In January 1953, the first set of floodlights were installed at Boothferry Park, an accessory that was a wild new concept to English football, mistrusted by the Football League. So upon their inauguration, City set about proving they worked with a clutch of night-time friendly games.
Dundee were the slightly left-field visitors for the old place’s first ever game by gaslight in January 1953. Over the next two years a number of clubs came to enjoy the new sensation of evening kickoffs, including Wolves, Portsmouth and Falkirk as well as sides from Sweden, Turkey and Austria. Then, on March 23rd 1954, Arsenal kept their appointment to bring a squad up to Hull for a late friendly game.
The novelty of floodlights had yet to wear off, and attendances for most of these friendlies had been excellent. But the arrival of the 1953/4 Arsenal side bumped up the interest back to the levels from when the lights were first connected, and 26,880 people paid to see the game. Arsenal had been in recovery from losing an enormous number of key players to the Second World War, while a number of veterans had to retire by the beginning of the 1950s. Tom Whittaker, a disciple of the great Herbert Chapman in the 20s and 30s, was rebuilding the club with youth, and by 1950 they had started to make inroads again, winning the FA Cup with victory over Liverpool. In 1952, they were one league game and a Cup final collapse away from the Double, but in 1953 they became league champions and Whittaker’s reconstruction task was complete. And so it was the glamorous side of the era that was taking an out-of-schedule trip up to East Yorkshire to experience floodlit football for themselves.
“Every match that the Arsenal play is the nature of a cuptie; everyone wants to knock them off their pedestal,” declared ‘Marksman’, the soubriquet used by the Hull Daily Mail on its football writing at the time. The floodlit friendlies, aside from the financial gains and brownie points for innovation, were also proving a decent sideshow for City, as they were having a somewhat featureless season in Division Two.
They had an injury list that clubs wouldn’t envy, however; at the time of Arsenal’s visit, goalkeeper Billy Bly, utility player Andy Davidson (yet to become a settled right back), half back Denis Durham and winger Brian Bulless were all out, with only Bulless aiming to be fit for the next league game at the weekend. Arsenal brought their regular starting XI and, with a whisky bottle full of shillings next to the meter, the game got underway.
Arsenal started the game slowly, as if their eyes were getting used to this newfangled mixture of light and shade before them, but City weren’t in any rush to manipulate their unease, and the word ‘friendly’ felt decidedly too appropriate for the early tone of the game. Few chances were created, and Bly’s stand-in Tommy Forgan got a lot of leaning use out of his posts.
Then, from nowhere, the league champions took the lead. Brian Walsh got past Trevor Porteous on the outside before crossing for the great Tommy Lawton, playing for the Gunners in the twilight of his career, to steer past Forgan from just inside the area. That was with 27 minutes gone, and 13 minutes later Lawton and Peter Goring combined on the wing to feed the ball through the City defence with ease befitting of champions, and the final ball gave a simple scoring opportunity to Don Roper.
Neil Franklin hit the bar for City with a scorching shot just before Leeds ref Arthur Luty blew for half time. Early in the second half, South African inside forward Alf Ackerman though he’d begun City’s comeback with a well taken finish but hadn’t heard Mr Luty’s whistle for offside against Brian Cripsey.
Ackerman was then freed by Ken Horton and hit a shot which struck Arsenal keeper Con Sullivan on the shoulder and flew over. Shortly afterwards, however, Ackerman did reduce the deficit when a “goalfront skirmish” (according to ‘Marksman’) following a free kick saw Bob Crosbie challenge Sullivan in a typically 1950s “robust” manner and the ball spun out of the keeper’s grip and into the air, allowing Ackerman to head in. There were 66 minutes on the watch and City had now scored against the champions.
Franklin then hit the crossbar again as City tried to take advantage of their momentum, but time and energy was at a premium, and Arsenal secured a hard-earned win when Roper and Dave Bowen combined delightfully to split the Tigers’ defence and release Goring for a simple finish. Ten minutes remained, and no further goals were scored. Both teams were applauded very heartily from the field by a crowd that generated nearly £4,000 in gate receipts for the club.
THIS ARSENAL WAS PACKED WITH TOO MANY BIG GUNS was how the ‘Marksman’ match report was headed, though little fuss was made of the game in general, with no after-thoughts of the experience of playing the best side in the country at the time. Attention turned swiftly to the forthcoming home game against Fulham back in the real world of daytime Saturday afternoons. City won it 2-1 but then lost three in a row without scoring before a mixed end to the campaign culminated in a humdrum 15th place finish.
Arsenal were already off their perch in all but name, with their ageing side unable to carry through their status as league champions for another season, and they finished a lowly 12th. Indeed, their 1953 title was their last trophy for 17 years, with the 60s especially proving to be a frustrating and fallow period for the Gunners.
City lined up with Forgan in goal – Bly had been injured two weeks before at Plymouth and was out for the season – with Frank Harrison and Viggo Jensen the overworked full backs. Franklin, using Hull as his rehabilitation spot after his controversial stint in Colombia, was joined in the middle of the park by Porteous and Tom Berry, with the front five consisting of (l-r) Cripsey, Ackerman, Crosbie, Horton and youngster Charlie Atkinson. Mr Luty, the referee, was in charge at Wembley two months later for the FA Cup final.
In competitive games, there are a good number of memorable matches between City and Arsenal without there being a stack of mundane ones. The two have little historic relevance to one another, save for the FA Cup semi-final of 1930, which has been revisited a lot lately. City lost it after a replay. That was only the fourth ever meeting between the two, and there wasn’t to be another until the 1977/8 League Cup, when Arsenal pummelled the Tigers 5-1 at Highbury. Another 11 seasons passed when the League Cup again paired the sides, this time in a two-legged affair which Arsenal won 5-1 on aggregate, though the home leg, memorable for Keith Edwards giving City the lead and ex-Tiger Brian Marwood scoring the Gunners’ second goal on the night to end the match 2-1, became notable for being Arsenal’s only competitive match at Boothferry Park.
City’s promotion to the top tier in 2008 brought about the first league games between the two since the First World War, and it started with the season-defining 2-1 win for the Tigers at the Emirates. Arsenal have won every game since – their trips to the KC have yielded 3-1 and 2-1 wins, while they also beat City at the Emirates in a hugely controversial FA Cup quarter final in 2009. This game at the weekend will give City an opportunity to beat Arsenal in Hull for the first time ever, while also (yes, we are going to say it) act as a ‘dress rehearsal’ (even though it won’t, really) for the FA Cup final next month. To put it into some kind of context just how little history exists between these two clubs; there are only five City players who have scored league goals against Arsenal. They are Henry McCorry, Sammy Stevens, Geovanni, Daniel Cousin and Jimmy Bullard.
As for those floodlights, City continued to host friendly games under their flame-fuelled gleam until they became kosher in 1956 when the ever-progressive Football League finally allowed their usage, and the first competitive game under their glare was a 1-1 draw with Doncaster Rovers on April 10th 1956. They were replaced by the famous sextet of electrical free-standers in 1964, funded by the windfall Harold Needler created via shares in his building company that also allowed him to buy three players – Ken Wagstaff, Ken Houghton and Ian Butler – that helped City plunder their way to the Third Division title in 1966.
While the new floodlights illuminated every night-time and winter game at Boothferry Park for almost the next 40 years, the old gas floodlights were bequeathed to Scarborough FC, who used them for more than a decade afterwards.