Tuesday, 30 August 2011

JIM'S COLUMN 27.8.2011

Last Saturday the Sky Blues finally picked up their first point of the season against Watford and thus avoided the ignominy of having their worst start since 1919. By all accounts it was a scrappy game but a point is a point and if Andy Thorn can get some more of his injured players fit and perhaps get a striker in, the form should improve.

As I write this the takeover talks are moving slowly with, in my opinion, too much of the action being played out in the media. Many fans are angry that SISU are not packing up their tent and leaving town but, again, in my opinion, that won’t happen quickly, if at all. By some accounts the Gary Hoffman-led group seems to think that SISU will accept an offer of £1 and therefore take a bath for the £40 million plus they have allegedly put in. The majority of the club’s debts are with SISU, a similar situation to when they ‘bought out’ Geoffrey Robinson for a pittance four years ago. Then Robinson was persuaded to fall on his sword and swallow a loss estimated at £20 million, ‘for the good of the club’. Whatever happens any new owners will be carrying out their due diligence to understand the severity of the financial position, and that takes time.

Since Ray Ranson’s departure earlier this year SISU have shown far more interest in the football club, realising that drastic action was required to protect their investment, especially after Ranson’s lack of experience in running a football club was exposed. SISU’s overall strategy is still opaque but cost-cutting and a net outflow of players must have reduced the running costs considerably - although probably without turning the day-to-day losses into a profit. The new board have a thankless task, especially after the lack of signings and the poor start on the pitch, but I think the board and chief executive Paul Clouting are trying hard and neither they nor SISU are ready to throw the towel in for a pound!

There are signs that Man City and Chelsea apart, football’s financial problems are beginning to unravel. To read last week that Everton have serious debt issues is sobering and there will be many other similar stories this season. City fans thinking that Gary Hoffman’s group will be splashing massive amounts of cash on a raft of new players if their offer is accepted are living in cloud-cuckoo land. Gary is a passionate City fan with a wealth of experience in the financial world but that is no guarantee of success. Potential investors have seen too many buyers lose their shirt and are wary of promises of rich pickings, especially outside the Premiership.

I’ll step off my soapbox now and talk about more interesting historical matters.

Saturday’s gate for the Watford game was 13,043 and is the lowest Saturday home gate since the club moved to the Ricoh in 2005. No doubt a good number of City fans were still away on holiday and it still seems crazy to me to start the football season so early. City’s lowest ever crowd (soon to be threatened me thinks) is 12,292 against Doncaster for a early midweek game last season. The Blackpool midweek home game at the end of September could see the first sub-12,000 gate at the Ricoh.

Lowest league gates at the Ricoh 2005-11

1. 12,292 v Doncaster (2010-11)
2. 13,043 v Watford (2011-12)*
3. 13,169 v Derby Co. (2010-11)*
4. 13,481 v Swansea (2010-11)
5. 14,036 v Scunthorpe (2007-08)
6. 14,326 v Sheffield United (2009-10)
7. 14,370 v Hull (2010-11)*
8. 14,412 v Ipswich (2010-11)*
9. 14,432 v Burnley (2010-11)*
10. 14,573 v Barnsley (2010-11)*

* Saturday home games

City fan Andrew Berry remembers seeing a friendly game at Highfield Road between City and the Japan national eleven. He couldn’t remember the year and asked for more details of the game. City beat Japan 2-0 on 14 August 1978. Their line up was the full first team, warming up for the opening league game the following Saturday: Les Sealey: Keith Osgood, Bobby McDonald, Terry Yorath, Jim Holton, Gary Gillespie, Don Nardiello, Ian Wallace, Mick Ferguson, Barry Powell, Tommy Hutchison. City’s goals came from Yorath and Ferguson and there was a crowd of 5,232.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

JIM'S COLUMN 20.8.2011

It was a day of double celebration in the McSheffrey household last Saturday. Gary celebrated his 29th birthday by appearing for his home town club at the ground of his former club, Birmingham City. The other celebration was Gary's 200th appearance in a Coventry shirt in all competitions. Gary made his debut as a substitute at Villa Park in February 1999 aged 16 years 198 days and was the youngest ever City player at the time as well as the youngest Premiership player. Subsequently he has lost both records, the former to Ben Mackey and later Jonson Clarke-Harris, and the latter to Aaron Lennon. He is the 45th Coventry player to reach the 200 game milestone and the first since Michael Doyle.

Talking of young debutants, several readers have been asking where the current crop of youngsters stand in the chart of youngest ever City players. Despite Gael Bigirimana, Josh Ruffels and Conor Thomas being only 17-years old, Thomas is the only one to make the top ten youngest. All three were born in October 1993 and are therefore 18 in October. When Thomas debuted as a substitute against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup last season he was 17 years and 71 days placing him 9th in the all-time chart (62 days older than Dietmar Bruck) but the youngest to play an FA Cup tie. By all accounts none of the lads let the side down at Selhurst Park and we have to hope that they all have big futures ahead of them, preferably with the Sky Blues.

Similarly several readers were wondering if the team that finished the game on Tuesday evening was the youngest City team ever. My friend Geoff Moore tracks this record very closely and assures me that City have fielded younger teams. The average age of Tuesday nights final XI was 22.8 years. That is some way off the age of the side that played at Manchester City in November 1980 which was 21 years and 58 Days. The team that day by the way was: Les Sealey: Steve Jacobs, Harry Roberts, Andy Blair, Paul Dyson, Gary Gillespie, Peter Bodak, Garry Thompson, Mark Hateley, Danny Thomas, Steve Hunt. City lost 0-3. In 2003 Gary McAllister put out several City teams with an average age of under 22.

City's depressing start to the season continued at Selhurst Park losing to two late goals and you have to go back a long way to find the last time the team lost their first three league games. It has happened on only three previous occasions: 1968-69, 1949-50 and 1919-20. The good news is that in none of those seasons were the team relegated. In 1919-20, the club's first season in the Football League, the team lost their first nine games before staging a miraculous recovery to finish 20th out of 22, albeit with the help of some bribery. In 1949-50, Harry Storer's team rallied to finish 12th. In 1968-69 City were hampered by playing their first two games away from home because the new stand at Highfield Road wasn't ready but won their fourth game (4-2 against West Brom) and despite a long struggling season did enough to stay in Division One.

Fortunately for me I have been spared the sight of the Sky Blues this season. Owing to family health problems I am extending a stay in France and may not see my beloved Sky Blues for some time. The internet and in particular internet radio enables me to keep track of news and games but Tuesday night’s game left me with nails bitten to the quick and I forced to drain my sorrows with copious amounts of red wine!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

JIM'S COLUMN 13.8.2011

At Gigg Lane, Bury on Tuesday night the now annual League Cup disaster took place. Despite Andy Thorn putting out a strong side (on paper, if not on the pitch), the Sky Blues once again succumbed to an embarrassing Cup defeat in Lancashire. Lower league sides must rub their hands with glee when being drawn out of the hat with Coventry City and Bury emulated Morecambe and Hartlepool as the third successive team to send City out of the competition at the first hurdle. Just when the club and the fans could do with a lift, financially and spiritually, that a little Cup run would give, the team failed to perform. We won't have the annual depressing trip to Preston this season (where City have never won a league game) but the Lancashire hoodoo continues and the trips to Blackpool and Burnley are looking like ones to avoid.

A small crowd of 2,997 watched Tuesday night’s game, probably less than were rioting and looting in nearby Salford, but it wasn’t the lowest crowd to watch City in the the competition. In 1992 there was a crowd of 2,633 at Scarborough to see the Sky Blues throw away a two goal first leg lead and lose 3-0, and the previous year there was 2,288 at Spotland, Rochdale, as City lost 0-1 but went through by virtue of a 4-0 win in the first leg.

I thought I tempted providence by mentioning the Sky Blues' excellent opening day record last week. Not only did the team lose their first league game of the season for the first time since 2000 but as Paul O'Connor pointed out, they lost at home and had a midfield player sent off. In 2000 City lost 1-3 to Middlesbrough and had David Thompson sent off on his debut. It was the start of a depressing campaign that ended in relegation.

City fielded three debutants against Leicester on Saturday, less than normal on the opening day, and two of them were homegrown players. It has to be hoped that many of the latest flood of talent from the Academy will ‘make the grade’ and end a long period during which few home grown players have come through to be first team regulars. The next few years are going to be tough financially for Coventry City and the development of their own youngsters who, it is hoped will have more affinity with the club than high priced transfer signings, will save the club substantial sums of money. In the all-time numbering system Joe Murphy became player number 851, Cyrus Christie 852 and Gael Bigirimana 853.

The poor start to the season has not surprised many supporters and the fans seem to be turning again on the owners, SISU. With no replacement for Marlon King signed, the squad looks lightweight up front and as I said last week a lack of goals could be a problem. Communication from the Ricoh boardroom has again become patchy and there is a lack of clarity about SISU’s intentions and no updates on the cashflow which we were told in April would only last ‘through the summer’. Despite cost-cutting the losses must be continuing to rack up and it is hard to visualise SISU continuing the fund the club with the current business model. I see very little difference in their approach to the one taken by the previous regime which ended with Geoffrey Robinson taking a bath for £20 million when SISU took over. The club seem to be almost back where they were then in the autumn of 2007. There is no simple or quick answer to the situation and for things to change SISU would have to walk away and take a loss of £30 million or more. Gary Hoffman and his investors would presumably ride in with their alleged £30 million but would that change anything other than the faces at the top? Unless the stadium is purchased or the club won promotion the cycle would continue and 3-4 years down the road those new investors would be retreating nursing substantial losses. The board have made some interesting noises about the new Financial Fair Play regulations coming in next year and indicating that they are taking a more prudent approach to the club’s finances. nwith these new rules in mind. fortunately fans don’t want to hear this sort of talk and look at the lack of new players and poor results. However if this is the strategy then the board must get their story across with more vigour.

It was great to see that former manager Gordon Milne was at the Leicester game last week and trying to stay impartial having managed both clubs. His former assistant Ron Wylie was also a guest of the Former Players Association but unfortunately had a fall at Gordon’s home later in the day. He has been in hospital in Birmingham this week and I am sure all City fans wish him well in his recovery. Ron had a reputation as a tough talking, no-nonsense disciplinarian but when you speak to his former players they have nothing but respect and admiration for the strict Scot.

If Sky Blue fans want to be cheered up they should go along to Hawksmill Club in Hawksmill Lane, Allesley tomorrow afternoon to wallow in some 1987 nostalgia. Almost 25 years after winning the FA Cup a team comprising many of the ‘87 heroes take on a Lloyd McGrath XI to raise money for charity. Oggy, Trevor Peake, Micky Gynn and Brian Borrows are definites and more are expected. Kick-off is at 2pm and entrance is £3 with children and OAPs allowed in for £1.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

JIM'S COLUMN 6.8.2011

Another new football season starts today. For Coventry City it is the eleventh successive season in the Championship -following Preston’s relegation they are the longest serving club in the old Second Division - and my 50th season following the club. Little has changed at the football club in the close season with financial pressures and takeover talk dominating the local media and fans’ forums. Three of last season's better players have departed but none of the moves were surprising. Keiren Westwood has gone to the Premiership and will be tested by the best at Sunderland. Aron Gunnarsson will be plying his trade at Cardiff City but in my view will have a hard battle to get a game in one of the best midfields in the division last term. The third man, Marlon King, has departed acrimoniously for Birmingham City and must be wondering what he has walked into as the St Andrews club threatens to implode. My overall view on the moves is that only King's goals will be missed. Aron's form since his splendid inaugural season has been patchy and a fit Gary Deegan plus the emerging talents of Conor Thomas and Gael Bigirimana will amply counter the Icelander's departure. Joe Murphy too, should be good enough to fill Westwood's shoes. The problem will be goals and we can only hope that either a new striker is signed soon, or that the hugely promising Lukas Jutkiewicz adds more goals to his blossoming performances, or Freddy Eastwood finally fulfils the enormous expectations we all have for him. Whilst I am not as downbeat as most City fans about the prospects for the new season Andy Thorn and Steve Harrison will have to get more out of what is not a small squad than their two predecessors achieved. Injuries will again play a part and it is hard to believe that the Sky Blues will have the bad luck they had in that department last season when Deegan, McPake, Turner, Clingan and Bell were all out for long spells. I don't subscribe to the view that the club will have a relegation battle but then I don't expect them to be pressing for a playoff spot - not that they have been in that position for the last nine seasons. It may be that a sale of one of the better players is forthcoming to fund some purchases. Older fans may remember a similar scenario in early 1986 when with the City in a perilous state Terry Gibson was sold to Manchester United for an inflated £650,000 and most of the money was used to buy three new players (Nick Pickering, Alan Brazil and Jim McInally). Ultimately only Pickering of the trio was a success but just over twelve months later virtually the same squad won the FA Cup. In other words, sometimes a club has to sell to move forward.

Whilst on the subject of history I remember similarly depressing pre-seasons in 1969, 1977, 1986 and 1997 when after desperate relegation battles there was little or no money spent on players and the team was tipped to be favourites for the drop. In all these years the team defied their critics and had immensely successful campaigns. In 1969 Noel Cantwell’s team finished sixth and qualified for Europe. In 1977 Gordon Milne’s attacking team, spearheaded by Ian Wallace and Mick Ferguson, scored 75 goals and missed out on Europe by a whisker after the most entertaining season of the last 40 years. In 1986 John & George put a backbone into a mixed bag of players and won the FA Cup. Whilst in 1997 Gordon Strachan’s team left relegation worries behind them and but for a shoddy penalty shoot-out defeat at Bramall Lane may have got to Wembley again.

Two weeks ago Derek Henderson sadly passed away, aged 82. Nemo, which was his by-line for many of his 15 years as the main football writer on the Coventry Telegraph, kept City fans abreast of the news from Highfield Road in the era before multi-media and mass coverage of the sport. For most of his time reporting on the club he was the only source of news for supporters. He was there for the arrival of Jimmy Hill in 1961 and has often been credited as the man who came up with the nickname ‘the Sky Blues’ after Hill introduced the new kit in 1962. In those days Derek travelled to away games on the team bus and had virtual unlimited access to the manager and players. He never abused that privilege and was always the soul of discretion.

I was interested in City’s facts and figures from an early age and in the summer of 1969 I wrote to Derek asking for help in compiling some information. He replied promptly, inviting me, and a friend, to visit the Telegraph offices and access the personal scrapbooks of his time covering the City. Over a number of Saturdays I built up the basis of my club records, this is the days before the Rothmans and Sky annuals, and internet websites. His kindness at that time is impossible for me to forget and many years later, after he had retired to his beloved Devon, we had telephone chats and emails about the club’s history and his time in Coventry. His style of writing, which demonstrated a passion for football and for his adopted team, Coventry City, made reading his match reports a great pleasure and influenced my football writing years later.

I am tempting providence I know but on form City should win today. Since being relegated from the Premiership in 2001 City have never lost on the opening day of the season. They have won eight and drawn two of their 10 opening games and have won the last five. It is a remarkable record and lets hope they can keep the run going today against the Foxes.