For the current generation of Hull City regulars, a visit of Watford to the KC Stadium will always spark memories of a balmy East Yorkshire evening in 2008 when City completed a 6-1 aggregate hammering and secured a place at Wembley and, ultimately, the madness of the Premier League.
And quite right too, frankly. That night was sent from the gods to the Tiger Nation. We were going to Wembley, we were within 90 minutes of the Premier League, we were allowed on to the pitch, everything.
So naturally, we’re not going to reminisce about that night. Frankly, the various ramblings of inebriated, dumbfounded City fans on the very forums housed within these pages could do a far better job of conveying the events and feelings of that May night than any amateur writer with a password for the front page. So, instead, let’s go back on a much longer journey.
In January 1988, City were doing very nicely in the second tier of football. Don Robinson was a mixture of bonkers and benevolent in the boardroom, Brian Horton was managing a tidy team that had a genuine blend of flair and strength in its numbers, and with a few decent youngsters peeping through the dressing room’s keyhole, all appeared to be well. The month – and, indeed, year – had started dodgily with a 5-0 New Years Day cuffing at Aston Villa, now managed by Graham Taylor, but two days later the unwashed enemies from West Yorkshire were sent packing 3-1. Basking in this particularly delicious piece of glory, and with the club sitting in a handy top half position with much to whet the appetite ahead, the Tigers prepared for a semi-interesting trip to Watford in the FA Cup.
Watford were in the top flight, still tweaking many a nose with a mixture of route one ruffianism with the odd skilful trickle, but in the summer they had flogged their greatest asset, John Barnes, to Liverpool for £900,000 and future vegetable salesman Taylor had also left as manager after many years of patriarchal leadership, joining that very Villa that would crush City to pieces. They were bigger and richer than Watford but had, of course, been relegated.
Dave Bassett, looking for something new to do after implausibly bringing Wimbledon all the way up the divisions, joined Watford and had Taylor’s similarly inelegant approach to winning football but erred in selling some of his better inherited players a bit too quickly, making Watford more one-dimensional and predictable. They had a good recent FA Cup history – semi-finalists the year before (beaten easily by Spurs after running out of goalkeepers), runners-up three years before that – but now they were struggling and, in City’s eyes, were eminently beatable, even at Vicarage Road and even in a competition they valued, and a goal from Tigers’ skipper Garreth Roberts put Horton’s men ahead before the home side equalised and forced an interesting looking replay at Boothferry Park three days later. Night games in winter under those wonderful floodlights and on that immaculate surface were always a pleasure to attend, if not always actually watch, and so the third-biggest crowd at the old ground that season gathered to see if there really was that much of a gap.
Horton didn’t change the team, playing a 4-4-2 that had pace and power up front – Andy Payton combining with Alex Dyer – and some craft in midfield, with Roberts always willing to provide the pass-and-move simplicity alongside the more ambitious and visionary ability of Garry Parker, the most skilful midfielder of this City era. Billy Askew, a footballer with a big heart and a tremendous left foot, worked one side while the maligned (sometimes fairly so) but always industrious Neil Williams was effective and prosaic on the right against his former club.
The back five consisted of the tremendous Richard Jobson, also an ex-Hornet (and pictured above in the first leg), doubling up in the middle alongside the more battle-hardened Peter Skipper, with the two of them most fortunate to have the immortal, incomparable Tony Norman in the green shirt behind them. Meanwhile, Charlie Palmer (quick, positive, tough) and Pat Heard (slow, cautious, apt at conceding throw-ins) provided alternative views of what City full backs were like. It was by no means a finished side and Horton knew this, but he had great hopes for youngsters like Payton, plus Leigh Jenkinson, Les Thompson, Neil Buckley and Nicky Brown, all of whom were making serious claims for a regular spot.
Watford turned up with a manager in real danger of the sack and a sprinkling of household names on the teamsheet, but the general feeling was that these players were only household names because of their passage through the divisions with Watford and not through any real craft with a football, and the game proved such, as a fearless City absolutely ripped their opponents to bits in a one-sided first half.
The midfield duo of Roberts and Parker had one of their finest nights as a pairing, with the tireless captain forever available to receive the ball, irrespective of whether it was Palmer on the edge of his own area or Askew near the corner flag in possession, while Parker, quick in thought if rarely in body, only had to glance fleetingly before delivering an expert pass on to Dyer’s chest, or Heard’s instep, or into the sight of Williams’ enthusiastic run. Watford, with a glimpse of City’s immediate future in Elastoplasted hoofer Steve Terry in their defence, soaked it up professionally but were genuinely stretched.
Then, finally the deadlock was broken just after the half hour. Parker took a reverse pass 25 yards out and clipped it incisively under a defender’s studs to allow Dyer a half-yard of space to shoot. His low effort was parried dead by Tony Coton and Williams, joining the strikers in the box, was first to get there, sliding the ball into the empty net before a delirious South Stand. Player after player leapt on his back as an important breakthrough was achieved.
It got better. Watford were totally shellshocked. Within a minute, Dyer had turned his man just inside the area and curled a pristine shot away from Coton and into the far corner via a post. It was suddenly 2-0. It was as winnable as it ever could be.
City didn’t really have much of a record for beating top-flight opposition competitively. Naturally, we’d never played any of them in the League, and we were prone to exiting Cup competitions either to dross in lower divisions or, when the draw did spring us a tie against a big side, losing with either dignity or expected humiliation. So a 2-0 lead in an FA Cup tie, albeit against Watford, and albeit in the third round, was a big thing. This author, 14 and a half years old and with homework still to do that night, clutched his interval Bovril in the Well and hoped naively for an increase in the lead.
The second half was controversial, to say the least. Watford got an early penalty which nobody quite understood, including, it seemed, Watford’s own players, none of whom appealed with any real gusto when Malcolm Allen fell to the deck in the box. The referee did some kind of tugging mime with his hand – which still left us none the wiser, to be honest – and lantern-jawed hooliganism-apologist of the future Kenny Jackett stroked home a low spot kick, with Norman just an inch or so from getting a touch.
It all went pear-shaped afterwards, and the hapless Heard made his contribution when he closed down Allen as the burly Watford striker chased a long ball. City’s unstable full back got into position to block the obvious shot open to the man in possession – and then saw the ball go right through his legs, deceiving Norman completely as Allen’s toe-poke trundled in and pulled Watford level.
Watford, frankly, should have gone on to win at this point, and it remains something of a mystery that they didn’t. Allen could have ended up with a hat-trick, but on one occasion Norman flew across goal to keep out a goalbound volley that he had no right to even see, let alone save. At the other end, City flagged and sought fresh strength in extra time but Horton chose not to use either of his substitutes – winger Ray Daniel and striker Andy Saville – and the same eleven players battled through 120 minutes without any further progress.
The telly cameras were there too. Harry Gration on the BBC’s Look North was most unamused by the penalty decision (“if this is a penalty, I’m Bobby Charlton”, he hurrumphed as he narrated the pictures before him) while even that gentile ITV duo that kept perruquiers and wine merchants in luxury holidays, Saint & Greavsie, showed the goals. Their total lack of interest or knowledge was proven via Ian St John’s labelling of City’s second goalscorer as “Alec Dyer” while he also managed to claim that football’s favourite panama-clad maker of soft pornography, Malcolm Allison, had got the Hornets’ equaliser. Jimmy Greaves, for his part, was the first person this scribe ever heard to use the word “nutmeg” to describe a ball-through-legs incident, which was something.
Six days passed after the replay and City duly went back to Vicarage Road for the third match, itself occurring a meagre two days after losing a League game at Blackburn Rovers. The team was still the same, barring a call-up for Brown to replace the injured Palmer, but there was nothing left. The alleged big boys had done enough, and a 1-0 win saw them through to the fourth round; ultimately (and without Bassett, sacked around the Cup tie because of shocking League form) they’d make the quarter finals before losing to eventual winners Wimbledon, and then suffering relegation.
In many ways, one could argue with bucketfuls of hindsight that the Watford marathon, and the ultimate lack of success from it, was the beginning of Horton’s notorious end, as a well-placed City drummed their fingers through two weeks without a fixture, then got smacked for six at Bournemouth and eventually went 13 games without winning, a period which also saw the influential Parker sold, via a trip to the barber’s, to Nottingham Forest for £260,000 on transfer deadline day, alongside Williams, flogged for much less to Preston North End. The 13th of those games, a 4-1 reversal at home to Swindon Town, proved enough for the impetuous Robinson, and Horton left with pretty much nobody else believing he deserved to go.
With Parker and Williams already gone, the rest of that good team that faced Watford soon broke up. Horton’s eventual replacement Eddie Gray quickly got rid of Palmer, Skipper, Dyer, Heard and, most infamously, Norman, while also taking the captaincy off Roberts for no discernible reason. City fell out of the second tier in 1991 and wouldn’t return for 14 years, during which period Watford themselves dropped into the third level, prior to Taylor’s second coming and two successive promotions back to the top flight. Since City’s post-90s revival, there has been one abject defeat to Watford at the Circle (including Stuart Green blazing a penalty over the bar), one storming victory (3-0 in the promotion season, Michael Turner scoring after one minute to settle every central nervous system in the ground) and a joyless goalless draw last year as we started to get used to life outside the Premier League again.
But yeah, maybe you’re right. It’s really all about that night in the golden summer of 2008. Nathan Doyle scored, forgawdsakes…