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  • Writer's picturePhil

Bare Knuckles and Tommy ...It's not just Cricket

A couple of days ago I went along to an event in the City Centre organised as part of Coventry Sports Fest 2019. The “Step into Culture” walk from Broadgate was a one hour tour of the City Centre looking st the general history of the area and rewarding participants with a fitbit at the end (so I can now count steps as I deliver my “on foot sevices”!).

The free guided walk was ably delivered by four of the “Coventry Ambassadors” team. These are volunteers who are helping to promote Coventry in the run up to “City of Culture” but have been doing so for around seven years. They have a “Coventry Ambassadors” facebook page which gives details of their activities and reviews of events. The walk will be repeated on Sunday 19th and Wednesday 22nd August and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an introduction to Coventry’s history.

Coventry is European City of Sport this year and during this and next week I’ll be looking at the history of sport locally. I’ll be including some of my memories and stories passed down by family members.

My interest in sports locally was ignited by a visit to Highfield Road in August 1973 – a few months before my tenth birthday. The Sky Blues were playing Liverpool on a Tuesday evening and I went along with my mum for my first match.

My dad did have a bit of a sporting pedigree (particularly in his naval days – he was an able boxer, rower, tug o’ war participant (a skill inherited from his own mother – see below!) and dab hand at other pastimes such as chess, backgammon and especially knuckles!) I learnt my backgammon skills from him which rubbed off well as I am currently British Isles Backgammon Association British Open Champion. My nephew Marc is currently Midland League Champion and former Irish Open winner and I have two sons who are very competent players (Dan having won a BIBA British Tour a few years ago).

Although he had played football as well (I have a team photo of his ship’s team seated with their ball, guns behind) he was much more interested in Rugby Union and I would occasionally go along to Coundon Road with him and see the exploits of England international players like David Duckham, Fran Cotton and Peter Rossborough.

Getting back to that Highfield Road match against Liverpool. Myself, my mum and her friends Jean and John were part of a large crowd. We stood on the wooden “crow’s nest” at the Kop end of Highfield Road. Despite being tall for my age it was hard to get a full view of the pitch. I remember being surprised at seeing the three wheeler disabled vehicles driving around to take up their places on the pitchside track in front of the Main Stand and also the strong chewing gum smell which seemed to be a feature of the match day atmosphere in the 70s! The toilets at the time consisted of a walled in gutter which often overflowed onto the terrace if there was a large crowd (giving an overall freshmint urine and tobacco odour with a hint of steak and kidney pie – these were the days of football truly being “the people’s game” – no prawn sandwich in sight”!

Despite my restricted view at that match I did manage to see Tommy Hutchison’s winning goal (City won 1-0) – a spectacular 35 yard volley. Tommy went on to become my childhood hero and he may well get a mention in a guided walk of Caludon Park that I shall be giving on the evening of September 11th (details to follow under “Walks” on this site).

As a child I would often visit Caludon Park with my grandma. I would play in the moat of the ancient castle – then dry as the City’s industry was thriving and the water table was low as a result. It is now almost always full of (mostly stagnant!) water. The nearby River Sowe used to run a creamy blue at that time due to industrial waste. There were downsides to the industry that threw up the social clubs which the City’s sporting life revolved around.

My grandma encouraged my interest in football and signed me up for a summertime course in 1975. She had a sporting background herself. In her earlier days as a teenager and young woman working at the Humber during WWI and into the early 1920s she was very active in the factory’s social club sports teams playing women’s football, hockey , tug o’ war and taking part in cycle rides to the south coast.

One evening every week I would go along to Caludon Park to be coached to improve my skills and eventually be rewarded with certificates for shooting, passing, tackling and dribbling. The big thing for me was that they were presented by Tommy Hutchison and he made a point of talking to me before the presentation at Coventry Sports Centre. This was not because I showed any competence as a footballer. Despite my enthusiasm I was pretty rubbish then and always have been! He had been told that I was always talking about Tommy when we did the dribbling aspect of the course and took the time to give me a few minutes. He went on to feature in a Jasper Carrot joke, score for his own team and his opponents in an FA Cup final and to be featured on a large mural in Swansea station.

Swansea City were one of his later teams and he played for them into his 40s then went on to play at a lower level for Merthr Tydfil into his 50s. A real legend!

As mentioned, I went along to my first match at Highfield Road with my mum and my parents’ friends Jean and John. They were all regular visitors to the Wyken WMC and Jean and John still live across the road from what was the club’s sports ground at Wyken Croft.

One football match that I would attend with my dad would be the regular boxing day fixture between the Wyken Club team and an ex-Coventry City XI (featuring players like George Curtis – who ran our local chippy – Bobby Gould, Dietmar Bruck and others of Jimmy Hill’s Sky Blue era)

Eventually the ground passed to Pinley Rugby Club and is now divided between that Club and Stoke Park School (which has taken over the football pitches). My own sons played for Pinley’s football team during their early teenage years – introduced by John. Jean and John’s own grandson had previously played for Pinley and he went on to be a professional footballer – Ian Evatt. Ian actually played in Coventry City’s first ever match at the Ricoh Arena – thirty odd years after my first match as a spectator with his grandparents. He wasn’t playing for the Sky Blues though (he never did) but for opponents Queens Park Rangers.

A little further up Wyken Croft from the sports ground is Wyken Croft Nature Reserve. It is on the Sowe Valley Way walk and the site was used for post war landfill. Up until the 1920s it was the site of the Craven Colliery. This was owned by the Craven family of Coombe which leads on to a few interesting sporting links!

I recently did a talk for the local Rotary Club at Coventry & NW Sports Club on Binley Road. This is the location for my own Coventry Backgammon Club (rolling dice and moving checkers as sporty as it gets for me now– no more the vigours of dart throwing!). The them of my talk was the history of the Binley Road area in general but particular looking at Sporting links along it.

On the wall at the club is a plaque listing the captains of Coventry & NW cricket club. The entry for 1955 indicates that the captain was Derek H Robins.

Coventry & NW Cricket Club have been resident there for over a century but not the only locals for that sport. A few hundred yards away is the Sphinx club (which grew out of the Armstrong Whitworth aero factory). Still hosting a leading non-league club as well as Gaelic games (Gaelic football played on the site of the old cricket pitch), Sphinx has been a hub of many local sports.

Aslo close by is the Copsewood Club which grew out of the GEC social club – another leading sporting venue. I remember attending huge sports days on the fields there as a child.

At one end of Binley Road is St Batholomew’s Church – built on the Coombe estate for the Craven family. At the other end is Gosford Green which was home to Craven Colliery Cricket Club. Now running alongside Gosford Green is Jimmy Hill Way.

Jimmy Hill was appointed as manager of Coventry City Football Club by chairman Derek Robins (the cricketer). Jimmy Hill’s exploits in launching the “Sky Blue” era, building community links and overseeing the club;s rise to England’s top flight are well documented. Sky Blue Way follows the old industrial railway “loop” line and passes closely by the site of the Highfield Road ground and the Ricoh Arena (at present both former homes of the Sky Blues until common sense prevails and a move back to the city secured).

The loop line was last used to transport parts to and from the Peugeot (originally Humber) site. One of the incanations of that factory was as Talbot in the 1980s and Jimmy seems to have been forgiven for attempting to change the name of Coventry City FC to “Coventry Talbot” in an attempt to get around restrictions on shirt sponsorship before the practice was widespread!

In one of the “sporting twists” of the area there is a link between Jimmy and the Craven family. Before his time as a manager he played centre forward for Fulham Football Club. There nhome next to the Thames is named “Craven Cottage” as the site was once owned by the very family that owned Coombe.

Followers of horse racing may be aware of the “Craven Stakes”. This is a Derby trial which is ran at Newmarket. Again this is named after the race’s original sponsors the Craven family. Versions of the Craven Stakes were run on Coventry’s racecourse which was just off the Binley Road on the site of the walled Stoke Park estate. The course survived there up until the 1830s and sometimes attracted crowds of around 10,000.

Race horses visiting our local course were stabled up the road in Far Gosford Street at the Pitts Head pub (now the Gosford Arms). Another sporting claim to fame for this pub during the 19th century was its landlord, “Fatty Adrian” who moved into the business on the back of his bare knuckle boxing career. He didn’t get his name from being overweight but through his sporting prowess of successfully climbing poles greased with goose fat at local “great fairs” (some of which took place on Gosford Green).

There will be more of “Fatty”, Great Fairs, social clubs and sport in Coventry over the next week as the ramble continues …..

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