The ability to take your pleasures while you can is a vitally important life skill, and don’t we City supporters know it? For all the horrors of the Needler (C), Lloyd and Buchliffe regimes, surely the most horrible time to be a Hull City fan for those old enough to remember was the decade or so that followed the momentous 1970/1 season. Bright spots were few and far between, Boothferry Park grew forlornly emptier almost week upon week (except when Sheffield Wednesday or Sunderland were in town), the lifeblood of the club seemed to seep inexorably away, drip by drip, and the mood was one of growing terminal decline.
By the early 80s watching City was, frankly, a chore: for years, there had been nothing, simply nothing, to stir the blood for almost as long as one could remember, and it was rare in the extreme for any fixture to generate the merest frisson of interest among the non-diehards, the nascent resurgence of each of the city’s rugby league clubs only serving to fan ever more vigorously the flames of apathy, and away followings of City fans were generally tiny (such as 150 or so turning up at Hillsborough). That latter state of affairs was finally brought to an end on Easter Monday 1980, when a City side struggling to avoid relegation from Division 3 travelled to face a Grimsby Town side on the verge of promotion.
This may seem hard to believe these days, but in that pre-saturation media coverage age, and whilst contempt for the White Shite and Hull Whites was as unstinting in those days as it has ever been, most City fans regarded the men from the south bank as the real foe and had always done so, and no fixture had been so eagerly awaited for possibly two-thirds of a decade. And so it was that hordes of City followers who had not seen active duty for years crawled out of the woodwork and headed for Blundell Park, around 4,000 of them – a figure commensurate with home attendances at the time – roaring the Tigers (Ed – am I still allowed to say that?) to an unlikely but precious point courtesy of a 1-1 draw.
Relegation was averted – just – at the end of that season, but was nailed on for much of the 1980/1 campaign under Mike Smith and the rest of his management team assembled at expense that the club could not afford. The only respite came in the shape of City’s performances in the FA Cup, a competition still taken extremely seriously by all participants in those days, as this was more than ten years before the structure of domestic football in England was disfigured by avalanches of television money.
Halifax Town of Division 4 were despatched 2-1 at Boothferry in the first round, the reward for which was the visit of celebrated Cup giant-killers Blyth Spartans. This was an “upset” waiting to happen, but the media, hovering like vultures, were thwarted as a largely-outplayed City hung on for a 1-1 draw and then survived an even more sustained onslaught back in the north-east, a late Keith Edwards equaliser in normal time and the heroic exploits of Tony Norman in injury time earning a 2-2 draw, which meant a second replay. Elland Road was chosen as the neutral venue for this fixture, and again this captured the imagination of the City supporters, with another 4,000 following – roughly ten times the number who had braved the trip to Croft Park for the first replay – turning near-delirious in their half of the Gelderd End as Stuart Croft’s towering header secured a 2-1 victory six minutes from time. To this day, that night remains one of my all-time favourite City trips.
The third round draw meant going into the hat with the big boys, but Lady Luck did not smile kindly at our heroes, although being drawn at home for the third time in a row was a fair consolation prize, the visitors being near-neighbours Doncaster Rovers, themselves enjoying an uncommonly decent season in the bottom flight. Much as Blyth had done in the previous round, Donny dominated for long periods, but after Nick Deacy had converted a rare City chance early in the second half, we held on in front of Boothferry’s first five-figure gate for some years, swelled by a large South Yorkshire following.
Incredibly, a team which had only won four times all season in the League had managed it three times in the Cup, albeit against teams from lower leagues. Unless you were there, it is genuinely hard to explain how exciting all of this was. For the first time in years, it seemed, there was something to enthuse about concerning City.
If the third round draw was underwhelming, the draw for the fourth went to the other extreme: a plum tie the likes of which City had not faced since entertaining West Ham United at the Ark in the fourth round in 1973, in the shape of a visit to Tottenham Hotspur, if not the best team in the land at the time then almost certainly the most glamorous and talked about. For the first time in half a generation, the eyes of the football world would be on a fixture involving Hull City. Needless to say, the fans responded to this even more enthusiastically than they had for the Grimsby and Blyth games: after the ignominy of being roundly ignored by the football world for so long, the fervour reached near fever-pitch. This was to be the third huge awayday of the era.
There was the minor snag that the Spurs had to see off QPR in their Third Round replay, but that nominal hurdle was safely negotiated and we could all look forward to the great day. Of course, we were going to get stuffed out of sight, weren’t we? But never mind.
The game itself was something of a blur after all these years, without the benefit of raking back over press reports of the game or having saturation TV footage to rely on, but in a sense that isn’t what this piece is about. This is all about one fan’s experiences of one of the biggest days he had experienced in 15 years of City-watching: this, as the title to the piece states, is all about nostalgia.
At the time of the game I was a second-year undergraduate at Cambridge. The pre-eminent local side, Cambridge United, had only enjoyed League status for some twelve years (albeit having made steady progress to the second tier during that time), and prior to that the area was undisputed Spurs territory, with many fans in the city following them and regularly making the 40-odd mile trip to White Hart Lane. At the time, there were three other undergraduates known to me who were City fans, and we used to meet every Tuesday evening during term time to chew the fat about City over a few pints of Greene King Dark Mild and some fish and chips: this apparently-insignificant gathering turned out in fact to be a catalyst for the formation of Hull City Southern Supporters not long afterwards.
Naturally we were going to the game, but quite a few of our non-City supporting student mates fancied it as well, it emerged, and so for the first (and last) time during my time at University we were faced with the momentous prospect of proper organised travel from Cambridge for a City game. Oh yes, we did the journey in style: I hired a Sherpa van from Marshall’s Vehicle Hire in King Street and, because I was under the age of 21 and could not therefore drive the van myself I prevailed upon my Newcastle-supporting pal Derek to drive. A minibus was out of the question as you had to be 25 to hire one of those.
So the big day arrived, and at around 10am a dozen of us piled into the van at the college gates, to the bemusement of large numbers of Wednesday fans who even at that early hour were arriving in force for their own fourth round tie at the Abbey (Wednesday had a huge cult away following in those days, taking thousands literally everywhere) . The college head porter, Ron Wheeler, emerged from the Porters’ Lodge in his morning suit to see what the commotion was all about and immediately rustled up a few redundant college mattresses to make the journey more comfortable for those consigned to the back.
More than one car load of Spurs fans on the A10 was more than a little taken aback to be confronted with a forest of V-signs and wanker gestures from the rear windows of the van, and one wonders what pedestrians made of the raucous singing, accompanied by sustained banging on the sides of the van, as we headed south. After a lengthy stop to set our alcoholic balances on the outskirts of London, the van disgorged its human cargo into a somewhat menacing council estate between the North Circular and the ground just after half two, and for the first time the mood became subdued as we had to negotiate a tract of London in which visiting supporters, should they be identified as such, would not be likely to receive the benefit of warm bonhomie.
After ten minutes’ tense and brisk walk, taking care not to catch the eye of anyone likely to ask you, “You got the time, mate?” we arrived behind the Shelf, home to the more vociferous element of the Spurs support, and made our way round the long queues of home fans, one of whom was heard to exclaim as he observed the numbers of individuals who, from the direction in which they were going, could only have been making for the away turnstiles, “Vey’ve brought fakkin’ fahsands!”
And he was right. Exact numbers of away fans were never published by the home club in those days, and City, even if asked, could not have provided that information because, seat sales apart, it was pay on the gate, but what is clear from how packed the left side of the Park Lane terrace was, and from the rare glimpses of the City support on the fleeting TV coverage of the game, that around 5,000 Hull folk had made the journey – reputedly the third largest away following from outside London at White Hart Lane that season (Manchester United and Liverpool being numbers one and two). This latter “statistic” might be rubbish, but by Hell it was heaving in there: real feet-on-the-ankles-of-the-bloke-in-front stuff. And it was noisy.
Spurs, close to the top of the top flight. City, rock bottom of the Third. The respective team line-ups on the back of the (to our eyes) uncommonly glossy and professional match programme said it all:-
Spurs: Daines, McAllister, Miller, Roberts, Perryman, Ardiles, Yorath, Hoddle, Galvin, Archibald, Crooks.
City: Norman, Hoolickin, McNeil, Richards, Booth, Roberts (J), Marwood, McClaren, Edwards, Norrie, Deacy
Actually, on paper this wasn’t, or ought not to have been, a bad City team. Indeed, several of them featured in the side that won promotion back up from the Fourth in 1983 and three of them went on to have distinguished careers at a higher level. Plus there was King Keith. The problem was that this was a group of players that had had all the motivation, desire and pride sucked out of it by inept management and administration (Harold Needler having passed away some years before, his unavailing son now held the reins) coupled with the air of inexorable decline which had hung over Boothferry for the best part of a decade.
At the time, the Lane was undergoing rebuilding and there was no main stand, the dressing rooms taking the form of a cluster of Portakabins, but that in no way detracted from the atmosphere, with 37,432 (a larger crowd than Sunday’s, note; and certainly unlikely to be replicated for our first-ever League Cup game at Spurs this week) shoehorned into the other three sides of the ground. It was truly seething, City fans rollickingly boisterous, home fans tense and subdued. The cold, damp, slightly misty air seemed to add to the drama of the occasion.
It would be nice to be able to recall that it was hard to tell which team were the aristocrats and which the lowly interlopers, but that wouldn’t be accurate. This wasn’t about City matching Spurs for elegance and sparkle, it was about defying them with organisation and sheer bloody passion. City strikes on goal were rare, but we came agonisingly close to going in front on the quarter hour, when Edwards nipped in between the hesitant home centre-backs to get a touch on a bouncing ball on the edge of the box and lobbed it over the advancing Barry Daines towards the empty net. After what seemed an eternity, with the packed crowd on the away terraces simultaneously holding its breath and surging forward in an unstoppable wave, the ball bounced down on the hard surface and cleared by a few inches the angle of post and bar.
After that, it was very much a tale of dour resistance from the City defence, and when the home side did break through they found Tony Norman in unbeatable form, most impressively when he pushed away a powerful downward header from Garth Crooks in a manner every bit the equal of Banksie’s famous save from Pele.
So, half time, and still level. Surely a matter of time? But the minutes ticked on, with City now playing towards us and most of the play down the other end of the field, the atmosphere becoming ever more strained as night started to fall and the glare from the floodlights began to reflect on the gobbets of sputum arcing in both directions over the fence separating the rival supporters.
Twenty minutes to go, and a rare City attack sees a powerful Marwood drive from a narrow angle pouched by Daines low at the near post.
Twelve minutes to go, and Ossie Ardiles, now palpably thrashing around in his efforts to make an impression, is subbed: he’ll have had few more testing days in his illustrious career. On comes the sole Spurs sub, little-known Garry Brooke, and the City fans mock. Spurs are shot now, aren’t they? Surely, against all the odds, we’re going to get these arrogant London bastards back to Boothferry? Tony Norman has had a few saves to make, but nothing has looked remotely like getting past him.
But have you ever noticed how lampoonery of the opposition by City supporters so often comes back to bite us? The best example of this occurred in April 1984 at Plough Lane Wimbledon, when the table-topping home side, 4-0 down to a rampant and irresistible City XI, scraped a late consolation and the City fans cheered ironically. That goal for Wimbledon effectively cost City promotion a few days later.
Another classic example took place on 24th January 1981, when, a mere five minutes after Ardiles left the field to a cacophony of catcalls, his replacement Brooke fires in a ball, none too cleanly, from just over 20 yards out, only for the leather to bobble in front of Norman, who might well have been unsighted, and nestle in the bottom far corner.
And that was it. We hadn’t the guile or the energy to claw the deficit back and never looked like doing so in the final few minutes, and the tin lid was duly applied in the dying seconds when the mercurial Steve Archibald swivelled in the box to avoid the attention of John Roberts and fired a low drive past Norman for a scoreline that was richly undeserved.
One of the photos in the Hull Daily Mail the following Monday showed Steve Richards and Nick Deacy at the security fence which all grounds had in those days, receiving the plaudits of the massed City support at the end of the game, under the caption “Mutual Admiration” – about as fitting an observation as there could be. When the City team finally headed back to the dressing room, “Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur” having long since subsided and the home side having slunk sheepishly back into their Portakabin (but ultimately to lift the Cup the following May), the applause from the Spurs fans was generous, which probably wouldn’t have been the case but for the two late goals.
A truly marvellous day, all the more so for it being a rare genuinely big game for City, leaving all Tiger Nationals who were there with some fine memories and, for the more serious students of Hull City among us, some rueful reflections on what might have been if the team had shown the same levels of resolve and determination in the League campaign. But for once City had shown genuine pride and passion, qualities all too rare in those dark, distant days.
As for our little troupe, a fine evening was had with a group of victorious Wednesday fans back in Cambridge, the health of our heroes being repeatedly and deservedly drunk.
Additional memories by Stephen Weatherill
(Photos copyright of the Daily Mirror)