For more than 100 years, Hull was one of the biggest cities in England never to have boasted a top-flight football club. That finally changed in fairy-tale fashion at Wembley in May 2008, when a terrific volley from 38-year-old local lad Dean Windass took the Tigers to the big time at last.
By then, Adam Pearson had already left the club – but you’d struggle to find a City fan who didn’t attribute the dawn of this glorious and long-overdue new era to the former Leeds United commercial director who, seven years previously, had taken a huge risk to make his first foray into club ownership.
In 2001, Hull City were in administration, and languishing at the bottom end of the bottom tier of English football, where they’d pretty much taken up residence in the latter years of the 1990s; the “Great Escape” season of 1998-9 saw them narrowly avoid slipping into Conference obscurity, only to be followed by bailiffs’ lock-outs, the threat of liquidation, and at least two “last ever” matches at Boothferry Park. Then the knight in shining armour rode into town.
Everything was going well for Adam Pearson when he left Leeds for Hull. With financial backing from Yorkshire tech entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson, what clinched his decision to come here was the ambition of leading figures at Hull City Council and their plans for a new “super-stadium”.
“I’d had a great partnership with Peter for many years,” says Pearson, “which enabled me to purchase the club from the administrator for a relatively small amount of money, and I’d still have some left over to invest in players. But dropping down from Leeds – then in the Champions League – to Hull, who were in terrible trouble in League Two, was a hell of a gamble. I was a shareholder in Leeds, as well as in Sports Internet, and my career at that point was obviously moving in the right direction. It was a big risk to drop down, but I got a lot of persuasion from [then-council leader] Pat Doyle and Ian Blakey [City director and stadium project chairman], and I could see the potential of the club.”
City fans could be forgiven for thinking they’d seen all this before, though; Pearson was the latest in a long line of white knights, and there’d already been grand stadium plans that had never left the drawing board. Back then I had close personal links with the club – from 1998 to the mid-2000s I used to work in the PA box alongside legendary announcer Martyn Hainstock (and also became his partner); my job was putting on the matchday music, and I remember that, when Pearson was first unveiled to the fans on the pitch in March 2001, we played Won’t Get Fooled Again, by the Who.
When Hull City finally moved into what was then the KC Stadium in 2002, Pearson could easily have got rid of us both, but instead, he took time out to sit down and listen to us tell him what we needed to achieve super-stadium-standard matchday production. Pearson kept his faith in us, and I like to think that we repaid it – Martyn especially, as he updated his famous catchphrase, “This is Boothferry Park!” to “This is the KC Stadium!”
And it’s at this point I need to declare my interest to Adam. “You probably won’t remember me…” I say – but he did, and he added that he’d done his best to persuade Martyn not to leave Hull City in 2004 (although, like Adam would later do, Martyn moved over to Hull FC). Martyn died, far too young, in 2007. All this feels like a lifetime ago for me now, and Adam concurs. “Crikey… it’s a different world away, isn’t it?” he says. “Martyn was the voice of both grounds, and he’ll always be fondly remembered and sorely missed.”
The council pressed on with the stadium plans – paid for largely out of a £42m windfall from its sale of Kingston Communications shares – because those leading the project felt that, finally, they had the right man to take them forward. Everything seemed to fit into place – and even the most cynical City fans began to believe that this wasn’t another false dawn. “The supporters played a huge part,” says Adam. “From day one, they just got right behind the club and they got this momentum going. We got off to a couple of false starts, but then Peter Taylor eventually got hold of the squad and, with Colin Murphy, really sorted it out.”
Two back-to-back promotions followed, Taylor left for Crystal Palace, and City’s surge towards the top tier wobbled a bit until the appointment of Phil Brown. It was, however, the end of the road for Pearson, who at the time said he felt he’d taken the club as far as he could. He does feel a tinge of regret now, though, he tells me. “I was concerned we didn’t have the finances to really kick on,” he adds. “And the last thing I wanted to happen was to be responsible for taking the club back to where it had come from! It was before the property crash, Russell [Bartlett] came in very strongly financially, and he and Paul [Duffen, who took over as chairman] managed to get them promoted. It was great to see them go up – I remember when Dean scored because it was quite a lucrative day for me… I’d put quite a big bet on!” (Funnily enough, I’d got money riding on that match, too; I won £120, though I suspect Pearson bagged rather more than that.)
An “interesting” spell as executive chairman at Derby County followed, which Pearson describes as the toughest year he’s ever had in sport; the move to the Midlands came more or less “out of the blue”, he says, after buying a significant shareholding in the Premier League club and taking up the baton in an ongoing deal to move the club on to an American consortium; 2007-8, after Derby had been promoted to the Premier League, was the infamous “11 points” season – still an unenviable league record. “I was responsible for appointing the new manager [Paul Jewell], and I really liked him – he had a great background and credentials, but playing-wise, we just couldn’t get going,” says Pearson. “It was really tough getting beaten week after week.”
So, when Pearson received a call from Bartlett (who had replaced Duffen as Hull City chairman), asking him to return, he readily accepted, though keenly mindful of the adage, “never go back”. “When I got back in, I thought… what have I done here?” Pearson concedes. It was very much a different ball game from when he’d left, too. For one thing, he was working for Bartlett, and no longer in control of the club – and, worse, there was now a big hole in the finances. “When I left the club, there was a lot of money in the bank – and when I came back, there was £104m of debt!”
It seems strange, but Pearson is perhaps prouder of his achievements during this period than in his first stint at City. “I think we shifted about 25 players when we went down,” he says. “And if I look back in football, I think as an operator I’m more proud of that year than anything, in that the club was under such a threat, that to keep it going was my best achievement in football – to have sold so many players, and yet still come out the other end.”
He’s quick to credit the Allam family as “probably the only people who could have saved the club at that particular point”. “They did so in a unique way,” he adds, “with a tremendous cash investment and security of the debt. Without them, the club would have gone to the wall.”
In May 2012, Pearson and Hull City finally parted ways – but it wasn’t the end of his affair with the KCOM Stadium, as the previous summer he’d bought the entire shareholding of fellow stadium tenants, Hull FC. His football background inevitably led to the perception that he wasn’t a “rugby man” – something he refutes. “My granddad played for Featherstone and Dewsbury, and I was born in Dewsbury and brought up on rugby league. I used to watch it week in, week out, so it does make me smile a bit when people say I don’t know anything about it. I play along with it! And gradually over eight years, I’ve learned a bit, and I’m very lucky at Hull as I’ve kept the same head coach and managing director, and I think the three of us make a pretty effective team. We feel as though we’re in a reasonably good place – we just need to have that breakthrough season, which we’re hoping will be this year.”
Hull KR may be Hull’s FC’s greatest rivals on the pitch, but in 2018, they came together across the dinner table as Pearson joined forces with Rovers owner Neil Hudgell to launch the sports-themed Tribal Bar and Grill, in Kingswood. Last year, Tribal Two opened in Humber Street. “Tribal One’s been great fun and it gives that area of the city a really good sports venue,” says Pearson, “and we’re trying to keep it as high-quality as possible. It’s doing really well, so we thought we’d do another one down by the Marina. We’re just waiting for some sunshine for that!”
Towards the end of our chat, it dawns on me that Pearson, now 55, was far younger than I am now when he embarked on his journey in Hull – where he’d actually lived for a time as a young Marks & Spencer trainee. “It was a really happy time in my life,” he says. “I lived in Hull as an 18-year-old boy and to come back at 30 and own the football club was a bit special, really.”
It’s a journey that, I suggest, has had an impact far beyond football. It could be argued that, had Pearson not set City on their path to the new stadium, promotion and ultimately Premier League status, the city of Hull would have continued largely unnoticed in the eyes of the world, and City of Culture might have passed us by. Who knows? Pearson is clearly proud of the role he’s had, though he remains typically modest.
“I look at other cities and I think, you know, sport in Hull is doing OK at the minute. There are at least two great boxers, a good football team, two good rugby league teams. And I’m hoping that I’ve played a part in that.”