“EARLY LEAVING FANS MISS A BLOOD CURDLING FINALE” screamed the headline in the Monday 28th December 1970 edition of the Hull Daily Mail. “You don’t say”, was the response from the nine year old me, my father and my maternal grandfather.
Life is all about learning lessons, and boy had I learnt one two days earlier on a particularly cold Boxing Day, to wit: “Never leave a football game early”. It’s such a simple, obvious truism but one which every week is ignored by hundreds, nay thousands of football fans throughout the land, as the temptation to make an early getaway and beat the crowds as their team is falling to an “inevitable”, depressing defeat is just too hard to resist.
Such was the case at around the 83rd minute mark of this Yorkshire derby at Boothferry Park, as visitors Sheffield Wednesday were 4-1 ahead, and had been since two goals from Jackie Sinclair and a Sam Ellis penalty in eight minutes at the start of the second half had ripped the heart out of the Tigers.
In our case it wasn’t the need to get to a car to beat the traffic, as we were heading back to my grandparents’ house just ten minutes walk away on Priory Grove, Gipsyville. No, it was more the fact that it was a) so bloody cold; b) City had been uncharacteristically dire that day; c) the leftover turkey and chips were so tempting; d) it was actually really, really cold. So when Grandad announced “I’ve had enough of this” and started to leave, we followed. As did several hundred other City fans. (I may well be romanticising this bit about it being my Grandad who started the exodus, but this was a chap who in his younger days had been thrown out of a Communist Party meeting at the City Hall for being too left wing. Rabble rouser, you could say).
Anyway, back to the football. This was a City side riding high in Division Two. A side that those who were fortunate to see in the flesh will never forget. Ian McKechnie, Frank Banks, Roger deVries, Billy Wilkinson, Ray Pettit, Chris Simpkin, Malcolm Lord, Ken Houghton, Chris Chilton, Ken Wagstaff, Ian Butler. (player-manager Terry Neill was replaced by Pettit as he nursed an injured thigh). They finished fifth that season, the highest position a City team would attain until 2007/08. In the interests of balance there shouldn’t be many Hull City teams who have the tag of “legends” applied to them, but this was most certainly one. A team renowned for scoring a lot of goals but not having the greatest defence, by any means, Boxing Day 1970 saw all of the strengths and weaknesses of this team magnified to the extreme.
After only four minutes, tackles that were ill-judged and impetuous by Simpkin and deVries let in Sinclair to serve up the chance for Mike Prendergast to score. 0-1. For the next 41 minutes, Wednesday seldom threatened, with City very much having the upper hand, but a combination of inadequate finishing and excellent goalkeeping by Peter Grummitt kept them out. However, just before half time an incisive City move involving Lord, Banks and Wagstaff allowed Houghton to bring the scores level at 1-1. A degree of calm and much needed warming Bovril filled the City faithful during the break.
Quite what the City players were imbibing at half time isn’t clear, but their defensive vulnerabilities were subsequently laid wide open. It’s painful to document the details of what happened in that second half up to the hour mark, but it involved City conceding the previously mentioned three goals, including Banks floundering on his back and handling the ball to concede a penalty for one of them, and Houghton going off injured (to be replaced by Paddy Greenwood). 1-4 down at home to mid-table Sheffield Wednesday; this, a City side, who had only lost two games at home so far that season, a 0-1 to Birmingham and a 0-2 to table-topping Luton.
In response, the football served up by City from the 61st minute was initially poor. Aside from a Chilton header that was cleared off the line by Harold Wilcockson, and a Lord effort that was hit straight at Grummitt, the remainder of City’s attacking philosophy was based around hoofing the ball forward with no real end product. Frustrating stuff, made worse by the chants from the away supporters of “easy, easy”. Our South Yorkshire friends must have found the resulting mass exodus hilarious. History fails to document precisely when the “we can see you sneaking out” chant originated but it was absolutely designed for this moment in this game.
To describe what happened next, your humble scribe clearly has to defer to the memories of a combination of stalwarts who didn’t sneak out and our local sports reporters. But it went something like this…
Between the 83rd and 87th minutes, Chris Chilton scored twice and Ken Wagstaff got the 250th goal of his career. The revival began when a long clearance by McKechnie was controlled 15 yards inside the Wednesday half by Chilton who then exchanged passes with Wagstaff and streaked away to plant the ball past the previously defiant Grummitt. So, 2-4.
Two minutes later a crossfield pass was headed on by Chilton in the most delicate fashion for the overlapping Banks. The full back wasted no time in going down the touchline and crossing the ball – but Chilton was still there in time to slam a left foot drive past the keeper. And it’s 3-4.
In the 87th minute with the Tigers in full cry and Wednesday bewildered by the pace and power of the revival, Chilton ran wide to the left to tease the defence apart. He slipped the ball across the penalty area for substitute Greenwood to push it back again and lay on the equaliser for Wagstaff. An inexplicable 4-4.
Further pressure almost resulted in an unbelievable pantomime-esque winner as City struck the woodwork in the 90th minute. The finale was played out in such a stirring style that the remainder of the 24,399 Boothferry Park crowd invaded the pitch.
Meanwhile, three freezing cold, miserable City fans arrived at their homely destination, perhaps a little confused at some of the noises they could hear behind them, to be greeted by the matriarch of the family saying “Ooh, I bet that was exciting; you’re early!” The results service, hosted by Dickie Davies on World Of Sport, had already communicated the news of the amazing events that we had missed, a result that left City in third place as the year ended, just two points off the top of Division Two.
The parallels with the current side managed by Steve Bruce in terms of their league position are quite clear. The potential for the current squad to improve on the “legends” and achieving promotion to the top flight is distinctly achievable. The possibility of us seeing a three-goal come back to 4-4 is unlikely. The likelihood of us missing it, should it happen, is utterly, utterly unthinkable.