In goal there’s Alan Fettis, in his first season with Hull City but already a Northern Ireland international and a firm favourite among the fans.
At right wing-back is David Norton, a player who looks too good for this level in midfield or at full-back. Our left wing-back is Wayne Jacobs. Almost two years from now he’ll be released by the club, expected to never play again due to a knee injury. He’ll go on to play more than 300 games for Bradford, looking perfectly at home in the Premiership for two seasons.
Our back three features Malcolm Shotton and David Mail. Shotton – the last player in the English football to don both a side-parting and a non-ironic moustache – is an Oxford legend, having captained the club throughout its time in the top flight and League Cup win. Mail has played more than 200 games for Blackburn in the second tier. The best of the three, however, is Russ Wilcox. While his career won’t go on to hit the heights expected at this stage, he’s looked something of a bargain since arriving from Northampton.
The midfield is even more impressive. Leigh Palin’s waistline still falls in the ‘acceptable’ category, making him the most skilful player in the third-tier. Watching and learning is Dean Windass, only a few games into his second stint at Hull City after being released by the club as a junior. On the left is Leigh Jenkinson, who will soon go on to play top flight football in both England and Scotland.
So how, then, could such a talented team be so abysmal that they are to lose this third division game by three goals to nil, without even registering a shot on goal?
The answer lies in two duos. The first of those duos is our centre-forward partnership: Paul Hunter and Nicky Brown. Hunter is almost two years into his Hull City career, arriving for a six-figure fee with much fanfare from East Fife, where he’d been scoring goals for fun. Rumour has it that we beat Chelsea to his signature. Brown is a local lad who’s made his name as a half-decent right-back over the previous three or four years. Our lack of goalscoring prowess since the departure of Andy Payton a month previous has seen Brown – a striker in his youth football days – preferred to youngsters Stuart Young and Dave Walmsley. By the end of the season he’ll have retired from football in his mid-20s, deeming the fire brigade a a more suitable outlet for his skills.
Brown and Hunter are honest triers with little discernible quality, thrust into a hopeless situation. The other duo responsible for our mediocrity are just plain hopeless. Our manager is Terry Dolan. His assistant is Jeff Lee. The blame for our relegation from Division Two the previous season cannot be laid at their feet, though they were at the helm of the club for its latter half. They are, however, hatching a plan that will see them lead us to the bottom division for the longest stay in our existence.
London Road on a Friday night before Christmas 1991 was a good place to watch football. The away end was one of the most atmospheric in the country even in the days when the majority of them were all-standing. The strong following from City was drunkenly vociferous and the usual corrupting of festive carols into crude football chants had been taken on with relish. On a personal note, this was my second ever away match. My first – the 2-1 win at Bradford in the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1989 that led us to that game against Liverpool – was too good to be true, and I knew that. Tonight was to be a better preparation of what was to come, complete with Simon Gray’s coach struggling to get us to the ground on time.
In the early 1990s, Peterborough were one of the most upwardly mobile teams in the lower leagues, and had knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup earlier in the month. They’d already beaten us 2-1 at Boothferry Park in the third game of the season. Missing from the Peterborough line-up that day was one Ken Charlery. Sadly, we had no such luck in this match.
Throughout my City-supporting life (or, as it’s otherwise known, my life) I’ve generally followed the careers of players who’ve destroyed us, somewhat arrogantly working on the logic that if they are good enough to humble the superstars in black and amber, they must be on the path to worldwide domination. Ken Charlery heads this list, which includes the likes of Paul Lake, Fitzroy Simpson, Jo Kuffour, Matt Lockwood and Jamie Paterson, of players for whom I’ve predicted great things only for their careers to largely remain in the lower leagues or be blighted by injury. Only Marcus Stewart ever went on to have anything like the type of career he looked destined to have upon destroying the Tigers. If you’d told me that evening that Charlery was going to go on to play international football, I’d have imagined him taking on an integral part in Graham Taylor’s football revolution that was going to lead England to glory in the USA in 1994. As it was, he played a handful of games for St Lucia in a career that saw him largely flit around the lesser lights of England’s south-eastern quarter, including two further spells at Peterborough.
Charlery, quite frankly, spent that particular evening tearing us apart. Our defence had no answer to his movement, pace and first touch, which was reminiscent of Payton, by now, sadly, a Middlesbrough player. We were playing with three centre-backs but it seemed that we could have been playing with 30 and Charlery would have dominated the game. After dominating the first half an hour , centre-back Dave Robinson – on loan from Newcastle – headed home from a corner to put the Posh 1-0 up.
We never looked like getting back in the game, with Windass having to do Palin’s running for him in midfield – our former Bradford man having one of his ‘can’t be bothered’ days – and Jenkinson unable to get any change out of right-back Noel Luke. One of the City players playing in this game had told me that Dolan’s sole words to the team immediately prior to a home 1-0 defeat to Bury earlier in the season were “hit the ball over the right-back’s head for Jenks to run on to”. Literally just that. Our tactics in this game rarely veered from this course. All it took was a half-decent or pacey right-back and our whole game plan was destroyed. On the few occasions Jenks did find any joy down the left wing, Hunter and Brown didn’t look capable of getting on the end of anything he might create.
Just when it looked as though we were going to get to half-time only one goal in arrears, Charlery conjured up a bit of magic to put in David Riley, who beat Fettis with ease. The away team’s heads were bowed to a man, beaten with a half still to play. The only plus side was that upon witnessing this, the City fans decided that they were going to enjoy themselves in spite of the team’s impending defeat. At half-time, in my youthful innocence, I didn’t query what was contained in all of those bottles wrapped in Jackson’s carrier bags, nor what those funny smelling cigarettes were that the group in front of me were smoking. All I know is that the away contingent never stopped singing from that moment on. The 12 Days of Dolan was repeated time and time again. The game ceased to matter, as our seasoned travelling fans began to get what they could out of an excursion that was to prove to be all too familiarly pointless from a footballing perspective.
When the second half commenced, normal service was resumed. Charlery continued to dance around our defence and was soon to make the game 3-0 with a low shot from the edge of the area which Fettis should have saved but, with his confidence shattered, didn’t get anywhere near, the first chinks we’d seen in the Ulsterman’s armour. Charlery continued to dictate proceedings, helped in no small part by Riley and former Watford winger Worrell Sterling, but the rest of the game was played at exhibition pace, notable only for the drunkenness of City’s following.
Peterborough, under the tutelage of ex-player (and future owner) Chris Turner, were an excellent side that would be promoted at the end of the season via the play-offs. Unsurprisingly it was Charlery who scored both goals in the final as the Posh beat Stockport 2-1, his last-minute winner coming just a couple of minutes after future City semi-legend Kevin Francis had equalised for the Hatters.
For City, it was a grim period. Before Payton had left, we’d looked poor but capable of nicking a couple of goals. Upon his departure we just looked poor. Deano was being played in a defensive midfield role to make up for Palin’s, ahem, lack of enthusiasm for tracking back, and our forwards – tried around this time were Hunter, Brown, Walmsley, Young, Neil Buckley, Herry Ngata, Paul Wheeler and Darren France, with John Pearson soon to arrive on loan - looked unlikely to fill Payton’s boots. In the 11 league games after Payton’s departure, we scored a grand total of five goals, two of which came from France in his once-in-a-lifetime New Year’s Day performance at Birmingham. Only a late run of form from Jenkinson and Graeme Atkinson saw us avoid getting involved in a relegation fight, something we were saving for the season after.
Terry Dolan was a good man who would make time for anyone with an interest in football, and on a personal level at least, he deserved better than the relentless abuse he got from City fans (me included) as he plodded on in his job. His time at the club saw pockets of real enjoyment – the back-to-back 3-2 wins at Stoke and Shrewsbury later on this season were classics – but this game on a cold December Friday night in Peterborough sums up his time at Hull City: plenty of players capable of so much more, but a managerial team unwilling or unable to inspire or organise them to do anything beyond the predictable and mediocre. This was a pattern we were largely to follow for the next five years under Dolan and Lee, and then for the rest of the decade.
This night at London Road, however, simply confirmed what we all knew anyway, that a swift return to the second tier would require a miracle that was even beyond the talents of Windass. For the time being, anyway.