Sunday, 23 February 2014

Jim's column 22.2.14

Steven Pressley blooded two more debutants on Tuesday night against Carlisle United and has now used 30 players in all games this season, a high number but still seven short of last season's total and well short of the club record 44 used in the dire 2002-03 campaign.  Loanees Chuba Akpom & Michael Petrasso (the club's first ever Canadian) became the 899th & 900th players to wear a Coventry City shirt in a competitive game since the club joined the Football League in 1919. It is less than seven years since Robbie Simpson became the 800th in a League Cup tie at home to Aldershot and less than 12 years since Steve Walsh (now he was one of our worst signings) became no. 700 at Watford.

Paul O'Connor has analysed the timescales of the 900 players and points out that there is a clear correlation between performance on the pitch and number of players used.

1-100                    (1919-1925) 6 years – early days of struggle
101-200               (1925-1931) 6.5 years – more struggles
201-300                (1931-1950) 19 years – granted included the 6 years of WW2 but many players came back to play – promotion and Div 2 consolidation.
301-400                (1950-1963) 11.5 years – not so settled and included the start of the JH upheaval
401-500                (1963-1980) 17 years – promotion and consolidation in top flight
501-600                (1980-1993) 13 years – survival but tempered by the Bobby Gould eras
601-700                (1993-2002) 9 years – survival but then relegation. (10% loans)
701-800                (2002-2007) 5 years – rudderless ship. (31 % loans)
800-900               (2007-2014) 6.5 years – continued decline and relegation (25 % loans)

Paul's analysis is spot-on and two other factors have influenced the modern day turnover of players. Until the 1990s there were few loan players but since the club's relegation in 2001 they have increasingly been forced into the loan market, mainly because of the flexibility & relatively low cost of taking loan players. In addition there has been a far greater turnover of managers since Gordon Milne's long reign ended in 1981. The greater turnover in managers, the greater turnover in players as new managers insist on building their own teams & often clear the decks of the old guard.

It is no surprise that the periods in the club's history with the lowest turnover of players, the 1930s and the 1960s, coincided with their most successful eras. The main managers in those eras, Harry Storer and Jimmy Hill, were both given time to build success & realised the benefit of a low turnover of players.

The death of the great Tom Finney last weekend prompted tributes at football grounds across England. I never saw him play in the flesh but have seen clips of him playing for Preston and England. Dean Nelson asked if Finney ever played against Coventry City during his long career. Preston did spend two seasons in the old Division Two between 1949-51 and Finney, nicknamed the Preston plumber because of his profession outside football, played in the two draws at Deepdale but did not appear at Highfield Road. Preston were promoted back to Division One in 1951 & with City relegated to Division Three the following year it seemed unlikely that Tom would ever play in Coventry. Then in January 1956 with both sides out of the FA Cup & with a free Saturday, a friendly was arranged.

Finney dazzled 13,000 rain-soaked spectators as Preston comfortably beat City 4-1. The England winger bamboozled City’s left-back Charlie Timmins so much that according to other City players Timmins pleaded at half-time for manager George Raynor to switch him to right-back. Raynor obliged, and Frank Austin faced 45 minutes of torment from Finney.

Dan Brown asked me for details of his first Coventry game which he thinks was against Liverpool in February 1992. The game was during the brief reign of Don Howe who had taken over a month earlier after Terry Butcher's sacking. Howe had recorded his first victory, 1-0 at Crystal Palace, a week earlier and a 0-0 with third-placed Liverpool was seen as a good result. Kevin Gallacher gave the Reds defence an uncomfortable afternoon & Grobbelar had to make three good saves to foil City. Liverpool faded after this game & eventually finished sixth whilst City were dragged into a relegation battle and only survived on the final day after Notts County beat Luton to make City's defeat at Villa Park immaterial.

The gate was 21,547 and the City line-up was: Ogrizovic: McGrath, Sansom, Robson, Billing, Atherton, Flynn, Emerson, Rosario, Gallacher, Smith D.

Liverpool's line-up was: Grobbelar: Jones, Burrows, Marsh, Wright, Tanner, Saunders, Houghton, Walters, Redknapp, McManaman. subs: Harkness & Rosenthal.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Jim's column 15.2.14

As I write this the weather forecast for the next few days is not good. More rain is expected before today's home game with Bradford City and there must be some doubts whether the game will go ahead. It is a month since the last home game at Sixfields after the postponement of the Walsall game two weeks ago and as a result the Sky Blues have now played five successive away games. Several readers have pointed this out and asked when the club last had such a run. Older fans will remember the bad winter of 1976-77 when the Highfield Road pitch suffered serious drainage problems and the team played eight consecutive away games between 22 January and 2 April. Only one win (at Leeds) and one draw resulted from the eight matches and City spiralled from a comfortable mid-table position into a relegation battle which went to the wire and only resolved in that dramatic 2-2 draw with Bristol City on a Thursday night in May.

The 1976-77 season was the worst season in the club's history for postponed games with five call-offs with the famous Bristol game postponed twice, on 1 January and 1 March. That season even eclipsed 1947 & 1963, the UK's worst winters since World War 2, for home games called off. In 1947 City had three home games called off & because of government restrictions on midweek games they didn't complete their fixtures until the last week in May and the First Division title wasn't decided until June. In 1963 football was decimated again by snow and ice and City didn't play a game for two months but although there were 21 postponed away games (including 16 FA Cup ties at Lincoln) there were only two home games called off.

The Walsall postponement was the first Coventry City home game to be called off because of weather since January 2002 when the New Years Day fixture with Rotherham and the FA Cup tie with Tottenham four days later were postponed because of snow on the Highfield Road pitch. 

Ed Blackaby e-mailed me recently about Lee Hurst, a Coventry-born youngster who broke into the first team in 1991 and played 55 first team games before suffering a career-ending injury at a pre-season training camp in 1993. Lee, an all-round midfield player, had had an outstanding season in 1992-93 and looked to be a first-team regular for years to come before his unfortunate accident. He still lives in the area & runs a successful painting & decorating business & has attended several Legends Days. Ed's question was regarding another City player from the same period called Lee Hirst who he thought came from Scarborough.

Ed is correct. Lee Hirst was a central defender who scored the 93rd minute winning goal for Scarborough against City in a two legged League Cup tie in 1992-93. Bobby Gould signed Hirst for the Sky Blues the following summer and although he was given a squad number and played in one pre-season friendly he could not break into the first team & after a season in the reserves was released. One of his contemporaries at City told me that Hirst had a blinder for Scarborough but never repeated that form at City. Hirst had tough competition at Highfield Road; Gould had successfully converted Phil Babb to a central defender & he and Peter Atherton had excellent seasons plus there was also a young Dave Busst as back-up.

Today the Sky Blues entertain the Bantams (Bradford City). Over the years I have been asked hundreds of times 'Why were Coventry City nicknamed the Bantams before Jimmy Hill turned them into the Sky Blues?'

According to David Brassington's 'Singers to Sky Blues' excellent history of the club published in 1985, the Bantams nickname was first used in 1908 after Nemo in the Midland Daily Telegraph pointed out that City, who had recently admitted to the Southern League, were one of the only clubs not to have a nickname. He asked for suggestions and being the lightweights of the league the Bantams nickname was adopted & soon afterwards the small fowl was used to depict the club in newspaper cartoons. However I recently came across a letter from a Mr Kennell to the Coventry Telegraph from 1967. He recalled asking his father 40 years earlier why they were the Bantams & his father had explained that the were named after the bantam weathercocks on the spires of the three main churches of the city. I wonder if anyone has any other theories for the nickname?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Jim's column 8.2.14

Tony Hateley (13.6.1941 - 1.2.2014)

Tony Hateley who passed away last weekend was from the old school of centre-forwards in the mould of Tommy Lawton & famed for his heading ability. He played for seven Football league sides, including two spells at Notts County & his transfers generated fees of £400,000, then a British record. He only spent one year at Highfield Road but left his mark on the club's history.

Born in Derby he attended Normanton Junior School where he towered above his class-mates. His height helped him win the Derbyshire Schools High jump title & become a formidable centre-half in schools football. Joining Notts County as a 17-year old apprentice he was converted to a centre-forward after netting five goals in a reserve game and soon after scored on his first team debut. Towards the end of the 1959-60 season he became the regular centre-forward and eight goals in ten games helped clinch County's promotion to Division Three.

In the higher division he excelled & netted 70 goals over the next three seasons but scored only twice in six games against Coventry. His tussles against the City captain George Curtis were legendary & generally George came off on top except for a 2-0 defeat at Meadow Lane when 'Big-Tone' scored both goals. In 1962-63 he was paired up-front with another young striker, Jeff Astle and between them they netted 30 goals in the final 25 games. A move to a higher level was inevitable & in the summer of 1963 First Division Aston Villa, managed by Joe Mercer, paid £22,000 for his signature. Ironically his replacement at County was Terry Bly, jettisoned by Jimmy Hill to make way for George Hudson. Bly turned out to be a flop & County were relegated that season.

At Villa Park Tony was an immediate hit, returning to Nottingham to score a debut winner at Forest & netting 19 goals in a poor Villa team in his first season. In 1964-65 he & Curtis came face to face again as Second Division City travelled to Villa Park for a Third round FA Cup tie. Villa were again struggling in the league & 20,000 City fans made the short trip anticipating a Sky Blue victory. Hateley had other ideas & scored two goals in the 3-0 victory. The following season he was amongst the goals again & netted four second half goals as Villa came from 5-1 down at Tottenham to draw 5-5. Tony's 86 goals were the main reason for Villa staying in the First Division for those three seasons & it was no surprise when they were relegated the year after he left.

In 1966 Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty paid a club record £100,000 to sign him as a replacement for Peter Osgood who had broken his leg. Osgood's stylish play suited Chelsea's skilful passing game & Hateley struggled to adapt his game where he wanted the crosses and long balls for his deadly forehead. As a result he scored only six league goals but did score the winning goal (what else but a header) as Chelsea beat Leeds in the FA Cup semi final at Villa Park. At Wembley a Dave Mackay inspired Spurs were too good for Chelsea & Tony had to be content with a loser's medal.

After just one season he was on the move again as Liverpool manager Bill Shankly paid a club record £96,000 for the big man. Shankly didn't make the same mistake as Docherty and adapted Liverpool's game to accommodate  Hateley and wingers Ian Callaghan & Peter Thompson gave him such good service that he scored 28 goals. Shankly's one-liners are legendary but one, possibly apochryal, is when Docherty defended Hateley with the line: 'You have to admit Bill he was good in the air'. Shankly supposedly replied: 'Aye, so was Douglas Bader & he had wooden legs'.

Whilst the Kop loved his towering headers, Shankly ultimately decided that Hateley wasn't for Liverpool and when Noel Cantwell was rebuffed in his efforts to buy Newcastle's Wyn Davies he paid £80,000 for Tony. His one -year stay at City started badly; the day he signed his wife was involved in a car crash that left her uninjured but shaken up & his arrival was delayed. He wasn't fully match fit & took seven games to score his first goal, a trademark header in the last minute to rescue a League Cup tie against Swindon. The fans waited patiently to see if Hateley would mesh well with City's other centre-forward, Neil Martin, who had been dogged by injuries, in a twin strike force. The two got their chance at Stoke's Victoria Ground in early November in a thrilling 3-0 victory. Tony scored two first half goals including a stunning header described by Derek Henderson thus: 'Hateley's .... opener projected the ball with such force from Machin's diagonal cross that even a man of (Gordon) Banks' calibre was left helpless'. That game apart the partnership failed to gel & by Christmas City languished in the bottom two. An ankle injury kept Tony out for six weeks & in his absence City's form improved dramatically. Once he was fit he couldn't get into the side & played just one more game in a Sky Blue shirt. In August 1969 he joined Second Division Birmingham City for £72,500 with City grateful to only lose a small amount after a less than productive five goals in 20 games. He stayed just over a year at St Andrews, before moving back to Notts County, now in Division Four, for £20,000. The prodigal son had returned to Meadow Lane and over 21,000, more than double the average crowd, watched his debut. His scoring touch returned and he netted 23 goals as County won the Fourth Division title.

In 1972 he joined Oldham Athletic, his final English club although he did sign for Boston Minutemen in 1974 but managed just three games before his knees gave in & he was forced to retire. He did play some non-league football until 1979 but was unsuccessful in finding a coaching job & became a sales rep for a brewery firm. He settled on Merseyside & worked for the Everton lottery as well as watching with pleasure as his son Mark came through the Sky Blues ranks to play over 100 games & go on to play for England in the late 1980s. Later Mark's son, Tom,  became a professional footballer and was in the Tranmere squad that played at Sixfields earlier this season.

Tony suffered from Alzheimer's Disease later in life possibly not helped by heading all those sodden leather balls in the 1960s.

Career record
Notts County  139 games  79 goals
Aston Villa     148 games   86 goals
Chelsea       33 games  9 goals
Coventry    20 games 5 goals
Birmingham  30 games 6 goals
Notts County 86 games 46 goals
Oldham     5 games   1 goal

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Jim's column 1.2.14

16-year old George Thomas became the sixth youngest player in history to wear the Coventry City shirt on Tuesday night at Leyton Orient. The Welsh youngster, unknown outside the club until a few months ago, was 16 years and 310 days old and was also the third youngest player to start a competitive game for the club-  only two days older than Isaac Osbourne and 37 days older than Brian Hill. The three other younger debutants having been used as substitutes.

The top ten youngest players are now:

1. Jonson Clark-Harris (Aug 2010) 16 years 20 days (sub)
2. Ben Mackey (Apr 2003) 16 years 167 days (sub)
3. Gary McSheffrey (Apr 1999) 16 years 198 days (sub)
4. Brian Hill (Apr 1958) 16 years 273 days
5. Isaac Osbourne (Apr 2003) 16 years 308 days
6.George Thomas (Jan 2014) 16 years 310 days
7. Perry Suckling (Aug 1982) 16 years 320 days
8. George Curtis (Apr 1956) 16 years 351 days
9. Dietmar Bruck (Apr 1961) 17 years 9 days
10. Conor Thomas (Jan 2011) 17 years 71 days (sub)

Sadly the Sky Blues were unable to extend their unbeaten run of five league games at Brisbane Road and suffered their fourth away defeat of the league campaign. For the first time in a league game this season they failed to net an away goal. The highlight of the night was yet another penalty save by Joe Murphy - this time from Kevin Lisbie. The Irish keeper has excelled with spot-kicks this season, saving four of the six he has faced & I believe he set a new club record. Information about penalty saves is patchy before World War 2 but since then several keepers have saved three in a season including Bill Glazier, Jim Blyth & Murphy himself in 2011-12. Glazier's saves were in that exciting but nail-biting 1967-68 season & his saves were all away from home & from stars of the day Denis Law (Manchester United), Charlie Cooke (Chelsea) & Francis Lee (Man City). Lee, especially, was renowned as one of the top penalty takers of that era & Glazier's efforts were outstanding. Jim Blyth saved three penalties in 1977-78, another exciting season when the Sky Blues scored 75 goals & narrowly missed out on a European spot. Jim saved from Liverpool's Phil Neal in a 1-0 victory at Highfield Road, from Leicester's Dennis Rofe in a 2-1 win at Filbert Street but his most crucial save was in the last minute of the 5-4 victory over Norwich City when he foiled John Ryan's attempt to make it 5-5. In 2011-12 Joe saved from Messrs Hunt (Reading), Martin (Ipswich) & Danns (Leicester).

The curtain has fallen on Leon Clarke's Coventry City career and the unhappy striker has had his wish for a move to his hometown club granted. He has left behind a lot of bad will at the club & amongst Sky Blue supporters but at least the club have pocketed a large cheque as some compensation. His scoring record at the club was impressive with 28 goals from 43 games plus 2 substitute appearances in all competitions. This equates to an impressive scoring rate of 1.53 (a goal every 1.53 games) and he is up there with some of the great goalscorers in the club's history. You won't be surprised to learn that leading the way is the legendary Clarrie Bourton with a rate of 1.32 (182 goals in 241 games), followed by David McGoldrick 1.33 (18 in 24), George Lowrie 1.44 & Terry Bly 1.45 (29 goals in 43 games). Leon is fifth in that table and whilst he may end this season as the club's leading league scorer unless Calum Wilson or Franck Moussa overtake his total of 15 league goals, he has failed to beat McGoldrick's 16 league goals of last season which was the best haul since Dion Dublin's 18 back in 1998. Talking of Moussa I understand the Football League has awarded him the second goal at Rotherham, taking his total goals for the season to 12 (10 league & 2 Cup). I find the decision puzzling as however many times I watch the clip of the goal it looks a clear header by Cyrus Christie not Moussa but there you go.
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