NOSTALGIA: City lose six-goal Hillsborough thriller

By the beginning of the 1972/73 season, Hull City fans were somewhat disappointed not to be a First Division club. The fun, prolific but ultimately fruitless 1960s which had seen Cliff Britton build a team of legends and then refuse to dismantle them as they aged had become a progressive, promising 1970s, with a very young and brash player-manager at the helm.

Terry Neill, the same age as a good number of the players he had inherited when taking over in the summer of 1970, had operated a new broom at the club, still getting plenty from some of the legends of swinging sixties Boothferry Park that had served Britton so well without being afraid to tell them when their time was up. After coming so close to promotion in his first full season – the fifth place in Division Two was City’s highest post-war finish – there was huge hope for the campaign that followed. It had to be achieved without Chris Chilton, however, as the iconic centre forward, who didn’t always see eye to eye with Neill, was sold to Coventry City after just two games of the 1971/72 season and was able to play the top tier football his goalscoring record deserved. Neill shrugged off the concern and consternation of the fans by giving Cottingham-born Stuart Pearson the famous No.9 shirt, and he responded by scoring three in his first three post-Chilton matches.

City ended the season 12th, most disappointingly, and so the beginning of 1972/73 was going to be as key a test of Neill’s abilities as any previous point in his two years at the helm. It started badly; defeat at Millwall and a goalless draw at home to Nottingham Forest meant that the Tigers had yet to score a goal, yet alone acquire a win, by the time they made the short trip to Hillsborough in the August sunshine.

The previous season had seen Pearson not only settle in comfortably as Chilton’s replacement, but also as Ken Wagstaff’s partner. Rumblings of worry could be heard from Kirk Ella to Kilnsea about Wagstaff’s own future once news of Chilton’s exit to the Midlands was confirmed, and it wasn’t as if he wasn’t courted. However, football back then had an in-house policy and, if a club made an unwelcome bid for a player, they were refused, the receiver was replaced and the player in question never got to hear about it. So Wagstaff remained in amber and built up an understanding with Pearson quickly. City’s defensive frailties put paid to their promotion ambitions but the new twosome up top stuck away 26 goals between them, a total made more impressive when one considers it was the rookie Pearson who got the lion’s share.

Key here, however, as City traversed to South Yorkshire, was that Wagstaff was injured, and would have three separate, distinct periods out of the team. Phil Holme, a new signing from Swansea City, partnered Pearson in the early period of the season, including at Hillsborough, and later a young amateur with a promising future in the antiques industry, John Hawley, would get his debut. Neill was also breaking in a new midfield, with long-serving stalwart Chris Simpkin sold the previous season and Bill Baxter, a short-term signing the previous year, allowed to move on to Northampton. On top of that, the great Ken Houghton was slowly being phased out by starting the season as a sub. So there was an element of unfamiliarity about the side that took to the field. Familiar immediately from the opening seconds of the footage, however, are the magnificent sideburns of Malcolm Lord…

The ghost of City’s future was in evidence with the first goal, headed in at the near post by Dave Sunley, a player who would join City from Wednesday three seasons later and prove most underwhelming. The cross was supplied by Peter Eustace, a Wednesday legend back for a second spell after failing to settle in two years at West Ham United, and who would eventually coach and manage the team in the late 1980s.

City equalised through Pearson’s excellent header from Ian Butler’s corner, and then the same striker gave the Tigers the lead from about two inches after Wednesday had been bamboozled by Lord’s stretching lob across goal. For a time, City looked good for a first ever win at Hillsborough, but Wednesday were still level before the break; fading goalkeeper Ian McKechnie failing to hold Mick Prendergast’s shot, allowing Brian Joicey to tap home.

McKechnie was again at fault when Wednesday re-established the lead in the second half, unable to keep out Joicey’s well struck but gettable drive from outside the box. Wednesday sealed it when Billy Wilkinson tripped Sunley on the corner of the area – and had a cracking tantrum at the referee for giving it, despite it being a stick-on – and Tommy Craig put the kick to McKechnie’s left.

Neill wielded the axe afterwards. He dropped McKechnie and brought in the emerging Jeff Wealands, who stayed in goal until December and would be City’s undisputed first choice by the beginning of the next campaign, missing just one match. Establishment figures like Lord, Wilkinson, Butler, Ken Knighton and Roger deVries all saw their names erased from Neill’s teamsheet over the next few weeks, with only Holme, Pearson, the consistent Frank Banks, veteran John Kaye and winger Jimmy McGill staying put.

Holme was a success, scoring regularly alongside Pearson until or unless Wagstaff was fit again and he ended the campaign with a tidy 11 goals, with Pearson getting 17. Again, City’s issue was more in defence although Neill had a fair few players with injuries to contend with, and his side finished 13th, signifying another step backwards since his arrival. At the end of the season, he dispensed with Houghton and – acrimoniously – Butler, meaning that only a half-fit Wagstaff remained of City’s famous front five of the 1960s. Holme retired at the age of 26 to become a coach and Neill himself elected to stop playing.

Neill’s assistant for a brief spell had been Tommy Docherty, who later became the manager of Manchester United and, in the summer of 1974, paid the Tigers £170,000 for Pearson, who would go on to gain England recognition and an FA Cup winners’ medal while at Old Trafford, even scoring in the final as United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley in 1977. Pearson’s final season with the Tigers had yielded 11 goals, suggesting he wasn’t yet a finished article, but his departure was still greeted with a mixture of goodwill for the player and disappointment for the club by supporters, especially as City had ended ninth in 1974 and seemed to have turned a corner. With Wagstaff still struggling to stay fit for lengthy periods, attention turned to Hawley to produce the goals, which he did. Neill, for his part, followed Pearson out of Boothferry Park a month into the 1974/75 season after Tottenham Hotspur – to the surprise of many involved at both clubs – asked City for permission to speak to him about replacing the immortal Bill Nicholson. Kaye took over as manager and City continued to tread water in the second tier until the infamous relegation of 1978, during which Kaye was sacked.

Meanwhile, this victory proved to be Wednesday’s third from the opening four games, but a bad run in October and November – when they only won once – proved crucial in their ambitions to return to the top flight, from which they had been relegated in 1970. Such ambitions looked foolhardy the following year when they escaped the drop by a single point, but the writing was on the wall and they finished bottom of the Second Division in 1975, hence Sunley’s sale. They didn’t return until 1980, under the management of Jack Charlton, and finally re-acquainted themselves with the top flight in 1984.

City finally won at Hillsborough on the last day of the 1978/79 campaign, when goals from Keith Edwards, an 18 year old Garreth Roberts and Rob McDonald earned the Tigers a 3-2 victory. Paths didn’t cross again until 1990/91 – City’s green-shirted 5-1 humping at Hillsborough from that wretched season is the stuff of hellish legend – and then resumed when the Tigers finally re-emerged from the doldrums under Peter Taylor just as Wednesday were starting another slide. City won twice at Hillsborough – the definitive 4-2 win in 2004/05 under Taylor and a 2-1 success two seasons later with Phil Brown in charge. Nick Barmby scored a brace of goals in both games, and ended up with five in total from visits to Sheffield Wednesday with the Tigers. The last game between the two at Hillsborough was in the promotion season of 2007/08 and produced a 1-0 win for the Owls courtesy of a freak goal from Francis Jeffers.

City’s visit to Hillsborough this weekend comes on the back of three straight losses and, with an international break due afterwards, as great a need as any to stop the rot. The record isn’t great, still, but at least we have recent memories of victory there to go on.

The footage above is from our TigerTube page and comes from Yorkshire TV, who used to show an old game as part of a Remember When?-type feature each week when rounding up the weekend’s regional action on their Goals On Sunday show. John Shires is introducing Keith Macklin, whose commentary is a bit muffled. Sorry about that. VHS wasn’t flawless, unfortunately.

1 reply
  1. gjhdurham
    gjhdurham says:

    Brought back memories.Recall being underwhelmed by Neill’s defensive play in spite of the hype. Pleased that Chillo got a top flight chance, as all the knees and fists in the back from the likes of D. Smith, Stoke had taken their toll. Refs never seem to bother with such… Knighton one of the best midfielders for City imo…but seemingly a bit of a wild man and usually run himself out by 60/70 mins….no subs then! Pearson…sold too cheap!!
    As to VHS; Just recorded some stuff on a DVD disc, now the player says there’s nothing there!!….there clearly is!!!….

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