From the greatest goalscorer in our history to the most punchable manager, we bring you five occasions where City’s inaugural game of a campaign has induced excited recollection, or just left a scar struggling to heal…
1. Things can only get better for Chillo
Heavily in debt and with fans criticising them for a wretched pre-season programme, City turned to youngsters, triallists and amateurs on the opening day of the 1960/61 Division Three season, and a 17 year old forward from Sproatley called Chris Chilton was summoned to the first team. Given the inside right position, it wasn’t exactly a dream debut; he had only one chance on goal (a header that went wide) as Colchester United tore into the Tigers at Layer Road, with Les Collinson and debutant Eric McMillan both handling the ball in the area to allow Cyril Hammond to put away two comfortable penalties.
Martin King scored twice in the second half, the second after a dire back pass from the haunted McMillan, whose debut may go down as one of the worst in City’s history, and the U’s triumphed 4-0. Manager Bob Brocklebank responded by switching Chilton to centre forward for the next game, a decision that did wonders for player and club long-term. His fellow debutant up front, 23 year old Peter Nicholson, who made up “surely the youngest attack any League side has ever fielded” according to the Hull Daily Mail‘s Brian Taylor, was dropped and never featured again. Despite this remarkable opening day success, meanwhile, Colchester were relegated at the season’s end, while City finished 11th and Chilton, still not 18 by the end of it, had his first 19 League goals next to his name.
2. Hateley’s new beginning comes to an instant end
“He’s warming up, he’s warming up, he’s warming; Hateley’s warming up” chanted the South Stand singing corner as Hull City’s bright, young, fresh symbol of the future did some cursory stretches on the Boothferry Park touchline during a pre-season friendly against Huddersfield after his summer of 1997 appointment as player-manager. After six years of the hateful Martin Fish and Terry Dolan era, there was a new dawn breaking over the old ground, with modern-thinking owners looking to a seriously big (if somewhat inexperienced) name to finally fulfil the several decades’ worth of potential that had built up.
Thousands decamped on Mansfield before the opening game of the 1997/8 campaign, expecting everything to slot into place, or at least a decent display from players inspired by the achievements, charisma and general human qualities of the new manager. The result was markedly different; City were disjointed, unfit and completely hopeless, and Mansfield’s 2-0 win brought about one of the biggest comedowns in the emotionally-charged life of the loyal City fan. City didn’t score for two more games before sticking seven past Swansea, but the season was as bad as any in the club’s lifetime, made only salvageable by the self-destruction exercise going on at Doncaster which prevented relegation into the non-league pyramid. Hateley was quickly defined as being out of his depth and not a pleasant individual, and his exit the following season came just in time for City to avoid the Conference again.
3. Four scored, still no win
In the pre-war era, football was just as deferential to the class structure as anything else in life, and criticising professionals was just not cricket, or indeed any other well-heeled sport, at all. In the modern game a 6-4 tonking will get you brickbats from the press while the manager will be either ashen-faced and sighing heavily or the colour of rhubarb, blaspheming intensely. In 1934, it wasn’t even the done thing to ask the manager a gentle question or two after the game, any game, yet one suspects City boss Jack Hill would have had plenty to say after a Devonian defeat that would have perfectly fulfilled the cliché of “a good game for the neutral.”
City bounced between the Second Division and the regionalised Third during the 1930s, and were back in the higher, national tier at the commencement of the 1934/5 campaign which involved a long old boneshaking slog to Plymouth. Jack Vidler scored for the home side on two minutes and Frank Sloan soon added a second, but City came back with Andy Duncan scoring from distance.
Vidler’s second made it 3-1, but City were level by the half hour mark through a brace from Les Dodds, both headers from corners. In the second half, Plymouth re-established the lead through Eugene Melaniphy, then Vidler completed his hat-trick. The game still wasn’t safe, however, as Dodds completed his own hat-trick, and City were pressing for the equaliser right to the last minute when Jimmy Cookson broke away to seal it.
“On the run of their play, Hull seem destined for a profitable season,” said the ‘special correspondent’ (ie, a Plymouth-based agency hack) in the Hull Daily Mail. “It was a really enjoyable tussle, and in many ways Hull City were more impressive than their opponents.” Except in the crucial fields of scoring goals and not leaking them. You can imagine maybe not Hill, but some of his successors as City manager, balking at the idea that their teams would be worthy of such praise after a 6-4 defeat. City’s predicted “profitable season” didn’t emerge; as was the case for their second tier existence during all eras up to 2008, they finished mid-table, with the first win not coming until the sixth game of the season.
4. Premier League, piece of cake
Promotion to the top flight in 2008 brought about the expected plethora of articles digging into City’s chances of staying up, with that globulous cretin David Mellor even suggesting that we should be disallowed from taking our place in the top division for reasons no more compelling than we hadn’t been there before. Phil Brown bought well over the summer (albeit with money we actually didn’t have) and a fresh, history-making City lined up at the KC with the world, this time literally, watching over them.
Fulham were the beatable visitors, yet this Premier League adventure started poorly and made every City fan wonder if we were going to be humiliated from August to May, just as Derby were the previous season. Seol Ki-Hyeon headed the visitors in front early in the game, and the short period that followed brought about yet another of those great comedowns from major hope to the despair of the reality awaiting us.
Then Geovanni, on debut, took the ball from a wide right position, flitted inside and swept a marvellous shot into the bottom corner of the Fulham net. The feeling was beautiful; the relief touchable. The goal itself was divine to observe as well as experience, and the Brazilian had a few even better moments to share with his new devotees before stereotype took over in the winter months and he hid for a bit. At 1-1, the sun came back out.
The second half was hard going and both sides could have won it, but two subs eventually sealed it for City with eight minutes left. Craig Fagan robbed a dithering Paul Konchesky on the edge of the box and, in a rare moment of clear-thinking and accurate delivery of a horizontal ball, he found Caleb Folan, who in turn belied his own reputation for straying offside by being in the right place to steer the ball in. He would never have glory in a City shirt again as better players than he were to make the next three months some of the most stirring we’d ever witness, but for now he had his place in club heritage, and City had won their first ever top tier game.
5: Back, and forth, and back, and forth, and…
Still City under the brash Terry Neill had hopes of getting to the First Division, but four seasons under the Ulsterman in his salad days had failed to deliver, even though some of the football had been tremendous to watch and the emphasis on a controlled attacking mindset had made for some memorable matches. Consistency was an issue more than anything, and as the 1974/5 season approached, Neill had a plan for the opening day trip to Southampton.
His hand was forced by injuries to senior players and the big-money sale of Stuart Pearson to Manchester United, but nobody let Neill believe the idea wasn’t anything but his. He shoved in stacks of youthful talent for the game at the Dell alongside the experience of Ken Wagstaff, with Brian Taylor in the Hull Daily Mail claiming that most of the side would still have “clear memories of their 21st birthday.”
Southampton had gifted players in their ranks – an international strikeforce of Mick Channon and Peter Osgood was ludicrously good for the Second Division – but they’d been relegated the year before and were seen as a scalp in the making. It started exceptionally, with Vince Grimes scoring on six minutes, but everything City did, the home side could match.
Paul Gilchrist equalised early in the second half, but Wagstaff restored the advantage three minutes later. City then went down to ten men when John Hawley, fabled to this day as football’s last amateur player, retaliated to a hefty Paul Bennett challenge and was giving his marching orders under what Taylor termed “soccer’s get tough policy”. Osgood levelled for Saints with 15 minutes left, but unbelievably, the ten men regained the lead straight from the kick-off through Wagstaff. City clung on into injury time but Gilchrist forced in a third for the Saints with the last touch of the game, leaving Neill proud but visibly frustrated.
Five games later, with the all-out attack and emphasis on youth yielding just one win and a three straight blanks, Neill had gone, having been offered a route back to north London and the Tottenham Hotspur job, one which football as a whole scarcely believed he had earned. John Kaye, who retired from playing when he was declared unfit for Southampton, took over straightaway and made the team more pragmatic in its approach, ending the season in eighth but, again, never truly looking like taking the last big step.