Hull FC have enjoyed plenty of highs and lows in their 150+ year history, but few decades have been as diverse as the 1970s, and few seasons have been as glorious as 1978/79.
The club endured some seriously tough times throughout the decade with regular second division football, record low gates, and rumours of players failing to get paid on time or at all. It got so bad that at one stage, just 976 people turned up at the Boulevard for a game against Huyton in 1975.
In time that fixture became a novelty. If you ask any fan of that vintage they’ll remember it and of course claim that they were there to witness it – all 10,000 of them. Little did everyone know then though that Hull’s fortunes would soon change to mandatory five figure crowds just a few years later to witness the greatest ever era in the clubs history. During the mid-70s even the optimists, and with good reason, thought the club would never recover from the doldrums of that decade. It was tough, real tough, as paychecks went missing along with rumours the Airlie Street gates would be locked for good, but the club eventually turned a corner, and not without help from an organisation, an organisation called The Vice Presidents Association.
They were huge in changing around the fortunes of Hull FC. Despite a late surge for survival, defeat at Bramley at the end of the 1977/78 season had relegated the newly promoted Airlie Birds back down to the second division, and the Vice Presidents didn’t mess about to get Hull back up – this time for good. They paid an outright fee to sign Steve Norton, one of the clubs greatest ever players, and whilst Knocker and co couldn’t prevent the drop that year, Hull’s luck was soon to turn. Rejuvenated, the side had a coach in Arthur Bunting who everyone believed in, and his signings, such as Vince Farrar, Charlie Stone, Sammy Lloyd, Paul Prendiville et al, laid a platform for the future, a future adorned with silverware.
With the new boys added to club stalwarts like George Robinson, Chris Davidson, Brian Hancock, Graham Bray, etc, this Hull FC side went on to completely blitz the league, and they achieved promotion in record style – winning all 26 games which is a feat still to be matched to the present day. The Invincibles.
Bunting gave Hull a new lease of life. It was the perfect combination. He had grafters. Players that did all the ugly, unfashionable and often unseen work and who were prepared to go that extra mile for the cause. He had muscle. He had skill. He created a camaraderie like no other. He had everything. The signs were there to see the season before. When Bunting came to the club Hull were dead and buried, but Arthur brought some hope and almost pulled off the great escape.
The ambition to go straight back up was always there. Promotion at all costs and back then Hull fans were riding the crest of a wave. There were the long Danby’s Bus away trips to Whitehaven and the like where victory was never in doubt and Old Faithful was ringing around the terraces. It was all magical.
Arthur Bunting before Hunslet at home in 1979: “Our aim is to win all twenty-six matches and I want nothing to take the players mind off the job to be done.
“Making presentations before the kick-off relaxes the players too much. I remember I was coach of Hull Kingston Rovers in 1975 when Huddersfield pipped us to the Division Two title. We played them in a Premiership match and after they had gone round with the Championship trophy, we thrashed them. I don’t want that to happen today. The players have worked too hard building this record to let it slip now.
“They want to get in the record books and stay there, because nobody can beat the unbeatable.”
The 1978/79 league season ironically kicked off at Bramley. Hull exorcised their demons, as they did a couple of weeks earlier in the Yorkshire Cup, with a 17-9 win. The side then smashed Oldham 61-10 where Sammy Lloyd equalled the club record for goals in a game. He nailed 14 attempts through the posts that day. The record had stood since 1921 when Jim Kennedy set it against Rochdale and was again equalled by Matt Crowther in 2003. Lloyd with his massive moustache and elaborate kicking style in fact went on to attain the club record for total goals kicked in a season with a massive total of 170, and points in a season with 369.
Whilst every other fixture wasn’t as comfortable, that Oldham game showed how strong Hull were. Bunting’s side were going places and actually beat first division opposition on more than occasion before getting knocked out the cups and they didn’t disgrace themselves in any of them – not even against the touring Australians. The fact that Hull knocked the Loiners out both the Floodlit Trophy and Challenge Cup competitions made both cup runs all the sweeter. St Helens and Bradford proved the stumbling blocks, but the league was a different story.
Despite some big scalps and big scores, Hull also had some tight results and it wasn’t all plain sailing. Hull were seen as “the team to beat” in that league and a couple of sides, ironically one of which was Huyton, even transferred their home games to the Boulevard to get more revenue, such was the dramatic rise of the clubs support.
Batley were another to reverse their home game to the Airlie Street site and the game was played on an ice rink never mind a rugby league pitch. Winter rugby indeed, but Hull won it 20-0. Tighter battles followed. Hull edged Blackpool 14-13 again at the Boulevard, scraped past Bramley 8-5 and in the penultimate game at Oldham, a clash at the famous old Watersheddings ground certainly lived up to its billing. It was mud bath, with Hull coming through 10-5 winners.
Sammy Lloyd: “The season was something special, unique and packed with drama. We were under so much pressure. Not because of promotion, we’d already got that by the time we played Hunslet, but because we could create Rugby League history by winning every league game we played.
“All the boys were aware of how massive that was and the fact you don’t get a second chance – a defeat or draw and that would have been it. It showed in our performance because we were tense and nervy and struggled to produce the form we had shown in winning the other 25 games. But the key was we had to class and quality to dig our way out of trouble and come up with the goods when it mattered.
“That’s the sign of a good team and we were just that as we proved over the next few years.”
The final game of the season was on a Friday night against New Hunslet and it was Hull’s chance to get their name printed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Boulevard was packed to the rafters with a record second division crowd of 12,424 and a tight and tense battle was to unfold. Norton kicked a drop goal for a 1-0 half time lead. New Hunslet, having also gained promotion to the first division, were dogged and a tough nut to crack. They levelled the scores with their own one pointer before Charlie Stone of all people scored the only try of the game. This was the 144th try of the season and proved to be enough – sealing the 26th league win of a historic year.
Like that game against Huyton, everyone wanted to say they witnessed a piece of history, they wanted to say, ‘I was there when Hull won all 26 league games’. It was a unique occasion, it might not have been a major trophy or so to speak, but that night for a lot of fans who witnessed the doldrums of the 1970s, it ranks right up there.
For nine months Hull were the kings. No-one could knock them off their perch and they entered the first division a few months later as a force to be reckoned with.