Sunday, 27 April 2014

Jim's column 26.4.14

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Sky Blues' Third Division Championship success – the day they defeated Colchester United 1-0 at Highfield Road in front of 36,901 on the final day of a roller coaster 1963-64 season.

The team, managed by Jimmy Hill, had looked odds-on favourites at the start of 1964 having amassed an eight-point lead over their nearest rivals but a disastrous run of 11 games without a win saw them slip to third place in March. The transfer-deadline signings of George Kirby & John Smith steadied the ship & some hard fought results saw them back in the promotion race. However defeat at Peterborough on the previous Monday night had stalled celebrations. As the final day dawned City knew that a win would be sufficient to clinch promotion irrespective of what happened to closest rivals Watford at Luton. In fact with Coventry boasting a better goal average, they only needed to achieve the same result as Watford to clinch a higher level of football and a return to Division Two after 12 years. Nemo in the Coventry Telegraph calculated that a single goal victory by the Sky Blues would require Watford to win 12-0 to pip them. The leaders Crystal Palace were at home to Oldham & were expected to gain the single point they needed to clinch the title.

The stage was set therefore for the biggest league game at Highfield Road since the war and the club announced that the turnstiles would open earlier than normal, at 12.30 to meet the expected 30,000 plus crowd. Coventry police appealed for motorists to leave their cars behind on the big day and use public transport to get to the ground.

Rob Yates was 15 years old at the time & remembers the day vividly: 'I was 15 at the time and this was my first game to watch the Sky Blues, although I had been following them via the Telegraph and radio etc., for a couple of seasons before. A friend of my father's was a regular visitor to home games and offered me a lift to the game for the Colchester match, which I gladly accepted. It was difficult finding a parking space on the day, as all the streets close to Highfield Road., were heavy with traffic for the large crowd. I remember he parked on the town side of the ground, and as you walked towards the ground, there was a narrow passage way at the top of Primrose Hill Street with a metal men's toilet at the start of it, both of these are long gone! I think the entrance price was around 2 shillings. Anyway we got to the ground, and I climbed to the top of the concrete steps leading to the covered end, to be confronted by a sea of faces, and the thing that took me by surprise, it seems silly now was that it was all in colour, all football I had watched before on TV then was in black and white! 

On the Friday the team news had been surprising – fan's hero George Hudson was recalled after injury. Hill confirmed that he wouldn’t play a double spearhead of Hudson & Kirby but that Hudson would play an inside forward role. Kirby, Hill said, was prepared to switch with Hudson if things were not working out during the game. Ron Farmer, who had missed the Peterborough defeat would also return to action in place of Dietmar Bruck.

Hill’s tactical gamble paid off with the Sky Blues & winger Willie Humphries in particular, carving huge gaps in the visitors defence before Hudson, looking like the Hudson of old, netted after 24 minutes. Nemo described the goal: ‘A quick thrust down the left, a cross from Rees while the Colchester defence was at sixes and sevens, and it was a blur as Hudson whipped the ball into the back of the net.’

City missed many opportunities to increase the lead and after half-time the crowd’s attention switched to news from the two other vital games. With City kicking off later at 3.15, the Palace and Watford games finished ten minutes or so before the final whistle at Coventry and with the game still active Godfrey Evans announced the scores over the Tannoy. Watford had led their local rivals Luton for most of the game but let in two late goals to ensure City’s promotion. Palace amazingly lost to Oldham and City would be champions by a goal average margin of 0.17 goal. The last ten minutes seemed to drag and finally the referee blew the whistle and within seconds the pitch had become a sea of spectators with the players disappearing under a mass of hundreds of young supporters. Several fans wrote in saying they raced on to the pitch at the end including Alan Ludford and Ian Davidson. Ian remembers having his woollen bobble hat (covered in the plastic stars with photos of the players all the kids bought at the time) stolen whilst on the pitch with several hundred supporters (young and old) chanting as the players took to the stands for their deserved applause.

Somehow the players got off the pitch and soon appeared in the Main Stand, high above the massed ranks of fans. There was no trophy for the track-suited heroes (it was still at previous year’s champions Northampton and would not be presented to City until the League’s AGM) and chairman Derrick Robins’ attempt to have himself heard long enough to present George Curtis with the Midland Footballer Of the Year trophy, ended in a noisy farce as the fans shouted for Jimmy Hill. Hill, Robins and the players deserved the plaudits for restoring the club’s Second Division status. The final average gate was 26,017 the club’s highest since 1950-51 and the highest by a Third Division club since the golden post-war years. The average was the eleventh highest in the whole league and topped all but three Second Division clubs as well as First Division clubs such as Aston Villa, Leicester, Wolves, Birmingham and West Brom. For the very first time City had the highest crowds in the Midlands and would do so for the next seven golden years.

After the game Hill revealed two well-kept secrets. First , he had ordered the players to take sleeping pills on the Thursday and Friday nights and they had ‘worked like a charm’ with the players more relaxed than they had been in weeks. Secondly, Hill had invited the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck into the dressing room for about 25 minutes before the match. Hill explained: ‘I asked Jimmy to crack a few jokes and keep the lads’ minds off the game. It helped them to relax in the worst time – just before the game’.

Alan Ludford sent in a nice poem about the climax to that season with a poignant message about the club's current plight:

 Peterborough away
 Cant forget that day
Silent journey going back
Promotion hopes off track
Next day Watford could only draw
Beat Colchester up for sure
The Hud returns to such a cheer
Scores , a great roar everyone could hear
Final whistle blow champions are we
Onto the pitch jumping for glee
O a return to happy days
To play at home and not far aways.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Jim's column 19.4.14

One of the most memorable City away wins that I have ever seen came at Derby County's Baseball Ground in September 1970. Martin Oliver contacted me recently asking to be reminded of a famous 4-3 victory. The Rams, one of the top sides in the country & managed by the arrogant but irrepressable Brian Clough, had lost at home to the Sky Blues the previous season & Brian was determined that it wasn't going to happen again. After 13 minutes City were 0-2 down & had lost the services of their new signingWilf Smith, at the time the most expensive full-back in Britain

The game kicked off in a torrential downpour and within five minutes Smith took a bad knock. Three minutes later, with Smith temporarily off the field and City down to ten men, Kevin Hector scored in off a post. Ernie Hunt came on as substitute and Cantwell reshuffled his side, but on thirteen minutes Alan Hinton slammed in a rebound after Bill Glazier had made a good save. City were two goals down. Game, set and match to Derby, surely.

However, striker Neil Martin, who relished his tussles with the much vaunted Roy McFarland, was winning their aerial battle and it was Martin who, after 28 minutes, reduced the deficit with a hooked shot from Hunt’s cross. Three minutes later Dave Clements levelled the score with a daisy cutter. Against the odds, City were still alive and kicking.
                                                         Neil Martin
The second half was nine minutes old when Martin headed City ahead for the first time. John McGovern levelled the scores again with a shot that flew in off Willie Carr; then Geoff Strong seemed to seal City’s fate when elbowing Wignall off the ball in the penalty box. Penalty to Derby!

Alan Hinton, who boasted one of the most explosive shots in football, stepped up and fired to Glazier’s right, but City’s keeper made a prodigious leap to turn the ball aside. City were left hanging on grimly for a draw, and survived several stomach-churning moments. Two Derby ‘goals’ were disallowed for offside, Strong headed off the line, and Hector hit the bar.
It was still 3-3 when, with only two minutes remaining, City stunned the home crowd. Non-stop Willie Carr blasted the winner to gain a victory that Derek Henderson in the Coventry Telegraph described as probably City’s finest win in the First Division in the face of great adversity.

Last week I wrote about that famous trip to Peterborough 50 years ago this month & I received an email from Diamond Club member John Green. John was a fine goalkeeper in his day & was on City's books just after World War 2. He recently travelled to watch the Sky Blues at Crewe & told me it was his first visit to watch City there since 1963-64 season when he made the trip on the Sky Blue Special train. He cannot recollect the score or details of the game & asked me to refresh his memory. The match in question took place on a Wednesday night in early October and ended 2-2. George Hudson gave City the lead just before half-time. Crewe rallied after the break and goals from Frank Lord and John Dillon swung the scales in their direction. With just four minutes left Hudson flicked on a Mick Kearns free-kick and Ken Hale popped up to equalise.

City's line-up was: Wesson: Sillett, Kearns, Hill, Curtis, Farmer, Humphries, Hale, Hudson, Machin, Rees. The attendance was 7,385 (1,000 City fans).

Of course next weekend is the 50th anniversary of City's Third Division championship and promotion to Division Two & I will be recalling the events of the famous game against Colchester. So if you have any memories please drop me an email.

Finally, following my piece about the number of home-grown players fielded by the club, Dean Nelson reminded me that on several occasions in the 1981-82 season City fielded a starting line-up containing ten players who had come through the club's youth scheme. The first time it occurred was an away draw at Swansea when the line-up was: Les Sealey, Danny Thomas, Brian Roberts, Steve Jacobs, Paul Dyson, Gary Gillespie, John Hendrie, Gerry Francis, Mark Hateley, Tom English, Steve Whitton. The substitute was Ian Butterworth making Francis the only player to have been signed from elsewhere. In addition to the 11 on duty that day, a further six homegrown players appeared that season: Peter Bodak, Ray Gooding, Martin Singleton, Garry Thompson, Peter Hormantschuk & David Barnes. 17 players all of whom came through the ranks – what would they be worth in today's inflated transfer market.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Jim's column 12.04.14

I make no excuses for tripping down Memory Lane this week. Coventry City travel to Peterborough today and it is 50 years ago this month since 12,000 fans made the trek to London Road to watch the Sky Blues there. It is still the biggest Sky Blue away league following outside the West Midlands and in true Coventry City fashion the fans were let down.

Local schools & factories finished early to allow the Sky Blue Army to make the cross country trip and the roads of Northamptonshire were packed nose to tail by the Sky Blue invasion as cars, vans & every available coach from a 20-mile radius was put into service for the journey.

A win on that Monday night in April 1964 in their penultimate game would have virtually ensured promotion from Division Three but in front of a ground league record crowd of 26,307, home goals from Chris Thompson & Derek Dougan consigned City to a 2-0 defeat. It left Jimmy Hill's men & all Sky Blue fans biting their nails for five days before they sealed the Championship with a 1-0 home win over Colchester.

It was another anniversary this week – 17 years since one of the best home games in modern history, a 3-1 home win over Chelsea at Highfield Road. A defeat to West Ham in their previous home game had left City in serious trouble near the foot of the table but an amazing 2-1 victory at championship chasing Liverpool thanks to 92nd minute Dion Dublin goal had revived hopes of survival. Three days later FA Cup semi finalists Chelsea arrived without their change kit & were forced to play in City's red and bluechange kit. Gordon Strachan donned the shirt for the first time that season and inspired a superb comeback from a goal down to win 3-1. In a nine-minute second half spell Dublin, Paul Williams & Noel Whelan won the points and reduced Chelsea's team of all-stars to a disorganised & petulant rabble. At the final whistle French international Frank Leboeuf ripped off his shirt, threw it on the ground & allegedly spat on it. The win was a crucial one in City avoiding relegation & is often forgotten when talking about the Great Escape that year.

Carl Baker's goal against MK Dons means he becomes the fourth City player to score ten goals in all competitions joining Callum Wilson, Leon Clarke & Franck Moussa. Ben Lipman asked me if this had ever happened before & the answer is yes but not for fifty years. Again we go back to that memorable 1963-64 season when no less than five players reached double figures. The famous five were:

George Hudson 28
Ken Hale 17
Ronnie Rees 15
Ronnie Farmer 11
Willie Humphries 11

What a contrast this season has been to some recent seasons - in 2006-07, 2010-11 & 2011-12 no City player reached double figures! Admittedly it was at a higher level of football but then again the club's playing budget was substantially higher back then. Callum was unable to add to his goal tally but his achievements this season are nothing short of astounding and in the years to come his scoring feats this season will be remembered. Whether he stays or goes this summer we need to cherish his accomplishments.

One of this season's fabulous four scorers, Franck Moussa, had one of his 'goals' removed from his record this week. After substantial pressure from myself & other football statisticians the Football League finally agreed to review the second goal at Rotherham on New Year's Day and realised that Franck was nowhere near the ball when it entered the net & that Cyrus Christie was the goalscorer. There was a possibility of it being given as an own goal but it was decided that the Rotherham defender did not affect the flight of the ball sufficiently. Moussa is now credited with 12 goals (11 in the league).

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Jim's column 5.4.14

There was a very welcome win at Crewe's Gresty Road last Saturday after six consecutive away defeats. Although City have not played at Crewe much over the years it is a ground that City have rarely done well on. It was the Sky Blues' first league victory there since 2002 when Lee Hughes notched the last City away hat-tick in a 6-1 win. Since then there have been four consecutive league defeats before Saturday's win with that meaningless 2-0 Johnstone's Paint Trophy victory last season. Older fans will remember in 1966 when City, then a top Second Division club, almost got knocked out of the FA Cup by the Fourth Division Railwaymen. Only a late Ronnie Rees goal earned City a Highfield Road replay which they duly won.

Steven Pressley's 'win ugly' strategy worked at Gresty Road and after the 0-0 home draw with Bradford City on Tuesday evening the team has now gone unbeaten in three & probably banished the relegation blues. The strategy however cost City seven yellow cards in the Crewe game & I was scouring the records to discover any other instances. By my reckoning it was the most in a game for the club - I could find several instances of five bookings in a game but not more. In December 1971 at Old Trafford in a 2-2 draw the referee booked the whole of City's five-man defensive wall for not retreating ten yards. Then at the opening game at the Ricoh Arena City had five men booked in the 3-0 victory over QPR. Allegedly there was some bad blood from a pre-season game between the clubs in Ibiza & Rangers had their centre-back Danny Shittu ordered off just after half-time.
Several readers have asked me if this season is a record for the number of penalties conceded by City. They have now given away 12 spot-kicks in all competitions with seven scored and five saved by Joe Murphy. I wrote some time ago that Joe had surpassed Jim Blyth & Bill Glazier's post-war record of penalty saves but as far as penalties conceded this season's total is, I believe, the worst season in the club's history.

Rod Dean read last week's piece about the Tottenham friendly in 1964 which ended 6-5 to the Londoners & was at the game. He noted that the late John White appeared for Spurs & asked me to try & confirm if it was the last game he played before his tragic death in a lightning strike on a golf course that July. I do know it was his final appearance in a Spurs shirt but he did play an international for Scotland in West Germany two weeks later.

Some weeks ago Steve Burroughs asked me to confirm whether this season's side has featured the most home grown players in the club's history. I was pretty certain that in the early 1980s City had a stronger contingent of players who had come through the ranks if measured by number of appearances but did some research.

As of Tuesday City's 10 home grown players have made 191 league appearances this season:

Conor Thomas  37 plus 2 subs
Jordan Clarke  33 plus 2 subs
Callum Wilson 31
Cyrus Christie  28 plus 1 sub
Jordan Willis  15 plus 7 subs
Billy Daniels  10 plus 8 subs
Others   5 plus 12 subs

Total  159  plus 32 subs (191)

Between 1979 and 1983 City played 30 different home grown players from the memorable such as Mark Hateley, Garry Thompson, Les Sealey & Danny Thomas to the less well-known such as Keith Thompson, Derek Hall, Steve Murcott & David Barnes.

In those four seasons the total number of appearances by home grown players was as follows:

1979-80     259 (19 players)
1980-81     354 (17 players)
1981-82     383 (19 players)
1982-83     391 (16 players)

It is easy to forget how many of the team in those days, under Gordon Milne & Dave Sexton, were products of City's youth scheme. In the latter two seasons the only non-home grown players making any substantial number of appearances were Steve Hunt & Gerry Francis. Effectively the club's youth strategy kept the club in the top flight.