Sunday, 27 December 2015

Tribute to Don Howe

Don Howe (1935-2015)
Don Howe, whose death at the age of 80 was reported this week, played a small part in the history of Coventry City, steering a poor team to First Division safety in the last season before the advent of the Premier League in 1992.

Wolverhampton-born Don had an outstanding playing career as a full-back with West Bromwich Albion and later Arsenal, making over 500 appearances and winning 23 caps for his country. A broken leg ended his career prematurely and he became a member of the Gunners' coaching staff. Under Bertie Mee Don developed a reputation as one of England's finest coaches and played a key role in the 1971 Double success. He left Highbury in the afterglow of that achievement to become manager at the Hawthorns but only succeeded in taking his former club down to Division Two. He returned to Highbury as coach under Terry Neill as Arsenal reached three successive FA Cup finals in the late 1970s and successfully combined this role with being assistant to England managers Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson before becoming Arsenal manager for two years in the mid-1980s.

In 1987 he became assistant to Bobby Gould at Wimbledon and helped the Dons to pull off their shock victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final. There followed a two-year spell as manager of QPR before the Sky Blues persuaded him to come to Coventry as assistant to Terry Butcher in November 1991. Two months later after a bad run of results and contract wranglings Butcher was sacked and Don took over the reins on the understanding that the kitty was empty and there was no money to spend.

Howe, despite inheriting a squad that included Stewart Robson, Kevin Gallacher and a young Peter Ndlovu, couldn’t avert an FA Cup replay defeat at Cambridge, courtesy of a goal from their powerful striker, Dion Dublin, but took action to stiffen City’s defence. This he was only able to do by depleting the team’s attacking strength. Drab, dour football was the consequence, and although only one game in nine was lost, the run included four goal-less draws and saw only four goals scored. The slow accumulation of points was enough to keep the threat of relegation at bay until mid-March, when City were overtaken by Sheffield United, Southampton and Tottenham, each of whom had put on a surge. 
Successive defeats by Tottenham and Arsenal meant that City would have to scrap for everything to survive. Deflected goals then cost them the points against both Notts County and Everton. On Easter Monday Lloyd McGrath was sent off in the televised clash with champions elect Leeds for deliberate handball, although TV replays suggested the ball had struck his knee and not his hand, and City lost again. 
One of the worst Coventry City sides in their 34-year top flight stay could afford to lose only so long as others beneath them were also losing. But Luton were stringing together a winning run, and beat Aston Villa in their penultimate game. It was just as well that City recorded their first home win since November, against doomed West Ham, for that set up a climactic final day at Villa Park. By that time Notts County and West Ham were already relegated, leaving Luton, who were two points behind City, to travel to Notts County. With the Sky Blues having a superior goal-difference, a draw was all they needed to survive.

Within twenty-one seconds City’s hopes of even a point looked thin, as their former hero Cyrille Regis put Villa ahead. News that Luton were winning at Meadow Lane, coupled with a second Villa goal, scored by Dwight Yorke, put City in the bottom three for the first time all season. The fans were almost resigned to relegation. Salvation came, not through a City fight-back, but in the shape of Loughborough University student Rob Matthews, who scored twice for Notts County to send Luton down.

Within days City announced that Don would be joint manager with Bobby Gould, recently sacked by West Brom. The idea was that Howe would retain responsibility for coaching and tactics and that the duo could repeat their success at Wimbledon. But his record and style – not to mention his decision to sign Les Sealey (who had bad-mouthed the club when leaving in 1983) on loan – had not endeared him to City fans. Howe, who had been suffering some heart problems, decided that the daily trip from his Hertfordshire home was too much, stepped down, and allowed Gould to recruit axed Bolton boss Phil Neal as his assistant.

After leaving Coventry he was a member of the England set up under Terry Venables before his final job in 1997, back at Arsenal, as youth team coach before retiring in 2003. He continued to pass on his advice to aspiring young coaches.

Don was unquestionably an outstanding club and national coach and respected by the top people in the game but he failed to achieve success as a club manager. In many ways he was similar to Dave Sexton, always happier in a tracksuit coaching than behind a desk or fielding questions at a press conference. After the passing of Jimmy Hill last week it is another great loss to English football.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Jimmy Hill 1928-2015

Jimmy Hill was a man of many talents and Coventry City and the City of Coventry benefited enormously from his time as manager and later chairman of the football club. In the 1960s I was one of the hordes of Coventry and Warwickshire boys who followed our very own Pied Piper down a golden path to success.

The five and a half years of his time as manager, from December 1961 to May 1967, remains the most exciting and momentous era in the history of the club. Nothing before or since, with the brief exception of the few weeks around Wembley 1987, can compare to those marvellous days which came to be known as the 'Sky Blue Era'. In a unique partnership with the go-ahead chairman Derrick Robins, he transformed Coventry City from an ailing Third Division side in a run-down stadium into the most progressive club in England that would grace the top flight for 34 years. 

Born in Balham, South London on 22 July 1928 Jimmy was first spotted by Reading manager Ted Drake whilst playing for his regiment whilst doing National Service in 1948. He never made the Reading first team and in 1949 after being released he joined Brentford where he soon got a first team chance as a centre-forward. Converted to a wing-half he spent three years at Griffin Park making 87 appearances before making the short journey to Fulham.

He spent nine happy years at Craven Cottage, mainly at inside-forward, before a knee injury ended his career and was a wholehearted and enthusiastic member of the team that almost reached Wembley in 1958 and won promotion to Division One in 1959. During his time there he became the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association and was instrumental in the abolition of the maximum wage for players in 1961, upsetting many stick-in-the mud club chairmen along the way. The first major beneficiary of his union success was his Fulham team-mate and England captain Johnny Haynes, who became England's first £100-a-week player.

It was a chance meeting with Derrick Robins at the 1961 Lord's Taveners' Ball in London which opened up the Coventry managerial opportunity for Jimmy. The two hit it off and Jimmy was offered the City manager's job but only if he had complete control – the first City manager to have such power. A 2-1 home FA Cup defeat by non-league Kings Lynn was the catalyst for change, although he had been offered the post a week earlier.

His first match in charge was a 1-0 home win over Northampton and although the team won four of his first five games in charge, by the end of the season City were in the bottom half of the Third Division with gates under 6,000. Coventry's younger fans would however remember his first Christmas in charge - he introduced a massively popular pop and crisps fuelled autograph session with the players. Jimmy knew how to nurture the next generation of fans and that simple act is still remembered by a generation of Sky Blue supporters.

Hill started making changes from the moment he walked into the club. He revolutionised the players' training, he removed the ban on players talking to the media and he sacked the complete back-room staff including loyal servants such as Alf Wood and Ted Roberts. Foreign clubs were invited to Highfield Road for floodlight friendlies, a fund-raising pool was launched and ground improvements planned.

The club was never out of the limelight and his innovations were admired nationwide. He introduced the Sky Blue train, Radio Sky Blue, pre-match entertainment, the Ryton training ground and the Sky Blue song as well as developing the ground into a modern, well-equipped stadium. Not everyone welcomed his innovations however and his critics said he was a gimmick merchant and riding on a horse in full hunting regalia around Highfield Road before a testimonial match played into the critic's hands.

Two of his many great attributes however were his ability to deal in the transfer market and the strength of his convictions and he was never afraid to make what were, at the time, unpopular decisions and see them through. The sale of 29-goal top scorer Terry Bly in 1963 was a case in point. The fans were in uproar when he was sold but within weeks it proved to be an inspired decision as Bly’s career tailed off and his replacement, George Hudson, became the most idolized player in the club’s history. Three years later there was further hullabaloo when Hudson was sold – hundreds of fans shunned City's big Cup match at Everton in protest and travelled to Northampton to see 'The Hud' make his debut. A year later when promotion was secured to Division One, Hill’s judgement was vindicated.

In the close season of 1962 Jimmy was given £30,000 to strengthen the team. He largely kept faith with the defence he had inherited, built around the man-mountain captain George Curtis, and used the money to buy a brand new forward line including a club record £12,000 on centre-forward Bly. He introduced a continental-style all-Sky Blue kit which soon got the local press calling the team the 'Sky Blues' and Jimmy, along with director John Camkin wrote the words to a club song to the tune of the Eton Boating Song. On the pitch the club reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup after an unforgettable victory over Sunderland at Highfield Road when an estimated 50,000 fans watched as City pulled of a giant-killing act with two late goals. The Cup run put the club back into the national limelight and although they missed out on promotion from Division Three they had almost doubled the average league crowd to 17,000 with massive away followings that were the envy of the top clubs in the land.

More changes came in 1963 with the sloping pitch levelled and work commencing on the 'Sky Blue Stand' to replace the rickety 1910 stand. A dazzling start to the 1963-64 season saw the team race away at the top – they were nine points clear on January 3rd – only to suffer a slump in the New Year. It was a great test of Jimmy's ability to motivate his players and he faced criticism from some fans. The nine-point lead was whittled away and their two closest rivals overtook them. Hill made two key strategic short-term signings and the collapse was arrested. A win on the final day over Colchester in front of almost 37,000 clinched the Third Division title.

The 1964-65 season started with five straight victories and the fans dreamed of successive promotions but it turned out to be a season of consolidation in Division Two. Jimmy didn't rest on his laurels however and splashed out a world record £35,000 fee for goalkeeper Bill Glazier and a similar sum for Chelsea full-back Allan Harris. The team however was still dominated by players who had cost little or nothing including Curtis, Ronnie Rees, Ernie Machin, Dietmar Bruck, Mick Kearns and Brian Hill.

The team made a serious challenge for promotion in 1965-66 but missed out by one point. The fans believed Hill's decision to sell their idol George Hudson in March had cost the club promotion and although Hudson's career went on a downward trajectory, many never forgave him for the act. 'JH' was confident that local boy Bobby Gould would score the goals but the fans needed a new hero & the club transfer record was smashed to bring Scottish midfielder Ian Gibson to Coventry.

Neither 'Gibbo' nor the team set the world on fire in the early months of 1966-67 and it seemed that Hill had made a major error in the transfer market. After a League Cup exit to lowly Brighton and with 'Gibbo' looking set to leave, JH was under pressure. Jimmy and his star player buried the hatchet and suddenly the team's form clicked. A run of 25 unbeaten games saw the Sky Blues win the Second Division title with the highlight being a victory over their closest rivals Wolves at Highfield Road in front of a record crowd of over 51,000. At the end of the match Jimmy conducted the thousands of fans on the pitch to a moving rendition of the Sky Blue Song. The crowds were flocking to Highfield Road to see the Sky Blue miracle and the club had the highest attendances of any Midland club with an average of over 28,000.

Jimmy oversaw more ground improvements that summer including the construction of the West Stand in twelve weeks, but behind the scenes a major story was brewing. Jimmy resigned on the eve of the club's debut in the First Division, to become Head of Sport for London Weekend Television. The news was a bombshell to both the supporters and players alike but his mind was made up. He later revealed that if Derrick Robins had met his request for a ten-year contract he would have stayed. After the impact he had on the club, many feel that it was a tragedy that Jimmy never took the opportunity to test his abilities at the highest level. Whether he would have been a success or not will never be known.

Jimmy was a natural on television and virtually invented the TV pundit role working alongside Brian Moore on 'The Big Match'. In 1973 he switched channels and joined the BBC and became the presenter of 'Match of the Day. His authoritative voice, insightful comments and sometimes controversial views not to mention his football knowledge made him a national treasure although 'the chin', as he was known, was often caricatured.

In 1975 he returned to Coventry City as their first paid managing director but times had changed and the club had serious financial difficulties. Although he turned things around not all of his ideas went down well with the supporters. In 1981 in an effort to combat hooliganism he spearheaded the club's move to make Highfield Road all-seated and then watched as crowds plummeted with fans put off by the sterile feel of the stadium, higher prices and inconvenient ticket arrangements.
An investment in North American football was unsuccessful and the club's and his personal investment was lost. In 1983 he stepped down as chairman of the club but stayed involved in football with stints as chairman of Charlton Athletic and Fulham, helping both clubs through difficult times. In 2011, in what would be his last public appearance, he unveiled his own statue at the Ricoh Arena. Sadly Alzheimer's Disease had taken hold and Jimmy spent his last days in a care home.

Throughout his whole multi-faceted career Jimmy Hill was always committed to innovation in every aspect of the game, and at all times believed supporters came first. His influence lives on at Coventry City and throughout the wider football world. He was a true legend.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Jim's column 19.12.2015

Coventry City's exciting eleven-game run without defeat in league games came to an end on Sunday at Bramall Lane in disappointing circumstances. The result was a travesty and the Blades could not believe their luck in finishing the game with eleven men, avoiding a goal when the ball clearly crossed the line and scoring the only goal with a deflection off Billy Sharp's shoulder. The Sky Blues had by far the better of the game and should have won comfortably.

As I have previously written, the run of 11 games, six wins and five draws, equals the run in the autumn of 2001 when Roland Nilsson took over from Gordon Strachan, and that was the best run since Jimmy Hill's 'Invincibles' in the 1966-67 Second Division promotion campaign. During that 25-game run City ground out a lot of results without playing well and after Christmas there were few attractive games. They won only four away games, drawing eight but at home they were unbeaten with eleven wins and two draws. Older fans will remember the backs to the wall draws at Rotherham, Crystal Palace and Bristol City and the scraped home wins over Norwich, Preston and Carlisle. My point is, I don't expect to see City play champagne soccer every week between now and the end of the season in order to win promotion.

Before today's game with Oldham, City, coincidentally, have 25 games remaining in League One and a repeat of the famous 1967 run would give them 15 wins and 10 draws for a total of 94 points and ample for automatic promotion. The fans just have to pray that they don't have one of their post-Christmas slumps.

After Billy Sharp scored the winning goal on Sunday Benjamin Lipman enquired if Sharp was close to matching Richard Cresswell's scoring record against the Sky Blues. Sharp's record is good – five in seven games – but Cresswell has scored nine against us since 2001. Neither player is likely to overhaul the record holder, a certain Alan Shearer who netted 18 league and cup goals against us for three different clubs between 1991 and 2005. Other deadly strikers against City include Tony Cottee (14), Ian Rush (14) and Bob Latchford (13).

There was some cheer in the City camp last weekend – on Friday night the youth team beat Premier League Stoke City to advance into the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup for the second season running. It was the first victory over a Premier League side since 2003 when City beat Everton in round three before going out of the competition to Nottm Forest. The scorer of the only goal of the night at Leamington FC's Harbury Road ground was Bassala Sambou who has now netted all seven of City's goals in the competition.

He has already overtaken James Maddison's haul of six goals in last season's competition and a host of other City youngsters who have also netted six in one season including:

Bob Allen (1967-68), Trevor Smith (twice in 1969-70 and 1970-71), Steve Livingstone (1986-87), Andrew Ducros (1994-95) and Gary McSheffrey (twice in 1998-99 & 1999-00).

Only Tom English has scored more than Sambou. In 1978-79 the Sky Blues started in the qualifying rounds and English scored nine goals in ten cup games to set the record. Sambou has scored seven in three!
                                                            Tom English

Interestingly, of the six-in-a-season scorers only McSheffrey and Livingstone really achieved their potential and some would argue only Gary did.

Mick Samuel sent me an email this week to tell me about the passing of Eve Shirley. Eve and her late husband Jim ran the Sky Blue hostel for young players in Catherine Street during the time that Noel Cantwell was manager in the late 1960s. Many of City's outstanding youth players of that era would have been looked after by Eve and Jim. Eve passed away in Newquay, Cornwall, aged 91.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Jim's column 12.12.2015

Two weeks ago I wrote about the amazing speed of the goals in the Gillingham victory, pointing out that the four goals, scored in ten first half minutes, were the fastest four by a City team for almost 60 years and that Jacob Murphy's ten-minute hat-trick was the fastest by a City player since World War Two.

Keith Ballantyne, always ready with the killer question, apologised for being negative at such an exciting time but asked if City had ever CONCEDED goals at such a rapid rate of knots. He vividly remembers a 5-4 victory over Newcastle in the 1960s when City had a late collapse after leading 5-1.

That game was a Second Division game in January 1965 when the Magpies arrived at Highfield Road as league leaders. City were in devastating form and led 4-1 at half-time through a Marshall (og), Bobby Gould, Ken Hale & George Hudson. The score remained 5-1 until fifteen minutes from time when the visitors suddenly woke up and scored through McGarry (75 mins), Hilley (79) and McGarry again (87) – three goals in eight minutes. City just managed to hold on to take both points.

I can find a number of instances where City have conceded three goals quicker than that. The fastest came in 1983, soon after Bobby Gould took over as manager for the first time. City lost 5-2 at West Ham and the Hammers scored three goals in three minutes through Dave Swindlehurst (2) and Steve Whitton. The previous season, down the road at White Hart Lane, City conceded three goals in five minutes in a 4-0 defeat with Gary Brooke netting all three including a penalty. It is probably the fastest hat-trick ever against City and Brooke, normally not a prolific scorer, only scored two more goals in the remainder of the season.

The Sky Blues conceded three in six minutes at Molineux (1-3) in 2002 and three in seven minutes at Notts County (1-5) in 1983, at West Brom (1-6) in a League Cup tie in 1965 and in a 2-4 home defeat to Ipswich in 1982.

I also looked at games in which City let in four goals in quick succession and three games stand out. The record has to be at Highbury on the last day of the 1990-91 season. Arsenal were parading the League Championship trophy but City were giving the Gunners a good game. With 14 minutes remaining Arsenal led 2-1 and the result was in the balance. Then Arsenal stepped up a gear. Alan Smith made in 3-1 (76 minutes), Anders Limpar scored two to complete his hat-trick (78 and 85 minutes) and Perry Groves made in 6-1 (86 minutes) to make it four goals in 10 minutes.

City's 6-1 defeat at Bayern Munich in 1970 is still the largest defeat by an English team in a European competition, a record that Arsenal went close to emulating in the same city this season. On that wet night stand-in goalkeeper Eric McManus let in four goals in 15 first-half minutes.

At Stamford Bridge in 2000 City had a nightmare. After 24 minutes goalkeeper Chris Kirkland was sent off for supposedly bringing down Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, a decision later overturned, and JFH scored the resulting penalty. The goal flood started in the 42nd minute when Jimmy scored his second and in the next sixteen minutes he scored two more with a Zola goal sandwiched between them. The final result was 6-1 and it would turn out to be substitute goalkeeper Alan Miller's only appearance for the club.

Three weeks ago I included a photograph of Jimmy Hill taken in 1964 with the Third Division trophy alongside what I described as a gnome. I wondered if any reader might know more about the gnome and Siobhan Kelly pointed out that it was a leprechaun and someone probably gave it him for good luck!

It is sad to hear of the death of former Sheffield United and England goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson. Alan made 674 appearances for Sheffield United and won five England caps in the late 1950s. After retiring he became one of the most respected goalkeeping coaches was also employed by the Sky Blues as a goalkeeping coach during Gary McAllister's time. Alan, at five foot nine inches, one of the smallest ever England goalkeepers, was in goal for the Blades in the first top flight game at Highfield Road in 1967. In a 2-2 draw he had a solid game but was beaten by a John Key header and a long-range effort by Dietmar Bruck. I am sure the tribute to him at Bramall Lane tomorrow will be moving.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Jim's column 5.12.15

Last Saturday's home draw with Doncaster stretched the Sky Blues' unbeaten league run to eleven games and equalled the best run by a City team since 1966-67. It pults the current team level with the 11-game run without loss at the start of Roland Nilsson's managerial career in the autumn of 2001. As I said last week the 1966-67 team under Jimmy Hill went 25 league games unbeaten. If Tony Mowbray's side avoid defeat at Bramall Lane next Sunday they will clock up the best run for 48 years.

Over the last few weeks as City's season has developed into something quite exciting, numerous readers have asked me how this season compares to the best seasons of the past. So I decided to check the stats and can report that after 20 games Tony Mowbray's team have the second best points record by a Coventry City side the club joined the Football League in 1919. The table below shows the best twelve seasons and compares the record after 20 games. Before 1981 two points were awarded for a win so I have adjusted the points total to reflect that.

Home (W-D-L)
Away (W-D-L)
1935-36 (D3 South)
1st (P)
1937-38 (D2)
1950-51 (D2)
1954-55 (D3 South)
1955-56 (D3 South)
1958-59 (D4)
2nd (P)
1959-60 (D3)
1963-64 (D3)
1st (P)
1965-66 (D2)
1966-67 (D2)
1st (P)
2001-02 (D2)
2015-16 (D3)

*points total adjusted where 2 pts for a win (pre 1981)

The best season was in 1963-64 when after 20 games City lead the table by two points from Crystal Palace in mid-November. By 3rd January they had extended that lead to nine points but then had a collapse and failed to win in 11 games. They steadied the ship and won promotion on the final day of the season. Other interesting points of note are:-
  • the promotion teams of 1936, 1964 and 1967 had all lost their unbeaten home records by this stage of the season.
  • After being in contention after 20 games on eight occasions in the 50s & 60s, the club have only been 'up there' twice in the last 49 years but 34 of those years were spent in the top flight.
  • Only once before (in 1937-38) have the team lost less than three games at this stage. In 1937-38 the second defeat came in game 20 (at Bramall Lane on Christmas Day)

On the question of the unbeaten home league run, extended to 10 after the Doncaster draw, this team are just two games short of equalling the best run without loss since the move to the Ricoh in 2005. In that first season following the move from Highfield Road, the team suffered a 2-1 home loss to Stoke on 2nd November, but then they did not lose again until 1st April when Preston won 1-0. The twelve-match unbeaten run included six straight wins between January and March.

Terry Butcher's reign as City manager is not remembered with much fondness but after he lost his first home game against Liverpool in November 1990, his team didn't lose again until the opening game of the next season – a total of 12 games. The best post-war run is 17 achieved three times (1952, 1958-59 and 1965-66), whilst the all-time club record is 19 unbeaten home games, set in 1925-26 season (in Division Three North).

The current unbeaten home start of 10 games is the best for a City team since the 1978-79 season when no team lowered City's colours until February – a total of 11 home games. The best ever was Jesse Carver's 1955-56 team that was unbeaten in its first 15 games from the start of the campaign until 18th February 1956, although by the time the run had ended Carver had left the club to take up a position as coach of Inter Milan.