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SUPREMOS: A profile of former Sky Blues boss Noel Cantwell

13 June 2019

Mark Robins is the latest in a long line of Sky Blue Supremos, the men who have tried to bring success to City. In this series first published in matchday programme PUSB, writer Rob Mason reflects on the highs and lows on those who have occupied the hot-seat.

In this edition, Rob Mason profiles Noel Cantwell...

One thing that should be becoming obvious if you have been reading this series since the start is that so many City supremos have a fascinating background and substantial stature within the game as a whole, not just through their time at Coventry.

Just such a man is Noel Cantwell. An elegant footballer who was once Britain’s costliest full-back, Cantwell was part of a group of serious students of the game as a West Ham player, all of whom went on to become well known managers. His cultured play contributed to Cantwell being a mentor of the great Bobby Moore. (In 1964 Cantwell and Moore would shake hands as skippers before an Ireland v England game). Later a cup winning captain with Manchester United and a chairman of the PFA, Cantwell became one of those rare people to play internationally at two sports: football and cricket. Moving into management with Coventry, Cantwell achieved unique Sky Blue status by being the only manager to lead City into Europe. He also won a title in America, was asked to scout for England by Sven-Goran Eriksson and even played in a cup final against Coventry at Highfield Road.

Roy Keane is not known for participating in the fineries of football. He likes to be on the pitch, not signing autographs or making public appearances. So the sight of Keane attending the unveiling of ‘Noel Cantwell Way’ in Noel’s native city of Cork three years ago illustrated how highly the former Coventry manager is regarded.

 Noel Euchuria Cornelius Cantwell became manager of the Sky Blues in 1967. Rather like trying to succeed Sir Matt Busby or Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford or whoever eventually succeeds Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Cantwell had a tough act to follow as he replaced Jimmy Hill, who had done so much for the club with his innovations on and off the pitch.

51 years ago goals from Jimmy Husband and Joe Royle inflicted a home defeat on City as Everton confirmed Cantwell’s bad start in the job.  Coventry still awaited a victory in what was the new gaffer’s seventh game in charge. Five of those matches had ended in defeat and City had failed to score in over half of them.

The club’s first season in the top flight continued to be a struggle but Cantwell always had fight as well as finesse and under his stoic leadership relegation was avoided by a single point.

Things were no better in Cantwell’s first full season of 1968-69 as once again the drop was averted by a single point. A former defender himself, Cantwell’s side had relied heavily on his old Manchester United colleague Maurice Setters, who Cantwell had signed from Stoke. Injury had ruled Setters out of much of that ’68-69 campaign although he managed to get back onto the pitch for the final four fixtures. The last three of those saw Setters hold the defence together as three draws squeezed City over the line ahead of FA Cup finalists Leicester, who were beaten on the final day at Cantwell’s old club Manchester United.

In what was originally planned as Sir Matt Busby’s final game in charge of The Red Devils, Cantwell’s old manager inspired his mid-table team to one last victory, despite the disappointment of unsuccessfully ending their defence of being England’s first ever European champions just 48 hours earlier.

Having twice just kept the club up by a solitary point, Cantwell could have been disposed of by Coventry but he rewarded the club handsomely for keeping faith with him. Suddenly City soared as the swinging sixties ended.

Three wins and two draws in the first five games got the season off to a flier. Willie Carr had only scored three times in 59 league games over the previous two seasons but popped up with a hat-trick in the first home match of 1969-70. The biggest transformation came on the road. Having won just three of their first 42 top flight away games, City found a way to win 10 away games in a season! A home win over Newcastle this week in 1969 kicked off a winter wonderland run of eight wins in nine top flight games. It was a sequence that culminated in a mid-February victory at another of Cantwell’s old clubs, West Ham.

Sixth in the old First Division brought a place in the European Fairs Cup, victory over Bulgarian outfit Trakia Ploviv and the sight of Bayern Munich being beaten at Highfield Road, albeit City going out on aggregate having lost the first leg. A decent League Cup run to the quarter-final in the same campaign combined with a more than decent top half finish continued Cantwell’s success but it was to prove his last full season in charge.

Perhaps the raised expectations Cantwell had created contributed to his own downfall. Just three defeats in the opening dozen games disguised the problems that manifested themselves in a run of one win in 14 games that brought dismissal after a 1-0 home defeat by Leeds. Maybe that was a bit harsh as the only losses in his last five games were single goal defeats to the two teams who would finish first and second that season. Under acting manager Bob Dennison Coventry would finish 18th but Cantwell’s influence would continue, not least through the effort he had put in to develop City’s youth policy.  

The Cantwell story had started in Ireland with Western Rovers and Cork Athletic. He also excelled at athletics, rugby and cricket. A right-handed medium pace bowler and left-handed middle-order batsman Noel would go on to represent Ireland five times between 1956 and 1959, his one official First Class appearance seeing him score 31 and 17 not out against Scotland. Preferring to focus on football he turned down the chance to sign for Essex.

By the time he became a cricket international, Cantwell already had international caps for football. First capped in 1952-53 against Luxembourg he made the last of his 36 football appearances in 1966-67 against Turkey.  62 years ago the first of his 11 international goals was scored from the penalty spot against reigning world champions West Germany. Prior to the Republic of Ireland appointing their first official manager in 1969 Cantwell was also instrumental in the running of the Irish team as part of their selection panel while simultaneously managing Coventry.

‘Corkmen’ Tommy Moroney and Frank O’Farrell were West Ham players who had spotted young Noel when they played as ‘Guests’ for Cork in a friendly against Birmingham City, recommending him to manager Ted Fenton. Cantwell’s very first appearance for West Ham came as a centre-forward in a ‘B’ team game against Spurs in August 1952 with his league debut arriving on Easter Monday 1953 at Fulham, where one of the goals in The Hammers’ victory came from future Coventry manager Dave Sexton.

The Boleyn Ground was a hot-house for future managers. As well as Cantwell, Sexton and O’Farrell, Malcolm Allison, Malcolm Musgrove, John Bond, Ken Brown and John Lyall were amongst his team-mates. Captain by 1957, Noel was a promotion winner in 1958 and an ever present as The Hammers finished sixth in the top-flight in 1958-59. He remained a regular until shortly before being transferred to Manchester United.

Just over six months before leaving London, Noel had been part of the West Ham side beaten by Coventry at Highfield Road in the final of the Southern Floodlight Cup final.

His 263rd senior match for West Ham came at Everton in September 1960 with his last ever in claret and blue coming on November 3rd in an ‘A’ team game against the Metropolitan Police. That appearance effectively being a punishment for returning back late from winning his 17th international cap against Norway.  

A British record fee for a full back of £29,500 took him to Old Trafford where Matt Busby was continuing to re-build after the Munich air-disaster. 57 years ago this weekend Cantwell made his Manchester United debut away to Cardiff. With echoes of fellow Corkman Roy Keane’s tirade against Ireland boss Mick McCarthy prior to the 2002 World Cup, according to Cantwell’s team-mate of the time Eamon Dunphy, Noel was very outspoken about what he perceived to be Manchester United’s lack of preparation. Busby promptly made Cantwell club captain, taking over from Maurice Setters who he would later sign for Coventry. Cantwell captained the club to FA Cup triumph in 1963, their first post-Munich trophy.

Winning the FA Cup qualified United for the old European Cup Winners’ Cup. Spurs had become the first English team to win a European competition when lifting that trophy the previous season. Eventually the English duo were paired together. A meaty tackle saw Cantwell (by now Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association) emerge physically unscathed while Tottenham’s Dave Mackay suffered a horrendously bad broken leg. Old Trafford opinions are divided as to the affect it had on Cantwell but the fact is Noel didn’t stay in the team for long afterwards. Having briefly appeared in their title winning teams of 1964-64 and 1966-67, his final game for Manchester United came 51 years ago last week in an away win at Southampton.

Expected to remain at Old Trafford as a likely eventual successor to Busby, at one point by his own admission Cantwell turned down the opportunity to manage Aston Villa. However, when his old West Ham team-mate Malcolm Allison contacted him to say he was about to become manager of Coventry and would Cantwell come as his assistant Noel decided to accept. Instead though Allison was to move to Manchester City with Joe Mercer and Cantwell became the man Coventry turned to.

Considering his reputation in the game as a deep-thinking, articulate pillar of integrity, combined with a tremendous reputation as a player - and having taken Coventry into Europe - it is surprising that the only other British club he managed was Peterborough United. They were struggling in the bottom division when he took over in October 1972, yet he took them to their divisional title with an unbeaten home record in his first full season.       In a five-year spell in charge of The Posh no day was posher for him than when he took his team back to Old Trafford for a cup tie.

Before taking over at Peterborough Cantwell had spent seven months in the USA with New England Tea-Men, his old West Ham colleague Phil Woosnam, by now a big noise in States-side soccer, paving the way for the move.  After leaving Peterborough Cantwell would return to the USA in Boston and Jacksonville, winning the Eastern Division Championship with New England Tea-Men in 1978.

In 1986, when he was still only 54, Noel returned for a second stint at Peterborough, staying in charge for a couple of years before ‘moving upstairs’ as General Manager until he was sacked in April 1989.

Later a publican in the city at ‘The New Inn’, England manager Sven Goran Eriksson acknowledged Noel’s knowledge when enlisting his help as a scout for England in Cantwell’s later years. Born three days after Christmas in 1932 – probably explaining his first name – Noel Cantwell passed away on 8 September 2005.

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