As Hull City is now a Premier League club, it has become a little too easy for the modern breed of supporter to characterise an FA Cup run as easy, and even a tad unnecessary. This isn’t an attitude for which to castigate them, as such is the lack of allure in the modern game of this oldest of all footballing cup competitions that progress is taken for granted while similarly regarded as distracting.
Most older fans, grizzled enough in a team’s history to know about ups and downs in equal measure, will say different. Proper silverware has to be the aim of all football clubs. Only money dictates that finishing 15th in the Premier League is more vital than picking up an honour, as winning matches and competitions ultimately form the reason football, and the supporterhood thereof, exists.
And telling any City fan over 25 that the FA Cup doesn’t matter is likely to earn you a bit of a talking to. You see, even when football cared properly about the FA Cup, when it nurtured and cherished its existence and told the world of its heritage, City were still rubbish in it. In the 1970s alone we twice ended a Second Division season with games against sides who, one week later, would be at Wembley competing for the trophy. And in both cases, they won it. City have never won it. City have never won a semi-final. City have won just one quarter final in 110 years. It’s an abject record.
This weekend’s quarter final tie against Sunderland is simply enormous. It’s also probably unique among the handful of quarter finals we’ve seen as a club as City have higher status than their opponents and will consequently go into it as favourites. Previously it was all about hope, less about expectation. And, as all supporters in football know, it’s the hope that’s harder to stand…
City had made the quarter finals twice in the earliest days of existence, back when it was the fourth round and fewer teams partook. Naturally, they lost both. The first season of the format that exists today which saw City reach the last eight of the FA Cup managed to both set a trend for the competition and be unique at the same time, as on this and every subsequent occasion, the Tigers had to deal with major issues in the league while working their way through the cup rounds. Former Irish international Billy McCracken had been manager for seven seasons and accumulated a consistent squad that had held its own in Division Two throughout his tenure. FA Cup runs under the avuncular boss had not been cause for great excitement around Hull – one trip to the fifth round was the best he’d managed – until the 1929/30 season provided him, and the club as a whole, with its biggest peak and trough.
City had started well in the league but were struggling in the bottom half after a woeful winter run of form when the FA Cup run began with a trip to Plymouth Argyle. The game finished 4-3 to the Tigers, with Stan Alexander getting a hat-trick. Divisional rivals Blackpool were swept aside in the fourth round before a super-tough journey to Manchester City in the fifth round produced a heroic 2-1 win, with Bill Taylor scoring the winner with a dribble past four men in front of more than 60,000 at Maine Road. The draw was unkind again in the quarter finals, however, with the Tigers forced to go to another top flight side in Newcastle United, a club McCracken served for 20 years as a player and with whom he had won both the league and the FA Cup.
Alexander scored his fifth of the competition to earn City an unlikely draw at St James Park, then defended for their lives in the replay in front of a record 32,930 at Anlaby Road after Jimmy Howieson volleyed in a sublime goal early in the second half. The Tigers held on to reach the last four but their league form dipped alarmingly in the interim period, with three straight defeats leading up to the game against Arsenal at Elland Road. Remarkably, the match ended 2-2; more so, it was 2-0 to City at the midway point of the second half. Eventually, the Tigers were eight minutes from Wembley before Cliff Bastin scored the Gunners’ equaliser, then David Jack scored the only goal of the replay at Villa Park as City played valiantly with ten men after Arthur Childs was sent off. City’s dream of an unlikely appearance in the FA Cup final was over – and only just – but the downer they suffered from it was fatal. They lost seven of their remaining 11 games and were relegated to the Division Three North on goal average. And that semi-final remains a unique occasion for Hull City.
Raich Carter took an awful lot of attention in his career and was arguably the first personality that made Hull City a notable club on a national scale. His arrival at the new Boothferry Park as player-manager in waiting – it didn’t take long after he turned up for Major Frank Buckley to resign – galvanised the club in the baby boomer era to the extent that 1948/49 remains one of the most exciting single seasons in the club’s history. As a Division Three North side, who had just missed out on promotion, it was Carter’s job to add that extra smidgeon of inspiration on and off the pitch in order to get City back into the second tier and return to national prominence. That he did so with such style in his side was one thing; but to do so while negotiating a long and tricky FA Cup run was another.
Home ties against Accrington Stanley and Reading were first to be negotiated, though the latter needed a replay before the Tigers got through, then City were drawn away three times in a row and prevailed each time. Norman Moore, a successful Buckley signing, scored in four straight FA Cup games as Blackburn, Grimsby and Stoke were brushed aside on their own turf. In the last eight, however, a different prospect entirely loomed when the draw paired the Tigers with Manchester United. Matt Busby’s side were the FA Cup holders and powerhouses in the league, having finished second in Division One over the previous two seasons.
A crowd of 55,019 wedged into Boothferry Park and in a tight contest in which City keeper Billy Bly was briefly knocked unconscious, the favourites managed to squeak through with a second half goal from England inside forward Stan Pearson. The game was held at the end of February 1949, and City had a lot of league games to catch up on. A heroic and not unexpected exit from the competition didn’t affect Carter’s men in the slightest, however, and they went on a seven-game unbeaten run after losing to United, eventually losing just two of the last 17 to win the title by three clear points.
As has been the case for every one of City’s quarter final conquerors, Manchester United subsequently failed to reach the final, losing the semi to Wolves in a replay at Goodison Park.
It was obviously a great year for English football. This was quite clearly due to the 109-goal City side that won the Division Three title, as well as anything supplementary that may have occurred during the off-season. That City did it with such style, ruthlessness and zeal was one thing, but to do it while swatting aside allegedly better teams in the FA Cup simultaneously was another.
Cliff Britton had completed his dream forward line when signing Ken Wagstaff, Ken Houghton and Ian Butler the previous season, adding to the centre forward iconicity of Chris Chilton and smart wingplay of Ray Henderson. He barely noticed his rearguard, blithely and brilliantly assuming that a quintet of such ferocity at the top would cancel out any weaknesses behind them. And not only was he right, but the season turned out to be magnificent and the football electrifying.
It felt like City were already in a two-horse race with Millwall for the (no longer regionalised) Division Three trophy by the time FA Cup campaign began with a first round win at Bradford Park Avenue through just the odd goal in five. Non-league Gateshead were then battered 4-0 on their own patch before the big third round draw paired the Tigers with Southampton, a division higher and a useful side. Houghton scored the only goal but an injury crisis meant he was forced back into midfield for the fourth round tie against First Division Nottingham Forest at Boothferry Park, with perennial reserve striker Terry Heath getting a rare start and taking an even rarer starring role, scoring both goals in the 2-0 win.
When Fourth Division Southport were pulled out to play City in the last 16, there was real excitement that the Tigers might be getting the luck that could take them back to the semi-finals, or even further. Chilton scored twice in a comfortable 2-0 win, but then the quarter final draw took City to Chelsea, a club that had glamour outweighing its tendency to win stuff, though they had taken the League Cup the previous season.
George Graham and Bobby Tambling put the home side ahead and the divisional chasm between the two looked clear as day. But if City had achieved one thing that season, it was getting their potency in front of goal noticed, and mention of the front five, especially Chilton and Wagstaff, was frequent in footballing dispatches. Wagstaff duly scored twice in the last ten minutes, swinging on a Stamford Bridge goalpost in celebration of the first, and should have won it in added time when a Ron Harris handball was not seen, or not penalised, by referee Jack Taylor. Long-serving skipper Andy Davidson declared him a “cheat” and never forgave him.
So, a replay. It was scheduled for the following Thursday night, which was unusual in itself in pre-Europa League days as a footballing day, and this was ever more curious as it was the day – and night – of the general election. More than 45,000 people jammed themselves into Boothferry Park for a game which had been the subject of considerable ticket touting over the previous few days, and witnessed a tremendous match, though Chelsea’s class was evident from the start.
Tambling and Graham again scored before City midfielder Chris Simpkin, who’d only got one all season, buried a 25 yarder just before half time to make the second half potentially huge. Tambling got a third for Chelsea, however, and the presence of their teenage striker Peter Osgood – out with tonsillitis at Stamford Bridge – felt key, and Wagstaff has ever since declared on record that Osgood was the only difference between the two.
City won nine of their remaining 12 games and took the Division Three crown, four points clear of Millwall. For the second time, an exit in an FA Cup quarter final had been followed quickly by a league title, and it’s doubtful whether any City season has been as satisfying as this one, not least because it remains the only non-regional title the Tigers have won. Chelsea lost to Sheffield Wednesday in the semis.
This is probably the most notorious of all the quarter finals because it had everything you associate with City when in a position to grab some success. Going well in the league, two up against bigger opponents, self-destruction, defeat and a bitterness that the 50-somethings of today who stood as small kids against those white diamond railings at Boothferry Park still feel now.
Four of the famous five of 1966 were still in the team and still at the peak of their powers – only Henderson had gone – while Simpkin also remained. Britton was now general manager, having recruited the youthful Ulsterman Terry Neill as his replacement, and the cocksure player-manager was younger than one or two of his charges and had managed to rub a few up the wrong way, yet there was no denying his effectiveness as a tactician, leader and defender. City were chasing promotion to the top flight and looked dead set to succeed, while the FA Cup run came drizzled with good fortune as home tie after home tie against lesser or struggling opponents came out of the hat. Charlton Athletic, Blackpool and Brentford were all swatted away, then once again Boothferry Park was declared a venue for a quarter final, with Stoke City coming out the other side.
Stoke were a handy team around the turn of the 1970s. They were hovering around the top half of the First Division and had a progressive and forward-thinking manager in Tony Waddington who had come to transcend the club, this being his 11th season in charge. This was going to be some task for Neill’s men.
After abysmal weather, the Boothferry Park pitch resembled marshland on the day of the game and Stoke’s flowing football was affected in the initial stages. By the time they had worked out where they were and what they were dealing with, Wagstaff had expertly placed two goals past England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, both of which made the great custodian look a tad foolish in the way the City striker sold him. But right on half time, a long ball out of defence was chased by flame-haired winger Terry Conroy and he managed to get round a dithering Ian McKechnie before slotting in at the near post.
Stoke had a goal disallowed in the second half and 18 minutes remained when their persistence paid off. A free kick was half punched clear by McKechnie, forced back into the area and eventually steered in by big striker John Ritchie. Then came the controversy.
With nine minutes remaining, City won a throw-in. Or at least, everyone assumed so, including the players on both teams. But when the referee gave it to Stoke, City full back Roger deVries, in his first season as a senior player, gave the ball to an opponent without securing his position on the pitch first. The throw was quickly taken, an unmarked Conroy crossed and Ritchie headed in.
Nine minutes remained and City were now behind. And there they stayed, as Stoke held on, with the added piece of good fortune that came via Banks’ saving a Neill header that had clearly crossed the line. They went out in a semi-final replay to Arsenal. For City, on this occasion, the heartache and acrimony of the FA Cup defeat took its toll on league form, despite the infamous victory in the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ just three days later, and of the 11 games that followed, City won just four. They finished fifth in the Division Two table, a position that remained the highest achieved in the post-war era until Phil Brown came along. Talking of which…
The first ever Premier League season for Hull City AFC was knackering for the supporter. The joys of winning at Arsenal and Tottenham, scoring three at Manchester United and generally bloodying every nose associated with the allegedly greatest league on earth. The antics of Phil Brown, a gifted and charismatic manager who began to enjoy the limelight a bit too much. The apparent slow death of the season after just one campaign as City struggled to beat an egg, let alone another team. And the run to the FA Cup quarter finals for the first time in many a supporting lifetime. It all felt like too much…
City didn’t win a Premier League game between December and March and plummeted down the table like a stray bolt in a lift shaft, and yet managed to make progress in the FA Cup at the same time. A 1-1 draw with the even more troubled Newcastle United in the third round was followed by a marvellous replay win at St James Park, then Millwall brought its full quota of loons to the KC Stadium and chucked a few seats around as City won 2-0. A 1-1 draw at Sheffield United then became a 2-1 replay win and the Tigers were paired with Arsenal in the last eight.
It had been the happiest of hunting grounds for City as the September win at the Emirates shook the footballing world, but this time it didn’t feel possible that the Tigers could win there. The team was in disarray, Arsenal weren’t foolish enough to take their opponents lightly again and we just didn’t do FA Cup quarter finals. We’d got as far as this because the draws had been kind and the one Premier League club we’d faced had been in far more strife than us. Yet early in the game, a Nick Barmby lob was deflected over Lukasz Fabianski and City were ahead. And they clung on. And clung on. And…
The history gives you the answer. Like in the 1930 semi final, like in the 1971 quarter final, City were agonisingly close to success before Robin Van Persie equalised with 16 minutes left. Extra time felt like City’s best hope now, even though that was as unlikely to produce a victory as the normal 90 minutes. In any event it was unnecessary as William Gallas headed a winner that was as blatantly offside as any erroneously given goal you’ve ever seen. The City fans raged with referee Mike Riley, the coaching staff began rowing with people around them and, at the end of the game, a thuggishly dressed, jike-like Cesc Fabregas acted like a graceless wretch in front of Brown and his staff, with a fracas starting and accusations of spitting made (which, as it was Fabregas accused, were naturally thrown out by the FA).
City weren’t exactly galvanised by their dementedly unfair exit – they didn’t win again for the rest of the season and stayed up on the last day by a point. Arsenal lost to Chelsea in the semis at Wembley, at least again proving that City can put some kind of curse on anyone who dare chuck them out of the FA Cup at the quarter final stage, controversially or otherwise.