Ernie Hannigan, who has died aged 72, was Noel Cantwell's first signing as the Coventry City manager in November 1967. He was a key figure in the Sky Blues survival in that momentous first season in Division One but struggled to win a place in the team thereafter.
Born in Glasgow during wartime Ernie's teenage talent on the football pitch was spotted by Queen of the South when Ernie was playing for Celtic's nursery club, St Roch's in Glasgow. He signed for the Dumfries club as an 18-year old & quickly became a regular. Soon after his arrival in 1961 the club signed centre-forward Neil Martin from Alloa Athletic & Ernie became the provider of many of Neil's goals as the team won promotion to Scottish Division One. In 1964, after 147 games for the Doonhamers, Ernie joined Second Division Preston North End for £15,000 & had three good seasons at Deepdale playing 108 games and scoring 31 goals including a hat-trick in a 9-0 thumping of Cardiff in 1966. That season he came on to Cantwell's radar when North End had a good FA Cup run with Ernie scoring the winner in a Fifth round tie with Tottenham & giving Cantwell's team, Manchester United, a shock in the sixth round, holding them to a draw at Deepdale before losing the replay. Hannigan was one of Preston's stars & although Cantwell wasn't playing he probably watched the tie.
Noel Cantwell had taken over from Jimmy Hill as City manager at the end of October 1967 & chairman Derrick Robins had promised the new manager funds to strengthen the side which was struggling in the top flight. Ernie's arrival from Preston for a fee of £55,000 (just short of the club's record fee at the time) was followed the same week by Gerry Baker & Maurice Setters. At the time Ernie was described as a goal-scoring winger and 'one of the trickiest wingers in Division Two'. A fast-raiding right winger with excellent ball control and a vicious shot, he had a interesting running style with his chest puffed out making him look larger than his 5 foot 8 inch frame. Hannigan's debut was a depressing 0-3 home defeat to Fulham which pushed the Sky Blues to the foot of the table, but a week later at Elland Road Hannigan scored his first goal, a spectacular volley, to earn City a suprising but valuable point in a 1-1 draw. Nemo in the Coventry Telegraph described the goal as: 'only a half-chance executed with power & grace. He moved into Leeds' box for a (Ronnie) Rees pass and, in one movement, controlled the ball, turned, and hit it on the volley leaving (Gary) Sprake powerless.'
After only a handful of games however Ernie was involved in a bad car crash and for a few days his playing career looked in jeopardy but it turned out to be bad bruising & he was sidelined for just three games.
In 26 League & Cup games that season he scored six vital goals including the winner in the first and only away win at West Brom, and a searing shot which proved to be the winner over Chelsea at home. In that Chelsea game he was reunited with Neil Martin who had been signed from Sunderland & the club named an all-Scottish forward line for the first time with Baker, Willie Carr & Ian Gibson making up the front line. In the final game of that season with City needing a point at Southampton to avoid the drop he was one of the eleven heroes who chased & harried all afternoon to secure safety with a 0-0 draw. He could however be frustrating, able to dribble past defenders, seemingly at will & then pass the ball to an opponent. On more than one occasion Nemo described him as a 'bewildering player'.Ernie's stunning goal against Chelsea.
His former team-mates Willie Carr & Dietmar Bruck have fond memories of Ernie & both remember the night of a Soccer Ball at the Hotel Leofric when Ernie, slightly worse for drink, decided to get a taxi to Glasgow. The taxi-driver took him to his mother's house, he had a cup of tea, then got the taxi-driver to take him back to Coventry. Willie knew of Ernie from his Glasgow days: 'He played with my older brother in Glasgow schools football & immediately made friends with me when he came from Preston. He was the life & soul of the party, a very funny man who could make the whole dressing room laugh'.
Dietmar remembers playing against Ernie before he came to City & admits he was a fast & skilful winger who could beat most full-backs – but honours were even between them! He remembered City's game at the Hawthorns in 1968 when Ernie scored the only goal: 'Before the match, while we were having lunch, Derrick Robins came in & offered us all £100 a match each if we could stay up. With sixteen games to go that meant potentially £1600, a massive amount of money in those days. The incentive worked that day! John Tudor played at centre-half & didn't give Jeff Astle a kick and Gibbo put Ernie away with a fabulous pass & he scored the winner'.
After three games of the 1968-69 season Hannigan was dropped and made available for transfer and thereafter was never a first choice player. He made 15 starts that season and only seven the next season, as Cantwell’s team headed for Europe. He had a brief loan period with Torquay United and was recalled to first team action in early 1970 for impressive performances against Arsenal (2-0) and West Ham (2-1). In the latter game he tied Bobby Moore up in knots with his direct running style but two weeks later his City career was over and he was left at home as the team flew off to the USA for a tour. In total he made 54 appearances for the club and scored seven goals. That summer he moved back to Scotland and spent one season at Morton, then had one game the following summer with New York Cosmos, before a brief spell in South Africa & rounding his British career off in 1972 at Queen of the South and Raith Rovers.
He emigrated to Australia around 1973 and after a short stay in Sydney moved to Perth to play for Stirling City. His skill won him many admirers in Western Australian football and he made the first of twelve appearances for the State in May 1974 against touring Scottish side Aberdeen at Perry Lakes Stadium. In 2012 he was made a member of the Western Australia Football Hall of Fame and a local internet site describes him as: ‘one of the best outside-rights Western Australian fans had seen during the mid-to-late seventies’. At the induction ceremony, an old friend of Ernie's from Glasgow, Sir Alex Ferguson sent a moving message about their friendship.
Off the field Ernie became a successful businessman, setting up an industrial building cleaning business in Perth and it is believed he contracted asbestosis during this time. In 2010 he returned to Coventry for a reunion of former players & although he was a lifelong Celtic fan he kept abreast of City's fortunes from Australia. His health deteriorated over the last few months & he died peacefully.