The Needler Era

Last updated : 03 January 2007 By James Lodge
Harold, John and George Henry Needler came from a humble background and through hard work and an element of luck found fortune through their business background, which embraced building and development and construction materials.

They became associated with Hull City at the beginning of the 50's and their influence continued (with Harold's son Christopher prominent) into the 1990's.
To people outside of Hull the family were usually mistaken as being the Needler's chocolate dynasty.

By the mid-50's the Needler family had effective control of the club and Harold was installed as Chairman of the Club.

There is no doubt that the family as a whole had an influential effect on the club. But I would like to do a little more than just highlight the obvious. Until the 1960's much of the development of Boothferry Park had been achieved with grants and loans. To what extent, if any, companies associated with the family benefited from this work is unknown but it certainly enhanced their investment.

What is a fact is that BP became one of the most praised playing surfaces in the country, many saying that it vied with Portman Road (Ipswich Town) as the best. What few people know is that it was not just Stan Coombs and his team who achieved this. John Needler took a great interest and it was a common sight to see him after a game or on a Sunday morning walking the playing surface replacing divots and, with penknife in hand, removing weeds.

And there is no doubt in my mind that the surface contributed to the success of Wagstaff, Chilton and the rest as they did not have to plough through a quagmire every week. It positively encouraged football and passing and dribbling skills.

But before Wagstaff, Houghton and Butler arrived so did some money. Money that was to purchase them, build a new South Stand, an indoor training centre, and pay for the best floodlights in Europe at the time.

Now, I am not questioning for one minute the fact that Harold Needler and his brothers wanted to see the Tigers be an (old) First Division club. But his gift to the club appears to me to have been one of the finest pieces of tax avoidance I can imagine.

Harold gave the club shares in his Hoveringham Gravels business. Now that had grown exponentially over the years and had he sold the shares and given cash to the club he would have faced a substantial tax liability. By giving the shares he made no gain, although in reality he gave them to a company in which he may not have had a personal controlling interest but through his brothers a de-facto one. Shortly afterwards Harold Wilson and a Labour Government came to power and not long afterwards the top rate of tax was 98%. Now that to me is good business.

Of course, the majority of the money went on the ground infrastructure (of which what proportion of work was done by companies associated with the family we also do not know) and eventually it is known that the ground passed from ownership of the club to a separate company.

If Harold had a fault he was too cautious. It was he that gave Bob Brocklebank 5 years at the helm. He gave Cliff Britton a ten year contract but Terry Neill was brought in after 8 and Britton elevated to General Manager. If Harold was cautious, Britton was renown for being ultra-cautious. And far too loyal and sensitive. He had the vision to buy 3 quality players at sensible prices. But others should have gone over the years. And his other signings where not of the same calibre. A stronger Chairman would have pressed for that. The money was there. Ground maintenance was minimal with the new builds and refurbishments and attendances were consistently high and would have been higher with better performances.

Britton's sensitivity was shown when during the famous cup run in 1966 when Tommy Docherty, obviously trying to psyche up his players, made disparaging comments about City only being a Third Division outfit etc. Britton took that personally as he had managed 'The Doc' at Preston and it was on his (Britton's) recommendation that Docherty got the Chelsea job as manager. Cliff Britton was a gentleman... his best attribute and his greatest fault.

But Harold was not always cautious in the sense he had vision. Who remembers the plan to extend the south stand around the western corner and to replace the West Stand with a continuous structure. Or the plan to extend the east stand at least to the full length of the playing surface. But neither came to fruition.

Like Britton, Harold Needler was a gentleman and I suspect that his success in business was more through being astute and 'being in the right place at the right time' rather than being ruthless. However, as good as the Needlers as a family were to some staff it is sad to say that they did treat some other staff quite shabbily for reasons best known to themselves.