Hill's ingenuity enabled Busby Babes to warm Irish hearts
The almost total wipe-out of sport this weekend brings to mind a match played in Dublin 55 years ago, which helped English clubs Manchester United and Coventry City get some much-needed match practice at a time when snow-bound and icy pitches had brought the game in England to a standstill.
The game was the brainchild of Coventry manager Jimmy Hill. Later to become better known as a Match of the Day pundit, Hill was always one to think outside the box and, realising that the conditions in Dublin were not as bad as in England, he arranged the game through his contacts over here.
For opposition, he first approached Aston Villa manager Joe Mercer, only to discover that fear of injury to his players led to a refusal. Matt Busby had no such qualms, and fielded his strongest team, including a forward line of Johnny Giles, Albert Quixall, David Herd, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.
With Shay Brennan and Noel Cantwell at full-back, there was plenty of Irish interest, but that probably wasn't needed anyway as, ever since the Munich disaster five years previously, United were the people's favourites in Dublin. Played in Shamrock Rovers' Glenmalure Park in Milltown, on what Giles described as "an icy pitch", the game attracted a healthy 20,000 crowd.
Coventry were then a Third Division team challenging for promotion, while United were nearer the basement than the top of the old First Division. Although Quixall gave United an early lead, Hill's team soon rattled their vaunted opponents, and led 2-1 at half-time with goals from Ronnie Farmer and Jimmy Whitehouse. Bobby Charlton spared the many United supporters the embarrassment of a 'home' defeat with an equaliser in the second half.
Faced with another postponed fixture the following week, Hill brought his team to Cork where they played Wolves on a miserably wet day. The conditions were more suited to Stan Cullis's team and they ran out 3-0 winners before a crowd of 6,500 (not dissimilar to that which attended Cork City's recent home win over Waterford).
Their exploits in Ireland did Coventry no harm, for once football resumed in England they went on a run in the FA Cup, beating Lincoln, Portsmouth (after a second replay, played at White Hart Lane), and Sunderland, to earn the right to play, would you believe it, Manchester United in the quarter-final at their own Highfield Road ground.
While United came out on top 3-1, Coventry had the pleasure of a 44,000 crowd returning record gate receipts of £8,614. Perhaps their cup run affected their league challenge as they finished just five points off a promotion spot. However, it was only a promotion delayed as they went up as third division champions the following season, followed by a further promotion in 1967 as champions of the second division.
United, who avoided relegation from the first division by a slender three points, kept their best form for the Cup, defeating Huddersfield, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Coventry and Southampton to earn their place in the final against high-flying Leicester City. It seems strange that such a talented squad were considered underdogs for the Wembley showpiece, but they turned on the style in the final and recorded a handsome 3-1 win to secure their third FA Cup success. Tony Dunne, Noel Cantwell and Johnny Giles lined out that day.
Sunday Indo Sport