In 1984/5, Hull City embarked on an emphatic 14-game unbeaten run which ultimately helped them to a fine promotion in Brian Horton’s first season in charge as player-manager. Perhaps inevitably, however, the run was brought to an end by the third round of the FA Cup.
There is little love lost, historically or contemporarily, between the FA Cup and the Tigers and, despite being drawn at a seemingly beatable Brighton side in that third round tie, it turned out that competition and club really didn’t feel like bonding once again.
To be fairer to City, as a Third Division club they’d already achieved something in reaching the third round at all. A 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers followed by a 3-0 cuffing of Tranmere – five different scorers got the goals – got the Tigers into the hat. There wasn’t much that appealed, however, about a winter sojourn to the south coast to take on the Seagulls, not least because even an in-form Tigers side had little experience of Brighton’s level of football and the hosts had ample top tier heritage, having been relegated just 18 months before.
The 14 matches without defeat, the longest in 20 seasons, had consisted of the two Cup wins and 12 league games, eight of which had ended in victory, and had bolted City to second place in Division Three. This City squad, though small, was very strong indeed providing everyone could stay fit. As the New Year settled into everyone’s lives, City beat Bristol City 2-1 at home but lost top scorer Billy Whitehurst to a hamstring injury, a blow and a half considering the difficult FA Cup trip that was to follow.
Whitehurst, not untypically, worked through the pain in the physio’s room and Horton, already without his natural replacement Steve Massey, talked up the centre forward’s chances. He was well enough in the end to travel but failed a fitness test on the morning of the game.
Horton had to shuffle his side from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 as a result, so short of strikers was he (his decision not to take 20 year old Andy Saville due to inexperience seemed a tad odd), and winger Mike Ring was shunted into the middle to deputise for Whitehurst, though it was young midfielder Neil Williams that took the number 9 shirt. Out-of-favour defender Dale Roberts, who had spent the whole season on the transfer list and in the reserves, was recalled to the bench.
It was a big game for Horton himself as this was his first season as a manager and he was facing the club where he had his peak years as a player, captaining the side that won promotion to the top flight in 1979. It was equally as momentous a day for Ring, who had spent seven years at Brighton before being released in April 1984, joining City after a trial in the summer. Horton had given his winger – and former team-mate – a few days leave to get married in Brighton to the daughter of ex-Brighton player Tommy Wright, and the club sent a telegram that read: “Congratulations and good wishes from the chairman, directors, players and staff.” The rest of the squad then joined him in East Sussex for the game the next day.
City’s other absentee for the game was skipper Garreth Roberts, who’d been out for six weeks with knee trouble. Brighton, mid-table in the division above City, dropped ex-Leeds striker Terry Connor and brought in nomadic, flick-haired veteran Frank Worthington instead, while skipper Danny Wilson was suspended. There was still a modicum of interest in their fortunes after reaching the FA Cup final two seasons before and so some very recent Cup heritage was at stake for them against City.
The frost and snow covered the Goldstone Ground to the extent that the game began with a coloured ball, a necessity back then for inclement weather but apparently now a given for FA Cup ties, irrespective of anything white on the pitch.
City made the first chance with a free kick won by Billy Askew, who got up to take it and hit the wall. Stand-in skipper Stan McEwan followed up with a vicious slice that nearly broke the corner flag in two.
Gary Swann then overlapped in midfield to take Ring’s penetrative pass, but his shot went slightly wide.
Brighton responded with Wilson’s replacement Steve Jacobs heading a Kieran O’Regan cross straight at Tony Norman in the City goal. Worthington then sashayed his way into a goalscoring position only for Bobby McNeil to nick it from his toes at the last second.
Graham Moseley, in goal for the home side, then saved well from Andy Flounders’ goalbound stabbed effort, before backpedalling furiously to keep out a swirling lob from Williams. He’d barely got his breath back from these two chances when he had to dive full length to keep out a fine shot from Ring.
At the other end, Worthington got his expanding forehead to O’Regan’s free kick and beat Norman, only for McNeil to head off the line. The rest of the half was about City, however; Steve McClaren shot wide, then Moseley won the chase to the ball as Flounders hared after Askew’s through pass. McClaren had another shot after a tee-up by Ring that was deflected wide, then he took the resultant corner himself from which McEwan headed goalwards and Garry O’Reilly headed off the line.
Half time 0-0, and a sense of a missed chance for City, especially as it was obvious that the freezing weather and limited access to the winter sun had made one half of the pitch more playable than the other.
Moreover, it seemed that Brighton manager Chris Cattlin, another former team-mate of Horton and Ring, had issued the proverbial rocket to his players and they emerged for the second half like a team possessed. City, struggling to defend in the ‘bad’ half of the stadium, found themselves almost instantly a goal down.
Eric Young fed long-serving forward Gerry Ryan with a fine through ball and he rounded Peter Skipper before shooting for the far post. Norman parried, but both McEwan and Lawrie Pearson slipped on the ice in their haste to get to the ball to clear, allowing Chris Hutchings the chance to steer home the rebound.
City were under the cosh for what felt like the rest of the half afterwards. Pearson’s criminally short back pass let Ryan in but Norman saved at his feet, then the Welshman denied the Irishman again in tipping a shot from the edge of the box over the bar.
Midfield general Jimmy Case, owner of three European Cup winners’ medals, issued one of his laudable cannonball free kicks which nearly took both ball and Swann into the net together, though ultimately Norman managed to keep the ball out and ignore Swann.
Pearson then acrobatically cleared a Steve Penney shot off the line before City momentarily rallied, with Swann’s shot from ten yards kicked off the line by Pearce with Moseley beaten. Skipper headed a late McClaren corner over the bar but otherwise City were flimsy and unsure in the second half, and Brighton ended up comfortable winners.
The strikeforce was described as “lightweight” by the Hull Daily Mail in the Monday think-piece, which felt slightly harsh given the impact Flounders and Ring, a 21 year old backup striker and an out-of-position winger, had had in the first half. They were certainly starved of service in the second half as City’s midfield struggled to keep balance and get the ball into Brighton territory. The importance of Whitehurst was being felt more than ever.
City’s league form was unaffected and Whitehurst only missed one further game before returning to partner Flounders and end a personally brilliant season with 20 goals as City finished third in the table behind Bradford City and Millwall, returning to the Second Division after a seven year absence. Horton waited until the summer to sign the striker he urgently needed, bringing in Frankie Bunn to double up and eventually replace Whitehurst after the big man went to Newcastle for big money just before Christmas.
On the pitch at the Goldstone Ground were the incomparable Norman, shielded by McNeil and Pearson – the latter of whom had just signed a new two-year deal – at full backs and the hard-as-nails pairing of McEwan and Skipper in the middle. Askew and Swann worked the flanks with Williams and McClaren providing the engine in the centre, with Flounders and Ring at the helm. Dale Roberts wasn’t used in the end and, despite Horton praising his attitude, was hurled back towards the stiffs straightaway, playing just a solitary Associate Members Cup game in February 1985 before suffering a pelvis injury that ended his professional career.
Brighton’s side included five players who had featured in the FA Cup final of 1983, which they lost to Manchester United after a replay. Moseley, Pearce, Case and unused sub Neil Smillie all played at Wembley while Ryan came off the bench on both occasions, but defeat completed a double whammy after their relegation to the Second Division, and they had lost star performers Michael Robinson and Gary Stevens to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, while headbanded England defender Steve Foster went to Luton. O’Reilly and Young would later partner each other in Crystal Palace’s FA Cup final side of 1990 (again, defeat in a replay to Manchester United, though Young did win the competition with Wimbledon in 1988) while Brighton represented the eighth club of Worthington’s career, and he’d only last one season with them. O’Regan was an Irish recruit who would later enjoy a good career at Huddersfield and West Bromwich Albion while Hutchings became renowned in recent times as a second-in-command to Paul Jewell on his managerial rounds.
After beating City, they went out of the FA Cup in the next round to Barnsley and finished the Division Two season in sixth place. They are yet to return to the top flight to this day, though given tribulations involving owners and stadia during the interim period, it wasn’t the club’s priority for quite some time.
Brighton also managed to knock Horton’s City out of the FA Cup the next season, though this time it was a fourth round tie and it was at Boothferry Park. These ties in consecutive seasons are the only occasions the two have met in the FA Cup, meaning that victory for City on Monday night will represent a first ever success against the Seagulls in the competition, as well as a first ever victory at the American Express Community Stadium and only a second ever victory against Brighton on their own patch(es – four of them in total) in any competition. Only the Third Division title winning side of 1965/66 have ever achieved this apparently arduous feat, their 2-1 success at the Goldstone Ground coming via goals from Ken Wagstaff and Ray Henderson.