During the 1982/3 season, as the Robinson renaissance gathered steam and the prospect of City gaining their first promotion in seventeen seasons began to shake off the spectre of yet another pipe-dream, there evolved from under the Kempton roof a popular and rousing little ditty which began with the words, “To the Fourth, to the Fourth”. Admittedly, the song then proceeded with the words, “We’re saying goodbye to the Fourth”, but under the reign of Martin Fish the words “To the Fourth” came back to haunt us, as we dropped two Divisions to end up back where Don Robinson had found us, the sterling work of the Scarborough-based entrepreneur and of managers Appleton and Horton in particular lying in ruins.
Fish spent approximately six and a half years as the Chairman of Hull City. Those six and a half years were among the most eventful in the history of our beloved Club, but mainly for the wrong reasons, as the plummet down the leagues was played depressingly out against a backdrop of footballing and financial crises and increasing dissatisfaction, culminating in little short of open warfare, from the long-suffering fans.
Although most who supported City during those demoralising times would agree that Fish was not exactly the most successful or best-loved chairman in the Club’s history, there were at the time of his tenure of the Chair, and remain even now nearly ten years after his departure, a variety of differing assessments of the grey-haired accountant, ranging from “A man who worked tirelessly and selflessly for the survival of Hull City” and “Without him there would not now be a Hull City” through “A puppet Chairman without real power” and “A guy who did his best but was out of his depth” to the rather more damning “Vindictive and contemptuous towards the supporters”, “A nice guy who turned arrogant” and “A bumbling nincompoop”.
Intriguingly, there is probably some sympathy to be had with most if not all of those characterisations of the ex-City Chairman. That fact, coupled with the complexities of the situation at the Club and the antics of some of the other characters involved with it at the time, whilst in no way denigrating those would-be City historians who have chronicled those turbulent times as part of wider-ranging histories of the Club, probably yields enough material to warrant a book of its own. Sadly, the moment for writing such a tome has now probably passed, and inevitably a piece such as this, whilst it may cause us to reflect on how fortunate we Tigerfans now are in comparison with that torrid period, is only going to scratch the surface of the man and his chairmanship of the mighty Tigers.
But before we move on, a personal observation if I may. From 1983 until 1993, when my job took me away from Yorkshire, I had the privileged duty of serving the drinks and looking after guests in the Ark boardroom on matchdays, getting to know Martin Fish quite well in the process, and I can say without fear of contradiction that throughout that time he never treated me with anything other than the utmost civility; I was positively flattered when he asked me to join the committee that ran the Club’s lottery, and not a little humbled when, after my final appearance behind the Boardroom bar, he made a presentation to me in front, among others, of Messrs Dolan and Lee. Some of what follows is not complimentary of Martin Fish but, given the above words, whilst it would be melodramatic to say that I have not found this easy, it has certainly been penned with a heavy heart.
In the Beginning
From almost the first days of Don Robinson’s stewardship of Hull City Martin Fish was a familiar presence in the Boothferry Boardroom, not initially as a Director but usually as the guest of Vice-Chairman Clifford Waite, an uncompromising if not unlikeable figure who ran the admin side of the Tigers with authority and rigour. I had the impression, never confirmed, that Waite and Fish were personal friends, but, judging by the conversations that took place and the bits of paper sometimes handed out to Directors in the privacy of the boardroom, Fish clearly had some sort of professional role to fulfil as well.
Eventually, Fish was asked by Don Robinson to join the Board, which he duly did in 1987. Somewhat unfortunately for him but, to give him the benefit of the doubt, possibly also unbeknown to him, this was not the most propitious time to be taking on such a role. The promise of the Appleton/Horton era had levelled off somewhat and further investment was required in order to take the Club forward. Robinson had plans in place for that, but typically, the Needler family, who actually called the shots through their shareholdings, were unimpressed, and a frustrated Robinson quit as Chairman, but not before the normally sure-footed ex-grappler had made the biggest mistake of his tenure by rashly sacking Brian Horton. There followed stagnation under Gray, the comical (though it wasn’t at the time) Appleton reprise, the near-criminal profligacy of Ternent (albeit aided and abetted by the ill-judged but well-meant largesse of new Chairman Richard Chetham) and the inevitable slide down the table, with the coffers now as empty as the Labour Party Treasury and the Club in deep hock to the Bank.
Ternent was duly handed his P45 by Chetham, whose notoriously fragile health then let him down again, leaving him unable to continue to shoulder the pressures of being Chairman. There were not, in truth, many obvious successors to him among the other directors, and when Fish was proposed by Chetham for the hot seat this was readily accepted by the Board. Call it brave or stupid, but as a Director and the Club’s financial man Fish, in taking on this responsibility, must have been aware that the Club was sitting on a time-bomb.
An Unlikely Honeymoon
Of course, what a lot of Tigerwatchers often forget is that for the first few years of the Fish regime there was considerable goodwill towards the City chairman and management team of Dolan and Lee. Much of the so-called sporting public of Hull were sceptical, but the faithful few thousand that still made the pilgrimage to Boothferry, as the song goes, cannot be accused of not getting behind the powers that be as well as the team itself.
And in the early days this support was without doubt reciprocated. After the wall collapse at the Runcorn cup-tie in 1993, which saw a number of City fans hurt and led to the abandonment of the game, not only was Fish straight onto the pitch to render assistance and to seek to calm things down as tempers among the City support ran high, but in the aftermath he stoutly and publicly defended the City fans against the accusations of the Cheshire club that the incident was the result of hooligan behaviour on the part of the Tiger Nation. Similarly, on the occasion of the annual meeting with the Southern Supporters, usually held before an away game in London, not only did he and Dolan insist every year on the entire squad putting in an appearance for a good hour at the start of the meeting (something which, as far as I am aware, none of their successors has ever done) but the two of them and Lee would after the players had departed to bed talk with apparently total candour about matters City for as long as there was an audience there to listen to them, no matter how probing (or crass) the questions.
Just how much support there was for Fish at this stage was demonstrated when City played Bristol Rovers at Bath in February 1994. As the large Southern Supporters contingent marched along the platform at Paddington in search of its reserved seats on the Bath train Fish was spotted in one of the carriages, and the loud cheer that went up was acknowledged with a friendly wave. Then, after the game, which finished 1-1, there was an even bigger crowd of boozily contented City fans, many of whom had enjoyed a swift top-up on the way back from Twerton Park, waiting for the train back to London just after 6 o’clock, when Fish appeared on the platform, whereupon the City throng promptly broke into rowdy choruses of “There’s only one Martin Fish” and “Martin, Martin, give us a wave!” before the train arrived and a clearly-embarrassed City chairman self-consciously acknowledged the songsters before slipping away to his seat.
Let us not forget also that Martin Fish was behind the famous “Tiger Stripe” shirts which, love them or hate them (personally, I think the original Bonus/Pepis version was the best City shirt ever), not only were hugely innovative but created a real talking point among the football world generally, raising the Club’s profile in a manner not seen for many a long and undistinguished season.
Of course, a key reason why the fans were so supportive was that, after a shaky start to the regime which saw us flirt quite alarmingly with further relegation in 91/2 and 92/3, the team, which most pundits perennially wrote off as relegation fodder, then punched well above its weight for a couple of seasons, and in both 93/4 and 94/5 were only a couple of results away from an unlikely appearance in the play-offs, and during those two years in particular turned in some stirring performances, the most notable being the 7-1 paggering of Crewe, themselves no mugs at the time.
Why the turnaround? Well, undoubtedly team spirit was high; although the players were for the most part of limited ability, they were prepared to graft and work hard for each other. A particularly significant factor though was the form of a certain local-born brickie, who, in an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement from Hednesford’s finest, was rejected as a youngster by Brian Horton but took the second chance offered him by Dolan well and truly by the short and curlies. Indeed, there were spells when, even during the relative euphoria of the two good League seasons, you felt that Deano was carrying the side almost single-handedly.
Storm Clouds on the Horizon
But all good things come to an end. With attendances failing overall to reach the break-even figure of 6 000, disappointing given the improved performances on the field, and the taxman becoming increasingly threatening, the Club had to sell to survive. With the possible exception of Alan Fettis, by now enjoying cult-hero status because of his goalscoring as opposed to goal-saving exploits, there was only one individual on the playing staff whose sale could raise the money to keep the vultures out. But when Deano finally went, it wasn’t his destination of Aberdeen, surprising though that was in many ways, that raised the eyebrows, but the fact that the transfer fee garnered was a relatively paltry £600,000.
For many City supporters, this was the first real chink in the “we’re all in this together” mentality that Fish had hitherto successfully nurtured. And, as is so often the case, the fans who had shown commendable patience and support towards the impoverished regime quickly began, in the light of what seemed to be a desperately disappointing piece of business, to cast an altogether more critical, or perhaps that should be objective, eye over the affairs of the Club and those in charge of it both on and off the field. Very rapidly, grievances emerged and discord spread like the plague, and by the turn of the 95/6 season the key ones, as far as Martin Fish, Terry Dolan and Jeff Lee were concerned, were these:
1. Not only was Deano sold too cheaply in what came to be seen as a panic measure when Fish, knowing that other clubs were keen to sign him, could have held out for a lot more, but none of the money raised was made available for team strengthening;
2. Because of Deano’s departure, performances on the field had plunged to truly unspeakable depths, to the point that relegation was a nailed-on certainty by Christmas and the team would go on to win a mere five games all season;
3. Although the money side and the consequent lack of quality players didn’t help matters, Dolan’s seemingly sole tactic of hitting the ball long and high was not helping to get results and was grisly to watch, to say the least;
4. Reports started to emerge that training sessions at City consisted of little or nothing in the way of ball work or moves, with the emphasis very much on running instead. Now, the world in which the good burghers of Hull, especially those with an interest in professional football of either code, move is riddled with ill-founded rumour at the best of times, but a newspaper story from north of the border containing a quote from Deano that he had “learned more in two weeks at Aberdeen than I did in two years at Hull”, ensured that this particular tale had the definite whiff of verisimilitude about it.
5. The Needler family, and in particular the florid-complexioned Christopher, son of Harold, were unwilling to make even the modest (by the standards of their family’s wealth) investment needed to secure the Club’s immediate future, a state of affairs rendered even more galling by the fact that the making available of a small amount for team strengthening during 93/4 or 94/5 would in all probability, if spent wisely, have seen City make the play-offs and maybe even secure an unlikely promotion. Most City fans accepted that the Needlers had been generous with the Club over the years, albeit less so since the death of the patriarch Harold, and acknowledged that Christopher had little passion for the Club, but what was impossible to stomach was the other side of the double-whammy, namely that Christopher, for reasons best known to himself, was no more willing to see the Club leave his family’s control than he was to invest in it, leaving the Club in an impossible situation from which there was no apparent means of escape. Whilst this maybe wasn’t the direct fault of Fish, his willingness to act as Chairman and be the front man allowed Needler, in the view of many, to perpetuate this arrogant contempt towards the Club and its supporters, which inevitably meant that he came under increasing criticism for this as the other grievances started to mount up.
6. Although there was no money available for desperately-needed team strengthening, it did seem that there was enough in the coffers to line the pockets of Dolan and Lee by means of giving them a cut of transfer fees raised by the sale of players. It was never openly admitted in the media, as far as I am aware, that this was going on, but, significantly, it was never denied either. If (and I stress if) it was true that this was going on, this was a monumental error of judgement on the part of Fish, because the potential for conflict of interest and even corruption arising out of such an arrangement was immense. On the other hand, if it was not true why did Fish, who must have known that he was openly being accused of this on the terraces and in the pubs of Hull, not come out and deny it and thereby quell the flames of discontent over it? An equally poor error of judgement.
7. Fish became increasingly high-handed in his treatment of individuals connected with or interested in the Club. His handling of the redundancy of secretary Tom Wilson, who had served the Club loyally for over 25 years, was cack-handed in the extreme, and he summarily banned respected local journalist David Bond, formerly (in the days when it was worth reading) the City writer in the Hull Daily Mail, for allegedly being critical in an article of the manner in which the Club was being run.
8. The youth policy had simply been abandoned, with the result that very few youngsters of the right calibre were coming through the system and challenging for a place in the team, while clubs from outside the area were able simply to help themselves to the genuinely promising local youngsters such as goalkeeper Paul Robinson. Many fans argued at the time that if there genuinely was no money to purchase decent players then the need to have a system in place to unearth and snap up the best of the local talent, even if only to sell them on and raise funds that way, became even more acute, and since it would not have involved great expense to do so, simply to do nothing was a stupidly false economy.
9. The Wayne Jacobs saga left a bad taste in the mouths of many City fans. Jacobs had been a popular left-back, making almost 150 appearances for City in various competitions, but when he suffered a bad knee injury in 1993 Fish summarily terminated his playing contract on the grounds that he was unlikely to regain match fitness. Needless to say, Wayne duly recovered fully, and went on to enjoy a distinguished career, moving from City to Rotherham before going on to make over 300 appearances for Bradford City, including a couple of campaigns in the Premiership. Fish may well argue that he was acting on the best medical evidence available to him, but even if made in good faith it proved to be another error of judgement, and worse still was perceived by large swathes of the Tiger Nation as being far too hasty, and an extremely shabby way to treat an honest player and loyal servant of the Club.
10. Last but not least, the sale of the “Hull City” nameplate which had been mounted above the players’ tunnel at the Ark. This, as most City fans will be aware, was an original nameplate from a railway locomotive named after the Club (one of a series named after football teams), and was an item of great sentimental (indeed some would say iconic) significance to the Tiger Nation. At some time during the season, the story emerged that Fish had sold the nameplate on the quiet to a Lincolnshire-based collector to raise money, and replaced it with a cheap plastic replica. To many fans, this little piece of business was akin to selling your late mother’s jewellery, the grubbiness of it all accentuated by the clandestine way in which it had been done and the fact that, as far as we know, no attempt was made to find a buyer who might have lent it back to the Club and allowed it to remain in situ.
Bad news comes in threes
And so the 95/6 season staggered on to its inevitable conclusion. City were relegated as expected with five games to go, eventually to finish bottom and an embarrassing 21 points adrift of safety (although we only lost 11 home games!). Open discontent was now brewing among the fans, not only with Fish, Dolan and Lee but with the general attitude of helplessness that now permeated the Club and the absence of any way out of the situation short of a sale of the Club lock, stock and barrel to a buyer who would provide the investment required to restore the Club’s fortunes, for no investor would come within a mile of the Ark while the dead hand of Needler remained in place. Against this background, three announcements were made which in the circumstances were so outrageous that any one of them would have caused the patience of the fans finally to snap, and the effect of the three being made on the same day rendered the reaction of the fans little short of cataclysmic.
If my memory serves, then announcements were made either on or on the day prior to a midweek away game at Walsall, eleven days before the final match of the season, and it was evident from the conversations of the fans in the Walsall social club before the game and inside the ground as another woeful performance from City – already relegated a couple of games earlier – saw us go down 3-0 that the final straw had been laid across the camel’s back.
Firstly, Fish had said in the press that he would be making an announcement that would “surprise and please every Hull City Supporter”. From the manner in which it was hyped up, everyone assumed that we were going to be told that there were to be changes in the ownership of the Club in favour of somebody who could take us forward, the name most bandied about at the time being Don Robinson. At last, this hand-to-mouth existence would be at an end and no longer would we be a laughing stock. Of course, the announcement was in the event about nothing of the kind, and instead fans listened, mouths agape with dismay, as this massive announcement turned out to be nothing more than yet another in the succession of plans to redevelop the East Stand, this time into a all-seater holding 5,500 (i.e. nearly twice the gates we were getting at the time)…..if somebody would pay for it. The spin put about that grant assistance would be available virtually on demand from the Football Trust, a fund set up to finance ground improvements after Bradford and Hillsborough was at the least questionable, for seemingly by the time Fish put forward his plans for the stand the vultures had trousered the lot. That Fish could come out with this sort of inconsequential nonsense at a time when the Club was on its knees both on and off the field, and the only announcement that would genuinely please the fans would be a change of ownership in favour of someone willing to put his hand in his pocket, demonstrated just how poorly he understood, or how little he cared about (or maybe a mixture of both), the real anxieties and concerns of the supporters.
But it gets better. In an apparent attempt to bury bad news of such staggering ineptitude that it would have done justice to the New Labour spin doctors who were starting to come to the fore at about that time, Fish then added a little postscript to that little earth-shattering pronouncement, by stating that he intended to offer a three-year contract extension to the by-now deeply unpopular Dolan and Lee, who had presided over a slump from Divisions 2 to 4 (Championship to League Two, kids) and along the way had managed to perfect a style of playing the labelling of which as “football” was most decidedly not in the spirit of the Trade Descriptions Act. Not only that, but no doubt they would continue to receive their cut of any transfer fees (if that’s what they were receiving, he says with due regard to the laws of defamation), the only consolation surrounding which was that there now weren’t many players left who could command any decent sort of fee.
Fish later sought to explain this by saying that he enjoyed a good relationship with the dastardly duo (which he evidently deemed to be more important than actually trying to engage someone who might improve the Club’s desperate performances and League status), and also that the Club couldn’t afford to pay the compensation that would be required if a new management team were appointed. What he didn’t explain was why the payment of compensation should be inevitable; if Dolan and Lee were at the end of their current contract terms they wouldn’t have been entitled to any compensation (unless something to the contrary had been written into their contracts), and he was only going to have to pay compensation to another club if the manager he wished to hire was still under contract. So, we were stuck with Dolan and Lee for another three years, or so it seemed at the time.
Even the most sanguine of City fans were reaching for their heart pills by this time, forgetting that bad news comes in threes and that there was more to come. And it was the third of these little gems, delivered the following week, that will give Fish his permanent place in the history of Hull City, never to be forgotten or forgiven, regardless of how successful our beloved Club may become in the future.
This, of course, was the decision to house Bradford City fans in the South Stand for the final game of the season.
During the intervening years since that unspeakable day, Fish has worked hard at trying to convince supporters that the decision was not his choice and that therefore he was not to blame. More specifically, on the “End of an Era” video, and in David Goodman’s book, Fish tells the same story, namely that Bryan Calam, the police officer in charge of policing at Boothferry (and later to become one of David Lloyd’s henchmen, earning the sobriquet “Captain Calamity” in recognition of his perceived incompetence in that role), effectively blackmailed Fish into going through with what he (Fish) knew was going to be a deeply unpopular decision by warning, a few days before the game, that Fish would be held responsible for any disorder that ensued as a result of insufficient provision being made for the anticipated large following from Bradford, who needed to win the game in order to secure a play-off place.
The phrase used by Fish on the video when recounting this tale is “I had a gun put to my head”. From the way he described it, that seems pretty much the truth. However, evidence exists that Fish was perhaps not telling the full story. By the time this game came round, I had ceased to work for the Club and, whilst I did not see or hear first-hand what I am about to describe, I was told it by individuals at the Club whom I knew from my time there, who were still there at the time of the Bradford game, and whom I have no reason to believe would fabricate such a story, the more so because the persons concerned remained, pretty much throughout the whole of the turbulent latter couple of years of Fish’s tenure as chairman, loyal to him.
What I was told at the time is that Fish was under pressure from Club staff for some time before the Bradford game to make it all ticket, but, in keeping with the “I know best” attitude that seemed to have become one of his hallmarks by this time, refused point blank to entertain the idea until it was too late and the police had put pressure on him to consign City fans to the away end, it being too late by the time this decision was finally made to make the game all-ticket. If you watch or read Fish’s account of things, without ever coming out with it expressly he gives the very clear impression that this game suddenly became a vital one for Bradford unexpectedly and in the final few days before the game, and it was that that precipitated the decision to put Bradford in the South Stand.
This is a falsehood. Not assertion, fact. The Bantams were on a storming run of form at the time, having won several games on the bounce, and it was widely considered to be a distinct possibility, even a good couple of weeks before it would have been necessary to reach any decision to make the game all-ticket, that this game would potentially have massive significance for them. Indeed, that very subject, and the evident need to make at least contingency plans for the game to be all-ticket, was a constant subject of conversation among City fans at this time, and it is, surely, virtually inconceivable that similar conversations were not taking place in the boardroom and in the offices at the Ark. Perhaps the next time Fish is interviewed about Bradford someone might challenge him on this. In short, it was obvious long before it took place that this game was potentially going to attract a huge Bradford following (5,200 in the event, in a crowd of just under 9,000), if Fish wasn’t aware of this he bloody well ought to have been, and any protestations by him that what happened was unforeseeable simply do not wash. He must take full responsibility, and even after all this time should be made to take it.
The Blackest Day in the Club’s History
The Fish era – or at least the last couple of years of it – was a time of bewilderment and genuine grief for anyone with any feeling for Hull City, but it is without doubt that 4th May 1995 – the date of the Bradford game – marked its nadir, and not only of that era but of the very history of the Club. The trilogy of announcements in the days before the game was the final act of provocation, and the beleaguered fans were now resolved to organise themselves to strike back. This was war, and would prove to be a fight to the death from which the City supporters would emerge victorious.
Within the few short days between the announcement about the Bradford game and the game itself, amber and black “Fish Out” posters appeared in their dozens all around Hull and its environs. Driving up to Hull for the game from my Nottingham home was an experience, not only because of the posters which started to come into view from Melton onwards, but also for the array of home-made material demanding the removal of Fish which adorned vehicles heading up the M1, and items of home-made anti-Fish apparel that some of the occupants of those vehicles were sporting.
The mood in the Tuns was rebellious, with the landlord struggling in vain to quieten the increasingly vehement chants of “Fish Out”, and many fans openly expressing the view that the game would not finish. And in fact, had not a section of the City support, from where they were penned in on the North Terrace and North-East corner, made a hash, in sadly typical Hull fashion, of their attempted pitch invasion by going onto the pitch before the kick-off before all the City fans were in the ground, that prediction might well have come to pass. If the mood had been allowed to simmer until about five or ten minutes after the kick-off, a sudden incursion at that point of possibly a couple of thousand fans would simply have been impossible for the police to prevent or clear, and the game would have had to be abandoned. As it was, order was restored, although there were, despite a shoulder-to-shoulder line of police in front of the City support and horses on the touchline, other incursions onto the pitch during the game, which Bradford won 3-2, thereby securing a place in the play-offs and setting them on track for an amazing storm through Division 1 and into the Premiership, albeit that the chickens of chairman Richmond’s financial recklessness which bankrolled this run would come home to roost quite hilariously in the end.
Upon entering the ground, it was clear that the long-suffering City fans had declared war on the Club, although as if the events of the couple of weeks preceding the game had not been enough to antagonise the most placid and forgiving of City supporters, there was yet another clear illustration of Fish’s unawareness of, or disregard for, whichever it was, the growing antipathy of the supporters towards the presiding regime to come, for as City fans entered the uncharted territory of the North Terrace, they were each handed a pamphlet written by Fish, the principal subject matter of which was this new East Stand which was going to make us all spending the rest of our days blessing the fates that first propelled Fish into the hallowed portals of Boothferry Park but which there was no money to build, and talking about his wider plans for the future of the Club. Quite what the Club thought would be achieved by this it is difficult to conceive, but if it was intended to placate the supporters it had precisely the reverse effect, as the covering of the ground around the turnstiles by many hundreds of these pamphlets, summarily discarded by incredulous Tiger fans, bore witness.
Once onto the terraces, it quickly became apparent that the hostilities which had now been commenced were to be directed not only at the Board but at the management team as well, with the maiden airing of the “Fuck Off Terry D” song, which vied with “Fish Out” for popularity throughout the afternoon and was to become one of a series of songs, including “Meet the Skinflints”, “Martin Fish the Accountant”, and, best and most memorably of all, “Common Dolan”, which would be sung repeatedly at City games for the next twelve months and thereafter, in the case of the anti-Dolan ones, on those occasions when the paths of City and Dolan should happen to cross.
Despite City taking the lead twice through Gav Gordon and Duane Darby, Bradford were too strong for us, and once they had edged in front early in the second half the game frankly died and the City supporters were able to deploy their energy instead in keeping up the tidal wave of vitriol flowing towards Dolan, Lee and Fish. Incidentally, the latter’s shock of whitish-grey hair was clearly visible from his seat in the Directors’ Box throughout the game, so it’s nice to know that not all City fans were turfed out of their usual vantage point.
It would be a full ten years before City supporters ever got to gloat over Bradford in the manner in which their fans did over City that dreadful afternoon. During the game the police were able to keep the City fans under control, but after the game the pressure-cooker which had in truth been simmering for several days now exploded violently onto the street around the Ark after the game, resulting in probably the worst scenes ever witnessed in the history of the Club, as the more aggressive elements of the City support, denied a chance to vent their collective spleen on the real architects of our despair and typically swollen in number by those anticipating an opportunity for what is referred to in those semi-fictional books on football hooligans as an “off” , attacked viciously and relentlessly the Bradford support on North Road and Boothferry Road, with the police unable to cope to the point where you really had to wonder if things could really have been worse for the constabulary if the Bradford fans had simply been directed to the away turnstiles as per normal and the “Ground Full” signs erected once the capacity had been reached. So serious was the disorder which took place that it actually made the national news bulletins that evening.
Truly the worst day in the history of the Club. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to articulate the despair felt by the law-abiding element of the City support as we trudged away from Boothferry amidst the mayhem breaking out at every twist and turn, reflecting on the abject hopelessness of our position.
Fish Out! Dolan Out!
But for once, the City fans were not about to simply shrug their shoulders. Change was demanded, and change the fans were going to have. A protest group called Tigers 2000 and formed, in contrast to the Hull City Action Group some fifteen years earlier, of mature and rational supporters of long standing, had come into existence at the end of the 95/6 season. This group had been behind the “Fish Out” posters, which were soon followed by T-shirts, stickers and other paraphernalia, and this heralded a full-blown summer of discontent, marked by fish heads being mailed to clubs whom City would be visiting the following season, the posting of maggots and excrement though the Boothferry letter box, the painting of “Fish Out” on the pitch and, most famously of all, an open-top bus trip from the city centre to the Fish residence, where the City chairman was harangued by a megaphone-wielding Tigers 2000 spokeswoman Angie Rowe (although it should be emphasised that only the last of these was ever proved to have been the doing of Tigers 2000).
Come the start of the new season there were no changes of key non-playing personnel, but the fans were not cowed by this, and the first game of the season, at home to Darlington, was marked, despite a thrilling City victory, by a constant barrage of chanting and singing against the regime. This set the pattern for the rest of the season, on the road as well as at the Ark, and at home games was often supplemented by placard-waving and post-match demonstrations, despite a solid start to the season – which admittedly eventually fizzled out – on the playing side.
And so it went on. The fans called a truce for the FA Cup game away to Whitby at Scarborough, but it only lasted 25 minutes, the big City support exploding in fury at the substitution of Duane Darby. But Fish and Dolan were not taking this lying down; although increasingly backed into a corner, or perhaps because of that, they responded with increasing defiance, being bitterly critical of what they perceived as a lack of support from supporters who had by and large shown tremendous loyalty towards a Club showing little prospect of arresting the terminal decline in which it had been trapped for probably seven or eight years now. On one occasion it was reported that the fans had been described as “scum”, to which the swift response from the terraces at the next game was “We’re the scum that pays your wages” to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”. Another phenomenon that reared its head about this time was that the pubs selected by the Southern Supporters for their pre-match rendezvous at away games were often mysteriously found to be closed when the fans arrived. In the 20-odd year history of the Southern Supporters this had never happened before, and has never happened since, and whilst there’s no evidence that anyone at the Club was behind this, it is known that Fish had some uncomplimentary things to say about the behaviour of the Southern Supporters at about this time, especially after the Torquay away game (see below), and refused to set up a “Meet the Players” evening as he had done in previous years.
The antagonism of the supporters was exacerbated by the apparent reluctance of Christopher Needler to sell his interest in the Club despite showing so sign of wishing to provide further funds, even when Don Robinson tabled a bid for control of the Club. But, not for the first time, Robinson found his ambitions for the Club thwarted by Needler for no other apparent reason than that he did not wish his family to lose control of the Club. Needler rejected the offer, and put forward a bizarre counter-proposal for the sale of the Ark and the construction of a 6,000 capacity, two-standed stadium (yes, you did read that correctly), at Priory Sidings, which were being cleared for development at about that time and in which Needler held some form of property interest. Not surprisingly, this cut no ice at all with the Tiger Nation, and within a short time Needler quit the board, which, incidentally, left Fish as the sole director as well as the Company Secretary, an arrangement forbidden by the Companies Act 1985 although little seems to have been made of this.
The Beginning of the End
The situation had now deteriorated beyond redemption, not least because further winding-up orders were being threatened by the Inland Revenue, and Fish could not, surely, keep arguing his way out of the liquidation of the Club.
But just at this very point in time, when there seemed no other option, there was a change in the entrenched position of those running the Club, and the stand-off with the supporters was showing signs of faltering. The vituperation of the fans probably reached its zenith at about the time of the away game at Torquay on 22nd February 1997 when the large plastic “Fish and Dolan Out” banner appeared, and the Tiger Nation arrived in town, a large proportion on the night before the game (it was remarkable how many familiar faces were to be seen on and around the seafront on the Saturday morning), armed with rolls of “Sack Dolan” stickers, many of which ended up plastered around Plainmoor and the pubs of the West Country resort (one of the stickers actually survived on a pub ceiling until a couple of years ago). The Southern Supporters, having decided that it was time to break its own silence, gathered in a pub (whose landlord incidentally was ex-Chesterfield keeper John Turner, brother of Robbie, whom we all criticised, eloquently and with genuine feeling, before mine host revealed the family connection) to meet the then City reporter at the Hull Daily Mail, Danny Fullbrook, who wrote a commendably sympathetic piece in the following Saturday’s Sports Mail. Inside the ground, a City following of maybe 500 gathered immediately behind the City dug-out and harangued Dolan and Lee vociferously throughout the game, culminating in one City supporter actually mounting the dug out and planting a “Sack Dolan” sticker on the City boss’s bald pate, an event made all the more hilarious by the fact that he didn’t detect it for some minutes, to the unbridled glee of City and Torquay fans alike.
Whilst it is unlikely that this day gave rise of itself to the eventual demise of the Fish era, it does seem to have marked the climax of the campaign of the City supporters against the regime. Suddenly Needler and Fish, who had walked, silently and stony-faced, through a group of protesting City supporters after the Torquay game (which ended 1-1, by the way), seemed to be interested in selling……if the Club could be kept alive long enough.
As the season drew to a close, rumours of a potential takeover led by businessman Michael Cambridge gathered momentum. Fish was able to use this to avert another winding-up order. Although no names were mentioned publicly, it was clear that there was genuine interest from someone in buying City, and a deal seemed to be on the cards. Against the background of an imminent takeover, the hasty sale of Roy Carroll – probably the Club’s most valuable playing asset – to Wigan for a knock-down £350,000 seemed inexplicable. Many fans saw this as yet another error of judgement from Fish, some saw it as a means of creating one last bonanza for Dolan and Lee from the “commission” scheme from the sale of players allegedly in place, while others put it down to a final twist of the knife in the back of the long-suffering support from an embittered and vindictive chairman.
Nevertheless, it seemed, as City took the field minus Carroll at Division 4 champions-elect Fulham for the penultimate game of the season (which day saw the identity of the Southern Supporters’ pre-match pub carefully kept secret, with the result that it was 1.00 before the Met found us and, having quickly decided that they were faced with nothing more than a crowd of mature, well-behaved individuals enjoying a beer in civilised fashion before the game, promptly moved on), that the supporters had won the day and that the Club’s liberation from this hated and vilified regime was imminent. Inside Craven Cottage, Dolan was duly harangued from the corner of the away end next to the players’ tunnel and Needler and Fish were given their customary treatment, but despite a 0-2 defeat the mood was jubilant, one of the more popular chants that day being “Bye-bye, Bye-bye Tel”, a parody of the “Super, Super Tel” chant of happier times.
Of course, this being City, that takeover duly fell through, and the final game of the season, a 0-2 defeat at home to Scarborough, was played out at a subdued Ark amidst the depressing sights of Dolan’s smug smirk still emanating from the City dug-out and Fish’s shock of whitish-grey hair still frustratingly visible in the front row of the Directors’ Box.
But, unbeknown to City fans at the time, this was to be the last occasion that Fish attended a City game in his capacity as Chairman, for in July 1997, the takeover of the Club by David Lloyd was finally completed. Although in the event this was only to herald a further four years of turmoil, none of us knew this at the time. Significantly though, the fingers of the Needlers had finally been prised from around the windpipe of Hull City, arguably the only event that could ever allow the Club to progress, and, even though we had to endure the antics of Lloyd and the dark dealings of the Buchliffe regime before Adam Pearson set about successfully restoring the fortunes of the Tigers, it would have been impossible for us to be where we are today without the bogeyman presence of Christopher Needler, and his trusty lieutenant Martin Fish, having been banished from our midst.
If the definitive history of Hull City is ever written, there will be few characters meriting as much attention as Martin Fish.
Fish left Boothferry Park amidst bitter recriminations, and time has not proved to be a great healer. He has little contact with the Club these days; his few attempts to attend City games since July 1997 have resulted in his being on the receiving end of abuse every bit as venomous as when he chaired the Club, and it is said that to this day he is fearful of venturing into the City centre for the same reason.
But what conclusions would that history book draw about why a man ostensibly trying to run a football club to the best of his ability and keep it afloat should be the victim of such vituperation, not only at time but ten years on?
Things have been said about Fish that are completely unfair. First and foremost, there is no evidence that he ever personally profited from his position. Much was made in particular of the fact that he was receiving payments from the Club; now, whether this is true or not I have no idea, still less am I (or for that matter, I suspect, anyone making these accusations) seized of the particulars of any such arrangement. But if Fish was advising the Club in his professional capacity, why should be not have been paid at his usual rates for such work, especially as he works as an accountant with his own practice, which must, one imagines, have suffered badly from the amount of time and attention he was devoting to Hull City? On the contrary, he actually dipped into his own pocket, going into overdraft in the process, to pay the wages on one occasion (and, by the way, it is nothing short of an obscenity that the Needler family, handsomely wealthy by any standards, stood by and let him do this). Furthermore, even his critics cannot fairly deny the effort that he put into running the Club or the strain that this must have placed on his personal and family life as well as professionally.
Equally, however, many reasonable criticisms can be levelled at him: he could give the impression of being a real Mr Pastry (ask your dad, anyone under 45) figure at times (one of my favourite Fish recollections is the time he told me one Boxing Day that he had inadvertently delayed his family’s Christmas dinner by several hours by incorrectly setting the timer on the oven the day before), he not only distanced himself from the supporters towards the end of his reign but became increasingly high-handed and sometimes economical with the truth towards them, he demonstrated appalling errors of judgement (such as the contract extensions for Dolan and Lee and the “Big Announcement” of which that was part) and generally refused to take any responsibility for individual crises (notably the Bradford debacle) and the Club’s plight generally. Above all, it is strongly arguable that he lacked the abilities generally, in terms of experience, authority (which the Needlers still ultimately held) and football-savvyness to be an effective chairman on a long term basis, especially as he held no controlling financial interest.
If Fish’s shortcomings as Chairman of Hull Ciy AFC were ever put to him, it is probable that he would argue that he was left well and truly holding the baby and that, had he not taken the reins following Chetham’s departure the Club would have gone to rack and ruin. But is that really likely to have happened? Despite the perpetual struggle to pay its way, the Club owned the freehold of Boothferry Park, a prime piece of real estate, and consequently the Club’s assets comfortably exceeded its ongoing liabilities, (indeed, this was one of the key legal arguments successfully used at the several winding-up hearings). Therefore, the Club undoubtedly had a substantial sale value and it is inconceivable that Needler, as major shareholder and a knowledgeable businessman, would have jeopardised his ability to realise his stake in the net assets of the Club by risking the Club going into liquidation; had Fish turned down the role of Chairman, Needler would in all probability simply have had no choice but to sell up, in all likelihood to his nemesis Don Robinson.
The real culprit of the demise of Hull City during the 1990s is undoubtedly Christopher Needler, although it is a vain hope that he will ever be brought to account for what he has done. However, by allowing himself to be used in the way he was, despite what he must surely have realised was his overall lack of suitability for the job, Martin Fish allowed the criminal neglect of Hull City to be perpetuated, and its eventual resurgence delayed, for several years longer than was necessary. An honest man, on the whole yes, a conscientious man, undoubtedly, a man with the interests of Hull City at heart, for sure. But ultimately, by involving himself in the way he did, as a pawn in the wider game apparently being played by Needler, he effectively became the problem, and this was exacerbated by the individual errors of judgement and high-handedness which crept in as he found himself isolated and floundering to an increasing extent.
And that, in the end in the end, is why Martin Fish must go down as a villain in the annals of Hull City AFC.
In 2002, Martyn Hainstock interviewed Martin Fish, during which the former chairman provides his own take on many of the events discussed – click here for his interview