In April 2016 I made a phone call. Chris Chilton answered. “Errr… hello Chris, it’s Richard Gardham here, I’m writing a book about Hull City to raise money for Dove House Hospice. Are you OK to chat?” I had to stop at that point because I’d forgotten how to breathe and talk at the same time. Chris was understanding, courteous, kind and generous with his time. And there was no going back now. The book was ‘a thing’.
A few days later, I’m interviewing Ryan France. I’m still terrified but loving it. Within minutes, Ryan feels like my best friend. I come off the phone and tell my wife that we’ll have to get divorced so we can remarry with Ryan as one of the ushers, such was the level of friendship we’d built over the past hour. A few days into my book-writing career and I had the club’s record goalscorer and one of the Fab Four to have played in all four divisions. Advice comes in from a former PA colleague – James Smailes at the HDM – that if I want Adam Pearson (and I really need Adam Pearson) I have to go through his PA, Louise. I manage to contact Louise. “I’ll pass on your email address to him, but he doesn’t really talk about Hull City anymore,” I’m told. Maybe those first few interviews had made all of this seem too easy. Ah well, there were bound to be setb… what’s this? An email from Adam himself telling me that the book seems like a great idea and he’ll happily speak to me! Back of the net!
The next week, I’m sat outside Adam Pearson’s office awaiting our interview. “Adam will be 10 minutes late as he’s with an important guest,” I’m told. Of course he is, he owns Hull FC now. It’s probably Bob Gaitley or Fred Ah Kuoi. It isn’t. Ten minutes later Nick Barmby emerges from his office. You need strokes of luck. This is a stroke of luck. I pounce. My voice reverts to the exact pitch it was when I was 11. “Errr… Mr Nick Sir, sorry to bother you but I’m writing a book about Hull City – independent of the club – and I was wondering if you’d be interested in talking to me for it?” Of course he isn’t. The club have just removed him as our manager in the most unpalatable way imaginable. “Leave me your number and I’ll see what I can do,” he says. I interview Adam Pearson. I’m interrupting his lunch but he’s still keen to get this right, to give me all the time I need. He pulls out a sandwich from a knackered Tupperware box. Several bits of lettuce fall on to his desk. Everything about him screams MAN OF THE PEOPLE. He didn’t have a drink, but if he had it would almost definitely have been a Capri-Sun. He’d almost definitely have struggled to puncture the little silver circle with the spikey side of the straw. We finish. “You’ll really need Nick for this, won’t you?” he says. “I’ll have a word.”
The next day, I’m in a meeting at work. A number I don’t recognise is ringing me. I can’t answer it, as I’m in a meeting. Imagine if that’s Nick Barmby. Except life doesn’t work like that. I’ve used up all my luck already. It’s not Nick Barmby. The meeting lasts three days. I emerge, emotionally exhausted from pretending to myself that yesterday I met Nick Barmby and today he’s ringing me up to do me a favour. The number comes up on my phone again. I answer. I hear Nick Barmby’s voice. I want to cry. He wants to arrange a time for us to meet up so he can feature in the book. We meet the next week. I’m meeting Andy Dawson later that day. Both are normal. Too normal. Because they’re supermen. How dare they be this normal, this friendly, this helpful? Both will send me texts over the next few years with messages of encouragement, messages wishing me a Happy Christmas, messages offering more help if I need it. ‘Never meet your heroes’ they tell us. What ‘they’ don’t tell you is that – in the case of Hull City players – you shouldn’t meet them because their decency and kindness will leave you utterly humbled.
The interviews come in thick and fast. Paul Duffen says yes. “Can you meet me at the Ivy in the West End?” he asks. “I’m a member, just mention my name on the door.” I turn up, a North Hull Estate lad with a personal waiter in the Ivy as Paul Duffen describes every game of his tenure in immaculate detail. My mind casts back to Adam Pearson’s slipshod Tupperware. So much about their respective interviews says so much about the two chairmen who were to take us to what had been unimaginable promised lands. Paul offers to put me in touch with Phil Brown and Brian Horton. The whole things snowballs and snowballs and snowballs.
I should probably tell you a little about the book. It’s called The Decade: Ten Years That Transformed Hull City AFC. Those who lived these times tell the stories through a series of quotes, helped along the way with a bit of guidance from my narration. All the money will go to Dove House. I don’t want a penny for this project. Somewhat arrogantly, maybe, the enormity of what I can achieve gives it a strange importance in my head. This is first-hand history being recorded for posterity. Therefore it is important to Hull City, important to Hull. It should therefore benefit something that is important to Hull. Everyone in Hull will be touched by Dove House Hospice at some point. All the money it makes will go to Dove House Hospice. That’s only fitting. It’s a labour of love. I love Hull City. I love Hull. And boy have I loved writing this book.
Interviews. More interviews. All I want is interviews. They come thick and fast thanks to the magnificent Brendon Smurthwaite. Brendon was the media officer at City for much of the decade in question. He knows all the players. They all love him. I soon find out why. He can’t do enough for me. I’ve never met this guy and he can’t do enough to help with the book. Dave Richardson gets in touch to offer his photo collection for the book should I need it. Dave was the club photographer from 2002 until recently. He’s a lovely man. So many people who’ve never met me can’t do enough for me. Phil Buckingham at the Hull Daily Mail offers his vast array of contacts. Great. One of them is Phil Parkinson. “Are you sure he’ll want to speak about his time at City?” “Yes, he’s a great guy and very honest.” Phil Parkinson is a great guy and very honest. It’s one of the best interviews in the book.
Matt Rudd – of Amber Nectar and the 80s – ransacks his list of contacts. One of them is Peter Taylor. Get in!
“Hello Peter, my name is Richard Gardham and I’m writing a book about Hull City for a local charity. Would it be possible to speak to you for it?”
“Well no, not really.”
[Bugger] “May I ask why not?”
“I’m in the quiet carriage of a train. I shouldn’t even have answered my phone to be honest.”
“Ah, I didn’t necessarily mean now…”
I meet Peter Taylor in a gym in Basildon that weekend. He’s so normal. Several times we’re interrupted by people wanting autographs (his, not mine). Each time the person in question doesn’t just get an autograph, they get a conversation, they get asked about what they do. After the interview is over we chat about his grandchildren for 20 minutes. He’s busy building all kinds of apparatus for one of their birthdays. This man, considered by some to be a somewhat prickly presence in his time at Hull, is sat here explaining to me the difficulties he’s had in painting a particular piece of hardboard for the party. Nuts!
Two more rather poignant interviews come along. In 1982 I was taken to my first ever City match by my then-teacher’s husband and son. The son is now England women’s cricket coach Mark Robinson, who fits nicely into the ‘celebrity fan’ criteria. He invites me to the team hotel in Chelmsford to do an interview. I spend the first 10 minutes explaining how amazing his mum was to me at Fifth Ave Primary School. We then chat City as the England women’s cricket team sit around us in their pyjamas watching the Wales v Portugal Euro 2016 semi-final. They are the most polite, friendly, well-behaved international sports team I will ever encounter. I also chat to former City defender Neil Buckley. I grew up opposite Neil on North Hull Estate. He was about five or six years older than me and my idol as a young boy, given his footballing proficiency. I haven’t spoken to him in a good 25 years. Lovely bonuses from the book.
Old school friend Adam Lowthorpe puts me in touch with Mark Greaves. Mark chats with me for about 45 minutes and at the end asks who I haven’t interviewed yet. “You’ll want Ash,” he says. “God yes,” I answer. He then says: “Look, when I played for Hull United for him, I told him all I wanted back was him owing me a favour. I’ll make him speaking to you for the book that favour.” Here was someone I’d spoken to for the first time 45 minutes ago (though he did once accidentally concuss me in a cup final for our respective sixth form colleges) calling in big, big favours on my behalf. Why? Because Mark Greaves, like so many others I encountered, is a salt-of-the-earth, fantastic bloke.
Weeks later I’m sat opposite Ash. Wow. Passion, heart, emotion, all the feelings. Every last one. I’ll never forget that afternoon. Two astonishing hours. We finish up. “One more thing, Ash. Would you write the book’s foreword?” “I’d be honoured.” “No, that’s not right! You can’t be honoured. You’re Ian Ashbee. I’m the honoured one! Me. Sheesh.” You may have read the foreword. Ash gets Hull. He just gets it. More than me. More than you. Unless you’re the Bee Lady.
And still they come. Ben Burgess can tell me the league positions of all of our rivals at any point in the 2003/04 season. Craig Fagan wins the award for having the personality the most at odds with their on-pitch persona, given what an irritating opponent he was and given what an incredibly friendly, likeable bloke he is. Wayne Brown nearly chokes to death on the phone. Two cars crash into each other in the Lambwath pub car park next to where I’m interviewing Waggy. When I listen back to the interview the background is filled with expletives resulting from said crash.
Phil Brown next, finally. We can’t meet up in person. No matter, Phil spends a lot of time driving. A lot. Sometimes it’s to venues other than race courses. A four-part interview ensues in which Phil can’t give me enough time. He still loves Hull City. He still loves Hull. The anger in his voice when he describes hearing someone on the radio slag off Hull after it’s finished bottom of some survey or other is heart-warming. I love Phil Brown. Always will.
I try for the quirky. I know someone at Bath City who knows someone at Cheltenham Town. He knows Gary Johnson. I get the incredibly graceful contributions from the opposition manager at Wembley 2008. A contact at the Premier League puts me in touch with Alan Wiley. I’ve got the play-off final referee and to add to the list. Michael Ingham tells me how he kept City at bay in the final game at Boothferry Park in Darlington’s goal and then donned the gloves for Sunderland a few days later at the KC. Andy Daykin gives a fantastic insight into life under Buchanan and Hinchliffe. Tom McVie offers a view from the council on the building of the KC. Mark Bonner takes a break from running his furniture emporium to tell me about his one game, one goal, that kick-started the Great Escape. All magnificent stuff.
Speaking of the Great Escape, David Brown – now a podiatrist – puts me on to Brabs. It’s an interview I find tough. Brabs is a fantastic bloke and one of the most important players in our club’s history, but the manner of his departure, how it cut him up, is hard to listen to. The hardest of men seems close to tears recounting what happened, telling me just how much he loved Hull City and loved Hull. He speaks with a passion about the club that knocks you out. I hope the local media pick up on this and get him to speak to them. I hope that his position as a Hull City legend goes up a few notches because of the book.
A departure less emotional but no less interesting is Jon Parkin’s. Thanks to him the word ‘shitbag’ appears in my book, and I couldn’t be happier.
The swear quotient goes up when I interview Dean Windass over the phone. He’s terrific. He starts talking about the play-off final goal. He cries. I cry. Here we are, two grown men from rough council estates in Hull sat crying on the end of our telephones because nine years previous one of them had scored a goal. Football, bloody hell.
Martin Fish and Terry Dolan are lovely. I feel bad. Mark Hateley is warm and genuine, but is of the opinion he did a good as manager but was hamstrung by Lloyd. It’s not an opinion many seem to share. The Lloyd era is as grim as it gets, however. People such as the brilliant Rob Smith, the former marketing manager who served at the club forever, describe it as such, and they’d know.
Kevin Francis sends pictures of his car keys, as they are still attached to a Hull City keyring. Stuart Elliott recounting the 2004/05 season is mesmerising. Everyone still talks about the 4-2 win at Hillsborough in reverential tones. ‘That performance made us as a football club,’ Adam Pearson tells me. ‘That was everybody understanding that Hull City were back as a football club.’
The nice guys keep on coming. Justin and Boaz are what you’d expect. Brian Little justifies his tag as the nicest man in football. Richard Garcia can’t do enough to help me. Jason Price is every bit the character I’d been told he’d be. Lawrie Dudfield is a very popular figure to this day among City fans given his continued involvement with the various groups. He’s brilliant to chat to. I somehow get Geovanni. Even through a translator I can’t quite tell what he’s saying but it’s all going in there. Ken Houghton and John Kaye are disarmingly lovely for such great figures. Jon Whitney is the most down-to-earth man ever. I meet Terry Neill at the offices he works in in central London. I have 20 minutes of questions. Ninety minutes later I’m still on my second, as every answer takes a twist and turn through an incredible football career that takes in everyone from Bobby Moore through to the Great Train Robbers.
I started supporting City in the 1980s. There’s something about those early heroes. I speak to most of them, and they’re incredible. Keith Edwards starts by telling me how excited he is that ITV are bringing back Cold Feet. Billy Whitehurst is utterly fantastic and seems pleased to be chatting to someone about football and not fighting. Billy Askew and Garreth Roberts are as wonderful in conversation as they were in midfield. Jobbo is, unsurprisingly, calm and cool. Then there are the two interviews that have a poignancy I can’t quite describe.
Pete Skipper. I wasn’t to know he was to pass away less than a year after I interviewed him, but his words in the book, his support for it, mean everything to me now. A great man. As good as it gets. When I interviewed Les Mutrie over Facebook messenger, I knew he didn’t have long to live. But he was determined to get his recollections in the book. He was a wonderful, humble, generous man with a lovely family. The honour of conducting his last interview will never, ever be lost on me. At the HCSS we made Les’s last weeks happier than they’d otherwise have been. We helped his family in the weeks after he’d died. What an honour.
I know I’ve got something special on my hands. No one else does. I try to get some sponsorship, some advertising so that I can print the thing. No one is interested. I’ve got everyone I could wish to get other than an evasive Jan Molby but no one from a money point of view seems to ‘get’ the book. James Richardson, the man behind TigerTube, does some amazing promo videos. The Hull City Supporters Trust want to do a launch. My friend Jamie Brown – whose lovely mum had died in Dove House a couple of years before – designs an incredible cover. I just have to get the bastard out there with no money and no clue about what to do.
Direct publishing on Amazon comes to the rescue. It means no initial layout, but you’re dealing with nothing but bots, which is head-bangingly frustrating when anything goes wrong. But we get a proof. It’s beautiful. Amazing. I introduce it to my parents as “your third grandchild”. All is well, it gets its Amazon release. People start reading it, people start saying nice things about it. I’d hoped to sell 1000 by the end of the year. I’d sold 600 by early May.
We have a launch party at Mr Chu’s. It’s one of the best nights of my life. Ian Ashbee, Dean Windass, Ken Wagstaff, Jason Price, Justin Whittle, Craig Fagan, Mark Greaves, Matt Duke, Adam Lowthorpe and Tom Wilson come along. They are amazing. The night is amazing. Burnsy spends the night talking to my two grandmothers – combined age of 190 – to make their night. Ken Wagstaff’s daughter – one of the nicest people on the planet – asks if I’ll have my photo taken with her dad. I’m getting requests from the Wagstaff family! How does that work? I get Waggy to sign a book to send to Chillo. How do you put such an amazing experience into words? We have a tribute to Pete Skipper and all sign a book to give to his family, which evidently means a great deal to his wonderful son, Richard. It’s one privilege after another after another. My six-year-old son steals the show during the Q&A session, brilliantly hosted by Brendon Smurthwaite. I’m the luckiest man I the world.
I love Hull City. I love Hull. The book is a love letter to them both. At the time of writing, Hull City fans seem to love the book back. Thank you to those of you who have bought it.
I wrote a book. It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Richard Gardham was the chairman of Hull City Southern Supporters between 2012 and 2019.