Although Hull City generally have a decent record at Glanford Park, home of the primitive Scunthorpe United, one victory there always stands out because of the crazy circumstances in which it came.
In December 2000, City were sinking to their knees. Full details of the horrors were still to emerge, but the club’s debts were piling up, the bailiffs were having three Shredded Wheat in readiness for a busy few weeks and David Lloyd, former owner of the club but still very much in possession of Boothferry Park, was bleating about unpaid rent which had gone into six figures. And, within all this, manager Brian Little had assembled a squad that was hitting form within adversity that no professional should ever have to see in his footballing career.
City made the short trip to Glanford Park on a run of just one defeat in eight Division Three matches, and that was a single goal loss at leaders Chesterfield, whom the Tigers had pretty much matched all the way. However, four days before, the Tigers had been defeated humiliatingly by Kettering Town in the replay of the FA Cup first round. Scunthorpe were in a bit of League form too, beating Mansfield Town 6-0 in the League the previous week. Managed by the incontinent but effective Brian Laws, and featuring luminaries such as Alex Calvo Garcia, Steve Torpey and a youthful, bleach-haired Andy Dawson, they were hovering in mid-table and had experience of a successful promotion campaign courtesy of their win in the play-offs two seasons before. Naturally, they had come straight back down again, of course.
The Tiger Nation packed one end of Glanford Park for what has always been slightly less of a grudge match than people from outside the Humber vicinity assume. There is mutual dislike, of course. But the Tigers have always felt a disregard and a distaste for Scunthorpe rather than a hatred, simply because the size and ambition of the club – and the place as a whole – make them barely worth a second glance. Scunthorpe’s feelings for City are a little more intense in their negativity but, to give them some due, one can’t help but feel that they generally give no toss about the rival credentials of anybody. Such is the way of things when your town and patch represents its own little world, allowing people like us to make lame, repetitive gags about specials visas and injections whenever we’re due over there.
Little had been noisily confident about Justin Whittle’s return from injury, but it didn’t happen. David Brightwell and Ian Goodison continued in the centre of defence, with Steve Harper and Mike Edwards in the full back positions and Mark Greaves playing one of his occasional cameos at the base of the midfield. Up front, Clint Marcelle passed a late fitness test and stayed up front alongside David Brown, leaving John Eyre bristling on the bench against his former club. Reformed Scuntiness existed, however, in the shape of City keeper Paul Musselwhite, who was afforded applause by each end of the ground.
The game was a hard-fought, barely fair occasion. Harper and Edwards had rarely needed to work so hard on the flanks, but do so they did. Marcelle was trim and quick but mainly ineffective up front against a rather uncompromising back four, which had seemingly recovered from losing skipper and talisman Chris Hope after relegation in the summer. Free kicks were conceded frequently and the game had little flow. The first half was formless and mainly chanceless – though Theodore Whitmore should have scored with a header and aimed one 25 yarder inches wide – and the second half continued in much the same manner.
Little slung on the subs as the clock ticked down. Eyre got an unflattering reception, of course, from the monosyllabic homies. Gary Brabin and Jamie Wood were also introduced, as if it was obvious we needed more width – of player, not of play – and shots aimed for the corner flag to heighten our chances. Scunthorpe spurned their one big opportunity when Guy Ipoua aimed Dawson’s cross over the bar from five yards. And, just as the 0-0 of inevitability approached its 80th minute, Marcelle took a tumble on the edge of the box under Dawson’s challenge.
Now, who would take this free kick? It was about 20 yards out, ideal for a left footer but, well, we didn’t seem to have one. Our left back, Harper, was right footed. Our right back, Edwards, was left footed but, well, not one for curling balls round walls and past goalkeepers. There was craft in the side – Whitmore being the obvious exponent of such – but nonetheless there was as much intrigue as to the taker as there was to the potential outcome. The whistle went and up stepped Brightwell, all clog and little subtlety it seemed, and this was how he took the free kick. The captain in Whittle’s absence went for pure power, got fortunate with a gap in the wall, and the ball cut the Glanford grass as it rolled into the net with all around it motionless.
The away end made a noise as if an atomic bomb had just landed.
The last ten minutes were played out with a sense of joy and belonging. The Tigers were going to win at Scunthorpe. It was a professional, mud-slinging display that said much about the attitude of the players and their belief in the football side of Hull City, while people in suits who didn’t know the shape of the ball made decisions on the club’s future. City, as a team, barely looked back from this point onwards, despite a period in early 2001 when Lloyd locked the gates, the bailiffs demanded goods, the taxman wanted money and the staff went five weeks without payment.
Brightwell, along with Marcelle, took the option of a free transfer elsewhere when the wages weren’t coming in. So many more stayed, however, as Adam Pearson took the reins and City ended up in the play-offs, albeit unable to get further than a semi-final against Leyton Orient. This was a stunning achievement, given that the team sometimes had to train on grassland around the stadium or on local pitches, without a hint of privacy or professional sophistication, and the players from further out took to car sharing or training alone because money for petrol was at a premium.
Given what has happened since, that season seems an age ago rather than a mere decade. It was kitchen sink drama within football. And within it was a very nice win at Scunthorpe, thank you. Both sides are two divisions higher than they were ten seasons ago but we’ll still want to beat them this weekend because it’s the decent and natural thing to do (and because we need to start beating the sides below us after drawing against those above) and they’ll still want to beat us because it’s the only mild thrill one can ever get, it seems, from being a fan of Scunthorpe United.