In these supposedly-liberated times, control of our reactions as individuals to the passing of one of our number has been seized by self-appointed trustees of our emotions, directing via mainstream or social media whom we must mourn (regardless we have any connection to or empathy with the departed soul in question) whom we must not mourn and, in the former case, the duration and intensity of our mourning. Fail to conform in any respect and for sure you will be branded cruel, nasty, vicious and possibly a hate criminal. So we conform.
Such is the pernicious effect of this manufactured emoting that it takes an event of huge sadness to shake us out of our blunted, automated response to death.
For most Hull City supporters and, one would hope, certainly all of a certain age, yesterday brought us one of those occasions. Those of us who had the pleasure of remembering Les Mutrie play for Hull City will surely have paused for at least a moment or two on hearing of his death in genuine and fond reflection on his memorable contribution to the Hull City cause.
A Geordie by birth, Mutrie was a talented and committed player for Hull City at a time when we had few that were either and plenty that were neither. The late 1970s, spilling over into the early 1980s, were increasingly grey years for Hull City, as the excitement of the Harold Needler years, Waggy, Chris Chilton, Terry Neill and even Chris Galvin and Dave Sunley, faded remorselessly away and the club’s prospects tipped inexorably downwards. Mike Smith, who had a fine record managing Wales, seemed an inspiring appointment but he never seemed to get to grips with the grind of club management. Players with solid CVs that he acquired, such as Nick Deacy, proved woefully inadequate to cope with the hurly burly of lower League football. The club was rickety off the pitch as well as on it, and descent into administration, though a shock when it occurred during season 1981/82 because in those days, unlike now, such calamities were rare and potentially fatal, was just desserts for wanton neglect. Boothferry Park itself was both reality and metaphor – a crumbling, rusty, increasingly unloved memorial of better but increasingly distant times.
But there was Les Mutrie.
You could clearly see how good he was when he played against us for Blyth Spartans in the famous Cup tie that extended over three matches. Les scored in all three of them before City finally won the second replay in extra-time at Elland Road, although Tony Norman famously saved his extra-time spot kick in the first replay at Croft Park to set up the decider in Leeds.
Impressed by Mutrie’s performances in the Cup games, Smith moved decisively and snapped him up for £30,000, at the time a record fee from a League club for a non-League player. Les was 29 before his League career properly got under way.
Given his evident ability (to which those of us who saw all three episodes of the Blyth trilogy will bear witness) it was a bit of a mystery why Mutrie never got a chance to step up earlier. He was, of course, on Carlisle United’s books in 1977/8, but only managed a mere five first team appearances and little is known of why he failed to make much of an impression. The most likely explanation is that, despite having just suffered relegation to Division 3, in those days Carlisle under manager Bobby Moncur were actually a pretty decent outfit, with a strong, mobile, pacy strike force. They had enjoyed a year in the top flight as recently as three years previously and would soon be back in the second tier with Bob Stokoe at the helm. Competition for places at Brunton Park will have been stiff.
Having returned to the non-League scene with Blyth, he was obviously determined to enjoy his second chance to be a professional, and he was terrific to watch and enjoy in dark times. Strong and mobile, he had a fantastic touch for quite a big man – he was more than poacher, more than a target man: a really fine all round front man.
In fact there was a sense of watching a man from the past, a player unsullied by the flash and impudent antics that even by the early 1980s had infected the sport. With his matt-black hair, strong-boned features and guilelessly honest attitude to the game Les Mutrie carried a sense of truer times, of proper hard work, of toil for its own sake. There’s no call to begrudge the modern player his cash, his cars and his bling – the market dictates, and footballers create a lot more joy than the typical plummy-voiced hedge-fund manager – but there are few modern millionaire players who generate affection because, deep down, we believe they are just like us, the fans, only better at football. We don’t believe that – they aren’t like us. Not so Les Mutrie. You always felt he truly was just like us, the fans, only better at football. He went out every Saturday afternoon and put in a proper shift, laced it with flashes of genius, never shirked, and he was loved in consequence.
Most memorable goal (apart from for Blyth against us) came in a 4-1 horsing of Sheffield United 24 years ago nearly to the day, at a time when we almost never beat them and usually got royally cheated, when he picked up the ball out wide on the left, sort of near the corner between Bunkers and Kempton, and dribbled square before turning goalwards, beating several men and stroking the ball past whoever was in the Sheffield net (Keith Waugh?). If you’ve ever seen that Eddie Gray goal for Leeds against Burnley that Yorkshire TV used to repeat seemingly every five minutes, well Les’s against the Blunts was just as good. We hounded Sheffield United to perdition that day, and Les Mutrie (along with Brian Marwood) was at the forefront of it.
He offered up something equally memorable on a mild Friday evening in October of 1982 at the Old Showground. Games away to Scunthorpe would subsequently become sheer drudgery as we found ourselves in the same Division as the Iron for far too long as the Dolan years dragged us deep into misery, and Glanford Park was and is as uninspiring a football ground as has ever been built. But back in 1982 a trip over the bridge to the town of dreaming steelworks was still a novelty – it was only our second since the imperishable 1965/66 season – and the Old Showground, in the heart of the town and steeped in old-school tradition and long-term failure, was a bearpit. Thousands upon thousands of City fans poured into Scunthorpe, outnumbering the home support, and witnessed a ferocious encounter. We won 1-0. Scorer, Sir Les Mutrie. Superior players make their own time, even when all around them are howling and haring witlessly. So it was that far-off evening, as Les Mutrie showed canny ball skills, the deftest of touches and stroked the winning goal late on past a hapless Joe Neenan.
For long periods in its relatively-recent history Hull City have been a laughing stock, but there have been two points in time when the football world stopped laughing at us. One was of course when Ash’s curling effort took us out of the bottom tier in 2004, but that goal from Les Mutrie at Scunthorpe was another. That was the night when, after almost ten years of inexorable decline, Tigerfolk (and the football world) really started to believe that a promotion challenge was on.
All told, Les notched up 132 appearances in the amber and black, with an impressive half-century of goals, including a hugely-impressive 27 in the ill-fated 1981/2 season during which he found the net a record nine consecutive times. His haul of eleven the following season represented a valuable contribution to the promotion effort, but it was clear that he was not looked upon with as favourable an eye by Colin Appleton as he had been by Smith, and he found himself in the Tigers’ starting line-up with increasingly less frequency as the 1982/3 and 1983/4 seasons progressed and the likes of Steve Massey and Andy Flounders asserted themselves. Eventually after a loan spell at Doncaster he moved on to Colchester and later back to his native north-east with Hartlepool, leaving behind a treasure trove of vivid and wonderful memories and taking with him the affection and gratitude of the Tiger Nation.
But there was more to Les Mutrie than the mere footballer. Two anecdotes from his time with City illustrate this.
The first is a story recounted by one City diehard of long standing whose car was attacked by a bunch of home thugs while stuck in traffic after a City game at Tranmere, Prenton Park and its environs being a bit of a feisty place in those days. Any delight that the fan in question and his passengers might otherwise have felt at City’s victory that day was heavily overshadowed by the damage to the car and the realisation that they were decidedly lucky to have escaped a serous kicking, and it was a morose troupe of City fans sitting in Darley’s that evening and reflecting on the day’s events when Les Mutrie strode through the door and, eyeing the gloomy faces, enquired as to the reason why. On hearing what had happened Les promptly sat down, kept them company all evening and even paid for their beer.
The second story comes from the very early days of Don Robinson’s chairmanship, when the mercurial City supremo, conscious of how badly City’s stock had fallen with the East Yorkshire public against the background of the dramatic resurgence of both rugby league teams, arranged a series of meetings around the area with the players, one of which took place in a pub in Market Weighton, where one of the co-authors of this piece lived at the time. The players who attended were Steve McClaren and Les, and it was a marvellous evening, with plenty of frank opinions expressed, much fine debate about the Club and no question ducked by the City representatives, and one of the abiding memories of that night was the impression that both of them, and Les in particular, gave as thoughtful, articulate individuals, far removed from the increasingly oft-encountered stereotype of the thick, boorish footballer. What was also very apparent was that both of them genuinely cared about Hull City.
His passing at the relatively young age of 66 after a long battle against illness is deeply sobering, and the world –especially the football world – will be much the poorer without him. His final accolade from the Tiger Nation came a few short weeks ago, when the Hull City Southern Supporters launched their Hall of Fame. Aware of Les’s situation, the HCSS Committee (which, incidentally, includes a smattering of Nectarines) decreed that Les should be the first inductee, and sent him a book containing photos of him in City action accompanied by messages and reminiscences of him from HCSS members who had seen him play. Although his illness prevented him from replying personally, message was received from Les’s family that he was delighted by this gesture. Even in his darkest days his affection for Hull City still shone, and that says as much about the man as anything else. Truly one of us.
So farewell, Les, and thanks. You will be missed, but your place in the hearts and minds of the Tiger Nation is assured.
Ian Thomson and Steve Weatherill
Les Mutrie was born on April 1st 1951 and died on October 3rd 2017. He played 115 league games for Hull City between December 1980 and November 1983, scoring 49 goals.