Since I know you lot are all suckers for the classics, let me start by saying that seldom in life can the expression haec olim meminisse juvabit be used more aptly than when it is applied to the career of Chris Chilton.
Saturday, 30th April 1983. The pre-penultimate matchday of the season. It’s not long after noon, and a couple of scruffy student shit-kicker types are shuffling along City Road in Chester, a long straight thoroughfare leading from the city centre to the station.
Their mission is to rendezvous with a mutual friend who was arriving by train before heading off, via a local hostelry by the name of The Old Custom House, to Sealand Road, the then home of Chester F.C. (as they were then called), to witness the afternoon’s Division 4 game between Chester and their own team, Hull City, a game of huge importance for the away team, as a single point would see them secure their first promotion in seventeen years, a remarkable turnaround of fortune for a club on the brink of extinction a little more than a twelve-month previously.
Finding they had a few minutes to spare, it was decided that alcohol was called for, but the only available source of that commodity was the rather grand and forbidding-looking hotel next door to the station. Still, needs must, and in our intrepid duo trooped, spotted the door to the bar and went in, to find only one other customer, perched on a stool at the bar, pint in front of him and wearing a contemplative expression. An unremarkable encounter in itself, except that the identity of the customer in question rendered it anything but.
“Fuckin’ ell, it’s Chillo”.
“Now then Chillo”
“All right, lads?”
For it was he, our pair of likely lads having inadvertently chanced upon the place where City were having their pre-match meal.
To any genuine Hull City fan old enough, one’s first meeting with Chris Chilton is an occasion never to be forgotten.
You can argue about how many of England’s World Cup-winning team were genuinely world-class (some say two, some say three), you can argue about how many Scotland would have beaten them by a few months later at Wembley if half the visiting side had not decided to start taking the piss at 3-1 instead of keeping going (some say five, some say six), but there are certain facts pertaining to football in the 1960s which are not in dispute, and a good few of those concern Chris Chilton.
Fact – he was one half of one of the most lethal striking partnerships of the decade. Fact – he, along with the other half of that partnership, was one of the best strikers never to have been capped for his country. Fact – the previous fact wouldn’t have been true about him if he had joined a top-flight club (the England manager of the era, Alf Ramsey, was notorious for selecting players virtually exclusively from the top flight, in an era when, because of loyalty and lower or non-existent wage differentials, quite a few players of genuine international standard plied their trade in the Second and even occasionally Third Divisions). Fact – he would have walked into most Division 1 clubs of the era, as evidenced by the efforts of some of the better ones to sign him. And fact – in an era such as the present one when hyperbole and superlatives are scattered like confetti over footballers (and indeed people generally) of indisputable mediocrity, Chris Chilton is – by any standards – a legend.
Much has been written about Chris Chilton’s career – he has even penned his own autobiography – and most of you will have read most of it. So it’s common ground that he is a local hero, having been born in Sproatley, that City was his first club, that he made over 470 first-team appearances in the amber and black, that he is the Tigers’ all-time top goalscorer, with 193 League and 29 Cup goals and that he notched up four goals in a game on two occasions and three on ten others. To list these achievements in such a peremptory way is not intended to trivialise them or take for granted the exploits of a footballer whom it is a genuine privilege to have watched, but to dwell on them at length would be simply to repeat what has already been documented.
What is just as interesting about Chillo – and just as much part of the legend – is the stuff that people forget about him or never knew. Three things in particular come to mind.
First of all, he was by no means an instant – or perhaps that should read consistent – success. He can probably be forgiven for not setting the football world alight on his debut, a 4-0 reverse for the Tigers on the opening day of the 60/61 season at Layer Road, Colchester, a setting of such abject decrepitude that the generation of any sort of inspiration from its surroundings was well nigh impossible. He was on the scoresheet the following week, though, in a 5-1 shoeing of Newport County, and went on to bag another 18 League goals that season. After this impressive start, though, the youngster only managed seven in the League the following season. In 62/3 he set off like a greyhound out of the traps, bagging 15 League goals in the first half of the season but only managing to add a further trio in the second half. In 63/4 he managed an impressive 22 strikes in the League, but the following season didn’t find the net at all in the first eleven games (albeit that he missed some of those). He then redeemed himself somewhat in the twelfth fixture, bagging four as Barnsley were ripped a new one to the tune of 7-0.
The following month, however, City splashed out a Club record fee of £40,000 for a precocious, spotty inside-forward by the name of Kenneth Wagstaff, and the striking partnership that was to instil fear into defences the length and breadth of the country for the remainder of that decade and into the next one was duly established.
Secondly, whilst Chillo rightly attracted all the attention he did for his skills as a footballer, not least his extraordinary heading power (probably only Ron Davies and Tony Hateley were his equals in that era), it is sometimes not appreciated how powerful a figure he was physically. We have all chuckled at stories of opposing strikers not coming within 25 yards of Jock Davidson in a game after one of their tough nuts had chopped down Chillo, Waggy, Ian Butler or whoever, but the fact is that Chilton had little need of Davidson’s protective qualities a lot of the time: he could look after himself, and if the circumstances demanded it was perfectly capable of dishing it out himself. This was exemplified best of all on 26th September 1970, when City visited Carrow Road, Norwich in a Division 2 fixture.
The opposing centre-half that day was Duncan Forbes, not so much hard man (although he was undoubtedly that) as ruthless, vicious thug. From the first whistle he laced into Chillo with unrestrained savagery, one particular challenge leaving such gruesome stud marks on Chillo’s calf that incensed City boss Terry Neill later had them photographed and requiring lengthy treatment from physio John McSeveney. This carried on with scant intervention from the referee until late in the game, when Forbes went in nastily on Chillo for the umpteenth time, from behind and studs first. This time, Chilton got to his feet, slowly and deliberately, and delivered a headbutt of such ferocity that the resultant resounding crack could be heard all over the ground as Forbes crumpled to the turf and lay there motionless (and he wasn’t play-acting, trust me). Carrow Road erupted – mainly with fury but, from the noisy City contingent infuriated at Forbes’ thuggery going unpunished for the entire game, unrestrained delight. It resulted in a sending-off, but almost immediately afterwards, ten-man City took advantage of the disorder in the Norwich defence caused by Forbes having been poleaxed, with Mally Lord’s low cross from the by-line being swept home by Waggy to seal a 2-0 win for the Tigers.
I was fortunate enough to have been at Carrow Road that afternoon and it remains one of my favourite Tiger memories to this day. An interesting postscript is that Forbes spoke on Chillo’s behalf at the subsequent disciplinary panel, admitting that he fully deserved what he got that day: rarely can such a fearsome character as Forbes have been so thoroughly cowed.
Another example of this side to Chillo was that he was one of the very few people at City – possibly the only other one being Don Robinson, a hard man physically himself thanks to his previous history of rugby league playing and professional wrestling – not to have been intimidated by Billy Whitehurst (more of which below).
The third – and most significant – oft-forgotten aspect of Chillo’s devotion to the black-and-amber cause was that he made a hugely-valuable contribution on the non-playing side as well, one the most significant elements of which was when, having returned to join City’s coaching staff, he assumed the joint managership role along with Bobby Brown for the final nineteen games of the 1981/82 season. This was truly the blackest time in the Club’s history to date, the absence of leadership and further investment following the death of Harold Needler some years previously having led to a period of gradual but inexorable decline, culminating in the Club being relegated to the bottom tier for the first time in its history and suffering the ignominy of receivership just over half-way into the season. The Club was a basket case, on the field and off it, lurking in the shadows of the City’s rugby clubs who were for the first time ever enjoying a purple patch simultaneously and having become almost an irrelevance, if not a laughing stock, in Hull save to the three thousand or so die-hards who had not deserted Boothferry for either the armchair or the Boulevard or Craven Park in search of silverware.
The ground was becoming dilapidated, morale cannot have been high among the players who had had a 20% pay cut imposed upon them by the receiver, and the threat of extinction was very real if a buyer could not be found. Assuming control of City at this time this would have been a hugely daunting prospect for the likes of Brian Clough or Bob Paisley, or that young upstart by the name of Ferguson whose name was starting to be heard more frequently south of the border, let alone a duo with the limited management experience of Chilton and Brown. And yet, against all the odds, they steadied the ship at this most crucial of times, with a run of W10 D4 L5 – pretty much automatic promotion form in new money – over the rest of the season. One of the early highlights of that run was a 3-0 win at the Recreation Ground, Aldershot on a Friday night, our biggest away League victory, believe it or not, since November 1970 (which demonstrates just how desperately shite supporting City frequently was in the 70s).
What an evening that was: the 200 or so Tiger Nationals present (and, as we all know, anyone who hasn’t seen City at Aldershot is a Hull White) bellowing out a constant chorus of “Chillo and Bobby’s Black and Amber Army” as the Tigers rattled in three second half goals, the team and officials being mobbed by almost the entire City contingent who surged onto the pitch at the end of the game, and complete (if good-natured) mayhem reigning on the train back to Waterloo, so much so that the guard sought refuge in his compartment and refused to come out.
Of course, the drive, business skills and can-do attitude of Don Robinson coupled with the football nous and experience of first Colin Appleton and then Brian Horton swiftly restored the Club to a much sounder footing in a way that seemed almost effortless at times, but you do have to wonder how much more difficult that would have been, and indeed whether it would have been achievable, but for the work done by Messrs Chilton and Brown, in the most challenging of circumstances, over those nineteen games.
And then there’s Chillo’s work with Billy Whitehurst. Signed by previous manager Mike Smith, a raw and largely uncontrollable talent surely destined to go to waste had it not been for City being blessed – in Chris Chilton – with someone not only not prepared to be distracted by the young South Yorkshireman’s intimidating demeanour and physical presence and maverick attitude to discipline, team mates, management, beer, scatology and just about everything else in life, but also willing to invest huge amounts of time and effort into converting Billy into a footballer who went on to enjoy a long and successful, if occasionally colourful, career, much of it at a high level and earning him national recognition, to say nothing of perpetual cult hero status among the Tiger Nation.
It is said –and might or might not be true (in reality, maybe as few as two individuals are able to confirm or deny it) – that when Mike Smith realised that in trying to mould young Whitehurst into the genuine article he had bitten off rather more than he could chew, Chillo took the youngster to one side, informed him that he had scored more goals for this football club than anyone in history, and that if he was willing to learn and take things seriously, Chillo would teach him the art of being a centre-forward. What is beyond doubt is that both men subsequently spent many, many hours together alone on the training ground turning Whitehurst into a striker of genuine ability.
We could easily have lost Chillo at a relatively early age. Don Readies in particular was a known admirer (it seems to be established in folklore now that a deal to take Chilton to Leeds stalled because Big H told Revie at some football dinner that he was only prepared to discuss it if Revie was willing to let City have Paul Madeley), and Bill Nicholson at Spurs was reputedly sniffing around at one point. In the end, Nicholson went for Martin Chivers and Revie for Mick Jones, the latter being just as well, as the sight of Chris Chilton wearing the white number 9 shirt would surely have brought a plague of locusts upon the land. Seriously, though, you can see why Revie thought Chillo would have fitted in at Leeds, not least because of his physical robustness, although one suspects that had he gone to Leeds an attempt would have been made to get him to make more cynical use of those physical attributes. It was somehow fitting that, at the very moment in 1971 that Leeds discovered that they had lost out to Arsenal for the League title, they were at Boothferry, playing in Chillo’s testimonial match.
That particular match came at the end of a season in which City had narrowly missed promotion to the top flight, one of the many memorable games in which was a 4-0 cuffing of Sunderland, which saw Chillo notch his twelfth and final City hat-trick (still viewable in all its glory on YouTube, courtesy of TigerTubeAmberNectar), prompting Harold Needler to remark afterwards to the HDM that he’d want two George Bests plus a substantial cash adjustment should anyone want to buy Chilton. As it happened, he had to settle for a mere £92,000 – still a very handsome fee for the time – a few short months later as Chillo moved to Highfield Road. This seemed an odd decision at the time, coming as it did shortly after the start of the 71/72 season, as City had started the season strongly and the young Stuart Pearson, as fine a prospect as he was, wasn’t quite ready to step into such illustrious boots on a regular basis, neither can City have been in need of the cash after what must have been a profitable previous season.
With hindsight, though, Chillo had started to become increasingly injury-prone, especially due to a recurring back problem which used to leave him with double vision, and indeed his Coventry career petered out in no time due to injury, after 27 first-team appearances and a mere three goals (one of which was televised with the late great Hugh Johns doing the commentary). Just possibly, therefore, the shipping out of Chillo might have been a smart piece of business on the part of Messrs Needler and Neill.We have probably had fewer than our fair share of heroes at City, which tends to make us revere even more fondly the ones that we have, but by any standards, few football clubs anywhere have genuinely been served as faithfully or as beneficially by any individual as Hull City have been by Chris Chilton. It was a genuine honour to have seen him play and to have made his acquaintance, as I was subsequently fortunate enough to do when working at City on matchdays.
Such was the mark he left on the game that following his retirement as a player even Cadburys named a dessert after him. How many footballers can say that, eh? And if you don’t believe me, search it on Google Images or go to the IPO website and search UK trade mark 970856.
The purpose of this piece, as you know, is to mark Chillo’s 70th birthday today. So, and in conclusion, many happy returns, sir, and may the entire Tiger Nation raise a glass to you for all that you have done for us.