To prove we’re not just sneery, negative misanthropes when it comes to professional footballers, we’re following up our Failed Loanees piece with one that celebrates five temporary acquisitions who proved nothing but a success for City. We sought the opinions of 12 other City fans of our acquaintance before picking, mainly at random, five from their suggestions, discounting any that went on to sign for us permanently. The vast majority of our correspondents claimed one particular player was our best ever loan signing, so…
1: Fraizer Campbell
… here he is. Exactly what you’d want from a loan player, then a whole heap more. Campbell was raw and untried in the English game when he joined City in October 2007 on a season-long deal from Manchester United, and such deals often come with a fear in the back of the collective mind that such a player would not see the benefit in dropping down from a huge club to one in a lower division with negligible history.
But while to say Campbell was an exception is unfair on many a decent young lad at a big club waiting for games, he was certainly more of a revelation on loan than most of his ilk. He was, very simply, the extra bit of sparkle required by a team that was gifted, experienced and well-drilled, but needed just a certain extra something to be a challenger. That something may well have been pace, as Campbell was blessed with tons of it, and when a striker takes to the pitch with both confidence in front of goal and natural pace to burn off, you have the perfect player.
Campbell’s debut was quiet as he got used to his new team-mates and City lost a very dull game by a single goal at Watford. He played the whole match, and in the second half a sub was brought on to play alongside him, one Dean Windass.
Windass was 38, Campbell 20, nearly half his age; it sounds like a Heaven 17 lyric, and certainly was an atypical sight in football, but it worked. Campbell would spend the whole season telling anyone and everyone how much Windass helped him as a player and educated him on what being a City player actually meant.
Three days later Campbell shovelled in two goals of real striking expertise in the opening 18 minutes of a game against Barnsley at the Circle, allowing all City fans to take him to their hearts immediately. He and Windass became regular partners whenever the old man’s bones didn’t need a rest, and the pair got a goal each in a 3-0 win over Preston in the midst of a three-game run of victories. The return of record signing Caleb Folan after a head injury on his debut at Blackpool back in August provided both respite and competition for the front pairing, and it thereafter became a case of who would partner Campbell each week.
Campbell scored in three of five unbeaten games over the festive period as City picked up 11 points going into 2008 and rumblings of hope began, small ones, of a push for promotion as City snaked slowly up the top half of the table. Campbell scored a big equalising goal at Norwich on a very windy night at Carrow Road, then salvaged a point for an underperforming City against Colchester at the Circle. His third in three games, however, is likely to be the goal he is most remembered for, within an occasion that epitomised City’s sly, quiet run into the promotion picture.
West Brom were the leaders and the best team in the division, few disputed this. They outplayed a nonetheless high calibre City at the Circle in January with a 3-1 win which saw both teams applauded off the park by all in attendance. Six weeks later, City were at the Hawthorns and after a typically imaginative bit of body swerving from Jay Jay Okocha made some space, the virtuoso Nigerian aimed a sharp, distant pass through the centre for Campbell to control, just outside the area.
The footage shows colleagues of Campbell on either side screaming for a pass in space – Okocha’s swift delivery of the ball had not given defenders time to retreat, and Campbell had real options. The one he took was to take a cursory look up at goal and then bend an outrageous shot from almost a standing position into the corner of the net.
This was a golden moment for us, and for Campbell. It was the encouragement from Windass to free himself, the example of unpredictability set by Okocha, the self-belief given to Campbell by seeing an attacking shape built and rebuilt around him as the constant, the focal point, the spearhead. Everything had been put in place to make Campbell feel as though he could try anything and it would work, because the team he played for let him and because he had the natural ability to do so.
It was a goal nobody there would ever forget.
West Brom were still no slouches and managed an equaliser, only for Folan to score a famous winner. Now City were serious contenders, no longer under the radar. And the manager, Phil Brown, had his team for the rest of the season. Hangers-on were phased out more, changes were less necessary. And as long as Campbell was around, the possibilities felt endless.
Campbell scored in springtime home wins over Burnley, Southampton and Watford, with a brace at Colchester for good measure. A difficult day at Sheffield United, amidst a mild defensive crisis and ending in defeat, meant City had to beat Crystal Palace in the last home game of the regular season to take the chase for automatic promotion to the last day. Campbell scored the early opener, his skipper Ian Ashbee the late winner. Other results made automatic elevation now unlikely (despite Brown telling the press City could still win the title), but City were guaranteed third spot and home advantage in the second leg of the play-offs.
That was the end of Campbell’s goalscoring run for City, but his contribution to play-off success was stellar and iconic. He worked hard with little reward on a personal level in both legs of the comfortable semi-final against Watford, then shuffled free of his marker at Wembley on the counter attack before chipping the ball immaculately on to the right boot of the bleach-haired Windass for the only goal of the final against Bristol City.
Substituted late after a spot of petulance led to a booking, he was on the bench when the final whistle went and he ran on to the pitch, grabbed a black and amber curly wig and was tearfully embraced the team-mates who had made him one of them so readily, and saluted the fans who had worshipped his every move.
The circumstances in which Campbell didn’t sign permanently for City afterwards divides opinion to this day. Initially, the club made a bid but Manchester United, aware of his new-found value, made him a temporary makeweight in a deal to get Dimitar Berbatov to Old Trafford. Campbell duly played for Spurs against City in September 2008, with the Tigers winning 1-0, and the fans sang his name when he came across to the away end for a short corner routine.
When City bid again to take Campbell on after his loan at Spurs ended (having started just one Premier League game), Campbell instead chose to go to Sunderland. City were a basket case of a club at the time – in a way that Sunderland are now, but certainly weren’t then – and Campbell’s decision, influenced heavily by his father, was taken as an affront by City fans. When City went to Sunderland that season, Campbell stuck his tongue out at the away fans after a round of abuse, and naturally they went mad at him, as ever not realising that disrespect can be a two-way street. His form on Wearside initially was good enough to earn him a solitary England cap, but then he did his cruciate ligament which ruled him out of football for over a year. Back in Hull, some classless individuals claimed, cruelly, ludicrously, wrongly, that he deserved it.
Fit again, Campbell dropped a division and joined Cardiff, memorably scoring at the Circle on the last day of the 2012/13 season when both sides went up, with him pretending to laugh at the home fans while fixing his eyes firmly on the jubilant, title-winning Cardiff supporters. He is now at Crystal Palace, and of course scored their last minute equaliser at the Circle in this season’s 3-3 draw, this time celebrating wildly at the achievement, rather than in an effort to antagonise. A subsequent managerial change at Selhurst Park means he is currently not in favour there, and, approaching his 30th birthday, his next move will be an important one.
Campbell’s impact in 2007/08 will never, ever be underestimated, and it is largely because he was just so good that he remains a player of such interest to City supporters, on both sides of the argument (if an argument really exists). In the Premier League era we never found an alternative to him in terms of combining touch and finishing ability with sheer pace (Marlon King didn’t have pace; Shane Long did, but he wasn’t as good a finisher), and it’s hard to believe any centre forward on our books in the last nine seasons has been as good as Campbell was, even though he was playing exclusively against Championship defences at the time.
His name is still regularly linked with us, but Campbell won’t play for us again. However much many a City fan would see such a deal as something of a homecoming, he saw us purely as a stepping stone to bigger things. And he had every right to. He gave us everything he had but then, not unreasonably, felt he could get more because his talent had already proved worthy of the odd senior appearance for Manchester United, while Spurs and Sunderland represented big steps up for him. He ended up playing for England as a consequence so, even if club affairs didn’t go his way, he can point to that single achievement as a justification for taking his selected paths.
If anything did go wrong with Campbell, it was probably the way his father seemed to dismiss Hull as a permanent home for his son with barely a sideways glance – continuing to blame a boy who was barely 21 at the time for this is a fairly ghastly thing to do. But nobody in the Campbell family owed us anything. We gave him adoration as a support, City gave him regular football – but let’s not forget that in return, this greatest of great loanees gave us goals, Wembley and the Premier League for the first time. Look at that squad and then see if you can argue that we would have done it without him.
2: John Hickton
Loans have been around in one form or another for most of football’s professional existence, although only after the Second World War was something roughly resembling today’s system set down, and even then it was a rare occurrence for anyone to borrow another team’s players. Round these parts, the first example most City fans of, ahem, seasoned status remember was when Hickton arrived in 1977.
The Middlesbrough striker had been a consistent goalscorer at Ayresome Park for more than ten years, slamming in 192 goals in the first team, including four against City in a 5-3 win back in 1969. But at 32, and with manager Jack Charlton looking for a long-term replacement for his goals, Hickton was allowed to come to Boothferry Park on loan.
Hickton played six times, scored once (a peach of a shot from distance against Carlisle at Boothferry Park) and was involved in most of the goals scored elsewhere in the team, but became the classic example of the brightest flame dying out quickly, as Middlesbrough wouldn’t extend the loan, just as City were getting used to having him about the place. Annoyingly, they didn’t pick him again that season. He played a handful of games as either a sub or an emergency centre back the following season before his contract was cancelled to allow him to cross the Atlantic and play in the NASL. A broken leg early in his time there ended his career.
3: Nick Culkin
When you’re at the bottom of the league, you get the goalkeepers you deserve. The ones who aren’t good enough for anyone else play for you, the ones that are good enough for someone else soon leave you, or were never yours to begin with.
Culkin was, unbelievably, the seventh* (and last) different keeper used by City in the 1999/2000 season, a club record, and we had yet to reach the millennium. Yet over four games, the giant 21 year old proved himself to be impressive and commanding in a way that none of the others were, showing exactly why his earliest years at hometown club York had motivated a £250,000 swoop by Manchester United. The only goal he conceded was in his last game, a 1-1 home draw with Cheltenham, while previously he had excelled in scoreless draws at Darlington and Leyton Orient (saving a penalty in the latter) and a 2-0 win at home to Mansfield in between.
Naturally, such a fine custodian wasn’t going to muddy his boots with us for as long as absolutely necessary, and back to Old Trafford he went. He had further loans (much longer ones, too) before joining QPR in 2002 and succumbing to injury three years later. These days, he is known for having the shortest Premier League career in history, with his only appearance for Manchester United coming when he was an injury time sub for the crocked Raimond Van der Gouw, against Arsenal in August 1999. Culkin took the free kick that restarted the game, and the referee blew for full time.
4: Martin Carruthers
Elegant, lightning-quick centre forward from the ranks at Aston Villa who was a proper showbiz signing by Terry Dolan at a time when City’s present and future seemed incredibly bleak. “Evening Carruthers!” said the headlines, tragically and predictably, when he pitched up in October 1992.
And goodness, we needed him. We had nothing close to a proper centre forward. Dean Windass was still in midfield (his shift up front wasn’t far away though) and we were relying on overrated nonentities like Paul Hunter to lead the line, with wingers Graeme Atkinson and Leigh Jenkinson providing not just back-up, but front-up as well.
Carruthers was fighting the likes of Dean Saunders, Dalian Atkinson and an emerging Dwight Yorke for a place in a very good Villa side, so coming to City made sense for him and was a rare “sit up and take notice” bit of business under Dolan. Instantly he looked the part when he took over Hunter’s number 9 shirt, despite a typically Dolan-esque bit of fudging over injuries which saw Carruthers score against Mansfield in his second match and then drop into midfield for two games afterwards. However, he managed to find the net on each of those occasions too – against Port Vale and Blackpool – and made it three straight scoring games with a goal in a 4-0 shoeing of Exeter which earned City seven points from nine.
He played seven more games but scored just once more (in a 2-1 win at Preston) as City’s creativity died a death, coinciding with an injury to Windass. The end of his loan was greeted with sadness from City supporters, who had invested a lot of hope in the club being able to retain Carruthers’ service for the remainder of the season. Eventually, Linton Brown arrived, funded by the fans; although not as natural a player, a remedy for the striking ills was found, especially when Windass was shoved up alongside him.
Carruthers returned to Villa, who were challenging for the Premier League title, and was released in the summer. He eventually played for numerous contemporaries of City in the lower divisions, including a gallingly prolific two seasons at Scunthorpe, but never achieved a better scoring record than when he was at City. He was still playing the non-league game well into his 40s and is back in his native Nottinghamshire now, managing Basford United.
5: Anthony Gerrard
It maybe would come as a surprise to Gerrard just how much love there remains for him in Hull, as he stepped into our defence at a time of transition, when money was tight after relegation from the Premier League and City were aiming for nothing other than continued existence. But what a fine defender he was.
Gerrard was 24 when he joined from Cardiff on loan in September 2010, as new manager Nigel Pearson realised that the centre backs he’d inherited lacked steel (as well as consistency and, in at least one case, a decent attitude). With no top-tier pretensions, despite an older cousin at the helm of the world game (in some people’s minds, at least), Gerrard slotted in as a Championship centre back in a Championship team and played his heart out every week.
His debut was peculiar, as a deal was struck that allowed Gerrard, on loan from Cardiff, and Seyi Olofinjana, on loan in the reverse direction, to play against their parent clubs. It felt inevitable that one of these two would have a major say on the game and, naturally, it was the Nigerian who scored as Cardiff won 2-0. That kind of experiment made us a laughing stock and stopped immediately afterwards.
Gerrard settled, alongside fellow loanee Daniel Ayala, and soon it was obvious he wasn’t subtle, and this lack of discretion when dealing with opposing centre forwards got him many a cheer from the City fans while concurrently earning him a swathe of yellow cards. But throughout the season he was strong, positive, capable of leading by example, decent on the ball, and, it seemed, hard as nails. He was useful going forwards too, with a memorable winning goal at Derby among the five he got for the Tigers, at a time when City were in a bit of form and still hoping for the play-offs. His last goal came in a bizarre 4-2 home defeat by Middlesbrough, when he slapped in a free kick from pushing 30 yards as a late consolation.
City fans voted Gerrard their Player of the Year but Cardiff wouldn’t sell him to a divisional rival, and he got back in their team for a season before joining Huddersfield. He has never been a top flight defender but has had a consistent and admirable lower division career and is currently in the back four at Oldham. At City, he was the kind of player we needed at a time of off-field crisis – focussed, uncompromising… and forgiving too, as he continued to play well for us despite the lousy, uncouth song about his cousin – a member of his own family, for goodness’ sake – that City fans insisted on singing his way as if somehow he’d draw inspiration from it or take it as a compliment.
He must have thought we had some right thickoes following us.
*Lee Bracey, Matthew Baker, Jon Schofield, Steve Wilson, Richard Knight, Steven Bywater, Nick Culkin. After Culkin left, Wilson stayed in goal for the remainder of the season.