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The Great Uncapped – Tony Coton

In the latest of our occasional recollections of players who would miss out on a full England cap, we turn the spotlight on goalkeeper Tony Coton. He would have the misfortune to be around at a time when England were blessed with goalkeeping options, with his past also being a factor in why he would never get his big chance…

Go back a few decades and English football was not exactly short of goalkeeping options. Far more were in contention than the number who would get to represent their country. Between Gordon Banks earning his final cap in 1972 and Nigel Martyn making his debut 20 years later, just 10 men would keep goal for England. And half of those – Gary Bailey, Dave Beasant, Phil Parkes, Jimmy Rimmer and Nigel Spink – would collect a mere seven caps between them. Peter Shilton would, by contrast, appear a record 125 times for his country.

But while those five men would only briefly figure, they could at least feel pride that they’d represented England at senior level. Because plenty of their contemporaries wouldn’t be so lucky. The likes of Paul Cooper, John Lukic and Steve Ogrizovic would notably miss out – and the list went on. Numerous goalkeepers who played regular top-flight football – Mervyn Day, Martin Hodge, Les Sealey and plenty of others – would have their fans who believed they were good enough to earn at least one full England cap. And in another era they may well have done.

But one goalkeeper’s name crops up perhaps more than others among the uncapped Englishmen. Tony Coton would be regarded as a trusted man between the sticks for clubs including Birmingham City, Watford and Manchester City. But the reputation he’d established off the field as a young player would be hard to shake off. His past would become a factor in why Coton remained a member of the Great Uncapped.

A goalkeeping talent

From the moment 19-year-old Coton saved a penalty with his first touch in the Football League for Birmingham City against Sunderland at Christmas 1980 it was clear that he was a talent. And the ensuing years would see him enhance that reputation. While impressing at Watford in 1985-86 he would come into the reckoning for England’s World Cup squad.

With Bailey contending with injury woes – something that would sadly end his career a year later – Bobby Robson was looking for a potential replacement to accompany Shilton and Chris Woods on the trip to Mexico. Coton seemingly ticked the boxes. He was established in the First Division but with his best years still in front of him. While he almost certainly wouldn’t have played, going to the World Cup as third choice goalkeeper would have represented a good learning curve for the future and he possessed enough ability to keep Shilton and Woods on their toes.

Except there was a pretty sizeable snag. Not long after arriving at Watford in 1984 he had received a prison sentence, suspended for two years, for ABH – a fate that he would acknowledge could have been worse but for a generous character reference given in court by his club manager Graham Taylor, who entrusted his goalkeeper to become a reformed character. Coton duly become just that, but his past would be impossible to shake off.

He had been part of a lively group of young men at Birmingham, with whom there were few dull moments off the pitch. This is not a case of dishing the dirt on Coton, for in his autobiography, published in 2017, he discusses such matters at some length and the impact they may have had on his international prospects.

And so Robson was left to discount Coton from his plans. “I could hardly select a young man with a suspended prison sentence hanging over his head,” he wrote in his World Cup Diary, acknowledging the strict code of conduct that was in place at the time when it came to international selection. Ultimately Bailey was given the green light to go to Mexico and Sheffield Wednesday’s Hodge – another man never capped by England – was put on stand-by. Coton had missed out this time but there would surely be more opportunities in the future…

A waiting game

But come the 1990 World Cup in Italy, nothing had changed. Coton hadn’t been capped and his prospects weren’t helped by the fact Watford were now playing in the Second Division. His reputation remained strong enough, but there was still no call from England.

But that summer would bring three developments that suddenly led to him believing he was in with a shout of a call-up. Shilton retired from international duty after the World Cup; Coton returned to the top-flight with Manchester City; and, perhaps most significantly, Taylor was appointed England manager. This was a man who had reportedly tried to sign Coton at Aston Villa a year earlier and genuinely recognised what a goalkeeping talent he was. Surely Coton would be seriously in his England plans.

The goalkeeper certainly had England in his thoughts as he made the move to Maine Road, saying to the press at the time: “I was a big fish in a small pond at Watford and, now I am at a bigger club, I feel I can press my claims for the England squad.” In his first season at Maine Road he helped Manchester City finish above Manchester United for the only time between 1978 and 2012 and he duly worked his way into the England set-up.

With David Seaman not going, Coton and Martyn would be the deputies to Woods on England’s end of season tour. A long haul to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia would see England take established squad members but also some international novices and, with four games in store against moderate opposition, it seemed like each player in the England party could get game time.

But it wouldn’t work out that way for the goalkeepers, Coton and Martyn making their way to the opposite side of the world just to sit on the bench as Woods played every game. Coton wrote: “I returned with jet-lag and a few bottles of duty-free, but nothing I could give pride of place on the wall of my study.” His non-selection would increase his curiosity over why he wasn’t being given a chance.

An unwanted man

There was speculation Coton could be picked for a friendly against Germany in September after he’d given a particularly impressive performance for Manchester City at Norwich City. But it again came to nothing and the only England appearance of any sort he actually made was in a B international against France in February 1992 at Loftus Road.

He remained on the fringes, his last involvement in an England squad being Taylor’s final match away to San Marino in November 1993. By then Martyn and Tim Flowers had made their England debuts, as Coton was left reflecting upon what he’d done wrong. His luck with England was summed up by his car being stolen on one occasion when he was away on international duty.

He would conclude that his past was the major factor in why he would never be capped, not least after Taylor told Coton he was under instruction from the FA hierarchy not to pick him. “Apparently there was no such thing as a rehabilitated criminal as far as the men in suits at Lancaster Gate were concerned,” wrote Coton, adding the approach smacked of hypocrisy given Tony Adams was able to resume his England career after serving a prison sentence.

But Coton would discover a twist to the story more than 20 years after he’d last been in an England squad, revealing in his book what he was told in 2016 by former England coaching staff member Steve Harrison. According to Harrison, Manchester City’s chairman and FA bigwig Peter Swales “put the squeeze on Graham” not to pick Coton as they would have to pay Watford an extra £350,000 bonus if he made a senior England appearance. The story would bemuse Coton, given it went against the usual principles Taylor would apply when it came to being in control over team selections.

With Swales and Taylor having both passed away, the matter remains shrouded in mystery but only adds to Coton’s sense of frustration over the England non-selections. If Harrison’s recollection of events was accurate then it’s another reminder of just how different Manchester City as a club were in the Swales era to now. Coton was indeed a man who seemed to be around at the wrong time.

Coton, who was one of the few players to move directly from Manchester City to Manchester United after falling out of favour at Maine Road, would later return to Old Trafford as goalkeeping coach after his playing career was ended by injury at Sunderland. No less a judge than Sir Alex Ferguson would recognise Coton’s qualities and he considered any misdemeanours to be long in the past and irrelevant. Sadly for Coton, he was left feeling there wasn’t such a forgiving attitude from those in authority at the FA when it came to winning that cherished England cap.

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Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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