The Soul of Hull City #4: Mike Smith

Dramatis Personae


It was seen as something of a coup for City when Wales manager Mike Smith was appointed as the club’s new boss as the 1980s got underway, though it was tempered by the knowledge that he had never played with, nor managed daily, any professional footballers. An amateur player by choice and ex-teacher, he had overseen the Welsh into the quasi-quarter finals of the European Championships of 1976 and within a game and a dodgy penalty at Anfield of the World Cup two years later, but taking on City was new territory for everyone involved.

Smith was more teacher than coach, more athlete than footballer. Tales of his training programmes remain legendary, with the squad barely touching a football due to Smith’s insistence that they ran and ran and ran all the time – round the pitch, through Boothferry Estate, in the gym. His Friday night sessions became notorious as they rendered the players knackered before important games while also struggling to understand what he required of them when a ball was at their feet.

Nevertheless, the fitness of the players did improve and the remainder of 1979/80 saw a run of form that allowed City to avoid a first ever relegation to the Fourth Division, courtesy of a win over Southend on the same day that two other Hull teams were eggballing around Wembley. Smith’s long knives came out over the spring and close season, however, with a stack of seasoned and established professionals released or sold – his decisions to let Roger deVries and Stuart Croft leave especially saddened the fans – while those that survived were evidently hacked off and his signings distinctly out of sorts.

There was an exception, a glorious one, in the shape of goalkeeper Tony Norman, who pretty much single-handedly rescues Smith’s legacy by being unbeatable and unmatchable for eight terrific years with the club after joining from Burnley. He also took credit for getting youngsters from a gifted youth side into the first team picture, with Brian Marwood, Steve McClaren, Gary Swann and Garreth Roberts all becoming regulars, the latter even becoming skipper at the age of 21.

He also wasn’t afraid to give 16 year old striker Andy Flounders regular football. He needed to do something with the strikers, after all. Keith Edwards was scoring regularly but hated the new regime, chucking his shirt at Smith after being substituted during a goalless game against Brentford at a time when City were so woeful and so short of ideas that the demotion to the bottom division they had been so relieved to avoid the year before was now inevitable. Smith signed two non-league forwards in Billy Whitehurst and Les Mutrie, both of whom had to be an improvement on the plodding Welsh international Nick Deacy, brought in by Smith early on after a nonentity career in Holland.

City went down with games and weeks to spare, and Edwards was sold early the next season. Whitehurst became a regular up front but couldn’t score (or head, trap, run…), but Mutrie, at 29 one of the oldest Football League debutants of all time, settled in well and scored quite freely alongside him. Smith’s side were just a middling, inconsistent, uninteresting team when the club was thrown into the national spotlight suddenly in February 1982 thanks to Christopher Needler revealing he had been advised to stop putting funds in.

Receivership documents were drawn up and Smith, along with one of his assistants, was sacked to save cash. Most of his players remained – though Deacy was one quick to jump ship – and when Don Robinson and Colin Appleton came in, they made a team that could score, win, defend and get promoted from the squad Smith left behind. The youngsters from the ranks became legends, as did Whitehurst, Mutrie and the immense Norman.

Smith managed Egypt for a bit, winning the African Cup of Nations, and had a second spell with Wales in the 90s, but City is the only club he ever managed. It was a strange time, unique in terms of the way the team was plummeting and the financial struggles that would somehow salvage him from a worse ultimate fate, yet despite the bigger picture surrounding the club, and the handful of decent, if misused or mistreated, players he left behind, there isn’t a great deal of lingering affection for a manager whom, at the time, the fans didn’t get chance to really dislike.


The Soul of Hull City #3: Ian McKechnie feted with fruit

Fan Culture


Jovial Scottish custodian Ian McKechnie was a mainstay between the sticks for City over eight seasons in the 60s and 70s, but despite all his agility and bravery – team-mates said he was brave almost beyond the call of duty – it’s the pre-match routine between him and City fans which was dominant in securing his place in City folklore.

Numerous stories have been related, but McKechnie’s own version has to be taken as the definitive: one Thursday afternoon after he’d left Boothferry Park following treatment, he walked along North Road and then Anlaby Road and noticed a Jaffa orange in a shop – a wet fish shop, oddly – and decided to buy it to scoff during his walk.

Two young lads then shouted their good wishes for the coming away game to him, and McKechnie, still chomping on his snack, responded with thanks. Two weeks later, at the next home game, two oranges landed on the pitch near McKechnie’s goal, almost certainly from the same two lads.

McKechnie, who happily sucked on the oranges during the game, related afterwards to the Hull Daily Mail whom he believed had thrown them and why, and subsequently numerous oranges started appearing in his goalmouth as a ritual at each game. Some got squashed or bruised, but he’d end up taking half a dozen or so home each time.

One week, an orange had a phone number and ‘I LOVE YOU’ on it which McKechnie showed to the Mail reporter who then arranged a meet up. Although McKechnie was greeted by an attractive woman upon ringing the doorbell, it was her five year old daughter who had chucked the fruit.

Another time, a fan was arrested at Sheffield United for hurling an orange McKechnie-wards, and the keeper himself appeared in court on the supporter’s behalf later to explain away the reasoning.

Given that McKechnie, who played for City between 1966 and 1974, was also responsible for English competitive football’s first penalty save in a shootout (in the Watney Cup semi against Manchester United in 1970; he also missed a penalty, a further first), he could have got uppity about being more associated with fruit than football when his City career ended. But he was truly proud of his unique contribution to player-fan interaction at a time when fan-fan interactions were rather more feisty.

McKechnie died in 2015 and, at the funeral, his family threw oranges into his grave. It’s impossible to define how fitting as a final gesture this was.


The Soul of Hull City #2: Half Time v Liverpool, 1989

Heights of Joy


Rarely do lower league football clubs have moments of genuine global significance. Premier League clubs on the other hand, do so routinely, so City beating Liverpool in successive Premier League seasons can make it easy to lose sight of what a remarkable achievement it can be for a small club to best a genuine world class footballing side, no matter how briefly.

In 1989 the Tigers, an established second tier side thanks to the calm administrations of manager Brian Horton but now piloted by dour Leeds-type Eddie Gray, reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup after solid wins at Cardiff and Bradford and drew a plum tie at home to Liverpool, a global phenomenon in the 1980s.

The masses crammed into Boothferry Park (the attendance of 20,058 that day wasn’t subsequently bettered in the old place) and watched in amazement as goals from bludgeoner Billy Whitehurst and arch-poacher Keith Edwards saw City return to the dressing room at half time with an unlikely 2-1 lead. Boothferry Park witnessed a remarkable spectacle at half time, an almost deafening hum of people talking in low tones to each other about how unbelievable this all was. It was a sound that many football fans will never experience.

halftimeAlas, it all faded away as quickly as it arose. Liverpool soon assumed a second half lead and the plucky Tigers went down 2-3. City narrowly avoided relegation while Liverpool suffered their worst of tragedies two months later when the South Yorkshire Police force facilitated the death of 96 supporters in the sheep pens of Hillsborough.

But just for a moment, whispering scarcely credible predictions over steaming cups of half-time Bovril, the little guys from Hull believed they were going to rock the footballing world. Nice feeling, that.


The Soul of Hull City #1: Waggy and Chillo

Dramatis personae


The greatest strike partnership in Hull City’s history, in spirit and backed up easily by the figures. Upon the arrival of cocky and stocky Ken Wagstaff to partner Sproatley’s own centre forward par excellence Chris Chilton in late 1964, the pair never looked back. The giant Chilton’s brand of brave, strong, uncompromising marksmanship yielded the individual club record for goals which nobody will beat; Wagstaff was the artier, more cultured footballer, devilish at getting into the right positions and fearless when faced with any chance, in any game, against any goalkeeper.

The pair of them make sure in their dotage today that supporting forwards Ken Houghton, Ian Butler and Ray Henderson get their share of the credit as suppliers and supporting characters, but for seven years the name of Hull City was better known than the club’s league status may have deserved because of these two men at the helm, masters of the simple-but-difficult goalscoring craft. They scored 366 League goals for City on aggregate in 15 years of involvement; 252 of which came as a partnership between Wagstaff’s debut in November 1964 (in which both he and Chilton scored) and Chilton’s departure for Coventry in August 1971.

A staggering 52 of these were hammered in during the Third Division title winning season of 1966, in which Houghton, Butler and Henderson also each reached double figures. Wagstaff also scored a comparatively whopping four goals in FA Cup quarter finals, a round of the competition which remained alien to Hull City thereafter until 2009. Maybe all these stats really should have appeared at the start of this paragraph, as they say more than meagre words.