Described variously as The Carbuncle on the Face of The Premier League, The Entertainers and A Sleeping Dwarf, Coventry City Football Club rose from the obscurity of the 3rd Division to the top league of English Football, staying there for 34 seasons. They won the FA cup in 1987 and can claim to be the only team to have played in all seven English Professional Divisions1.
This is their story - so far.
The football club was founded as Singers FC in 1883, changing its name to Coventry City in 1898. The team moved to Highfield Road2 in 1899, and will celebrate 100 years as a Football League Club in 2019. The club became a registered limited company in 1907, with a capital of £2,000 in 5-shilling shares3.
Highlights And Lowlights
Season 1891-92 saw Singers FC as the proud holders of three cups; The Birmingham, The Walsall, and The Wednesbury. A local man David Cooke - later to become chairman - launched '3 Cups Tobacco' to celebrate the event.
The season of 1919-1920 saw off-field events bringing Coventry City into the news. The club were in their first league season and they were next to bottom with three games left to play. Both these games were against Bury. Coventry drew 2-2 at Bury and won the final game 2-1 meaning that Lincoln dropped out of the league instead of Coventry. It took three years for the story to emerge but, in March 1923, an FA commission concluded that 'an arrangement was made between Bury and Coventry City, allowing the latter to win'. Ten officials, including Coventry Chairman David Cooke, were banned from football for life. This does not seem to have stopped Cooke continuing as a benefactor to the club as, at his death in 1932, his will wrote-off club debts to the tune of £7,380.
This season also saw a couple of other club records set. The team failed to collect a point until 18 October when they drew 0-0 with Fulham. They did not win a match until Christmas Day, when they beat Stoke 3-2, a run of 19 games without a victory. They also went the equivalent of 11 games, 997 minutes, without scoring, which is believed to still be a league record.
28 April, 1934 saw Coventry's biggest ever victory: 9-0 against Bristol City in Division 3 (South). This score included five from Clarrie Bourton, still the holder of the club goalscoring record with 50 in a season. He scored 181 goals in 241 appearances, an average of 0.75 goals a game.
In 1956 Coventry City football club - then in Division 3 (South) proposed a motion to the clubs of the Third Division North and South, that there be established a National Division 3 and 4. It was agreed by a margin of 36 - 1. The season 1958-59 saw them as one of the founder members of the new 4th Division. The nadir had been reached.
The Climb To The Stars
The first man to be given the chance of 'taking the club where it belongs,' was Billy Frith. Frith had twice been a player for Coventry, before and after the war, and previously a manager, taking over in 1947 when Dick Bayliss suddenly died. After 16 months, during which he signed a Coventry schoolboy called Reg Matthews who went on to become the first Coventry-born footballer to be capped by England, and the first 3rd Division player to earn this accolade, he was sacked after a run of bad results. In late 1957, with relegation imminent, Coventry turned to Frith again and he led them to promotion at the first attempt to Division 3. His side flirted with immediate promotion to Division 2 but, ultimately, finished 5th. In 1960 a new chairman was appointed, who was to be synonymous with the climb from obscurity, Derek Robins. On 'Black Saturday', 25 November, 1961, Coventry were dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Kings Lynn, and Billy Frith's time with the club was at an end4. The new manager was a young man called Jimmy Hill, and he had some ideas.
The Sky Blue Era
Jimmy Hill's first idea was to change the traditional kit for a continental style strip and the following season Coventry City played in all Sky Blue. The nickname went as well; no longer would Coventry be known as The Bantams, henceforth they would be The Sky Blues. He introduced The Sky Blue Song, still heard in the ground today. Over the years the teams have changed, but the original version was as follows:
Lets all sing together
Play up Sky Blues
While we sing together we will never lose.
Proud Posh or Forest
Oysters or anyone
They can't defeat us
We'll fight 'till the game is won.
(To the tune of The Eton Boating Song)
Club radio was introduced to play music before the game and at half-time - the first in the country. The country's first electronic scoreboard was erected. Chairman Derek Robins made a gift of £30,000 for new players and one of them, Terry Bly, was the season's top scorer. City had their best cup run since 1910, reaching the quarter-finals where they lost to eventual winners Manchester United. Hill's ideas, however, stretched beyond the playing area. Children were invited to the ground to meet the players on 'pop and crisp' days and The Sky Blue Express was initiated, where the club hired a train for supporters to travel to away matches. Hot tea and Bovril was dispensed by young lads walking the perimeter of the pitch with insulated boxes strapped to their backs. It all worked and, in April 1964, Coventry City Football Club secured promotion winning the Third Division Championship.
Hill continued to ring the changes. Old favourites left, and new names and youngsters paraded in the Sky Blue. Some idea of Hill's wheeler/dealer abilities can be gained by looking at the position of centre forward. One of Hill's first signings was Terry Bly but, despite being top scorer with 30 goals, he was replaced by George Hudson5. Bly soon drifted out of football. Hudson was also sold for a profit in March 1966 when he was on 17 goals, and 19 year old Bobby Gould was handed the number 9 shirt. Once again Hill's seeming insanity was justified and, in 1966, Gould's 24 league goals took Coventry City to the Second Division Championship. Coventry City had achieved the unbelievable and 1967 would see them start in Division 1. Football fans in Coventry were over the moon. Parrot health had never scaled such exuberant heights. England had won the World Cup and, after a run of 25 games unbeaten, Coventry were Division 2 Champions. Jimmy Hill had one last shock for the Sky Blue fans - he resigned, two days before the start of the new season.
The Top Flight
Hill agreed to continue until a new manager could be found and he stayed until October before being replaced by Noel Cantwell. When he left he said that he would never manage another club, which he has not. He was to return to the club as chairman and maintains links to this day. Cantwell was faced with a difficult task in keeping Coventry in the top flight and he also had to try and replace 'The Messiah', Jimmy Hill. This proved to be a difficult season with the main stand burning down in March, melting the Second Division Championship cup, and many injuries saw Coventry finish one place above the relegation places6. The next season saw them, once again, one place above the relegation spots, unbelievably the same team 12 months later finished in 6th place and qualified for Europe.
The European Adventure
Coventry's entry into the European Arena was to be against the giants of Bulgaria, Trakia Plovdiv. 50 Coventry fans made the trip to see a comfortable 4-1 win for City with a hat-trick for John O'Rourke and a goal for Neil Martin. The home leg was a comfortable 2-0 victory with goals from Brian Joicey and Jeff Blockley. The next round saw Coventry drawn against Bayern Munich. Bayern were to become one of the top European sides of the decade, and this team included a chap called Beckenbauer. City were weakened by injuries and a young Eric McManus in the City goal had a nightmare. City lost 6-17, the consolation goal coming from Ernie Hunt. The return leg saw City salvage their pride with a 2-1 victory, goals coming from Martin and O'Rourke. There was one other incident of note from this season; the Willie Carr/Ernie Hunt 'donkey-kick' goal against Everton, which was to win the goal of the season, and change the laws of football.
Coventry would not qualify for Europe again until 1987, when they would not be allowed to play as English clubs were banned from European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster.
The Milne Years
The 1971-72 season was to be Noel Cantwell's last in charge. City were having a bad season and being dumped out of the FA cup, at home, by 2nd Division Hull was probably the final nail in his coffin. With relegation looming he was sacked on March 12, saying of his dismissal 'Jimmy Hill's ghost followed me around the dressing room', and chief coach Bob Dennison took over to try and salvage City's top league status. He succeeded with three wins in the last month of the season and Coventry ended in 18th place.
For the next season Coventry appointed a double act. Gordon Milne was manager alongside Joe Mercer. This season saw the signing of a player who is regularly listed as the all time fans favourite. Tommy Hutchinson was signed from Blackpool to partner the legendary Colin Stein, signed from Rangers. In April 1975 Derek Robins announced his retirement to South Africa; his money had financed the rise up the tables, and he would be sorely missed. At the end of that season came more shock news. Jimmy Hill was coming back, after 8 years, as chairman.
The rest of Gordon Milne's reign was characterised by his having to sell off the jewels to maintain financial stability. Somehow he kept turning up un-polished diamonds from the youth set-up or signing aging players to stabilise the team. Jimmy Hill played his part by signing the first ever sponsorship deal, with local car manufacturer Talbot. The FA rejected an attempt to change the club name to Coventry Talbot8. During his period in charge Milne sold £4M of talent but was only allowed half that amount to maintain their status. That he did so, yet was disliked by many of the fans, indicates the fickleness of football. In 1981 he moved upstairs as general manager.
Glimpses Of The Future
The start of the 1981-82 season saw Highfield Road as the first all-seater ground in the country, years ahead of the legislation that enforced it on the rest of the top league. Dave Sexton was installed as manager and the opening game saw his old team, Manchester United, going back up the M6 with their tails between their legs, after a 2-1 defeat. The next home game saw the visit of Leeds United, who were to be relegated this season. Coventry won the game 4-0, but the headlines were taken by the Leeds supporters ripping out the seats, and using them as missiles to skim across the pitch. By the end of the season, there were hopes that the club were on the rise. Three players were in the England under 21 team and, with the signing of the veteran Gerry Francis, the future looked bright. Alas the next season saw acrimony throughout the club. Jimmy Hill left, Dave Sexton was sacked and a whole legion of bright young stars left the club, some of them using their departure to make comments about the club. City fans never forgave Mark Hateley or the late Les Sealey.
The 1983-84 season saw Bobby Gould return to his hometown club as manager. At the start of the season a host of new faces were recruited at cup price rates and, whilst some were failures, Gould was building the backbone of a team with Dave Bennett, Terry Gibson, Micky Gynn, Trevor Peake, and Stuart Pearce. After a bright start the team faded badly and it was only the goals of old boy Mick Ferguson, back on loan, that saw Coventry avoid relegation on the last day of the season. For City fans, though, the highlight had been the 4-0 drubbing of Champions, Liverpool. Next season more new faces came in - Steve Ogrizovic, Cyrille Regis, and Brian Kilcline amongst them. This did not bring the results desired by new chairman John Poynton and, in January 1985, Gould was sacked - City stalwarts will recognise that six players from Coventry's FA Cup winning side were amongst Bobby's acquisitions. No 2, Don MacKay took over, but a flu outbreak over Easter saw Coventry have three games postponed. Come the end of the season the situation was clear; Coventry had to win all three of those games to remain in the top division. The first was against Stoke - already relegated, and City scraped a nervy 1-0 win through a Stuart Pearce penalty. Next game saw Coventry win 1-0 against Luton, thanks to a Brian Kilcline net-buster. The last game was played on May 26, 1985, against the Champions of England. Coventry won 4-1.
1985-86 was best described as traumatic; the coach was sacked, three different captains were used, and the manager was sacked with three games remaining and Coventry in 19th position. Executive Director George Curtis and youth team coach John Sillett took charge. A win and a loss meant that going into the last game Birmingham and West Bromwich were relegated and one of Coventry, Leicester, Ipswich or Oxford would be joining them. Leicester won, and Oxford and Ipswich were playing each other, only a win was good enough. Coventry beat QPR and Ipswich went down.
Curtis and Sillett continued as the management team for the 1986-87 season, and what a difference. By Christmas not only were Coventry ensconced in the top eight, they boasted one of the best defensive records in the league. January saw the start of an FA Cup run which encompassed Bolton, Manchester United, Stoke, Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds and then Tottenham in the final. Six games to take a bunch of also-rans to the stars. Two stalwarts of the season, Brian Borrows and Dean Emerson, were injured and missed the greatest day in the club's history, as they defeated Spurs 3-2. The pinnacle had been attained.
No More Woolies
For the traditional season opener, The Charity Shield, the previous season's champions play the cup holders. Everton won the match by a goal to nil, but 50,000 Coventry fans made it clear what their expectations were. Manager John Sillett shared them. Unveiling his new striker, David Speedie, Schnozz uttered the immortal words:
For too long this club has shopped at Woolworth's, from now on we'll be shopping at Harrods.
Alas it soon became clear that last year's heroes were mere mortals. In 15 league games from mid-October to the beginning of February, Coventry only win a single game. They are also dumped out of the cup at home to Watford. Fortunately, form picked up after this and they finished 10th. The 98-99 season would once have been considered triumphant. Coventry finished 7th in the league and ended a 51 year bogey by beating local rivals Aston Villa. However, the season would be remembered instead for a single game. In the FA Cup Coventry City Football Club, of the First Division, lost to Sutton United of the Vauxhall Conference9.
1990 saw Schnozz sacked on his sick-bed, to make room for Chairman John Poynton's 'big name' manager - Rangers and England centre half, Terry Butcher, came as player-manager. To describe his tenure at Highfield Road as less than successful is to be kind and when chairman Poynton resigned to make way for Peter Robins10 his days were numbered. Two months later in January, 1992 he was shown the door. Assistant Don Howe took over, and his dour tactics took Coventry into the last day of the season one position above relegation. Coventry lost to Aston Villa and, as Luton were winning, it seemed City were down. Two late goals, however, saw already-relegated Notts County draw level and, once again, fate had been cheated.
1992 saw Bobby Gould back at Highfield Road as manager for a second spell, with Phil Neale as his assistant. After flirting with the upper reaches, City eventually ended the season in 15th place, but a more significant event took place after the season's end when a boardroom battle saw ex-Warwickshire opening batsman Bryan Richardson assume the chairmanship.
Coventry centre-half Phil Babb summed up the season pretty well:
We did well at the start of the season and well at the end of the season - it's just the 25 games in-between we struggled with.
A fair summation of a season in which the club finished 11th, but failed to mention much. Coventry signed veteran striker Mick Harford11 and released cup hero Michael Gynn after 10 years. The season started with a 0-3 win at Highbury, thanks to a Mickey Quinn hat-trick and, with three wins, six draws, and only two defeats, the game away at QPR on 24th October should not have been particularly climactic. Coventry lost 5-1, and manager Gould resigned. Chairman Richardson accepted his resignation and promoted assistant Phil Neale to manager. Further acrimony ensued with ex-manager Terry Butcher suing the club over his dismissal. Coventry rejected a £1.8M bid for Phil Babb, but the rumours were that financially there were problems.
Four games into the new season Phil Babb joined Liverpool for £3.75 million and manager Neale spent £2M on Dion Dublin. At the time it looked a lot for a reserve, but it proved to be a superb buy. However, a generally poor season saw Neale sacked in February, though many Coventry fans felt that the notorious 'Cutting Edge' documentary on Graham Taylor which had shown both men in a very poor light signalled the end for Neale. The next day chairman Richardson paraded Ron Atkinson as the new manager. Suddenly money was no object and Gordon Strachan was brought in as assistant manager. Kevin Richardson arrived from Villa, to renew his relationship with Atkinson, and David Burrows was signed from Everton. Strachan was forced to pull his boots back on for the final six games of the season and the 39 year old showed that class will out as he inspired City to preserve their Premiership status.
Expectation was running high for the 1995-1996 season and a succession of new signings did nothing to dampen euphoria. Events on the football pitch did, however, and eventually Coventry once again had to decide their fate on the final day. In the end a draw was enough and Manchester City went down.
More Player Managers
The 1996-97 season started with Ron Atkinson being reminded of his promise that if the team avoided relegation they would start to climb. To ensure this the club signed Scotland captain Gary McAllister from Leeds. The season kicked off with a 3-0 defeat, at home, to Nottingham Forest, thanks to a Kevin Cambell hat-trick. Come mid-November Coventry had only won a single game and Big Ron moved upstairs. During his tenure of 64 games he spent £17M, and won 14 games12. Manager Strachan set out his stall after his first game - a defeat in the Coca-Cola cup by Gillingham:
If players listen and play to the standard I require then they should be alright. If not there will have to be changes. It's up to the players.
For the third season running the supposedly retired Strachan had to pull on his boots and play to show his team what was required. A loss in the last home game of the season meant that on the final Sunday Coventry had to win, Middlesboro must do no better than draw, and Sunderland must lose. They all did, and Coventry stayed up13. The following season City finished 11th and seemed to be setting their stall out for the future. Dublin and Huckerby were on the verge of the England squad, with Dublin finishing as joint winner of The Golden Boot. Strachan seemed to be finding his managerial feet, and the fans were optimistic.
The golden future didn't appear. The next season saw City finish 15th, and the following season 14th. Dublin left and Robbie Keane came but, in January 2000, there came what many saw as the moment it all fell apart. Coventry were playing Charlton in the FA cup they were 2-0 up after 25 minutes and cruising, when Charlton scored a break-away goal. Intending to hold on until half-time the team funnelled back and conceded another. In the second half they conceded a third and lost. This seemed to break the spirit of the team, though an injury to Keane didn't help. The following season Keane went to Inter Milan for a massive £13M, Gary McAllister was allowed to leave for Liverpool on a free, and the team plummeted. The glorious dream was over and finally, after 34 years, with a whimper rather than a bang, and before the last game, Coventry City were relegated.
Gordon Strachan kept his job, and Lee Hughes was brought in to provide the goals. After five games and only one win Strach and the club parted company, 'by mutual consent', and Roland Nilsson took over as manager. Admired by the fans, Roland didn't even finish the season, being sacked before the final game of the season. The next season saw Gary McAllister return to the club as manager. Fans argued he was untried, but the bonus was his appearances on the pitch. Gary resigned from the club in January 2004 to care for his sick wife and his assistant Eric Black took over.
The Big Question
For Coventry fans the burning question that arose when the club was relegated was 'Where has all the money gone?' The club was reported to be £63M in debt, the ground had been sold and rapidly the best players followed in a desperate attempt to reduce the wage bill. Chairman Bryan Richardson was sacked and vowed to sue. The club counter-sued and, eventually, Mr Richardson's shares were sold to a fellow director in return for a 'non-disclosure' deal. Coventry in 2004 are existing on their youth policy and loan signings. The fans, however, want more and it will be interesting to see how they are to be appeased. Will some 'fairy god-father' appear and buy success for the club? Will they have to fall further before they can climb? Or will some new messianic figure arise to, once more, lead the faithful to the promised land? Down the years the club have proved to be innovators of many of the good things in football repeatedly, and provided a target for every 'small' club in the land to emulate.
It's a roller-coaster life as a Coventry supporter, but ultimately the ride is worth the admission.