Hull City’s history might be a bit underwhelming, but our history of goalkeepers most certainly isn’t. From Eddie Roughley, reputed to have been outstanding in Hull City’s first serious stab at promotion to Division One, to the underappreciated Boaz Myhill more often than not standing as firm as could be expected behind such a porous Premiership defence, the list of Hull City greats is heavily weighted in favour of custodians of the leather.
Boaz would rightly have his supporters in an all-time City XI, as might George Maddison, Maurice Swan, Ian McKechnie, Jeff Wealands, Alan Fettis and maybe even Roy Carroll. In all likelihood, however, the green jersey would go to one of two men: Tony Norman or Billy Bly. In the event of a tie, the decision would have to go on who has the most pre-season trophies named after them.
Bly was born in Newcastle in 1920 and came through his home town club’s youth system. It was while playing for Walker Celtic that he caught the eye of Ernie Blackburn and joined City as an apprentice in August 1937. However, Bly had to wait until April 1939 to make his debut at Rotherham in a 2-0 win though he was to remain City’s first-choice keeper for the remainder of the season. The war seemingly ended Bly’s City career before it had begun. Though he was to turn out for the club in a few wartime games, there could have been no clues that this skinny keeper who had played only a handful of games before the commencement of hostilities in Europe was going to stamp his name all over the history of the Tigers.
It was a 0-0 draw at home to Lincoln City in August 1946 in which Billy Bly’s City career started in earnest. He was first choice for City that day, and was to remain so until March 1960. Indeed had it not have been for a series of unfortunate injuries (Bly was reputed to be ‘the most injured man in football’ at the time) and the war robbing him of six years of his career, one can only wonder just how many more appearances than the eventual 456 Bly would have racked up in his 22 years at Hull City.
Bly’s star was to rise quickly. In the hubbub that surrounded Raich Carter’s appointment and the club’s rise in the next couple of years from half-decent Division Three (North) team to being on the verge of promotion to the First Division, Bly was outstanding. Carter’s class may have been taking the plaudits on a national scale, but among the City faithful Bly’s popularity was second to none.
In the famous 1949 FA Cup run, Bly kept an impressive clean sheet at Stoke in a 2-0 win to set up the famous Sixth Round tie at home to Manchester United. The 55,019 fans at Boothferry Park that day saw Bly break his nose in the first-half, and bravely play on despite clearly being concussed. It was such devotion to the cause that means that ten-a-penny fanzine writers are still writing about him 50 years on and why fans at the time loved him so much.
Injuries then started to hit Bly. He missed much of the 1950/51 season with a variety of injuries (his bravery was to see him suffer 14 fractures in his career, as well as a glut of other injuries). His fitness also seemed to be affecting any possible football career outside of the confines of Boothferry Park too, with Bly having to withdraw from an England ‘B’ call up due to injury.
The rest of the 1950s seemed to continue with a pattern of: Bly plays, City look fine; Bly is injured, City look shaky. Indeed Bly was to never be ever-present for City in any season. The closest he came was in 1958/59 when he missed just one game. It was no coincidence that that season City were promoted from Division Three.
Despite his obvious frailties, Billy was 39 when he played his final game for Hull City in a 1-0 defeat at Bristol Rovers. His final season was, predictably, blighted by injury, and again, City fortunes floundered in tandem. Relegation at the end of the season also saw Bly announce his retirement, 21 years or so since he’d made his debut in a career that spanned four decades. Bly came out of retirement to play for Weymouth two years after his last game for Hull City, and helped his new team to a giant-killing run into the fourth round of the FA Cup, but as far as league football was concerned he remained a one-club man. After his football career ended, he ran a sweet shop near Boothferry Park and remained a City fan after his playing days had ended.
So there’s much more to Billy Bly than a mere trophy. The trophy – usually presented to the victors of the North Ferriby v Hull City pre-season match by his son, Roy – means that his name stays in the consciousness of Hull City fans, but in truth his achievements while at City deserve more recognition than that. The longevity of his City career, his bravery, his talent, his likeability and the achievements of the club while he was stood between the sticks make Bly a worthy recipient of the title ‘legend’, a title that shouldn’t diminish with time.