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.

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