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SUPREMOS: A look at the controversial career of Harry Pollitt

15 June 2022

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.

Harry Pollitt didn’t cover himself in glory. Appointed in 1919, of all the managers Coventry have ever had Pollitt is probably the one who comes bottom of the pile in terms of the legacy he left. Pollitt didn’t just lose 11 of the 30 games he took charge of, he lost far more as a consequence of a game where Coventry got the result they wanted.

Pollitt was eventually banned from football for life as a punishment for his involvement in a match fixing scandal. An end of season game against Bury was considered one of the worst crimes the sport of football had seen and Pollitt was one of 12 people who were duly punished, never to return to a game that was pleased to see the back of him.

The 1919-20 season was Coventry City’s first ever in the Football League. The Bantams resigned from the Southern League as they eyed a place in the Football League. As City moved towards a moderate ninth place in the Midland League, on 10 March 1919 they learned that they were to be admitted to the restructured post World War One Football League.

The news arrived two days after a 2-2 draw at Leicester City’s Filbert Street. It was after another trip to Filbert Street six months later that led to the departure of William Clayton. He had helped to get Coventry a place in the Midland Section of the league in 1918 but in 1919-20 he left his position after losing the opening seven games of the season with just four goals scored and 24 conceded.

Harry Harbourne took over responsibilities for the players on a caretaker basis with the directors selecting the team. They didn’t do any better. After losing 2-1 at home to Leicester the following week the team went on a goal drought. They would not score again until Christmas Day, a cruel run of 11 games without a goal. Not surpassed in League football until 1992-93 when Hartlepool overtook it, it was a desperate statistic lightened only by the appearance of four goalless draws in that run. One of those goalless draws came against today’s visitors Blackpool on November 22 - the day that Pollitt took charge for the first time.

Blackpool were the opposition in the next match too, goals from Jimmy Heathcote (who later played for Coventry) and Joe Lane preventing Pollitt from making a positive impact. Pollitt proved to be something of a wheeler-dealer, although possibly this approach brought him to believe that matches as well as players could be bought and sold.

Five of the players who had been regulars in the side before Pollitt took over found they were soon out of the team, in some cases for good. The only player to play in Pollitt’s first game and his last five and a half months later was Billy Walker, a new signing who debuted in Pollitt’s first match and eventually ended the goal drought at Christmas. Walker was one of four debutants in Pollitt’s first game, the pick of them being 1912 Olympic Gold medal winner (although he missed the final through injury) Ted Hanney. He was a centre half who cost £2,000 from Manchester City, a significant fee at a time when the most ever paid for a player anywhere in the world was £6,000. A further £300 was also paid to Man City for another debutant, Wales international forward George Wynn.  

Harry Pollitt.jpgHarry Pollitt

Significant investment continued with the £1,500 purchase of centre forward Dick Parker from Sunderland in January 1920. A player in his mid-twenties, Parker had scored twice in six games for his previous club but was kept out of the Sunderland side by the legendary Charlie Buchan and Barney Travers, a player who would later be banned for life for his role in a match fixing scandal when a Fulham player in a game at South Shields.

That scandal took place in March 1922, raising suspicions concerning wrong-doing in the sport, the magnifying glass of investigation falling on Coventry the following year. Parker incidentally had moved to South Shields from Coventry but had moved on from that club before Travers’ misdemeanours there when a Fulham player.

It was actually at South Shields that Parker made his Coventry debut before finding the back of the net a week later with the winner against Wolves on his bow at Highfield Road. He would play a major role in keeping Pollitt’s men up, top scoring with nine in 20 games with a sequence of scoring in six successive games at the business end of the season, culminating with both goals in a key win over Lincoln who would go down, two points adrift of Coventry, despite inflicting a heavy defeat on Coventry a week before losing at Highfield Road.

The business end of the season was given a whole new meaning by Pollitt in the two games that remained following that win over the Imps, both of those games being against Bury.

The Shakers had ‘Kilty’ Cameron as their player- manager. They were close to the top of the table but with no mathematical possibility of going up, just the mathematical possibility of making some money from a desperate Coventry.

The double header with Bury that closed the season brought a 2-2 Gigg Lane draw on a Wednesday afternoon followed by a 2-1 home win three days later, Coventry coming from a goal down at the break, Alec Mercer’s brace wiping out Harry Lomas’ opener. Bury’s players blamed their performance on losing their kit and playing in ill-fitting boots.

As the dust appeared to settle, City had stayed up by one place, the points from the Bury games securing their safety. Had they failed relegation would have been the least of their worries. Regardless of the newly formed third division coming into being there was no guarantee that the bottom two clubs would be admitted, meaning that failure against Bury would mean Coventry having to apply for re-election to the league.

Lincoln who went down in Coventry’s place duly failed in their application for re-election - while their near neighbours Grimsby, who finished bottom, were admitted into the third tier.

Pollitt left Coventry City, never to return to football management. The club placed former Villa full back Albert Evans in charge of team affairs – and finished even lower the following year – surviving as only one team went down as City were one off the bottom. A further season saw City saved from the drop again – one point the difference between third bottom City and relegated Bradford Park Avenue.

However, it was two thirds of the way through the season after that when the repercussions of Pollitt’s actions, in what became known as the ‘Bury Scandal,’ began to be revealed. Once again today’s visitors Blackpool happened to on supporters’ minds. As newspapers were bought on 4 March 1923 City followers expected to read about table toppers Blackpool’s 2-1 win at Highfield Road, a result that left the Bantams a point above the relegation places.

There was much worse to read about other than a defeat. An article in the Sunday Chronicle revealed that the Football League Management Committee had received a detailed communication from an unnamed source. While no clubs were named at this point, indications were that a match between clubs from the Midlands and the North had been fixed. Details were sketchy at this stage, not least as it this point indications were that the match in question had been played on 26 March 1921 (A day that Coventry had once again beaten Bury).

As the fog of confusion cleared, the truth began to emerge. The announcement that the FA and Football League were setting up a joint commission of enquiry was followed by the news that it would be chaired by Charles Clegg, known as the Napoleon of football as a long standing chairman of the FA. Clegg was a man whose incredible football CV included playing in the world’s first official international football match in 1872 and refereeing two FA Cup finals.

The enquiry was known at this point to have called just one witness: Harry Pollitt. It became understood that the fixture under suspicion was one from 1920 not 1921, but even at this stage whether it was the home or away game, or both, was unclear.

Coventry were due to play away to Blackpool on 10 March 1923 but the day before at the Grand Hotel in Manchester a four-hour meeting heard from a range of witnesses. Bury brought 20 witnesses, including players. Coventry’s sole witness that afternoon was Scottish international George Chaplin – whose brother Alec had been involved in the already revealed South Shields v Fulham case involving Barney Travers, and which Charles Clegg had overseen.

The following day lowly Coventry won 1-0 away to league leaders Blackpool with no suggestion of wrongdoing but at Bury there was revolution in the air as 11 days after the Grand Hotel meeting the entire Bury board was voted out by their shareholders, albeit the official reasons were unconnected to the unfolding scandal.

Over three weeks after Coventry’s final game of a season in which they finished two points clear of relegation, on 28 May 1923 the results of the enquiry of the Bury Scandal were announced at the Connaught Rooms in London. Although it was accepted that the commission had not been able to unearth all of the facts, they had sufficient evidence to find that a total of 11 men were guilty of arranging the result of a match between Coventry City and Bury. All 11 were to be banned from football for life. Pollitt was not amongst those punished at this stage.

David Cooke.jpgDavid Cooke

Lifetime bans were imposed on Coventry’s chairman and former director Jack Marshall and David Cooke, the latter of whom had been acting as President of the club and who had recently personally paid off the club’s overdraft at the bank. Captain George Chaplin was also banned for life and later admitted he had handed over payments, the last of them in the King’s Head Hotel after the game.

George Chaplin.jpgGeorge Chaplin

Bury were punished more heavily in terms of numbers. Their former chairman and director, manager and a quartet of players, all of whom had already left the club received life bans. Manager Cameron’s ban was revoked in 1929. One of the banned players was Jock Allan who had since signed for Reading but was immediately released by that club as a result of his ban. Allan managed to continue to play, spending the next five years playing in America. Another Bury player, goalkeeper Cornthwaite was banned for a year. Both clubs were also fined.

Coventry chairman Marshall protested his innocence although it was later learned that witnesses claimed to have heard Marshall speaking at Rochdale, when he admitted fixing the Bury match had cost Coventry several hundred pounds. Later reports in The Bury Times suggested an agreement of £750 had been arranged.

It almost cost the club an awful lot more. Several members of the Football League’s Management Committee were reported to have been in favour of expelling Coventry and Bury from the league.

What of Pollitt in all this? His name was conspicuous by its absence of those punished.  However, in January 1925 the ‘Bury Scandal’ case was re-opened with Pollitt banned permanently from football.

Managers up and down the country lose football matches. Even the best of them. Not everyone can be a winner in football but the sport depends on people knowing that whatever happens the outcome is determined by skill not skulduggery. Harry Pollitt was involved in one of the darkest hours of Coventry City and fittingly disappeared totally from the game we love.

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