Wednesday, 26 November 2008

"The Cup Tie"

Hull City visit Stoke City this weekend, reviving memories not just of recent incidents of coin-throwing and penalty-saving, but of one of the most infamous games in the Tigers' history. Boyhood Dreams asked IAN THOMSON to recall a day which still makes a generation shiver with rage. Even if you were born after 1971, you may feel pangs of fury upon reading this:

Ask any supporter of Hull City AFC of a certain age for the first thing that comes into their heads when the words "Stoke City" are mentioned, and the response will be unanimous: "The Cup Tie". No further elaboration is necessary, even though there have been cup-ties between us since. No single game could ever stand out in the memory more (well, until the play-off final last season, anyway). No single game could ever be the source of more controversy, heartbreak and injustice. No single game could ever generate more hatred of a football team, a hatred which even now burns fiercely in the pit of the stomachs of the aggrieved with an intensity that actually seems to increase with the passage of the years.

For the uninitiated, "The Cup Tie" was an FA Cup sixth round encounter between City and Stoke played at the Tigers' former home, Boothferry Park, on 6th March 1971. The appointment of Arsenal centre-half Terry Neill as player-manager had roused the Tigers from the torpor that seemed to have set in after Ipswich beat us 5-4 in the autumn of 1966 and knocked us off the top spot in the old Division 2, and once more City were in the ascendancy, with the prospects of finally making it into the top flight and possibly even a maiden trip to Wembley in the Cup set fair. In the Cup, the Tigers had comfortably seen off Charlton and Blackpool, the latter a top flight side that season, and in the fifth round nervously overcame a determined Brentford side at the death in a very tense affair. Fortune smiled on us in the draw for the 6th Round with a fourth successive home tie, this time against the men from the Potteries, a middling top-flight side at the time noted, as now, for their physical ability as opposed to their flair, but boasting the greatest goalkeeper in the world at the time and possibly of all time, Gordon Banks, between the sticks. A tough proposition, but then they all ought to be at that stage, and equally Stoke almost certainly wouldn't have been fancying a trip to Boothferry to face Ken Wagstaff, Chris Chilton et al.

41,452 souls crammed into Boothferry that day: the last occasion on which a Hull City home fixture attracted a crowd of 40,000. The ground was seething: if you look at footage of the game even now the atmosphere seems to escape from the TV screen or computer and engulf you. Tiger and Potter (there were 10,000 of the latter in those far-off days when you had to give the away team 25% of the tickets), stood, jostled, swayed and surged shoulder to shoulder. And within 25 minutes of the start we were two up and coasting, both goals coming courtesy of the maestro himself, Waggy, showing great composure for the first and famously sending the great Banksie the wrong way for the second after a one-two with his equally-celebrated striking partner, Chillo, had opened up the Stoke defence as effortlessly as if it were an oiled zip-fastener.

It ought to have been three as well, when winger Ian Butler fed Waggy, who cut inside to go one-on-one with Banks, but fired his shot just past the far post. But that proved a turning point. Although gifted with some marvellous players, City were saddled with quite a few less accomplished ones as well, and you somehow felt that this game wasn't quite put to bed. And so it proved, when on the stroke of half time a through ball down the inside-left channel had Terry Conroy, by far the most pacy and skilful of the Stoke team (not a very strong field, admittedly) showing his marker a clean pair of heels, easily evading goalkeeper Ian McKechnie's rash challenge and slipping the ball just inside the post.

We gave it all we had in the second half, but seemed edgy and distracted while Stoke were composed, strong and direct. Would we hang on to our slender lead? Not a bit of it. Close to three-quarter time, and McKechnie flaps at a John Marsh free-kick, the ball is fired back in low and into the City net off the shin of lummox centre-forward John Ritchie.

OK, so 2-2 was about right at that stage in the game, but we were still in it - until referee John Homewood decided to put his grubby mark on the proceedings. Stoke hit the ball out of play some 30 yards from the City goal, a Stoke player audaciously picks up the ball and throws it in (although the inexperienced City left-back Roger de Vries was close enough by to have taken steps to prevent that particular piece of chicanery, it must be said)... and inexplicably play is allowed to carry on. The ball is crossed from the by-line, McKechnie - as good a shot-stopper as you would find on his day, but dangerously erratic in other aspects of his game - is caught woefully out of position, and Ritchie has a free header from about two yards. The Stokie soapdodgers cavort in delight, arses hanging out of their trousers, on the Boothferry terraces - a sight as nauseating as it was heartbreaking.

But it gets worse, and the felony of the Stoke goal-that-never-was is soon compounded. City pile forward with renewed energy in an endeavour to rescue the tie and force a replay back at the place that time forgot, and in the dying minutes Banks makes a superb save, diving to his right to claw away a Neill header... except that he didn't; the ball had clearly crossed the line, a fact clear to everyone except the officials.

And that was that. The history books show that we lost 3-2, but had the game - at least in its latter stages - been refereed according to the rules, that same history book would instead have recorded a City v Arsenal semi-final.

For almost 30 years - until the nakedly-biased refereeing of David Laws even more outrageously guided Hednesford to Cup victory against City at Boothferry - that Stoke game marked the greatest injustice ever perpetrated upon my beloved Hull City. I was ten years old at the time, and was beside myself with anger and grief, not trusting myself to speak as we left the ground for fear of shedding a tear. I was pushed to the limit on that front when a clearly-jubilant middle-aged woman wearing a red-and-white scarf stuck her face in between my mother and me from behind, and exclaimed, "Ee, you gave us a bit of a run for our money there". It took the passage of many years and the growth of my Christian faith finally to put a check on the agony and suffering that I wished on that woman. I wasn't the only one with murder in my heart either; the Stoke fans had a pretty rough time of it out on the streets surrounding the ground.

Even though I laughed out loud when Stoke themselves blew a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in the semis, and more recently gloated for all I was worth a couple of years ago when a late Nick Barmby equaliser at the Britannia denied Stoke a play-off place, my anger over what happened that fateful day when the cheating, malodorous scallies of Stoke robbed us of our semi-final will I fear never be assuaged. You see, every time I see or hear the name "Stoke City", The Cup Tie is the first thing that comes into my head.

Ian Thomson is a member of the Tiger Chat mailing list and a reporter for spin-off site On Cloud Seven.