Inspired by Crystal Palace’s woes, and because we’re a sucker for a City sob story right now, let’s “enjoy” the Tigers’ top five winless runs in the league at the start of a season…
1: 16 games – 1989/90
It’s the club record for winless starts and by a street too, and yet somehow did not end in relegation. It went some way though to ruining Colin Appleton’s terrific reputation with the Hull City support, and certainly ruined his elite football management career.
Appleton had been in charge for two seasons from 1982 to 1984 and, with no money to spend and a tight, talented squad grateful to still be in work after fear of liquidation, achieved promotion from the Fourth Division before going within a goal of a second straight elevation the following year. He then quit to go to Swansea but, five years and two more managers later, his old chum Don Robinson blinkeredly brought him back in the summer of 1989, this time to take control of a squad that was capable but misshaped.
A 1-1 draw with Leicester on day one wasn’t the worst of starts, then an incongruous 5-4 reversal at Bournemouth at least showed the team were being encouraged to attack, but the first win didn’t feel close. Appleton deserves a modicum of credit for making that odd-goal-in-nine loss in Dorset the only one in the first five games, but the draws and defeats wouldn’t stop coming. Keith Edwards, the previous season’s top scorer for both club and division, made a hasty exit when it was obvious he and Appleton had mutual dislike, while Billy Whitehurst also didn’t take to the slightly whimsical, offbeat and gentile method of man-management for which Appleton was renowned.
City took the lead in home games against Newcastle and Swindon but still lost on both occasions – the first true signs of unrest among the Tiger Nation came when City twice went ahead against Swindon thanks to creative brilliance from Ian McParland and headers from Peter Swan, but in the second half McParland was subbed and Swindon subsequently scored twice to win. Four of the next five games were drawn, three goallessly, but the torment may have continued for both support and manager had Robinson not stepped down suddenly through illness. His security blanket pulled from him, Appleton had been fired within hours of Richard Chetham becoming chairman.
Stan Ternent took over and immediately inspired the team to a 3-2 win at Bradford, 17 league games into the season. “Little Hull” was how the hateful Elton Welsby described us as he relayed the news on ITV’s results round-up that teatime. The remainder of the season had its setbacks but Ternent did more than enough to get bodies on the line again and City had four game winning streaks over the festive season and in April that aided the great charge up the table. A 14th placed finish turned out to be, bizarrely, better than the two previous seasons when City were never in relegation danger. Ten points clear by the end, and City started the season by drawing ten out of 16 games under Appleton. Coincidence? You figure it out…
2: Eight games – 1946/47
There had been a war on, you know. The evidence of it was clearer in Hull than it had been in most English cities, with the Luftwaffe flying over on its way out of a bombing mission and lightening its load of leftover explosives over the city on every occasion. The Anlaby Road ground was heavily damaged and City were playing their unofficial, regionalised, game-by-game based football at the Boulevard. There was no regular team available, nowhere permanent to play and no money in the bank, so on the cessation of hostilities, the 1945/46 season was without City.
Harold Needler then came to the fore and took over the club, issued shares to the Hull public which were snapped up hungrily, and as a result, financed the completion of Boothferry Park and raised a team via the appointment of Major Frank Buckley as manager with additional administrative responsibilities. The team, however, was entirely made up of new faces, some had never played professional football before, and as a result cohesion, familiarity and suitable tactical plans led to an eight-game winless run at the start.
Draws against Lincoln and Crewe were followed by five straight defeats and another draw, before finally a Ben Lester hat-trick led City to a 3-1 win at Tranmere. The first win at the new ground followed against Darlington, and despite a season which lasted ten months due to a horrid winter and an often unusable pitch, City finished 11th in Division Three (North). They used 43 players in total; over the first eight winless games they used 20, which was some going in the days before substitutes.
3: Seven games – 1980/81, 1990/91, 2000/01
Tottenham used to win a cup when the year ended in one; it seemed City used to start the same seasons really, really badly. Both 1980/81 and 1990/91 ended in phenomenally embarrassing relegations when there was nothing unlucky about it, the team was just really, really poor on both occasions (despite the goals scored by Payton and Swan in the latter). Sharp contrast with 2000/01, however, as the seven game winless sequence at the start contrasted with a run into the play-offs for the first time in the club’s history. All well documented, and Brian Little’s side drew five of their seven, while Stan Ternent’s 1990/91 side and Mike Smith’s 1980/81 lot each drew four.
4: Six games – 1924/25, 1985/86, 2002/03, 2006/07
City stumbled around the middle part of Division Two for a long period between the wars, and the only thing that made 1924/25 more notable, or notorious, was the slightly dodgy than usual start. Four of the winless games saw the Tigers fail to score, and just two draws during this period meant it looked genuinely shaky for a while. Paddy Mills, third in City’s all-time scoring rankings to this day, was the difference, scoring in each of the two games when City didn’t draw a blank and maintaining his form all season to rack up 25 for the campaign as City climbed the table around December and January. The tenth placed finish could have been better but for Mills missing four games through injury around March and April, and City couldn’t find anyone else to put a chance away.
The 1985/86 campaign very nearly ended in promotion to the top flight under Brian Horton, so the winless start is all the more remarkable. New to the Second Division after a seven-year absence, City drew four and lost two before giving Millwall a 3-0 cuffing at Boothferry Park. Form varied for a while as Billy Whitehurst’s future was in doubt, but Horton replaced the big man with Andy Flounders after Newcastle came in with big money, and healthy runs in the New Year helped the Tigers finish sixth, in the year before play-offs were introduced. It was City’s second highest finish in the post-war era to that point, just a place lower than Terry Neill’s side of 1970/71.
In 2002/03, the six-game winless start was genuinely awful, as Jan Mølby struggled to instill his beliefs and discipline levels on a side that contained some exciting talents that just needed to be channeled properly. Four draws and two defeats prior to a win at Cambridge that included a Shaun Smith free kick, but even a 4-0 cuffing of Carlisle the following week couldn’t dispel the nagging doubt that City had appointed the wrong man, and the Dane left after the 12th game of the season, a 1-0 defeat at his old club Kidderminster. Peter Taylor arrived and, despite two worrying disparate goalless spells in the winter, did enough to raise the team to 13th and plot a proper assault on the lowest division the following year.
The 2006/07 start of six without a win feels like it should have been longer, as the need for a first victory under new manager Phil Parkinson seemed to take forever. It could have been so different, as City lost unfairly at West Brom on the opening day and then let a two-goal lead turn into a 3-2 home defeat by Barnsley, still regarded to this day as the moment the inexperienced but highly-rated Parkinson lost his nerve, and lost the dressing room. Eventually, a Michael Bridges stunner at Leicester got City the first win under the manager, and immediately afterwards the TV cameras witnessed a 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, but the players didn’t believe in the manager and the losses, with truly execrable displays beneath them, piled up sufficiently for Parkinson to lose his job in the December.
5: Five games – 1934/35, 1968/69
The 1934/35 season was a second season of consolidation for City after promotion to Division Two just two years before, but under new manager John Hill, who left the first team squad to become gaffer, it started unpromisingly. Not just in a five game winless run, but within the first game of the campaign, as City took a 6-4 shoeing at Plymouth Argyle. Four of the five were defeats, before City took West Ham apart at Anlaby Road and settled down. The 13th place finih offered some promise, but everyone was off colour the following year and Hill resigned before relegation back to regionalised football was confirmed.
The biggest criticism aimed at Cliff Britton during his near-decade at the helm of Hull City was that he never took defending as seriously as he should. This is proved even in glory days, when one notes the number of goals that City conceded in winning the 1965/66 Third Division title. Britton always felt his masterful front line would outscore the opposition on any given day, but the beginning of 1968/69 suggested otherwise. Chilton, Wagstaff and Houghton all missed a game each through injury as Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers inflicted harsh defeats, before a mild recovery with draws against Fulham (goalless), Oxford and eventual champions Derby. A 3-0 win over Middlesbrough stopped the rot and began a nine-game unbeaten run. With Britton’s side, it really felt like all or nothing, but the 11th placed finish, following a 12th and a 17th since promotion, began to feel like stagnation and prompted the slow process of identifying his long-term replacement. Britton willingly spent the next season (13th, his last league position) helping to find him.
City also began five seasons with a four match winless run.