There have been occasions when City managers have signed players who seemed way too good or too famous for our club. Even in this era of being back among the Premier League elite, we all still gasped collectively, prior to fist-pumping jubilantly, when what seemed obviously a far-fetched tabloid rumour about Tom Huddlestone joining us turned out to be fact. As the ultra-cultured midfielder and his corking afro put pen to paper, we congratulated our manager and wondered how the hell he’d done it.
Not so long back, the acquisition of Geovanni after our first promotion from the Championship was something of a coup, even though we got him for free. Later the same season the arrival of Jimmy Bullard was greeted with incredulous glee, even though Fulham fans were dually issuing us with a warning and breathing their sigh of relief, and of course they were quite correct to do so. In the promotion season itself, we got Jay Jay Okocha, again for free, whose short but enchanting stay proved to us all that City midfielders didn’t always need to be Ken De Mange or Chris Lee.
In the 90s we got David Rocastle on loan, probably the squarest peg within a round hole of a wretched team that City had ever had. The 80s gave us Peter Barnes and Emlyn Hughes, decorated players way past their best but still with touches of class; the 70s similarly made Billy Bremner a City player, who like Rocastle was easily too good for the team he was joining, though unlike Rocastle didn’t prove it very much with his own performances.
Then we hark back to the 50s, where great player after great player came to slum it for periods of their career at Boothferry Park.
Actually, slumming it would be an unfair way of describing it, even allowing for the self-deprecation that a decade spent flitting between second string national and mediocre regional football would induce in the bodies watching the club at the time. In the days of the maximum wage and ludicrous non-footballing methods of picking the England side, it genuinely didn’t matter where a player plied his trade.
Neil Franklin and Wilf Mannion came to the club in 1951 and 1954 respectively. Then Stan Mortensen became the latest of these huge English names when he joined City in 1955. He was a veteran by now – 34 years of age – but in the era of slower matches and a lack of general care over a player’s wellbeing, a footballer could go on for a lot longer than his form, pace or health would otherwise suggest sensible. Mortensen put pen to paper in November 1955 after leaving Blackpool, the club he had joined at the age of 20 during the Second World War. He was a ludicrously prolific centre forward for the Tangerines, scoring a hat-trick in the 1953 FA Cup final (which received the nickname of the Matthews Final, a moniker that surely must have aggravated him for the rest of his days) and also became, in 1950, the first England player ever to score at a World Cup finals.
At the time, City were having a woeful period in Division Two. The bottom two divisions were equal in status and separated by regionalisation, but City had managed to avoid them for seven seasons by the time a shocking start to the 1955/6 campaign prompted manager Bob Brocklebank to seek reinforcements. However, he bamboozled fans and media alike when the two new players he unveiled were not defenders – City conceded 42 goals in their opening 16 games – but a pair of attackers, including the famous but ageing Mortensen. The theory at the time was, in a move not dissimilar to Cliff Britton’s policy post-1966, that if City were going to succeed, they would do so by simply outscoring the opposition.
Mortensen went straight into the side for the visit of West Ham United to Boothferry Park on November 12 1955. The other new signing, inside forward Doug Clarke, also got a start as Brocklebank made seven changes to a team battered 5-2 by Bristol City seven days before. The two fresh faces joined Bill Bradbury, a fine goalscorer utterly starved of service thus far, in a three-pronged attack.
No detailed match report exists now of the game, as there was a printing problem that prevented the Sports Mail coming out, meaning no running copy given by the Hull Daily Mail reporter (the semi-mysterious “Three Crowns”) who instead wrote an after-thought for the Monday edition of the paper. City won the game 3-1, however, and both debutants scored. This allowed the man (we assume a man) with the municipally symbolic nomenclature to write an extremely long single-sentence introduction which so joyously expresses relief and hope for the new presence of Mortensen, and we reproduce it for you here:
“One swallow might not make a summer but certainly on Saturday’s evidence, a Stan Mortensen can make Hull City, for the former international’s spirit infectiously spread through the rest of the side to such an extent that the Tigers were to throw off the effects of the notorious second half collapse that has been afflicting them and fight back so hard that they gained their second win of the season.”
The idea that Mortensen’s presence would be enough to inspire the rest of the side was instantly vindicated; however, concerns remained high about the defence put out by Brocklebank. “Franklin, [Viggo] Jensen and [Tom] Berry were beaten for speed with a frequency that raised blood pressure to danger point – calmed only by [goalkeeper Billy] Bly’s agility and daring”, continued Three Crowns, who also pointed out that West Ham played very poorly and were too on a bit of a dodgy run of form.
Bradbury and Clarke had put City ahead before Ken Tucker pulled one back in the second half for the Hammers. Then Mortensen sealed the points on 76 minutes. The 3-1 win was, as Three Crowns made clear in his extended preface, only the second of the season, a whole two and a half months after two Brian Bulless goals had beaten Lincoln City at Boothferry Park.
“It is now up to the Tigers to prove that this heartwarming display was not flattery but a prelude to deception”, concluded Three Crowns, wordily. He was to be disappointed, as were all associated with the club. Mortensen’s impact extended to his scoring the only goal at Port Vale a week later and City ended up winning four out of six but after a dreadful Christmas was exacerbated by a month out of action in January (save for an early FA Cup exit at the hands of Aston Villa), what little momentum City had completely died. They won just five games over the remainder of the season, losing Mortensen to injury with a month to go, and were relegated as the division’s bottom side with time to spare. Ultimately, Mortensen’s ability and attitude couldn’t be replicated by lesser players, especially when he wasn’t in the team to show them how it was done.
Bly and that three-man defence that Three Crowns openly doubted so much were joined by teenage local boy Jim Duncan on one flank and John Neal, usually a full back, pushed forward to play as a winger to the huge surprise of everyone. Tommy Martin and Andy Davidson played in midfield with Mortensen, Clarke and Bradbury up front. City used 29 players that season and Brocklebank struggled all along to find the right XI that would be consistent enough to pull them away from the bottom of the table.
Mortensen ended the season with eight goals, one behind Bradbury, while Clarke managed six. They all made double figures the following season as City ended up eighth in Division Three (N), but Mortensen had gone by then, leaving in February 1957 after a falling-out with the board. He scored 18 goals in 42 league appearances and died just four days short of his 70th birthday in 1991. He remains the only player to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup final. Clarke, the other new boy on show that day against the Hammers, was by contrast a roaring success with City, eventually serving nine years with the club and moving from a central to wide role in his later Tigers career.
West Ham recovered from their own unpropitious start to the season to finish 16th. Ted Fenton was their manager throughout the 1950s and he succeeded in getting them promoted back to the First Division in 1958 after 26 years away. In their side at Boothferry Park were soon-to-be famous names who would establish huge reputations as coaches, including John Bond, Dave Sexton, Malcolm Allison, Frank O’Farrell and skipper Noel Cantwell.
The 1955/6 season was the seventh in a row that these two sides met and the Hammers had enjoyed the best of the battles at Boothferry Park and the Boleyn Ground, winning five of the 14 games. City won three, all of which were at Boothferry Park, and the remainder were drawn. City’s relegation and West Ham’s promotion two years later meant it took 33 years for the two to end up in the same division again, during which time City had sunk to the bottom division and nearly gone out of business while West Ham won domestic and European trophies and, supposedly, the World Cup. Of the four games during the turn of the 90s played against West Ham, two were drawn and the other two produced a win for each side in east London, though West Ham’s was by a memorably awful 7-1 scoreline.
There then followed another long period without daggers drawn until City were promoted to the Premier League in 2008. Over those two seasons, City won and drew one at the Circle and lost both games at the Boleyn Ground, each without scoring. The last time the two met was in the Championship in 2011/12, when West Ham did the double over the Tigers on their way to promotion. Their last visit to the Circle, which was their 2-0 win that same season, was Nigel Pearson’s last game in charge of City; coincidentally, the last game between the two at West Ham, the 3-1 win for the Hammers on the final day of that season, was Nick Barmby’s swansong.