The Soul of Hull City #4: Mike Smith

Dramatis Personae


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.

10 replies
  1. Bill Baxter
    Bill Baxter says:

    I always thought the game against Brentford when Edwards threw his shirt was a 1- 0 defeat?
    And the fans did have chance to dislike him, when Edwards was substituted in that Brentford game it lead to demonstrations outside the home changing room under the West Stand demanding Smith’s head in some of the ugliest scenes I’ve seen at a City game. Smith had to be locked in & was only rescued by the Police after the glass in the changing room door was smashed.
    There were still a handful of fans waiting in the car park for him to leave the ground but Cyril Lea emerged 1st and a bit of fisticuffs followed before they were separated.

    Give Smith his due though, he did keep to his word – he promised to take the club out of the 3rd Division which he achieved by taking us into the 4th.!

  2. Bill Baxter
    Bill Baxter says:

    Just checked the Brentford result & it was infact 0 – 0
    Strange how your memory plays up, I remember the game so well for all that was going off but always thought the game finished 1 – 0 to Brentford.
    I must learn to concentrate on the game in future!

  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    I remember when big Billy signed..he was Fucking awful…what the Fuck we signed here I thought..but he came to be a legend…mutrie signed from blyth who we beat in the cup just..was class

  4. Bunkers Bill
    Bunkers Bill says:

    Very brave and ambitious decision to get Smith, Lea and Brown. They cost a lot and Smith was tipped as a great managerial prospect at the time (remember Phil Parkinson?) .

    Despite his ultimate failure, he was assembling a very useful squad with Norman, Edwards, Gareth R, Bunter Marwood, McLaren, Big Billy, Sir Les etc

    In his interviews on RH, Smith always came across as loquacious, erudite and positive. Odd that he was succeeded by the linguistically-inept and non-communicative Colin Appleton, who then reaped the benefits of the squad’s talent whilst being paid a pittance by Don Robinson.

  5. Bill Carson
    Bill Carson says:

    Shows how time distorts history. I thought Appleton had signed Whitehurst and Mutrie and brought through Marwood and Flounders. So fair play to Mike Smith for his legacy which was the glory days of the mid 80’s.

  6. Bill Carson
    Bill Carson says:

    Any chance of a write up on City away days? Simon Gray coaches breaking down. Almost getting to a game just as it was abandoned? Anyone remember Bristol Rovers away on a Tuesday night? Less than 1 hour from Bath? We went to Villa 4v4 Leicester as neutral fans!

  7. Ambertigerfan
    Ambertigerfan says:

    To contrast City’s poor attitude to Southampton’s on Europa League (from BBC):

    Southampton boss Ronald Koeman says teams that risk a Europa League exit by playing weakened sides are “crazy”.
    West Ham are set to leave out several first-team regulars for their second-leg trip to Romanian side Astra Giurgiu with their tie level at 2-2.
    But Koeman will not do the same at Vitesse Arnhem on Thursday despite holding a 3-0 lead from the first leg.
    “It is a crazy thing to think about it, to throw everything away in the start of the Europa League legs,” he said.
    “I am a person who likes to win always and I hate losing. I hate to lose and that mentality needs my players as well.”
    Koeman will be forced into one change from the side that comfortably beat Vitesse at St Mary’s last week, with midfielder Jordy Clasie – signed from Feyenoord for £8m in July – ruled out with a hamstring injury.

    City’s year was bad from the very first decision last season.

  8. Bill Carson
    Bill Carson says:

    Agree Ambertigerfan, our who demeanor was wrong from the outset. It was an insult to the fans who backed the team in the Europa League. Our first venture into Europe half heartedly thrown away. Contrast City’s attitude to the wild celebrations of the Lokeren players on beating City.
    Surely we couldn’t have done any worse in the Premier League last season, if we had progressed in the Europa League?
    It was the same in the FA Cup vs Arsenal too.

  9. Ambertigerfan
    Ambertigerfan says:

    “It is a crazy thing to think about it, to throw everything away in the start of the Europa League legs,” he said.
    “I am a person who likes to win always and I hate losing. I hate to lose and that mentality needs my players as well.”

    This is what Bruce didn’t understand. He ingrained a losing mentality into City. City should have played the best team every game and played to win. I’m sure if that was the attitude from the manager things would have been different last season. Other than that, selling Shane Long was a mistake when there was no proven replacement (Hernandez). Also, Bruce referring to his new signings as his “big players” e.g. Diame, Dawson and Snodgrass must make the existing players feel “small”. Perhaps this caused the weird down turn in the form of the previous season’s stronger performers of Davies, Huddelstone and McGregor.

  10. gjhdurham
    gjhdurham says:

    Desperate to sign Dawson certainly put a downer on Davies! Signing players that weren’t fit for weeks plus quick major injuries, ignoring the Irish fighters, and Rosenior…playing anyone at right back rather than him…etc! We live in interesting times…as we did with Smith in charge!

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