Fantasy football was just beginning to grow in the early nineties when I was at University. I seem to remember the Telegraph had one of the biggest leagues. Then the Baddiel and Skinner’s programme came out and it exploded. Everyone seemed to have a team and ironic names were all the rage. I remember I was living in a student house at the time with Mancs, Scousers and Irish lads, all of which had teams and who were all infinitely tickled by my fantasy league team’s name. Yet it wasn’t hipster ironic or self-depreciating. It was factual.
My team from 1993 until I probably got bored of having teams was “Billy Whitehurst is god”.
After the derisive reactions and howls of “who!?” from Premier League supporting mates I’d occasionally explain. But truth be told I didn’t really care about what they thought. I knew Rambo Billy was a real life super hero, and like minded City fans knew that too.
Billy is almost a myth these days, mentioned in hush tones by players from the eighties and nineties. He’s done lots of jobs since his retirement and I don’t think he seeks much media but one thing is clear. In the era of which he played it’s the general consensus that he was the hardest man in football. Even the so called “hard” players openly admit they were scared of him. And they were.
There’s so many stories to back that up. He once gave three Bradford City players stitches in the same game, and allegedly he knocked out three Bournemouth players in one incident when playing for Reading. I remember hearing about a game at Bradford City in his second stint when traffic was at a standstill by the ground around 2pm. Billy (driven by Iain Hesford) then undertook the cars on the hard shoulder hanging out the window and encouraging those stuck in traffic. I believe he scored and we won.
I think it’s safe to say he was a one off and everyone who ever met him would concur. However what about the player? When I first saw him around 1982 he was still raw, but between 1983 and 86 (a period that saw two promotions) he was a highly effective target man. His goals catapulted the Brian Horton led City team to return to the second level in 84/85 and eventually his form led to a big money move to Newcastle United the next season.
I think in this golden period he had two huge factors that helped propel him and meant that the same runaway success was never truly replicated. One as covered before in a previous blog was the brilliant guidance and coaching of Chris Chilton (who Billy has regularly recognised as a key influence) and the second was another Billy but one who could barely be more different.
Billy Askew was a diminutive but technically gifted player that had quietly gone about being one of our most consistent performers in the same period. He would also get a big move to the same club (Newcastle) years later, however it was in combination that the two were so potent.
Askew put the ball on a sixpence from out wide and Whitehurst was peerless in the air. I lost count of the amount of times I saw the two combine for goals. You just couldn’t stop it. Give Bill the brilliant football brain of Chillo and the finesse of “Little Billy” and he was a match for anyone.
One of my earliest football memories was watching Big Bill take recent England call up Mark Wright to pieces as City pushed Southampton to the limits in the league cup in 1984. Wright was some player then but the mix of great wide play and Billy’s physicality meant that he must have been considering a change of profession by the end of the night.
We’ve had great players like Jelavic, Robertson and Marwood, we’ve had tough players like Brabin, Maguire and Ashbee. But I don’t think we’ve ever had more physically intimidating presence than Bill and I don’t think another club has either, which gives us an unusual claim. We had the hardest player who ever put on boots. And I think we did.
Was Billy Whitehurst god? He was to me and if you thought he wasn’t… you can tell him.