It’s strange to think that the best team Brian Horton had in his time as manager of Hull City was probably the one that got him sacked. In 1987/88, the Tigers looked equipped to challenge for promotion to the top flight for the first time ever, only for an immeasurable collapse in form to obliterate Horton’s chances.
Horton’s time in charge, from the summer of 1984 to April 1988, was 80 per cent highs and the rest rotten lows. His first two seasons were excellent; his second two inconsistent and debilitating. And yet it was in the last of those two seasons when his chances of taking the Tigers to the promised land seemed greatest.
The signings Horton made during his time with the club were, by and large, a success. Taking on an excellent but demoralised team that had just missed out on promotion by a single goal, he kept the majority of the squad inherited from Colin Appleton but used his considerable knowledge of the young players at Home Counties rivals Watford and Luton Town to bolster his options. From or via those two clubs alone he brought in Frankie Bunn, Garry Parker, Richard Jobson, Neil Williams, Alex Dyer, Ray Daniel and Charlie Palmer. By 1987/88, these players were among the mainstays of the club.
The previous season had been wasted by injury problems and an infuriating inconsistency that even led to brief but real worries over relegation, though City ended the campaign well and were comfortable in 14th place. Horton, however, vowed not to go through such a season again, and seemed as good as his word when City nestled pleasantly in the top half of the table up to the end of September 1987, not losing any of the opening ten games.
Beyond the Bedfordshire-Hertfordshire imports, club stalwarts like Garreth Roberts, Peter Skipper and Tony Norman were still vital to City’s progress. Then there was Billy Askew, a fleet-of-foot, red-haired, midfielder in perfect miniature who helped dictate the pace and direction of every game. And when West Bromwich Albion visited Boothferry Park in November 1987, it was one of his finest days in a City shirt.
City had still only lost three and were in cracking form. Horton hadn’t changed formation or philosophy since ditching a three at the back system after the opening day draw with Blackburn (which marked the end of Stan McEwan’s Tigers career) and Askew, alongside the developing Parker, was key to the considered, patient pass and move game that Horton preferred.
It was a tight game, with the first half nearly descending into farce when the visiting fans ruined an opportunity for Bunn as he bore down on goal by throwing a second ball on to the pitch in front of him which the West Brom supporters had kept following a stray shot earlier in the game. Then a West Brom corner was headed against his own crossbar by Askew at the far post. But, as the footage from our Tigertube page shows, Askew was subsequently responsible for the one moment of true class in the game when a second half Roberts corner was headed away to him, and he let the ball bounce once before hitting a sweet left foot drive beyond Baggies keeper Stuart Naylor and into the top corner.
West Brom had no real response and Ron Atkinson’s men plummeted into the bottom six, eventually going ten games without a win. City, however, were up to third and won four of the next five, taking them to within striking distance of top spot as 1988 got underway. A battering by Aston Villa on New Years Day was swiftly remedied by a 3-1 home win over Leeds United before the world fell very suddenly out of Boothferry Park and 13 games without defeat led to Horton’s impetuous but unsurprising sacking in April. City finished the season with Horton’s assistant Dennis Booth in caretaker charge, including for the return game at the Hawthorns which ended 1-1, and what had promised so much eventually delivered a paltry 15th place finish. The football played in the first half of this season went unmatched, for quality and results, until last season’s triumph under Steve Bruce.
In the City side were the impenetrable Tony Norman in goal, with a back four of Palmer, Daniel, Jobson and Skipper. Roberts and Askew played either side of Parker and Williams, with Dyer partnering Bunn up front. Utility player Les Thompson and striker Andy Payton, both from the ranks, were not required from the bench. Bunn played just once more for City before Horton sold him to Oldham Athletic, while Parker also left before the end of the season, his parting shot – figuratively and literally – being a late free kick that earned City a point against Plymouth just 48 hours before he joined Nottingham Forest for a six-figure sum. These two former team-mates would, two seasons later, play against one another in the League Cup final. Williams, who was occasionally useful but mainly ordinary, was freed at the end of the season while Norman, Palmer, Daniel, Skipper and Dyer were all sold, prematurely in at least two cases, by Horton’s permanent replacement Eddie Gray the next year.
West Brom were an ailing outfit after being so prominent at English football’s top tier in the late 1960s, with Jeff Astle to the fore, and again in the late 1970s, with Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis showing their worth. Their relegation in 1986 set all sorts of unwanted club records, with just four wins all season, and it would be 16 long years before they made it back to the top tier.
Atkinson, the charismatic mastermind of their run to the UEFA Cup quarter finals in 1979, returned to the club in 1987 after five years at Manchester United but was poached after a year by Atlético Madrid. Naylor, in goal, was protected by a back four of local boy Carlton Palmer, Manchester United loanee Graeme Hogg (famous for playing almost all of the 1984/5 season and then being dropped for the FA Cup final), striker-turned-stopper George Reilly and future Liverpool defender David Burrows, who’d play against City for his new side in the FA Cup a year later. Further forward they had quite an array of names – European Cup winning winger Tony Morley, balding ex-Leicester winger Steve Lynex and the much-travelled Tony Kelly (not the one who would briefly join City on loan). Less heralded midfielder Colin Anderson, he of a fine moustache, made up the midfield and future summarisers Don Goodman (“how about THAT for volleying technique?”) and Andy Gray were up front, neither getting a sniff. Their sub was Gary Robson, younger brother of the England captain Bryan, who came on for Lynex. They barely got going all season and in the end finished 20th, staying up by a single point.
The two clubs played each other for each of the next three seasons in the Second Division, with City not winning again at Boothferry Park. Both were relegated in 1991, allowing a further pair of fixtures between the two and a Leigh Jenkinson goal gave the Tigers a 1-0 win in the home game. West Brom won at Boothferry Park the next season and were promoted via the play-offs, and future contests between the two had to wait 13 years. By then, City had moved to the KC and they have yet to beat the Baggies there, with two defeats and a draw from the three meetings. This weekend’s game is only the second in the Premier League between the two to be hosted in Hull.
Thanks to Mike Scott for additional help.