When Liverpool came to play Hull City in the last league game between the two before the Premier League era, Bill Shankly had been in charge of the club for precisely one month. Few of the 18,681 crowd that trudged into Boothferry Park for the first game of a new decade could have imagined that this man would go on to become one of the game’s behemoth figures as Liverpool struggled to overcome a dogged but greatly limited Tigers side.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the 1960s, a decade that saw massive changes in attitude, infrastructure and success by City, should commence with a game against a side that would become the most successful in English football over the same period. City weren’t a good team in 1959/60 and as the new year bunting was taken down found themselves bottom of the Division Two table. Liverpool were chasing promotion despite Shankly declaring in his first month in charge that lots of squad members he’d inherited would be shipped out as soon as possible.
Bob Brocklebank, rated by few of his charges, was the manager at Boothferry Park and was able to name an unchanged side from the one that had, bordering on miraculously, taken a point at leaders Aston Villa on December 28th, the first such point that Villa had conceded on their patch all season. The problem he had, according to observers, was a bizarre insistence on playing people out of position, with well-regarded centre forward Bill Bradbury, who’d potted 30 goals the season before, stuck on the left wing. After Liverpool’s visit on January 3rd 1960 resulted in a narrow victory, that issue was brought up again by frustrated fans with typewriters, as the sporting letters box on the back page of the Hull Daily Mail was filled with indignation. Nonetheless, a settled side would go some way to enhancing City’s chances of staying up and with Doug Clarke recovered from a chill and Brian Bulless shaking off a rib injury, that’s exactly what City had.
Bradbury, from his unusual left wing station, swung in an early cross that nearly reached an unmarked Ron Shiner but centre half Dick White got it clear. Liverpool then retaliated with an attack by Roger Hunt that resulted in Bulless taking his heels, and Ronnie Moran put the free kick a long way wide.
The marvellously-named Ralph Gubbins then stretched every lower limb muscle to try to reach a low fizzing Bradbury cross but missed it by inches and again Liverpool responded with Dave Hickson aiming his shoulder into City keeper Billy Bly as the two challenged for a Jimmy Melia cross. Melia then delivered a corner that Alan A’Court volleyed goalwards. Bly mishandled and could only re-pouch the ball after it had rolled on to the post and come out again.
The excellent Brian Garvey, who kept an effective watch on Hunt all game, made two quick goal-saving challenges in a row as Liverpool maintained the pressure, with both Hunt and Jim Harrower foiled by his boot. City were momentarily galvanised and Clarke hit a stirring first time shot from a Jackie Sewell knockdown which Bert Slater saved brilliantly.
Melia and Harrower both sent shots over City’s bar and then City responded with a dangerous Clarke corner that resulted in an almighty scramble in the box before Moran hacked the ball clear.
Liverpool were still edging it, and got their reward on 31 minutes when Harrower burst through on goal and Bly came out to meet him. The veteran keeper dived at his feet and diverted the ball away, but Melia was following up to steer it into an empty net.
The visitors nearly got another when defenders backed off A’Court as he ran towards goal, with Bly berating his team-mates after saving the winger’s eventual shot.
So, Liverpool had a slender lead at the break but although City had attacked with spirit they did look distinctly second best. After the interval, both sides had goals disallowed for offside – Liverpool through Hickman and City through Shiner – before Liverpool created a gilt-edged chance that should have doubled their lead.
Harrower hared towards goal but Les Collinson got across to block; the ricochet went towards Bly who mishandled into the path of Melia. His simple cross to Hunt left the centre forward with an open goal but somehow Bulless stuck out a foot to block with Bly nowhere.
Collinson then went up against Slater for a Bradbury cross and in the confusion, the ball struck his back and rolled towards goal, but not quickly enough to cross the line before the Liverpool keeper got back to grab it.
City appealed for a penalty when John Molyneux seemed to handle Gubbins’ shot, but it wasn’t given Paul Feasey volleyed at goal from a cleared corner afterwards and the deflection off Bradbury nearly caught Slater napping, but he got there just in time.
City forced three last-ditch corners but they came to nought, and the final whistle soon sounded. City’s players left the pitch still complaining to the referee about the penalty not given.
The Sports Mail was unimpressed by the Tigers. Three Crowns, the pseudonym used on match reports at the time, declared in his front page runner: “That vintage holiday football was evidently too heady for the Tigers. Against Liverpool at Boothferry Park this afternoon, City were only a shadow of the team who played so well against [leaders Aston] Villa in the Christmas games.
“Almost all their fire was gone, and the attack had to struggle all the way against a competent Liverpool defence who found that City’s laboured ball control and inaccurate passing made their job easier.”
Cutting stuff indeed. The result completed a double for Liverpool, who had come from two down at Anfield in August to win 5-3. They climbed to third in the table, where they agonisingly found themselves at the end of the season behind Villa and Cardiff, who went up. City finished bottom and went down, with Brocklebank unable to engineer an immediate return, and his sacking led to the arrival of Cliff Britton and a whole new outlook, all of it good, encapsulated City for the remainder of the decade, with some of the players he took on – Andy Davidson, Collinson, Clarke, Feasey – playing a significant role.
Bly was pushing 40, having debuted for the Tigers five months before the outbreak of war, and his extraordinary career was nearing its end, something Brocklebank started to acknowledge as City continued to leak like a sieve. He had only five more appearances ahead of him before the club released him.
Davidson was at right back, by now established and merciless, and Bulless had proved very adept at full back after years as a winger and inside forward. The two of them would eventually clock up 846 league appearances between them. Feasey was the short but springy centre back who also spent much more than a decade at the club, with Garvey and Collinson, another who stuck around for a long time, providing the steel in the middle. The front five that fans regarded as misplaced and weak was Clarke, Sewell, Shiner, Gubbins and Bradbury, and the latter left in the summer after too long seeing his potency stifled by his exile on the wing.
Liverpool had some comparatively undistinguished names in their side when considering their successors, though eventually much of this team was involved when they went up as champions in 1961/2. Moran retired in 1965 and joined the coaching staff, where he stayed for more than 30 years. Melia left in 1964 and later became known for his spell as manager of Brighton & Hove Albion in their FA Cup final season of 1983. By the end of 1959/60, a teenage Ian Callaghan had debuted for the club and would become their record appearance maker.
Shankly’s stamp on the club after acquiring the players he wanted was instant. By the middle of the decade Liverpool had two league titles, an FA Cup and narrow defeat in a European Cup Winners Cup final to look back on – with just Hunt still on the go from the side that won its first game of the sixties at Boothferry Park. Before Shankly retired in 1974, he had added a further league title, FA Cup and UEFA Cup to his haul as City continued to fester in Second Division mediocrity.
The contrast between the clubs couldn’t have been greater afterwards, as Liverpool conquered Europe, broke records in terms of titles, clean sheets and transfer fees and developed an international name, while City dithered in the middle divisions before dropping into the lowest tier, nearly went out of business and had ambitions that varied from the eccentric to the non-existent. Hence why the next league meeting between the two wasn’t until 2008/9, when City attained two draws and two defeats from the brace of Premier League seasons in 2008/9 and 2009/10.
In the interim, there were two League Cup ties in three early 70s seasons that included a Tuesday afternoon kick off because power was rationed by the three-day week, and a game which finished 3-1 to Liverpool courtesy of Callaghan scoring a hat-trick and an own goal. There then followed one of the most famous games in the Tigers’ history when Eddie Gray’s workmanlike City went 2-1 up at the interval against the starry Liverpool team of 1989, only for John Aldridge to ruin it all with two quick second half goals that took Kenny Dalglish’s men into the FA Cup quarter finals. A League Cup double header at the end of 1999, famous for Lee Bracey’s red card and the incongruous sight of Colin Alcide scoring to, briefly, bring City to 2-2 from 2-0 down, was the last occasion the two met before City’s era as a Premier League club began.
City have never won against Liverpool in the league under any of its monikers, with three draws – 2-2 in 1955 and 2008 and a 0-0 in 2010 giving the Tigers their only share of all the points contested between the two. And right now, despite equality in billing, the form of the two teams suggests that the first ever win over Liverpool isn’t exactly likely this weekend. Still, stranger things have happened. No, really.
Incidentally, City’s next game after the defeat to Liverpool was a visit to high-flying top tier side Fulham in the FA Cup. Brocklebank took his players to Fraisthorpe beach for what he called a “tonic session” during the week in readiness for the journey to the capital, bullish that the right preparation would give City an excellent chance against a team that contained Jimmy Hill, Johnny Haynes and a teenage Alan Mullery. City lost 5-0.