I’m a child of the late Seventies and Eighties, of Star Soccer on a Sunday Dinnertime with the roast on waiting for Dad to come back from the pub, Hugh Johns constantly banging on about “what a Drive” and the smell of football being a heady mix of Ralgex, Grandee Cigars and Bitter. All that Stuart Maconie 70’s childhood nostalgia crap quite frankly. I think I can remember The City playing in the Sky Blue kit with black shorts, cuffs and collars. My memory is of Mick Coop, tentatively pushing up and The City seemingly endlessly unable to break teams down, hesitantly tapping the ball from side to side nibbling at the edge of the opponents box without a cut or thrust, until losing possession with the inevitable stray pass and being back to Square One, on the back foot, usually caught out for pace at the back. Such a passage of play, viewed from the front of the Sky Blue Stand, is my earliest childhood memory of Football, almost as if on a film loop, or as a ghastly turgid screensaver, I kid you not. I was no childhood tactical prodigy, but already had a rudimentary grasp of the concept that we were “a bit shit”.
In the age of the Internet, and, er, books and stuff, it would be easy for me to look up dates and get all my memories accurately aligned to relevant and correct dates, but for this short jog down Memory Lane, in the words of the immortal bard, “I can’t be arsed”. Therefore, this is an unreliable history, dates and quite possibly facts have been changed to protect the truth.
For instance, I remember the adrenalin charged excitement whenever Tommy Hutchinson lit up play. It cannot be true, but in my childhood memory every time he got the ball to feet the crowd surged like a giant Brew XI fumed tidal wave, as he jinked and darted forward with the ball glued to his toe. I have not seen such close control and purpose other than in those small yappy dogs, invariably Jack Russells, that always seemed to run on the pitch and nab the ball at half time. (Where did they go over the years?) Maradona’s second versus England in Mexico 86? In my mind Tommy Hutch put such a run to shame in every game he graced at The City. Childhood memories, almost certainly False Memory Syndrome of the highest order.
The EggTimer Kit – that’s my true vintage, Wallace and Ferguson, Jim Blyth, perpetual relegation Dogfights. “Six Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, Big Jim Holton’s after you.” Excitement and Joy came from survival, we revelled in our reputation as the “Houdinis” of the division.
The seemingly annual “Great Escape” does not cloud my strong memories of everyone being pissed off with the charisma-free Gordon Milne, our lack of ambition beyond clinging onto our First Division status and a definite resentment of a certain Jimmy Hill. The papers seemed to be full of our adventures in spending money on the American Soccer Goldrush rather than on our own team. There was always talk about what a Crown Jewel Ryton was, which made no sense to a small boy like me. I had an overwhelming sense that we were a selling club, there to make up the numbers in the lower half/quartile of Division 1. We seemed to be forever obsessed with the Commercial part of the game rather than the game itself. The Talbot deal where we pimped out our kit like no other, I guess it worked and got local acceptance because it connected to the Chrysler/Talbot link in the town, but overall it was a bit naff. All the players having Sky Blue Talbot Tagoras, even Tommy English who couldn’t drive, now that was cool.
Then we went All-Seater, reducing attendances but also really destroying the atmosphere at Highfield Road. There had never been much singing or shouting from the Seats before, and now this more or less caught on around the ground. I used to stand on the Kop, it was very weird sitting there, on just a little patch at the front with a big bare messy concrete bank to the back. Modern grounds with all seaters are somewhat better built for the purpose, the way the seats were shoehorned into Highfield Road was universally considered to be a crap idea.
And then, somewhere in the early Eighties, just following what had felt like a bit of a dawn and a new era with Dave Sexton at the helm, we gone went and run out of money. I’m about 12-14 years old here, the City of Coventry (AKA a goodly part of the British Auto Industry) has been battered by the early Eighties recession and to find out that The City were as in the shit as anyone was a bit of a blow to say the least. There was a hollowing out of the squad, and the mood was pretty much like it is nowadays. I very much remember the passion of the “Hill Out” cause and the cries of “Where’s the money gone?”. A good proportion of those fans over 40 who were there at the time would have been in the vanguard of the revolt, they know who they are. History has been kind to JImmy Hill, perhaps largely due to the nostalgic impact of the years, more likely because however bad it got, it was not as bad as now.
In accordance with the times of austerity that were upon us Bobby Gould came in and assembled a right lower-league ragbag of players, bargain basement journeymen, kids given their opportunity, second chancers and rejects from elsewhere. It was all we could afford, and right at the time when teams like Villa and Forest were riding high, which rubbed things in a bit. Tallon Pens, Glazepta Windows, Elliots Car Accessories, and of course, latterly Granada Social Clubs… Your shirt sponsors did (and obviously still do) indicate the true size of your club, back then we were a bit… well… Tinpot. There were bright spots, in both famous performances and players, Hateley, Pearce, Gibson for instance, but all markedly notable for where we sold them on to. Survival, not Style, was what it was all about, content with our lot we never seemed to, well, “have a Punt…”
It’s worth remembering that the Nineteen-Eighties were English Footballs’ lowest ebb in most terms you can care to think of. Anyone who doesn’t remember the dark before the Dawn heralded by Italia ’90 and the Sky Television Premiership Bonanza would be hard pressed to realise quite how gloomy things were. To highlight the lows (if you get my drift) some would point to the Tragedies at Heysel, Valley Parade Bradford, and of course, Hillsborough. On the pitch, a prosaic at best and often clodhopping Everton being the leading light of the era says it all. We often forget the darkness of course, because in Coventry all memories of the era are illuminated by a glorious day in May 1987 which was the climax of a swashbuckling Cup Run where destiny and belief took hold of the descendants and survivors of the team that Bobby Gould built with string and brown envelopes. With John and George (remember – only in charge because quite frankly we could get no one else in) catching lightning in a bottle, Dave Bennett surely selling his soul to Beelzebub just to be unplayable for a Season, and the belief of an entire City that “Our Name’s on The Cup”, we were for one brief shining moment the brightest light of hope in English Football’s darkest days.
Oh how the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
Play Up my Sky Blues, Play Up.