Risking Body & Soul to End a 104 Year Journey
Tomorrow evening (Saturday) ITV will be screening the 1987 FA Cup Final featuring Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur. These were two of the most entertaining teams of that season and in December '86 as a Highfield Road season ticket holder I had witneesed a thrilling 4-3 league encounter between the clubs (decided by a last gasp Cyrille Regis winner).
My season ticket that season was in the West Stand together with my then partner Kerry, her five year old (at the start of the season) son, Trevor (Trev would often appear at Highfield Road as Spiderman at this time!) and my friends Dave, Rob and Rich. At the end of the previous season Kerry had achieved something that I could never hope to do in performing on the Highfield Road pitch.
The 1985-6 season had seen an unusual state of affairs in the top division. Norwich City had completed their season eight points ahead of the Sky Blues and were fourth from bottom. We were one place below and with three games to play - basically needing to win all of them to avoid relegation. The first was a Friday night at Stoke City - we were 1-0 before Stoke were awarded a penaly which was promptly missed by Ian Painter who was soon to sign for the Sky Blues! Then a midweek match which saw us beat Luton at home. What remeained was to beat Everton who that season were chasing a treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup. As they had already secured the league title there were some eyebrows raised when we defeted them 4-1 to stay up! Kerry (togeter with sister Jo) was a talented dancer and her group regular performed locally at social clubs and sports venues including as part of the half time entertainment during that happy day at Highfield Road.
On and off the pitch there couldn't have been a much wider contrast between the ends of the 85-6 season and the build up to the '87 cup final. Myself and Kerry were a few weeks away from finalisng a move into a house in Ealrsdon.
I lived in Wyken and walked to my job at Suttons Bakery in Maudsley Rd (at that time working six days a week - mostly 12 hour shifts with 6am starts). The walk was a pleasure - houses were adorned with sky blue banners, cars with sky blue ribbons, a huge picture of George Curtis & John Sillett celebrating the semi-final win over Leeds was displayed on a billboard above the Coventry Evening Telegraph offices which overlooked the fountain outside the Belgrade Theatre (which had now been been dyed sky blue).
The Saturday before the Cup Final we had a home game v Southampton. My regular Saturday morning routine at that time involved an early morning walk to work. Saturday was a different day at work. Typically production lines would have closed in the early hours of Saturday and machinery would be stripped down for cleaning. One of my Saturday jobs involved me working on my back in a confined space moving slowly along firing corrosive liquid onto a surface about four feet above me. On this particular day it turned out that the "gun" I was using for the task was faulty and a caustic solution had leaked out, burnt through my protective equipment and through my skin down to the bone (a sizable portion of which had been exposed and blackened around the area of my right knee). I had not even noticed until the job was finished (this was down to the fast acting affect of the chemical rather than my professionalism!). When I saw what had happened panic ensued - not a panic regarding my injury which was causing no immediate pain or a concern of having been scarred for life but a much deeper panic and sense of dread as to whether there would be doubt over the coming visit to Wembley!
I made my way to the A&E department at Coventry & Warkwickshire hospital and was quickly seen and assessed. I was told that this was "not a trivial injury" and that arrangements would be put in place to admit me to hospital on the following Monday ready for a skin graft operation. My first question, "When will I be out". The answer was not good! There would be a day in hospital ahead of a procedure to remove skin from my upper thigh, another day to perform the actual graft, observations, days (weeks?) of not being able to move my leg as the graft "took". I was horrified and it showed. The doctor seemed quite astute - he had picked up that my concern was not really to do with my injury. He paused, Then he put the question. "Is this about the cup final?". I explained that my next stop after the hospital would be Highfield Road for the Southampton match (I was going to be late!) and how missing Wembley would be a disaster. "You're on your way to Highfield Road?". He paused again. More about this "not being trivial", "dangers of infection", "the injury getting knocked". I got to the point - "So could we put it off for a week?". He made some notes presumably including points on my stupidity, got me to confirm that he had advised me wisely then directed me to pick up additional dressings and ointments, advised me to be very careful, arranged for my admittance to George Eliot Hospital on the Monday after the Cup Final. He saw me off with a shrug, a smile and told me to enjoy the match!
I remember on the day of the Cup Final that as I walked down Wembley Way with wound appropriatelely dressed one of those "the end of the world is nigh" prophets was waving a placard and shouting out something like "You may be saints from Coventry today but will that save you in your day of judgement?" It seemed that not only was I risking my body for the day but now the future of my soul was in doubt as well. On balance I was prepared to take the risk! The memory must have stuck though as only in the last week I have blogged about how the apocalypse has put a question mark over the future of football!
We'll get back to '87 cup final day in due course - but please bear with my rambling whilst I explain a bit more about how some of my family members influenced and encouraged my enthuisiasm for football.
My Grandma moved to Aldershot in the mid 70s to be close to family members. My Aunty Olive and Uncle Bill lived there. Olive was my dad's sister and I have described their post-blitz trek across Coventry in blog entries on here. Her husband and keen football and cricket fan Bill was one time manager of Warminster Town. The club tended to win its local league as it had the luxury of drawing on military talent billeted around the town causing some resentment amongst other clubs!. Bill was a postman and was based in the tower block which dominated the skyline at Aldershot's recreation ground (an unsual football ground as it is situated within a public park). When living at Warminster his round included Longleat where he would walk past the lions to deliver the post (although he apparently had more concerns about the resident dog than the lions!).
In the last week or so I noticed a news story reporting the passing of Lord Bath. Bill's family had been tenants on the Longleat estate and a few years ago Olive had told me that Bill, herslelf and other locals were often invited to performances from some 60s rock and pop legends at the estate (I think these included the Rolling Stones, the Troggs, Freddie and the Dreamers, Adam Faith and the Seekers).
During a a visit us in Coventry, Bill took me to my first ever away game - at Leicester early in the 74-5 season (a 1-0 win with a late winner from Dennis Mortimer). A season later my mum, my mate Joe and myself were on a supporters' coach being waved off by George Curtis outside the Highfield Road ground in Thackhall Street for the short journey for a match over the festive season at Wolves. A woman on the bus was lamenting how the sale of Dennis Mortimer to Villa had spoilt her Christmas! He was later to become a European Cup winning captain with that club.
During his stint as Commercial Manager at Highfield Road, George Curtis together with his colleague Arthur Pepper and other staff at the club would be a reliable fixture in always being there to wave off the supporters coaches as they left for away games. This came back to me the day we went to Wembley - he wasn't waving us off - together with John Sillett he was preparing the team for their finest day. My earliest memory of George is that he ran our chip shop on the corner of Ansty Road and Sommerville Road (now known as the Chip Butty). Friday evening meals included the revelation that was the curry pasty!
My cousin Ros (daughter of Olive and Bill) was married to Royal Marine Bandsman Alfie (based in Aldershot at that time). One memory I have of FA Cup Finals as I was growing up was my dad pointing out the Band of the Royal Marines and asking "can you see which one is Alfie?"as we watched the TV! That band was an annual fixture at Wembley but we could never pick him out! These were the days before the Premier League when the FA Cup was considered one of the world's leading football competitions and daytime TV was completely geared around it with shows like "Cup Final Mastermind" and "It's a Cup Final Knockout". The build-up would last for a week or so and at primary school "tribes" would develop along the lines of temporary cup final allegiances!
Another memory I have of watching football from Wembley at my Grandma's house in Aldershot featured the punch-up between Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan in the Leeds v Liverpool 1974 Charity Shield! I had travelled down that day in the back of my Uncle Harry's Jag (he always had Jags) with my cousin John. It was good to have John to talk to in the back as my dad and Harry would spend the entirety of these journeys discussing their passion of bridge. I understand that they were very good players and there were often reports (which I never tried to understand!) of their successes in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. John and myself spent that evening watching the latest James Bond release at the cinema in Aldershot (can't remember which one it was though). A tenuous Coventry connection with that town from another memory is going to watch stock car racing there - the cars coming out to the accompaniment of Lieutenant Pigeon's "Mouldy Old Dough"!
A year or so later I watched fellow Caludon Castle pupil Ian Muir tearing apart Germany's schoolboy team with his goalscoring feats at Wembley from the same Aldershot living room. He went on to become leading goalscorer for Tranmere Rovers (a team "giant killed" in the FA Cup by Coventry Sporting Club in 1975 - a match I was fortunate enough to attend and which diverted attention away from the Sky Blues' worthy draw at Anfield on the same day).
Much of my early "career" as a Coventry City fan was spent with my mate Nigel Eccles who many Sky Blues fans will recognise as one of the founding members of the "Sky Blue Trust". We consistently attended matches together from our primary school days at Ravensdale through to the end of our time at Caludon Castle Comprehensive. My dog actually shares his name. No, I don't have a dog called Nigel! As a teenager Nigel was a punk and had a green Mohican hairstyle. Whenever we arrived in the West Terrace at Highfield Road the echoing calls of "Spike!, Spike!, SPIKE!" - I wouldn't say he was a superhero (unlike Trevor in his Spiderman outfit a few years later!) but that "tradition" did stick for a while on the terrace! Just to clarify my dog already had his name at the RSPCA before he came to live with me rather than being named in honour of my mate's famous hairdo!
I realise that this is all getting a bit "rambly" as is my style! The reason that Nigel came to mind was that I was thinking about Caludon boys who had gone on to play professional football. There are many including James Maddison who played in the same Caludon team as Nigel's son Owen (who was with us on a recent trip to see the Sky Blues win at Southend).
Perhaps the most relevant ex-Caludon student to a discussion on the FA Cup Final is Bobby Gould. I saw him score several goals for West Ham against us and also remembering him winking at the crowd for some reason when playing for Wolves in a reserve fixture at Highfield Road! As City manager he had put together the bulk of the '87 cup winning team before losing his position the previous season. He really does deserve credit alongside the George Curtis / John Sillett management team that took over from him and guided the club to Wembley. It shouldn't be forgotten that Bobby was in charge of 1988 winners Wimbledon - a Caludon boy with a real FA Cup pedigree! Enough of my old school - back to family matters!
Although my Grandma spent around the last years of her life living in Aldershot she was very much a Coventry girl - born in Cambridge Street, Hillfields in 1901 and spending much of early life in that area. One house she lived in was in Swan Lane - just opposite the Kop end of the Highfield Road ground. She would recount stories of pre-war "legends" like centre forward Clarrie Bourton and one of her later favourites was goalkeeper Reg Matthews (she often mentioned a train journey with Reg's mother after he had left the club to join Chelsea).
Grandma had joined the first world war production effort at the Humber factory at the age of 13 and had recalled watching the Humber Pub being built. It was at that factory that she would eventually meet my grandfather when he came to Coventry after serving on the fronts of the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. Grandma was a very active sporting participant representing the Humber Sports and Social Club at hockey, women's football, and tug o' war and taking part in bicycle rides to the south coast. On her wedding day the couple were given a "guard of honour" of raised hockey sticks as they exited the church!
My dad seemed to inherit some of that sporting talent. He was a succesful heavyweight boxer, rugby player and rower (taking part in the famous race across Hong Kong harbour) during his days in the Royal Navy. My Haverfordwest based cousins would also remember him as a dab hand at knuckles and the card game "shoot"! He was also a decent chess player (winning a national tournament whilst a schoolboy at John Gulson) and introduced myself and nephew Marc to backgammon which has become a family tradition. He was much more interested in Rugby than football and would occasionally take me along to Coundon Road to enjoy the exploits of players like David Duckham and Peter Rossborough when Cov were one of the country's leading clubs. Whilst watching them dispatch London Wasps (I think I still have the programme somewhere) my ten year old self (and budding Coventry City fanatic could never have imagagined the events that would unfurl later in my life regarding my home town and these clubs!). I still find it bizarre that Wasps are Coventry based whilst the Sky Blues share Birmingham City's St Andrews ground. Both Cov's Coundon Road and City's Highfield Road grounds have been replaced by housing estates as seems the likely fate for Coventry Bees Brandon stadium.
It was actually my mum who introduced me to football. Friends that she worked with at the G.E.C had rekindled her interest in the game. As a girl she had followed the her home town team Milford United (the Robins) in the Welsh League. Their main rivals were the Bluebirds of Haverfordwest. She worked as a clippy on Pembrokeshire's Greens Bus Company before joining the Royal Navy. Before meeting my dad, my mum had a previous naval boyfriend who would take her along to watch Pompey at Fratton Park.
I accommpanied by mum and her workmate and good friend Jean for my first match at Highfield Road in August 1973 when I was nine years old. From the "Crow's Nest" at the top of the Kop I witnessed Tommy Hutchison's long range volley deciding the match with a 1-0 victory against Liverpool. I was hooked! In years to come Jean's grandson Ian Evatt would play his own part in the history of Coventry City. Despite being a Wyken boy he played centre half for Queens Park Rangers against the Sky Blues in the first ever match to be played at the Ricoh Arena (in the olden days when it was a football ground!).
After that first season going along with my mum, the next season would be spent on the Kop with friends from primary school - Nigel, Mark, Joe, Jane and others. It would seem unusual now that primary school kids would go to football unacompanied by adults but times were different and I think we all got a good grasp of the world from those freedoms. My mum continued to go to matches with Jean and other GEC workmates who would sit in the Main Stand. A little later my younger cousin Ian came from Pembrokeshire to live with us and was converted to the Sky Blue cause - eventually to become membership secretary for Coventry City London Supporters Club. We have been through many ups and downs and interesting situations together whilst following the Sky Blues (not stories for the moment though!). He now lives in Cumbria and has recently appeared on local TV there for his marathon running exploits. Despite the crowds Ian managed to find me outside the stadium after the victory at Wembley. We were all exhausted! I recall some Tottenham fans (who were in remarkable good cheer following their defeat) in disbelief that we were not celebrating. A banner that had been draped over a motorway bridge as we had left Coventry earlier came to mind - "104 Years to get here - 90 miles to go!". The 104 Years, 90 miles, 90 minutes + 30 more had been just too draining! But the celebrations would come - and then the skin graft!
Seventeen months later my twin sons Rob & Dan were born and were eventually pulled into the tumultuous tradition of following the Sky Blues. They too were season holders until the move away to Northampton but as with many the habit was broken to some extent. Although there have been some upswings since then - Football League Trophy win, temporary return home,promotion from League 2 and this season's promotion push we really need to get our club back into the City to build up feelings and memories like those I've outlined above. A city's football club is nothing without the combined experiences and traditions passed down over generations - that is the lifeblood of a club as described here by one willing to have sacrificed his leg! Luckily the leg survived and the ramble goes on......