Rich Gardham writes for HCSS fanzine Tigers Eye as David Burns presents his last show on BBC Radio Humberside. Let’s get tucked into it…
In the mid-90s, one Tuesday night, I was in my usual hangout: Silhouette nightclub on Park Street for the indie night. In the bar at the back of the club I saw a friend who was working for Radio Humberside at the time. He knew of my disapproval of the station’s football coverage and told me that one of the friends he was with that night shared my frustrations. Happy to be alongside a kindred spirit, I launched into a diatribe against Dave Gibbins, against the contemptuous way in which the station would treat Hull City, against the way in which no one was allowed to criticise the triumvirate of Needler, Fish and Dolan on air. I ended my rant with the line “the only saving grace on there is that Dave Burns”.
The gentleman laughed, held out his hand and said: “Dave Burns, nice to meet you.” We chatted for quarter of an hour or so, with my new friend agreeing with my assessment of his workplace and saying: “I wish I was in a position to change how we do things.” I smiled wryly, and went off to dance to what will probably have been a Pop Will Eat Itself song.
Most of you will have had some experience of how awful Radio Humberside’s coverage of Hull City was in the 1980s to some extent, and then throughout the 1990s. If rugby league was being played at the same time as football, none of the three Humberside-based teams got a look in (in spite of the fact that City and Grimsby’s attendances regularly topped those of the rugby teams). If City were playing at a time that wasn’t 3pm on a Saturday or a Tuesday evening, the station barely even bothered to cover the match, just relying on the news every half-hour to update the score. And in the 1990s in particular, it was helmed by Dave Gibbins, an Arsenal fan who seemed to delight in trying to antagonise Hull City fans.
Gibbins would drone on about Arsenal given the opportunity. He had a reputation for delighting more in the opposition’s goals than he did City’s (most famously in the 2-1 win in the FA Cup at Luton in the early part of Warren Joyce’s managerial reign). He would typically defend the owners of the club to the hilt, and if you rang up to utter a word of criticism you wouldn’t get far (as estimable HCSS member Dave Mulligan once found out, which led to Radio Humberside issuing him with an on-air apology). ‘Radio Rugby’ was an embarrassment, despite the brief efforts from the likes of Burnsy and Chris Harvey, and the likelihood of it getting any better seemed remote.
Then came Burnsy.
After Burnsy had left Radio Humberside in the mid-1990s, he’d worked as Radio 1’s sports reporter and then gone to Radio Sheffield. At Sheffield, he’d seen how a radio station that embraced its football teams could benefit both parties. He’d seen how post-game call-ins for fans could work. He’d seen how regular summarising from former players could work. He’d seen the opposite of what Radio Humberside was doing, and knew how successful that could be.
So, in 2001, when the call came from the head of Radio Humberside to take over a sports department that was, to use my favourite Shakespearean phrase, dead on its arse, Burnsy was only too happy to return to his former haunt to lead a revolution in how it covered its football teams. The only problem was that Hull City were, for much of East Yorkshire, hard to enthuse over. The club – in administration after Nick Buchanan and Stephen Hinchliffe had had their way with it – looked as if we’d been issued with one unpaid bill too far. Burnsy’s enthusiasm for revolutionising Radio Humberside’s football coverage was at risk of being over before it had started, given that its biggest club was at risk of going under.
Then came Adam Pearson.
Now I would never claim that Dave Burns had anything like as important an impact upon the fortunes of Hull City AFC as Adam Pearson. There are very few people in the club’s near-120-year history who could make such a claim. But the two men saw – and more importantly firmly believed in – Hull City’s potential, and its future. Pearson had the money, the vision, and he quickly had the fans on side. And Radio Humberside was more than happy to act as his loudhailer, his cheerleader, offering in-depth coverage that matched his ambition. Within a couple of years of Pearson taking over, Hull City were a fourth-tier football team playing in a Premier League football stadium, with a Premier League set-up and a former England manager. They also had, and don’t underestimate the importance of this, Premier League coverage from the radio station too. Local media can whip up enthusiasm for a club, and can engage potential fans. Radio Humberside was doing that and then some.
Hull City’s renaissance was given full and thorough coverage by Radio Humberside under Burnsy. A Friday night match away at Southend? No problem: full commentary and the proper treatment before kick-off and after the final whistle. Want evening sports news? No longer would you be relying on a couple of minutes tagged on to the half-five news, you’d be getting an hour of Sports Talk. Sport mattered to Radio Humberside. Football mattered to Radio Humberside. Hull City really mattered to Radio Humberside. And Burnsy was at the helm throughout this 360-degree change. His post-match phone-ins would often infuriate fans (“I wasn’t at the game today, Burnsy…” being a frequent opening from callers) and it was sometimes funny (“I’m so happy I’m going home for four Yorkshire puddings and a wank” being the line memorably uttered by one of Burnsy’s first ever callers), but it was highly preferable to no coverage at all.
Burnsy wasn’t one to simply parrot the club’s agenda, however. He would frequently be banned from the ground by Peter Taylor (mostly to be quickly forgiven). If he or sidekick Peter Swan felt the club warranted criticism, then it would be dished out. That’s how journalists should be. You always got the impression with Burnsy that he cared about the club – a lot – but he wasn’t going to toe the company line for the sake of an easy life. Anyone doubting Burnsy’s feelings for the club should try to listen back to his commentary at full-time, Wembley 2008. (Isn’t it great that we have to specify which Wembley visit we are referring to these days?)
While this is an article of appreciation, that doesn’t mean to say that Burnsy got everything right. Radio Humberside made a great start in challenging the Allams on the name change and everything thereafter when Amanda White grilled Allam Snr in a now-famous interview, but the station, and Burnsy, veered too much in favour of the Allams when trying to find the right balance in the eyes of many City fans. This reached a nadir when the fan ‘referendum’ held by the Allams as to whether the name change should go ahead was essentially waved through by the station (and the Hull Daily Mail) as being legitimate and meaningful, despite it containing many, many flaws that the fans, the national press, and even the FA report were able to easily spot. That said, when Burnsy did become more critical of the Allams in later years, commentary rights were taken away from Radio Humberside. Given that such decisions can put funding (and jobs) at risk, maybe we can be more understanding in hindsight of the predicament the station faced when dealing with what we can now joyously refer to as our former owners.
Added to this, no one can please all of the people all of the time, and that’s a task that a Radio Humberside sports presenter has to undertake. Burnsy has to engage with everyone from the City-mad teenager in Hedon to the 90-year-old great-grandmother in Goole. Being all things to all people is bound to bring critics, it’s bound to rub some people up the wrong way, but on the whole Burnsy has managed to hold the respect of the City faithful for more than 20 years. That’s some going.
As if his City-related commitments weren’t enough, Burnsy was to take on the mid-morning call-in on Radio Humberside. It was here where Burnsy was to show just how much the region means to him, and just what a decent human being he is. Any cause that needed support, Burnsy would offer it. Local bands would get the kind of prime-time airplay and support that very few prominent local radio presenters would offer. When I decided I was going to write my book The Decade, Burnsy couldn’t do enough for me. When HCSS member Craig Sargent passed away at a devastatingly young age, Burnsy and his team (the City-mad James Hoggarth, along with Helen, Libby and James, each of whom is a pleasure to deal with) saw our tweets about it, noted our fundraising efforts, and did everything in their power to help. In the hours after I’d appeared on Burnsy’s show talking about Craig, the donations to his family shot up at the fastest rate since we’d started the appeal.
Burnsy has been great for Hull City, for Hull, and for East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire (I will not refer to the area by the H word). He will no longer be hosting the daily morning show that has served the area so magnificently, and – in spite of the fantastic service he has offered – he is being made to wait to see if he can continue to report on Hull City. Do you remember the time in this country when we could have nice things? I digress. Burnsy deserves better than this. And so do Hull City fans. Anyone who can remember Hull City’s ‘coverage’ in the 1990s will feel at least some debt of gratitude towards him.
I doubt there’s a journalist that has made a more positive impact on Hull City over a greater length of time in our 120(ish)-year history than Burnsy. If the club is to exist for another 120 years, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will match what he has done. When news came through of the vandalism committed on local radio in the UK, and what this would mean for Burnsy, there was widespread despair among the public, even on that most hard of places to please: Twitter. Many were simply going to miss Burnsy’s presenting, but a good proportion of these people will have had personal reasons to be grateful to him. It is to be hoped that this isn’t the end of the line for Burnsy and Hull City, but if it is, then very simply, we owe him our thanks. He believed in the club when many didn’t. He took us seriously. He wanted the fans to have the coverage we deserved. And he certainly delivered on that.
This article appears in the 2023 edition of Tigers Eye – the Hull City fanzine exclusive to HCSS members – coming soon this summer. If you’re not already a member, click here to read more and join. Current members: don’t forget our AGM on June 8th!