The play-offs, when they were introduced in 1987, became something new in football to aspire to.
They were truly innovative. They extended the season, created a few extra heroes, caused controversy, maintained interest and produced a stack of great matches. Naturally, in the case of Hull City, it took a heck of a long time to get anywhere near them, inaugurated as they were around the time that a steep decline at Boothferry Park was getting underway.
In the first seven seasons of the play-offs, City finished in the bottom half of their relevant table and so rarely looked like troubling the mini-league each May that ended with the glory of a trip to Wembley and, ultimately, promotion for the winner. In 1987/88 and 1988/89 it looked promising for a short time until some chronic winless sequences in the late winter and early spring of those respective seasons obliterated those ambitions and, indeed, led to the departures of the managers in charge.
Not until 1993/94, when the Tigers overperformed for a spell under Terry Dolan before finishing ninth, did a play-off dream actually look relatively close to reality, though in the end there was still a rhombus of daylight between the last spot and the Tigers’ ultimate position (see also 1994/95).
So when it finally did happen, in the bottom division after years of staving off relegation and humiliation (and liquidation), it came in the oddest of circumstances, as Brian Little built a team that played its collective heart out while all around it was crumbling. This was the infamous season of 2000/01, still fresh in the memory and yet several worlds away from the City we now know.
The campaign had been high-profile for pretty much every wrong reason going. David Lloyd, no longer the owner of the club after a succession of hissy fits and illogical plans prompted him to sell up in a fit of pique, had got his own back by locking the gates of Boothferry Park. He had not sold the premises to go with the business, and was owed much rent. As the fight between board and owner continued to rage, the players and management were caught in the midst of it, left as they were with nowhere to train and a vast reduction in their daily commitment to the club in order to save money. Players from out of the area shared cars, or trained locally. Those who lived within travelling distance used local pitches to train. Lloyd was joined in the kettle of vultures by the Inland Revenue, who wanted half a million.
Coincidentally, the team scheduled to visit Boothferry Park while the High Court was assessing the situation was Leyton Orient. A 14-day stay of execution forced the padlocks off, and City’s unpaid players gallantly took to the pitch and won 1-0. Almost as soon as they disappeared back down the tunnel, the effort to find a new owner and save the club resumed. Chief shareholder Nick Buchanan, despite publicly expressing caution over a tabled bid that had anonymity as a condition, voted in favour of it and in the first week of March the bid was accepted. Adam Pearson was unveiled and City were saved.
And within all of this madness, political posturing and sheer terror, was a team that was performing. It hadn’t started well, with no wins until the eighth game of the season. Even after the Orient win, four players chose to depart. Clint Marcelle, David Brightwell, Steve Harper and Phil Brumwell exercised their right to leave for free after receiving no wages. The surprise at the time was, perhaps, that there wasn’t more who chose to find another club.
Yet during these darkest of dark days, Little’s men won five in a row. There was a mild lull during the period that Pearson first showed his face but another turn of form into April made a play-off place look seriously on – indeed, the campaign ended in a ten-match unbeaten run and a Mike Edwards header at Southend in the penultimate game confirmed a place in the end-of-season bunfight for the first time in City’s history.
Typical City, in a way. Have a great team while the club is in meltdown. They could never be ordinary. The absolute joy of the progress to the play-offs was all the sweeter for seeing the club fall off a cliff but somehow land on something squashy at the foot. The team was good in sport, but magnificent in attitude. A sixth-placed finish meant a tie against fifth-placed Orient, against whom the Tigers had not lost in the two League games – as well as the success at the Ark, the game before it at Brisbane Road had ended 2-2, with Theodore Whitmore scoring twice for City and a teenage Aussie called Richard Garcia playing for Orient, on loan from West Ham.
And so on Sunday May 13th 2001, the day after the FA Cup final and at the climax of a season that defied logic, City played in the play-offs for the first time. As the lower-placed of the two (prompted possibly – and, if so, maybe crucially – by City fielding a weakened team at Carlisle on the last day with the resultant goalless draw allowing Orient to sneak ahead), the tie opened at Boothferry Park and more than 13,000 people squeezed into the old place to witness a rare opportunity for Hull City glory.
The first half’s best chances fell to City. Mark Greaves, a centre half performing admirably well in midfield in City’s 3-5-2 formation, stretched to reach an Andy Holt throw that was flicked on by Kevin Francis but could only hit the bar. Francis fell over with the ball at his feet when it seemed easier to score and Gary Brabin fired over from outside the box. Orient were not out of it though, and whilst they created less than City they would have been happy with a goalless first period.
The second half followed a similar pattern as the Tigers could not break down the resolute visitors. Francis especially was having little effect and was substituted for John Eyre. Less than five minutes later a Rob Matthews corner was poorly cleared to Eyre, 25 yards or so out. He chested (after which the away fans bizarrely claimed “‘Andbawl!” in unison), turned an onrushing O and drilled past Ashley Bayes, beaten on his right hand post. The relief was palpable and the subsequent raucous celebrations resulted in a few dozen spilling from the Kempton onto the pitch. Though the crowd was buoyed there were no more clear cut chances.
So, a 1-0 win. Not bad, but with an evening away leg to come three days later there was still work to do. That City were 90 minutes and one reasonable defensive performance from a play-off final (albeit at the Millennium Stadium rather than Wembley, which was half-demolished by now) was incredible, however. The hope, the joy, the disbelief and especially the pride that came from being in this position when the non-football people with big mouths, empty heads and ludicrous egos had tried to take our club from us was quite sensational.
We all know what happened in the second leg, and it was Orient who went to the final, where they were beaten by Blackpool. If we go to a replay on Saturday, we promise not to revisit this game. We’ll find a nice win from the days when they were officially just Orient, or something. Promise.
Suffice to say, it was difficult not to maintain those levels of pride even in adversity. We were just grateful by then that the only adversity befalling our club was the type that came on the pitch, unluckily and with a sprinkle of stardust. That season was awash with heroes – Edwards, Holt, Greaves, Whitmore, Ian Goodison, Justin Whittle, Paul Musselwhite – and the win in the first leg provided a fitting send-off for players like Jon Whitney (the second hardest player in City history after Billy Whitehurst), Brabin (probably the third hardest, to be truthful), Francis, Eyre and experienced midfielder Mark Atkins, a man with a Premier League winners’ medal who had been a solidly brief late addition to the team.
Pearson settled in as owner as the long-mooted new stadium began to take shape and money was given to Little for new recruits, including the breaking of the 12 year old club record transfer fee when Lawrie Dudfield signed for £260,000. The Tigers were brilliant at home but careless on their travels, and the away form was the reason City’s expected promotion push didn’t materialise. Pearson’s ruthlessness came to the fore as he fired Little in February 2002.
City would gain two promotions via the normal method under his successor-but-one, Peter Taylor, but the excitement of the play-offs – and this time, the euphoria of actually winning them – would wait another six years. And the Premier League came a-calling.
Orient, for their part, had now lost two play-off finals in three seasons, having been unsuccessful in 1999 too against Scunthorpe United. They finally went up in 2006 – automatically – and although they’ve had a couple of struggles, have remained a third tier side since. This Saturday’s game will be the first meeting between the two since March 2004, when Taylor’s team, bound for promotion, won a bottom division game 3-0 with goals from Stuart Elliott, Ben Burgess and Ryan France.
Orient’s last victory in Hull was in November 1998, and only once have the teams met in the FA Cup before. This was also in the third round, exactly 50 seasons ago (Orient’s sole season in the top flight was 1962/63, when City were in the third tier), and after a 1-1 draw at Brisbane Road, the Os won the replay at Boothferry Park. They ultimately went out to eventual runners-up Leicester City in the last 16 and were relegated to the Second Division, ten points adrift, at the end of the season.
The footage is from a club video and can be found, along with many others, on our much revered TigerTube page.
(matchday memories courtesy of James McVie)