Born Walkden 26 April 1944
Died Coventry 22 July 2012
It is sad to report the death of Coventry City legend Ernie Machin who passed away in Coventry on Sunday aged 68.
Ernie made 289 appearances for the Sky Blues, scoring 39 goals and will be remembered for taking over the club captaincy from another legend George Curtis in 1967 when George suffered a broken leg. His inspiring leadership on the pitch was a key factor in City surviving relegation in their first two seasons in the top flight.
Born in Walkden, Manchester in April 1944, Ernie had trials alongside Alan Ball at Bolton but was not considered good enough. Instead he played for Nelson FC and was spotted by City's North West scout Alf Walton in 1962. Walton called Jimmy Hill and said 'you need to sign this boy up before others do' and Hill hot-footed north to watch Machin and was besotted before half-time.
Hill recognised something special about Ernie. In his autobiography Hill describes watching the young Machin: ‘he looked extremely slow, but nevertheless when he was in possession of the ball he hardly wasted a pass. He didn’t seem to be an outstanding athlete, nor did he have the confidence or the luck to do something special …I said later that the real reason I took him on was because I liked the look in his eyes …. He had a bright eye and he said, ‘if you give me a chance, I won’t let you down’. Hill wasn’t going to pay a huge fee for Ernie and offered the chairman of Nelson £50. To Hill’s amazement he agreed and ‘for decency’s sake’ he quickly added that if Ernie made the first team he would bump it up to £200.
His comment about his eyes was misinterpreted by many fans who called him ‘Jimmy’s blue-eyed boy’ especially when his form temporarily dipped after his return from injury.
After a year in the reserves Ernie got his first team chance in April 1963 as City's FA Cup heroes were ploughing through a fixture backlog owing to the Cup run and the worst winter of a generation. 18 year old Ernie deputised at inside-forward for a tired Jimmy Whitehouse and immediately impressed the Sky Blue faithful. He played alongside new signing, fellow Lancastrian George Hudson in a 2-0 win over Millwall.
Despite playing just six games the previous campaign Ernie was the first choice in the number 10 shirt from the start of the 1963-64 season and was outstanding as the team raced to the top of the Third Division and threatened to clinch promotion in a record time. Then in November in a home game with Watford he suffered a bad knee injury just days after England manager Alf Ramsey had told JH that Machin was on his radar for an under 23 call and missed the rest of City’s Third Division promotion campaign.
He ended up having several operations and it was eighteen months before he was fully recovered. He returned to play a pivotal role in the club’s charge to the Second Division title in 1967 and netted eleven goals including memorable late goals to get vital results against Norwich, Preston & Carlisle not to mention the first of City’s goals in the famous 3-1 victory over Wolves watched by over 51,000 at Highfield Road.
When skipper George Curtis broke his leg in the club’s second game in Division One there was only one candidate for the captaincy and Ernie, converted to an attacking wing-half, was proud to lead the team out. He missed only three games in those first two years of struggle and older fans will remember his stunning goal in the 2-0 victory over European champions elect Manchester United in March 1968. His never-say-die attitude won him the respect of all his playing colleagues and the fans. He continued to be a regular, when fit, right up to the time of his departure in 1972 but a bad car accident put him out for three months in 1970 and his ‘dodgy’ knee continued to trouble him.
In 1972 he became the first English football player to successfully challenge a fine and suspension by the Football Association in the courts. He was sent off in a game at Newcastle for allegedly kicking an opponent, however TV evidence showed that he was innocent; nevertheless the FA noticed something else which he had done and upheld the disciplinary action on the basis of that without allowing him to present a defence. The courts ruled against the FA, and the PFA subsequently established the rights of players to legal representation in disciplinary cases.
In October 1972 Ernie was sold to Plymouth Argyle for £35,000 by new bosses Joe Mercer and Gordon Milne keen to raise money to buy Tommy Hutchison and Colin Stein. He had ten great years at Highfield Road making 284 appearances and scoring 39 goals and but for injury would have reached the 400 mark.
After eighteen happy months at Plymouth where he helped them to promotion and became a cult hero, he had two years at Brighton. In 1977 Jimmy Hill, by now the chairman at Highfield Road, persuaded Ernie to return to Coventry City as youth team coach. It didn’t work out however and he left football and worked for Car Bodies and Massey Ferguson.
Ernie had suffered poor health for a number of years but he had attended a reunion of the 1967 promotion team in 2007 as well as the last two Legends' Days organised by the Former Players Association. In 2008 he was one of thirty former players inducted into the club's Legends Group for services to the football club.
The epithet Legend is a word used too often about mediocre players in the hyperbole-driven modern media however Ernie Machin was a true Coventry City Legend.