Great Football League Teams 45: Hull City 1982-3
We are delighted to welcome back Matthew Rudd for the latest post in our Great Football League Teams series; Matthew having previously penned a popular post on Hull City’s 1965-6 side. Now, he casts his mind back to the early eighties.
It’s amazing what being skint can do for a football club. In 1982, Hull City were certain to go out of business, probably before the season had actually finished. In 1983, not only were they solvent again, but playing some delightful, devastating football and achieving what still ranks as one of the truly great promotions in the club’s history.
The prognosis for City in February 1982 when chairman Christopher Needler declared there was no money left in the club was extremely bleak. The manager, former Wales boss Mike Smith, was given his cards as an instant cutback, along with assistant Cyril Lea. Fringe coaches Bobby Brown and Chris Chilton took charge of first team affairs without any guarantee that there would be a first team to work with, as all were placed on the transfer list.
Needler, against accountancy advice, promised to bankroll the club from personal funds until a buyer could be found but admitted he didn’t have a bottomless pit of cash and it was feasible that City wouldn’t survive the season. It was a desperate time, made all the sadder by it being a Needler who’d been forced to make the grim announcement. His father Harold, a building magnate, had been the club’s ambitious figurehead through the post-war years until his death in 1975, funding numerous improvements to Boothferry Park, free-standing floodlights that were unique for the time, modern training facilities and the odd splurge on players. Now his son, less loved but presently acting as the club’s ventilator, was set to turn everything off.
The supporters did as all supporters do in such situations; they held collections, they urged uncommitted associates to turn up and support the team, they looked for solutions, they cried tears. Again, not unusually, the team was buoyed by the determination of the paying public and, also mindful that scouts were now looking for bargains, found some form under the two caretakers to finish eighth in the Fourth Division. It was the club’s first ever season therein after a really awful relegation the year before, but this optimistic end to the campaign, as the cash slowly began to run out, at least gave them hope that someone new would take a punt.
Fortunately, mercifully, that wasn’t necessary. The day after a brace by Brian Marwood earned the Tigers a 2-2 draw in what had been branded as the club’s last ever game, Needler announced that a buyer had stepped forward. Don Robinson, a former rugby league player from Scarborough who’d made his millions in the leisure industry, had come in. He had experience in running his local non-league team that were progressing steadily through the pyramid, though still four years and a change in the trapdoor settings away from achieving their own dreams of making the Football League. Needler maintained control of the ground through a foundation company which would allow its non-football usage as a fundraiser, and he also stayed on the board. Robinson, meanwhile, brought his manager Colin Appleton down with him from Scarborough to take over the team.
The fans were relieved about Robinson but unsure about Appleton’s credentials, but as beggars unable to choose, they offered wholehearted support to the new men. They had no cause to worry as Appleton, a wildly-haired, eccentric figure who talked as if he’d got stars permanently encircling his head, turned out to be a revelation.
The squad was small but in good shape and miraculously, only a couple of players – plodding Wales forward Nick Deacy and injury-prone midfielder Micky Horswill – had been snapped up by the vultures. The quick passing of the transfer deadline helped, as did the administrators’ unusually open-minded decision to slap fees on the better players rather than just frigidly offering them for free. Appleton, with no transfer fund at all, took on flame-haired triallist Billy Askew, a fleet-of-foot left sided midfielder, and then astutely re-signed Peter Skipper, again for nought, the Hull-born centre back who’d first joined from local non-league football returning to the club three years after he had been sold to Darlington.
The base of the team was in good nick. Tony Norman was a behemoth in goal, a model of consistency, agility and fitness that made him irreplaceable in the team through the 80s and in the affections of the supporters ever since. Skipper was fearless and cute at the back, with production line midfielders Garreth Roberts, Steve McClaren and the gifted Marwood providing much vision and guile between them. Up front was the spine-chilling duo of Billy Whitehurst, now fully versed in the art of brutal centre forward play, and non-league scuffer Les Mutrie, as ungraceful a striker as any in the league but with absolutely no problems finding the back of the net. This lot were key; the Tigers had a chance if they performed, if they stayed fit, if Appleton could arrange and inspire them appropriately. They did. And he did.
An opening day loss at Bristol City was followed by a nine-game unbeaten run as Appleton subtly shuffled his moderately-sized pack, making astute changes, even of form players, if the set-up of the opposition demanded it. Whitehurst and Mutrie were usually together but it wasn’t atypical to turn up to a game every so often to find one had been put on the bench to allow nippy youngster Andy Flounders, yet another from the ranks, to dart around alongside the surviving big man. At the back, the calamitous Steve Richards, perplexingly a favourite of Smith’s, was dropped after one game, barely to be seen again, and the much more composed Dale Roberts partnered Skipper for the remainder of the season. The full back places were switched around between the hirsute veteran Dennis Booth and youth graduates Gary Swann and Bobby McNeil. And, aside from Askew on the left and the odd kid or loanee when the time demanded it, that was all Appleton had. And he made it work.
Marwood was the biggest talent, a marauding winger with a fine first touch and two strong feet who could create from the flanks or make sudden runs off the ball down the centre that would give opposing centre backs a little too much to think about. As the penalty taker, his end tally of 19 goals for the season was slightly deceptive but he was nevertheless a different animal as a Fourth Division player, and throughout the season City fans asked themselves again and again why nobody took him on when the club was desperate to sell the previous spring.
Mutrie, Flounders and Marwood enjoyed the goal rush as City stuck four past York, Torquay and Peterborough at Boothferry Park while clean sheets were kept with frequency and ease at the other end. Whitehurst struggled for goals but was a towering presence at the helm of the team and the Tigers maintained their consistency into the New Year, going top of the table for a spell (obeying Robinson’s playful demand that they be in first place by the time he got back from his Christmas break to Florida) and beating major promotion rivals Wimbledon at Plough Lane in the process. At the end of January they battered Stockport 7-0 at Boothferry Park. The truly remarkable achievement was that there was never a lull in form – not once did they lose two games in a row, and never did they go more than two without a win. The team spirit was the kind that could earn its creator a fortune if it were ever to be processed and sealed in a jar.
Wimbledon were unbelievably good after their defeat by City and just a draw or three too many meant that the Tigers were unlikely to finish as champions, though promotion for each was a certainty long before the season ended. City themselves were undefeated in ten from the win over Wimbledon onwards as Marwood and Flounders continued to dominate the scoring charts and the likes of Askew and Garreth Roberts, already club captain at the age of 22, weighed in with a flurry of supplementary strikes in the spring. With Appleton’s blessing, the thrilled chairman injected a bit of needless but playful showbiz into proceedings at the end of March by signing Emlyn Hughes (he and Hughes’ dad had played rugby together), and the former England skipper played nine games at the back with little consequence except to attract a few more cameras. Promotion was confirmed with a goalless draw at Chester and there was a healthy crowd of nearly 8,000 at Boothferry Park to offer huge applause to the team in the final home game against Mansfield Town.
City lost just six times all season, only one of which was at home. They put away 75 goals, a good total made all the more impressive by the lack of players achieving them; Marwood (19), Flounders (13) and Mutrie (12) accounted for more than half. The defence was almost as mean; just 14 conceded at home and 20 away, but ultimately it was the number of draws at home – eight to Wimbledon’s four – that made the difference between first and second. But 90 points from 46 games remains a phenomenal tally, eight behind Dave Bassett’s men, two ahead of third-placed Port Vale and seven clear of Scunthorpe United, who took the last promotion place off Bury on the final day.
After everything that had occurred the season before, the way that everyone slotted into their jobs with such ease once Robinson took the reins was bewildering, but the City fans who had carried a symbolic coffin around Boothferry Park little more than a year before were not going to dwell on it. They didn’t just have their club back, but had enjoyed a captivating season in which the many boys from the ranks became men and the new regime settled in as if they had been there forever. If Robinson had felt the pressure to deliver after saving the club, he never showed it. He remained chairman until 1989 and always looked for innovations to increase revenue and profile, including letting a supermarket chain build beneath the North Stand of Boothferry Park, taking the team to the USA for a summer tour and declaring that one day his side would become the first to play a game on the moon.
Appleton and his mop of crazy hair remained quiet and circumspect throughout the whole transformation, simply guiding his players with shrewdness and without ceremony week by week. With his hands tied on transfers, he was determined to make the best of what he had but was lucky to see that not only were his best players very good, they were also handy at not getting injured. Skipper was ever-present, Dale Roberts beside him missed just three matches, unrelated namesake Garreth missed two. Marwood, Mutrie and McClaren all played 40 league games; Norman, Askew and Whitehurst 36; Booth 34; McNeil 33; Swann and Flounders each more than 20. That helped Appleton greatly as he got his feet under the table, but their talents helped him so much more. And but for various quirks of fate, none of these players would have been at the club when the two men from Scarborough first walked through the door.
It ended oddly for Appleton a year later when essentially the same squad of players – he only added three, experimented with a couple more from the ranks and sold just Mutrie – missed out on a second straight promotion by one goal. Needing to win 3-0 at Burnley to go up, the victory was only 2-0 and infiltrating Sheffield United fans, the beneficiaries of City’s one-goal failure, celebrated in the Turf Moor crowd as the dejected players were further earthed by Appleton telling them on the team coach home that he was off to Swansea. Robinson replaced him with Brian Horton, who sold Marwood for big money to Sheffield Wednesday but still immediately spearheaded that promotion to the Second Division, and as Appleton bombed miserably in a brief second spell in 1989, an unwell Robinson quit as chairman and was powerless when his replacement, Richard Chetham, fired the helpless manager with his first act. Appleton, as a result of these two tumultuously contrasting spells, still simultaneously holds Hull City’s best and worst managerial records.
Norman, Marwood, Garreth Roberts, Skipper, Whitehurst and Askew remain icons of the club, though everyone who played a regular role in 1982-3 need not be concerned about their status with the supporters to this day. Not only did they produce scintillating football and form in a profoundly brilliant promotion campaign, but they managed to play with heart and professionalism over the previous season when not knowing day by day if this would be their last game, or their last training session, or the last massage of that aching thigh. They just needed a benefactor and a believer; in Robinson and his choice of manager, they got both.