x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Missing out on a medal is Tony Coton's big regret

Tony Coton, a coach at Al Ahli and former Manchester United goalkeeper, had many admirers as a player, but had no reason to build a trophy cabinet.

Tony Coton, the Al Ahli goalkeeping coach, during his playing days at Manchester City. He was considered unfortunate to never win an England cap. Bob Thomas / Getty Images
Tony Coton, the Al Ahli goalkeeping coach, during his playing days at Manchester City. He was considered unfortunate to never win an England cap. Bob Thomas / Getty Images

As a goalkeeping coach at Manchester United – including the year in which they won the "treble" – Tony Coton was surrounded by medals and medal winners.

But despite being at the hub of success during a playing career of over 600 appearances as a keeper in the UK's top flight, Coton never picked up a medal for himself. He even went on tour with the England squad but missed out on a full international cap.

Now a coach at Dubai's Al Ahli, he said: "That was my biggest regret. I had a decent career and I had my time in the spotlight. At Old Trafford, I suppose in a way I was a bit jealous of their success.

"Yes they earned high wages but playing for a team that was winning things was what I wanted more than anything else."

Yet "TC", as he is known, did pick up awards. Twice voted Player of the Year at Manchester City, he is the only player ever to have won the Player of the Year award three times at Watford.

Watford? Well back in the late 1970s and 1980s, under the stewardship of Graham Taylor, the club then owned by rock star Elton John, blazed a trail on and off the pitch as the Hornets emerged from Division 4 and reached the runners-up spot in the English top flight behind Liverpool in a dramatic six years.

After a career that embraced five top-tier clubs, Coton still looks for the Watford result first.

"It was an unbelievable time and the club remains close to my heart," said the former keeper whose move to Watford's Vicarage Road ground was "almost a religious experience".

Born in Tamworth, Birmingham, he played in goal and as an outfield player, alternating between positions every weekend until he was 14. Then he started concentrating on becoming a goalkeeper in the manner of his idol, Pat Jennings.

Coton moved from Southern League Tamworth to Birmingham City, but medal hopes after a good FA Cup run in 1984 were ended by none other than Watford, then en route to the final.

Coton was disappointed, but he had other concerns. In effect he got in with the wrong crowd, found he was targeted by Birmingham louts looking to make a name for themselves and, finally, he was pushed too far and ended up in court for physically overreacting.

"I was awaiting the trial date when Watford came in for me," he said. "I couldn't believe it when I was asked to sign a contract that stipulated that I had to spend a portion of my time doing community work in the town. It was a family club, pioneering so many off-the-field concepts. It was so different from Birmingham.

"It shook me up and I realised I had to change things in my life. Graham Taylor effectively gave me my career."

With Taylor acting as a character witness, Tony received a suspended sentence and spent almost six years at Vicarage Road, four of them in the First Division, becoming by his own acknowledgement "a more rounded individual".

"Elton John was not only chairman but a big fan of the club," said Coton. "All the players and their families would be invited to his garden party every pre-season.

"He was such an enthusiast. I remember on a close-season trip to China, he treated the squad to a Western-style meal every time we won and, when we lifted the trophy, he played piano and sang for hours.

"They were great days. You found yourself involved in the community … meeting the fans and families in their special match-day enclosure."

A great shot-stopper and a feisty, competitive player, Coton was described by Taylor as: "Consistently up there in the top three or four keepers in the land."

On three occasions Watford came close to a return trip to Wembley, but just missed out. Then, with Taylor leaving, the fortunes dipped and the club were relegated.

"I committed myself to two seasons trying to get them back but when we failed, I was sold to Manchester City for £1 million (Dh 5.9m)."

Next he had a brief stint at Old Trafford as cover for Peter Schmeichel and moved on to Sunderland where his career ended when he broke his leg in five places.

"That's when Sir Alex Ferguson came in to appoint me goalkeeping coach," he said. "He is brilliant, very loyal and supportive of his staff and is in at seven every morning. The facilities are amazing. They have everything there entirely geared for success and to make you a better player."

After 10 memorable years, a knee injury forced him to retire from Old Trafford in 2007, and following a year out, doing scouting and helping a football agent, he is back to his real love, coaching.

"Goalkeepers are a different breed because of the nature of our role. I know how they feel. You have 500 shots a season to deal with: 200 are dollies, another 290-odd are good or really testing and you let a couple in. It is not a bad return but it still feels bad."

Among his most treasured possessions was one obtained at Watford's centenary celebrations. In a parade of former stars, Tony was partnered with another former keeper who started his career at Watford, Pat Jennings, his boyhood hero. "And I got his autograph," he says proudly.

As a child, Coton had to have his father stand behind the goal, for comfort. "I blamed myself for every goal conceded, even if it was blasted from seven yards," he said. "I would burst into tears. I carried that attitude right through into my career. I got to 28 before I stopped crying."

 

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