When people talk about legendary figures in the history of Hull City, recency bias is inevitable. I guess the game has changed so much in the last decade plus and as every year goes by, there’s less fans who would have seen some of the stars of yesterday, whether it’s a Keith Edwards, Chris Chilton, Billy Bly or a Raich Carter. Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with giving some of the modern performers their due respect. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have seen the likes of Jelavic, Huddlestone, Bowen and Hernandez put on the shirt and it’s something we really can’t take for granted. However, I think sometimes when you look back the importance and the impact of players or managers that paved the way are underestimated.
Put simply your Grandad loved watching Chillo, so he took your Dad who loved watching Peter Skipper and he took you and you got to watch Huddz… then you might take your lad to watch Jaden Philogene… without Chillo, it’s arguable that the addiction is never passed on, so to speak.
Anyway, what I’m taking an age to say (in true “The likes of Hull” style) is that the impact and culture of Brian Horton stands toe to toe with almost anyone in the history of the club. Not only because he gave us a joyous and fantastically entertaining product to watch from 1984 to 1988 and took us back to the second level for the first time in nearly a decade, but because he changed a culture at the club, and then as if that wasn’t enough, he came back in 2007 to complete the work he started and was a massively important factor in the greatest achievement the club has ever completed.
Most City fans who experienced the pain of the end to the 1983-84 season are probably in their fifties by now. If not, they were still in short trousers that day. As if you don’t know already City needed to win by 3 clear goals at mid-table Burnley to get promoted from the old Division 3. In “typical City” style we won 2-0. Burnley (who had no real reason to, beyond… you know Burnley) played to restrict City and with no real ambition from the start and worse still the result sent up the much-hated Sheffield United and was essentially the exit door for the incredible talent that was Brian Marwood. Now, I’m not alone in spitting on the name of both clubs for eternity afterwards and I’m still not sure if 11-year-old me was ever as truly heartbroken by City again, but there’s another story at play that even I don’t like to embrace. So here goes.
City were probably the most talented team in the league that year, and Colin Appleton was a logical choice for the colourful Chairman of Don Robinson as they’d spent time together previously at Scarborough, there was no doubting he was a canny manager and a good judge of a player. His Achilles heel though was that he could be a bit stoic and defensive at times, and City would sometimes struggle to break down teams at home who would get men behind the ball. As much as it pains me to say, draws at home in April and May to Gillingham and Bristol Rovers did as much to stop us going up as that wretched day at Turf Moor.
And that’s where the Brian Horton story begins, as City took stock from that night, Appleton left for Swansea City and we needed some fresh input plus somebody to galvanise a young, talented squad who had lost their most talented player and had been heartbreakingly close to achieving their aims the season before. Brian was still playing for Luton Town at the time and at 35 would be one of, if not the, youngest managers in the league.
He didn’t come in and spend a lot of money, his main off-season deals were to bring in Laurie Pearson a young left back from Gateshead and Neil Williams a utility player who had been released from Watford. Missing their talisman and outstanding player of the season before in Brian Marwood, we had a slow start to the season winning 4, drawing 4 and losing 3 of the first eleven league games, including losing to Preston on a game featured on Match of the Day. However, this bedding in process also saw the rise of the next City icon. Billy Whitehurst terrorised Division One Southampton in the league cup where City lost 5-4 on aggregate and a young England centre back in Mark Wright would have sleepless nights for weeks to come. City were now more front footed than before, in Pearson he had a left back who would push on, whilst in Billy Askew he had a wide player with vision and precision that could cut teams open.
Thus, from the 23rd October 1984, to February 2nd 1985 we would not lose a league game. We imposed our will on teams. The partnership of Skipper and McEwan at the back was immense, Tony Norman in goal was mercurial, Gareth Roberts outworked everyone in the middle of the park and with Big Billy petrifying the league, both Steve Massey and Andy Flounders chipped in with important goals and cameos to finish teams off. That season was not only a joy, but one in which we’d proved that we weren’t dependent on Marwood, there was another way and the middle of all this was the soft-spoken Horton, organising the team, the training and club in professional ways fans hadn’t seen since a young Terry Neill arrived many years before.
Importantly this City side also had bottle. They reeled off five consecutive wins in March and again in April/May which meant by the time the iconic Peter Skipper scored the winner at Walsall, promotion was secured.
I’m sure City have made me as happy in subsequent eras, but at this point in my fandom, I’d known nothing like the buzz and the excitement around the club. We were undeniable and “The tigers were back” as the song goes. Brian again showed himself to be shrewd judge of a player bringing in the hugely talented Richard Jobson that season, and although it took him a while to adjust he’d prove money well spent, the next year he’d bring in Garry Parker and Frankie Bunn from Luton and the experienced Pat Heard and even though the big boys came knocking for Billy as he joined Newcastle United we came a creditable 6th in the second level and again played some terrific and attacking football.
In the next seasons we’d sign the likes of Alex Dyer, Charlie Palmer, whilst young talent like Andy Payton and Andy Saville broke in from the junior section. The end for Brian (and he tells it much better than me) came after a late season loss at home to Swindon and the emotional and flamboyant Don Robinson overreacted and sacked him. The team had faded from an earlier flirtation with promotion but were still in clear safety from the drop. Robinson was taken apart by the players when he told them the news and he tried to take back his decision, but Brian was having none of it and exited the club.
Most fans of the era know we then seemed to staggered from one disaster to another until we were relegated again in 1991. It was a sad state of affairs that would take more than a decade of debacle and humiliation until under the new ownership of Adam Pearson and management of Peter Taylor we finally began to rise again.
Brian had a fantastic management career after us, at Oxford, Man City, Huddersfield and Brighton to name a few, but it was probably a surprise to most when he was tempted back as assistant to Phil Brown in 2007. I don’t need to tell you the details here but I do think Brian’s experience, reliability and professionalism helped keep Phil Brown’s feet on the ground, and that one two punch did things even the biggest City optimist didn’t think was possible.
The great man was on the “Undr the Cosh” recently and spoke really well about his double stint with the club. He was a disciplinarian, but also a thinking man’s gaffer, pragmatic but not without humour. He also opened up about his current challenges with his own health and is helping promote prostrate awareness in a typical Brian Horton selfless way. The twelve-year-old me fell in love with City under Brian Horton, he gave us vision and identity, the fact he came back nearly twenty years later and helped take us even further means that I’m not sure there’s anyone who has served the club quite as well as Brian. We can talk about Peter Taylor in the same breath, but for me, personally, that’s about it. So, thank you Brian, you’re a gentleman and this club in indebted to you.