1997/8 was supposed to be a season of untold joy. Tennis gazillionaire David Lloyd was our new owner, charismatic Tim Wilby was the chairman, England legend Mark Hateley as manager…those were things we actually believed in during the heady summer of 1997.
We should have known better. We should always know better. City started badly, got worse and the whole thing ended in acrimony, despair and the all-pervading refrain of “thank fuck for Donny Rovers”. In the pre-Peter Taylor days, this was just another season of bitter unhappiness. Yet, there was one glint of glory among the darkness. That was City’s League Cup run – short, yet brilliant, and still talked about to this day.
It started off with a curiosity: Macclesfield Town’s first ever League Cup fixture, with the Cheshire minnows having just made to the Football League for the first time. City drew the first leg – for this was still a tournament with two legs in the first two rounds – before winning 2-1 in extra-time at Boothferry Park.
That set us up for a mouthwatering tie against Crystal Palace in September 1997. Yes, mouthwatering. At the time, City had bedded themselves in at the lower reaches of whatever the Fourth Division was calling itself at the time; Palace were in the top half of the Premier League. Few now would consider Palace anything other than a similarly sized club and a fixture of moderate but limited interest. To us, puzzled by a string of bottom-tier defeats, it was something to look forward to.
The first leg was at Boothferry Park, and over 9,000 squeezed into the old place to see the Tigers pull off a thrilling shock result as Duane Darby’s first half-goal ensured a 1-0 victory. Prior to that game we’d lost against Chester and Lincoln; immediately after we lost to Rochdale and Scunthorpe. That, I trust, gives a flavour of just how hopeless City were.
But come the second leg, hopes were high. Palace had been denied an away goal and we’d already seen City raise their game once against top-flight opposition. I recall the morning of the game as an earnest teenager telling a neighbour that “if we can just score first, nick an away goal, you never know…” He just smiled indulgently.
Well, City almost nicked an away goal after just a few minutes. I’d love to report upon it, but sadly the most common means of travelling to away games at the time was via Simon Gray’s coaches. He took three that night. Two arrived on time. Mine didn’t.
As we rushed excitedly into Selhurst Park twenty minutes late, marvelling at its size, those present told us we’d missed a disallowed goal for City. That, it was commonly assumed, was to be the highlight of the evening.
Then City scored a proper goal.
It came on the half hour, from a hugely improbable source. Ian Wright, journeyman centre-back, only ever scored once for the Tigers. This came from a corner that he rose to meet, the ball kissed the turf and bounced in. Mayhem erupted among the away support making up a healthy proportion of the 6,407 present. This was, incredibly, now possible. Palace needed two to force extra time; three overall to win it. We were agog.
In defence that warm autumn evening were Mark Greaves (before he got good), Gregor Rioch, Matt Hocking, Ian Wright and Tony Brien. Marvel at those names. That actually used to be how we lined up for games. But, as sterling as their efforts were that night, we’re now going to focus our attention on one man.
Step forward Steve Wilson. Bransholme’s Number One. Arguably the spindliest goalkeeper ever to keep nets for City. A man standing just 5’10”.
Palace roared forward, keenly aware of the humiliation of being dumped out of the competition by a club three divisions below them. City stood firm; and when they didn’t, Willo repelled them. He’d always been a good shot-stopper, but once a career a keeper has a game when he looks literally unbeatable. Think Myhill at Spurs, but substitute him someone who looked so small and vulnerable in that ground it was as though City had summoned a Dickensian orphan to go in goal.
We limped through to half-time, and hope was genuinely crystallising. We were to experience an onslaught rarely seen in the second half, however. Palace were an absolute class apart, and for forty-five minutes City hardly touched the ball. Shot after shot rained down on the Tigers’ goal, the nearest to where we were stood down one side of the ground. Yet Willo kept them all out. There were one-on-ones, long-range shots, cute moves that sliced our leaden-footed defence to pieces; yet they all had the same outcome.
On 56 minutes, Thomas Veart finally broke through. Our hearts sagged. Surely the home side would run away with the game now, and all we’d have to take back to East Yorkshire was a hard-luck story.
Yet City stablised things, and actually enjoyed a period of comparative parity after this. Maybe Palace, still trailing, thought we’d fold. We usually did in the League, after all. But this was the 1997/8 League Cup, and the usual patterns were being suspended.
Mark Hateley made three substitutions as legs tired and the play seemed to be conducted almost exclusively in City’s penalty area. Palace must have exceeded twenty-five efforts on goal by this point, mostly on target, virtually all foiled by Steve Wilson. By now, we were cheering his every save like a goal as he somehow foiled every attempt to beat him.
Palace scored again on 77. It was George Ndah this time, and now we really did fear the worst. City had about quarter of hour to battle through to make extra-time, then another frankly impossible 30 minutes. It felt like several lifetimes.
Steve Coppell, Palace manager at the time, still had one substitute at his disposal, and must have thought the back of the plucky Fourth Division side had been broken. He must have anticipated things being wrapped up without needing extra time. We did.
Willo didn’t. Somehow we crawled through to the end of 90 minutes, only to have another half an hour to endure. A penalty shoot-out had been rendered impossible by Ian Wright’s away goal, approximately 6000 years ago. We were, technically, ahead. And off we went.
And forward piled Palace. City were almost totally out of puff, and were now entirely reliant on Steve Wilson. He didn’t appear to mind. Save after save after save studded the first part of extra-time. We were shattered in the stand. The outfield was virtually obsolete. But…now Palace were doubting themselves. Sometimes, the sheer brilliance of an opponent can wear you down. They suddenly realised that they may not, after all, get the better of this diminutive, agile obstacle.
They didn’t. City didn’t cross the finishing line, they stumbled over it. Steve Wilson was feted by his team-mates and by the exultant Tiger Nation. We sang songs of victory we’d not really thought possible, and bellowed our acclaim into the South London skies, and headed back to Hull with a smile that took days to recede.
Steve Wilson had an interesting career with City. He spent nine years at his home-town club, a period spanning from 1992-2001. Many of those years were spent as second choice to a string of other keeps – some deserving (Fettis, Carroll, Musselwhite), others notably less so (Bracey, Thompson)
His flaws were obvious, and not restricted to his lack of height. He was hesitant with crosses. His handling was erratic. He couldn’t kick. At all. But his shot-stopping was remarkable, his agility peerless, his reflexes uncanny. And what’s more, he really seemed honoured to be playing for the tigers.
Without doubt this was his finest hour playing City, and remains one of the greatest performances by a Tigers keeper in the past thirty years. Tomorrow takes us back to Selhurst Park – we’ve returned since that night, but it will be forever associated with a beaming, proud Steve Wilson and a display for the ages.