Sunday, 7 February 2016

Peter Ramage and Stephen Hunt joined an elite group of Coventry City players recently when they made their Sky Blues' debuts. Peter became the 942nd City player to appear in a competitive first team game since the club joined the Football League in 1919 but more interestingly the fourth player to have a namesake play for the club. He is the second Peter Ramage, following David Smith, Bill Morgan and Paul Williams into the history books. The first Peter Ramage was an inside forward who came from Scottish club Newtowngrange Star in 1927, played 28 games, scoring six goals before joining Derby County. He played over 250 games for the Rams and was still playing non-league football after the war.

A week later, incredibly, we have another namesake debuting for the Sky Blues with Stephen Hunt making his bow at Southend. Many fans will remember the 'first' Stephen Hunt, better known as Steve. A product of Aston Villa's Youth scheme, Steve made his name in the US playing alongside Pele and Franz Beckenbauer with New York Cosmos. City pulled off a massive coup to sign the Brummie for a bargain £40,000 and in 1980 his early season form was good enough to convince Milne that Tommy Hutchison was superfluous to plans and Steve became the focal point of the team. He developed from a fast, tricky winger with a penchant for long distance shooting into one of the country’s most accomplished midfield play-makers with a cultured left foot capable of unlocking the tightest of defences. Steve played 223 games for the Sky Blues and was very unlucky not to win England caps until after he left in 1984.

At Southend two weeks ago our former player Gary Deegan was sent off for two bookings and several readers asked me when a former City player had seen a red card whilst playing against the Sky Blues. By my reckoning there has only ever been one, the afore-mentioned Steve Hunt. Steve joined West Brom in 1984 and in Septemeber 1985 came to Highfield Road with the Baggies for a league meeting. Hunt was lucky to to receive a red card for a bad foul on Brian Borrows but soon after he lashed out at Dave Bennett and got a straight red. City won 3-0 to make it nine defeats in a row for Albion and manager Johnny Giles resigned after the game. Hunt is one of only two players to have been sent off twice at Highfield Road (he was sent off playing for City against Southampton in 1983), the other being Chris Whyte who 'saw red' for Arsenal and Leeds before his one-match loan for the Sky Blues in 1995. Deegan, who has had a reputation as a hard man ever since he came to England with the Sky Blues, was never sent off in a City shirt.
                                                             Steve Hunt

Next Saturday is Legends Day and the Former Player's Association have been working hard to bring a star-studded cast for what will be an even more special event than normal with a special emphasis on the late Jimmy Hill. Many former players are in town on Friday for the celebration service in Coventry Cathedral and will stay over to be at Saturday's game with Bury. A number of ex-City players will be making their 'debut' at a Legends Day including 1987 skipper Brian Kilcline, 1970s striker Brian Joicey (the man whose goal clinched City's European place in 1970) and more recent stars Dele Adebola, Marcus Hall and Barry Quinn. 93-year old Ray Paul, who played for the club during World War II, will also be making his first appearance. Amongst the other 'stars from the past' are Ian Wallace, Bill Glazier, Bobby Gould, Garry Thompson and Greg Downs. It promises to be another memorable day and fans are encouraged to be at their seats for the half-time parade of the stars.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Jim's column 30.1.2016

Two former Coventry City centre-forwards passed away this week. One, Ken Satchwell, was a very popular player in the late 1950s and early sixties and scored 24 goals in 75 appearances for the club. The other, Ray Pointer, made his name as a top international player before arriving at Highfield Road in 1965 but played a small but important role in Jimmy Hill's Sky Blue revolution, scoring 13 goals in 32 games.

Ken passed away on Sunday night after a serious illness just a week after his 76th birthday. He was a Ricoh regular until recently and a popular supporter of the Former Players Association. Older City fans will remember Ken scoring four goals in a 5-3 home win over Wrexham on Christmas Day 1959 – the last time City played a league game on the 25th December. The following day in the return at the Racecourse Ground Ken scored another two goals in a 3-1 win to notch a Christmas double for the Bantams.

Born in Birmingham in 1940, Ken was prodigious schoolboy player with Erdington Boys and played as an amateur for both Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, playing regularly and scoring prolifically for the Villa youth team. In 1956 he played alongside Ron Atkinson as Villa beat City 4-0 in the FA Youth Cup.
When the time came for professional contracts Villa were reluctant and Ken started playing for works side SU Carburettors and scored over 100 goals in the Birmingham Works League. With the top clubs' scouts circling Ken signed amateur forms with City and Wolves. When the Football League pointed out that he could only sign for one club he plumped for City.

He was an amateur when he made his debut on the left wing at Oldham in a Division Four game in August 1958. He played 15 games in City’s promotion-winning team that season and scored one goal, a 90th minute headed winner in a top of the table clash with Millwall in October.

The following season Ken, although still a raw 19-year old, became a regular, playing alongside journeyman striker Ray Straw as City came close to a second successive promotion. Straw netted 20 goals and Ken 15, in 28 games, earning the nickname of Satch the Snatch.

His feat of scoring four goals against Wrexham on Christmas Day was described by Nemo:

'The star performance was undoubtedly that of 19 years old Satchwell, the boy that has played mostly on the wing but who insists that centre-forward is his ideal position. His eye for goal, quickness to move into the open space and his finishing ability give more promise of feats to come – and his improvement over the past couple of months has been little short of astonishing.'

After Jimmy Hill took over in November 1961 Ken struggled to get a game but did score a brace in a good 3-2 victory at Peterborough. The arrival of Terry Bly and Hugh Barr spelt the end of Ken's City career and his final appearance was in a 5-1 League Cup defeat at Portsmouth.

A few years ago Ken spoke to me about his time under JH:

I was injured at the time and missed the Kings Lynn game. I was on the treatment table at Highfield Road being treated by trainer Wilf Copping when someone walked in and told us Billy Frith had been sacked and Jimmy Hill was taking over. Wilf was sacked too and had to clear all his gear out there and then.’

I never really got on with Jimmy and the club put me up for sale. Derby and Barnsley wanted me to sign but I didn’t want to move from Birmingham so I joined Nuneaton Borough, who offered to pay my benefit.’

Ken scored prolifically for Borough and helped them to the Southern League Championship in his first season. His feats attracted league scouts again and Walsall paid £1,200 for his signature in January 1965. In three seasons for the Saddlers he scored eight goals in 63 games, playing on the right wing before a slipped disc forced him to retire, although he did play briefly for non-league Wellington Town and Stourbridge.

After hanging up his boots he found employment at British Leyland as a machine tool operator, moving later to Land Rover at Solihull. He lived in retirement at Tamworth.

His funeral will take place at 11.00am on Thursday 4th February at Sutton Coldfield Crematorium followed by reception at the Tamworth Arms, Tamworth.

Ray Pointer passed away peacefully on Tuesday in a Blackpool hospital at the age of 79. Prior to the First Division days it was unusual for Coventry City to sign international players, especially England internationals. In December 1965 however Jimmy Hill signed Ray Pointer, the ‘blond bombshell’ who had terrorised First Division defences with Burnley less than five years previously and won three England caps in 1961.

Born in Cramlington in the North East in 1936, he signed for Burnley in 1956 after previously having trials with Blackpool. In his first full season Ray scored 27 league goals – the best haul by a Burnley player in 30 years and was rewarded with an England under-23 cap in Milan and his two goals helped England to a 3-0 win. He was building a reputation as a fast, brave and deadly centre-forward who would run all day in the cause of the club.

Burnley were one of the top sides in the country at that time with players such as Jimmy McIlroy, John Connelly and Jimmy Adamson and in 1959-60 they lifted the League Championship, pipping Wolves in a dramatic final game at Maine Road. Ray played in every game and notched 23 goals. Another 26 goals followed the next season and in October 1961 his displays finally earned him a full England cap. He scored on his international debut, a 4-1 victory in a World Cup qualifying game with Luxembourg and won two further caps that autumn against Wales and Portugal. Despite scoring again versus Portugal he was dropped and was surprisingly not included in the 1962 World Cup party.

That season Burnley were probably at their peak and for a long time they were in contention for the League and Cup double. They eventually lost in the FA Cup final to Tottenham and were pipped for the league title by Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town. Days after losing at Wembley Burnley played at Highfield Road in a game commemorating the opening of the new Cathedral. It was my first visit to the ground and as a star-struck nine-year old Pointer was impressive. When he scored two goals to help his team to a 4-2 win he cemented his place amongst my heroes.

Nemo in the Coventry Telegraph described Pointer's first goal: '..he hit a dipping drive which went in off the crossbar for a superb effort which even (Arthur) Lightening applauded as he retrieved the ball.'

In 1963 Ray suffered a chipped ankle and lost his place to Andy Lochhead and in 1965 he left Turf Moor for Second Division Bury for £8,000. He rediscovered his form at Gigg Lane, alongside a youngster called Colin Bell and scored 17 goals in 19 games including five in a 6-1 win over Rotherham. His form persuaded Jimmy Hill to splash £20,000 on the blond striker – a move which caused a rumpus amongst Bury’s supporters. City’s promotion push was stuttering through lack of goals with George Hudson losing form, Ken Hale looking a spent force and Bobby Gould still too raw. Pointer’s arrival had the desired effect, he scored on his debut, a 1-1 draw at Norwich and on New Years Day he hit a hat-trick in a 5-1 victory over Preston.

Nemo wrote: 'It is a long time since I can recall a Highfield Road crowd acclaiming an individual performance as they did Ray pointer's first-half hat-trick against Preston. ...Hill's swoop for Pointer has proved the shot in the arm so badly needed.'

His form, 11 goals in 19 games, convinced Hill that the fan’s idol Hudson was dispensable, and ‘The Hud’ was controversially sold to Northampton.

Ray however did not feature in Hill’s long term plans and after promotion was missed by a whisker in 1966 he invested £55,000 on Ian Gibson and Pointer’s days were numbered. With Bobby Gould emerging as a top striker, Ray played just seven early-season games in the promotion season and his final game was a shock home League Cup loss to Brighton. Ray was kicking his heels in the reserves and City rejected a £15,000 offer for him from Oldham and it was no surprise when in January 1967 he was part of an exchange deal with Portsmouth that brought midfielder Brian Lewis to Highfield Road.

Soon after joining Pompey he was converted to a midfield player and went on to play 165 games, scoring 31 goals in seven seasons at Fratton Park. At the age of 37 he played for non-league Waterlooville before hanging up his boots.

He took up coaching, first at Blackpool under his old Burnley boss Harry Potts, then back at Burnley and later at Bury under former Burnley legends Martin Dobson & Frank Casper. He later ran a shop in Blackpool but spent his last years in a care home, sadly another victim of Alzheimer's Disease which so many former footballers seem to succumb to.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Jim's column 23.1.2016

Dublin-based Pat Sweeney was very sorry to hear of the passing of Jimmy Hill. He never saw him as player but remembers him taking the Sky Blues to Dublin in 1963.
He wrote to me:
'In the winter of 1963 there was "the Big Freeze" in Britain bringing football to stand still. The weather was not as bad in Ireland so some clubs came to train and play in Dublin. Coventry played Manchester United on a Saturday in late January/early February at Glenmalure Park, the then home of Shamrock Rovers. The ground was packed out to the end lines, a great game, ending in a 2-2 draw.
I was 15 years old then, there was no television, the only football news was in newspapers and Football Monthly'.

The winter of 1962-63 was the worst in living memory and City didn't play a game between Boxing Day and the last week in February. Game after game was called off because of snowbound or icy pitches as the country virtually ground to a halt. The FA Cup third round tie at Lincoln, scheduled for the first weekend of January was eventually played in March after 16 postponements because of snow or ice and this pattern was repeated all over the country.

At the end of January after the coming Saturday’s game at Shrewsbury was postponed, Jimmy Hill grasped the nettle. A call to Manchester United’s manager Matt Busby resulted in a hastily arranged friendly in Dublin. Hill always seeking publicity for the club, had realised that Ireland was far less badly hit by the weather and using his contacts in the Fair isle organised this tasty friendly. Hill had first tried Joe Mercer at Aston Villa but Joe’s players were worried about getting injured. Busby however was more adventurous and, like Hill, was desperate for his team to get some competitive play, and duly put out his strongest team including his expensive forward line of : Johnny Giles, Albert Quixall, David Herd, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.

City flew out of Birmingham's Elmdon Airport on the Friday and the following day, when only four games were played on the English mainland, City and United met at Shamrock Rovers’ Glenmalure Park in a game that belied the two division’s difference in status. With United’s stars rattled by City’s enthusiasm City recovered from an early Quixall goal to lead 2-1 at half-time with goals from Ronnie Farmer and Jimmy Whitehouse. With Willie Humphries and Ronnie Rees giving Shay Brennan and Noel Cantwell an uncomfortable afternoon and Brian Hill marking Law like a limpet, City had chances to increase their lead. Bobby Charlton finally saved United’s red faces nine minutes from time with an equaliser but Coventry City had made a major impression, and also a few bob from a 15,000 crowd.
                                                         Brian Hill

The following Saturday, again after another early postponement (a home game with Port Vale) City flew to Cork to play Wolves in a friendly. Whilst not the force they had been in the late 1950s, Wolves were in the top six in Division One (higher than Manchester United) and fielded experienced internationals Ron Flowers and Peter Broadbent. On a miserably wet day, the muddy pitch suited Wolves’ style perfectly and although City had chances in the first half, Wolves’ strength and experience told and they ran out 3-0 winners in front of a drowned crowd of 6,500.

Pat wanted to know the Sky Blues' line up on that Saturday in Dublin. They lined up as follows: Bob Wesson: John Sillett, Mick Kearns, Brian Hill, George Curtis, Ronnie Farmer, Willie Humphries, Ken Hale, Terry Bly, Jimmy Whitehouse, Ronnie Rees.

Dave Long found my attendance statistics last week very interesting and wanted to know when City had last had more than 15,000 for a night league game before the Walsall game, other than the famous Gillingham game last season. The Walsall crowd was 15,671 and was the largest night crowd, apart from Gillingham, since City were relegated from the Championship in 2012. That season they entertained Leeds in February and the attendance was 15,704 but there were over 3,200 Leeds fans at the game, which City won 2-1 with two Gary McSheffrey goals. You have to go back a further two years, to March 2010 for the previous largest crowd of City fans. City lost 1-2 to Cardiff in front of 16,038 and there were over 15,000 Coventry supporters present. Saturday's crowd of 17,140 takes the average for the season to 13,461, a 44% increase over last season's final average. Let's hope the two results last week were a minor blip and that the higher gates are maintained.

The long unbeaten home run came to an end last Saturday against Burton. The Brewers were the first side to win a league game at the Ricoh since last April when Crewe lowered the colours – a run of 13 without loss. It was the best run from the start of a season since 1955 when City's Third Division South side under the management of Jesse Carver (until New Years Eve) and then George Raynor, remained unbeaten in 15 home games before losing 1-0 to Northampton on the 18th February. This season's run did set a new record for City at the Ricoh, topping the 12-game run under Micky Adams in 2005-06 and was the best unbeaten home run since a 15-game run without loss under Gordon Milne between March 1978 and February 1979. I heard some fans moaning after the Burton loss but it is worth remembering the woeful home form of last season when between September and the season's end the team won only three home games out of 18. No wonder our crowds slumped to under 7,000.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Jim's column 16.1.2016

The fabulous 5-0 victory at Crewe's Gresty Road ground two weeks ago had me scrabbling through the records again, something I've had to do a lot during this exciting season. Adam Armstrong finally got the hat-trick he deserved after so many braces (five in total) and after failing to score an away goal since August. He certainly made up for it at Crewe and even dispatched a penalty, something few City players have shown proficiency at in the last two seasons.

It was the first hat-trick by a City player in an away game for 14 years - since Lee Hughes at the same ground in 2002 – and only the third in the last 20 years, the other being Darren Huckerby at Elland Road in April 1998. That memorable season of 1997-98 when City were denied a place in the FA Cup semi finals in a penalty shoot-out at Bramall Lane, was the last time City had two league hat-tricks in a season with Huckerby's partner in crime Dion Dublin snatching the first in a famous 3-2 opening day victory over a star-studded but petulant Chelsea.

Earlier in the season Armstrong became the second youngest City player to score two goals in a game, narrowly failing to beat Tommy English's record. However Adam did manage to smash English's record as the youngest hat-trick scorer. Adam, at 18 years and 326 days is just over six months younger than English was when he scored three of the City's goals in a 4-1 home win over Leicester City in March 1981. English was a prodigious talent but his goalscoring feats don't stand up against the man from Tyneside – English took 50 league appearances to reach 16 league goals, Armstrong took 22.
                                                        Tommy English

Other young hat-trick scorers for City have been Ronnie Rees who scored three in the 8-1 thrashing of Shrewsbury in 1963-64 at the age of 19 years and 201 days and Willie Carr was only a few weeks older when he netted three in a 3-1 home victory over West Brom in 1969. Bobby Gould, Mark Hateley and Ian Wallace all scored hat-tricks for the club before they reached their 21st birthday.

City scoring five goals in a game was commonplace in the 1930s and the team earned the nickname of the 'Old Five' because they hit a nap hand so often. Between 1931 and 1936 the team scored 350 goals in 105 home league games, an average of more than three a game, losing only eleven games. The Crewe victory was the first time City have scored five in a league since the first game at Sixfields in August 2013 when they defeated Bristol City 5-4. You have to go back to November 2012 for the last five goal winning margin – at Hartlepool. The Crewe victory was only the second time that City have won an away game by a 5-0 scoreline, the first being that Hartlepool game.

It was only the ninth time in 52 years that City have scored five or more goals on their travels. The previous eight are:-

November 2012 5-0 at Hartlepool
April 2008 5-1 at Colchester
May 2004 5-2 at Gillingham
January 2004 6-1 at Walsall
February 2002 6-1 at Crewe
January 1998 5-1 at Bolton
January 1993 5-2 at Blackburn
May 1982 5-5 at Southampton

Before that you have to go back to November 1963 when City won 6-3 at QPR, after which the QPR manager Alec Stock described Jimmy Hill's team as 'the best Third Division side I have ever seen'.

Finally a comment about the attendances. At the start of the season I predicted that if we were in the top six at Christmas we would be getting 15,000 crowds and the Boxing Day crowd exceeded that. On Tuesday night there was a slight but expected dip to 15,671 – still the best January home league crowd since 2008.

If you strip out the away fans (1,359) there were 14,312 'home' supporters. Exactly a year before, against Swindon, there were 6,594 'home' fans in a crowd of 7,098. That makes an increase of 117% from a year ago, a phenomenal jump and a reflection not only on City's elevated league position but also the outstanding home form which has combined results with attractive football.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Jim's column 9.1.2016

Emotions are raw at John Sillett's home in Balsall Common following the sad news that his great friend and mentor Jimmy Hill passed away a week before Christmas. John and his wife Jean, who taught Jimmy to ride, had been close friends of JH for over 50 years and his death has hit them both hard. John is confined to the house whilst recovering from major heart surgery a few weeks ago and the sad news from Sussex set the tears flowing in the Sillett household that weekend.

John recalls that he first met Jimmy in the late 1950s when he was a senior player at Chelsea and Jimmy was the raw but keen chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the players union. Hill wanted to know why there were only two Chelsea players in the PFA and John organised for JH to talk to the players, most of whom signed up after an inspiring speech from the bearded one.

Chelsea had a fine side in those days, managed by Ted Drake, with talented youngsters like Jimmy Greaves, Terry Venables and Bobby Tambling alongside the experienced former City 'keeper Reg Matthews and John's elder brother, Peter, like John a full-back, who had won England caps.

John remembers his next encounter with Hill with joy: 'Tommy Docherty had taken over from Ted Drake and he wanted to make changes. One day I was sat at home when a Rolls Royce pulled up outside and Jimmy and the Coventry chairman Derrick Robins climbed out. They said they wanted me to sign for Coventry and they'd agreed a fee with The Doc. I didn't really want to drop to the Third Division but the two of them were very persuasive'.

That was in 1962 and the day Sillett arrived in Coventry a helicopter was manoeuvring the spire of the new cathedral into place and one of his earliest games was a friendly against Burnley to commemorate its opening. John was one of JH's first signings and took his place in the new Sky Blue shirt the following season as the JH revolution got under way. 

John recalls: 'That period under JH was the happiest of my career. We had a great Cup run in 1963 and played Man United at Highfield Road and then won promotion the following season. The secret was a great dressing room – there were no rollockings from JH, if something went wrong he would put his arm around you and boost your confidence.'

Hill could however spring nasty surprises, John describes one such occasion: 'In the promotion season I cracked a knee cap at Christmas and my knee was in plaster. The team were playing at Reading and JH said to me, 'come along for the ride on the coach, it'll cheer you up'. We went to a hotel for lunch and as I wasn't playing I could ignore the alcohol ban so I wound up the lads by knocking back a few glasses of wine. We got to the ground and Jimmy says, 'you're playing'. Four players had a stomach bug and couldn't turn out so the physio Norman Pilgrim cuts the plaster off my leg and I go out with a fuzzy head. I don't remember who their left winger was but he didn't get much change from me and we got a good draw'.

'As a manager Jimmy did everything differently. He watched the opposition in advance, something we had never done at Chelsea. He introduced new training methods that were fun. He got us involved in the city – if anything was going on, we had to be there. All the stars would come to Coventry Theatre in those days and he took us there to meet people like Jimmy Tarbuck and Ken Dodd. Most of all he involved the wives, something I did later when I became manager. In 1964 when we hit a rocky patch in the promotion race he took all the wives to a top ladies shop in the city and paid for new outfits then arranged a dinner with the players and wives. It all helped the bond between the players and undoubtedly was a reason for our success.'
John left Highfield Road in 1966 but the great friends never lost touch. John recalls: 'He was a massive influence in my life. When I took my first manager's job at Hereford he came down and spent a day with me, giving me advice. Later when I was out of work he was the first on the phone to offer his support and help me find work.'

In 1987 during the FA Cup run JH took time out of his busy schedule to come to Ryton and offer advice to John and George Curtis as they steered the Sky Blues towards the club's first major Cup Final. On the day of the final no-one watching BBC's coverage was in any doubt who Jimmy was supporting and he was one of the first into the dressing room to congratulate the victors.

'George and I took so much from Jimmy that year. From the wives involvement to the trips away to Bournemouth down to the codes the players used for free-kicks, it was all geared to building a strong team ethic and it worked!'

John stayed in touch with Jimmy and Bryony during the last few years and last saw JH 2-3 months ago. 'Jimmy loved the musicals and we visited him at his care home. It was upsetting that he didn't recognise us but the Sound of Music came on the television and he sang along word-perfect to every song.'

'Jimmy was marvellous to me and one of my closest friends in football. He achieved so much for football in general and Coventry City in particular. I will miss him.'

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.