Boothferry Park in November 1991 – his seventh League goal of the season (oddly, his other goal that season, against Blackburn in the League Cup, was one of only two goals he ever scored in Cup competitions for City) – and headed north as Middlesbrough stepped in with £750,000.
This was an adequate sum, even though seven figures shouldn’t have been an unrealistic demand. But again, not a penny went on the team as the debts began to throttle the club, and so we had lost City’s most natural goalscorer of modern times (I put him just a tiny fraction ahead of Edwards and a bit more in front of Dean Windass and Stuart Elliott, and he deserves extra plaudits because he never once scored goals in a City team which wasn’t in lumber) and had no proceeds from his sale to buy even a cheap, keen promising replacement. Only the merest consolation could come from a collectively-felt certainty that, like Parker and Jobson, and the likes of Brian Marwood and Stuart Pearson before them, we could at least watch a boy who was once ours rise up football’s greasy pole to the top echelon of the game. Payton was that good. But fortune wasn’t on either his side nor City’s once he left.
The decline of Payton after he left City wasn’t quite as sharp as that of City itself, who simply failed to cope without him and had no finances to get a proper replacement. The Dolan years had begun, with the likes of David Walmsley (local teenager of limited ability) and future bacon sarnie seller Darren France (burly type and ex-City junior brought in from non-league for free) expected to fill the yawning chasm left by Payton and Swan. They didn’t of course, and only when Dolan discovered by chance, a year and more after signing him, that his bolshie new midfielder who had been plucked from the non-league game at the start of the season could also put away a chance, did we have a striker. Dean Windass and his tenure as City’s biggest hope within a decade of devastation and recrimination is a whole different chapter of course, though it’s worth saying that for all the things he had plainly more ability to do than Payton, he wasn’t as good a sniffer, a finisher. Not back then he wasn’t.
City ended up 14th in 1991-92, and only an eighth goal of the season from the improving Jenkinson two weeks before the end of the season prevented Payton remaining as the club’s leading goalscorer. We missed him more than we’d dared anticipate. Payton, meanwhile, scored on his ‘Boro debut after two minutes, bringing a touch of symmetry to his career following his equally swift act of card-marking as a Tigers debutant, although the serious knee injury he suffered before half time at Ayresome Park made sure that, sadly, he wouldn’t continue to make the progress thought so obvious of him thus far. Stretchered off to tumultuous Teesside applause, they thought he would be back. He wouldn’t. Not there. His career didn’t recover sufficiently for him to live his top flight dream (and ours for him), even though he was with a club whose best years would be one big scare and one bigger takeover away.
Payton started only seven more games for ‘Boro after returning from his lay-off, and a shock move to Celtic rekindled his appetite, albeit temporarily. Indeed, everything became a temporary measure for Payton thereafter. His private life was defined by a costly divorce (he had met his wife, a City fan, when he visited her in hospital on a City ‘in the community’ mission and their engagement was worthy of a human interest ‘colour’ piece in the Hull Daily Mail) and the need to pick up signing-on fees on a regular basis afterwards. From Celtic, where he started just 20 games but scored a maddening 15 goals, he returned south to Barnsley – where he scored almost every other game for three seasons – and then rejoined his mentor and biggest fan, Horton, at Huddersfield. His only full season in West Yorkshire yielded 17 goals and a stupid boo-boy status aimed at him by the thicker section of Huddersfield support simply because he wasn’t as skilful or glamorous (or as hard-working) as strike partner Marcus Stewart. But he did score more, and cost less.
Payton achieved enough with the goal in his sights to become the single biggest factor in the Terriers surviving the drop in 1997, and in the summer he returned to Boothferry Park with his new club for a pre-season friendly, receiving almost as big an ovation as the one bellowed in glee towards Mark Hateley as he took control. Hindsight is marvellous here, but we don’t need it with Payton. He was, however, soon away again when Peter Jackson replaced Horton as manager the following season and immediately brokered a swap deal with Payton’s juniors club, Burnley, for Paul Barnes, who scored precisely two goals while at the club. One can only think that Payton had tortured Jackson on the pitch during a City game versus Newcastle in the late 1980s.
Payton, who immediately set about scoring the goals to save his hometown club from the drop, was in his element at Burnley and received the most idolisation from a set of supporters since his halcyon era at Boothferry Park. A 27-goal promotion campaign in 2000 – when he was pushing 33 – was his best seasonal tally and proudest achievement, although still he made occasional noises about wanting to end his career back at Hull. This would never come close to happening, and his loan spell at Blackpool at the age of 34 wrapped up his life as a League footballer. The non-league game benefitted massively from his experience and ability for a few years hence.
He scored exactly 200 League goals between 1988 and 2001; that’s very nearly one every other match, a fantastic rate for a man who played in mostly tepid to clueless teams, didn’t win any promotions until that 2000 season (under Ternent, no less) and even missed out on honours during his time at Parkhead. But ultimately, his main status as a hero was with City, even despite his standing at Burnley – their top-flight history and associated superstars of yore ensured that Payton would always be loved as a second-string icon at Turf Moor. He probably still doesn’t need to buy a drink round there though.
A question mark about his temperament and off-field activities remained over his head, hence his regular shifts around the clubs and divisions, but Payton remained an exceptional goalscorer who never missed a good chance – seriously – and never lost his form, and City probably saw the best of him. Ridiculed for his hairstyles and flat Lancastrian monotone (he was a helpful but not especially enlightening interviewee, and the occasion when he and the falsetto youngster Mike Smith did a dual post-match reaction on BBC Radio Humberside must have given Phil Squire nightmares), he remained a genuine City superstar, unfazed by the enormity of the task before him and never shy to shoot, to celebrate and to snaffle the limelight.
Heaven only knows how good he would have been for us if the club had ever been good enough for him. He wasn’t the most skilful, the most industrious or the most conscientious player we’ve hired, but for the job he did and had to do, he was the best I’ve ever seen and, unless we win promotion to the Premiership with a 30-goal genius, the best I’m likely to see. He’s a bona fide Hull City hero. That bloke in the khazi was right