Grumbles of an old boys network and genuine concerns for the club’s future were clearly audible when the wispy-haired Appleton, a former chippy and captain of Leicester City, was appointed in the summer of 1982 by new chairman Don Robinson as the man to remove the Tigers from the abyss of the Fourth Division as quickly as possible. Relegation, within financial meltdown, had forced the club to its knees, but while Robinson’s rescue package was greeted with gratitude and open arms, his decision to bring his manager buddy from Scarborough in as well was less warmly received.
No-one need have worried. The two were a killer combination, but Robinson’s scheming, gimmickry and good-natured headline-grabbing often overshadowed the reflective Appleton’s sturdy work with his inherited squad, unable as he was to add many of his own purchases to it, though he did snap up freebie winger Billy Askew after a trial, a player who would be crucial to City’s progress for the rest of the decade. Appleton soon got into his stride, recognising the fearless gift in front of goal of teenage striker Andy Flounders and the creative might (and penalty-taking excellence) of the fast-developing Brian Marwood, all while garnering his predominant reputation as a manager who was obsessed with safe football and strong defence. City duly lost just six times, remained undefeated at Boothferry Park until the March (conceding just 14 goals there all season) and were promoted with two games to spare, eventually finishing as runners-up to Wimbledon. Hell, he even signed Emlyn Hughes for a bit.
Appleton again didn’t feel the need to change much for the return to Division Three and was vindicated with another season of effective percentage football that didn’t always please the eye but regularly turned up results, again thanks in no small measure to the mercurial Marwood, who put away another 16 goals from the flanks and the penalty spot. But the climate intervened in the January as City lost momentum and a whole month of games due to the weather and played an exhausting catch-up for the rest of the campaign, eventually needing a 3-0 win at Burnley in the final fixture to go up again via goal difference. Marwood scored twice but nobody could add the third, and the only cheers heard at Turf Moor on the final whistle were those of interloping Sheffield United fans, whose team had benefitted from City’s last-ditch failure.
Appleton quit before the journey back to Hull had been completed, to everyone’s utter horror, and went to Swansea, even not bothering to hang about for the remainder of the Associate Members Cup campaign. The recruitment of the excellent Brian Horton as his successor meant he soon wasn’t missed but his legacy was secure, even remaining so when Robinson brought him back for a wretched second go in 1989 (“How does feel to be back Colin?” “Er, I’m on cloud seven…”) which resulted in no wins from 16 games and, when Robinson then gave up the club, instant dismissal from new chairman Richard Chetham.
His willingness to let Robinson do the talking, plus the brevity of his stay and the manner of his departure, unduly devalue Appleton’s spell at the helm, but Appleton’s record during those two campaigns make him City’s best ever gaffer on pure stats. That he is also the worst, courtesy of his apparent inability to beat a carpet, let alone an opposing football team, upon his return in 1989, somehow adds to his legend and charm, and is easily forgiven when held alongside those astonishing achievements from 1982 to 1984. Those two seasons of salvage and hope make this softly-spoken, modest man just as important to his era of management as the likes of Warren Joyce and Phil Brown would later be in other turbulent periods for the club.
Now pushing 80 and still living in Scarborough, Appleton regularly rummages through a huge cardboard box of keepsakes – programmes, contracts, newspaper cuttings, photographs – in his attic that remind him of his time at Boothferry Park. His memories of being Hull City manager are very fond, and he can be assured that the supporters who watched his sides play feel the same.