On Saturday 17th November 1996, Hull City AFC travelled to play Whitby Town in the first round of that season’s FA Cup.
Not that they travelled to Whitby itself. On police advice, it was played on a Sunday afternoon at the McCain Stadium, home of (then) fellow dungeon-dwellers Scarborough when Whitby’s 3,500 capacity Turnbull Ground was deemed unfit for the visit of a local League club.
So off to North Yorkshire we went, with City a miserable wreck of a club. Martin Fish was the incumbent and widely reviled chairman, and Terry Dolan the swaggering but inept manager. The Bradford riot and the overall trauma of 1995/96 were still fresh in the memory, and after a bright-ish start back in the Fourth Division we’d won only one of the previous ten games – coincidentally including a 3-2 defeat away at Scarborough.
Tigers 2000 were in full cry at this time, but agreed to a ceasefire at the seaside in an attempt to spur City through this obviously winnable tie and to possible cup success. It made no difference as City drew an abysmal game in heavy rain. 3,337 were present, at least half from Hull, and they weren’t happy.
City won their next game, 2-0 against Torquay on a Tuesday night that saw just 1,775 file into Boothferry Park – the lowest League gate in our history, a figure that is unlikely to ever be matched. A 0-0 draw at distant Exeter was next, three days before the date of the replay: Tuesday 26th November 1996.
There were 2,900 that turned up, an improvement on the previous Tuesday’s record gate mostly brought about by visiting Whitby fans, who numbered about 700 and were an understandably excited presence in at the supermarket end of the Ark.
Things started well. Kicking away from the sparsely populated Bunkers, a long and unusually accurate free-kick by Steve Wilson was nodded onto Duane Darby, about fifteen yards from goal and with a brace of blueshirts in attendance. A quick swivel of the hips set him free of both and a shot high over the Whitby keeper Dave Campbell made it 1-0 to City.
There were just eight minutes gone. A comfortable evening ahead?
As if. Within a couple of minutes Paul Pitman had equalised for Whitby after finding a pocket of space via an uncontested flick-on from a deep free-kick, and when Robinson made it 2-1 to Whitby with barely twenty minutes played, things weren’t going to plan.
Back came the Tigers, who levelled when a strong run from Jamie Marks on the right culminated in a left-footed shot that was ineptly pawed straight into Darby’s path, and the ball almost hit the City forward and looped over the turfbound Campbell. Whether Darby really needed to goad the distraught Whitby fans is a moot point. He did anyway.
Half an hour gone, 2-2. This was already not a normal evening, and if the quality of play was really quite terrible, it was at least engrossing stuff.
Whitby couldn’t see it out to half-time as they were again cut open on the right. Richard Peacock advanced into space before slipping through a lovely ball to the onrushing Darby, whose tidy finish was too good for Campbell. This time, he stayed clear of the visiting fans, probably with an eye on the matchball his first-half hat-trick had earned him. Half-time, 3-2.
Surely City would now see it out against presumably tiring part-time opponents?
The second half was a grim, nightmarish experience. A long ball from deep on the left wing saw City’s horribly ill-positioned defence plundered, two men pushing out as one stayed deep, and exposing Steve Wilson – he came off his line and clumsily fouled the lone Whitby man in the area, leaving the referee with a straightforward penalty to award.
Willo was fortunate not to see any sort of card for the foul, but he had no such luck with the penalty as Pitman expertly sent it high into the corner. 3-3 with the second half having only just begun.
It quickly got worse, as it generally did in those days. Just five minutes later Whitby were awarded another penalty, this time incorrectly for a supposed handball. Up stepped Pitman again, and he duly become the night’s second hat-trick scorer with another fine penalty. City 3-4 Whitby.
Still, over 35 minutes to go, surely class (relatively, of course) would tell? But it wouldn’t. With their prospect of reaching the second round for only the third time in their history, adrenaline coursed through the visitors, more than making up for the supposed gulf in ability and fitness. Boothferry Park quietly seethed as the boisterous Seasiders increasingly believed a cup scalp was to be theirs, while Dolan glowered on the touchline as his charges unconvincingly tried to get back into the game.
Plenty were edging towards the corners of Bunkers as injury time began, preparing for a hasty getaway when the whole sordid affair was brought to a close.
Step forward Mr Duane Darby.
Only in the side after a late decision to play through a bout of illness, and with City hardly blessed with a preponderance of good forwards anyway, he’d probably not expected to see the whole game out. Then again, we didn’t expect to be losing in the final minute to a non-league side. Dolan kept him on, and was rewarded when a cross by Ian Wright from the right to the near post saw Darby steal a yard on his marker and flay an unstoppable volley past Campbell.
The relief among the City fans was as intense as the desolation felt by the shattered Whitby players, who must surely have felt that after 180 minutes, they’d had their chance and blown it.
So it proved, with an extra-time period as surreal as anything that had preceded it in this truly unique tie. City swiftly took the lead for the third time when a move down Whitby’s right culminated in Richard Peacock steering home a cross. 5-4.
Just 35 seconds after the evening’s twelfth kick-off it was 6-4. An exhausted Whitby player completely miscontrolled a hooked clearance from a team-mate, allowing Darby to pinch possession, hare goalwards and calmly place the ball past Campbell before resuming his love affair with the visiting fans.
Surely, for the love of Justin Whittle, City couldn’t mess up their first two-goal advantage of the evening?
They could not.
Whitby were completely done by this stage, barely able to string a pass together and leaving huge gaps everywhere. Finally, fitness was telling. It was 7-4 shortly after the second half of extra time began when a loose clearance from Campbell was picked up by Neil Mann. He jinked into the area and squared the ball to Darby, whose glorious backheeled finish secured the game’s eleventh goal and his double hat-trick.
Still City weren’t quite finished, as Bunkers lustily chanted “we want ten”. There was time for one more goal, when a sumptuous volley from Mann made it 8-4 with three minutes remaining.
And that concluded the scoring. The 2,900 filed out of Boothferry Park quite unable to believe what they had seen. Twelve goals. Eight for City. A double hat-trick (and a cruelly overlooked single hat-trick). A last minute equaliser. Extra-time. Records tumbled that evening, ones that will probably prove as durable as the unhappy one that was set seven days earlier at home to Torquay.
Such was the club’s predicament in those days that by the time Darby was able to pose with a Mitre Ultimax, the floodlights were already off; his beaming smile was enough to pierce the November gloom anyway.
No City player before or since has scored six times in one game, and there’s every chance that record will survive us all. On a national level, Darby’s achievement will forever put him alongside none other than George Best in the FA Cup stats books, as Best also got a double hat-trick in a tie against Northampton back in 1970. Only Ted MacDougall, while with Bournemouth in 1971, has scored more in a single FA Cup tie – Darby would have needed a further hat-trick to match the Scotsman’s achievements in a first round game against Margate, which Bournemouth eventually won 11-0.
Darby’s sixer was the peak of a generally successful spell at City that yielded a total of 28 goals in 79 appearances since his 1996 arrival from Doncaster. However, in 1998, he left for Notts County, probably a better bet for long-term prosperity than City at the time, only to return for a brief and goalless loan period in 1999. He then went to Rushden & Diamonds, his fifth professional club, and the one at which he arguably had the most success, racking up 47 goals in three years and a promotion to the Football League. We were to cross paths with him four times during his spell at Nene Park, though he failed to score past the Tigers.
By 2003 and aged 30, he was at League Two side Shrewsbury, adding another 13 goals to his career tally and a further Conference promotion, but then followed the familiar path of the lower league striker. He joined Nuneaton as a player-coach in 2006, by then aged 33, before gradually dropping through the footballing pyramid. A native of Birmingham, his later days were all spent in that city’s orbit at such outposts as Hednesford, Evesham, Alvechurch and finally Redditch.
City were comfortably the biggest club he played for, despite our desperate situation during his time at Boothferry Park. He’s well remembered as a burly, effective lower league striker, as he is at the other clubs he found success at: Torquay, Rushden and Shrewsbury. And he’ll always have memories of THAT night, and a place in history no-one can erase.
He, and City, were not to be rewarded for eventually overcoming Whitby. Tigers 2000 may have suspended hostilities for the FA Cup, but the second round saw us hammered 5-1 at home by Crewe to brusquely end any dreams of a glamorous, lucrative third round tie. The remainder of that wretched season would be played out amid the backdrop of mutual loathing between Fish and Dolan and the few remaining City fans – we ended the season with an average gate of 3,282 and finished a rotten 17th.
It was a much happier season for Whitby. Quite apart from their footnote in footballing history, they won the Northern League Championship and then the FA Vase, beating North Ferriby United at Wembley. That was followed up with another title success the season after. They’ve made the first round proper of the FA Cup twice since, losing a replay to Plymouth in 2001 and suffering a 4-0 defeat at Hartlepool in 2003.
As it happens, groundhoppers denied the opportunity to see City at Whitby Town’s actual home ground did finally get their wish in July 2002, when a friendly was arranged between the sides at the Turnbull Ground. 429 turned up to see a comfortable 3-0 win for Jan Mølby’s City side. But then, as now, all the talk was of Duane Darby and his amazing double hat-trick. It’ll never be repeated, and even twenty years on, it’ll never be forgotten.