“That big bundle of Welsh energy and enthusiasm” was how Brian Taylor, revered former football writer for the Hull Daily Mail, described centre forward Phil Holme in an October 1972 edition of the Sports Mail. Holme was a new signing, acquired from Swansea City in the summer, and try as he might he found getting a starting place very difficult.
It seemed he had the status quo against him more than anything. The established front line included Ken Wagstaff, still only 29, his peak passed and fitness shaky but his powers still considerable, and Stuart Pearson, the Cottingham lad who had become a noted, if not always prolific, focal point in the number 9 shirt. And yet by the time City travelled to Brighton and Hove Albion on October 7th, Holme had outscored them both – and still couldn’t get into the team.
On the allocated Hull City pages in the much-loved green Saturday sporting journal, Taylor seemed to be asking if politics within the changing rooms was keeping Holme on the bench. He was the team’s form striker. Five for the season thus far, compared to Pearson’s four and Wagstaff’s one, but he was only Phil Holme. He was new, unknown, unestablished, not heralded. He had no history with the club nor the city.
Taylor’s article was headlined HOW DO HULL CITY FIND PLACE FOR PHIL HOLME? – wordy enough to take up a third of the full broadsheet page allocated to the weekly goings-on and talking points of life at Boothferry Park. Holme was the sujet de la semaine because he’d scored in three straight games – 4-1 and 3-2 wins over QPR and Swindon Town, plus a 2-1 defeat to Norwich City in the League Cup. All were at Boothferry Park, so a maximum number of City fans had seen the evidence. And each time he had come off the bench, on two occasions to replace Wagstaff.
So as the game at Brighton approached, Taylor rightly felt it necessary to analyse how and why Holme could be so lethal from the bench and yet so dispensable from the team. He was roaringly unlucky – and blameless – with his timing, though. In one of those sod’s law occasions that happen when you produce a matchday supplement with a skewiff deadline, Holme was picked from the start by player-manager Terry Neill at the Goldstone Ground. Teatime subscribers to the supplement read Taylor’s runner of a game that had Holme in the number 10 shirt, then turned the page to see the same writer asking why the Welsh marksman couldn’t get into the side.
Holme got into the team because of a late knee injury to Wagstaff, whom Neill said could have played in a panic but in the end took the sub’s shirt, allowing the current ace goalscorer to start alongside Pearson. Injuries had also robbed Neill of Roger deVries and Malcolm Lord, both of whom had been crocked during the midweek defeat to Norwich. Ken Knighton depped for deVries as a makeshift left back and Billy Wilkinson, in his tenth season with the club but now more peripheral, occupied a midfield spot with which he hadn’t been tasked with any great regularity since his earliest days as an old-style half back under Cliff Britton. Neill partnered his fellow veteran John Kaye at the back.
It was a warm October in 1972, and bright sunshine enveloped the Goldstone Ground, where the home side turned out under manager Pat Saward having not started the season brightly. They had been promoted the year before as runners-up but the transition was proving a tad too slow. A new chairman, Mike Bamber, was set to shake up the club soon with a fresh managerial appointment designed to blow off some Sussex socks. For the moment, however, they were playing City in a Division Two game that, with both clubs in the bottom half, registered on few radars.
Seldom were chances created in the first 15 minutes before Ulsterman Willie Irvine forced a save out of City keeper Jeff Wealands, who had been in control of the green shirt since an early season defeat at Sheffield Wednesday. Barry Bridges then turned Neill in the area but shot wide with only Wealands in the way of goal.
Pearson, limping from an early challenge of such heftiness it would eventually force him off, shot wide while hobbling, then managed to cross low from the right for that man Holme to stick out a long leg and divert the ball past keeper Brian Powney. So, nearly half an hour had gone and the man of the moment had done it again. It was his fourth straight scoring game but this time, crucially, he’d done it from the start.
It got scrappy afterwards. Jimmy McGill, whose own fitness had been touch and go after the Norwich game, fired one chance over and at the other end Bridges headed a really good chance straight at a grateful Wealands while team-mate Eddie Spearritt berated him for not setting him up.
So City led at the break, Holme again the hero. The second half presented itself with enough opportunities to wrap the points up, but they had now some refereeing calls to contend with. Pearson had his shirt tugged almost over his shoulders as he ran clear on goal but no admonishment was issued to the culprit. From a set-piece Wilkinson then headed in but the goal was ruled out for a shove in the box.
Bridges lobbed an out-of-position Wealands at the other end but the ball dropped inches wide of the post, then Ken Houghton, ageing and in a deep-lying role but still blessed with great craft, shot just off-target as he and winger Ian Butler rolled back the years with a lovely counter attacking combination.
Pearson was too in the wars to continue, and so he limped off and a patched up Wagstaff came on, and almost immediately another set-piece found the head of Wilkinson and again an infringement robbed him of a goal (he had scored just two in the previous three seasons, and had now seen two disallowed in the same game). So still the points weren’t secure.
Holme was brought down in the box by the excellently named Kit Napier, but no penalty was awarded. The frustration began to show and cautions and stern words followed many a tackle on both sides, with the game threatening to turn nasty. It seemed, however, that City were going to do enough to hold on when, out of nowhere, Murray lashed in an equaliser with five minutes left after a smart ball from sub Ken Beamish.
Holme nearly won it in time added on with a shot that Powney saved brilliantly to his left, and so a share of the spoils was City’s scant reward for a game they dominated. There was fallout from it though; Wagstaff’s short cameo put him out of action for two months as the fluid on his knee built up more and more while Wilkinson, who had the ball in the net twice, was dropped to the bench for the next two matches and then never played for the Tigers again; a truly illustrious and unfussy decade of service ending with little more than a whimper as he joined Rotherham United the following month.
Pearson was fit and fighting again for the next game, scoring four in a 5-1 cuffing of Portsmouth at Boothferry Park, while Holme actually opened the scoring with the other, making it five straight scoring games for a player who was still regarded as the pretender to some very well buffed thrones.
It didn’t last; he started the next seven but didn’t find the target, with all of the goals during a mixed run of form coming from Pearson, Houghton and Butler. Wagstaff’s return to fitness prompted a rest for Holme, but he finally made a new mark in March 1973 when City, inconsistent but occasionally devastating, became something of a free-scoring (and free-conceding) outfit. Holme got four in three games, adding one more before the season’s end, and tallied 12 in all competitions by the close of the season. Not bad for someone who was never anyone’s first choice. Pearson outdid him to the tune of five goals; the visibly ailing Wagstaff only got five for the whole campaign.
Wilkinson, who was given a testimonial, was followed out of the door by two more huge heroes of the era when Neill persuaded the 33 year old Houghton to be a makeweight in a deal to bring Scunthorpe defender Steve Deere to City, while Butler left for York after an enormous row with Neill, something he continues to brood on to this day. Knighton also left after a short but influential stay, Pearson continued a steady scoring rate until Manchester United got him for £170,000, McGill maintained a gutsy and reassuring midfield presence for a couple more years, Kaye stuck around and eventually took over from Neill as manager, and Wealands, who briefly lost out to McKechnie again before the season’s end, became undisputed the following year and stayed in goal for the rest of the decade.
As for Holme – well, “the big bundle of Welsh energy and enthusiasm”, as Taylor so evocatively described him, saw his stock fall again and he played only nine more games for City before quitting at 26 to go into coaching. The bright candle burned all too briefly, and many a City fan of the era reckon he had as much scoring talent as any new forward to be tried by the club through the whole of the 1970s.
Not many City players have scored in five straight games for the club; free scorers like Houghton, Brian Marwood, Andy Flounders, Billy Whitehurst, Andy Payton, Ben Burgess and Fraizer Campbell never did it, for example. Those who did include a large number from the pre-war area, plus venerable figures like Viggo Jensen, John McSeveney and Wagstaff, while even Chris Chilton only got there in his last season with the Tigers. Subsequent achievements by Les Mutrie (nine straight scoring games) and Keith Edwards (eight) perhaps fade Holme’s feat a little, and since then Dean Windass, Gary Alexander and Stuart Elliott have managed fivers, but Holme was unique among them all in that he was never a first choice forward at the time of his achievement.
City finished the 1972/73 season in 13th, Brighton lost the return game at Boothferry Park thanks to a brace from Pearson and eventually finished rock bottom. Bamber responded to the disappointment by axing Saward and, with a deep breath, sending for the newly-unemployed management team of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Their stay as a duo was memorably brief prior to Clough going unwisely solo at Leeds, and eventually it was Alan Mullery, freshly retired from playing, who took them back to the second tier in 1977 (and then the top flight two years later).
Brighton had been in the Football League since 1920 but City didn’t play them until 1959/60, and the visit of Neill’s men to the Goldstone Ground was only the fourth ever by a Tigers team. Only one of the previous visits had yielded a win – a 2-1 success at the beginning of the title-winning campaign of 1965/66 – and it remains the only City away win against Brighton. The Seagulls have dished out a few hammerings along the way too, with three 3-0 wins and a 4-0 all suffered by City teams in a five-year period during the mid to late 90s.
City’s best achievement on their travels to play Brighton in recent memory – discounting a handy but featureless 0-0 draw there last season – was a game that ended 2-2 at the fag end of the 1997/98 season when both sides were as bad as each other but, fortunately, better than Doncaster Rovers. Duane Darby scored both goals as City finished third bottom while Brighton finished second bottom and had the added ignominy of having to play at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium as they found themselves homeless, thanks to their rather doubtable board of directors deciding to sell off the Goldstone Ground in order to meet debts.
Brighton have played at four different grounds in just over 50 years and City have been opponents on all four. The Tigers never won nor lost in Gillingham, while the infamous Withdean Stadium experience left a lot to be desired at all levels, including for Brighton fans, who had to endure it for more than a decade. The Goldstone Ground produced that one success for City which 47 and a half years later remains alone in that section of the statistics chamber. Therefore, the Amex Stadium this weekend provides the opportunity to right yet another travelling wrong. We’ve been ticking them off one by one this season, so it’s time to tick off another.
Photo copyright Hull Daily Mail.