After a long illness, Jimmy Hill, a man close to the hearts of many Coventry City fans, passed away on December 19th, 2015. His achievements have been well documented during the glowing obituaries made to him, and as manager, managing director, and eventually chairman, he put into practice with Coventry City many of the things that the modern game takes for granted (seated stadiums, sponsorship, entertainment, trains for travelling fans to name but a few). What’s more, he turned ‘The Bantams’ into ‘The Sky Blues’ and over a six year period, took them from the old third division into the first in 1967.
His loss has made me reflect on the part the club has played in my life. Living a mile from the old Highfield Road stadium in 1967, I was bought up with the glare of the floodlights lighting up my bedroom, with the roar of the crowd telling me that we’d scored (or just missed). The crowds then were massive (regularly 30-40,000 plus) and the streets around us filled with parked cars. As an eight year old I hadn’t been to a game yet, but it was during that season in Div. 1 that I went with my mates to my first game against arch rivals Wolves. We lost 1-0, but to me it didn’t matter as the thrill of the spectacle brought me back for more. Saturdays became a ritual; chip shop for pie and chips at 12.00; ‘Football Preview’ on Grandstand with Sam Leitch at 12.45; to the ground with ‘the gang’ in time for the gates opening at 1.30; kick off at 3.00; back in time for the results and round up on Grandstand at 5.00; Match of the Day at 10.00.
My first match day programme
John Tudor celebrates Ernie Hunt’s goal hitting the back of the net against Leicester the previous week (that’s a very young Peter Shilton on the floor)
We clung on to First Division status for an impressive 34 years, during which time we became skilled at escapology – I’ve lost count of the times that we were nearly relegated, and I remember someone in the press one describing us as the hippopotamus of the First Division, with only nose, eyes and ears ever visible. We got into Europe once in the seventies, won the FA Cup in the eighties, and that’s about it. During this time I spent a lot of time watching the team, both home and away, even after moving away from the city permanently in my late teens.
With growing age and (geographical) distance came responsibilities and the need to consider priorities. I still went to see the team but less often, and season tickets needed to give way for other important things, like a family. At the same time the teams’ fortunes changed, or maybe our luck finally ran out. We’ve had some great players, but we were never a glamour club, and relegation to the now the rebranded championship’ (old Division 2) started a rot. Financial mismanagement, together with a farcical battle over our new home (the Ricoh Arena) resulted in the club going into administration, then dropping another division, and eventually having to play our home games 35 miles away at Northampton Town.
We are now going through a period of relative stability after having shed a lot of managers, some good men who have suffered at the incompetence of the money men above them. We no longer have our own ground, being tenants at the Ricoh, guests of its’ new owners Wasps RFC, but for the moment doing well in the old ‘Division Three’ under the excellent manager ship of Tony Mowbray, and fans are getting excited about possible promotion.
It’s more than the death of Jimmy Hill that’s prompted these recollections. It’s as much to do with guilt as anything else. Saturday was for a good bulk of my lifetime a very important day of the week when everything I did was built around the team. Now however, although I go back home to visit family and friends, distance means that home games feel like away games, and I always usually have other things to do. Years of mediocrity have perhaps taken their toll, but as much as I like football I cannot support any other team, and I always keep a lookout for how they are doing, or follow their match day progress on the internet. I admire my family, friends, and many thousands of others who have managed to support them through thick and thin over all these years by annually paying for season tickets or turning up regularly for the games. I hate to think of myself as a fair weather supporter – I don’t think I’m that – I’m more of an armchair supporter now, though I have promised myself at least one game this season. Plus – I will choose my words carefully now – Aston Villa’s unfortunate situation at the foot of the Premier League, should it continue, together with our current excellent run of form could mean the resurrection of a ‘competitive’ local derby in the Championship next season. That would certainly appeal to me and perhaps even add a few extra thousand onto our season ticket sales.
Adam Armstrong celebrates one of his three goals with James Maddison during last Saturday’s five-nill thrashing of Crewe
I love Coventry City Football Club, and always will. Even though now I barely recognise the team, I’ve invested a good portion of my emotional life in them, and will never give up on them. I’ve had bad memories (having a bolt thrown at me in the West End, being caught up in pitch battles in the horrible ‘hooligan’ days of the seventies inside and outside the ground, having our front room window put through by a milk bottle, nearly getting caught up in a fight with a racist fan); but also many great memories (beating the Villa, beating Bayern Munich, the cup run and final in 1987, some brilliant players too numerous to mention, travelling to away games, being in a crowd of 48,000 on the ‘Spion Kop’, beating the Best/Charlton/Law Man. Utd. side on numerous occasions at Highfield Road, the very last game at Highfield Road…….I could go on).
It was Jimmy Hill who provided us with the Sky Blue song. I sang it at my wedding, and will no doubt have it played at my funeral. I may not always be there with the team and with the fans, but in the words of the song, “Lets all sing together, Play up Sky Blues, While we sing together, We will never lose….”.