Horton played for Hednesford Town, Port Vale, Brighton & Hove Albion, Luton Town and Hull City as a midfielder. His most significant spells were with Port Vale and Brighton from 1970 to 1981, making over 200 appearances over the course of around five seasons with each club. He also made over 100 appearances for Luton between 1981 and 1984. He was promoted out of the Second Division with both Brighton and Luton. During his career he was named on the PFA Team of the Year three times, and played a total of 610 league games in the Football League.
He was even more prolific as a manager, taking the reins at Hull City, Oxford United, Manchester City, Huddersfield Town, Brighton & Hove Albion, Port Vale and Macclesfield Town. His longest spells were at Hull and Vale, where he had previously found success as a player. At all seven clubs he boasted a win ratio of more than 30%. Horton is one of the few managers in English football to have taken charge of teams in more than a thousand games. His successes include taking Hull out of the Third Division in 1984–85, and winning the Football League Trophy with Port Vale in 2001. However his speciality has been in stabilizing struggling clubs, as he has been relegated only twice in more than 20 seasons as a manager.
Born in Hednesford, Staffordshire, Horton was a tough defensive midfielder who started his career as a member of Walsall's youth team at the age of 15. He played regularly in the West Midlands (Regional) League, though was released after two years without having appeared for the first team, and dropped down to his non-League hometown club Hednesford Town after being signed by player-manager Dick Neal. Known as Nobby to fans, a nickname that stuck with him throughout his career, he won the Staffordshire Senior Cup in his final appearance for the club.
He signed for Third Division Port Vale in July 1970. It was reported that his transfer fee was a pint of shandy, as the cash-strapped potteries club haggled with the Hednesford Town chairman by plying him with alcohol, therefore his transfer fee was 'a pint of shandy'. A first team regular from the start under manager Gordon Lee, Horton played 40 games in 1970–71, and scored his first competitive goal in a 3–2 win against Bury at Gigg Lane. He then found his scoring form in 1971–72, as he hit eight goals in 47 appearances; he also became the club's penalty taker, with half of his goals coming from the spot. He hit seven goals in 43 games in 1972–73, four of his strikes coming from the penalty spot. He missed a period around Christmas due to injury, and during this time his teammates struggled to find results; this ultimately cost the "Valiants", as they finished four points behind promoted Notts County. Lee changed the team's formation from 4–4–2 to 4–3–3 in 1973–74, hoping that this would allow Horton more room in the centre of the field. However Vale's form suffered, and Lee was replaced as manager by Roy Sproson in January. Vale finished the campaign one place above the relegation zone, though were seven points clear of danger. Horton played 46 games, scoring four goals.
Vale missed out on promotion by just four points in 1974–75, as Horton hit thirteen goals in 47 games, leaving him one goal behind top-scorers Ray Williams and Terry Bailey. He hit four goals in 35 games in 1975–76, as he bagged both of Vale's goals in a win over Millwall at Vale Park. Much to the disappointment of Vale supporters, he was sold to league rivals Brighton & Hove Albion in March 1976 for a fee of £30,000. In total he spent nearly six years with Port Vale, scoring a total of 37 goals in 258 games in league and cup competitions.
Brighton finished fourth in 1975–76, three points shy of promotion, and Peter Taylor departed. For his performances at both Vale and Brighton, Horton was named on the PFA Team of the Year, along with Brighton teammates Graham Cross and Peter Ward. The "Seagulls" finished second in 1976–77 under Alan Mullery, and thus were promoted into the Second Division. They then stormed to a fourth-place finish in 1977–78, missing out on promotion to the First Division only because Tottenham Hotspur had superior goal difference. Undeterred, Brighton won promotion as runners-up in 1978–79, one point behind champions Crystal Palace and one point ahead of fourth place Sunderland. Horton was named on the PFA Team of the Year for a second time, alongside teammate Mark Lawrenson.
In 1979–80, Brighton played top-flight football for the first time in their history. They finished a respectable sixteenth, some six points clear of the drop. The 1980–81 season was a much narrower affair, but Brighton finished nineteenth, two points clear of relegated Norwich City. He left the Goldstone Ground having scored 47 goals in 251 league and cup games.
Horton transferred to Luton Town in August 1981, as the club were competing in the Second Division under the stewardship of David Pleat. He was again promoted into the top-flight, as the "Hatters" topped the Second Division table in 1981–82 by an eight-point margin, some eighteen points clear of fourth place Sheffield Wednesday. He was named on the PFA Team of the Year for the third time in his career, alongside teammates Kirk Stephens, Ricky Hill, and David Moss.
Luton then went on to escape relegation on the final day of the 1982–83 season at Maine Road, following a 1–0 over Manchester City, who took their place in the relegation zone. The match became famous for the images of David Pleat dancing across the pitch in jubilation. He left Kenilworth Road at the conclusion of the 1983–84 campaign, as the club secured their top-flight status with a sixteenth-place finish. He had played 131 first team games for the club, scoring 14 goals. His next move was to Hull City, who appointed him their player-manager, and with whom he ended his playing career in 1986 after making 46 competitive appearances.
Horton became player-manager of Hull City in July 1984, and led his side to promotion to the Second Division in 1984–85. He quickly built up a reputation as a "strong-minded, tactically-aware coach." He signed former Luton Town teammate Frankie Bunn as a replacement for top-scorer Billy Whitehurst, who he sold to Newcastle United.
The following season they came very close to earning promotion to the First Division, finishing a credible sixth place. At the end of the campaign Horton quit playing to concentrate on full-time management. Despite the introduction of the play-off system in 1986–87, the "Tigers" ended the campaign in mid-table obscurity.
The 1987–88 campaign began promisingly, and the club was in the top six and chasing the automatic promotion places by the half-way stage. However, a dreadful run of results in which there was just one win in seventeen games ended any hope of promotion. Their form was not helped by the sale of star play-maker Garry Parker to Nottingham Forest for a £260,000 fee. After a 4–1 home defeat to Swindon Town, chairman Don Robinson was furious and immediately fired Horton. The players took responsibility for the defeat and urged the chairman to re-consider, Robinson obliged, but Horton refused the offer of reinstatement. During his reign he turned down the opportunity to sign apprentice Dean Windass. Hull went on to finish the season in fifteenth place, as Eddie Gray was announced as his successor.
Horton's next move was to become assistant to rookie manager Mark Lawrenson at Oxford United. Lawrenson left the club in October 1988 after star player Dean Saunders was sold to Derby County without his consent, and the board elected Horton as his replacement; at the time both Derby and Oxford were owned by members of Robert Maxwell's family. In February 1989, he bought John Durnin from Liverpool for a £250,000 fee. He also gave débuts to Joey Beauchamp and Paul Kee. Under his leadership Oxford finished the 1988–89 Second Division campaign in seventeenth place.
In preparation for 1989–90, he exploited the relationship between Derby and Oxford to sign Dave Penney for £175,000; he also brought Ceri Evans and Steve Foster to the club. On the pitch it was a case of deja-vu, as Oxford finished the season in seventeenth place, again with 54 points. Hoping to build a promotion winning squad for the 1990–91 campaign, he paid Swansea City £275,000 for Andy Melville and bought Doncaster Rovers defender Les Robinson for £150,000. He also signed young Liverpool midfielder Jim Magilton. The "Yellows" finished in tenth place, eight points off the play-off places.
The club faced a financial crisis following the mysterious death of Robert Maxwell, and over the summer Horton was forced to sell striker Martin Foyle to Port Vale for £375,000. He made no major signings in Foyle's place, and instead handed débuts to Paul Wanless, Chris Allen, and Bobby Ford. He also sold Paul Simpson to Derby for £500,000 in February 1992. The loss of close to £1 million of talent showed on the pitch, as Oxford finished 1991–92 one place and two points ahead of relegated Plymouth Argyle. They secured their safety with a final day win over Tranmere Rovers.
There was less drama in 1992–93, as his side finished fourteenth, seven points above the drop. Over the summer he paid Corby Town £20,000 for striker Matt Murphy, and sold Andy Melville on to Sunderland for £500,000. Horton left the Manor Ground for an even bigger challenge in August 1993. Oxford went on to suffer relegation at the end of the 1993–94 campaign, under the stewardship of Denis Smith.
In August 1993, four games after the start of the 1993–94 Premier League campaign, Horton resigned as Oxford manager to replace Peter Reid as manager of Manchester City – to the surprise of many supporters and commentators, who were expecting the appointment of someone more high-profile. City's previous three seasons in the top flight had yielded top-ten finishes but Horton struggled with injuries – key striker Niall Quinn was missing through a cruciate ligament injury – and City were 20th and bottom in mid-February. He traded eight-year club veteran striker David White to Leeds United in exchange for David Rocastle; Rocastle failed to live up to expectations, and scored just two league goals. But then Horton transformed his attack by signing Uwe Rösler, Paul Walsh and Peter Beagrie, and City escaped relegation after losing only two of the last fourteen games of the season.
Horton played with two out and out wingers in 1994–95, Beagrie and summer signing Nicky Summerbee. This led to Rösler, Walsh and Quinn scoring 47 goals between them, but also to some heavy defeats, such as the 5–0 loss to rivals Manchester United. City were sixth on 3 December and there was talk of a much-awaited return to European football, as young talents such as Garry Flitcroft, Richard Edghill, and Steve Lomas came to the fore. However they won only four of their remaining 25 league games, finishing just four points clear of relegation, and Horton was sacked. His sacking was predicted by many, as Francis Lee had taken over as chairman after Horton's appointment, and wished to have his 'own man' in the dugout at Maine Road. City went on to suffer relegation in 1995–96 under Alan Ball.
He made a swift return to management with Huddersfield Town, who had just won promotion to the First Division under Neil Warnock, who announced his surprise resignation days after the club's play-off success. The "Terriers" started 1995–96 positively, and enjoyed a mid-season run of just two defeats in nineteen games. They also reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, where they lost to Premier League Wimbledon in a replay at Plough Lane. A play-off place beckoned, but a run of just three wins in their final thirteen games left them in eighth place, eight points behind sixth placed Charlton Athletic.
Horton broke the club's transfer record when he splashed out £1.2 million on Bristol Rovers striker Marcus Stewart. However Huddersfield failed to impress in 1996–97, and ended the campaign just two places and eight points ahead of relegated Grimsby Town. Huddersfield had suffered as both Stewart and defender Andy Morrison missed much of the campaign due to injury, though £325,000 summer signing Andy Payton proved to be a revelation, hitting nineteen goals in league and cup.
The club bottom of the table, Horton was sacked in September 1997, two years before the end of his contract, after his side went nine league games without a win. The "Terriers" went on to finish 1997–98 in sixteenth place under Peter Jackson.
In February 1998, Horton returned to one of his old clubs as a player when he became manager of Brighton & Hove Albion. The club were second from bottom in the Third Division and would have been facing the prospect of Conference football were bottom club Doncaster Rovers not so far behind the rest of the pack. He led the club to victory over Chester City, Brighton's first win in five months. The "Seagulls" secured their Football League status in April after winning a point at league leaders Notts County. They went on to finish 1997–98 second from bottom, fifteen points clear of relegated Doncaster, yet six points behind third from bottom Hull City, who were themselves nine points behind Swansea and Cardiff in 20th and 21st. He then signed Gary Hart from Stansted of the Essex Senior Football League for £1,000 and a set of kit.
Brighton improved under Horton in 1998–99, though Horton left the club in January 1999 to take charge of another of his old clubs, Port Vale, after the sacking of long-serving manager John Rudge. Brighton went on to finish the season in seventeenth place under Micky Adams.
In order to help the Vale to avoid relegation in 1999, Horton brought in Dave Brammer, Tony Butler, Carl Griffiths, Alex Smith, and Chris Allen. This spending spree set the club back £590,000, and so Horton first sold off Peter Beadle to Notts County for £250,000 in order to raise the cash needed for his new signings. He also brought in two loanees: Alan Lee from Aston Villa, and Craig Russell from Manchester City. A five-game unbeaten run in April allowed the Vale to finish above relegated Bury on goals scored.
In a bid to survive another season in the First Division, Horton allowed ten players to leave Vale Park; the most significant departure was Neil Aspin, as the 34 year dropped down two divisions as his career wound down. To replace these players, Horton signed three players on free transfers: Jeff Minton from former club Brighton, Tommy Widdrington from Grimsby Town, and Steve Rimmer from Manchester City. He also took goalkeepers Andy Oakes and Matt Glennon in on loan, and signed striker Martin Aldridge on loan from Blackpool. As the season progressed he released Marcus Bent, and sold Carl Griffiths back to Leyton Orient for £100,000. He further sold Anthony Gardner to Tottenham Hotspur for £1 million, and sold Tony Butler to West Bromwich Albion for £140,000. In their place he signed Micky Cummins, Mark Goodlad, Sagi Burton, and Ville Viljanen; and also took Martin Bullock, Gareth Taylor, and David Healy in on loan. His side finished second from bottom were relegated in his first full season as manager. At the end of the campaign club legend Martin Foyle retired, whilst key players Paul Musselwhite and Ian Bogie also departed.
In preparation for life in the Second Division, Horton signed Sincliar Le Geyt, Dean Delany, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, and Michael Twiss. He supplemented these free transfer signings with loanees David Freeman and David Beresford. Horton came under pressure from the board at the start of the 2000–01 campaign, as his team went thirteen games without a win, and were knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Canvey Island. He responded to this humiliation by placing five players on the transfer list. He signed Steve Brooker for £15,000; brought in Onandi Lowe and Richard Burgess on free transfers; signed Wayne Gray and Ashley Dodd on loan; whilst also offloading Jeff Minton to Rotherham United. Vale's form improved, as they avoided defeat in both Potteries derby games. Horton was named Manager of the Month in March, after a good run of results ended fears of a second successive relegation. He also won his first trophy as a manager as Vale lifted the Football League Trophy, coming from behind to beat Brentford at the Millennium Stadium. Vale also won the Staffordshire Senior Cup. However more club legends departed, as Tony Naylor and Allen Tankard began to show their age. More controversial was the sale of Dave Brammer to Crewe Alexandra for £500,000.
The club entered a financial crisis following the collapse of ITV Digital, which cost the club £400,000 in revenue. This meant Horton had to build his squad for 2001–02 entirely on free transfers. Ashley Dodd, Ian Armstrong, Phil Hardy, Rae Ingram, Alex Gibson, Chris Killen, Simon Osborn, Sean McClare, Danny Webber, John Durnin, and Mvondo Atangana all would make little impact; however former Coventry City striker Stephen McPhee would be a key player for the club over the next few years. Vale beat rivals Stoke City, but ended 2001–02 in mid-table obscurity. Manager of the Month in February, Horton was linked to vacant management position at Preston North End, but remained at Vale Park.
Horton signed Jon McCarthy, Brett Angell, Ian Brightwell, Phil Charnock, Sam Collins, and Mark Boyd for the 2002–03 campaign. Four straight defeats were followed by five consecutive victories, as he supplemented his squad with the additions of Lee Ashcroft, Peter Clarke and Adrian Littlejohn. Though relegation was avoided, Horton still remained unpopular with some sections of the Vale's supporters. However the season was dominated by off-the-field issues, as Vale entered administration, and were taken over by Bill Bratt's fan-based consortium.
Building for the 2003–04 campaign, Horton had to find a replacement for departing defender Matt Carragher. He found his replacement in Everton's reliable young George Pilkington; he also signed goalkeeper Jonny Brain and Austrian defender Andreas Lipa. By the start of the campaign Horton had completed the rebuilding of his squad that was necessitated by the financial crisis and the ageing of the highly successful side of the mid-1990s. A good start saw the club top of the table and Horton was named as Manager of the Month. The Vale were one point outside the play-offs by February, at which point Horton tendered his resignation. In his absence, rookie manager Martin Foyle led the club to a seventh-place finish, as the "Valiants" missed out on the play-offs due to their inferior goal difference.
Linked with the management position at Swansea City, Horton was instead appointed as manager of Third Division strugglers Macclesfield Town at the start of April 2004, replacing John Askey. This was initially until the end of the season, but in May he was given the job on a permanent basis. He rejuvenated a demoralised side and kept them in the Football League, as they finished seven points clear of the drop in 2003–04.
Over the summer he signed Iraqi international Jassim Swadi, experienced striker Mike Sheron, veteran defender Tony Barras, left-back Mark Bailey, and Tommy Rooney (cousin of Wayne Rooney). He allowed Martin Carruthers to leave, though extended Tommy Widdrington's contract, and offered fresh deals to six others. He later added to his squad by signing Mark Boyd and Simon Weaver; whilst transfer listing Tommy Widdrington and Michael Welch. Many pundits were tipping the "Silkmen" to slip out of the newly named League Two at the end of 2004–05, but Horton proved the observers wrong as his side were in the top-seven of the division virtually all season long. Horton celebrated his 1000th game as a manager on 3 November 2004, as Macclesfield beat Mansfield 4–0 in the Football League Trophy. He also won the League Two Manager of the Month award for February. Macclesfield qualified for the play-offs in sixth place, but their promotion challenge was finally ended by Lincoln City in the semi-finals, following a 2–1 aggregate defeat. At the end of the season, Horton released nine players, including club captain Matthew Tipton. In the place of these nine players he signed Kevin Sandwith, Kevin Townson, Martin Bullock, and David Beresford.
Despite high expectations, Horton's men were not to challenge again in 2005–06. The club were hit by financial troubles after being told they had to pay fines totalling £250,000, and at one point were at risk of being wound up. As a result, Horton was forced to cope without assistant John Askey, after Askey was dismissed to cut costs. The sale of top scorer Jon Parkin also robbed Horton of his best player. Following a poor start to the season he placed four players on the transfer list. He also placed Kevin Townson on the transfer list, before sacking the striker after Townson displayed "serious misconduct". Throughout the campaign, Horton signed goalkeeper Tommy Lee, striker Clyde Wijnhard, midfielder Alan Navarro, forward Allan Russell, and non-league striker Matty McNeil. The "Silkmen" finished in seventeenth place, five points above the relegation zone.
Horton prepared for the 2006–07 campaign by searching for a new midfield player, and found one in Shrewsbury Town's Jamie Tolley. He also signed versatile attacker Colin Heath, defender Carl Regan, former Port Vale goalkeeper Jonny Brain; whilst releasing five players. Horton was sacked in October 2006, after his team failed to win any of their opening twelve league games, leaving them bottom of the Football League. Paul Ince was appointed as his replacement, and led the club to a 22nd-place finish, as they avoided relegation by two points, after Boston United were hit with a ten-point deduction.
In May 2007, Horton returned to Hull City as assistant manager to Phil Brown; this appointment came nineteen years after he resigned as Hull manager. He helped the club win promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs in May 2008, the first time Hull City were in the top-flight in 104 years. In October 2008, Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson praised Horton for his part in Hull's superb start to the 2008–09 Premier League season, though their early challenge among the top six clubs did not last and they ended the season just one place above the relegation zone. In March 2009, Horton was featured heavily in the press after accusing Arsenal club captain Cesc Fàbregas of spitting following an encounter in the FA Cup. Fàbregas was later cleared of any wrongdoing. The "Tigers" struggled in 2009–10, and Phil Brown was put on gardening leave on 15 March, as Horton and Steve Parkin were appointed as the club's joint-caretaker managers. Hull went on to be relegated under Iain Dowie, who had made Tim Flowers his assistant.
In January 2011, Phil Brown was appointed manager of Preston North End, and Horton was appointed as his assistant. Preston were relegated from the Championship at the end of the 2010–11 campaign. Horton left Preston when Phil Brown was sacked on 14 December 2011.
In March 2012, following the departure of Gary Simpson, Horton returned to Macclesfield Town as manager for the rest of the 2011–12 season. Assisted by Glyn Chamberlain, he had been tasked with steering the club clear of relegation from League Two, much the same task as he faced the first time he was appointed manager at Moss Rose. A 2–0 home defeat to Burton Albion on 28 April sent the "Silkmen" into the Conference after 15 years in the Football League. He stepped down as manager on 30 April, having gained just two points from his eight games in charge.
In June 2013, he was appointed as assistant manager to Paul Dickov at Championship club Doncaster Rovers. He left the role in July 2015. He was appointed as football coordinator by Southend United manager Phil Brown in August 2015.
Horton lives in Cheadle Hulme, near Stockport, with his family. Horton has two children, twins Matt and Lucy, from a previous marriage. He got married in October 2003.Sourced from Brian Horton profile at the English National Football Archive (subscription required)