December 2002 will be forever remembered as a bittersweet month. On Wednesday 18th, City played their first game at the brand new, jaw-droppingly impressive Kingston Communications Stadium (The Circle to us). The feeling of entering that shiny new Premiership-quality stadium will never be forgotten. “Is this for us? Really? Are you sure?” City, then twelfth in the fourth tier, were about to embark upon a journey of unprecedented success, and a great share of the credit must go to our present home.
How poignant then, that as 22,495 people levered themselves into the gleaming Circle on a freezing East Yorkshire night, just a mile and a quarter away stood Boothferry Park. Dark. Quiet. Forgotten. Its floodlights would never be lit again. Its lush pitch had seen its last competitive fixture. Bunkers, Kempton, the Best Stand, even the North Stand – ultimate symbol of decline – would never welcome a Tiger throng again. The old place was condemned to rot, falling to pieces in ghastly slow motion over the following years until, finally, it was hauled down, changing the Hull skyline forever.
Things change and eras draw to a close, but we needn’t forget them. Today marks ten years to the day that Boothferry Park hosted its final City game and the flag atop the North Stand was solemnly lowered. And looking back, it’s hard to imagine that City could have said a more fitting farewell.
Most clubs would leave a beloved home with a rousing victory, but not City. Truth be told, Boothferry Park probably wasn’t that happy a home. Sure, there were the halcyon days of the 1970s, when half a million people used to crowd the place to see Chaggy and Willo score hat-tricks apiece against Real Madrid every week, but those good times, and a brief renaissance in the 1980s aside, the place never brought us anything like the realisation of potential the Circle has. Signing off with a crummy 1-0 defeat against fellow Fourth Division opposition, while galling, was scarcely inappropriate.
2002/3 was proving to be just another one of those seasons where City couldn’t find a way out of the footballing dungeon. It began with promise and money, and was already spiralling out of control by October when green-shorted spheroid Jan Molby was sacked. He’d taken the City job expecting to be the man who led us out for that first game at the Circle; instead, Peter Taylor was given the task of rescuing the season. By the time Darlington came to Hull on December 14th, City had progressed to 12th following a 0-0 draw at Wrexham.
Before that City had won the penultimate game at Boothferry Park, overcoming Boston 1-0 in a decidedly nondescript game settled by Damien Delaney’s first goal for the Tigers. Previous games at the Ark had seen the seemingly annual embarrassment by Macclesfield (3-0 in the Cup) and perhaps the stadium’s last great afternoon, a stirring and very late 2-0 win over Scunthorpe, a game that had close to twelve thousand present.
So, it was an improving but still inconsistent City that prepared to do battle with both Darlington and the weight of emotion on a testing day. The match was all-ticket, and all but a small sliver of the West Stand had been given to City supporters. In the end, 14,162 made it in, the largest (official) gate at Boothferry Park for years.
The team that day featured what would prove to be the nucleus of the side Peter Taylor would take to successful promotions – Ian Ashbee, Stuart Green and Stuart Elliott were all in the matchday squad, along with more forgettable individuals such as Carl Regan, Shaun Smith and Steve Melton. The most notable individual on duty for Darlington, who would go on to finish one place behind City in 14th, was Barry Conlon. Then aged 23 and already on his seventh club, he is remarkably still playing, now on his 16th club.
Before the game, the packed terraces welcome a “tour of legends”, some of the greatest City players of all time, all of whom bestrode the Boothferry greensward in happier times.
So what do you remember about the final game? “Not a great deal” is perhaps the answer. It was grey and a bit drizzly, aptly. Darlington wore a foul grey kit, City the appealing all-amber Sportscard-sponsored shirts. Attacking the damp patrons of the North Stand, the Tigers started the game brightly, as you’d expect – fourteen thousand people wanted one final happy memory, after all. Gary Alexander ought to have scored from a fizzing Stuart Elliott cross, but his touch was too weak and it flew wide. Sadly that was about it from the Tigers, who were just trying too hard to force a goal.
Chris Liddle hit a crossbar for Darlington, whose 362 fans were not surprisingly making little impact in the vocal stakes. They’d be celebrating before long – with City labouring as the half drew to a close, the visitors took the lead when a sharp cross from the left missed everyone except Simon Betts at the far post – the former Scarborough and Colchester man executed a neat finish in front of an engorged Bunkers to pinch the lead in the 45th minute. It was his first goal in 22 months.
That, my friends, was TypicalCity. A big day, a big build-up.then deflation. As the two sides retreated from the rain at half-time, you sensed this was to be a forlorn day.
Gary Alexander was subbed at the break in favour of Justin Whittle, City’s second change of the day (Dean Keates had limped off for Elliott in the first half). Elliott nearly scored within 15 seconds of the restart with a rasping drive on the edge of the area that Michael Ingham smartly deflected wide.
On 47, things looked even better for City. Phil Jevons rang onto a long ball and tangled with Craig Liddle. Jevons was in a dangerous area with a possible shot to follow, but there was cover, however referee Mark Warren still issued red. Influenced by an inflamed Kempton? You bet. He wasn’t the first, though he was certainly the last.
Stuart Green’s free-kick hit the side-netting, but no matter, it still gave City 43 minutes against ten Darlington players to send Boothferry Park off on a high. Green went close again when he was put clean through, but with Elliott to his left and only Ingham to beat, he struck his shot directly at the Darlington keeper and it bounced to safety.
It became a siege as desperation washed over Boothferry Park. A Jevons cross was half-cleared to Green, whose left-footed shot was parried by Ingham straight to the unmarked Anderson barely six yards out, with the goal gaping. And he sliced his shot wide.
City pushed on even more. A cross from the left fell to Green, who volleyed across goal to Jevons.it ricocheted off the striker and simply hit Ingham, who fell gratefully onto the rebound.
There was to be no fairytale ending. City fell to the sort of cheap defeat that was usually heralded with a chorus of boos at the time; instead, a resigned silence greeted the referee’s final whistle. The players hared from the pitch, and most of the crowd spilled onto it.
We weren’t really sure how to react. There was nothing to celebrate, not even a solitary point against sodding Darlington. It was a sombre mood on the sodden pitch as the reality of leaving hit home. No more Boothferry Park. That was it.
The vast majority present had known nothing but Boothferry Park – from the old-timer in the Best Stand to the adolescent looking forward to the day he could swap South Stand seats for Bunkers, a rite of passage many can identify with.
Photos were taken, clumps of turf were furtively removed, and eventually voices were found. City fans do defiance in adversity rather well, and we sang a few songs, and lingered just a bit, not wanting to leave quite yet. The flag atop the North Stand was slowly lowered, eyes watered and throats developed lumps, and we finally filed out of Boothferry Park for the last time, heads bowed and tongues stilled.
Ten years. There are now young City fans who never went to Boothferry Park, and even some who weren’t born when it closed. The years will pass, and those who remember its cracked terraces, its chipped paint and its atmosphere will grow fewer.
Some day, those who never sampled it will wonder why we old giffers of the future still get misty-eyed about a ground that crumbled a little more every year and where success constantly eluded us – and while some couldn’t wait to leave, we nostalgics will pause and ruminate: we grew up there. We went with our dads, our mates, and it was a huge part of our lives. Boothferry Park was our home, and today, ten years after its closure, to some it will always be home.
And at least we did get from Boothferry to Wembley in the end.