Monday, 28 November 2011

Jim's column 26.11.11

Two tough home games in a week saw City end their dismal run of home defeats with a hard-won point against Cardiff City following defeat to the Hammers on Saturday. The point enabled the team to avoid an unwanted record as four home defeats in a row would have been the worst run since the move to the Ricoh in 2005. You have to go back to the last winter at Highfield Road to find a worse run; in the period December 2004 to February 2005 City suffered five successive home defeats, as first Peter Reid, then his replacement Micky Adams failed to win a game. Cardiff meanwhile continue to be a thorn in City’s side. The Bluebirds have not lost at the Ricoh since April 2006 and have won three and drawn three of the games since. Former City Academy youngster Peter Whittingham continued his excellent goalscoring record against the Sky Blues with his fifth goal in five seasons.

Saturday’s gate of 20,524 was the second highest of the season (behind the 21,102 who watched the opening day derby with Leicester) and included a massive following from East London, numbering 6,254. Italian-based City fan Federico Farcomeni alerted me to the fact that the BBC incorrectly described West Ham’s large support as the biggest away following since the Ricoh Arena opened in 2005. I’m not sure where they got their information from but the cockney hordes numbered less than last season’s Leeds fans (6,274) and West Brom’s fans in 2007 (6,331). The Hammers' following did top Leicester's on the opening day (6,201).

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Jimmy Hill as manager of Coventry City. On the 25th November the club were knocked out of the FA Cup by lowly Southern League side Kings Lynn and on 28 November manager Billy Frith and his backroom staff were sacked and Hill appointed as manager. The Kings Lynn defeat is always talked of as the game which changed the club’s history but in actual fact Frith’s fate had been sealed earlier, possibly as far back as September 1961 when City were dumped out of the League Cup by Workington. Either way a home league defeat to Crystal Palace a week before the Kings Lynn game was the final straw for chairman Derrick Robins and it was at a lunch at the chairman’s Leamington home days later that Hill was offered the job. Hill asked for time to consider the offer and took up an offer to attend the Kings Lynn game. In his autobiography JH describes events:

‘For a number of reasons it was thought prudent to keep my intended visit to Highfield Road a secret. A ticket for the far stand arrived in the post, not the stand in which the director’s box was situated. I sneaked into my seat, tucked my collar up around my ears and pulled a trilby hat well down over my forehead in the hopes that few people would notice me… not easy with a nationally known chin and here and there came acknowledgements, and stifled gasps of surprise that I should be at Highfield Road, the reason not easy for them to detect.’

You can imagine in the modern day social networking sites buzzing with this sort of news and Hill’s presence at the game would have been communicated to all and sundry by Saturday evening but it is clear that Frith had no inkling of what was coming.

On the day following the Kings Lynn game Hill telephoned a shocked Robins to tell him he had decided to accept his offer. Robins had assumed that the appalling performance would have dissuaded Hill from taking the job. Hill, who later said he had been courted by several clubs prior to Coventry’s approach, insisted that he had the power to appoint his own coaching staff. Thus began a partnership that would take Coventry City from Third Division strugglers to the First Division in five exciting seasons.

Long suffering South East-based fan George Ling is delighted to read that the club have recognised the Southern Professional Floodlit Cup success in 1960. He watched many of the games in the run to the final and points out that along with promotion from Division 4 in 1959 it was the only high spot pre-JH. He has mislaid his programme for the final against West Ham and wondered who scored the goals. George, Ron Hewitt scored both City’s goals in the 2-1 victory. City’s line up was as follows: Arthur Lightening, Don Bennett, Frank Kletzenbauer, Brian Nicholas, George Curtis, Frank Austin, Johnny Stephens, Ron Hewitt, Ray Straw, Peter Hill, Alan Daley.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Jim's column 19.11.11

After the international break weekend it is back to league action this weekend and the visit of West Ham United today for what is the Hammers’ first ever league visit to the Ricoh Arena. In 2007-08 they won here 2-1 in a League Cup tie, ending what had looked a promising Cup run that season, following City’s memorable victory at Old Trafford in the previous round.

Several people have pointed out to me that the number of Coventry-born players in the Sky Blues’ squad has increased this season and wondered when the club put out a side containing the most Cov kids. Fellow City historian Paul O’Connor tells me that in the club’s league history (that dates back to 1919) the club have only had 44 players who were born in the city – this excludes players born in Bedworth, Nuneaton or other local towns. There have been a number of famous ones including Reg Matthews (the first and only Coventrian to play for England), Bobby and Trevor Gould, Gary McSheffrey, Kirk Stephens and Marcus Hall but there have been few periods when there was a glut of local players. After World War 2 the squad had a number of locals including Ron Cox, Les Latham, Dennis Simpson and Stan Smith but all four never appeared together. Then in early 1950s the club’s youth team, playing under the name of Modern Machines produced quite a few including Matthews, Brinley Thomas, Derek Spencer and Billy Gray, and they combined with many youngsters signed from Harry Storer’s heartland of Derbyshire including Lol Harvey, Frank Austin and Ron Waldock saved the club thousands of pounds in the transfer market.

Now, suddenly, the Sky Blues have half a dozen ‘locals’ and the Southampton game ended with four of them on the pitch together. Substitute Jordan Willis joined Cyrus Christie, Conor Thomas and the ‘old man’, Gary McSheffrey to set what I believe is a club record of four Coventry-born players in the team. If Jordan Clarke’s injury problems clear up quickly and striker Callum Wilson’s progress continues we could see the city of Coventry supplying over half the first team.

Readers of the Coventry City official programme may have noticed an amendment to the Club Honours section on page three of the programme. Bedworth-based City fan Bob Howe contacted me a while ago suggesting that recognition be given to the club’s success in winning the Southern Professional Floodlit Cup in 1960. the competition was played between clubs from the south of England from around 1955 when floodlights became common amongst clubs. It was discontinued in 1960 because of the introduction of the League Cup, meaning that City were the last winners of the competition. In a memorable cup run City, then a Third Division outfit, defeated Southend, First Division Fulham, Southampton and another First Division club, West Ham, 2-1 in the final before a 17,000 Highfield Road crowd. As a result of Bob’s correspondence the club have now included the Cup win in the list of honours.   

Monday, 14 November 2011

Jim's Column 12.11.11

Coventry City’s poor form continued last week with a home defeat to the league leaders Southampton. Even with the club’s diverse recent records this was still a surprise to me as City have a tremendous record against the Saints. Saturday’s match was the 55th league encounter between the two clubs in Coventry and the victory was only Saints’ seventh win in the city, and the first since the opening day of the season in 1999.  Between 1950 and 1987 the Saints travelled to Highfield Road for 26 league encounters and failed to win a single game with City winning eighteen games including heavy defeats in Saints’ two promotion seasons 1959-60 (4-1) and 1965-66 (5-1). The latter being the momentous game when George Hudson scored his memorable goal by flicking the ball over Saints’ centre-half Tony Knapp and racing around the statuesque stopper to volley home.

Now the Saints are setting the pace in the Championship with an interesting blend of experienced players and youth from one of the most productive youth schemes in the country that in recent years has helped fund the club’s revival with sales of starlets like Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Another City youngster made his debut as a substitute last weekend. Jordan Willis is just a couple of months past his 17th birthday but his appearance in a first-team shirt earns him a place in the top ten youngest City debutants which now reads thus:-

1. Jonson Clark-Harris (Aug 2010) 16 years 20 days
2. Ben Mackey (Apr 2003) 16 years 167 days
3. Gary McSheffrey (Apr 1999) 16 years 198 days
4. Brian Hill (Apr 1958) 16 years 273 days
5. Isaac Osbourne (Apr 2003) 16 years 308 days
6. Perry Suckling (Aug 1982) 16 years 320 days
7. George Curtis (Apr 1956) 16 years 351 days
8. Dietmar Bruck (Apr 1961) 17 years 9 days
9. Conor Thomas (Jan 2011) 17 years 71 days
10=. Jordan Willis (Nov 2011) 17 years 73 days
10=. Colin Holder (Apr 1962) 17 years 73 days

Coventry-born Jordan, who is one day younger than Conor Thomas when Conor made his debut as a substitute against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup in January, is the third youngster to join the top 10 in the last fifteen months.

Jim Ridley wrote to me recently and remembers that in the 1970s he watched Northern Ireland play a full international against Portugal at Highfield Road. He cannot remember the details and asked me to refresh his memory and tell him if the great Eusebio played for Portugal.

The game, a World Cup qualifying game, was played at Highfield Road on 28 March 1973.  The civil unrest in Northern Ireland at the time forced the Irish Football Association to seek alternative venues for their home games and this was the first game played outside the province. The Irish team featured several famous names including Tottenham’s world-class goalkeeper Pat Jennings, former City midfielder Dave Clements, who had left City eighteen months earlier to join Sheffield Wednesday, and Martin O’Neill of Nottingham Forest who would later become a very successful manager with Leicester and Celtic. Sadly George Best had announced his international retirement and did not play. The Portuguese, whilst not the force they had been at the 1966 World Cup, were favourites to qualify from a group that also included Bulgaria and Cyprus, the latter had severely dented Northern Ireland’s chances by beating them in Cyprus a month earlier. Two stars of the 1966 Portugal team were still in the team, Eusebio, the star striker and Simoes, a classy winger in his day. Eusebio scored a penalty equalising O’Neill’s earlier goal and the game, watched by a crowd of 11,273, ended 1-1. Later the Irish played internationals at Fulham’s Craven Cottage, Hillsborough, Anfield and Goodison Park.

On 16 March 1968 two brothers were taken to Highfield Road for the younger one’s birthday treat to watch the Sky Blues play Manchester United for the first time in the First Division. The younger brother Paul Moses was a United fan and emailed me with his memories of the game. They were on the terraces and as the crowd got bigger and bigger (the attendance was 47,111, the second highest in the club’s history) the police allowed children on to the running track. City won a memorable 2-0 victory over the Reds who were three games away from lifting the European Cup but whose supporters blamed the defeat on a long midweek trip to Poland. The result was a crucial one for both clubs as City eventually avoided relegation by just one point whilst United were pipped at the Championship post by their Manchester rivals by two points. A different outcome that day would have relegated City and handed the title to United.

Paul and his brother Peter wanted to know City’s line up from that game. It was as follows:

Glazier: Bruck, Cattlin, Machin, Setters, Clements, Hannigan, Hunt, Martin, Tudor, Carr.  Ernie Hunt and Chris Cattlin made their debuts for the Sky Blues and Ernie Machin and Maurice Setters scored City’s goals.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Jim's column 5.11.11

Millwall has never been a happy hunting ground for Coventry City and Tuesday night proved to be no exception. It is 56 years since City won in Docklands – Boxing Day 1955 to be precise – and 16 subsequent league and cup games have failed to yield a victory. Millwall’s supporters already had a reputation back then and Jesse Carver’s team (it was his penultimate game as manager before a premature return to the Italian Serie A) upset them with a professional display, assisted by a stunning display of goalkeeping from Reg Matthews as he edged nearer to his first England cap. Matthews kept the rampaging Lions out and goals from Alan Moore and Ken McPherson ensured a 2-0 win. After the match Reg was the hero again – jumping off a besieged team coach to confront some gruesome dockers. Even in City’s Second Division 1966-67 promotion season City failed to win in New Cross, losing to a Joe Broadfoot goal.

Coventry City have now completed one third of the season and it is time for a review of their record. The Millwall defeat means they have gained only 12 points from 15 games – a poor record, which if replicated over the season would almost certainly mean relegation with 36 points. It is the worst first third of the season since City were relegated from the Premiership in 2001. In the last ten seasons City have averaged around 21 points from the first 15 games – the best, 31 in 2001-02 (under Roland Nilsson), the worst, 15 in 2004-05 (under Peter Reid). City, of course, are generally good starters and have a tendency to fall apart after Christmas, so here’s hoping previous seasons’ trends are reversed this term.

This start is the worst since the 2000-01 relegation season when they clocked 12 points from 15 games – but then it was more serious as they were almost halfway through the 38-game season. The worst start in modern times was under Ron Atkinson in 1996-97 when they gathered a measly ten points from 15 games. That season they won only one of their first sixteen games and by then Big Ron had already paid the price. Fortunately his replacement Gordon Strachan pulled City out of their nose-dive and kept them up on the final day at White Hart Lane.

Their worst ever start, which hopefully will never been repeated, was that horrible first season in the Football League in 1919 – where so many of the dreadful club records reside. That season they gained a pitiful three points from the first 15 games but still managed to survive the drop but only because they bribed their opponents!

Darius Henderson is in a rich scoring vein at the moment with 8 goals in 11 games and six in his last three. Darius is no stranger to the Sky Blues having netted for Watford against them in 2005-06 and again in 2007-08. He was a key member of the Watford team promoted via the play-offs in the former season and was the strike partner of Marlon King. From being one of the top scorers in the Championship he had a torrid time in the Premiership – failing to net until January 2007 and scoring only three goals all season. He re-discovered his scoring form for the Hornets back in the Championship before a big money move to Sheffield United in 2008. He failed to live up to his ‘star’ rating at Bramall Lane and then suffered a serious leg injury which kept him out of the side for most of last season. By the time he was fit the Blades were as good as relegated and his wages were presumably too high for League One. Millwall took a punt and have been richly rewarded.

Finally, a big thank you to all who supported and helped me two weeks ago at my book launch in Coventry. The management and staff of Waterstones, G-Casino and Coventry City were fabulous. Thanks also to my friends from the Former Players Association, especially Billy Bell and the former players who turned out on the day. Not forgetting Dean Nelson for his excellent 1960s video. It was a great day and I appreciate everybody’s efforts.