We go to Watford this weekend. Back in the 1980s, we seemed to have a “go to Watford” recruitment policy, with largely excellent results. Rarely for us, we’ve put them in chronological order…
1: Neil Williams
Golden-haired midfielder who was the first of the quintet to join up. He came through the ranks at Vicarage Road but never made the first team and was a full 20 years old by the time Brian Horton brought him to Boothferry Park and gave him his senior debut. He settled in gently, peripherally contributing to the 1984/85 promotion season, even scoring three goals, but over his three subsequent full seasons he never quite did it.
An issue with Williams, which wasn’t necessarily his fault, was that he was an orthodox wide midfielder without being a natural winger, and Horton liked wingers. So even if he showed a bit of form, a change of formation would often see him miss out, and as a result his frustrations were clear, matched by those of the supporters who expected better from him.
He is memorable, sadly, for two open goal misses – one against Wigan in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1987 (which City lost 3-0, despite being the higher placed side at the time) and a weird left footed slice in front of Bunkers against Leeds in January 1988, which was less costly as City went on to win 3-1, though he did manage to score against his old club in an FA Cup replay the same season (though it went to a third game, which City lost). He was in and out for the remainder of that season but had been earmarked for a free transfer by Horton even before the manager got the sack in the spring.
Williams went on to play for Preston and Carlisle but clearly we had an effect on him round our way, as he settled in Cherry Burton after retirement.
2: Richard Jobson
Another fair-haired recruit, and this time a total, unqualified success. Indeed, to many it is Jobson that still sets the benchmark for defending ability that the likes of Turner, Chester and Davies have followed.
He made the grade at Watford but was a squad player, and left after missing out on a place in the 1984 FA Cup final, which the Hornets lost to Everton. Signed by Horton in February 1985, Jobson was technically coming home when he pitched up at Boothferry Park, as he was born in Hull, although he’d left for Burton-upon-Trent with his family as a toddler and had the accent to match.
Starting out with City as a right back, he showed elegance and class in a role not ideally suited to someone of his height. But he and City were not a perfect match immediately. Jobson went AWOL shortly after signing, casting doubts on his fortitude as a first team player, but upon his return he settled down properly in the centre of defence and for the remainder of his City career was the ultimate in reliable, watchable marshalling of a back four, aided by the somewhat more industrial methods of Peter Skipper. City had that wonderful luxury of a centre back partnership that could both play and spoil.
He had a poor run in 1988/89, a period when he was made team captain (but not club captain) ahead of Garreth Roberts (who maintained the club captaincy and his place in the side, bafflingly) but regained some form in 1989/90 as City clawed their way up the table after a wretched start. Skint and unambitious, City sold him for a shoddy £460,000 to Oldham three games into the 1990/91 season, which not coincidentally ended with City’s relegation.
After Oldham won promotion and performed admirably in cup competitions, his former Watford manager Graham Taylor called him into the England squad in the early 1990s, though he never won a cap, and Jobson continued to play until he turned 40, including spells at Leeds United and Manchester City, with whom he won a brace of promotions. He later became the chairman of the PFA.
3: Charlie Palmer
The 1986/87 season was an important one culturally for Hull City, as the club fielded a black player for the first time. The player was Ray Daniel, a left-sided midfielder whom Horton had encountered at Luton Town. Daniel began the season in the team and as barriers came down – and there were some, as City’s lack of black representation had been noted during a period when England had taken two black players to the 1986 World Cup and major clubs were recruiting black footballers, while the city itself had a reputation for racial illiberality – two more joined at the same time.
Palmer was one, and again he had been a Watford player at the beginning of his career, though had left after just ten league games and settled into a decent career at Derby County. He joined in February 1987 and promptly stayed in the side for the remainder of the season – and, indeed, pretty much all of the next one – with a brand of incisive overlapping full back play beloved of the more athletic defender, while also being capable of winning the ball and stifling wingers.
He lost his place to Nicky Brown midway through the 1988/89 season and didn’t hang around to try to regain his spot after Notts County put in an offer. He later came back with his new club to score at Boothferry Park, something he never managed as a City player. He won promotions with Notts County and played in the top flight for them, and became a social worker, as well as a coach at non-league level, after he finished playing.
Palmer was never one to make a big deal of being one of three black players all recruited by City at the same time, and one suspects the other two weren’t either, but they did wonders off the pitch for everybody’s reputation.
4: Alex Dyer
Dyer joined and debuted at the same time as Palmer, but again had not come directly from Watford; indeed, like Williams, he had not been deemed good enough for the first team at Vicarage Road.
Instead, he carved out a good name at Blackpool as a hip-swivelling, close controlling centre forward who was also useful in wide positions and he played both of these roles to great effect after he joined the Tigers.
Dyer was a fine target man, awkward around defenders and strong, proven no better than when he literally shoved weakling Leeds defenders to the deck at Elland Road to score the opener in a memorable 2-0 win in 1987/88. He also scored in the 3-1 win against the same oppositon at Boothferry Park later the same season and, like Williams, netted against his former club in the FA Cup.
The arrival of Eddie Gray gradually marginalised Dyer, who found himself out on the left wing, though he was still effective and dangerous. After a particularly good personal performance against Crystal Palace, they signed him for big money in the autumn of 1988 but he was never the player they thought he was going to be, and he moved around a fair few clubs for the remainder of his career. He is still in the game as a coach, having worked for Chris Powell at both Charlton and Huddersfield.
5: Steve Terry
This was all about Dennis Booth, who clearly was the driving force behind the recruit of so many Watford trainees of yore when he became assistant manager under Horton. Booth had been at City since 1980 and was scaling down his career under Colin Appleton, before Horton appointed him to the coaching staff in 1984.
Prior to all this, Booth had spent three years at Watford and knew his old club’s youth system inside out, so recruiting promising players who would have been 16 by the time he left Vicarage Road would have been an obvious policy to adopt. With Horton’s own knowledge of the young, gifted but unchosen players nearby at Luton, a whole new team of hungry stars of the future could be constructed.
So, Booth suggested the Watford graduates, while Horton got Daniel, Frankie Bunn and Garry Parker from Luton. All good, and all successful. Then Horton got the bullet towards the end of the 1988 season (having sold Bunn and Parker during the campaign) and Booth became temporary manager. Don Robinson made a promise to him that he would be unveiled as the full time gaffer in the summer, and told him to manage as if he had a mandate already.
To that end, Booth went out and bought Steve Terry, a familiar figure to all due to the large sticking plaster that he would attach to his forehead prior to every game (presumably due to scar tissue). Terry had debuted for Watford in 1980 in a game that had also been Booth’s last for the club, and went on to become a competent stopper for many years, playing a part in their promotions, Cup runs and jaunts to Europe, but marital problems meant he needed a move, and he was even prepared to sacrifice the remainder of the 1987/88 season – he joined after the deadline and therefore couldn’t play – to get to Boothferry Park and start afresh.
So Booth had done as Robinson instructed by being a proper manager and purchasing a player, parading him for the photographers under the Humber Bridge. But Terry’s debut came under Eddie Gray in August after Robinson performed a volte-face in the summer and denied Booth the job. Remarkably, and to his great credit, Booth took it on the chin and returned to his previous role as assistant.
After displacing Skipper, the new man spent a few months hoofing the ball great distances while Jobson did the tidier stuff, before injury allowed Neil Buckley a route into the team at his expense. Terry left midway through the following season and joined Northampton.
(All five of these players were technically team-mates after Terry’s arrival in the late spring of 1987/88, though never played together due to Terry’s ineligibility and then Williams’ departure).