Great Football League Teams 42: Hull City 1965-6
These are heady days indeed for Hull City, back in the Premier league after a short absence, even their capture of the wiles of Steve Bruce saw few tip the Tigers last August. But this current purple period for the East Riding is by no means the only high point in the club’s history. Here’s Matthew Rudd of Amber Nectar with a look back to a famous World Cup year.
If attack really is the best form of defence, then few sides have realised this cliché as ruthlessly as the Hull City side of the 1960s. Under manager Cliff Britton, it was almost entirely reliant on a front five of such devastating ability to create and score goals that the rearguard was deemed pretty much incidental. In the Third Division campaign of 1965-66, this was as obvious and as destructive a policy as that of any über-offensive team since.
The Tigers had been a largely unnoticed club on a national scale until the 1960s. They produced workmanlike teams and only occasionally shoved their heads above the parapet when appointing big names to their staff, such as when Raich Carter became manager or Neil Franklin was given a route out of exile. In the days of regionalised lower divisions, they bobbed between the northern third and national second tiers a bit during the post-war era while seldom looking likely either to climb to the First Division or drop to the Fourth. In 1961, benevolent chairman and building magnate Harold Needler gave the manager’s job to Britton.
Britton had been born Hanham, Bristol, in 1909. A wing half, he played for Bristol Rovers as a teenager before joining Everton in 1930, aged 21, staying there for eight years. He was crucial to the creation of the Dixie Dean legend, setting up a sizeable number of the demon centre forward’s goals, and won the FA Cup in 1933. He played nine times for England and settled into life as a coach and manager after the Second World War, rarely having a moment out of work. Long spells with Burnley, Everton and Preston North End followed before he crossed the Pennines to East Yorkshire.
Initially, Britton relied heavily on the players he had inherited and the talented locals coming through the ranks. One such local stood out; a tall, toothy 18 year old centre forward called Chris Chilton, born and raised in the hushed village of Sproatley, who had already eschewed art college to enjoy a full season in the first team, rattling in 20 goals as the Tigers finished in Division Three’s unremarkable mid-table. As mediocre as the side was, the emergence of a fearless boy in Chilton was Britton’s instant focal point; when the time was right he would rebuild the forward line around a man who could, with luck and fitness, score the goals that would take the Tigers to the top of the game. The ambition of the club and the ability of this centre forward meant that everyone took this aim seriously.
Britton made few alterations, though one of his first recruits was a pacy inside forward called Ray Henderson, a Geordie who’d enjoyed a purple patch in front of goal with Middlesbrough the previous season and on whom Britton made a snap decision. Henderson joined the long-serving John McSeveney as Chilton’s main provider over the next few seasons, though McSeveney himself was unusually prolific, giving Britton food for thought as to the value of acquiring actual goalscorers to play in (and play off) Chilton, rather than occasional ones.
City finished tenth in each of Britton’s first two seasons. The improvement was noticeable but still a tad gradual. Britton was a patient man and Needler rewarded him and the club handsomely for his ideals by raising £200,000 through his building company to improve Boothferry Park and the team that played on it. New free-standing floodlights, unique for the time, were erected and the south stand of the ground rebuilt. Britton was grateful for the money but found his path to the players he wanted often blocked; he bought a new goalkeeper in Maurice Swan and a tidy left back in Dennis Butler, but his dream was to have a forward line that bigger and more successful clubs would envy.
After an eighth-placed finish in 1964, Britton brought in an Evertonian wing half in Alan Jarvis and a League Cup winning striker in Terry Heath, but neither made an immediate impact; indeed, Jarvis had to wait a whole year for his debut. Chilton was still scoring and Henderson still marauding but Britton was impatient; he was still using the ageing Doug Clarke on one wing and had fast-tracked Smoggie teenager Billy Wilkinson from the reserves to play behind them, even though he was more suited to a deeper role. In November 1964, Britton got his man at last, signing bolshie goalscorer Ken Wagstaff to play alongside Chilton as both a foil and an equal. He gave Mansfield Town, whose fans were distraught, £40,000 for the 21 year old marksman.
Wagstaff scored in his first three games and he and Chilton clicked instantly. Two months later, inside forward Ken Houghton and fleet-of-foot winger Ian Butler (unrelated to Dennis) arrived together from Rotherham United. McSeveney continued on the wing but made clear his wish to retire shortly and begin coaching, allowing Henderson a long-term future. The forward line was in place.
For the remainder of 1964-65, the Tigers set about everybody. Wagstaff scored a phenomenal 23 goals in 25 games, just four behind his new buddy Chilton. Houghton was an inventive revelation behind them; McSeveney enjoyed his Indian summer and Ian Butler didn’t miss a minute. Further back, less attention was being paid to those making up the XI, though hard-as-nails skipper Andy Davidson, in his 13th season as a senior player, could still be heard barking out the encouragement in his best Lanarkshire drawl. The goal tally rose like a rocket, the crowds swelled as best they could within a stadium midway through refurbishment, and City bullied their way through the division to finish fourth, the pre-November start to the season ultimately costing them promotion.
And so to 1965-66. Tigers fans of appropriate vintage still coo about what they saw. Britton put Henderson on the right wing to replace the retired McSeveney and otherwise left well alone. Before the impact of the forward line is fully set out, it’s worth mentioning the roles played by the likes of Davidson, Mike Milner and local boy Chris Simpkin who formed part of the back-up put together by Britton with barely a glance. They, along with Dennis Butler and the promoted Jarvis, were stalwarts suited to the Third Division who for some of the time had their work done for them by those up front.
It is true that City ended the season seemingly on a “they scored three so we got four” basis, even if this wasn’t officially Britton’s policy. Maybe this is why some outsiders would say they weren’t a great team, as they often couldn’t – or didn’t need to – defend. But football is about winning, and if you can do so in style and leave your opponents frazzled and your supporters gasping, then all the better. The Hull City team of 1965-66 did just that.
It helped that the forward line was pretty much injury free; or, closer to the truth, played through a fair few pain barriers to maintain the momentum. Wagstaff was ever-present, Ian Butler, Houghton and Chilton each missed just one match, Henderson, the eldest of the five, was absent initially but still ended up with 39 league games under his belt. Behind them, Milner, Simpkin and the ageless Davidson also missed just one game between them. Consistency in selection aided Britton’s cause greatly; although City used 19 players in total, five of them ended the season with single-figure tallies.
City won three of the first four and by the middle of September all five of the forward line had opened their scoring accounts. The evidence at the other end of many shall pass was evident in a 3-3 draw with Reading and a 4-2 defeat at Swansea Town, but opponents with less positive tactics were hammered into the ground; City beat Exeter 4-1 away and Oldham 5-1 at home in consecutive weeks.
Supporters remember the two games over 48 festive hours against Millwall as the crunch matches, with the two teams topping the table at the time. The day after Boxing Day, an own goal gave the Tigers a single goal win at Boothferry Park in front of 40,231 people, a post-regionalisation record for the third tier that remained for six years, then everybody involved boarded the same train for the then-traditional “return” game the next day, which Millwall won 3-0. It was the second of only three occasions all season when the Tigers would draw a blank.
The FA Cup was ticking along nicely by this stage too, with Bradford Park Avenue and Gateshead dispatched in the opening rounds. As 1966 began, City were extra-prolific in the league – 4-1 over Swansea, 6-0 against Workington, 4-2 at Scunthorpe, and got national headlines after defeating Second Division hopefuls Southampton in the third round of the Cup. February was a key month, with three wins and a typically end-to-end 3-3 draw in the league and a 2-0 win over First Division side Nottingham Forest in the fourth round of the FA Cup, the day that peripheral signing Heath, the perennial reserve to all of these astonishing forwards, finally got his day as a City player, scoring both of the goals. He only played because Simpkin was injured and, with two natural replacements in bed with ‘flu and driving to a reserve match respectively, Britton had to drop Houghton back into midfield, making a space for Heath up front. He didn’t get much chance to exploit his sudden success, soon back in the reserves, but his brace against Forest keeps memory of an otherwise undistinguished City career alive.
City’s record in March consisted of an FA Cup win over Southport and three out of three in the league, with Millwall now looking most likely to flag. Proper evidence that this forward line weren’t just flat-track bullies came to light in the sixth round of the Cup, however.
March 26th 1966, and the Tigers travelled to overwhelming favourites Chelsea in the last eight. The home side, missing Peter Osgood with tonsilitis, took a 2-0 lead but Wagstaff scored twice in the last ten minutes and also had a very strong penalty appeal turned down by referee Jack Taylor, a decision for which the outspoken Davidson never forgave him. The replay five days later made Pathé News as a Chelsea team rejuvenated by Osgood’s return won 3-1 in front of a raucous Boothferry Park. Wagstaff has claimed ever since that Osgood was the only real difference between the two sides.
Heroically out of the FA Cup, City set about finishing off the league as quickly as they could, winning the first four games in April, including a clean sweep of goals by Wagstaff as the Tigers battered Brentford 4-2 and a 6-1 destruction of Exeter. But then it got wobbly, with two defeats in a row immediately following a 13-game unbeaten run in the league, which had included a sequence of nine straight wins. Grimsby Town and Peterborough United inflicted the damage and Millwall were favourites again. Both teams won promotion in early April, and it was the Tigers who regrouped quickest after the celebrations to put in the best run of four unbeaten in May and clinch the title.
City had 69 points from the available 92, winning 31 games from 46 and losing eight. They were four clear of the Lions by the end, but third-placed Queens Park Rangers were a whole 12 points adrift of the champions. The truly extraordinary statistic was, however, in the goals tally. Of the 109 City stuck away in the league (33 more than Millwall), a cool 100 were scored by the forward line of five. Wagstaff had 27, Chilton 25 and Houghton 22 (plus, in his case, goodness knows how many assists). Ian Butler and Henderson laid ample chances on various plates for the middle three but each scored 13 of their own. Such was the comparative dearth of contributions from behind the forward line, the next highest tally was five, achieved in the form of own goals by the opposition. Jarvis (3) and Simpkin (1) made up the rest. City scored in every cup match they played – nine of them in total – and of the 20 goals put away, 16 came from those forwards. Almost as remarkable, and certainly as telling, was the goals against record, however: City conceded 62 in the league, 19 more than Millwall, 14 more than seventh-placed Swindon Town and – get this – 11 more than 12th placed Watford. They kept 12 clean sheets in the league, many of which were due to the opposition just giving up trying because of what had been inflicted on them by City’s forward line.
It remains the only non-regional title Hull City has ever won, a startling stat that maintains the deference towards these players as much as their own abilities. Britton, pleased with his work, changed the goalkeeper in the summer but otherwise considered the team good enough to achieve the same feat in the Second Division. Yet, for the rest of the 1960s, the Tigers struggled against meaner defences and forward lines more comparable with their own. Money was available and the fans pleaded for it to be spent on shoring up the defence, especially after the 35 year old Davidson retired in 1967 after pulling a leg muscle at Aston Villa, but the changes Britton did make were only when age or injury demanded it. Certainly Simpkin, admired by all, was a capable ratter in the centre of midfield at a higher level, but the Tigers needed better players around him and didn’t get them. Britton also sold the 31 year old Henderson in 1968 but didn’t properly replace him as a creative presence on the right wing.
City finished 12th, 17th, 11th and 13th in Britton’s remaining four years at the helm. In 1970, Needler recognised the times were changing and moved Britton up to a general manager’s role while giving him the task of finding his long-term replacement. In came the 29 year old Terry Neill as player-manager but after a fifth-placed finish in the Ulsterman’s first season, the natural decline of the great forward line, plus political struggles caused by a manager being the same age as his star players, meant the big chance had gone. Neill sold Chilton, Houghton and Ian Butler (two acrimoniously) and brought down the average age – and average ability – of the team before he was headhunted by Tottenham in 1974. City went through the mid-1970s as watertreading nonentities until relegation back to the Third Division in 1978 and, eventually, a catastrophic drop to the Fourth Division for the first time ever three years later. Neither Britton nor Needler lived to see it; both died in 1975.
Chilton, 70 next month, broke the club’s scoring record and when he joined Coventry in 1971, aged still only 28, he had 222 first team goals. The only player to come close to this ludicrous total was Wagstaff, who stuck around until 1975 and scored 197 times. Houghton was a better all-round footballer than anyone else during this era while Butler’s wingplay and Henderson’s industry made crucial contributions to the 1965/66 season and brought the best out in those relying on them. This may not be the greatest all-round Hull City team – shirts 1 to 6 are a sticking point, as well as the achievements of recent sides under Phil Brown and Steve Bruce – but 1966, a year stamped forever with football’s name, produced unquestionably the most exciting side in Tigers’ history.