NOSTALGIA: Wilbraham’s only goal at the KC

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During Peter Taylor’s successful three and a half years as manager of Hull City, there was something of an influx of players brought to the KC who had all recently played alongside each other at Stockport County. The reason for this was simple; Stockport’s assistant manager Colin Murphy left Edgeley Park to become Taylor’s right hand man midway through the 2002/3 season and began suggesting players at the slowly ailing club that the Tigers could bring in.

Damien Delaney was the first. He’d had a spell on loan at Stockport before returning to parent club Leicester City, where he had worked for Taylor and Murphy as a youth. Then came Ben Burgess in a six-figure deal. Boaz Myhill was next, as City ambushed Stockport’s bid to sign the loanee Aston Villa keeper permanently and got him instead. Long serving Stockport striker Aaron Wilbraham, a product of the ranks, came in the summer of 2004 after City had secured promotion from the bottom tier. Lastly, via a brief spell at Chester City, winger Kevin Ellison, another familiar to Taylor and Murphy from Leicester days, hooked up midway through the 2004/5 season. There were others; famously the prolific Luke Beckett failed a medical thanks to an issue with his knee, and Taylor’s six-figure bids for utility player John Hardiker were turned down.

Delaney, Burgess and Myhill were all huge successes, especially the goalkeeper, who went on to become a history-maker alongside three team-mates by featuring in City colours in all four divisions. Ellison was regarded as something of a laudable joke player, whose endeavour and attitude made up for a lack of natural ability, especially after promotion to the Championship. Wilbraham, however, was the one that really disappointed, as the only one who arrived with a reputation for success at a higher level than City had been used to.

He only ever scored twice in his sole season with the Tigers, and it took him until New Years Day 2005 to get off the mark at all, despite being a semi-regular in the squad through the campaign, albeit with a loan spell at Oldham (for whom he also scored twice) thrown in. Basic assumptions were made about his ability, but there seemed to be more to it. He was a Cheshire boy who had been a hero at Stockport as they punched far above their weight around the turn of the century, staying in the second tier of the game despite the usual limitations regarding finance, fanbase and, in their case, half of the town they represented choosing to drive past their ground every week to attend matches in Manchester instead.

Wilbraham’s move to City made sense; he was well-versed in second and third tier football, which many of City’s squad weren’t, and he was one of three new centre forwards – the others being Jonathan Walters and Delroy Facey – who joined City and notoriously barely registered a shot on target between them as the Tigers roared through the division without any form striker at all.

It was thanks to the genius of Stuart Elliott on the left wing that City were scoring regularly and winning plenty. It wasn’t a calculated move for Elliott to shoot from the left edge of the box rather than cross, despite it being obvious that crossing was rarely going to bear fruit as none of the strikers could score. So, because he was good, rather than because there wasn’t another option, Elliott operated a “shoot on sight” policy and by the dawn of 2005, he had a whopping 20 league goals and wasn’t just the division’s leading scorer, but the nation’s too.

Huddersfield’s visit on New Years Day necessitated changes up front. Nick Barmby had been sent off against Doncaster Rovers three days before and Danny Allsopp, a scorer in that game, had taken a knock and was only fit for a cameo from the bench. Taylor looked at his three non-scoring target men – stats thus far; Facey 3, Walters 1, Wilbraham 0 – and picked the two that had at least found the net during the season. Wilbraham took the vacated sub place. Also in the team was right back Stev Angus, on loan from Cambridge United, who had come on as a sub in the previous game. He replaced the injured and largely inadequate Marc Joseph.

There was a drop of bad blood between the teams due to Huddersfield keeper Paul Rachubka being responsible, directly or otherwise, for the challenge on Burgess at the end of the previous season that put the big striker out for a whole year with knee ligament damage, hence Taylor’s splurge on similarly gangly replacements. An incident in the car park that day between two groups of goons also stained the occasion, despite the idiots in question having no connections to either club, and without any appropriate context applied, it would haunt future editions of fixtures against Wessies for years to come. As far as the issues for the teams in question were concerned, however, there was plenty to compare; City were second and flying, whereas Huddersfield, play-off winners the year before, were in mid-table and ambling along.

Aside from the extra-curricular stuff, City also had taken two comprehensive beatings at Huddersfield’s place over the previous 14 months and those recent memories were fresh and painful, especially the 4-0 cuffing handed out on a Sunday lunchtime in West Yorkshire in September when Murphy took fateful charge on the day while Taylor moonlighted with England’s under 21s. As for dropping Justin Whittle the year before in favour of Joseph, well…

So, stuff to sort out with this lot. And for the most part, nobody seemed in the mood to do any “sorting” of anyone, This included in the stands, where the majority of supporters were still waiting for the Resolve to kick in and perhaps one or two players on either team were similarly, but secretly, also feeling some illicit after-effects. After all, the calendar is changing by one digit! Let’s get wrecked to celebrate! It’s always better to get wrecked with no excuse at all than to do so with a rubbish one.

Walters had an early shot blocked inside the box and Facey tried to win a penalty in a manner which had the watching Bernard Mendy stroking his shoebrush beard and thinking “Hmmmm, intéressant”*. The visitors then produced their first shot of the half, with midfielder John McAliskey forcing Myhill into a fingertip save.

Elliott then forced his way through a defender to make space on the flank and, with the angle too narrow for even he to attempt a shot, took option two with a perfect cross on to the head of the unmarked Walters in the six yard box. True to form, Walters missed. As the half petered out, Huddersfield undeservedly, unexpectedly, suddenly, took the lead. A throw-in down the wing was quickly turned into two square passes as the knife glided through the butter, and City had melted in defence completely by the time Chris Brandon rounded Myhill and stroked into an empty net.

And yet, despite the lateness of the goal, City had time to equalise. Facey, playing against his boyhood club, played a smart pass inside the full back for Elliott to chase and this time he didn’t momentarily consider confidence-free centre forwards trying to keep up, instead just clumping the ball through Rachubka from a typically narrow angle and into the net. Goal number 21, and the year had only just turned.

So, half time. It was level, at least, but there was clearly something amiss. Taylor was unafraid to get the shepherd’s crook out and rid the team of the improvident Walters. Problem was, it was Wilbraham, the one non-scoring striker who had, so far, maintained the term literally. So it wasn’t exactly with the loudest of cheers that his introduction was announced at the start of the second half.

Facey headed a chance wide early after the restart before Angus was given room to use his considerable pace on the overlap by an Ashbee ball. The cross was deep and curling and inviting and East Yorkshire lungs temporarily stopped working as Wilbraham arrived, unmarked, on to it. The header was actually textbook in the end; he never took his eyes off it, met it with the meat and aimed it with power right into the corner. At last, he’d scored. And he had put City in the lead.

Elliott spannered a decent chance over the bar before Myhill had to make a flying save from Nathan Clarke as Huddersfield briefly tried to come back. The last ten minutes did for everyone though due to a torrential storm that made seeing the ball, let alone kicking it, a somewhat arduous task. Taylor made a couple of changes, bringing on Jason Price and Junior Lewis, the latter for Elliott after the superstar Ulsterman took an elbow in the face from Efe Sodje, a player evidently misunderstanding the phrase “injury time”.

The win was secured but Taylor was raging about that foul. “Stuart’s injury has taken the shine off it,” said the manager. “He’s a one-off and not going to be easy to replace.”

City were now joint top with Luton, with just +2 in the goal difference charts stopping them from being in the number one slot. However, their form was truly exceptional; this was their seventh win on the spin. It would become eight two days later with a win at Stockport, with Wilbraham inevitably scoring at his old club, and briefly City were at the helm thanks to Luton dropping points. A draw at Peterborough followed, making a lovely nine-game run before things dried up a little and City actually went five without a win. Huddersfield maintained their hokey-cokey form before a late flurry took them to within three places, but just one point, off the play-offs.

Initial fears that he’d be out for months with his demolished cheekbone were soon unfounded, and Elliott only missed six games in the end. His final tally was 27 from 36 league games, a tally so ridiculous for a man who didn’t play as a striker that you genuinely wondered why he hadn’t done better at a higher level, though Elliott’s unique outlook on life among footballers meant that naked ambition wasn’t a priority. And the only player to catch him up was one Dean Windass at Bradford City, who also finished on 27.

Myhill was now firmly in place as City’s keeper, a figure of consistency and decency who would remain for six and a half years and through all the glories still to come. Angus, oddly, never played for City again and the memories of his one superb game in the right back position remained undimmed as a consequence. Delaney and Leon Cort kept everything tidy at the back and Andy Dawson did his usual unhurried, unfussy work at left back, with the odd Cruyff turn, that would eventually turn him into an icon of the club over ten years.

Elliott was supported inside by pygmy-build midfielder Michael Keane, whose terrible indiscipline in the reserves prompted Taylor to get rid of him unceremoniously early the next season. Ashbee led the line next to him and Stuart Green was a light-footed but not especially potent presence wide on the right, preferring instead to dictate games from the centre. Facey and Walters were as boneheaded as each other up top. With Wilbraham, Price and Lewis on, the subs who remained bebibbed for the day were keeper Matt Duke and Allsopp, whose City career ended a month later with his request to go home to Australia granted by the club.

Huddersfield had no showbiz in their side at all. Striker Pawel Abbott was one of the candidates to catch Elliott in the scoring charts, though Cort kept him extra quiet during this game. Their legend-at-large was Andy Booth, back for a second spell and eventually a player who would attain 137 league goals for the club, but he was injured.

Elliott’s return in February reignited City’s season, with Allsopp scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over Wrexham that acted as his own farewell to the Tiger Nation. It was the first game of eight unbeaten, but a couple of draws therein allowed Luton to pull away a tad and with no wins in the last four, City technically secured promotion as runners-up thanks to third-placed Tranmere losing a game in hand, though eventually the seven-point gap between second and third was conspicuous. We now had a first season in the second tier for 15 years to look forward to. It had been a brilliant campaign, and yet sometimes a strange one, mainly due to this quirk of having a winger who couldn’t stop scoring and three new strikers who could barely start, all of whom were acknowledged as bad jobs by Taylor as he let each of them go.

Walters ended the season with one league goal, Wilbraham had two and Facey was the form one with four, though in February he was the first to be released, joining Oldham. He has gone on to live one of the most nomadic existences in football history, with 15 clubs stacked up next to his name by the summer of 2012. Allsopp, while booking his flights and packing his knotted hanky, still ended up with seven goals, suggesting that maybe Taylor could have loved him a bit more. Burgess came back for two sub appearances at the end of the year and never properly got his form back.

Walters, for his part, had serious family issues to deal with at the time, which has always rightly been brought up in retrospect to explain his profligacy, and in the summer he sunk as low as joining Wrexham to spark up his career again. He then joined Chester City and his form there interested Ipswich Town enough to give him a second wind, and now, still only 30, he is an established Premier League forward with Stoke City (whose fans seem to criticise him way too much) and a regular for the Republic of Ireland. And he looks like the cracking player that City fans guessed he could be.

Wilbraham, of whom Taylor said the move was ultimately too big after years of being a player of his community in Stockport, was too released in the summer and went to Milton Keynes Dons before joining Paul Lambert at Norwich City as they engineered two straight promotions. He scored in the Premier League for the Canaries and is now back there, at the age of nearly 34, with Crystal Palace. Though he has been peripheral at each of these two clubs, it is only at City where he is regarded – not without reason – as a failure.

Myhill and Delaney are also Premier League players today while Ashbee, Dawson and Duke all got there with City and Lewis had previously done it with Leicester. Chuck in Barmby, the injured Alton Thelwell and the still-to-arrive Craig Fagan and the quality in what was a third tier squad was obvious. Fortunately, they proved it such at the time and even though Taylor’s copybook is perennially blotted with some for the manner of his exit, he should maintain lifelong respect for putting this brilliant, unusual, enthralling team together. That it proved to be so exciting, so good, so unpredictable, so devastating while none of its centre forwards could find a barn door makes it all the more an achievement.

Incidentally, one player at Stockport during that period that City didn’t go after was regarded as unreliable at the time due to his lack of application in training, which made him regularly unfit on match days. His name was Rickie Lambert. Look where he is now. And look where Stockport, who gave him a free transfer at the end of that 2004/5 season, are now.

Huddersfield, who come to the KC tonight for a first ever League Cup tie between the two teams, stayed in the third tier for seven seasons, failing three times in the play-offs before eventually coming up in 2012. As a consequence, this game was the last one between these two teams until last season, when City did the double, though West Yorkshire Police seemed to think that we faced each other all the time when deciding outrageously that our attending the game on their patch was a breach of their officers’ human rights, or something.

*Bernard Mendy wasn’t there. That we know of.

Photo: MC

3 replies
  1. Chunder Monkey
    Chunder Monkey says:

    I know he’s elevated his career to an impressive level since leaving City, but Wilbraham was gash at City (apart from an away game at Peterborough when he was excellent) and has been poor every time I’ve seen him play on TV since. He must have something about him for the likes of Holloway and Lambert have seen fit to invest wages in him, but his goal output is dire.

    If someone had told you leaving that game that Walters and Wilbraham would both score in the Premier League in the future, you’d have pointed them in the direction of a nut house. Funny how things turn out innit?

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