THE GREAT ESCAPE
Between mid-1986 and 2004, Hull City fans endured little but relegation, winding-up orders, the sale of the club’s best players, and chairmen and boards that ranged from the inept to the corrupt. They had seen both a once-great stadium crumble to ruins and Simon Trevitt playing at right-back.
That isn’t to say that the club’s dark ages were without their good points, however. And chief among them stands the ‘Great Escape’ of 1999. Given the circumstances, to a generation of City fans who had known nothing but pain and despair, our survival that season felt like a promotion.
1998 had been as grim a year as Hull City had ever experienced. David Lloyd’s Plan A seemed to be to lead us to extinction off the pitch. His Plan B was to allow Mark Hateley to lead us to the Conference on it. By November we were bottom of the bottom division, six points (briefly nine) off the rest. Thankfully, Lloyd ran out of toys to throw out of his pram, and sold the club to a consortium backed by local farmer and former Scunthorpe chairman Tom Belton. Belton’s first task was to fire the awful Hateley. Midfielder Warren Joyce was temporarily given the reins, and brought in former Bolton team-mate John McGovern to assist, as he had no plans for retire from playing just yet.
Joyce’s impact in the league wasn’t immediate. A memorable 1-0 win at home to Carlisle thanks to a last-minute Craig Dudley goal gave the fans some hope of survival, but this was followed by four dispiriting defeats to Torquay, Swansea, Chester and Shrewsbury. Indeed it was a morale-boosting FA Cup run that seemed to instil belief in the players. High-flying Division Three side Luton were dispatched in the second round, leading to a visit to top-of-the-Premiership Aston Villa in the third. In the 3-0 defeat at Villa Park, City – still 92nd in the league – did not disgrace themselves.
However, it was relegation that needed avoiding, and Joyce set about building a team capable of such a task. Out went Hateley’s powder-puff nonsense of French, Hawes, Hocking, Rioch and Whitworth. In came the heavy-duty Whittle, Alcide, Perry, Whitney, Swales, Williams and Oakes. Mark Greaves was given a first-team berth. Oh, and before we played in-form Rotherham in early January, a double signing was made: Mark Bonner came in on loan and was to score the only goal of the only game he was to play for us, and former bouncer Gary Brabin was introduced to the City faithful. Within 10 minutes of his debut he’d slide tackled a Rotherham player with his head.
The 1-0 win at home to Rotherham was followed by a 4-0 win against fellow strugglers Hartlepool, in which Brian McGinty’s brace was to be his last telling contribution to the City cause, unable as he was to oust the excellent and underappreciated Gareth Williams from left-midfield (go on, admit it, you can’t even picture him, can you? For shame…). This was the first time City had won back-to-back league fixtures in more than two years. This was followed by two 1-1 draws, away to Peterborough, in which Jon Whitney scored from what seemed like 60 yards, and at home to Shrewsbury, in which Brian Gayle scored what seemed like the 200th own-goal of his career.
Then came Brentford away. Brentford hadn’t lost at home all season. They were top of the league (and would go on to win it). The near 2,000 City fans that packed into Griffin Park’s marvellous old away end made more noise than I can ever remember us making as Colin Alcide scored on his debut and David Brown scored a second-half volley to give us a memorable 2-0 win in what was surely City’s game of the 90s. As Scarborough lost 5-1 to Exeter, we came off the bottom of the league for the first time since August.
A 3-0 defeat at Rochdale in our first-ever televised league match set us back, but with Brabin and Whittle at the heart of the team we were never going to stay down for long. Indeed it was the former who was to score our winner at Darlington in our next game, and the latter who was to score against Barnet in a 1-1 draw the game after that. A 1-0 win at Halifax the following week kept us off the dreaded relegation spot, as Scarborough, Hartlepool and Torquay all flirted with the bottom position, while Carlisle – once in the play-off positions – entered freefall.
A lull was to follow in the shape of a goalless draw at home to Mansfield followed by a 2-0 defeat at high-flying Cambridge. Again though, City’s new-found powers of recovery came to the fore as Leyton Orient – in the play-off positions – were beaten 2-1 at Brisbane Road. A Gary Brabin overhead kick had given us the lead only for Orient to equalise with 15 minutes or so remaining. Brown’s late winner made the once-inevitable relegation now seem more unlikely than likely, and wins in our next two games against Plymouth – courtesy of yet another Brabin goal – and at Southend on a Friday night thanks to a volley by Dai D’Auria set up the next game – at home to bottom-of-the-table Scarborough – nicely.
Many City fans talk of the Scarborough game as if it were crucial to our survival that season. It wasn’t really. The hard work done in the three games before had given us a comfortable cushion over Scarborough and Hartlepool, but a win against our North Yorkshire rivals would all but seal our survival. The Hull public – aware of this fact – turned out in force on that sunny April afternoon. The official attendance figure that day was 13,949. I’ve never met a City fan who was there who believes this figure. But Boothferry Park was crammed full for its first five-figure attendance in five years to witness a nervy game in which Brabin scored for City, only for Scarborough to equalise in the second half as City sat back on their lead. While the draw was disappointing, the point was of more use to us than it was the Seasiders.
A draw at Cardiff was followed by a win at home to Exeter as the occasionally maligned Colin Alcide silenced some of his doubters with goals in each game. A couple of 0-0 draws sandwiched an entertaining if disappointing 3-2 home defeat to Scunthorpe, as we struggled towards the finishing line. We needed to avoid defeat at home to Torquay, sweaty Neville Southall and all, in the penultimate game of the season to make safety mathematically certain, and again, nearly 10,000 packed into Boothferry Park to see the Great Escape completed (except no one would ruin it by foolishly speaking English – do the football fans who talk so much of ‘Great Escapes’ actually realise that the escape they are basing this reference on actually failed?). David Brown beat Southall in a one-on-one to trigger celebrations all around Boothferry Park as the theme to the film was sung endlessly. What had once seemed impossible had been achieved with a game to spare, and we could look on and smile as Jimmy Glass condemned Scarborough to relegation and, ultimately, extinction.
Scarborough’s eventual extinction is a poignant reminder of the importance of our Great Escape. Had we kept hold of Hateley for even a little while longer, had we not been lucky enough to have Warren Joyce among our playing staff, had we not been able to sign the likes of Whittle and Brabin, who knows what might have happened? We might have bounced straight back up. But we might – with Buchanan and Hinchliffe running the club into the ground – have never come back from such a blow. We might, right now, be supporting a non-league FC City of Hull at Dene Park while Hull Dons’ league matches are being ignored at a pared-down version of the KC. But we’re not. We’re watching Championship football, and we’ve seen City play in the Premiership. And regardless of what would have become of Hull City had we succumbed to relegation that season, I think it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely that any of the amazing things that have happened to us over the past decade would have occurred were it not for the wondrous way we turned things around in 1999.
It is for this reason that we should never let the bright lights and razzmatazz of our current status cause us to forget the debt we owe Andy Oakes, David D’Auria, David Brown, Mike Edwards, Mark Greaves, Gerry Harrison, Steve Swales, Jon Whitney and Gareth Williams. That goes tenfold for the spine around which our survival was constructed – Gary Brabin and Justin Whittle. Add to that Tom Belton – who was to be ousted from the boardroom in the summer and replaced by the despicable Nick Buchanan. But chief among the heroes of that dizzying four months is Warren Joyce. He was never to manage us for a full season, but must go down as the most important manager in the club’s history. The steps we took under his stewardship were not just crucial to the club’s survival, they were the first on the road to Wembley, Old Trafford, the Emirates and Anfield.