Warren Joyce’s nomination as a Hull City hero would be contested by few in the present day, and looking back at his contribution to our club there can be no question that we may very well owe our whole existence to his achievements at the tail-end of the decade of horror that was the 1990s. It wasn’t always so clear cut however – there were days when his inclusion in a section of villains may have seemed more probable.
Warren Joyce followed his father Walter into football, a defender whose own career started at Burnley following the completion of his National Service in 1958. He experienced First Division football during the Clarets’ glory days of the 1960s, and later saw spells at Blackburn and the Joyces’ home-town club Oldham. He retired to become a coach at Boundary Park and remained in football for many years.
After a lengthy and successful career for his father, Joyce junior had plenty to live up to. His first club was Bolton Wanders, for whom he signed in 1981 as a 16 year old. He began making a name for himself as a combative defensive midfield player.
His time at Burnden Park was happy for the young Joyce, despite the club mostly scuffling about in the lower leagues. He made over 200 appearances in six years before Lancastrian neighbours Preston paid £35,000 for him in October 1987, a move that united him with his father – he’d since moved to Deepdale in a coaching capacity. He continued to impress, spending five years there as Preston hauled themselves back towards respectability, having recently fallen into Division Four for the first time.
He was the Lillywhites’ Player of the Year in 1990 and was made club captain, but when Plymouth Argyle offered a hefty £150,000 for him in summer 1992 he was persuaded to head south to Home Park. It wasn’t the best of times however, and just a year later he returned to his native Lancashire to join Burnley, who paid £140,000 for the now 28-year old. He played over eighty times at Turf Moor in this spell, chipping in with a dozen goals – despite his customary deployment as a deep-lying midfielder, his ability to contribute a decent number of goals made him an important player.
Two years later came his first association with City, when Terry Dolan took him on loan in January 1995 as his Tigers made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the (new-ish) Second Division play-offs. He scored three times in nine games at Boothferry Park but returned to Turf Moor for Burnley’s doomed attempt to stay in the second tier. City were to finish eighth that season.
1995/6 saw Burnley achieve a mediocre 17th in the third division of English football, although Joyce’s contribution continued to be solid. However, they rarely threatened to make the play-offs and their season limped to an uninspiring conclusion.
Joyce returns to Boothferry Park
As Burnley sought to rebuild for promotion, Burnley agreed to sell him to City for £30,000 in July 1996, but the club he returned to was strikingly different. The Tigers had been relegated into the bottom division after a catastrophic season that culminated in the infamous Bradford riot, and a summer of bitter recrimination led to those remaining supporters declaring war on the Fish/Dolan axis of evil. It was amid this unpromising backdrop that Hell Tel installed Joyce as his captain. It was a thankless task. As Dolan’s representative in earth, he was a conduit for the abuse that rained down upon the regime as City struggled in the bottom half of the division, with the spectre of financial ruin continually stalking the club.
City’s season began with what we soon realised was false promise, as the Tigers remained unbeaten until October. It sounds better than it was. The football was drab and only Duane Darby’s goals made things vaguely bearable. When that unbeaten run ended at home to Scunthorpe, it gave fresh impetus to the protests as the supporters continued their struggle to the death with the now universally despised regime.
Plenty of the vitriol being spat from the terraces was directed at Warren Joyce. His role of captain compelled him to defend his manager, an awkward position for a man who could surely appreciate the harm that was being visited upon us. With hindsight, it was probably unfair to target Joyce over the dreadful wasters defiling City shirts at the time, though as Dolan’s choice of skipper and with the frustrations boiling over on a weekly basis, it was perhaps inevitable.
It is to his credit that he rarely complained about this. Perhaps the one manifestation of his feelings about the supporters’ treatment came in a memorable episode during a 3-0 win over Brighton in March 1997. After thudding home a volley from the edge of the area, he bounded over to “celebrate” his goal in front of the Kempton. In one of the sorriest symbols of the club’s gut-wrenching decay, this stood empty at the time, off-limits to all.
Yet Joyce sped over to its echoing terraces, aping the love-in that customarily occurs when a beloved scorer rushes to his adoring public, choosing to celebrate with broken concrete over his abusers. It was a potent gesture, one that split opinion. There were those who saw it was a comic riposte delivered in the only way he safely could, though many of those who harboured irreconcilable animosity towards The Regime viewed it with scorn and saw themselves further alienated from City’s captain.
Even at the time, it really was a tough action to correctly interpret. Many viewed it as a put-upon player expressing himself in an amusing fashion, a deserved indulgence for a proud man in an unwinnable war. Some were less understanding, seeing it as a rebuke to the ongoing campaign against the board and manager.
The misery continued, with Joyce chugging along in a thoroughly unappreciated fashion as the warring factions continued to fight for control of the club. City were to finish 17th in Division Four, then our lowest ever finish. Our prospects looked heart-rendingly bleak.
The summer of 1997 was a momentous one for City, and also for Joyce. Fish sold to the Tim Wilby/David Lloyd consortium, which immediately sacked Dolan and installed former England striker Mark Hateley as player-manager. This fuelled wild dreams of imminent glory among the success-starved fans, although ultimately the Tigers finished in a new-record low of 22nd. The desperate times for City were continuing and even worsening off the pitch…but about Joyce, opinions were shifting.
The experienced influence in City’s hopelessly brittle midfield, he held the side together on numerous occasions with his unfussy play and quiet determination. When one considers that his team-mates for Hateley’s first game at Mansfield included Tony Brien, Gregor Rioch, Michael Quigley and Simon Trevitt, one marvels that we didn’t challenge the stricken Doncaster for relegation.
As a player, Joyce was fairly undemonstrative. Not for him the flashy slide-tackle that brutalises an opponent and gains throaty cheers irrespective of the outcome – his method of containment showed a more cerebral preference for blocking an adversary’s easiest route forwards. Always half-a-second faster to understand a situation than most of his team-mates, he was able to impede the opposition by finding himself in the right position and could intercept a pass with a flash of instinctive manoeuvring.
That is not to suggest that he was nothing but a spoiling player. He was effective in possession, seeing greater value in its retention than attempting a spectacular pass with little chance of success. He also took many of City’s set-pieces, imparting a deceptive curl upon a ball that gained him a couple of fortuitous goals during his time at Boothferry Park. All teams need a Warren Joyce – a calm and composed player, thinking his way through a game rather than rashly surrendering to the impulse for manic activity.
The season 1997/8 was not without incident, and even sporadic enjoyment. A staggering afternoon in August 1997 saw City defeat Swansea 7-4, while a two-legged Steve Wilson-inspired League Cup success over Premier League Crystal Palace earned City a trip to Newcastle, where Warren Joyce played in City’s creditable 2-0 defeat.
However, in other competitions things were grim. A 4-1 home defeat to Shrewsbury was followed up by a 2-0 Cup exit to Hednesford, a dire afternoon that provided sickening amusement to the smug Match of the Day interlopers and no little satisfaction to referee G Laws, now and forever the only game in which I have genuinely doubted the motivations of an official.
With dissent building against absentee chairman David Lloyd and with Tim Wilby mysteriously no longer with us, City aimlessly stumbled along in the bottom three of English football’s fourth tier.
Thank fuck for Donny Rovers” was a regular refrain among the exasperated supporters, with their spectacular implosion keeping City and Brighton mercifully free of the relegation concerns that our awful form would have generated in any other season. The Tigers were thrashed 5-1 at Torquay, a low point of early 1998, but yet another nadir appeared to have been reached at Belle Vue. City travelled to Doncaster knowing a win would relegate the South Yorkshire club…and promptly lost 1-0 in a match delayed several times by incursions onto the pitch by both sets of fans, Gregor Rioch even attempting a pass to a home fan. Throughout these desperate times, one man’s stock was steadily rising. Cries of “Warren Joyce Joyce Joyce” rang out from the same Bunkers that used to scorn him as Dolan’s pet. In a season filled with sloth and incompetence, Joyce was among our best players. His redemption on the pitch was complete. However, his finest hour was still to come.
Joyce as manager
1998/9 was a season viewed with trepidation from the very beginning. Mark Hateley’s unsuitability as a manager was painfully obvious, though he remained in place. So too did David Lloyd, whose popularity was sinking rapidly. The campaign began indifferently, but plans by Lloyd to shift City to the Boulevard while building a super-stadium for his Tiger-Sharks (and how we cringe at that term) lost him any lingering goodwill and open dissent could once again be heard.
The vivid tennis ball protest instigated by Amber Nectar and City Independent collusion that held up a League Cup tie at Bolton was the tipping point for the thin-skinned southerner, who shrilly bailed out as a new group took charge of City. Genial pig-farmer Tom Belton assumed the chairman’s role, with the backing of “colourful” company law criminal Stephen Hinchliffe (and future jailbird) together with fellow Sheffield lowlife Nick Buchanan.
By this time, City’s plight on the pitch had become desperate. Hateley was finally sacked, and things were typified by a 2-0 home defeat against a numerically-deficient Brighton side, the fans mocking their own side with a rendition of “they’ve only got nine men” in recognition of the visitors’ comfortable win despite seeing a brace of red cards.
Marooned at the bottom of the Football League, relegation into the non-league abyss stared us in the face. Joyce had taken temporary charge for the Brighton debacle, but Belton appointed him permanently as the player-manager, bringing in former European Cup winner John McGovern to assist him.
Joyce’s first game in long-term charge of City came at Salisbury Town in the first round of the FA Cup, City edging to a nervy 2-0 win over the Wiltshire part-timers. This was followed up shortly after with a stirring 2-1 win at Luton, then eighth in the division above. However, our league form remained wretched and many questioned the sense in appointing a total rookie as player-manager. Another meaningless cup win was achieved, this time a 1-0 victory in the Auto Windscreens Shield at Notts County, but a Yuletide loss at Shrewsbury left City stranded six points adrift of safety. Demotion out of the League now looked inevitable.
An FA Cup jolly at Aston Villa saw City lose 3-0, a game notable for pitting 1st in the League against 92nd. Three days later, Joyce’s men feebly lost 2-1 against Wrexham in the Auto-thingy in front of 2,331 cold and miserable souls at Boothferry Park…and while this may not sound like one of the more consequential games in City’s century-long history, some continue to see it as a pivotal moment in a pivotal season.
Joyce reportedly read his hapless squad the riot act for the first time after this fixture, finally asserting himself as the manager and not merely a player. He began earnestly recruiting for the task of keeping City in the league, and in the first few weeks of 1999 he made two signings, Justin Whittle and Gary Brabin. Added to the Lincoln duo of Jon Whitney and Jason Perry, and suddenly he had brought together a side of battle-scarred winners instead of timid losers.
City began scraping together a few results. Mark Bonner scored the only goal in his only game for City against Rotherham to keep us at least in touch, while a 4-0 thumping of Hartlepool the following week gave us genuine hope of a miraculous escape.
Suddenly we were on a run. A 2-0 win at leaders Brentford, inspired by debutant Colin Alcide (criminally under-rated, now and then) took us off the bottom, prompting delirious cries of “we are ninety-first” at Griffin Park.
There were setbacks – the televised trauma at Spotland, a miserable loss at Cambridge – but we finally believed that salvation could be ours. Joyce has expertly assembled a side of winners, and their conviction flooded onto the terraces. A streaky 1-0 win at Southend was characterised by incessant renditions of The Great Escape, which became both the title and the theme tune for our improbable rescue act.
In our place had fallen Carlisle and Scarborough, the latter coming to Boothferry Park in April for a game that they had to win. Officially, 13,949 squeezed into the old place for the game, only a few hundred over capacity, although the actual attendance must have exceeded comfortably 16-17,000. We drew the game in a white-hot atmosphere, a trifle disappointingly, but by now safety was almost assured as our North Yorkshire neighbours hit a bad run of form from which they could not escape.
Finally, on the penultimate day of the season, Joyce’s City side secured a 1-0 win over Torquay United that guaranteed The Great Escape. He signed a new contract on the pitch, the fans cheered wildly, there was untold glory ahead.
There is no possible way in which Warren Joyce’s achievements in 1998/9 can be underestimated. Heading into the New Year, the Tigers were a broken side, adrift at the bottom of the table, morale at rock-bottom, their supporters bleakly resigned dropping into the Conference. What followed was fairytale stuff, all thanks to Warren Joyce. He took over a shattered squad, bought superbly and guided us to the giddy heights of 18th. It is a contribution to our story that deserves the very highest of commendation.
After the Great Escape
Were this a piece of fiction, the script would require Warren Joyce to lead us to promotion the following season. City started among the favourites to go up, and he was given cash to spend, recruiting Swales, Harper and Harris among others.
Sadly, it was not so. Our success of the Great Escape was based upon shuddering commitment, tireless effort and heroics in defence and midfield. Joyce failed to alter the side sufficiently to allow for a serious tilt at promotion, relying (perhaps understandably) upon the same attributes that had clawed us to safety. However, battling for a point is different to working out how to win a game, and City hovered frustratingly in midtable.
Joyce brought the Jamaican duo of Theodore Whitmore and Ian Goodison to Boothferry Park in an attempt to bring greater fluidity to our staid football, but the effect was only temporary. Having drawn Liverpool in the League Cup earlier in the season, another run to the Third Round of the FA Cup brought Premiership Chelsea to the Ark, although an anti-climatic 6-1 cuffing was served up. City’s fun in the cups wasn’t really covering for our disappointing League form…but by now, familiar storm clouds were brewing.
Nick Buchanan had assumed the role of chairman in a boardroom coup that toppled the popular Tom Belton, and his shady accomplice Stephen Hinchliffe had become City’s Vice-President – he was banned from acting as a company director for various malpractices throughout the years, though he lingered on the periphery like a fetid stench. And the money had totally dried up, with many questioning exactly where it was going – “South Yorkshire” being a popular source of suspicion.
However, while previous evildoing regimes were universally despised and fought against, the Buchliffe tyranny was not. Many didn’t have the heart for a third war against their own club, many simply refused to believe that they were deliberately acting against City’s best interests. They may repent now, they may amend history to disguise this, but the sad fact is that City fans were again divided.
Caught in the middle was Warren Joyce, Belton’s choice of manager but evidently not favoured by the Sheffield Stealers. A 3-0 gubbing at Rotherham finally saw some vocal discontent uttered against the owners, although plenty of derision was also aimed at the team. Even Joyce wasn’t immune. A 4-0 win at Carlisle the following month was too late to ignite a run to the play-offs, and with no ability to strengthen the side and no support from the board forthcoming, Joyce was finally sacked by Nick Buchanan, with Brian Little his high-profile replacement.
Warren Joyce was badly treated by the nefarious duo who had taken over City, of that there is no doubt. It was – again – to his credit that he refused to speak out in public, remaining as ever the consummate professional. His standing in the game was recognised by Leeds United, with the (then) Premiership side appointing him as a youth coach within a week of his dismissal at Boothferry Park. He went on to work in a coaching capacity with Royal Antwerp via Manchester United, the Belgian club who have established close links with Old Trafford.
He was recently invited to speak on a DVD produced by City celebrating the Great Escape he masterminded. His media performances while the Tigers’ boss saw a reserved, almost shy man – a demeanour even echoed when speaking during an interview with Amber Nectar. However, now in his 40s and a highly-regarded coach, he spoke fluently about his time at City, appearing to show a genuine affection for the club he helped to save.
Some time after leaving Boothferry Park, and perhaps embittered by his shabby treatment, he affected to have no desire to re-enter management. This remained the case until invited to become the manager of Royal Antwerp – one of Belgium’s most famous clubs, yet marooned in the Second Division. He took them to fourth in his first season and quickly became a popular manager. When he brought his side to the Circle in August 2007 for a pre-season friendly, all four sides of the ground hailed him. One hopes he realises that however badly a wicked pair treated him, his contribution remains sincerely appreciated by those stood on the terraces and watched as he worked a miracle.
City’s eventual recovery to the club we now see was long and often painful. It necessitated the removal of another hateful regime, financial ruin, exclusion from our own ground, the arrival of another saviour, a change of stadium and several different managers. We finally escaped Division Four, stormed through Division Three and now sit in what most would regard as our natural position, a middling second-tier club.
None of this would have been possible without Warren Joyce. Yes, it is fair to say that relegation to the Conference need not finish a club, although Scarborough fans may question that. However, by the end of the 90s, City were in a near-terminal decline. We cannot be certain that swapping the terrible football of the basement for the even more terrible football of the Conference would suddenly have seen us conquer all. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which City would have continued to slide, failing to get back into the League several times in succession, particularly with only one promotion spot to aim for. With financial crisis a constant companion for so long, the ultimate disaster of no more professional football in Hull could never have been entirely ruled out.
We’ll never know. Thank goodness we never had to find out. And while the Great Escape of 1999 did not immediately set us on the path to restoring our standing in the football world, it at least meant we still had a club that we could eventually nurse back to health. For that, and for one of the most thrilling half-seasons we’ll ever know, for playing the game in a committed and intelligent fashion, and for being a decent and honest man amid a succession of liars, chancers, inadequates and thieves, we give our eternal thanks to Warren Joyce – an authentic Hull City hero.