They say that God moves in mysterious ways, and many a City fan will testify to that. God gave us the entertainment of Reverend Allen Bagshawe’s one-man Christmas carol choir for many years. More recently, He acted as an agent to Jay-Jay Okocha when the Nigerian legend was pondering which club to treat to his ineffective tricks.
Jay-Jay’s time at Hull never really worked in the manner God intended, but there is a very good reason why we should forgive Him, and not just because it’s the Christian thing to do. For it was God who brought Stuart Elliott to Hull City, and without the Ulsterman, we might still be languishing in the lower leagues.
Stuart Elliott was born in a Troubles-ridden Belfast in 1978. While his religious beliefs weren’t to develop for a few years, his love of football was apparent from an early age as Stuart spent his formative years playing for youth teams down the city’s infamous Shankhill Road.
Despite a few early rejections (due to his lack of height) Stuart progressed to the Glentoran first team, while continuing with his day job as a window cleaner. His goalscoring form for Glentoran soon attracted the attention of scouts from the UK mainland, and before long Stuart was on his way to Motherwell for a fee of £100,000.
The move to Motherwell was no coincidence. Elliott had found God in his late teens, and belonged to a denomination that had three churches in the world: one in Belfast, one in Motherwell, and one in Hull…
Despite an early struggle to settle in Scotland, Stuart soon became a huge favourite with the Fir Park faithful, and the freescoring wing play of Elliott and Stephen Pearson briefly made Terry Butcher look like a talented manager. However, financial difficulties in 2002 forced Motherwell to sell their better players for well below value, and Hull City and Jan Molby made their move with a cheque heading to Edinburgh for £230,000. Despairing Motherwell fans couldn’t believe Elliott had gone for less than £1m. The fact that he’d gone to a club in England’s bottom-tier only added to their misery. For such a prized asset in the SPL to join a League 2 team was quite a coup, and it soon transpired that Stuart’s decision to relocate to East Yorkshire had more to do with Hull’s religious offerings than any desire he had to play alongside Greg Strong and Shaun Smith. Would Elliott have come to City if his faith hadn’t led him here? God knows.
Jan Molby’s tenure at City was an unmitigated disaster, but in his brief spell he attracted three players that were to be integral to our two promotions: Stuart Green, Ian Ashbee and, of course, Elliott. While injury blighted much of Stuart’s first season with the Tigers, and the manager who had signed him was sacked after a handful of games, City fans were justifiably excited by what they had seen. Elliott’s pace was what you’d expect from a winger, but his finishing prowess, positional play and his ability to find space in the opponent’s penalty area. Most impressive of all though, was the gravity-defying manner in which he could seemingly float, therefore rarely losing a header. The Boothferry Park faithful were won over from an early stage.
A goal on debut against Southend in the first game of the 2002/03 season settled Stuart into his new surroundings nicely. A dazzling second-half display at Bristol Rovers as 10-man City came back to claim an unlikely 1-1 draw whetted the appetite further. Then, as a run of injuries kicked in, Elliott was in and out of the side for the rest of 2002, but he did provide the only memorable thing about the final game at Boothferry Park, coming on as an early substitute and tormenting the Darlington defence in an otherwise tame 1-0 defeat. The season petered out as Molby’s replacement, Peter Taylor, got to know his squad, but Elliott finished the season with 12 goals as his new manager tried to work out if the Ulsterman would work better as a left winger or a striker.
The answer, quite emphatically, was a left-winger, as Stuart would show in some style over the next two years. The 2003/04 promotion year saw a front four of Elliott on the left, Jason Price on the right, and Danny Allsopp and Ben Burgess up front. As City stormed to promotion, that quartet finished with 14, 10, 15 and 18 goals, respectively; the first time since 1966 that four City players had passed double figures in the league (Waggy, Chillo, Houghton, Butler and Henderson, if you’re interested).
City’s threat down the flanks was vital to the team’s success. While Price’s hat-trick against Doncaster over Christmas was probably the most memorable such contribution, Elliott’s goals were also to prove priceless. His quite brilliant header in the home game against Swansea, the first watershed game at the KC, saw us beat the then league leaders 1-0. A late equaliser, finished with what previous generations would describe as ‘aplomb’, saw us snatch a late, ill-deserved equaliser against Torquay and keep the unbeaten run going that was to the foundation for the season’s success. A goal in a 1-1 draw at Scunny, a brace at home to Cambridge in a 2-0 win and the winner in a 1-0 win at Darlington over December and January emphasised Elliott’s value to the team as we inched towards our first promotion in 19 years.
Fourteen goals in a season is quite a benchmark to set for a winger. When stepping up a level, Stuart would maybe have had his eyes on getting into double figures during the 2004/05 season in League 1. However, with an Burgess sitting the season out and Allsopp running out of form, Taylor was to move to pull off the incredible signing of another forward that would revolutionise Elliott’s role within the team. Local hero Nick Barmby signed for City, and League 1’s defences had no idea what was about to hit them.
When discussing Stuart Elliott, City fans will generally start a conversation with, “Well we wouldn’t have got to the Championship without him”. And so they should. Because it’s true. Without his incredible tally of 29 goals that season, 27 of them in the league, we’d have struggled to make the play-offs. True, others contributed massively to that season’s success, notably Leon Cort, but Elliott’s goalscoring, effectively from midfield, was the difference between us and the likes of Tranmere, Sheffield Wednesday and Brentford.
But before going through Elliott’s annus mirabilis, it is worth dwelling on the contribution to Stuart’s cause of Nick Barmby. Regardless of who was playing as City’s main centre-forward that season, and duties were shared between Allsopp, Aaron Wilbraham, Jon Walters, Delroy Facey and Craig Fagan, Taylor struck gold with a defence-shredding tactic. Elliott liked to press on past his full-back; Barmby liked to drop deep and dictate play from the gap between the opposition’s defence and midfield. It was as simple as that. Given Stuart’s finishing and aerial ability, so many City goals started with the ball finding a deep-lying Barmby and ended with a cross being swung over to the left where Stuart would escape or outjump his marker and inevitably score. In only the second game of the season, a 3-0 away win at Torquay in which Elliott scored twice, the bewildered opposition manager, Leroy Rosenior, commented how he couldn’t see City failing to score all season.
Elliott netted four times before the end of August: two against Torquay, a late strike which looked as though it would clinch City a point in an exhilarating 3-2 defeat at Port Vale, and a thumping header from an Andy Dawson corner in a memorable 2-1 away win at newly relegated Barnsley. September brought four more; one at home to Blackpool to help us to a 2-1 win, a brace away to Peterborough in a 3-2 win and strike away at Hartlepool in the LDV Vans Trophy.
You’re probably already noticing how many of these strikes come in games that we would win by the odd goal. Stuart seemed to have a nice habit of doing that. With City already handily placed in the league table, only denied top spot by Luton’s incredible start to the season, the Tigers were then to go on a run that would see them lose just once between mid-October and early January, and during this time play some of the most impressive football ever, and I mean ever, seen in a black and amber shirt.
Hard-of-thinking revisionists who deride Peter Taylor as a defensive manager would do well to remember this. Of course, Elliott was to play a vital part in this run, a run which could only be curtailed by the bony end of a cowardly West Yorkshire elbow. Form during this two-and-a-half-month spell was beyond anything seen in a City shirt for a long, long time. In terms of goalscoring, only Deano, Andy Payton and Keith Edwards had really come close to showing such prolificacy in front of goal in the previous 30 years, all from a centre-forward position. Fifteen goals in 13 games led our charge to the top of League One, and planted a foundation that meant we would not drop out of the top two for the rest of the season. So, starting with the first of those 13 games, Elliott scored twice as we beat leaders Luton 3-0 at the KC. The first a cross-shot that swirled into the top corner, the second a close range volley. Elliott was goalless in the 2-2 away draw at Wrexham, but found the net once more with a deflected shot at the KC as Walsall were soundly beaten 3-1.
After beating Morecambe 3-2 in the FA Cup, a journey to a snowy Swindon saw City on the receiving end of their only defeat of this spell, Elliott scoring a last-minute consolation in a 4-2 defeat. Better was to follow though. Play-off chasing Brentford were beaten 2-0 at the KC, with Elliott scoring both. The first followed an excellent passing display from the Tigers, which Elliott rounded off by rising to head home a Marc Joseph cross. The second was a piece of individual brilliance; a 30-yard volley that had Chris Kamara comparing Elliott to Steven Gerrard when awarding him the Sky player of the month award. Elliott was top of the goalscoring tables and City were applying pressure on Luton at the top of League 1. Our only worry would be whether we’d be able to keep hold of the freescoring Ulsterman.
We did, and he kept on scoring. Elliott’s next was in the FA Cup as we beat Macclesfield 4-0. We didn’t need Stuart to score as we hammered Sheffield Wednesday 4-2 at Hillsbrough, but Elliott played a full part in one of City’s finest performances in living memory. He did score in City’s next away game four days later though, a skidding volley that flew underneath Aidan Davidson as Colchester were put to the sword in a comfortable 2-1 victory. Third-placed Tranmere were up next. Elliott scored his only hat-trick for City, and concussed substitute keeper Russell Howarth, meaning Tranmere fielded former Tiger Theo Whitmore in goal for the second half. City won 6-1. A Boxing Day trip to Blackpool is never the warmest of prospects, but Elliott had other ideas. A 2-0 win ensued, with Elliott scoring twice – first with a low shot after out-pacing the Tangerines’ defence, and second with rocket after out-pacing the Tangerines’ defence.
You’ll all have a favourite Stuart Elliott memory. For most of you it will be, understandably, that winner against QPR. For some it will be the goal at Wigan. Or perhaps the lob against Plymouth. For me, however, there is no competition. At about 9.25pm on Tuesday 28th December, 2004, Stuart Elliott cemented his name as one of the all-time Hull City greats. Older heads may chunter about Waggy and Chillo, cynics may sneer about his lack of goals in the Championship, but anyone who witnessed this incredible season close at hand will not deny Stuart such an accolade. Any one of the 20,000 or so City fans at the KC that night will be shouting it from the rooftops. Doncaster, more of an irritant than a bona fide rival, had come to the KC and were drawing 1-1. The visitors had been applying most of the pressure in the second half, but had come up against an inspired Bo Myhill. The usual Doncaster tactic of playing like scum bastards had reared its ugly head in the 80th minute when McSporran clattered Barmby and then bravely had a kick at him while he was on the ground. Barmby retaliated and both saw red. Donny still looked the most likely to score when on 85 City hoofed clear a corner. The ball was sailing harmlessly to Donny’s right-back and there seemed to be no danger of anything happening. However, Elliott saw things differently. The right-back made a hash of things and the ball sailed over his head. Elliott sailed past the hapless defender and advanced into the Donny half. In his way were a Doncaster centre half and goalkeeper. Elliott coolly skipped past the lumbering defender and slotted the ball under keeper Warrington. The KC exploded as Elliott cartwheeled away. It was a thing of beauty. Total, utter, unadulterated beauty. Then as Doncaster sought another equaliser, McIndoe waltzed into the Hull City penalty area. He got as far as the penalty spot and drew back his foot, an unmissable goal awaiting him. However, a defending foot got in and blocked the winger’s shot. That foot belonged to Stuart Elliott. You’d already guessed that, hadn’t you? Some people will tell you that Stuart Elliott didn’t do defending. While it was by no means his strongest suit, he did his fair share.
That was to be the last 90 minutes Elliott would complete for a couple of months. Our next game, against Huddersfield, saw City win 2-1, and Elliott had done his duty by slotting home an equaliser a couple of minutes after the Terriers had taken a fortuitous lead. A winner coming from the unlikely combination of Stev Angus and Aaron Wilbraham sealed the victory, but late in the second half, as City were defending a corner, Elliott was left motionless on the ground and stretchered off. He’d broken a cheekbone, after his head had unwisely made contact with Efe Sodje’s elbow. Sodje’s career seems to be littered with unsavoury incidents, and thanks to this act, we were robbed of Elliott’s presence for six weeks, just when he was at his peak.
Considering the booing Paul Rachubka has received when playing City after his challenge that crocked Ben Burgess, a challenge that was clumsy but in no way malicious, I’ve always been disappointed at the relatively easy time Efe Sodje has been given by the City faithful since that day. A cynic would suggest that Sodje’s elbow was deliberate and targeted, by a player that has a history of thuggish on-pitch behaviour. I consider myself a cynic. Apparently many the then City players and Adam Pearson consider themselves to be too.
Elliott was ruled out for the best part of two months, and City’s promotion charge became more of an amble. After a 3-1 win at Stockport on January 3, City failed to win in their next six Elliottless games, and – a colossal 3-1 win at third-placed Tranmere aside – it was only when Elliott returned that City regained their swagger.
On his first game back in a 1-0 home win against Hartlepool, Elliott scored a rebound after his own penalty was saved. He scored from the spot a few days later in a 2-0 home win against Torquay. Then came the game where City fans finally started to believe that promotion was more of a likelihood than a possibility, a 4-0 win at Bournemouth on a sunny spring day. Elliott scored twice as Bournemouth – then in the play-off places – were torn apart. Stuart then went on to score again in the game that would effectively seal Championship status at the first time of asking in a 2-0 win at Bradford in April. He would score only once more during the season, a penalty in a home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, leaving him one short of the 30 mark and level as the division’s top scorer with a certain Dean Windass. Championship here we come…
There seems to be a general consensus that Stuart Elliott didn’t cut it in the Championship. And there is good reason for this. His goal tally has decreased and his appearances have been sporadic. An asthmatic-type condition hasn’t helped either. But to write off Elliott’s time with City in the Championship would be foolish. His seven goals in our first season back in the second tier, a season largely interrupted by injury and a glimmer of good form from Kevin Ellison, was a good return, and included a terrific lob in a 1-0 win at Plymouth to give us our first away win of the season, after Marc Joseph had been sent off. He finished our top scorer that season. Ask any wide player in the division at the start of a season if they’ll be happy with seven goals come May and the vast majority will reply in the affirmative. But ultimately, the start of Barmby’s injury problems and the increase in standard of the defenders he was facing meant that Stuart was, for the first time since his move from Motherwell, not an automatic first choice.
Elliott was a first choice, however, for Northern Ireland. And in September 2005, Stuart played a full part in his country’s biggest win since qualification for the 1986 World Cup when England were beaten 1-0 at Windsor Park. Elliott, like the rest of his team-mates, worked his socks off in a game that the Ulstermen thoroughly deserved to win. A year previously he’d scored a last-minute equaliser at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland came back to tie 3-3 against Austria. In the game before the England victory he scored with a 25-yard free-kick – an under-rated aspect of his game – in a 2-0 home win against Azerbaijan. His international record stands at 31 caps and four goals, and is likely to stay this way, given Chris Brunt’s emergence.
Taylor departed and Phil Parkinson arrived in the 2006/07 season, and Elliott started in Parkinson’s first game, away at West Brom. Stuart was, frankly, abysmal that day, as the newly relegated Baggies tore through City in the first half. Elliott seemed to be on a different planet, and was merciful taken off by Parkinson at the earliest available opportunity. Elliott was to retain his place in the team for a short while until injury meant he was spared the horrors of City’s start to that particular season. As news of Elliott’s asthmatic problems spread, many wondered if we’d see him in a City shirt again. However, within a week of the news breaking, Elliott allayed such fears with a return to the team and a return to form during a mini-spell in which it looked as though Parkinson might be able to make a go of things at City. A thumping free-kick in a memorable 3-2 win at bottom-of-the-table Southend followed by a trademark late-run-into-the-box goal in a 2-0 win at home to Wolves reminded us that Elliott still had a role to play with City. Sadly, we were to only see him score four more goals in the amber and black.
Half of that tally, however, could possibly be viewed as Elliott’s most telling contribution to the Tigers’ cause. In January 2007, City were still in dire relegation trouble, despite a handful of wins as the Tigers improved under Phil Brown. QPR were also in relegation trouble, and the match at the KC was the archetypal six-pointer. QPR were evil that day. Pure evil. Their special brand of diving, feigning injury, time-wasting, haranguing the referee and general thuggery was football at its worst. Sadly, with five minutes to go they were 1-0 up. Scum. Utter scum. Defeat would have been a bitter blow that we may not have recovered from, but it was something that we didn’t have to worry about thanks to goals in the 85th and 90th minute from Elliott, who came on as a sub in the 80th minute. Of all the goals he scored for Hull City – and let’s not forget how vital some of them were – none would come near to this brace. In the fight against relegation, many players made important contributions and scored important goals but Deano’s goal against Cardiff aside, nothing matched Stuart’s double that day, in terms of importance or sheer jubilation. Elliott was a peripheral figure for the rest of the season, scoring only once more in the last game of the season, when relegation had been successfully avoided. He’d done his bit in helping stave off the threat of a return to League 1, though.
Elliott’s final contribution of note in a City shirt was scoring a typically spectacular volley in a 1-0 away win at Wigan in the League Cup, the first time we’d beaten a top-flight team away from home since victory at Coventry in 1972. It is sad that Elliott was pushed out, and rumours that Phil Brown made Stuart train with the juniors in the final weeks of his time at City are hopefully just that. It would be no way to treat such a legend. Many City fans will maintain that Elliott was worth a place in the 16, that his value as an impact sub was something that we lacked. Whether that was a romanticised notion, wanting to believe that a player whose contribution to the Tigers’ cause was unparalleled by all but a handful, isn’t something I’m prepared to go in to. I’d have sacked Allen Bagshawe and offered Stuart a job for life: chaplain, carol singer and a permanent role on the left wing in the reserves, teaching the juniors how to float. After a loan spell, Stuart made a permanent move to Doncaster, later turning out for Grimsby and back in Scotland ,Hamilton Academical and Stirling. His stats since leaving the Tigers suggest that his potency was significantly quelled by the exercise induced asthma. Still, those of us that had the pleasure of seeing Elliott at his peak have been privileged. His Hull City record finished with 68 goals in 211 games (166 starts). His stats for the 2004/05 season were 29 goals in 40 appearances. From the left wing, I remind you yet again.
True to type, Elliott this week announced that he would be focussing on Christian ministry now that he’s hung up his boots. Though he didn’t play at Wembley as we entered the Premier League via the play offs, or in the subsequent two years in the top flight, his earlier contributions were pivotal in our overall climb through the divisions. St. Stuart is a Hull City legend, make no mistake.