Which is Hull City's Greatest team?
And of course we’re all vulnerable to the onset of anoraksia nervosa – a condition particularly common among followers of football and cricket and one which usually manifests itself with a sentence beginning “Ah but don’t forget” and ending with graphic description of a 12-year-old full-back’s 40-yard screamer for the reserves at Frickley Colliery.
It was clear David Beckham had something special when he turned out at Lincoln City in 1993 while on loan with Preston North End. See? It’s that easy to fall into the trap.
So never having been to Hull before 1980 I had to defer to higher authority in examining the merits of the various editions of the local football team. Practicalities dictated that the era of Raich Carter in the late 1940s would be a flashback too far, and precious little of note happened between then and the 1960s – the magical age of Ken Wagstaff and Chris Chilton.
But there are many who maintain that Hull City’s glory days began with Waggy and Chillo in 1965-66 and ended with the same double-act in 1970-71.
Long-suffering Hull City stastician Trevor Bugg produced some compelling evidence to support the side of the Sixties as we sat in a boozer in Beverley recently. Waggy scored 27 goals, Chillo bagged 25 and Ken Houghton 22. Ian Butler and Ray Henderson both chipped in with 13 – that’s five players in double figures, something no City player would manage in the Premier League more than 40 years later.
City scored 109 League goals and won the Third Division title in style. But that’s the problem. Great performance though it was, this was in the Third Division. Can that team really be hailed as the best ever?
Six years later Waggy, Chillo, Houghton and Butler were still there under a manager rather younger than they were, the 28-year-old Terry Neill. Top-flight football beckoned but the season fell apart in March 1971.
On 6 March the Tigers held a 2-0 lead over Stoke City in the FA Cup quarter final, both goals scored by Waggy against Gordon Banks. I’ve heard it said Waggy would close his eyes before shooting so as to deny the keeper any clue at all. True or not it all adds to the legend. But Stoke hit back and won 3-2 with the decided coming after a linesman’s error gave the visitors a throw-in that should have been Hull’s.
On 9 March City beat Sheffield United in a match dubbed “The Battle of Bramall Lane.” The win took them joint top of the Second Division with Cardiff City and Leicester City, but the following Saturday they were beaten at home by 15th-placed Oxford United, starting a slump which brought four wins from the last 11 games.
That was it until the 1980s, when under Colin Appleton and then Brian Horton such players as Garry Parker, Richard Jobson and Steve McClaren made City a joy to watch. Brian Marwood was another, and Billy Whitehurst brought a certain brutality to the proceedings, explaining in later years that he had to be a hard case because his first touch was so poor that his second touch would always be a tackle. In 1986 they finished sixth – good enough for a play-off spot these days but not then.
It says a lot about the history of Hull City that many believe the best side to be the “Great Escape” team of 1998-99.
The disastrous managerial reign of Mark Hateley, which had occasionally introduced great style in the presence of David Rocastle and Glyn Hodges but without any substance elsewhere, had taken the Tigers to the foot of the table. They were still there at the end of 1998, a month after Hateley’s departure.
Player-manager Warren Joyce adopted a tougher approach. Jon Whitney, Gary Brabin, Jason Perry and Justin Whittle took no prisoners and made one suspect there would be a few footballer-shaped holes in the brick walls around Boothferry Park.
Trev’s stats show City recorded just three clean sheets in 25 games as they entered the New Year six points adrift at the bottom of the table. A subsequent run of 11 clean sheets in 21 games was unspectacular, and it doesn’t say much that one of the highlights was a 1-1 draw at home to relegation rivals Scarborough in March in front of 13,949 people – the biggest crowd since 1988.
But this City team was all about taking it one point at a time. They earned more wins than draws – many by the odd goal – and suffered only four defeats in ensuring survival in the Football League.
It’s tempting to think the investment that supported Hull’s revival in later years would have come anyway – that someone would have seen the potential of the club and funded the rise from the Conference. But a look at the fortunes of Scarborough, York City, Halifax Town and others shows there are no guarantees.
Relegation from the League could have consigned Hull City to oblivion. For avoiding it, the “Great Escape” team’s claim to be City’s best ever has considerable merit.
A key result that season was the 2-0 win at Brentford in February that lifted the Tigers off the bottom of the table, Another was Cambridge United’s 5-1 win at Scarborough, which came on the same day and featured two goals from Ian Ashbee. And while no one could have imagined it at the time, Ashbee would play a huge part in Hull City’s revival.
He was captain of the 2007-08 side that began the season expecting another relegation battle in the Championship but ended it at Wembley celebrating promotion to the Premier League after victory in the play-off final.
For years mocked by the media’s obsession with the cliché about the biggest city in Europe never to have played top-flight football, Hull City finally found the winning formula under manager Phil Brown and assistant Brian Horton, who completed the job he’d started more than 20 years previously.
Goalkeeper Boaz Myhill and defenders Michael Turner and Sam Ricketts proved themselves worthy of the Premier League. Nick Barmby brought great ability and experience to his home-town club. Fraizer Campbell joined on loan from Manchester United, contributing pace, movement and goals.
My own favourite was Jay-Jay Okocha. He only started 10 games but in partnership with former Bolton Wanderers team-mate Henrik Pedersen made a huge impact. Their destruction of Ipswich Town in September 2007, with Okocha displaying the skills and trickery that made an impact on the world stage, will never be forgotten.
The talisman was Dean Windass, who began his professional career at Hull but had been denied a return under Peter Taylor. Rumours abounded that Deano was considered too old and a possible source of disruption, but he brought guile and a poacher’s instinct in the penalty area and he posed a real threat from set-pieces. His winner against Bristol City, set up by swift and intelligent approach work from Barmby and Campbell, is one of the best goals scored at the new Wembley. And probably the old one.
That promotion squad gets my vote as Hull City’s all-time greatest. It’s got nothing to do with failing to appreciate the players of the past or underestimating the achievement of the “Great Escape” team. But the impact of promotion to the Premier League on the club, the city, the people and the region was huge.
True, it signalled two years of struggle in which the club nearly went out of business as the blend of age and inexperience proved ill-equipped to meet the demands of the Premier League – but far better to endure that among football’s elite than in the Conference.