The Decade: 20-year anniversary of Hull City’s promotion at Yeovil

It’s 20 years since Peter Taylor’s Hull City achieved the first in a series of promotions that led to the Premier League. This is the story of that day, as told in Rich Gardham’s book The Decade.

Hull City had been marooned in the bottom division of the Football League for too long. The 1990s had seen the club living on a hand-to-mouth existence under the chairmanship of Martin Fish, with winding up orders and relegations becoming familiar foes. When the club was sold to a consortium led by leisure mogul David Lloyd, with Mark Hateley appointed as player-manager, it seemed that the good times were back. How wrong we were. Lloyd’s temper tantrums and Hateley’s many managerial limitations left the club marooned at the bottom of the Football League, with a spell in non-league football only averted when a Sheffield-based consortium bought the club and appointed Warren Joyce to lead us to ‘the Great Escape’. Sadly, the two main figures of said consortium – Nick Buchanan and Stephen Hinchliffe – led the club to near oblivion over the next two years. With extinction a very real threat as the debts mounted and receivers were called in, Adam Pearson rode to the rescue, helped get the new stadium built, and all was well with the world.

Except it wasn’t. Off the pitch, everything was Premier League. Off it, we couldn’t get out of what we now know as League 2. Brian Little went on a quite astonishing spending spree for that level, bringing in 13 players in a summer after we’d been knocked out of the play-offs at the semi-final stage. When the results didn’t come, he paid with his job. Jan Molby followed, and quickly departed. Peter Taylor was the next in the door, but even he spent his first half-season at the club treading water as a bloated squad struggled to cope with being the prize target in the bottom division.

The 2003/04 season had shown a marked improvement. The squad contained the likes of Boaz Myhill, Justin Whittle, Damien Delaney, Marc Joseph, Andy Dawson, Ian Ashbee, Stuart Green, Junior Lewis, Ryan France, Jason Price, Stuart Elliott, Ben Burgess and Danny Allsopp. They’d delivered some great victories, such as the 1-0 home win against Swansea, which was bookended by thrashings of Kidderminster and Northampton. We’d beaten would-be champions Doncaster in a memorable game over Christmas in which Jason Price scored a hat-trick. A late Ben Burgess winner at Swansea over Easter left a first promotion in 19 years agonisingly close. But then we kept drawing – against Macclesfield, Southend, Huddersfield – meaning the champagne had to remain on ice. We couldn’t mess it up, could we?

  1. Doncaster P44 W26 D10 L8 Pts88 (plus 41)
  2. Hull City P44 W23 D13 L8 Pts82 (plus 34)
  3. Huddersfield P44 W23 D11 L10 Pts80 (plus 18)
  4. Torquay P44 W22 D11 L11 Pts77 (plus 23)
  5. Lincoln P44 W19 D17 L8 Pts74 (plus 24)

With Lincoln now out of the picture and Doncaster already promoted, the final two automatic promotion spots were between Hull City, Huddersfield Town and Torquay United. On May 1st, 2004, Hull City were away to seventh-placed Yeovil, Huddersfield at home to sixth-placed Mansfield, and Torquay were at home to 16th-placed Kidderminster. Essentially, City had to match Torquay’s result, or hope that Torquay could only draw in the event of a loss at Yeovil, to gain a promotion that had seemed so close after the victory at Swansea but just wouldn’t come. Only five teams had beaten Yeovil at Huish Park that season, so nerves were understandably frayed among the supporters. For the players, there was an element of calmness in the days running up to the big game.

Damien Delaney: There’d been a lot of big games that year, but once we started going down that back stretch, as great as the fans were, you’d get this sense of nervousness and uneasiness from them as they’d had so many lows over the years. It was like a lot of them were expecting us to throw it away. Whenever we were out on a night, people seemed nervous asking: “Are we going to do it?” I would be thinking: ‘Why are you asking me that? Of course we’re going to do it.’ We had that ultimate confidence. I was wondering why everyone was so anxious. It was going to happen.

Brendon Smurthwaite (City’s media officer): I went to Yeovil on the Friday, and it took us seven-and-a-half hours to get there. The bloke who checked us in at the hotel did everything: he’d check you in then go to serve you at the bar, then run off to serve you food. The next morning Peter Taylor and Damien Delaney came in and the guy said to Peter: “You know that every visiting team that has stayed here has lost, don’t you?” Peter didn’t say anything. It seemed like an omen.

Peter Taylor: We stayed away at a hotel near Yeovil. I was down with the staff for breakfast. Adam came in and I remember saying to him: “Adam, we’re going to get promotion today,” and he replied: “Well, I hope you’re right!” I was very confident. It was a tough game, and Yeovil were a good team with Gary Johnson as their manager. At Gillingham and Brighton I’d never had a promotion on home soil, so I was just confident because of that.

Andy Dawson: I remember the emotions going into the game. I was rooming with Jamie Forrester at the time and we were just speaking saying: “If we win tomorrow, we go up” and all these emotions were building, just asking yourself: ‘What if…?’ You have to go out and do it though.

Ian Thomson (City fan): I remember it like it was yesterday, and probably always will. We had gone into each of the three previous games with a chance of clinching automatic promotion if we had won, and ended up drawing each of them. Yeovil had play-off aspirations and many tipped us to bottle the game.

Danny Allsopp: I’m sure we wanted to secure promotion at home but it turned out we had to do it at Yeovil. I think they’d been up there in the table so we knew it wouldn’t be easy as they were near the play-offs.

Stuart Green: We were limping over the line. We’d looked like a team that was nervous in the previous games. We had a good training session the day before… lively, bubbly, but the hotel was horrific. We’d always stayed in nice hotels but it was horrible. We woke up and went for a walk, and there was just a feeling we were going to do it.

Ian Ashbee: The games before were becoming a bit of an issue. We’d had our chances and I was confident it was coming but there was a little bit of a wobble. Going away from home probably did help us with our nerves, and Yeovil is an arduous journey. There are always nerves, and you need them, but there were two games of the season left and so we were thinking it was a do-or-die game as we didn’t want it going down to the last game of the season.

Stuart Elliott: It was another difficult game. People don’t understand how difficult it can be to get over the line, with the emotions that you go through. You can’t play your normal game and we weren’t putting in the performances in that we had been in the early part of the season, which was understandable because of the nerves, but the Yeovil game was one that by hook or by crook we had to get over the line.

The away terraces at Huish Park were packed to the brim, as was the Vulcan Arena [later to become the Gemtec Arena] back at the KC Stadium, which was screening the game.

Marc Joseph: When we came out for the warm-up and saw the number of Hull fans that were there we knew it would be a high-pressure game, and it just emphasised what an important day it was for the club and the city of Hull. We knew that people were back home watching on the big screen. It was a massive, massive game for us. We needed to perform.

Nerves were settled when City were awarded a penalty in the 11th minute.

Danny Allsopp: I remember going down for a penalty which gave us the lead. I didn’t have to take a dive, but when we really needed a win I couldn’t believe my luck when the defender just wouldn’t let me go when I’d beat him in the box!

Stuart Green: Yeovil played some great football – they were a good football team. I remember Danny Allsopp going down to win the penalty, and I just started running towards the ball. I put the ball down and turned around to the bench. Pete would always sit down with the rest of the bench for penalties but they hadn’t. I knew I was going to score, I knew where I was going to put it, but I remember looking at the bench thinking: ‘Some of you think I’m going to miss,’ and I turned round and couldn’t have hit it any better. That end behind the goal just erupted. That settled us down.

A 1-0 lead at half-time was not enough to banish the nerves among the players or the fans, particularly given that Torquay had taken the lead against Kidderminster just before half-time. Then, for the first 25 minutes or so of the second half, Yeovil were undoubtedly on top. An equaliser looked likely, and came from a set piece when 6 foot 7 centre-back Hugo Rodrigues towered over the City defence to score from a free-kick in the 64th minute.

Andy Dawson: It was a massive pressure game. There were all the fans in the Gemtec, all the fans at Yeovil, a great start to the game. I was thinking: ‘Come on, just let the game finish now.’ Then I gave a free-kick away and the big lad scored for them.

Ian Thomson (City fan): We got off to the best possible start and it could have been even better when Allsopp hit the post, but when they equalised the tension was unbearable, even though a draw might still have been enough.

‘Typical City’ was going through the minds of every Hull City fan. Typical City is the notion that if anything can be screwed up, Hull City will find a way to screw it up, no matter how difficult it may seem to do so. Typical City is failing to go up to the top flight by a single point in the 1909/10 season. Typical City is managing to alienate Raich Carter when he looked to be leading the club to untold glory. Typical City is failing to capitalise on the Battle of Bramall Lane in 1971. Typical City is reaching the final of the Associate Members’ Cup in 1984, the year before it started to be played at Wembley. Typical City is finishing sixth in the old Second Division in 1986, the season before the play-offs were introduced. Typical City is being 2-1 up against the great Liverpool side of 1989 only to lose 3-2. Typical City is the optimism of David Lloyd and Mark Hateley coming to the club in 1997 only for it all to end in tears. Typical City is Adam Pearson coming in, spending oodles of money and getting the KC Stadium built, and having nothing to show for it on the pitch.

Our captain, our leader, our inspiration, Ian Ashbee, didn’t give a toss about ‘Typical City’. Ian Ashbee scored a goal in the 76th minute that would end 19 years of agony. Ian Ashbee’s Hull City career could have ended that afternoon and he’d still have been a Hull City legend. Little did we know he was only getting started.

Ian Ashbee: I think Ryan France went down the right, crossed it and they cleared it. The ball bounced to me on the edge of the box – Peter Taylor would drill it into us to get the second balls and keep the play alive – and I kneed it to Junior Lewis. I don’t know what he was doing but it hit his leg and fell back to me, and my momentum took me forward and it was just sat there. I just thought: ‘I’m going to bend this in the top corner,’ and to be fair, what I thought about then actually happened, which was not normal for me; I bent it in the top corner. Then it was just a feeling that you can’t replicate. At that point, to think about the history of the football club – I was living in the town centre around the people so I understood what it meant to them – that sent a feeling of elation going through my body that was something special.

Andy Dawson: He doesn’t get many, but he’d scored one previous to that at Southend. When he got them they were good, good goals. We got there in the end.

Stuart Elliott: Ian Ashbee talked about that goal for years to come. But it was a tremendous goal. Right in the top corner.

Ian Farrow (City fan): Oh what a goal! What a memory! I can picture it now and, of course, savour it whenever it is mentioned. A glorious goal. A glorious moment. The goal came out of the blue, and what do you do except go absolutely deliriously ape-shit crazy? We were behind the goal and I got carried forward, and then back. It was just a mass of people all losing their minds. If football is a drug then at such times it is the most beautiful of drugs where you lose yourself; nothing else matters and you love everybody and everything. 

Ian Thomson (City fan): It came out of the blue. It was at the far end from the City support, of course, and there was that moment you often experience from the other end when you aren’t quite sure – for maybe half a second – whether it has gone in, especially as we were to the right of the City goal and not, therefore, behind the trajectory of the shot. I remember desperately trying not to lose my cigar out of my mouth as the City support celebrated wildly. I also remember trying very hard not to think about the consequences of that goal: the previous 19 years had taught me neither to expect nor hope for anything where City were concerned. The emotion kicked in as the clock ticked into injury time and it became clear that Yeovil were not going to equalise again.

Marc Joseph: It was nail-biting. It wasn’t easy, but Ash scoring the winner was just meant to be. And what a goal it was! We just had a feeling of being invincible. We had such good players, and we felt if we got our noses in front we would see the game out.

Mike Hall (City fan): It wasn’t just the quality of the goal that makes it stand out – that goal was more than the culmination of that season’s work. It exorcised the ghosts of the previous 19 promotion-less years, and marked the catalyst for our rise up the divisions, with its scorer at the heart of it all. 

Damien Delaney: The game seemed to be going nowhere, then Ash scored that beauty and the rest was brilliant. That was one of the best days of my career. It was a great day for everyone and well deserved.

Ryan France: We’d had a couple of games to win promotion before then and we were saying: “This is getting serious now lads, we need to bloody win!” The games before Yeovil we were thinking: ‘We’ve got another game, don’t worry,’ but we got to Yeovil and it was like: ‘Lads, this is it.’ Every one of us stood up that day. It was more like how we’d been playing earlier in the season, turning up to teams thinking: ‘We’re going to batter you.’

Ben Burgess: I didn’t go to Yeovil as I was on crutches. I was driving to Hull while the game was on – I had an automatic, luckily – and was listening to the game, then when Ash scored I was bouncing up and down in my car. Where did that come from? He’s someone who doesn’t score goals, but he was there at the right time.

Ian Bunton (City fan): Having spent most of that season watching City with my dad, he didn’t want to travel to Yeovil, so we watched the screening in the Gemtec Arena at the KC. When the goal went in I can just recall trying to make sure my old man wasn’t injured in the melee of beer throwing and jubilation that ensued. Once it died down I can recall thinking: ‘Bloody hell, watching all that mediocre football for all those years was finally worth it.’ Hull City were on the brink of promotion, and things were starting to look good. As a friend has said to me on numerous occasions: “It’s where it all began.”

Martin Batchelor (City fan): We needed a win and for the winning goal to come from Ash was the icing on the cake. An unbelievable shot at the far end from us on the open terrace. When the ball hit the back of the net we went crackers. You can’t beat terraces for celebrations like that! I’m sure they could hear us back in Hull, even without the live beam-back.

Andy Dawson: It was a long 15 minutes though. It felt like half an hour.

The final whistle eventually went and the celebrations could begin. And how…

Adam Pearson: Everything was right about that set up. Yeovil were very gracious and knew how important it was to us. I wanted to stay out of the way of the celebrations as it was down to Peter and Colin and the team, so I stayed in the background, but I was really emotional about it as it had taken a long time to get it going. We’d been a bit flash and hired a helicopter to get back up for a concert by Blue so I left pretty quickly. I regret it to this day that I didn’t get involved more with the celebrations. But I didn’t want to be seen on the pitch and I didn’t want to take anything away from the manager or players. Maybe I should have enjoyed it more.

Peter Taylor: I felt we deserved it on the day. It was a brilliant goal from Ash. That was the difference. The feeling was fantastic. One of the first people I saw was Adam and I was so pleased for him because he’d put so much money into the club. It was just a lovely feeling that finally Hull City had got a promotion they should have got a few years ago. It was even better the days after when you saw the fans watching the game at the arena at the KC Stadium. I’ve still got the DVD at home and I love watching it. It just gives you so much pride knowing you’ve done a decent job and that people have got so much satisfaction out of it.

Ian Ashbee: I would have preferred to do it at home in front of all the fans, as it had been such a long, arduous journey getting there. There are many fans who’d been trawling around the country for years and years and put the hard yards in. Even seeing the scenes afterwards at the Gemtec Arena and the beers going everywhere, it was really, really good. It was a special time for me and for the football club.

Stuart Elliott: When the final whistle went I just remember looking at the Hull City fans behind the goal going crazy. It was the start of big things for us as a club.

Stuart Green: I’d come off, but I was thinking that the ref wasn’t going to blow up. We were ready to run to our fans. It was such a long, hard season. Such a battle. All of us had an injury, we were all shattered and we couldn’t wait for it to be over. We knew what it meant to the fans.

Ryan France: Running up to all the fans, giving my shirt away to a young lad: they were just great scenes. A proud, proud moment. I’d been a big part of a professional football team that was about to break records.

Jason Price: I had a dodgy amber and black wig on. The wig was an afro though, so it just looked like I’d dyed my normal hair!

Boaz Myhill: I always had the belief we could do it. Promotion is an unbelievable experience. I was delighted just to get first-team football but to get promoted was just unbelievable.

Danny Allsopp: The win was a huge relief and hugely satisfying for us. We knew we’d achieved something significant for the club.

Simon Maltby (City physio): There’d been very few down points that season, we had a good set of lads, the interaction between the backroom staff and players was really good. That success hadn’t happened by chance. It was no accident that we had a good set of players, good staff. It all just came together.

Dave Burns: I was quite chilled about it because I knew it was coming. There was a sense of destiny about it and I knew it would happen. The club was going somewhere. I felt that all the way through Adam’s time there, as he knew what he wanted and how he was going to achieve it. And I was so pleased for Ash. He was a top man.

Ian Thomson (City fan): It was profound happiness, yes, but more than that it felt like the end of the most horrible nightmare imaginable; we had fought through and come out of the other end after all the years of real misery, and it was that which for me brought a tear to the eye.

Brendon Smurthwaite: That season, and Yeovil in particular, was my favourite time at the club. It was the start. People realised something was happening. Sky had never bothered with us before, but Soccer Saturday started turning up.

Jason Price: The team we had on paper was too good for League 2. We knew we had round pegs for round holes. There were no bad eggs in the team. We knew what jobs we had to do, and we all enjoyed training. If somebody went out we’d all go out.

John Cooper (City stadium manager): The day that Hull City beat Yeovil away, by the time the game had finished we’d opened the gates for the Blue concert. But it was such a wonderful feeling. You knew the club was on the up. You knew something was happening. You knew by the way Adam Pearson was that he wouldn’t allow us to go backwards. That period was a very big growth spurt for the club. Foundations are so important to build a house on, and that’s what Adam did.

Ian Thomson (City fan): Despite so many memories that, at the start of the decade, would have been beyond our wildest dreams, Yeovil was the day when the rot was stopped, the boil lanced. From the very instant Ash’s shot hit the back of the Yeovil net, Hull City ceased to be a laughing stock.

Brendon Smurthwaite: The press box held about four people, so you were sat with a laptop on your knee. At the end of the game I had to walk around the edge of the pitch to get to the dressing room side. When I got there I opened the door and Jamie Forrester covered me in champagne. I knew I was driving John Holmes’ car back to Hull to get to the concert at the KC by Blue. Adam and a few others were going by air. I was stuck to the leather seats in my champagne-soaked suit for the whole journey. It was still a brilliant day though.

Rob Smith (City marketing head): I missed the Yeovil game. I stayed at the KC to organise that concert for bloody Blue. Afterwards I thought: ‘I’ve worked here 19 years and never had a promotion and now I’ve missed one!’ I probably put the job first, and when everyone got back that night from the game I started to really regret my decision.

Justin Whittle: Peter had said I’d have played if I’d got fit and I was desperate to be playing, but my back was taking a long time to heal. So I wasn’t there, and my biggest memory that season is the 1-0 win against Swansea, when I was marking Lee Trundle and the fans were amazing all night long.

Marc Joseph: I’ve still got photos around my house of the guys spraying champagne everywhere. It was a feeling of ‘job done’. We knew we were heading in the right direction.

Mike Scott (City fan): The 2-1 win at Yeovil had everything; a hot sunny weekend in a faraway, hitherto unvisited town; a packed away terrace with all the people you expect to be there, there; a seesaw 90 minutes where promotion was claimed, snatched away and reclaimed; and a fabulous goal from a true City hero that led to that special kind of mayhem and cavorting joy that only football can stimulate. City had been so poor for so long, fans had forgotten what a smattering of success felt like. That day in Somerset we celebrated deep into the night, blissfully unaware that this was the start of something unimaginable. That night, promotion to the third tier was all our dreams come true.

With a player who’d done so much to get Hull City in that position – Ben Burgess – sadly absent from the celebrations after suffering a terrible injury in the match against Huddersfield, one team-mate made sure he wasn’t to be forgotten.

Damien Delaney: I lived opposite Ben. We were like family, along with Alton Thelwell and Pricey. No one ever locked their doors and we were in and out of each other’s apartments. We’d become really close. We knew the extent of the injury. We knew he’d miss most of the following season. We really did feel for him, and I just wrote on a t-shirt in marker pen before the game as we thought we’d do something for him. That said, I always look at that picture of us celebrating at the end of the game when everyone’s in their City shirts and I’m in just there in this tatty white t-shirt with writing scrawled all over it.

Ben Burgess: It was a nice gesture, but I’ll always regret that I wasn’t there.

The third tier of English football is hardly the promised land, but to Hull City that summer represented a long-awaited symbol of progression. The next season would see the club come up against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley and Bradford, local rivals who had seemed a million miles ahead of City in recent years when plying their trade in the Premier League. We were at their level now. And we were to more than match them.

This is an excerpt from Richard Gardham’s oral history of Hull City, titled The Decade, available for sale at Amazon (insert link: The Decade: Ten Years That Transformed Hull City AFC: Gardham, Richard: 9781091525481: Books). All proceeds from the book are donated to Dove House Hospice (more than £15,000 so far).

Photos © Martin Batchelor

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