The last time Steve Bruce played against Hull City in his distinguished career, he was captain of this weekend’s opponents, Norwich City. And he was a jubilant captain too, as his side were already champions of the Second Division by the time they wrapped up their season of joy with a midweek trip to Boothferry Park.
Turned down by a lot of clubs as a teenager, including the two biggest in his native north east, Bruce ended up signing as an apprentice with Gillingham after leaving school – infamously, he travelled for his trial in Kent with another Geordie hopeful in Peter Beardsley. Bruce was offered terms, Beardsley wasn’t. Establishing a reputation that fell into the ‘hard but fair’ category over five years, he joined Norwich to add steel to their defence in the late summer of 1984. The bittersweet feelings at the end of his first season at Carrow Road – League Cup success at Wembley and relegation from the top flight by a single point – were soon countered by the Canaries running away with the Second Division title.
Under player-manager Brian Horton for a second season, City were also in rude health on and off the pitch, having just enjoyed a killer first year back in Division Two since 1978. However, the City boss wasn’t a happy bunny leading up to the visit of the champions. His side had gone five without a win, ruining the faint but real hopes of their own automatic promotion place and he had torn into the squad after a wretched weekend defeat at Wimbledon.
The irascible Horton saved his biggest barb for his marquee signing of the season, midfielder Garry Parker, who had just returned from winning his second England Under 21 cap and, according to the tetchy manager, “came back thinking he was an England player”, accusing him at Plough Lane of playing “casually”. Parker, along with winger Billy Askew, was unceremoniously dropped for the visit of Norwich, with Horton switching to a 3-5-2 and recalling less beguiling midfielders Lawrie Pearson and Neil Williams.
Norwich dominated the occasion at Boothferry Park but despite the lack of eventual prize available for the Tigers, the game was open and entertaining under the old place’s famous floodlights, half-lit for the late late spring. Tony Norman was the busier keeper by some distance, tipping over a looping early header from ex-Grimsby striker Kevin Drinkell, who was top scorer in the division with 22 goals.
Missed headers were then traded – Norwich defender Dave Watson, himself vexed at being left out of the travelling England party for the summer’s World Cup in Mexico, aimed one wide of Norman’s post, before Tigers striker Frankie Bunn, who’d had an excellent debut season with the club, put one over the bar of Chris Woods, who by contrast had made it into Bobby Robson’s squad. Richard Jobson then had a chance that nobody assumed was legal, staying up after a cleared corner and waiting for an offside flag that never came, and Woods used the crucial extra second to dive at his feet and save.
Norwich, especially after the break, forced a glut of corners and Bruce got on the end of one of them but his downward header hit the turf and bounced over the bar. Midfielder Garry Brooke then beat Norman with a fizzing drive from just inside the box but spectacular work from Pat Heard kept it out, diving headlong along the line to get his forehead to the ball.
Bruce picked up a booking for taking Bunn’s knees as the wily Tigers striker turned him and then Norman was called back into action, tipping a fine header from Mike Phelan over the crossbar.
Andy Saville came on as a sub for Andy Flounders with 13 minutes to go, and it was his challenge on Woods when Bobby Doyle swung in an 80th minute corner that created the only goal of the game, rifled in venomously from 20 yards by Williams. It was only his second of the season.
Norwich, ready for their own celebrations and holidays, took the hint and the game petered out into the end-of-season affair that many feared it would be, and Horton was heard telling folk afterwards that the match had all the hallmarks of a dead rubber. Why he felt this way was unclear, as there had been 80 minutes of competitive football not befitting of the general uselessness of the occasion, with the Canaries aiming for a final flourish and the Tigers hoping to prove to their forthright manager that they were still professional enough to see out the campaign properly.
Horton put Parker and Askew in the reserves at home to Blackburn the next night and turned out in midfield himself too. Though Norwich’s campaign was now over, City still had one game left and duly ended the season properly at Brighton on the following Friday night with a 2-0 win. Williams scored again, allowing himself a flurry of form and fortune at the end of an inconsistent and injury-hit first full season with the club, and Flounders banged in his tenth of the campaign, a worthy figure given how much he had generally struggled against a standard of defending he had not had to deal with before in his six years in the first team. Horton didn’t change the side, meaning the debacle at Wimbledon represented Parker and Askew’s last action of the season
The 3-5-2 assembled by Horton to account for the scapegoating of those two saw the agile and ever-brilliant Norman protected by a trio of defenders that combined ferocity with culture, as Peter Skipper and Stan McEwan did the filthy stuff alongside the elegant Jobson. Pearson and Heard operated as hunters in midfield, allowing Doyle to scheme, with Williams and the long-serving Gary Swann – the recipient of a new deal that week – working the wider positions. Bunn and Flounders took on the might of Watson and Bruce at the helm of City’s attack, with Saville joining in at the end as City sought the win.
City’s business for the season finished with the signing of YTS striker Andy Payton on a full-time deal and the release of just one senior player, midfielder Mike Ring, who had been frozen out during the autumn and had just returned from an unsatisfactory loan spell at Bolton. The team ended the season sixth, the second best finish in the post-war era and, despite the difficult spring period, a brilliant effort for a squad still full of players that had featured in the two divisions below. It was, typically for City, a season too early for involvement in the play-offs, however.
The optimism couldn’t continue the next year though, with the loss of the pivotal Doyle in pre-season to a broken leg from which he would not recover, and City struggled in a tighter and harder division, despite signing Ray Daniel, Alex Dyer and Charlie Palmer, getting club captain Garreth Roberts back from injury and seeing Parker begin to stamp his mark on games.
Norwich, joined in the top tier by Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, had no need to fear becoming a yo-yo team and thrived in the top flight under Ken Brown, though they needed a new keeper to do so as the highly-rated Woods joined Glasgow Rangers for £600,000 after coming back from the World Cup. He remained a fixture in the England squad as Peter Shilton’s prime understudy, eventually becoming first choice in 1990. The long-serving Watson got over his disappointment at missing out on a place in Mexico by earning a big-money move to Everton, where he would spend 15 distinguished years and win a League title and FA Cup, and a spot in his country’s starting XI at the 1988 European Championships, though England’s deplorable performances in that tournament saw him frozen out afterwards, never to return.
Bruce captained the England B side in 1987 and famously earned his move to Manchester United in November of that year after Bryan Robson recommended him to manager Alex Ferguson on the strength of his ratings in the Sunday papers. He spent nine years at Old Trafford and won three Premier League titles, two FA Cups, another League Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup. Phelan took over as Norwich captain and then joined his former skipper at Manchester United in 1989 after a fine season in which he came close to captaining Norwich to success in both the League and the FA Cup. Drinkell’s prolific three years at Norwich earned him a move to Glasgow Rangers in 1988 and, an unhappy couple of years at Coventry City aside, he ended up staying in Scotland for the rest of his playing career and beyond.
Less illustrious names in action that night in 1986 who picked up a Second Division winners’ medal included local boy Paul Haylock, Dutch defender Dennis Van Wijk, experienced midfielder Dave Williams, much-travelled centre forward Wayne Biggins and former England Under 21 striker John Deehan. Two of the protagonists at Boothferry Park didn’t get medals, however; Brooke, twice an FA Cup winner with boyhood club Tottenham Hotspur, was one appearance short of a medal and never settled at Carrow Road, leaving for Scandinavia in 1987. Substitute Tony Spearing, on early for the hamstrung Biggins in this game, ended up playing ten times that year before going to spells of varying satisfaction at Leicester, Plymouth and Peterborough.
Bruce never played against City again – his arrival at Old Trafford came a month after Manchester United had beaten the Tigers 6-0 on aggregate in a League Cup second round tie – and even his brief veteran spells at Birmingham City and Sheffield United didn’t coincide with City being in the same division.
City also didn’t play Norwich again for almost 20 years, when Peter Taylor’s side lost 2-1 at Carrow Road in the Championship in September 2005, before a 1-1 draw at the KC later the same season. Each side have won one game each at the Circle in this fixture since; goals from Darren Huckerby and Dickson Etuhu helped the Canaries to a 2-1 victory in 2006/7, but City won by the same score a season later with Richard Garcia getting the clinching goal. This quickfire round of games after a two-decade gap is also memorable for Michael Turner’s injury-time equaliser for City at Carrow Road in November 2006, biting the hand that today feeds him, and a 2-0 triumph in September 2010 thanks to late goals from Robert Koren and Tom Cairney which finally ended the catastrophic run of 27 away games without a win.
Norwich’s laudable recent record in Hull doesn’t compare with a remarkable sequence when they won four out of five visits in the League to Boothferry Park between 1967 and 1972, and then threw in a League Cup success there in 1973 for good measure. But this weekend’s game will be the first ever between the two at football’s top level, and a man who is now a legend of both clubs is responsible for making it happen.