Monday, 22 February 2010

JIM'S COLUMN 20.2.10

Cormac O’Malley is a Coventry City fan in Ireland and emailed me during the bad weather last month asking about the games that City played in Ireland during the big freeze of 1963. The weather was so bad in England that City did not play a single game during the month of January and most of February but over in Ireland there was far better weather and football pitches were playable. City manager Jimmy Hill, always looking for a new idea, contacted Manchester United boss Matt Busby and at short notice organised a friendly with United for Saturday 2nd February. The venue was in Dublin at Shamrock Rovers’ Glenmalure Park (a ground demolished in 1990 to make way for a housing estate). United had a big following in Dublin owing to the Irish connections that went back to players like Johnny Carey and Busby-babe Billy Whelan and would have been well supported in the 15,000 crowd.

Owing to the last minute arrangements (the game was only announced in Friday’s Coventry Evening Telegraph) it is highly likely there was a programme issued and I have never seen one advertised in 40-odd years of collecting.

Third Division City, unbeaten in all competitions since mid-October, gave the First Division giants a real shock and the Reds needed a Bobby Charlton goal nine minutes from time to scrape a 2-2 draw. Albert Quixall put United ahead after 25 minutes but with the Irish crowd roaring on the underdogs City led at half-time with a Ronnie Farmer lob and a Jimmy Whitehouse glancing header. Both sides had chances after the break with man of the match Whitehouse beating United ‘keeper Harry Gregg three times only to see his efforts go just wide. Finally Charlton, arguably the most famous and popular footballer in the country at the time, slid home the equaliser from a David Herd pass. The goal signalled a pitch invasion by hundreds of boys and it took several minutes to clear the pitch. Later both teams were entertained to dinner by Shamrock Rovers and City flew home having got some valuable match practice and won a lot of friends in Dublin as well as reportedly making £200 from the shared receipts. Less than two months later the clubs met in the FA Cup sixth round at Highfield Road and City again gave United a tough game before the Reds ran out 3-1 winners.

A week after the Dublin trip, another postponement at Highfield Road prompted Hill to call Wolves manager Stan Cullis and they quickly organised a friendly in Cork at the then home of Cork Hibs, Flower Lodge. A heavy muddy pitch suited Wolves’ long-ball game and although City had chances, especially in the first half playing with the wind at their backs, Wolves scored three goals in 11 minutes early in the second half to win 3-0. The scorers for a star-studded First Division side were Ron Flowers, Barry Stobart and Chris Crowe and 6,500 spectators braved the heavy rain to see an entertaining match and City flew home £100 better off. This time a programme was hastily printed and the centre page of the four-page effort is shown. Flower Lodge is now a Gaelic sports stadium.

By Wednesday 20th February the signs were that the long spell of dreadful weather in England was coming to an end and with City hopeful of playing Barnsley on the following Saturday. Hill wanted his team to have some more match practice and organised another date with Wolves, this time in Belfast at Celtic Park. On the night City were guilty of poor finishing and uncertain goalkeeping and lost 6-3. Goals from Terry Wharton (2), Alan Hinton (2), Crowe and Ted Farmer put Wolves 6-1 ahead at one stage and Ken Hale (2) and Brian Hill gave the City some late pride in front of a 6,000 crowd. Celtic Park was demolished in the 1980s and the site turned into a shopping centre.

City flew back to a thawing country and the Barnsley league game duly went ahead three days later, City’s first competitive game since 29th December and Hill’s team went on to play 11 league and cup games in 36 days. They remained unbeaten until the last Saturday in March when Manchester United ended the 23-game unbeaten run in that famous cup tie but in the subsequent sixteen league games in seven weeks (the season was extended until almost the end of May) the toll of so many games was felt and City lost touch with the leaders and finished fourth.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

JIM'S COLUMN 13.2.10

It was sad to hear of the death of Birmingham goalkeeping legend Gil Merrick who passed away, aged 88, last week. Sparkhill-born Merrick played over 700 games for the Blues between 1939 and 1960 and won 22 caps for England. He was England’s number 1 ‘keeper in an era when there was a glut of outstanding English goalkeepers such as Bert Williams (Wolves), Ted Ditchburn (Spurs) and Ray Wood (Manchester United). Gil was unfortunate to be in goal on the occasions of England’s heavy defeats to Hungary in 1953 (3-6 at Wembley) and 1954 (1-7 in Budapest) and lost his place after the 1954 World Cup. Whilst Gil was a one-club man, he actually played one game for Coventry City, as a guest in a wartime game in 1943. Alf Wood was City’s regular keeper that season but for some reason was unavailable on 3 April for a game at Derby and Merrick played in goal in a 1-1 draw with the Rams.

City’s line up that day in the Football League North championship was: Merrick, O’Brien, Elliott, Snape, Mason (G), Boileau, Coen, Barratt, Lowrie, Lager, Greenway. I think Gil was the last remaining member of that team although Norman Greenway, who originally hailed from Whoberley, was alive in Canberra, Australia about thirteen years ago, and if alive would be almost ninety now.

Leon Best’s move to Newcastle United prompted Frank Hughes, a long suffering City fan, to email me about other City strikers joining Newcastle. He reminded me of two, George Lowrie and John Tudor. Lowrie, who joined the Magpies for a big fee (£18,500) in 1948 never reproduced his City scoring form at St James’ Park. For City he netted 59 goals in 85 games (a bit more prolific than Leon!) but at Newcastle he managed only 12 games in eighteen months and scored five goals. Tudor, on the other hand was never a prolific scorer for City (15 goals in 77 games) although on occasion he did play in the centre of defence, most notably at Forest in 1967 on the night George Curtis broke his leg. He left City for Second Division Sheffield United in 1968 and scored 33 in 76 games before a big money move to Newcastle in 1971. Playing alongside Supermac (Malcolm Macdonald, John was a regular for almost five seasons and scored 58 goals in 187 games. Leon Best’s record for City was 22 goals in 104 appearances although 25 of the appearances were as a substitute.

Talking of Newcastle, City travel there for a league game on Wednesday night for the first time since the Sky Blues left the Premiership. City’s recent record at St James’ Park is not good, they failed to win in eight Premiership encounters between 1992-2000 and picked up a solitary point in March 1998 when Dion Dublin, playing at centre-back, marked the England centre-forward Alan Shearer out of the game. In the seven defeats they conceded 24 goals and scored only two. It is almost 22 years since the Sky Blues last won up there, then goals from Regis, Gynn and Speedie gave City a comfortable 3-0 win. If those stats are not bad enough then United’s home form this season (unbeaten in 17 league and cup) points toward a busy night for City’s defenders. The Forest hoodoo was smashed this week so lets keep our fingers crossed for the Newcastle bogey going west. A blank from Leon Best would help.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


City’s late equaliser against Blackpool last week ensured that City’s good home record against the Seasiders was preserved. Blackpool haven’t won in Coventry since April 1937 when they virtually clinched promotion to Division One with a 2-1 victory. However it’s not that big a deal as the clubs have only met in three seasons since then, in 1970-71 and the last two seasons. On the other hand City have not won in five trips to the Golden Mile since 1923.

Brett Ormerod’s red card was the first for an opponent at the Ricoh Arena for almost two years and the 18th visitor in total since City moved to the new stadium in 2005. Of those 18 only two of the sides affected have won the game, Hull (2-0) in 2005-06 after John Lynch was sent off and West Brom (1-0) after Diomansy Kamara in 2006-07, and both sides led before late red cards.

Before Saturday’s derby defeat at Pride Park Nottingham Forest were the hottest team in the Championship with a 19-game unbeaten run. Billy Davies’ side come to the Ricoh on Tuesday night and a good game is anticipated. Looking at the statistics however a City victory is unlikely. Forest, amazingly, have lost on only two of their last 15 league visits to Coventry, stretching back to 1987. Those two Sky Blue victories came in seasons that Forest were relegated, a 4-0 win in 1999 when Darren Huckerby scored a hat-trick for the second Saturday in a row, and a vital 2-0 win in April 2005 which lifted the Sky Blues away from the relegation zone and left Forest deep in the mire thanks to goals from Gary McSheffrey (penalty) and Dele Adebola. The latter, of course, is now in Forest’s squad and may get a game, although is unlikely to be in the starting line up. If he gets a game I am sure he will get a great reception as one of the most popular players of the post-Premiership period.

Before then, today, City travel to Ashton Gate, yet another ground where City rarely get a result. City last won there in the Third Division promotion campaign in 1963-64 thanks to a solitary Ken Hale goal and in eight subsequent league visits have picked up four draws but the last four trips have all been pointless. City did win a League Cup tie in 1976 thanks to Mick Ferguson’s goal but were lucky to get away with a 3-3 draw in the FA Cup in 2007, only putting off the inevitable for a week or so before losing to the League One side and prompting Micky Adams’ departure as manager.

Duncan Say e-mailed me after hearing Danny Baker on BBC’s 6-0-6 programme recounting his version of the day that David Speedie took over from Oggy in goal at Millwall. Baker seemed to suggest that Speedo let in four goals, or at least some of them and Duncan questioned Danny’s memory.

Duncan was right, Danny Baker's memory is not very good. The game was on 9 September 1989 and City arrived at the Den top of the old Division 1 (after only four games it has to be said). Oggy did get injured early on and let in three goals in a nightmare first half. Speedie took over between the posts after the break and David Smith pulled a goal back on 65 minutes. Speedo was finally beaten in the last minute by a thunderbolt from Ian Dawes but only after he had pulled off some fine saves.

Friday, 5 February 2010

JIM'S COLUMN 30.1.10

My piece last week about Pablo Counago’s phenomenal strike-rate against the Sky Blues generated several requests to know which player had scored the most goals against City since the came into the Championship in 2001.

Counago shares top spot with Richard Cresswell, on seven goals, all scored for Ipswich. Cresswell, currently on loan at Sheffield United, has been playing against the Sky Blues since 1999 when he played for Sheffield Wednesday in the Premiership. He didn’t score that day but made up for it by scoring in five successive games against the Sky Blues for Preston between 2001-04. After joining Leeds in 2005 he netted in his new team’s 3-1 win over City on Boxing Day and since then has also appeared against City for Stoke. In total he has played 11 games and scored 7 goals, appeared on the losing side only twice and been sent off once. Now aged 32, Cresswell will be aiming to add to his goals against City when City travel to Bramall Lane next month.

Counago’s late winner, timed at a few seconds into the 97th minute, recently at Portman Road caused several readers to question if it was the latest goal that City had ever conceded. Long periods of injury time are a relatively new phenomenon with the maximum three substitutes and set rules for officials extending what was previously a arbitrary decision by the man with the whistle. Therefore we do not have to look far back to find other examples. In 2005 at Plymouth City were denied a 1-0 victory by a goal scored by Tony Capaldi in injury time. The fourth official indicated five minutes of added time but City manager Micky Adams said he counted 6 ½ minutes before the goal went in. If Adams’ watch was correct, and that is not clear, then Capaldi’s goal was probably the latest. Older fans will remember a controversial game at Anfield in September 1969 when referee Norman Burtenshaw let play continue for an extra five minutes at the end of 90 minutes and Geoff Strong scored ‘Pool’s winner in the 94th minute. This was after City had taken the lead and given a strong performance that silenced the mighty Kop and deserved at least a point. In those days there was only one substitute allowed and no board held up by an official – the crowd had no idea how much time was being added. City boss Noel Cantwell fumed at the injustice but legendary Liverpool boss Bill Shankly shrugged it all off with typically laconic comment: ‘All the good teams have luck.’

Norman Styles, a season ticket holder at the Ricoh Arena enjoyed the team photograph from 1954-55 in last week’s column about the late Tommy Capel. Norman’s first game at Highfield Road was when his Dad took him as a nine-year old in October 1954 and was a 3-0 home win over Shrewsbury. Since then he reckons he has only missed about 15 home matches in the 55 years, a pretty impressive record.

He remembers Tommy Capel, Roy Kirk, Peter Hill et al and thinks his first game was the last before Eddie Brown was transferred to Birmingham City, I remember being upset because I was looking forward to seeing him again next match. Norman’s memory is playing tricks, Brown was dropped after the defeat at Leyton Orient in midweek and was sold to Birmingham two weeks later.

He wondered if the photograph was taken at the previous match against Bristol City, when there was a large 29,000 crowd and the picture showed a fairly packed ground. Regretably as City put out the same team in the first seven or so games that season I can’t tell at which game the photo was taken.

Norman also pointed out the sad news that non-league Kings Lynn (The Linnets) had gone out of existence. He was at Highfield Road in November 1961 when the Linnets won that infamous FA Cup tie which precipitated the Jimmy Hill era and remembers that they seemed to have about 5,000 fans in a gate of just over 12,000.

A tax bill of £70,000 (the weekly PAYE deductions for the like of John Terry and co) finally brought the club to its knees and despite a successful businessman offering to take them over at the eleventh hour the FA blocked the move, saying his proposal infringed their ownership rules. It’s a shame the powers that be don’t look a little more closely at the ownership of some of the Premiership’s club’s owners.

Checking out the internet for Kings Lynn’s history I discovered that the club has been wound up previously, in 1960, but they quickly reformed and a year later won famously at Highfield Road. I will look out for signs of reformation in fenland.