Billy Bly was born in Walker, the riverside east end of Newcastle Upon Tyne. After a junior career at Walker Boys Club and Walker Celtic, where he was tried in several outfield positions before settling between the goalposts, Bly joined the Tigers in 1937 a few months after his seventeenth birthday.
There are two things that many City fans know about Billy Bly. One is that he played for the club for ever – he made his debut a few months before the Second World War started in 1939, played his last game 21 years later in 1960 and lies sixth on the list of all-time senior appearance makers for the club. Another is that he was a battered and bashed-around figure who suffered numerous breaks, bruises, strains and twangs at the hands of brutal onrushing strikers, and those injuries regularly kept him out of the side, giving his numerous understudies a couple of weeks or more to ply their trade in the first team. And both of those things are perfectly true.
But there is a third, less heralded truth about Billy Bly. He was, despite his relatively diminutive 5 foot 9 inch stature, quite simply one of the finest English goalkeepers of his generation. During the war years Bly, still in his early 20s, was frequently chosen to play in representative games ahead of goalkeepers who went on to have decorated First Division and international careers after the hostilities ended. When he was to spend his longest period out of the first XI in 1950/51, with Raich Carter preferring former prisoner of war Joe Robinson between the sticks, the club fielded and resisted approaches from top flight clubs wanting to acquire Bly’s services. He was brave, at a time when bravery was an absolute must, he was the master of the one-on-one diving save at a striker’s feet, he was superbly agile and supple, he was quick and dominant around his box. He was the full package, and only a string of misfortunes denied him the chance to edge his way towards international recognition, none more so than in March 1954 when he broke a wrist days after being selected for the England B team. This came a month after Bly turned in what some considered his finest career performance to resist the attacking threat of Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup tie (a feat repeated against the same opposition by his successor Boaz Myhill, 56 years later in a Premier League game).
It seems facile to chronicle the detail of each of Bly’s 16 seasons in which he saw first team action for his only League club. He played, he made great saves, he impressed, he got some painful knock or other, he missed a few games, he returned to the first team a couple of weeks later. And repeat, almost ad infinitum. He was a regular in 1948/49 when City overwhelmed all-comers in Division Three North to race to both the title and the quarter final of the FA Cup. He repeated the promotion feat ten years later when under Bob Brocklebank he missed only one league game all season. His City career came to a somewhat unsatisfactory end in May 1960, with the club’s management issuing curt statements about his departure and initially refusing a testimonial game. When City relented and a benefit match was arranged for November 1961, the club refused to field the first team and a squad of ex-Tigers was assembled instead to play an All-Star XI – although that side itself was shorn of some of its star quality because ex-England forward Nat Lofthouse was receiving a similar testimonial that same night. It was a slightly grubby end to a marvellously talented and incredibly lengthy career.
In November 1961 at 41 years of age, Bly answered an SOS from Frank O’Farrell, player manager at Weymouth. The Southern League side had reached the FA Cup Second Round and were left without an experienced goalkeeper after Bob Charles, Weymouth’s first choice netminder, had broken an elbow in the First Round win over Barnet. O’Farrell had Bly recommended to him by City’s new boss Cliff Britton. On returning to Hull in 1962 he had three seasons at local amateur side Hull Brunswick, playing well into his 40s.
In the 1970s Bly assisted the management team at North Ferriby United, and his dual association with The Villagers and The Tigers meant that his name was to remain in the public gaze for many decades to follow in the guise of the annual pre-season match between the two clubs, competing for the Billy Bly Memorial Trophy. This came about after Bly died in March 1982 at the relatively young age of 61. But his sad death came after he had pursued second and third careers as an estate agent and a painter/decorator at Everthorpe Borstal. He had an artistic streak and combined that with his painting duties to encourage the young inmates of Everthorpe to learn new skills and put their lives on the straight and narrow.
It is hard to say whether Billy Bly was Hull City’s finest goalkeeper – different eras, different interpretations of the laws and different expectations make the comparison nigh-on impossible. He was definitely in the top two though. A proper Hull City legend.
Date/Place of Birth: 15 May 1920, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Hull City First Game: 1 April 1939, Rotherham United A (Division Three North), 18 years, 321 days old
Hull City Final Game: 26 March 1960, Bristol Rovers A (Division Two), 39 years, 316 days old
Walker Celtic, Hull City (1937-1960), Weymouth (1961-1962), Hull Brunswick (1962-1965)
Hull City Record
Career: 438 apps, 0 goalsBilly Bly