Hull City had spent the later years of the 1970s and the early parts of the 1980s seemingly on a path to either non-league football or non-existence. The Waggy and Chillo golden years were now a distant memory and a couple of relegations had seen the club in the bottom division for the first time, with the receivers called in and no one within the city interested in saving it. The local media – when it bothered with football instead of rugby league – would generally focus on stories of funeral marches to the ground, collections to pay the players’ wages, how low attendances were…
An hour or so up the east coast, Scarborough were making waves as the most forward-thinking and successful non-league football club in the country, underpinned by consecutive FA Trophy successes. The owner of Scarborough was an eccentric businessman, a one-time professional wrestler who’d turned up at Craven Park one day claiming to be one of the finest prop forwards in rugby league. He wasn’t. He was an astute businessman, however, with a natural flair for promoting whatever it was that piqued his interest at the time. More often than not, it was himself. From 1982 to 1989, it was Hull City. The man’s name was Don Robinson.
When, in May 1982, the SOS call to Don came from Christopher Needler, with City in deep financial trouble, he couldn’t get to Hull fast enough. A £250,000 cheque was signed and Don was our majority shareholder, while Boothferry Park was purchased by a foundation set up by the Needler family. Don Robinson was our new chairman. He brought Colin Appleton with him from Scarborough to become our new manager. Hull City were about to embark on a journey that was fun and thrilling. The moon was the limit.
First up, red – Scarborough red, though Don claimed it represented the blood City players were going to shed for the club’s cause – was added to our kit. We looked uncannily like Watford. It was one of many changes that were happening at the club. Don would stand on Boothferry Halt selling raffle tickets before games. Robinson bought his own season ticket, “like the other fans”. Crucially, things picked up on the pitch too. Under Appleton, and with the likes of Garreth Roberts, Brian Marwood, Tony Norman, Pete Skipper, Billy Askew and Billy Whitehurst flying, City were promoted in Robinson and Appleton’s first full season running things. Don handed out champagne to the crowd afterwards to anyone – children included – who wanted some.
We were doing things that Hull City just didn’t do. Tours of exotic places were introduced – Florida, the Caribbean – adding the, ahem, illustrious Arrow Air trophy to the club’s threadbare trophy cabinet. Return friendlies with touring American teams were organised. Don would come onto the pitch riding a white horse and wearing a cowboy hat. Emlyn Hughes – probably the most recognisable footballer in the county at the time thanks to his captain’s role on A Question of Sport – played a handful of games for the club and was to act as a director in later years. We were – Don told us – going to be the first club to play on the moon. You couldn’t really be sure that he hadn’t already bought a rocketship on the cheap in preparation.
After our promotion from Division 4 in 1983 the trick was very nearly repeated the season after, the Tigers falling one goal short of a promotion-sealing win on that fateful night at Burnley. The aftermath of the game saw Appleton resign, presenting Don with the first big test of his regime. The result? A masterstroke.
Hull City were an upwardly mobile club and the vacancy was enticing for young and old managers alike. It therefore came as something of a shock when Robinson appointed Brian Horton – a midfielder at Luton – as our player-manager. The result was a promotion the next season and, with the likes of Richard Jobson, Garry Parker and Frankie Bunn now added to the side, an excellent first season back in the second tier, with City finishing sixth in Division 2 the season before the play-offs were introduced.
Everything about the club felt positive, home crowds were regularly hitting the 8,000 mark and Don was in his element. However, the good times couldn’t last. A few murmurings of unrest among the fans had started. The sale of Billy Whitehurst to Newcastle hadn’t gone down well. A sponsorship deal which resulted in the club having ‘Twydale Turkeys’ emblazoned across the shirts was poorly received. On the pitch, City’s form became inconsistent too. Had Don taken us as far as he could? There was a feeling that that was the case, though our chairman remained a popular figure among the fans and players.
The 1987/88 season was to sow the seeds to Don’s demise. An excellent start couldn’t be built upon and when we lined up at home to Swindon in mid-April, City had gone more than three months without a victory. As Swindon stuck four past a demoralised City defence that night, the crowd made their feelings felt and a sizeable number were calling for Horton’s sacking. There were also a few renditions of “Robbie out” to go with it. Don panicked and sacked Horton in the aftermath of the defeat. The next day, the players asked him to reconsider. Horton was asked to come back but refused. Hull City needed a new manager.
Don Robinson’s choice was former Leeds winger Eddie Gray, who’d spent his short managerial career inspiring Rochdale to not very much. Eddie enjoyed a mixed first season, with the disappointment of a fourth-from-bottom finish balanced against an excellent FA Cup run which saw us lose 3-2 in the fifth round to one of the great Liverpool sides. Gray had done enough to suggest there was something to build upon, only to be sacked at the end of the season. How much had been decided in advance is impossible to say, but Robinson returned to his first manager at the club – Colin Appleton.
The 1989/90 season was to be the last that would start with Don Robinson as Hull City’s chairman. It started in controversial circumstances. Unable to find a shirt sponsor, Don decided to simply have the word ‘Humberside’ printed across City shirts, as a thank you to Humberside County Council for the help they had offered the club over the years. At this point, the hatred of the word ‘Humberside’ – combined with the very existence of the county – was approaching fever pitch among those within what they considered to be East Yorkshire. That the announcement was made on August 1st – Yorkshire Day – only added to the depth of rancour among a not-inconsiderable number of City fans.
The shirt sponsor was nothing compared to the disaster that was to unfold on the pitch, however. Colin Appleton had been managing Bridlington Town in the Northern Counties league and was totally out of his depth back in league football. After starting the season with a 16-game winless streak in the league, Appleton was sacked and Don went with him, resigning as chairman and handing over the reins to Richard Chetham. Don stayed on as a director for a short while but bowed out quietly not long after, cutting his ties with the club. His name would appear as a potential savior during some of the darker days of the 1990s when the club was seemingly on the brink of collapse, but Don’s time with Hull City – a time he described later in the local press as “the best years of my life” – was done.
For all of his eccentricities and penchant for self-promotion, Don never forgot what was important, and therefore retains a level of affection with older generations of Hull City fans to this day. In an interview with the Hull Daily Mail years after leaving the club, he gave the following quote: “The biggest thing in football and in Hull is the fans. It’s their club, always will be, no one else’s. I felt I was part of those fans and I wanted to win as much as any fan.” The chances of anyone running our club at the moment coming out with anything approaching such a sentiment are about as likely as us playing on the moon.
So thanks Don. It was successful. It was unpredictable. It was excruciating at times. But sandwiched in-between the two grimmest periods of Hull City’s history, it was a hell of a lot of fun.