“Personal reasons”, said Brian Horton, unwilling to go into further detail. Hull Daily Mail reporter Simon Redfern, commenting via the full page of Hull City views allocated in the Sports Mail each week, chose not to speculate further. The brand new, youthful, impressionable, highly-rated defender Richard Jobson merely had “personal reasons” for going AWOL just four games into his Tigers career, and Redfern advised the sensitive 21 year old in print not to spill the beans himself.
Strange old business, especially when one considers that Jobson was to become the finest defender to wear black and amber in a generation. Certainly the supporters who saw Cliff Britton’s attack-to-defend sides of the 60s and the ones that struggled through the 70s with little to cheer didn’t get to witness a defender as good. But Jobson, born in Cottingham though raised in Burton-upon-Trent, had emotional issues and by not reporting for duty when City were set to host Bristol Rovers, he had quickly blotted his copybook.
City were second at the time, progressing superbly in player-manager Horton’s first season in charge, the pain of missing out on promotion via one poxy goal the previous year gradually being soothed by the delightful, expansive football that City were playing in the third tier. Never out of the top half, City had a 13-match unbeaten run over the winter that put them in the top three then, by the end of February 1985, the month Jobson signed, they had returned to the promotion positions, never to leave them, and Jobson therefore couldn’t have had an objection to the footballing ethos at his new club.
Without him, an exasperated but practical Horton, already devoid of the injured Stan McEwan and Lawrie Pearson, reshaped his defence and City beat Bristol Rovers 2-0 as the Kempton sang “If you’ve seen Richard Jobson clap your hands”, followed by no clapping and much laughter. The score was replicated at Swansea three days later – again without Jobson – in what the manager called the “most complete” display of the season. By the time promotion rivals (and easily the furthest-fallen team in the division) Derby County pitched up at Boothferry Park on March 9th, Jobson was back at work.
Horton made him play in the reserves and then, with an olive branch offered via the media but undoubtedly sharpened with some harsh words in private, the new boy was put on the bench for the visit of the Rams. Steve Massey, the sub for the previous two games, lost the number 12 shirt as a consequence and Horton otherwise had no need to make alterations, though the continued, necessary use of full back Bobby McNeil as a central defender still looked a little square-pegged. Nevertheless, City fans filed into Boothferry Park in justifiably good cheer.
Derby, managed by Arthur Cox, had fallen from the Second Division the previous season for only the second time ever, and still had a savagely talented squad of players to choose from. Trevor Christie and Bobby Davison were well-respected strikers outside of the top flight, midfielder Gary Micklewhite had an FA Cup final behind him and John Robertson was as great a winger Scotland had produced since the advent of colour television, with the top club honours available to him already pouched from his time at Nottingham Forest. They were expected to go up, though their form had been inconsistent, more so than anticipated from a side of their calibre.
Still, they occasionally showed that calibre to devastating effect during the season, not least when turning the Tigers 3-1 at the Baseball Ground back in the October, and in this big return game they were two goals to the good after barely a quarter of an hour. City were culpable for both goals; a Garreth Roberts clearance struck McNeil who fell over and landed on the ball with his hand in doing so, thereby gifting an eighth minute penalty to the visitors from which full back Steve Buckley – younger brother of thrice over Grimsby manager-in-waiting Alan – sent Tony Norman the wrong way. Then City were slow to clear a Davison centre and Christie made room to clatter in a left-foot shot from eight yards.
In between, Andy Flounders and Billy Whitehurst, an odd couple but as effective a strike partnership there had been for a while, each spurned chances while City had an appeal for a penalty turned down and Charlie Palmer, Derby’s exuberant full back, was booked. Quite a beginning. And not a jolly one.
City started to show willing and Roberts neglected to shoot when put in a great position, then Billy Askew thumped one wide from the edge of the area and Whitehurst stabbed a good opportunity wide from next to the penalty spot. The imposing centre forward saw another go deflected wide by the unwitting but immaculately positioned Buckley, and then Mickey Lewis headed over his own bar to foil Flounders. By this stage of the season, City’s front two had scored 20 between them – and a good thing too, not least because there was a distinct lack of back-up options for when either were unavailable (fortunately, they had largely injury-free seasons, and there would be no game when neither were present). Only occasionally were Massey, Mike Ring or Andy Saville needed to fill a gap.
Yet for all their reliability in front of goal, this day wasn’t theirs. Not thus far. Both had further chances to score before the break – Flounders aimed a back header over the bar and Whitehurst rolled a shot almost across the goalline, but nothing would go in. Neil Williams and the industrious McNeil came close too. The ratio of chances was vastly in City’s favour but, when the half time whistle sounded, it was Derby who had a very handy advantage.
Horton was, as we know, not one to mince his words. But it’s hard to imagine him taking a potshot at his players for being two goals down at half time when he saw, as the 9,782 present did, just how dominant the Tigers had been. He couldn’t aim a barb the way of his strikers either, as they’d already given him 20 goals between them (and Whitehurst might have tried to clump him). So it was one of those afternoons where reassurance and encouragement seemed to be all the City manager could offer.
The second half began in the way the first had ended. Goalkeeper Steve Sutton, on loan from Nottingham Forest, made a smart save from a Whitehurst header and then Palmer athletically cleared a Roberts lob off the line with the keeper stranded. At the other end, Paul Hooks put a shot wide and Norman had to collect a Davison cross under a strong challenge from Christie.
City refused to give up. Roberts had another effort cleared off the line, this time by Lewis. Askew and Whitehurst missed chances within seconds of each other. It got to the halfway point of the second half and Horton decided to shuffle things around. Jobson came on – the applause wasn’t rapturous for the defender that bunked off – and the ineffective Williams departed. Gary Swann moved from full back to midfield and McNeil reverted to his natural position at right back as Jobson settled into the centre and City looked a bit freer, to the extent of pulling a goal back within three minutes of the alteration.
Swann swung in a cross, Rob Hindmarch handled it and this time the penalty was given, the second of the match. In McEwan’s absence, Whitehurst took it and Sutton went the wrong way. So the comeback seemed on, but the hope of achieving it took a serious – and farcical – hit when McNeil, already in the book for a foul, was sent off by Mackem referee George Tyson for the heinous crime of taking a throw-in from the wrong spot. The brooding defender had had an excellent game and it consoled him little when the numbers were quickly evened up thanks to Lewis tripping Steve McClaren and earning his own second caution and early bath.
Ten minutes left, ten men per side left. And City equalised just as the clock ticked to 80 when Roberts curled in a free kick that caused havoc in the Derby box, allowing Flounders an opportunity to hook the ball in. After so long behind, the Tigers now had parity. Derby tried to preserve a point by withdrawing the tiring Robertson and bringing on teenage loanee Gary Ablett, a promising defender on the books at Liverpool, but to no avail. The extra defender mattered not a jot when McClaren swung in a 91st minute corner which Whitehurst majestically headed in. The comeback, the victory, the story were all complete; the promotion charge still on course. A clutch of City fans chose to invade the pitch at the final whistle and thrust their chests out at the travelling contingent but, as was usually the case, nobody dared throw a punch.
“Twenty two incredible minutes – the like of which Alfred Hitchcock would have been pushed to equal for high drama” opined Redfern in his Monday think-piece. Horton was thrilled with the spirit and belief the players showed. The three straight wins became four at Doncaster a week later and five when Lincoln were beaten at Boothferry Park, Williams scoring in both matches. Horton got the Manager of the Month award for March in the end – six wins and a draw were the stats that earned him a large bottle of Bells – and City ended up losing just one in 14 and achieved promotion when Peter Skipper, ever-present and nails at the back, headed the only goal at Walsall in the 44th match of the season. Naturally, City went on to blow a higher position and even a mild title chance by losing the last two games, but promotion in third spot was still a great feat.
Norman was unmatchable at any club level as goalkeeper through his time at the club, while McNeil, a robust defender from the ranks, served his daft one-match ban and ended the season in and out of the side with injuries, prompting Horton to sell him to Blackpool in the summer. Swann flitted between defence and midfield with tidiness and solidity, as he had done for six years, while Mick Hollifield occupied the left back spot until Easter, when he was displaced by the returning Pearson and then moved on.
Skipper resumed his unflinching-pair-of-doormen act with McEwan within a couple of weeks, the two remaining in place at the back for the rest of the campaign. Jobson, though forgiven publicly by Horton, only started two more games that season (and one of these was as an emergency winger). He had work to do to regain the faith of the supporters but, of course, would do so immaculately over the next five years.
Roberts and Askew, both diminutive, gritty and gifted, were the stalwarts of City’s midfield through the rest of the decade, while McClaren impressed supporters with another active season, but was surprisingly sold to none other than Derby County in the summer, thereby remaining in the third tier. Williams, a new and slightly lightweight kid on the block, grew as a player over the next two years and scored a handy number of goals from midfield while never truly threatening to be any real good.
Whitehurst bagged 20 for the season, including a memorable hat-trick against Orient, and got his infamous big-money move to Newcastle United the next season, the experiment started by Mike Smith in 1980 and made a mission by Chris Chilton for the next four years proving, eventually, an unqualified success. The difference between the Whitehurst that joined and the Whitehurst that left was astounding. He would return, via Oxford and Sunderland, within three and a half years. Flounders, the local boy with a natural eye for goal, just kept on scoring until Horton flogged him to Scunthorpe United without any drop in his form seeming to justify the move.
Three of Derby’s players ended up at Boothferry Park. Ablett, patiently awaiting his Liverpool breakthrough, had a productive loan spell of five games in the autumn of 1986, prior to breaking into the team at Anfield the next year, and Palmer, an old Watford mucker of Jobson and Williams, joined up permanently later the same season, proving again to be athletic, tough and sometimes rather rash as a right back. Davison’s nomadic career eventually ended at Boothferry Park with a loan spell in 1995/96, when he scored four goals in 11 games prior to retiring, presumably falling out of love with the game due to having to play in one of our very worst squads.
Derby were promoted the following season – like City, in third place – and then went straight up again as Second Division champions under Cox as City took some massive steps back, eventually needing to secure survival at Grimsby on the penultimate day. Saville got the goal in that campaign’s 1-1 draw against Derby at Boothferry Park, which proved to be the last League meeting between the two for 19 seasons.
There are, in fact, a few big gaps between fixtures involving these two. Prior to City’s astonishing comeback of 1985, the previous season to feature Hull City and Derby County was 1968/69, when City beat Derby, managed by 33 year old Brian Clough, via a single Ian Butler goal. Despite this, the Rams won the title and would soon have two actual First Division successes under their belts, leaving City well adrift.
The Tigers’ record in this fixture until recently was fairly good – prior to leaving Boothferry Park there were just three defeats at home since the hostilities commenced in 1907/08, but Derby have won two of the last four on Hull turf, including last season’s rather limp reversal at the back end of a poor run over Christmas and New Year. The last time City did a double over Derby was in 1967/68, with a 3-0 win at the Ark followed by a 2-1 success at the old Baseball Ground in the very late season, with less heralded figures like Billy Wilkinson and Malcolm Lord among the scorers in those games. Perhaps it’s time we matched that achievement, preferably without any of our recent signings disappearing for no discernible reason. God knows what Whitehurst, Skipper and McEwan made of Jobson’s shenanigans in March 1985; we dread to think what sort of welcome the young defender got from his team-mates when he came back.