Thursday, 5 October 2017

A Man Of My Time

‘Sir’ Les Mutrie was a man who brought joy to City supporters when it was in very short supply…

When news broke earlier this week of the sad passing of Les Mutrie at the ridiculously young age of 66, it hit me a lot harder than I’d ever imagined. I’m one of these people who doesn’t tend to go overboard on “celebrity” mourning in the way that appears to have been a British trait since the death of Diana. But news of the loss of ‘Sir' Les was different.
What really brought it home was a picture that accompanied the Newcastle Chronicle’s tribute to this native of the north-east. It showed Les scoring – I believe – one of his four goals against Hartlepool in February 1982. It was the Tigers’ last game before they became the first club to call in the official receiver.
What struck me most about the picture – besides the aesthetic beauty of a City goal-scoring machine in full flow - was the backdrop showing a sparsely-populated Best Stand and Well at Boothferry Park. Although the attendance for that ‘Pools game has since been quoted as 3040, I remain convinced that there were at least forty-one fewer spectators in the ground that day. Certainly, in the unexpected “boom” weeks that followed the arrival of the Receivers, during which City’s attendances topped the six-thousand mark, many of us took perverse satisfaction in saying that we’d been there when there were less than half that number inside.
And that’s the reason why the news this week came as such a hammer blow. Les Mutrie was a man who put a smile on the faces of City fans when we had very little else to feel good about. There have been/will be better tributes posted about the man and indeed Hull City Southern Supporters Club, Amber Nectar and the HullDaily Mail have already produced some. For my part, I wanted to put ‘Sir’ Les into the context of what it was like to be a City fan at the time. His goal-scoring feats form a large part of my earliest memories of regularly watching City home and away. He was there at easily my lowest point during that time and was then instrumental in helping bring about one of my first real highs.
Here’s how I describe that particular period in my forthcoming (though don’t know when) er, book…

20 February 1982Hull City 5 Hartlepool United 2
Boothferry Park: East Stand terrace - no ticket; Programme 30p
While Simon Gray’s coaches ensured me and my mates were together door-to-door, the logistics operation for Saturday home games was slightly more fragmented but usually involved meeting up at Hull Station. Having alighted the Connor & Graham bus at Baker Street just before two o’clock, I’d meet Dave, Col and Doug off the No.76 EYMS from Withernsea. As their bus was in at ten past the hour, I’d stand near the old blue tuck-shop hut and watch the world go by (or, more precisely, check for any sign of trouble across at The Green Gingerman, the nearest hostelry for fans arriving by train). We’d then take the stroll through the Station and along Anlaby Road, during which we’d linger a few minutes at the top of the flyover and watch the rugby union action at The Circle (or even the cricket depending on the time of year). If Hull FC happened to be at home, we might be treated to the sight of those bedecked in black and white making their way to The Boulevard. In fact, the crowd could often be heard should the “egg-chasers” have kicked off earlier. Post-match we’d look to catch one of the numerous Station-bound double-deckers parked outside the ground. Otherwise we’d retrace our steps back along Anlaby Road, a walk that would leave me with just enough time to pick up the Green Mail from the dishevelled-looking vendor stood in Debenhams doorway before boarding my bus home. The interaction between him and his geriatric ‘runner’ Wally (whose speed in delivering the freshly-printed paper from the Hull Daily Mail offices hardly merited the term ‘hot off the press’) was often hugely entertaining if far from complimentary. It all added to what was an enjoyable matchday experience. Unfortunately, it was an experience that was about to come under serious threat.

The draw at Bramall Lane had extended City’s unbeaten run to six games but by the time Hartlepool arrived in Hull, things had taken a turn for the worse. First up was an ‘awful’[i] home defeat by Northampton in which the only light relief came via a letter in the day’s match programme. Its content was full of praise for one of the coach drivers to the Sheffield match and in particular his actions after a brick had been thrown through the back window. But it was the “P.S.” that caused much mirth among our little group when we spotted it:
“There was one other thing that spoilt a good game for me, that was the chanting some of ours did about Keith Edwards wife. I was never one of his ardent supporters but I felt a lot of the remarks were uncalled for.”In his reply, General Manager Gordon Dimbleby urged: “The sooner the laws of the land are amended to those of the 30’s the sooner the louts can be given the punishment they so richly deserve.” I’m fairly sure by this he was referring to those responsible for the brick-throwing and not those who sang about ‘Chalky’ and Mrs Edwards!
After defeat by The Cobblers, Mike Smith bemoaned missed opportunities and Billy Whitehurst’s sending off in the three-nil midweek reverse at Peterborough. He also rued City’s apparent inability to “cope with the physical challenges” of the Posh game and at Tranmere, where City drew two-all the following Saturday. Despite “having a hamstring strain”[ii], Les Mutrie scored both the goals at Prenton Park. He went two better as a Hartlepool team featuring future Tigers boss Phil Brown were thumped 5-2. It was City’s highest League score for nine years and would be labelled “Mutrie’s Massacre”. The goals took the Geordie’s tally to 18 for the season, enough to earn him an interview on Sunday’s ITV highlights show and setting him well on the way to creating a club record of scoring in nine successive League games. He was the club’s biggest good news story. Indeed he was the only good news story.
Unfortunately, Sir Les’s headline feat was soon eclipsed by a much bigger story enveloping the club. The Tigers were losing £9,000 a week. With one of the best City performances of the season having been reportedly watched by only 2,825 spectators, bringing in receipts of just £1,700 it was the final nail in the coffin. Five days later, on Thursday 25 February 1982, with Christopher Needler taking advice to withdraw his funding, Hull City became the first club in the country to call in the official receiver. The statement issued by the club read:“Mr Needler, who has supported the club over the past years to the extent of some £325,000 with further bank guarantees of £225,000, has been advised that he should not, in all the circumstances, continue funding the club.”
In other words Hull City had simply run out of cash.

The four goals against Hartlepool form one of my three magical memories of watching ‘Sir’ Les in black and amber. The other two come courtesy of superb individual goals, both scored in the month of October a year apart.
The first came in 1982 on a Friday night at The Old Showground in Scunthorpe, when Les’s late strike ended the home side’s best ever start to a season (nine matches unbeaten). Their manager John Duncan was a man who I and many City fans would come to love to hate, basically because it was hard to recall him ever having a good word to say about his team’s rivals from north of the Humber. There were over seven thousand in the ground that night and it was the large visiting contingent at the Donny Road End who were to leave the happier; Mutrie picking up a pass late in the game before skipping his way through the Scunts’ defence and slotting home at our end. The fact he scored this goal in that brilliant white away shirt capped things off perfectly.
The other standout goal for me came almost exactly a year later and formed part of a wonderful win over one of our nearest and dearest, Sheffield United. City won 4-1 and Mutrie’s effort topped things off, as described in fanzine ‘On Cloud Seven’:
“It was Mutrie who put the icing on an already very tasty cake, by waltzing (watch him go!) from near the corner flag at the now neglected South East corner into the middle of the penalty area before stroking the fourth goal past the bemused Keith Waugh.” 
Wonderful stuff.

Whilst compiling this piece, I’ve remembered another Mutrie moment that brings a smile to my face; it came via a night game at Rochdale in April 1982, a game settled by ‘Sir’ Les netting the only goal. He celebrated by swinging on the inside of the goal-net in front of the two-hundred or so of us who’d travelled across. It was one of those special moments of ultimate connection between player and supporters. Sir Les was responsible for plenty of those.
Over the past few days I’ve read and heard many a post from City supporters of that era, some humorous, some very touching and all displaying the complete affection we had for the man.
RIP Sir Les. 

Pictures courtesy of Hull Daily Mail, Newcastle Chronicle & Col U Day By Day 

[i] From Mike Smith’s programme notes (v Hartlepool, 20/02/1982)
[ii] Same as ‘x’

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