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:
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.