Mick Carter, or Cov Mick as he is affectionately known amongst the Coventry clan, yesterday posted on the Unofficial Messageboard an interesting question – ‘Would you spend a large amount on bringing in a top class player to the club?’ to which he added his own answer, ‘No I would strengthen the squad in the positions needed. Remember Will Johnson?’ It’s a pertinent question to ask and one that deserves some discussion.
But first let’s deal with the signing of Will Johnson, whose much publicised arrival from Leicester in 2006 (CET – Will Johnson) created huge interest amongst Coventry supporters. The brother of Martin Johnson, he made over 200 appearances for Leicester and although never capped by England, he did play 7 times for the ‘A’ side. He was immediately made captain pre-season and for many of us, the start of the National 1 league campaign couldn’t come quickly enough that year. A big name, presumably costing big bucks and bringing with him big hopes for the future.
By December of the same season, Johnson had left for Toriso.
He apparently had a release clause in his contract allowing him to leave for any top-flight club in England, France or Italy.
In the three months he was with us, his performances had been, to put it mildly, underwhelming and few supporters shed a tear when the news of his departure was announced. Incidentally, I couldn’t find a photo of Johnson in Cov colours; i don’t suppose he was here long enough to be photographed wearing a Cov shirt.
So, if Will Johnson is the standard by which you judge the success or otherwise of bringing in top class players, then the answer to Mick’s question clearly has to be a resounding ‘No’.
There have, however, been some ‘big name’ signings that have proved successful. The likes of Alan Sharp, Andy Blackmore, Mark Tinnock, Elisa Vunipola (the Tongan captain), Luis Criscuolo, Barry Evans and Ian Patten (who describes his worst rugby memory as ‘losing the second leg of a promotion play-off playing for Coventry against London Irish. It was a big chance for the big time and we missed it’ (Ian Patten) have all added another dimension to the team on their arrival and I don’t think anyone ever questioned their commitment to the club. As far as I can remember, the likes of Patten, Blackmore and Sharpe were part of the squad that almost won promotion to the Premiership in 1997, although the following season the club almost folded, partly the result of bankrolling such an expensive squad. And don’t forget, we even had the greatest of them all, Zinzan Brooke, playing out the twilight of his career with us in 2002/03. There are others, of course. Please add a comment if you feel someone deserves to be mentioned.
There’s one name I haven’t mentioned above, another of ‘top player’ and, for me, the best signing of the lot…that of Derek Eves, who joined Cov in 1996. Now I’m not sure that Eves was the most popular of players/coaches with some of the Coventry folk, and when he left he and chairman Keith Fairbrother didn’t have the best of working relationships. However, to this supporter at least, on the pitch he epitomised everything that was good about rugby – always 100% committed, he was a leader who led by example, someone who could take the game by the scruff of the neck and change the outcome almost single-handedly. He had charisma on the field and always entertained, whether it be galloping up the field on the break, or producing a thumping tackle to bring to an end an opponent’s play and then stealing the ball into the bargain.
His signing produced two of the best years in the clubs ‘recent’ history. In 1997, Coventry won promotion from Courage National 3 as champions
and the following year we all but won promotion to the Premiership through the play-offs, finishing third behind Newcastle and Richmond, clubs that had spent a small fortune on building their squads to be good enough to survive in the top tier, let alone the second. They were halcyon days and the crowds came to Coundon Road in their thousands to witness Coventry’s rejuvenation. Yes, it was to all turn sour, but more as a result of off-the-field problems than with the players themselves.
Another signing or three of the quality of Evesey, Mick, and I’d be a very happy man.
Off the pitch, I know Eves had his problems, but I shall never forget the kindness he showed my son at the Reading game that sealed our promotion from National 3 in the April of 1997. Sam and I had been to almost every game that season, home and away, including the friendlies in Wales. We always spend time walking around the pitch prior to the game (as we still do on a match day!) and although we never spoke to the players before or after the game, they would always say hello or just give a nod of the head in recognition of the fact that we were there and had travelled at a time when few did. Anyway, at the end of the Reading game, having clapped off the opposing team, Eves made a bee-line for Sam (who was all of 1o at the time) and took off his shirt and handed it to him with a few words of genuine gratitude for his support. It was a lovely gesture, particularly as he’d never spoken to us before. (Rob Hardwick also took off his shorts and gave them to Sam, but that is a completely different story!). That shirt was never washed and bore the spoils of war for many years. It even went up to university with him, only to eventually disintegrate. But the memories remain intact.
Sadly, Eves ended up in serious trouble after he left Coventry; a three-year benefit fraud ended with him fortunate to avoid a custodial sentence. But that takes nothing away what he did during his time at Coventry. All greats are flawed in some way, and although Eves was never a giant of the game, he was one of the greats of the last 30 years as far as Coventry RFC is concerned.
I’ve digressed – Mick’s original question begs another question in response. Why would a top class player want to come to Coventry, as opposed to all the other aspiring Championship/National 1 clubs, some of which will have much bigger cheque books than ours? I would need convincing if someone from the Premiership, a known player who still has two or three decent years left in him, would commit themselves to Cov. The likes of Evans, Jones and Morgan are exactly the types of players we should be encouraging to play their rugby at the Butts. They’re not part of rugby’s elite or even the sort of players we might have heard of before arriving in Coventry, but they have real talent and vast experience. It’s worked well for us these past three seasons.
More of the same please…