It was seen as something of a coup for City when Wales manager Mike Smith was appointed as the club’s new boss as the 1980s got underway, though it was tempered by the knowledge that he had never played with, nor managed daily, any professional footballers. An amateur player by choice and ex-teacher, he had overseen the Welsh into the quasi-quarter finals of the European Championships of 1976 and within a game and a dodgy penalty at Anfield of the World Cup two years later, but taking on City was new territory for everyone involved.
Smith was more teacher than coach, more athlete than footballer. Tales of his training programmes remain legendary, with the squad barely touching a football due to Smith’s insistence that they ran and ran and ran all the time – round the pitch, through Boothferry Estate, in the gym. His Friday night sessions became notorious as they rendered the players knackered before important games while also struggling to understand what he required of them when a ball was at their feet.
Nevertheless, the fitness of the players did improve and the remainder of 1979/80 saw a run of form that allowed City to avoid a first ever relegation to the Fourth Division, courtesy of a win over Southend on the same day that two other Hull teams were eggballing around Wembley. Smith’s long knives came out over the spring and close season, however, with a stack of seasoned and established professionals released or sold – his decisions to let Roger deVries and Stuart Croft leave especially saddened the fans – while those that survived were evidently hacked off and his signings distinctly out of sorts.
There was an exception, a glorious one, in the shape of goalkeeper Tony Norman, who pretty much single-handedly rescues Smith’s legacy by being unbeatable and unmatchable for eight terrific years with the club after joining from Burnley. He also took credit for getting youngsters from a gifted youth side into the first team picture, with Brian Marwood, Steve McClaren, Gary Swann and Garreth Roberts all becoming regulars, the latter even becoming skipper at the age of 21.
He also wasn’t afraid to give 16 year old striker Andy Flounders regular football. He needed to do something with the strikers, after all. Keith Edwards was scoring regularly but hated the new regime, chucking his shirt at Smith after being substituted during a goalless game against Brentford at a time when City were so woeful and so short of ideas that the demotion to the bottom division they had been so relieved to avoid the year before was now inevitable. Smith signed two non-league forwards in Billy Whitehurst and Les Mutrie, both of whom had to be an improvement on the plodding Welsh international Nick Deacy, brought in by Smith early on after a nonentity career in Holland.
City went down with games and weeks to spare, and Edwards was sold early the next season. Whitehurst became a regular up front but couldn’t score (or head, trap, run…), but Mutrie, at 29 one of the oldest Football League debutants of all time, settled in well and scored quite freely alongside him. Smith’s side were just a middling, inconsistent, uninteresting team when the club was thrown into the national spotlight suddenly in February 1982 thanks to Christopher Needler revealing he had been advised to stop putting funds in.
Receivership documents were drawn up and Smith, along with one of his assistants, was sacked to save cash. Most of his players remained – though Deacy was one quick to jump ship – and when Don Robinson and Colin Appleton came in, they made a team that could score, win, defend and get promoted from the squad Smith left behind. The youngsters from the ranks became legends, as did Whitehurst, Mutrie and the immense Norman.
Smith managed Egypt for a bit, winning the African Cup of Nations, and had a second spell with Wales in the 90s, but City is the only club he ever managed. It was a strange time, unique in terms of the way the team was plummeting and the financial struggles that would somehow salvage him from a worse ultimate fate, yet despite the bigger picture surrounding the club, and the handful of decent, if misused or mistreated, players he left behind, there isn’t a great deal of lingering affection for a manager whom, at the time, the fans didn’t get chance to really dislike.