In the film adaption of Nick Hornby’s best-selling book Fever Pitch, the main character Paul tries to encapsulate why we follow our team through thick and thin, he ruminates that “the great thing (about football) is it comes around again and again… there’s always another season, lose a Cup Final in May, well there’s always the third round in January, what’s wrong with that? It’s actually pretty comforting if you think about it”.
It’s that belonging and camaraderie with the club, the players and fellow fans that brings us back again and again. It leads apparently ‘normal’ people to forego societal norms such as attending weddings, christenings and birthdays in favour of following your team around the country.
The pull is even stronger when it’s the first game of the season. You surely can’t miss that one, you have waited all summer long for this game, you want to see the new players in action, you have run up a substantial bill ringing Club Call for any crumb of information about the club, looked at the pages of Ceefax (page 300) on TV and waited for the local paper for news of signings and even friendly games in Sweden.
Welcome to 1988, there is no internet, the only phone most folks have is a landline, you got your football information where you could find it. For the uninitiated, Club Call was a premium rate phone service where there would be a daily recorded message from the club. The ticket news was also on there and it was one of the most frustrating phone services invented because you knew how much you were being charged per minute and they never gave the information easily. The intro was a thing of exquisite torture, “Welcome…to …Man…chester…City…Club…Call (long pause) for…all…your…news…from…Maine Road”. This seemed to take forever, the delivery was painfully slow and often you’d quit as you were minutes in and had heard nothing of any interest.
Ceefax was another avenue for information. These fixed pages on your TV gave you some news often from the national papers about your club, which was better than nothing and every supporter’s day would start with a look at your club’s page for any fresh developments.
The developments that summer as we ran up to the start of the season with a game away at Hull City were that firstly Paul Stewart, our star striker, had left to join Tottenham in the First Division in June 1988 for £1.7 million. He had scored 28 goals in the previous season and most were resigned to him signing for a top flight club as soon as it became apparent we would not be promoted. His strike partner Imre Varadi, who grabbed 20 goals in the same season, would be gone by the end of September back to the top flight at his old club Sheffield Wednesday.
Using the Stewart money, manager Mel Machin brought in five new players; keeper Andy Dibble from Luton for £240,000, Nigel Gleghorn a midfielder from Ipswich for £47,000, veteran forward and coach John Deehan also from Ipswich for £10,000, striker Wayne Biggins for £160,000 and the biggest buy was centre half Brian Gayle from Wimbledon for £320,000, in total £777,000 spent. Having to some extent been distracted by runs in the cup competitions to the detriment of the league, Machin felt these players would help mount a promotion challenge.
With hope in our hearts and but not much money in our pockets (being a cash strapped student at the time) me and my mate Martin got tickets on the supporters ‘B’ coach going from Stockport to Hull. No need for a ticket for the terraces as it was pay on the gate, and for once it wasn’t me skipping out on a family do it was him. His uncle was getting married and as we weren’t leaving until mid-morning he reckoned he could do the morning ceremony then leg it for the coach, skipping the wedding breakfast.
The best laid plans went awry, however. I was on the coach saving a seat but he was a no show as we pulled out of Stockport. I asked for a few more minutes but the driver said he had to get going and with no phones that was it. As the coach crawled up the hill out of Mersey Square, I think I saw him running across the shopping centre but the driver wouldn’t stop. I made a mental note not to chip in for the driver on the way back.
One uneventful trip on the coach later we arrived in the city of Kingston upon Hull, for my first and it turns out also my last visit to Boothferry Park. The Blues up until recently had not been regular visitors to the city by the Humber. After an FA Cup win in January 1970, we didn’t play at Hull again for fifteen years until we met in the two-legged Full Members Cup semi-final in November 1985, mainly due to the fact that we lived in different footballing worlds. Our paths crossed in the league for the first time in 59 years when we played each other in the 1987/88 season. Living away, I had not made the away game that season which was a midweek match in September, but I was here now on a Saturday afternoon as the Second Division got started, ticking another football ground visited whilst following City.
I stood on the Kippax at home games and I stood on the terraces at away games too. I could remember every time I had sat down at matches as they were so infrequent and it meant that even as a poor student I could stretch to the entry fee for the game. This, as you know, was the season that would end so tragically with the Hillsborough disaster, when so many lost their lives crushed on terraces surrounded by high security fences.
Boothferry Park had seen better days, the North End where we were standing had been a substantial terrace, but the club had sold some land to a supermarket at this end of the ground swallowing up the space which it now backed on to, so capacity behind the goal was very much reduced. In front of the roofless terrace there was the obligatory high security fence which only those standing at the back could see over, then on top of this there were six inch revolving spikes decked out in the club colours of amber, red and black, they spun round so supporters couldn’t use them to pull themselves up. This was all par for the course in those days, when to even admit to others that you were a football supporter got you a look from “normal” people as if you were some sort of sociopath.
Hull over the summer had clearly made some effort to brighten the place up a bit. They had painted the barriers in the standing area in the club colours, quite recently from the smell of paint fumes in the air. I got in the ground early to see the team warm up and got a spot at one of the barriers painted bright red. I clearly recall this as when I leaned on the barrier wearing my new blue and grey jacket I got a lovely red stripe across my front from where the paint had clearly not dried (sigh).
As the teams emerged my mate Martin turned up! He had legged it home, “borrowed” his mums car and driven to Hull. Glad of the company I filled him in that Dibble, Gayle, Gleghorn and Biggins were all starting.
We dominated the game, the new players looked fine. Dibble wasn’t too busy in goal, Gayle was a commanding presence with Redmond at centre-half, unsurprisingly as a signing from Wimbledon he was good in the air. Gleghorn was a tidy player who was playing to the left hand side of midfield and was left footed too, which is always handy. Then there was Biggins who was busy up front making clever runs, but he was no Paul Stewart who had been a bull of a player. It just didn’t quite click on the day, we created so many chances but didn’t finish them, we ran midfield where Neil McNab was influential, Stevie Redmond looked as assured as usual at the back, it felt like a matter of time before we scored, but it was not to be and just after half time an error from debutant Dibble allowed Keith Edwards, who was one of those lower division strikers who guaranteed twenty plus goals a season, to nip in on the 47th minute to grab a goal for the home side.
City carried on playing well but a lack of luck and poor judgement meant we just didn’t score. Varadi was thrown on in one of his final appearances late on to try and salvage a point by throwing the kitchen sink at them but to no avail and we went down to a one-nil defeat on opening day, to a team that would end the season one place above the drop. As we drove back in my mate’s car across the impressive Humber Bridge, the talk was of how the new signings had done and would we have won if Varadi and Stewart were still up front and how you got red paint off your jacket.
The first home game of the season two days later on the Bank Holiday Monday was a disaster as we got hammered by Oldham 4-1. A suicide back pass put the Latics one up, it was downhill all the way as ex-City player Roger Palmer scored a hat-trick. There were calls of “Swales Out” & “Machin Out”, the disappointment of losing a local derby, the disappointment of losing Paul Stewart and the on-going fight with Chairman Swales all fed into this. It looked like a long season ahead, but thankfully with the blossoming of the players from the 1986 Youth Cup winning team we made it up in third place. As for my jacket, I got most of the red paint out with turpentine but some stubbornly stuck around as a reminder of my only trip to Boothferry Park.
Written by Richard Donlan
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