The rise and the fall of Lee Radford at Hull FC

Now that the dust has somewhat settled on the drama of last Thursday night at the KCOM Stadium, it is perhaps time to take a look at how a coach, who was so very publicly backed on so many occasions by his chairman, ended up with his tenure being brought to a very abrupt end.

Adam Pearson once said: “As long as I own this club, Lee Radford will always be the coach.” So when did that stop being the case, and how did it get that far?

Having interviewed Lee Radford myself, many times, personally I always found him to be a very engaging, honest, truthful man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and who always walked around the Jacuzzi Elite Performance Centre with a grin on his face.

Having won trophies and reached many finals as player and coach, he commanded absolute respect from all who came into contact with him while he was in the top job at his beloved Hull FC. Even during the early struggles, when one might have been forgiven for thinking that the wrong man had been appointed to replace the sacked Peter Gentle, ‘Radders’ was still held in high regard by most on the west side of Hull. For some, alarm bells started ringing at Richard Whiting’s testimonial game away to Featherstone Rovers, as the Black & Whites were put to the sword by the Championship club 54-6 on what was a humiliating day.

Things didn’t get much better in that 2014 season, as Hull crashed out of the Challenge Cup at the first hurdle against a Salford side that they had thumped only a week before in Super League. Then there was the shameful defeat at Odsal against a Bradford Bulls side who were competing for safety from the drop alongside Hull, with Radford having seemingly made a mistake, according to the Old Faithful, by allowing his former club to select Jay Pitts and Joe Arundel, both on loan to Bradford at the time from Hull, who simply had outstanding games against their parent club.

Eventually Hull staved off relegation finishing 11th in a 14-team Super League at the time. Not long before a ‘RADFORD OUT’ banner was famously held up among certain fans as the Airlie Birds were given a 56-10 hammering away to then champions Wigan Warriors. However, one bright spot during all that turmoil was a 28-0 victory against bitter enemies Hull KR, the only time that either side has finished a Super League derby with a duck egg next to their name.

Radford endured a tough first season at Hull. Credit: News Images

What Adam Pearson showed he had learned by this point, having previously sacked Richard Agar and Peter Gentle, was that when you appoint a new head coach, it’s quite a long transition, as the new coach brings in his own backroom staff, his own players and stamps his style on his new team. So there was going to be no knee-jerk reaction to the struggles faced by Radford in his first season in charge, even when some people said he was still learning his trade and maybe needed a more experienced head alongside him.

However, in 2015, with the birth of the Super 8s concept, it had to be said that Hull FC definitely made promising progress under their former captain. They reached the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, only to be beaten by treble-winners that year Leeds Rhinos. Other big strides were also made as finally Radford provided, in the form of Leon Pryce and particularly Marc Sneyd, the specialist half-backs that Hull had been crying out for. The arrival of Sneyd cannot be overstated in just how much it meant to the club at the time. On many occasions, Radford has had to vehemently defend his goal-kicking scrum half from criticism, with the former Salford and Castleford player repaying the faith shown in him by producing back-to-back Lance Todd Trophy-winning performances at Wembley. Sneyd has also turned countless games on their head with his game-management skills and his kicking, which recently saw him take the club record of most drop goals for the club, which was previously held by Welsh kicking wizard Gary Pearce.

In 2015, another derby victory, this time a gutsy backs-to-the-wall effort at Craven Park, after losing their two talismanic players Gareth Ellis and Pryce to injury in the first half, confirmed Hull’s place in the Super 8s. It also condemned Rovers to the lottery of the middle 8s. Only one win was secured by the Airlie Birds in the Super 8s that year, but the fact that it came away to then defending champions St Helens certainly provided some of the gloss that their undoubted progress definitely deserved.

Preparations for the 2016 season were very good, and above all massively exciting for the Black & Whites, with the captures of Carlos Tuimavave, Mahe Fonua, Sika Manu and Frank ‘The Tank’ Pritchard gaining a lot of headlines. The season started with a thumping win at home over Salford Red Devils, backed up with another big win in the South of France against Catalans Dragons, as Hull ran up an impressive 80 points in their first two games. Three defeats on the trot, including a big defeat away to Widnes Vikings, which saw Radford locked out of the changing room while his players held an inquest into what had gone wrong, started to give the look of a new false dawn. However a tentative win at home to Wakefield Trinity, then a successful Easter with the thrilling comeback win at Craven Park on Good Friday and an exhilarating victory, with a much weakened side, against Warrington Wolves again showed that Radford was having a knack of getting the very best out of young and fringe players. This breathed new life into the campaign, while all eyes were trained on one particular prize, the one held above all others at Hull FC at that time.

A run of 11 consecutive victories, including a Magic Weekend win for the second time at Newcastle against local rivals Hull KR, lifted Hull to the summit of Super League. Such was the confidence that Radford had installed in his players, they even found room to allow superstars Manu and Pritchard to leave temporarily to play against each other in the Tonga v Samoa international. This was done despite the club facing a Challenge Cup game away to St Helens in a game that was definitely not a guaranteed win, even in their current form. However, the job was done in thrilling fashion as the Saints were put to the sword with Hull nearly rattling up half a century of points.

A comfortable victory at home to Catalans Dragons in the Challenge Cup quarter-final had the Old Faithful dreaming of another trip to Wembley, before a pulsating semi-final against Wigan Warriors at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster sealed their trip to the one place where every Hull FC team, coach, chairman and supporter had always wanted to win, and had failed on eight previous occasions, Wembley.

Hull took on Warrington in the 2016 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. Credit: News Images

The opposition were the expensively assembled Warrington Wolves, a team littered with star names like Kurt Gidley, Chris Sandow and Stefan Ratchford. Radford had already masterminded victories against the Wolves at the KCOM Stadium and the Halliwell Jones Stadium that same year, but this time they met at a ground the Wolves had been frequent visitors to in recent times, carrying off the Challenge Cup in no fewer than three out of four years in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Hull went into the final after creating Super League history by becoming the first ever team to keep two teams scoreless in back-to-back Super League games, as Widnes and Catalans were swept aside in devastating fashion, but of course Wembley had a meaning all of its own to everybody ever associated with Hull FC, and at 10-0 to Warrington with barely 15 minutes left, the omens didn’t look good for the Black & Whites again. However, tries from Mahe Fonua and Jamie Shaul, both created and converted by Sneyd, plus #Tackle52 by Danny Houghton to rob Ben Currie of what would surely have been a match-winning try, saw Radford write his name into Hull FC folklore, as the coach who delivered their first ever Wembley victory in thrilling style.

After that huge achievement, one which ended arguably the sport’s most famous ever hoodoo, and the predictably wild celebrations that went with it, Hull’s season rather tailed off, before an enthralling semi-final at Wigan saw the Warriors sneak their way past Hull to the Grand Final in the final ten minutes of the game.

A new goal was set in 2017, because Hull FC had never successfully defended the Challenge Cup before, a feat which is said to be the mark of a great team. Again, it was a challenge that Radford relished. While Castleford Tigers were busy hammering just about every team they came across in Super League, and giving the same treatment to Saints in the Challenge Cup, the Airlie Birds went quietly about their business, before making people really sit up and take some notice. They mastered Daryl Powell’s side in dramatic style, when reduced to 12 men for the last hour of their contest at the KCOM Stadium, defeating the Tigers in a two-point game.

The next job was to deal with the curse that Leeds held over Hull, again Radford came up with the perfect game plan, and in the Challenge Cup semi-final, again at Doncaster, exactly a year after the tense affair against Wigan, the Rhinos were simply cut to ribbons in a way that isn’t generally meant to happen in semi-final rugby. This ensured a swift return to Wembley and a chance to put the record straight against Wigan there, after the dismal 2013 final in which the Warriors nilled the Airlie Birds.

On that day Marc Sneyd created history, becoming the first ever player to win the Lance Todd Trophy outright in back-to-back finals, again repaying Radford’s faith in him, with a masterful display and his kicking proving the difference between the two teams. After Gareth Ellis held the Challenge Cup trophy aloft at Wembley for the second year running, there was a sense of déjà vu about the way the league season ended, with the Airlie Birds unable to reproduce their cup form in a narrow semi-final defeat to eventual champions Leeds. Despite this, it was still a successful season and Hull had established themselves as one of the ‘big boys’ of Super League again.

By this time, Radford had silenced all his critics and doubters, written his name into Hull FC folklore on the grandest scale and could basically do almost anything he wanted with the team, knowing he would have the backing of the fans, his staff and the chairman. But then it all started to go wrong in 2018, in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Hull were hit with injuries and stuttered along in Super League, eventually confirming their place in the Super 8s.

A Challenge Cup tie, with an injury-ravaged side away to runaway league leaders St Helens proved just a step too far as ill-discipline gave Justin Holbrook’s side too much of a leg-up, despite a brave fightback which only just fell short. The cup run ended in respectable circumstances, however the league season ended disastrously with no fewer than 11 consecutive defeats, making it a season that Hull were glad to see the back of, particularly after a 72-10 defeat at Wakefield Trinity and a club-record 80-10 defeat at Warrington Wolves just a few days after Steve Price’s side had been stunned at Wembley by Catalans Dragons.

Hull’s inconsistent 2018 campaign included a 72-10 hammering at Wakefield: News Images

Suddenly, heavy defeats were coming thick and fast, with Adam Pearson having to repeatedly defend his coach to the media and, most importantly, to the paying public. The club was, once again, in turmoil, as Pearson had to reassure fans, just weeks after saying that the squad didn’t need improving, that some ‘proper signings’ would be made for the 2019 season. However, the arrivals of Matty Dawson-Jones and re-signing of players like Joe Westerman and Jordan Thompson didn’t fire supporters’ enthusiasm in a time when Hull had a lot of big-name players coming to the end of their contracts. The new season started with a derby defeat in the last few seconds at Craven Park, followed by another loss at home to Castleford.

Things did get better after a run of 13 consecutive defeats, owed mostly from the end of the previous season, as Hull became the first ever team to win a regular Super League game in Golden Point extra time at the home of champions Wigan. Sneyd was unsurprisingly the hero with a drop goal a minute into the extra ten, after a gutsy display earned a 22-22 draw. The season continued with its ups and downs, as Radford struggled to find a formula to rid his team of its annoying inconsistency. There were some memorable games, not the least of which was a dramatic extra time victory away to Catalans Dragons as Sneyd kicked a 50-metre penalty to bring the scores level on the hooter, before kicking a drop goal to win the game. There were also 50-point victories against the Dragons in the Challenge Cup and in another memorable Super League game at Stade Gilbert Brutus in Perpignan.

However, an embarrassing 55-2 defeat against a struggling Huddersfield at Magic Weekend and a 60+ point defeats at home to Warrington and away to St Helens were becoming all too frequent for the Old Faithful fans. Those back-to-back Wembley victories were becoming distant memories, especially after another dreadful end-of-season run saw Hull miss out of the playoffs altogether having spent almost the entire season in the top five.

The 2020 season started with absolute optimism, as a new-look Hull FC side including new signings Josh Jones, Manu Ma’u and the returning Mahe Fonua dominated Leeds in the rain at Emerald Headingley. Tails were also definitely up as Hull KR were beaten in a classic-style Hull Derby, but then, predictably, the wheels fell off. St Helens overturned a half-time deficit to score four tries without Hull even holding the ball at any point. Defeat at Wigan followed and then a heartbreaking last-minute defeat at home to Catalans Dragons saw the alarm bells ringing.

However, another gutsy win after losing a lead followed, with Sneyd again the hero in golden point extra time at Wakefield, buying the under-pressure coach some time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much time, as another mauling at home to Warrington six days later signalled the end of Radford’s tenure.

Radford was sacked after Hull lost 38-4 to Warrington at the KCOM Stadium. Credit: News Images

After the game on Thursday night I was in the media suite where people were a bit shocked at the size of Hull’s defeat, their third in a row on home soil, but nobody was expecting what happened next. While we all waited for Radford to come in and give his usual post-match press conference, Hull FC CEO James Clark arrived instead, and immediately we knew something had happened. Mr. Clark confirmed that the club had parted company with Lee Radford in the aftermath of another heavy defeat, which we later found out had been announced live on Sky Sports just minutes after Pearson had informed Radford himself.

I can understand why people think it was controversial, how his dismissal was handled, having said that, I can also understand why Adam Pearson did what he did, because after a performance, or lack of it, I believe he wanted to spare Radford the wrath of the fans and the media gauntlet. I just hope the two-time Wembley-winning coach had a chance to ring his wife first so she didn’t find out on live television.

It’s still unknown whether Radford is looking for a quick return to rugby league coaching. Credit: News Images

With the game now suspended until at least next month, I believe Hull have a big chance to get somebody in and for the new man to have a mini pre-season with his new team, and I know the net is being cast far and wide for an appointment that Mr Pearson MUST get right. The new coach, whoever he is, needs to know the club, its standing in the game and the community, be aware of the passion of the fans and has to be a proven leader with thick skin, broad shoulders and the ability to deliver silverware within a reasonable time frame.

For Lee Radford, I expect him to be back in the game sooner rather than later. With the way the coaching merry-go-round is these days, I absolutely wouldn’t be surprised to see him back before the season is over, or before the Aussies arrive for an Ashes series. His achievements should not be forgotten quickly and we can only hope this steadfast, forthright, no nonsense, honest coach is back in the game before too long.

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