HERO – Wayne Jacobs

The story of Wayne Jacobs has an almost Dickensian feel to it. Bad lad made good, carving out a decent career after escaping trouble in his home town, starts to build a new life and then crippled by a knee injury and sacked at Christmas. And the Jacobs story gets bleaker still.

After such a heartless release from his contract at Hull City, he manages to find employment at the grimy mill town of Rotherham. After a season there, he’s released again, and questions are raised about his fitness once more.

Instead of giving up on football, Jacobs perseveres and finds a job in the backstreets of Bradford, and makes the left-back position at Valley Parade his own, plays in the Premiership, stays with Bradford for 11 years and ends up being the Bantams’ assistant manager.

In this time of richly deserved success on the pitch, one of his children dies. Even Dickens would have thought twice about inflicting such cruelty on one of his characters.

When Wayne Jacobs joined Hull City, the move had ‘typical Horton signing’ stamped all over it.

The fee was in the £25,000-£60,000 range that Horton loved and generally signalled we were getting someone a bit special, as we had done with the likes of Garry Parker, Richard Jobson and Alex Dyer. Wayne joined as a teenager who had played a handful of games for Sheffield Wednesday. It seemed strange that they were letting him go, and rumours circulated that the reason was because ‘he’d got in with a bad lot’. Still, Wednesday’s loss was our gain. The left-back position at City had been a bit of a poisoned chalice, with all and sundry having a go, from peaked-on-his-debut junior Les Thompson to the inept-wherever-he-played utility man Neil Williams. Jacobs’ signing in March 1988 was overshadowed by the return of Keith Edwards in the same week, and while Keith picked up where he had left off in his previous spell at the club, Jacobs quietly but efficiently went about making the left-back position his own. On debut at Leicester, Jacobs crossed to Edwards for City’s equaliser in a 2-1 defeat, a game for which he received a seven out of ten in Match magazine. I have no proof of this, but I’m quite sure that Wayne received a seven out of ten for every game he ever played in, be it in Match, Shoot, the News of the World or The People. He was that kind of player. Eights and nines would just be showing off, while fives and sixes were never an option.

A month after signing Jacobs, Horton was sacked by City. In Horton’s final game, Jacobs headed the ball off the line for the goal that gave Swindon the lead. Sadly, the inept officials ruled that the ball had crossed the goal line, even though Jacobs was stood on it as he headed the ball out. Had that goal not been given, who knows how different City’s subsequent fortunes would have turned out. Interestingly, at this point caretaker managers Tom Wilson and Dennis Booth started playing Wayne at centre-back for the juniors (for whom he still qualified, and at the time were going on a Northern Counties Cup run that saw them narrowly lose to Newcastle in a two-legged final). Whether this was to toughen him up or in the vain hope that he’d undergo some sort of late growth spurt, I don’t know, but Wayne’s excellence at left-back meant that he never needed to be considered anywhere else on the park. When you’re a master of one trade, you don’t need to be a jack of any other.

For the sake of the article, I’ll separate the seasons Jacobs was with us, but things tend to get a little monotonous. Rarely put a foot wrong… was one of our best two or three players of the season… a model of consistency… repeat to fade. During these seasons City were struggling to find a decent right-back (cough… Malcolm Murray… cough…) which only served to emphasise Jacobs’ value to the team. Whether it was Billy Askew, Leigh Jenkinson or Graeme Atkinson in front of him, the left *midfielder could go about his business knowing that he would receive ample support from Wayne’s overlaps and that tracking back wasn’t as essential as it might have been when partnering other full-backs, as Wayne’s abilities meant that few would pass without being dispatched into Kempton or the Well.

The 1988/89 season started with Jacobs as first-choice left-back, ahead of Ray Daniel and Les Thompson. A couple of injuries blighted this season to some extent for Wayne, but he was a vital member of the team that went on the memorable cup run that culminated in the epic 3-2 home defeat to Liverpool. Wayne was City’s best defender on that day (though given that the rest of defence was Nicky Brown, Neil Buckley and an unusually nervy Richard Jobson, that’s not much of a claim) and coped admirably with Liverpool’s slick attacking play. By this point, the Boothferry faithful were beginning to realise that we had someone a bit special; his eager runs to assist attacks were typical of one so young, but his defending showed all the anticipation and awareness of a weathered veteran.

The 1989/90 season saw Wayne play for his fourth and fifth set of managers before he’d completed two years at the club. Colin Appleton returned and went, and Stan Ternant took up managerial duties. Both managers saw what was blindingly obvious: that despite his youth, Jacobs was undroppable. It was during this season that Wayne scored his most remarkable goal for the club. Away to Barnsley and City 1-0 down, midway through the second-half a corner is cleared to Wayne who is, for some reason, lurking about 25 yards from goal. What to do was obvious: head the ball back in the mixer and hope it causes a bit of panic in their defence. But not Wayne. Oh no. Wayne calmly lobbed the keeper with an incredible floating header that seemed to take an eternity to nestle in the back of Barnsley’s goal, and earn us a vital point in our struggle against relegation. Wayne was an ever-present in what was an invigorating season, scoring three goals and, despite the fact that the Payton/Swan partnership had been ignited and Jobbo was in his prime, there was no one more popular than Jacobs among the City faithful.

The next season was the beginning of the end for City, as it was the season that Terry Dolan took the helm, and it was also to prove so for Wayne Jacobs. Ternant’s heroics of the previous season had been difficult to emulate and he wasn’t helped by an injury to Jacobs in the early part of the season. This meant that for the first time since his appointment, Ternant had to come up with a replacement for Wayne. His solution? Not to bother. Stan’s no-left-back plan worked well in an away victory at Watford but was cruelly exposed seven times by West Ham at Upton Park. We all knew Wayne was irreplaceable but we didn’t expect the manager to take this so literally. Ternant was eventually sacked and went on to eke out a career as a poor man’s Neil Warnock, while City stumbled to relegation under Dolan. Jacobs only managed 19 games this season, though did score a belter in a 2-1 home win against Newcastle. However, his injury-prone season was something that would play heavily on the minds of the Hull City board when making the most moronic decision of their lives a few months later.

The season of 1991-92 was to be the last time we would see Wayne Jacobs in a Hull City shirt. Despite the club’s financial worries and the sale of Andy Payton, a decent start had been made, with Wayne playing a crucial part. However, a cruciate ligament injury ended Wayne’s Hull City career and, in the eyes of Fish and Dolan, ended his playing days for good. His release was handled in the usual blundering way we’d become accustomed to by now from the City board. After not having played all season, but having played 150 games for City in all competitions, Wayne was unceremoniously dumped on the football scrapheap, aged 24, during Christmas 1992 in a manner in which you wouldn’t wish on the Kevin Gages of this world, never mind a player that had given loyal service to the club both on and off the pitch, and who was immensely popular with the fans. The whole affair reflected badly on everyone involved, from the uber-unpleasant Christopher Needler to, I’m sorry to say, Jeff Radcliffe and the medical staff.

Players released by City tend to follow a certain route: get picked up by another Yorkshire team, get released by that team pretty quickly, sign for North Ferriby, get fat, sign for Hall Road Rangers, get fatter, spend your early 40s waddling around in the Hull Sunday League kicking anything that moves (when you’re not face-down in a pool of your own vomit in your local after spending the evening boasting to everyone how you once marked Tommy Tynan out of a game). Jacobs followed the first step of this well-trodden path; the summer after being ditched by City he was picked up by Rotherham. However, the Millers’ board and management were to prove as inept as their counterparts at Boothferry Park and released Jacobs after a season. Another crushing blow for Wayne and his young family. Then, as Church Road beckoned, upwardly mobile Bradford made their move, and Wayne found his home for the next decade or so, during which time he could and should have been sparing us from Craig Lawford, Greg Rioch, Michael Price, etc…

When Bradford City made it to the Premiership, Hull City fans weren’t exactly forthcoming with their messages of congratulations. This was understandable given the handing of the home end to them at Boothferry Park and the fact that the evil Geoffrey Richmond was at the helm at Valley Parade. However, even the most begrudging of those fans will have raised a smile for Wayne. Despite all the efforts of Tigers 2000 and the fanzines, Wayne’s resurrection and time in the Premiership was possibly the most satisfying two fingers that the Needler/Fish/Dolan regime received. The fact that he carried on playing into his late 30s further emphasises what a mistake it was to get rid of Jacobs. Wayne’s deep religious beliefs probably meant that he didn’t give those that had mistreated him at Hull a moment’s thought when his career was at its peak; as a committed atheist, I like to think that every time Needler, Dolan and Fish saw Jacobs holding his own in the top flight they put their heads in their hands and muttered “what a bunch of inept, moronic fuckwits we are”.

Wayne had two seasons pitting himself against the likes of Henry, Zola, Shearer and company, and the step up in the quality of the opposition didn’t seem to affect his performances. He was still that solid seven out of ten, week in, week out. Richmond’s ‘money’ was used to bring in big-name signings, left-backs Andy Myers, Ian Nolan and err… Lee Todd to name but three, but Jacobs saw them off with Whittle-like ease. The similarities with Justin don’t stop there; Jacobs’ status with the fans meant that managers were being judged on how they treated him. Even Richmond himself attempted to get rid of Jacobs, using his despicable business practices to try to force Wayne out by offering him far below what he was worth in contract negotiations. They didn’t work, however, and Richmond was to depart Valley Parade before Jacobs as the club’s fall from grace saw most of its stars desert the sinking ship. Jacobs remained loyal to the team that had been loyal to him, despite the utterly hateful Richmond at one point attempting to sack all of Bradford’s players to avoid going into liquidation (after he had dreamt up the Phoenix League – a ‘feeder’ league for the Premiership that Bradford would unsurprisingly be integral to). In modern football, such loyalty is a rare thing. In modern football, the likes of Wayne Jacobs are a rare thing.

All of the achievements of Wayne’s career, and the enemies and heroes created along the way, are put into perspective by a single event in the 1997/98 season. This is when Wayne’s baby son died. Wayne’s strong faith, which was later to be the subject of a feature on Songs of Praise, combined with the commendable support of fans and staff at Valley Parade helped Wayne through an unimaginably tough time. Wayne displayed incredible dignity and courage throughout this period, and was to play a vital role in Bradford’s promotion to the Premiership the following season. Wayne continues to work for the Faith & Football charity, and in 2005 took part in walk along the Great Wall of China with a handful of Premiership footballers. You won’t have read about this in the Press, as no impressionable young girls were lured into group sex sessions, no racist attacks were made, no cars were being recklessly driven by a pissed up millionaire that couldn’t be arsed to flag down a taxi. You won’t read about Wayne and the incredible stuff he’s done for communities home and abroad unless you deliberately search for the information. More’s the pity.

Wayne Jacobs’ time at Hull City was all too brief. The loyalty that he showed to Bradford suggests that had our then board not been so short-sighted and inept, Jacobs would have gone on to challenge Andy Davidson’s appearances record for the club. For those that never saw him play, Wayne is second only to Justin Whittle (and ever so slightly ahead of Pete Skipper) in being the most consistent player to have donned the amber and black in the past 30 years or so. Unlike Whittle, however, Jacobs didn’t seem to have a weakness: strong in the tackle, skilful on the ball, willing to overlap, an excellent reader of the game and always capable of supplying a decent cross. And then there are those 25-yard headers. He was also one of those players who would be the last off the pitch at the end of the game because he was acknowledging the support of the fans, win or lose. I know such things shouldn’t really matter, but it’s strange how it’s always the likes of Jacobs, Whittle and Skipper that make a point of doing this. Never the big-money, big-name superstars whose seasons tend to fizzle out once the grey afternoons of October kick in.

Jacobs was the best full-back Hull City have had in a long, long time, possibly since the 1960s. Until Sam Ricketts came along, Jacobs was so far ahead of the competition in the past 25 years or so, it’s embarrassing. He wasn’t the only loyal servant to Hull City that received disgraceful treatment at the hands of those that pissed on the club from a great height in the early 1990s – Gareth Roberts and Tom Wilson are but two others that will testify to that – but Jacobs’ treatment was the hardest to stomach. Seeing his career reach such heady heights after enduring such lows was immensely gratifying for any Hull City fans that could look beyond tribal loyalties. From a purely selfish point of view, however, it’s just a shame that Martin Fish and his cohorts’ crass mismanagement ever gave him the opportunity to reach his full potential outside of East Yorkshire.

Richard Gardham