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History

SUPREMOS: A profile of former Sky Blues manager Gordon Milne

31 May 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 Gordon Milne...

Managers like to have time and money. At Highfield Road Gordon Milne got plenty of the former but little of the latter. Nine years in charge from 1972 to 1981 was a good innings. He had taken full control in 1974 after two years as working alongside Joe Mercer. Even after relinquishing supervision of the team Gordon retained a senior role at Coventry for another year. Milne’s ‘encore’ was as the person in charge of dealing with transfers and contracts, ironic given the cheque-book often couldn’t be found during his time in charge.

This was a pity because despite the meagre resources granted to him recruitment proved to be one of Milne’s strengths. Tommy Hutchison, Colin Stein, Bobby McDonald, Terry Yorath, John Craven, Gary Gillespie, and Gerry Daly were signed without breaking the bank, while home-grown talent was also encouraged. We will never know but perhaps if Milne had been enabled to invest more in the transfer market his sides might have looked more like thoroughbreds than the also-rans they tended to end up as.

Milne’s ability with young players helped him to get the Coventry job. The month before he came to Highfield Road he had seen his England Under 18 team crowned European Champions after beating West Germany in the final in Barcelona.

Brought to Coventry by Mercer, Milne’s first season of 1972-73 was one of struggle. His side failed to score in 17 of their 42 league games as they finished fourth from the bottom of the first division, a place lower than the previous year.  The team’s final position of 17th didn’t reflect the excitement generated by a great unbeaten run in the autumn, inspired by the signings of Stein & Hutchison, and a run to the 6th round of the FA Cup. The season was marred by a bad run at the end of the season when the Sky Blues dropped from mid table to 17th but they were never in relegation danger.

Failure in front of goal continued to plague Milne’s men. While there was a marginal rise of two places in his second season only the bottom two scored fewer goals – Manchester United being one of those relegated sides incidentally.

Unspectacular but steady improvement was made with successive 14th placed finishes – in 1975 City being level on points with 12th placed Wolves – but in ’77 there was the narrowest of squeaks when a controversial draw with Bristol City; managed by Coventry old boy Alan Dicks, kept both clubs up with literally minutes to spare.

To the club’s credit they kept faith with the manager through those tough times and were richly rewarded in the following 1977-78 season when Gordon’s team suddenly clicked. A fabulous campaign resulted in a seventh placed finish at the height of the Mick Ferguson – Ian Wallace attacking axis that saw that front two score just five goals fewer than the entire shot-shy team had managed a mere four seasons previously.

Tenth position in 1979 continued more than decent form although there was a slide back to 15th and 16th places as the eighties arrived, albeit the 1980-81 campaign brought the best cup-run of the Milne era. A League Cup final place beckoned after a semi-final first-leg win over West Ham only for City to end up losing narrowly on aggregate.

That proved to be Gordon’s last stand as by the following season Dave Sexton was calling the shots and selecting the team, Milne having been moved upstairs although he was only 41. He would continue in what was described as his ‘Executive Manager’ role for a season but by the summer of 1982 was being measured up for a tracksuit again. This time with a Leicester City badge on it, having moved to Filbert Street in charge of The Foxes.

Having returned to Coventry to sign Tommy English to play up front with a young Gary Lineker; and also taking Gerry Daly while Jim Melrose made the opposite journey, Milne inspired Leicester to promotion in his first season. As with most of Gordon’s time at Coventry his Leicester charges kept their heads above water in the top flight but not much more. Consecutive 15th place finishes were followed by a narrow escape from relegation in 1986. Only Ipswich’s defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on the final day kept them up in a season notable for Milne bringing Gary McAllister into English football.  His bargain purchase from Motherwell illustrated Milne maintained the knack of recruiting top talent.

Impressed with his plus points but frustrated with the lack of progress on the pitch Leicester emulated Coventry and moved Milne ‘upstairs’ to a General Manager role. He held this for a year only to be dismissed when the team went down under Bryan Hamilton. Hamilton survived as Milne was replaced with David Pleat.

At this point Gordon spread his wings and moved to Turkey as manager of Besiktas. Delight came with a cup win followed by the league title in his second season and the double in his third. A fourth season saw Besiktas become Turkey’s ‘Invincibles’ as they retained the title for a third successive season, this time without losing a game. The title was only relinquished in his fifth and final season a year later when only goal difference prised the trophy from their grip.

Milne managed Grampus 8 in Japan throughout the calendar year of 1994, with Tetsuro Miura looking after the team for six months between Milne’s departure and Arsene Wenger’s arrival as the ex-Coventry man returned to home shores to become Chief Executive of the League Managers’ Association.

Hardly surprisingly given his initial success, there would be further spells in Turkey, initially with Buraspor from August 1996 until the following May before taking over at Tranzonspor a year later for a season.

In November 1999 Gordon was back in England as assistant manager to Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United. From 2000 until 2004 he served as Director of Football until leaving as Robson was sacked at St. James’.  At this point Gordon was tempted back to Turkey and Besiktas as Technical Director for a season before standing in as caretaker-manager in October 2005, almost two decades after first joining the club.

Gordon Milne retired from the game in 2007 at the age of 70. He is now 82.

Born on 29 March 1937 in Preston, Gordon’s dad was North End player Jimmy who just over a month later played in the FA Cup final for Preston. One of his team mates in North End’s Wembley line up was Bill Shankly who would later sign Gordon for Liverpool.

Milne junior’s career would begin with Preston Amateurs before developing with today’s visitors Morecambe, (a club his dad managed in 1947-48) before signing for Preston North End in January 1956. A wing-half, Gordon did so well at Deepdale that Liverpool came calling with a £16,000 transfer fee in September 1960. Strange to think of it now but Liverpool were in the second division at the time but the Shankly connection helped sway the deal despite top-flight Arsenal also wanting his signature.

Third in his first season at Anfield wasn’t good enough as in those days only the top two went up but a year later Milne was ever-present as The Reds won Division Two. Shanks’ credo was ‘Keep it simple but do it well.’ Milne was perfect in that system and a key, if largely unsung, member of the Liverpool side of the mid-sixties. After promotion he missed just one league game in their first two seasons back in the top-flight, the second of those seasons bringing his second championship medal but this time of the first division variety.

Good Friday 1965 was where things started to go wrong for Milne as he badly injured his knee-ligaments in an FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea. Missing the final mirrored his dad’s experience in 1938. Jimmy Milne missed that final through injury having picked up a loser’s medal weeks after Gordon was born.

After missing not just the cup final but both legs of the European Cup semi-final Gordon was a fit enough to be a regular member of the side again in 1965-66 as England geared up to host the World Cup. As the tournament neared Gordon was named in England’s provisional list of 40 players on 7 April and was retained when the list was cut to 28 players on 6 May. Unfortunately for him though when the final squad was selected on 18 June he was left out although he had to remain on standby.

Milne had been part of the England set-up since April 1963 when he was a reserve for a game lost to Scotland at Wembley. It will be 55 years on Tuesday since his debut when he played in a 1-1 Wembley draw with reigning World Champions Brazil. He did well to make it that close to the World Cup because although he had 14 caps the last of them had been won in 1964. Those games for his country included being part of the team who beat The Rest of the World at Wembley in 1963 in a match to mark the centenary of the F.A.

He did however get to play in a final against West German opposition in 1966. He played against Borussia Dortmund in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final at Hampden Park. Four players in that game played in the World Cup final later than summer: Roger Hunt of Liverpool and Dortmund’s ‘keeper Hans Tilkowski, inside forward Sigfried Held and winger Lothar Emmerich. Hunt and Held both scored before right winger Reinhard Libuda scored an extra-time winner for Dortmund.

Ironically in Germany famed dribbler Libuda was nicknamed ‘Stan’ after Stanley Matthews. A year on from England’s World Cup win, Gordon moved on from Liverpool to Blackpool who had been relegated despite winning 3-1 at Anfield on the final day of the season. Managed by the man the ‘Matthews Final’ should have been named after – Stan Mortensen who scored a hat-trick in that 1953 FA Cup final – The Tangerines side included Jimmy Armfield and midfielder John Craven, the latter of whom Milne would later sign for The Sky Blues.

Debuting back at his old club Preston, Gordon got his first goal for Blackpool in the return fixture and missed just one of the first 35 games of the first season before missing the climax through injury as his team missed out on promotion on goal average by 0.21 of a goal!

Gordon’s second season at Bloomfield Road saw him in and out of the side as injuries started to come his way and while Blackpool won promotion under Les Shannon in his third season Milne’s ninth and final appearance of the campaign came as early as October. That goalless draw with Norwich was his 375th and final league start –two thirds of which were with Liverpool. There were also six further games as sub and 25 goals.

In January 1970 Milne moved into management as player/manager of non-league Wigan Athletic, another club his dad Jimmy had managed. After leading the Latics to the Northern Premier League title in his first full season, when Gordon also guided them to the third round of the FA Cup where they only lost 1-0 to a Colin Bell goal away to Manchester City. He added 73 Northern Premier League appearances during his time at Wigan before coming to Coventry where he became the longest serving Sky Blue Supremo of all. Only Harry Storer – before City were the Sky Blues – managed the club for more games than the 436 Gordon was gaffer for.


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