A regular complaint made by the modern day football manager concerns the number of games teams play, and the size of the gaps between matches. Rarely will today’s footballers play two games in three days – though over Easter and in weeks set down for Cup replays it is possible – so the biggest gap usually is three days – Saturday to Tuesday, Sunday to Wednesday, Wednesday to Saturday.
It’s a fair complaint at times, especially when the reason for the small gap is down to the power of the TV companies, though when it involves European competition critics of such complainants point out that if you want fewer games of football, perhaps you should not be quite so successful. It’s a vicious circle, hence why the farcical, plainly uninteresting Europa League attracts limited interest and attendances because clubs and managers see qualifying for it as more of an achievement than actually playing in it.
Still, it could be worse. Back in the 1960s it was still common over holiday periods for games to stack up relentlessly, and not for any other reason other than it was perfectly normal. With City going to Millwall this weekend, it allows us opportunity to recall one especially arduous Christmas period for the Tigers when they had to play the Lions on consecutive days, with the second game in east London.
Welcome to the fantastic 1965-66 season, one still without parallel for City as it remains the only time the Tigers won a non-regional division. It was the third tier, and the ultra-ruthless forward line of Chris Chilton and Ken Wagstaff had reached a peak after a year together, a peak that actually didn’t subside until the day Chilton left the club in 1971. The defence, never manager Cliff Britton’s priority, let a fair few in but these two, plus the additionally prolific Ken Houghton, made sure that anything you could do, we could do better.
Christmas 1965 was a relatively mild one, though the pitches were either gluepots or rinks wherever you went. City began December with 14 goals in three games – a 4-0 drubbing of Gateshead in the FA Cup was followed by a 6-1 win over Bristol Rovers and then an excellent 4-2 success at Walsall, who were a top half team. The players trained and socialised over Christmas and then, the day after Boxing Day, took on the not inconsiderable Millwall team who also had pretensions for promotion and the title, having strengthened well upon promotion the previous season. This was, already, first versus second. The holidaying public knew the importance of it and 40,231 of them – the highest home gate in 15 years – squeezed into Boothferry Park.
City won a tight game thanks to an own goal from John Gilchrist, who deflected a Wagstaff shot into the net on 76 minutes. Afterwards it seemed everybody – players, officials, supporters – boarded the same train for London for the “return” game the next day. It had been a custom in football since the post-war resumption of the game – and an occasional habit of the pre-war era, too – that two teams should play each other over Christmas on consecutive days, or as close to consecutive as transport and distance issues (but mainly transport) allowed. In the earlier days, one of the games would be on Christmas Day itself – City got a goalless draw at Hartlepools United (as they then were) on Christmas Day 1946, which can’t have ranked as a thrilling festive celebration for all involved. Southport, Rotherham United, Brentford, Sheffield United, Blackburn Rovers, Nottingham Forest (twice), Lincoln City, Luton Town, Darlington, Gateshead, Mansfield Town (twice), Aston Villa, Bradford City, Southend United and Port Vale (and, but for a postponement for bad weather, Crystal Palace) all had to subsequently pair up with the Tigers from the Christmases of 1947 to 1964, prior to the Millwall double-header of 1965. It continued in the second tier too with two straight years of games against Huddersfield Town before the daft practice was abandoned for the 1967/68 campaign.
Millwall’s pitch was frozen but by 1965/66 standards, playable, and they turned City over on it with comfort. They were pretty much invincible at Cold Blow Lane, having gone unbeaten there for 16 months by the time the Tigers arrived to try to complete a season double in a 24 hour period. They had little hope. The Lions led 2-0 at the break courtesy of Len Julians and Hugh Curran, and added a third through nippy winger Billy Neil in the second half. The hooligan element at Millwall had started to develop by this stage, with fake hand grenades and pitch invasions already in the memory bank, but these two games between high-standard clubs went off without incident.
The Lions made one change over the two games – Barry Rowan replaced Dave Armstrong on the wing – but Britton didn’t change City’s team at all. After winning at Boothferry Park, the same squad of players got showered and changed and boarded the train. Maurice Swan was in goal, though had lost his place for a spell through the season to 21 year old Mike Williams, prompting questions about his form and long-term suitability as promotion became more and more likely. Unflinching skipper Andy Davidson was at right back, pushing 34 but only eventually missing one game all season, while there was a rare brace of appearances for the similarly experienced Len Sharpe, signed as cover at left back at the age of 30. The game at the Den was his last for the Tigers as Dennis Butler recovered from injury to reclaim his place.
Alan Jarvis, who’d had to wait a year for his first team debut after signing from Everton’s ranks, was one of three half backs now set in stone for the season, alongside the uncompromising Mike Milner and the local boy Chris Simpkin. When Jarvis was handed his debut at Workington in the October, this fiery trio were never separated from the middle of City’s team for the rest of the campaign.
Up front it was the famous five – Ray Henderson and Ian Butler on the wings, with Houghton the man of craft behind the single-minded and immortal pairing of Chilton and Wagstaff. Between the five of them, they accounted for 100 of City’s 109 goals that season, which is as mind-blowing now as it was then, and will blow any footballing mind for as long as the statistics remain known. The other nine? Three for Jarvis, one for Simpkin – and five own goals, including Gilchrist’s for Millwall. To tell the full story of City’s rather gung-ho approach, the number of goals conceded was 62 – a whole 19 more than Millwall and only seven fewer than Brentford, who were relegated.
Millwall went top of the table with their win, but City stayed on their tail and reclaimed top spot after thumping Mansfield 4-0 at the end of February while the Lions stalled with a couple of draws. It switched again occasionally, with City also enjoying an eventful but energy-sapping run to the FA Cup quarter finals, but mainly the topsy-turviness at the top was due to the Tigers being unable to keep clean sheets. It got close and complicated over Easter when the Tigers lost two away games in three days at Grimsby and Peterborough United, but the Lions only took a point over the same period and ultimately two straight wins at Boothferry Park got City the title, though both teams absolutely deservedly went up. Millwall stayed unbeaten at home until January 1967, a total of 59 games which included 43 wins. This was a league record they held for 14 years, and it took none other than the all-conquering Liverpool side under Bob Paisley to surpass it.
Aside from the scorers, Millwall had a 25 year old centre back called Tom Wilson in their team, a hard Scotsman whom Britton grew to admire to the extent of signing him nearly two years later, so beginning a career as a player, coach, caretaker manager, secretary and general hero of Hull City right through to retirement. Also in their side was a young goalkeeper called Alex Stepney, who after helping the Lions to promotion was signed by Manchester United (via a very short spell at Chelsea) and in his first two seasons picked up a League title and a European Cup, eventually staying at Old Trafford for 12 years and also travelling to the 1968 European Championships and 1970 World Cup with England, albeit as third-choice keeper each time. City’s identifiable goalkeeping issue over the season was remedied in the summer by the acquisition of Ian McKechnie. The rest of the team, Sharpe aside, remained in place for another year.
City had a fixture history with Millwall going back to the late 1920s, but only once had they beaten the Lions in London before the promotion season, when a single goal by Henderson earned the points in September 1963. The two teams played each other for ten straight seasons after promotion but City never won any game at Cold Blow Lane, even losing in 1974/75 when Millwall were relegated – not only that, but despite having the edge in 1965/66, only once over the next ten years in the second tier did City finish above the Lions in the table, and that was the near-miss season of 1970/71.
Millwall came straight back up in 1976 and again City spent the best part of ten years failing to beat them, though fixtures became slightly less frequent thanks to the relegations of 1978 (though Millwall obligingly followed City down the next year) and especially 1981. Finally, in August 1986 and via two promotions in three seasons, a solitary goal from Frankie Bunn gave the Tigers a win at the Den, a venue by now at its most notorious, but it remains the second and last win for City on Millwall’s patch, despite numerous visits there since. There has been a small number of draws during this 80-odd year period of almost total incapability, the last of which came on Valentine’s Day 2006 when Jon Parkin latched on to the best pass Keith Andrews ever made in his abortive City career to put the Tigers ahead late on at the New Den, only for David Livermore, six months away from joining City, to equalise in the very next minute.
The last two visits to Millwall have resulted in 4-0 and 2-0 defeats, meaning that the recent history of the match is as abysmal as the long-term history. And City currently aren’t playing well. Still, form is temporary, as they say, and as we’ve shown with wins at Leeds United, Bristol City and Birmingham City this season, all bad runs must come to an end.
Photo copyright Hull Daily Mail.