Only once before have Hull City played Leyton Orient in the League Cup. Like tonight’s tie, it was a second round clash at Brisbane Road, and just as we may have cause to fear the outcome this evening, it didn’t end well for the Tigers back then. In the late summer of 1976, however, the two teams were in the same division and so there was no shock element to the game.
It was the last day of August, the record-breaking heatwave beginning to move on, and City had made a decent start to the Division Two campaign under John Kaye, defeating Luton Town and FA Cup holders Southampton at home, scoring seven times in the process, after an opening day defeat at Hereford.
Back then there was no need nor desire to make changes for League Cup games and Kaye duly put out the best side he had available. Orient (as they had been known for a decade; they eventually re-added Leyton to their name in 1987) had some future stars in their ranks; defender Glenn Roeder would eventually turn out in the top flight for QPR and Newcastle United, while the heavily bearded midfielder Tony Grealish was already a Republic of Ireland international. The big attraction, however, was winger Laurie Cunningham.
Already scouts were turning up in their dozens to Brisbane Road to see this mercurial, fleet-of-foot, graceful and lightning quick winger who had (like Roeder) joined Orient after failing to gain a contract with Arsenal. Also like Roeder and Grealish, he was just 20, and had ample time for his career to blossom in the red of Orient. As City took to the field in this second round tie, it was clear from the off that one man was going to dominate the game.
Fortunately for the Tigers, while Cunningham was prominent, he was not yet in a position to take teams on by himself, something that seemed to be required of him as his team-mates struggled to create chances and apparently adopting a “if in doubt, give it to Laurie” policy as the Tigers soaked up the pressure and Roger deVries did a good job in shackling the young star-in-waiting. Cunningham, after having an early goal disallowed for offside, forced one good save later on from Jeff Wealands but otherwise it was City who had the best of the first half.
Jeff Hemmerman was sent clear by John Hawley for the most promising opening for the Tigers, shooting straight at Os veteran keeper John Jackson. At the other end, Wealands dealt in comfort with a shot from Grealish while both Gerry Queen and Ricky Heppolette put speculative chances wide. The half time whistle came as a blessed relief.
City started after the interval much the brighter, and George Lyall saw two good chances go wide before Hawley also headed one inches over the bar. Hemmerman then was released through the channels by Peter Daniel’s lovely ball but he wasted the chance by firing straight at Jackson. The ageing keeper then needed Roeder’s help when he dropped a Hemmerman centre on the goal line and the young defender clattered it away as Dave Sunley closed in.
Orient then missed a lot of chances in succession as their possession rate increased but their pace notably flagged. Winger Derek Possee and long-serving midfielder Peter Allen both miscued shots in the box, and as the 75 minute mark arrived, a replay – yes, a replay; this was before two-legged ties and well before extra time and penalties – seemed obvious. That is, until Cunningham stepped up.
The good work from deVries had prompted manager George Petchey to switch Cunningham to the opposite flank and it was from here that he took an innocuous enough pass from Allen, advanced a couple of steps to the corner of the area and swatted a curving cross shot around Wealands and in at the far post. It was a sublime goal. Worthy of winning the tie, even if his team generally weren’t, and at least sparing everyone the prospect of going through it all again at Boothferry Park the next week.
City tried to respond, with Stuart Croft heading wide a Dave Stewart corner, prior to Chris Galvin’s introduction as a substitute and his instant forcing of a fine double save out of Jackson in the six yard box. Kaye afterwards felt City were undeserving losers though he was more concerned about Daniel and Hawley, who had knee and wrist injuries respectively but, fortunately for them, they responded well to treatment and stayed in the side for the visit to Carlisle at the weekend, in which Hawley scored. At the time, Kaye was also bidding for a combative teenage midfielder at Preston North End but eventually gave up due to the inflated valuation his club had placed on the player. He instead signed Gordon Nisbet the following week and then, eventually, one Billy Bremner, but a whole 13 years later, after spells at Huddersfield Town and Sunderland, a 31 year old Steve Doyle did eventually join the Tigers.
The majority of the players in the team at Brisbane Road stayed around the side for the remainder of the season; the exception being Lyall, who notoriously suffered a broken leg during the act of scoring a goal against Bolton Wanderers, and never played again. By this time, City’s best achievements in the League Cup had been fourth round appearances in 1973/4 (beaten by Liverpool) and 1975/6 (beaten by Doncaster Rovers), but far more shaming is that the Tigers have still not got further in the competition to this day, and not since 1977/8 (beaten by Arsenal) even as far as the fourth round.
Orient’s involvement in the competition ended in the next round, losing 3-0 to Millwall in a second replay after two successive goalless draws. The league games between the two took place within a month of each other at the end of the season due to an earlier postponement caused by bad weather. Both ended 1-1; the second of which came in the final game of the campaign, by which time City’s 14th place finish was assured. That point kept Orient up and thanks to some kind of bizarre bet involving that game, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the Variations album for his cellist brother Julian (both are dyed-in-the-wool Orient fans) which yielded the now familiar theme to The South Bank Show. Orient also that season reached the final of the somewhat pointless Anglo-Scottish Cup, which they lost to Nottingham Forest.
Cunningham continued to make waves and eventually joined West Bromwich Albion in March 1977, later winning England Under 21 honours and, within another two years, full international caps. His career flourished at such great speed that he was off to Real Madrid after just two years at the Hawthorns, though injuries blighted his time there to the extent that he never hit the heights again. He won the FA Cup with Wimbledon while on a short-term deal there in 1988, and died a year later in a car crash after moving back to Spain.
Roeder and Grealish helped Orient to the FA Cup semi-finals in 1978 and later appeared in FA Cup finals for new clubs, captains in 1982 and 1983 respectively (Grealish as a stand-in for the suspended Steve Foster, who then returned to skipper Brighton in the replay). Grealish died earlier this year after a long illness, while Roeder had some high-profile managerial roles, most notably at West Ham United and Newcastle United, and has always been in work as a coach and scout. Of the others on duty, it’s worth mentioning that Allen’s 13 years at Brisbane Road resulted in 432 league appearances, which remains a club record.
So, City go to Orient tonight for only the second time in the League Cup. This time there doesn’t appear to be a precocious winger just out of his teens to give the Tigers’ defence the creeps, though the record in the competition and apathy towards the domestic knockout trophies in general that has sadly loomed over the KC in recent times may mean that the League One side won’t need one to still win the tie. And they’ve won four out of four in their division this season, so will feel pretty keen to take us on.
Given that the League Cup was the first trophy Steve Bruce won in his career – and the only one he had won until six months before his 30th birthday – maybe he has enough of a soft spot for the competition to actually make people care for it again. And hell, maybe even try to get past the bloody fourth round at last.