By Nick Beanland
As someone who’s supported City since 1984, if I had to choose a manager to write about it would be one of those rare creatures who brought success to the club: Cherry, Dolan, Kamara, Jewell or Parkinson.
It would be similarly enticing to pen a piece about the man who’s preferred style of play made Peter Taylor’s team look like the epitome of stylish and inventive football (that’d be John Docherty for those fortunate enough not to have witnessed his crop of Millwall rejects sullying the claret and amber in the early 90s).
Putting a piece together about the Doc’s successor Frank Stapleton is a trickier task – City were 17th in the old Third Division when he was appointed in December 1991 and, when he was sacked by Geoffrey Richmond in May 1994, had risen to the less than dizzy heights of 10th in the newly christened Division Two.
The Docherty era was a hugely depressing time to be a City fan. In May 1988 the club had been a whisker away from promotion to the top flight and, less than two years later, we found ourselves relegated to the third tier. It was Docherty’s job to get us back up, but it never looked like happening and after 18 months in the job and with City 13th in the Third Division he was relieved of his duties.
The football served up by that City team towards the end of the Doc’s reign was truly awful and, following a pretty poor audition for the full time job from Docherty’s assistant Leighton James (which included a 6-4 home defeat against a Swansea team who until that point hadn’t won away all season), Stapleton was appointed on 9 December 1991. He was charged with bringing entertainment back to a Valley Parade which, for the season thus far, had hosted average crowds of a mere 5,004 – half the level of two years previous.
Stapleton was seen as a bold appointment by a City board led by Dave Simpson – as has so often been the case, the club was hard up and the incoming manager was told he would have little money available to strengthen a squad that was top heavy with the less than luminous talents of the Millwall reserve team that Docherty had plundered.
That said, Robbie James, Brian Tinnion and Lee Duxbury were all reasonable performers in the third tier; strikers Sean McCarthy and Paul Jewell were returning from injury (McCarthy was a fairly consistent goalscorer for City whilst Jewell guaranteed you a rash of goals in August and September before tending to dry up dramatically) and promising young players like Dean Richards and Michael McHugh were threatening to break into the first team.
Stapleton’s early signings made use of the little funds he had to bring in experience in the shape of Gary Williams (an experienced full back who’d won the European Cup with Aston Villa 10 years earlier) and Mike Duxbury (veteran midfielder signed from Blackburn Rovers, but best known for his 14 years at Old Trafford). Williams was largely excellent and, whilst Duxbury was never a crowd favourite, he looked after the ball more carefully than most. Later he brought in Noel Blake, the first City centre half to be given the less than thoughtful nickname of ‘Bruno’, and somebody who served us well for a couple of years with his uncompromising style.
The most experienced player of all was Stapleton himself, who at 35 made a number of appearances; and whilst he looked a little slow of movement, he was definitely not slow of thought.
It became clear that Stapleton’s initial priority was to make the team more solid and he succeeded to an extent, drawing five and losing two of his first seven games in charge. By this point the team had dropped to 21st in the table but it felt like – after the doom laden atmosphere of the Doc’s reign – things were slowly improving.
The team was starting to look like a team again and were at least attempting to play some semi-attractive football. A 2-1 home win over Terry Dolan’s Hull City brought some relief and triggered an improved run that saw City surge from 21st in January to 16th in May. I accept that ‘surge’ is perhaps slightly strong, but only five defeats in that period was proof that Stapleton had succeeded in his first mission – keep the team up – and also in his second – bring the fans back (average crowds were up to 6,200 by the end of the season).
The 1992/93 season dawned with change in the air. Mark Leonard had departed – Zico, to his admirers on the Kop. Other departees were Robbie James, plus Colin Todd – Stapleton’s first assistant, and most likely the key to City’s newfound defensive solidity – left for Bolton. Phil Babb, a centre half cum centre forward cum centre half again had been sold to Coventry City for £500,000. A figure which amazed me at the time, but he was sold to Liverpool two years later for £3.6m and was an integral and stylish part of the Republic of Ireland’s defence in the 1994 World Cup.
The board’s inability or unwillingness to support the manager was evidenced by the very few incomings; the stand outs being Colin Hoyle, a centre half signed from Barnsley who did a reasonable job for 18 months, and Chris Pearce, the ageing Burnley goalkeeper whose dancing skills were superior to his goalkeeping.
An erratic start saw the previous season’s defensive solidity slip spectacularly, particularly as Scarborough handed out an 8-3 drubbing over two legs in the League Cup. I recall, not fondly, standing on the crumbling terrace at the McCain Stadium as City slumped to a 3-0 defeat, only for many of those around me to take comfort in the fact Leeds were losing a Premier League game that evening. I felt unusual in thinking our time would be better spent thinking about our own team’s problems, which at that point included getting thrashed by a team who’d spent most of their life in non league. The more things change…
Anyway, despite another early season thrashing – 5-2 at Mansfield this time – and the traditional home defeat against a Kevin Francis-inspired Stockport, by late October City had risen to second in the table, beating Stoke City, Huddersfield Town, Preston North End, Hull City and Burnley (in front of 10,000 at VP on a Sunday lunchtime) on the way.
The weekend of Halloween 1992 saw 2,000 City fans descend on a freezing cold Victoria Ground, Hartlepool, as sixth hosted second. For some reason the game sticks in my memory for various reasons. Hartlepool, inspired by a local legend – the mildly annoying Brian Honour – eased to a 2-0 victory on a day so cold I am shivering just typing these words. The away end was a crumbling mess, far too full and City’s performance was as depressing as a trip to the Gents (a wall covered in years’ worth of accumulated scum).
Stapleton’s team bounced back though and an early November 3-2 victory over Fulham at Valley Parade saw City topping a table for the first time since 1987. Sadly the lack of depth and ability in the squad meant that the drift back down the table wasn’t unexpected, although a final placing of 10th was respectable, especially with better-supported clubs like Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers at the top of the division.
That season’s FA Cup campaign neatly summed the season up: a glorious 5-4 replay victory over Preston at Deepdale was followed by a hugely deflating 2-0 home defeat to Town. This was a team which was genuinely good on its day, but its day didn’t dawn often enough.
In the close season of 1993 Stapleton and his assistant Stuart Pearson signed new two-year contracts, but that was the only significant good news that summer. Money was still very tight and new signings included Gary Robson (Bryan’s younger brother) and Paul Showler: a tricky left winger who introduced some flair and the nickname PC Showler – he’d previously juggled a career in the Police with playing non-league football.
Meanwhile the team had gone from trotting out in the Frontrunner diamond kit – the worst City kit ever – to an Admiral shirt which was virtually all amber, save for a small splash of claret and black on the arm. Fans pined for the return of the stripes and for a new board – by this point the club was effectively for sale, but with no takers as yet.
The 1993/94 season opened well, peaking with a 6-0 demolition of Alan Ball’s Exeter City in late August. Sean McCarthy was City’s leading scorer of this era (60 goals in 131 appearances) and, despite being called McCarthorse by a minority of fans, he become the focal point of the team and it became inevitable he would depart, and depart he did, with Premier League Oldham paying £350,000 plus Neil Tolson (a trier but an infrequent goalscorer) for him in November 1993.
Having been top briefly, the team had slipped to 10th by late January when, finally, the change at the top happened with a most unusual boardroom transfer deal. Dave Simpson, City’s chairman, left to take over Scarborough, while their chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, took up residence at Valley Parade. He instantly loaned the club £2m to pay off debt and provided money for team strengthening, with the most notable early signing being the £200,000 spent on striker Lee Power from Norwich. Power looked sensational as he scored on his debut as City beat Swansea at Valley Parade, but within weeks he’d been struck with a mystery virus and was never the same player again.
Despite the cash injection, the team’s form didn’t change significantly, and when City lost their final away game of the season at Plymouth Argyle to confirm the play offs were out of reach, Stapleton was sacked. It always looked inevitable that a new chairman would want a new manager and so it proved.
Richmond, never one to hold his tongue, suggested that Stapleton didn’t work hard enough. Without knowing anything like the full story, I think the manager was harshly treated. He’d done a decent job for two and a half seasons with no money to spend, had brought finance into the club with the sales of Babb and McCarthy, and helped hugely with the development of young players, particularly Dean Richards and Graeme Tomlinson, who went on to be sold to Wolves and Manchester United respectively.
Without Frank Stapleton and the stability he brought, it’s very possible that the malaise of the Docherty era could have ended with City back in the fourth tier. Had that happened Richmond may never have taken over and the recent history of the club would be, for better or worse, significantly different.
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