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.