NOSTALGIA: Strachan breaks City hearts

It may seem a trifle odd to get nostalgic about a defeat, especially one to the most reviled and unhygienic team in football, but over the generations we have had plenty of practice at deciphering different kinds of defeat.

There are awful ones, bad ones, dreadful ones, abysmal ones, catastrophic ones, unlucky ones, suicide-inducing ones, homicide-inducing ones and ones that prompt a questioning rise of an eyebrow.

Then there are the oddly “enjoyable” ones. There aren’t many. They are hard to define. But they do exist. When the forum starts working again, I’ll link to a thread on this very subject.

There is no tangible joy to losing to Leeds United, of course. The inverted commas are important. Don’t bite my head off. But oh my goodness, what a game that was in 1990. The headline gave it away, but even so you knew immediately when referring to Leeds and “enjoyable” defeats that this was the one up for reminiscence.

Yes, we could have gone two seasons further back when goals from an unplayable Alex Dyer and a mercurial Garry Parker gave Brian Horton’s side the sweetest of 2-0 wins at Elland Road. But we’re Hull City. If ever there is mileage in giving agonising near-misses a second wind in print, then this is it. And we are in the defeats market at the moment, let’s be truthful.

In February 1990, City were in what I believe London people call “dead lumber”. Colin Appleton had returned as manager at the beginning of the season, failed to win any of his opening 16 League games and had been fired the moment Richard Chetham had taken over as chairman from the fatherly Don Robinson. The new manager came from the Crystal Palace backroom and had an instant impact, with Stan Ternent inspiring his inherited charges to a 3-2 win at Bradford City (from 2-1 behind, too). Results, with belatedness that would embarrass your average Government public inquiry, began to pick up but the chasm at the bottom of the table remained ever yawning.

City won four in a row over Christmas and then disposed of West Ham United at Upton Park a fortnight before the trip to West Yorkshire. Leeds were flying under the dour but astute Howard Wilkinson, with high-profile signings Gordon Strachan and Vinnie Jones leading the way. They also had David Batty, Chris Fairclough and John Hendrie, yet the presence of Vince Hilaire (enjoying publicity in the Top 40 with the Beloved at the time of this game), Peter Haddock and Chris Kamara suggested they weren’t yet a finished team.

The Tigers fans were penned into one corner of the ground, in the days when penning was still allowed but was ready to be re-thought after Hillsborough. This fixture brought out the worst (ie, best) in the snarling, raging, spitting hatred that the Tiger Nation felt for their wessie enemies, while acknowledging that to Leeds and their unenlighted supporters, this was just another game. An important one, mind. City were in a relegation fight – though at least now it was a fight as opposed to the abject surrender of statistically unprecedented proportions that Appleton had been leading us towards – and Leeds had, by their deluded impression, spent far too long out of the top division (this was the eighth season, which as far as deserved absence from the top flight is concerned is on a par with giving Dennis Nilsen a conditional discharge) and wanted to go back up to, heh, where they “belonged”.

Strachan was magnificent. So was Jones. But City were too, as a whole. Stern and mean, but able to play. Ternent would eventually become renowned for his crazy indulgences in woefully unfit and unmotivated players who were too old, but in the early days he was a hero. He’d made just one signing (Dave Bamber, hold on for more on that…) and had revived the stagnating influence of longtime clubmen like Garreth Roberts and Billy Askew, both of whom took to the pitch at Elland Road.

There were more than 30,000 people in attendance. The Tiger Nation, seeing some decent form and their belief in survival given an unexpected spark, had turned up in droves. But Leeds took an early lead through John Hendrie and now it was all about reaction.

That reaction was devlishly quick though. And beautiful too. Andy Payton, the gifted natural finisher used unspeakably too much as a substitute by Appleton, won himself a penalty which he then blasted into the roof of Mervyn Day’s net, brazenly ignoring some comic attempts at putting him off by deckchair-like Leeds striker Lee Chapman.

End to end it became, and Leeds were still ahead at the break courtesy of an extraordinary and possibly unintentional volley from Jones that looped around Iain Hesford from 30 yards.

Still, there was hope for a result and scope for more entertainment as the Tiger Nation relieved themselves in the lavatories and, in a few cases, in paper cups, ready for the next round of warfare. Bamber, playing only his second game for the Tigers, won another penalty which Payton this time clipped to Day’s right, sending the greying Leeds stopper in the opposite direction.

City now began to exercise some control of the game, with Roberts encouraging, Payton flogging himself in the channels and the excellent – as usual – Richard Jobson in defensive command.

Then, with 13 minutes to go, a set-piece for the Tigers. In it swings, a Leeds head gets real meat on it and it drops to the deeply-positioned Steve Doyle, 30 yards out. There was no hesitation, no doubt, no alternative. He swung his right boot, got that one in 25 connection of perfection and Day showed the mobility of a cement mixer in watching it just clip his stanchion and hit the net. Jones’ earlier volley got the attention because of the player and team involved, but Doyle’s goal was better.

The Tigers led. But that adage of typicalcity has reigned long and true, you know. At 3-2 up and dominant on the ground of your most hated adversaries, with just ten minutes or so left, you know more is going to happen. You hope it’s a fourth goal from your team, of course. Let me tell you now, just in case you’re new to this – it never is.

Imre Varadi, a sore thumb journeyman making his debut within a richly talented Leeds team (for this level), scored an equaliser while City were still trying to come to terms with where and what they were.

So, 3-3. Still a worthy result, of course. Then several thousand minutes of injury time were added on, just enough for Jones to miss one turn and volley before setting up a chance for Strachan, who teed up a looping shot across Hesford and into the corner for a winner that, on the removal of all gut from one’s body scale, could never be matched by any Michael O’Connor strike, irrespective of what he does in front of E1 after scoring.

There was no time for another rescue. City had lost 4-3. They were 3-2 up and should have won the game. Everyone headed east again with a feeling of emptiness, trying to find the pride that they knew was lurking within their neutralised spirit somewhere. Well, I say everyone who headed east felt this way. Not true. There was a piss-boilingly tossy element of East Yorkshire folk heading east while wearing white scarves and broad grins. If you wonder why we hate Leeds then the whole internet couldn’t find space to list all the reasons, but at this particular point in history it was chiefly because of the number of Hull people who eschewed their local club to go there instead.

Yet there was a long term comfort in defeat as City, inconsistently but still sufficiently, found enough of the form brought on by their Elland Road motivation to survive in the second tier with reasonable ease in the end. Leeds, of course, were promoted as champions – and oh, didn’t we know about it from Kirkstall Road for days on end – “Oooh look Yorkshire, Leeds are back in the top division – let’s all celebrate!” – and two years later won the League championship thanks to Manchester United’s heart buggering off at Anfield at the same time as Gary Pallister’s foot arteries snapped in two.

The chief protagonists on the day had mixed subsequent fortunes. Payton scored 17 goals by the season’s end, Bamber got four, only three of which were for the correct team and are as unremarkable (albeit all three contributed to wins) as the own goal at Brighton is etched on our memories of this vile man forever. Roberts didn’t miss a game for the rest of the season but his career was over at 30 before another 12 months had elapsed. Askew was sold to Newcastle at deadline time, a move that still bewilders Newcastle fans to this day for the real money involved and the lack of return from the gifted but injury-prone player. Doyle could have become a fine City ratter on the park but never quite settled.

As for Ternent, well he turned into the bad guy very quickly the following season, investing heavily in ageing footballers before complaining with what became seen as typical gracelessness at the lack of investment in the team when he was fired the following New Years Day. He had been a terrific initial appointment but his own ego, need to surround himself with yes men on the park and stunning lack of self-awareness proved his downfall, something he maintains a bitter denial of to this day. He claims to have been promised the earth but got nothing. What he actually got was Bamber, Tony Finnegan and Gwyn Thomas, the three principal villains in the Ternent recruitment campaign.

Terry Dolan replaced him, and that opens a chapter that really would break the internet if we tried to sum it up here. But one thing he didn’t do was face Leeds United – the prospects of a Dolan side at its worst facing Leeds is too horrific to picture even now – and indeed, thanks to the inevitable fluctuating fortunes of the two subsequent to 1990, it would be 16 seasons before hostilities would be renewed. Peter Taylor’s side lost there without disgrace on New Year’s Eve 2005, then Phil Brown’s team battled to a goalless draw two seasons later as, eventually, Leeds went down and City stayed up. You may have heard about that.

And now over to today’s bunch. Feeling optmistic, are we? Hmmm. There was heroism in the 1990 defeat. But make no mistake, there was infinite times more in the 1987/88 victory, and as the last Tigers team to win there, it’s they we have to emulate tomorrow night. Jay Simpson can be Alex Dyer; Kevin Kilbane can be Garry Parker. Oh, do stop laughing.

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  1. […] of atmosphere and white-hot danger that Tigers fans who attended the great battles here in 1987 and 1990 still talk about fondly. Many seats are empty, even for a local derby that means everything to us […]

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