How did things get so bad at Hull FC – and where on earth do they go from here?

After a string of defeats in Super League and the departure of coach Tony Smith, Hull FC hit rock bottom with an away loss to London Broncos. So how did they get into this mess, and how do they begin to get out of it?

THE Hull FC players made their way over to the away supporters at the end of the game. Their applause was not reciprocated.

Instead only boos and angry words rained down from the northern end of the Cherry Red Records Stadium as fans contemplated how a 400-mile round trip had been rewarded by yet another humiliating result.

Hull had just lost 34-18 to London Broncos, handing Super League’s newly-promoted (and, frankly, already relegated) side their first win of the season at the 11th time of asking.

The result kept Hull off the bottom of the table on points difference alone, their sole victory all year to date coming in March’s reverse fixture, and only by a 79th-minute winning try.

If London have an excuse or two for struggling at the bottom, there is none for Hull to be in their company. But with ten defeats from 11 after that mid-May bruising in the capital, that is exactly where they are. A new low.

It’s been a season full of them already. Being nilled in the season-opening derby after two red cards. Shipping 50 points four times in five matches, to the likes of Leigh and Huddersfield. Trailing 28-0 to Hull KR at half-time on Good Friday in the exception to that sequence.

Were it not for the introduction of club grading, Hull FC would be staring the prospect of relegation in the face. As it is, they are safe, but not from the wrath of their own supporters. They still have pride and dignity to fight for, or so they should. Instead, the embarrassments continue.

So how did it get to this point, and – more importantly – where on earth do they go from here?

Success has only ever been fleeting at Hull. Back-to-back championships at the start of the 1920s. Two titles in three years in the 1950s. An early-1980s superiority that delivered seven trophies.

Recently, the glory days mean 2016 and 2017, when they won back-to-back Challenge Cups and finished third in the league (their best summer position) both seasons.

At that time, they appeared on the cusp of fulfilling their potential as a regular force. Instead, they’ve only gone backwards. Their highest finish since is sixth (in 2019 and 2020), and their lowest tenth last term.

What has gone wrong since that sunny day at Wembley, seven years ago in August, when Marc Sneyd kicked them to victory over Wigan? In short, a lot.

Too many of the heroes that day were kept too long, faith unwavering because of past success. The only three not in the squad to start 2019, two seasons on, were Liam Watts, Gareth Ellis and Mahe Fonua, and the latter two were later brought back. The 35-year-old Danny Houghton and injury-plagued Carlos Tuimavave are still there now.

Partly as a consequence, there was little succession planning. For example, outside their starting line-up in the 2017 final were Jake Connor, Jordan Abdull and Jez Litten – what could, and perhaps, should have become their long-term spine. Abdull and Litten both chose to leave for more game time and have become England internationals and Super League stars elsewhere.

Recruitment has also been consistently poor, with their signings ahead of the current season a neat reflection of what has been happening for years. They combined what, on current evidence, are some disastrous overseas signings in Franklin Pele and Jayden Okunbor, with domestic additions that few other Super League sides would likely have taken in Liam Tindall, Morgan Smith and Jack Ashworth.

Of course, out-of-contract players aren’t usually going to be top-of-the-range. It’s always best to grow your own, and player production is the other area that has let Hull down in recent years.

In the current first-team squad there is Danny Houghton (35) and the recently-returned Tom Briscoe (34) who were produced by the club. In age, you then go down to Brad Fash (28), Jordan Lane (26), Cameron Scott (24). The rest are 21 or under.

In other words, barely a long-term Hull player was developed in a decade, since a crop including Josh Bowden, Jamie Shaul and Dean Hadley, who graduated from their academy in 2011. Furthermore, besides Abdull and Litten, the pick of the bunch in that period – Jack Logan, Jansin Turgut, Jack Downs, Masi Matongo, Kieran Buchanan, Connor Wynne – are all out of Super League, or out of the game altogether.

For much of that period, a joint-academy was run with Hull KR, largely as a cost-saving measure. That mistake has since been rectified and Hull believe their investment in a Centre of Excellence will soon bear fruit.

The club were much less quick to identify their issues in recruitment and retention, or at least the solution to it. Richie Myler’s appointment in the newly-created director of rugby role was certainly an eye-catching one, considering his lack of experience after stepping straight in from playing, but it was a significant move.

That’s because it was a very plain admission that Hull have been getting it wrong while signings have been under the remit of owner Adam Pearson and James Clark, the recently-departed CEO (a role now also taken by Pearson).

In a game where the influence of head coaches is increasingly on the training field, having somebody with a sporting rather than just a business background in charge of those rugby matters has its value – look at the best clubs of the era, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan, with Gary Hetherington, Mike Rush and Kris Radlinski respectively.

So the appointment of Myler, whose role is focused solely on team matters, is one step in the right direction. The other big appointment, recently made by Myler, is a new head coach.

It’s pretty obvious, with Andy Last, Brett Hodgson and Tony Smith all coming and going since double Cup winner Lee Radford left just over four years ago, that the coach is not the problem at Hull, or certainly not the only one. 

After Salford coach Paul Rowley turned down the job, Brisbane Broncos assistant John Cartwright was appointed on a deal to start next season. Myler says: “The person coming in here has a massive opportunity because it’s quite a blank canvas. With the results that we’re having, it couldn’t get much worse.”

The playing roster offers imminent scope for necessary change. Some of that has already happened, with Tex Hoy and Fa’amanu Brown followed out by Darnell McIntosh and Jack Brown. A further ten first-teamers are out of contract, including Houghton, Tuimavave, Scott and Joe Cator.

“I said to the playing group on day one – this period of time between now and the end of the season will define whether they are part of Hull FC,” says Myler.

“We want people in this team that are proud to play for the club and are not just here to then go somewhere else. 

“In one of my first conversations with Danny Houghton, he felt we’re a club where people are happy to come and then leave. We are almost like a passing-by club. To him that really hurts, and I know that hurts a lot of people in here. 

“The people who want to be here and be part of the journey are the people we want. We don’t want people who are happy to be here for a year or two and then move on to another club. Hull needs more respect than that.”

Recruitment is usually done early in the year and Hull have confirmed the capture of John Asiata for next season on a marquee contract, with Zak Hardaker and Oliver Holmes tipped to follow from Leigh. If Tuimavave departs as seems likely, Hull will have at least three overseas quota spots available too.

Ultimately, these are the decisions the club need to start getting right, bringing in the right people for the right jobs and getting the right blend. Much has been said of the ‘culture’, an issue identified by Smith as needing to change, but that comes down to the people involved.

“There has got to be an identity that we all buy into, from the person sitting in his or her seat in the stand, all he way up to board level,” adds Myler.

“You can’t just sign the best players that don’t fit our system. Wigan, they’ve got it right. They know what they stand for as a club and the way they want to recruit and develop people is vital to their strategy. We need to tap into elements of that.”

In many ways, this is not a crisis club. When Clark recently left his position, Hull credited him with record commercial growth, memberships and merchandise sales. They were rated Grade A – albeit only just – in the provisional club gradings last year. Everybody says Hull is a big club – and it is.

“Quite clearly we’ve underperformed on the field, but off the field we haven’t – we’re doing a tremendous job,” says Myler.

“The product on the field has clearly not been good enough over a period of time. If we can effect change in that element of the club, everything else becomes a bit easier (because) we’re a results-based business and an entertainment business.”

Just as the decline has been a slow one, so the rise will be gradual too. Hull will not be fighting for league titles anytime soon. A good squad takes years to build, and good youngsters take even more years to nurture.

That said, the tangible progress right now is the youth. Already, 15 homegrown players have featured for them this season, the joint-most of any Super League club. Ten of them are aged 21 or under. No Hull player has started more games than winger Lewis Martin, and no 18-year-old player in England is being talked about as much as halfback Jack Charles.

Both were in the team for that defeat to London. The club’s current plight means an unfair load is being placed on young shoulders, and Charles was visibly upset by the reaction of the Hull fans afterwards. In some ways, he is a reflection of the club. Full of potential – but right now in such a fragile position.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone