By Dave Messenger
The word "legend" is often used to describe former players, but how many of them truly are? What makes a legend? Heroic performances, for sure. Large numbers of appearances also count for much. For me, there's one extra ingredient and it's the biggest single thing that makes a respected and much-vaunted player into a legend. It is character, and Tony Coton had bags and bags of it.
Back in September 1984, the Golden Boys were struggling at the wrong end of the old First Division. Steve Sherwood was having a torrid time of it. Still haunted by the Andy Gray foul at Wembley some months earlier, he was beginning to look past his prime. GT moved into the market and splashed out three hundred grand on Birmingham City's keeper Tony Coton, he of the springy, curly hair and 'tache. Coton came to the club with a fearsome reputation as a hellraiser. The Brum side of the day was much like Trevor Francis' current rabble, physical and unpleasant to play against. Any team containing arch-cloggers like Mark Dennis, Pat Van Den Hauwe, Mick Harford and others was not to be messed with. Neither was TC.
His debut came against Gray and Everton at Vicarage Road. The obnoxious Toffeeman got a very bad reception, as you might expect. I can't say what went through Tony Coton's mind that day, but I'd like to think he knew how to win over his new public. What I do know is that the first time Coton and Gray went for the same ball, a well placed, gloved hand went straight into the smug Scottish striker's face. It wasn't all smiles on this day, as a real humdinger of a match finished 5-4 to the visitors. Coton must have walked off wondering what he had got into.
Alas, one thing he did get into was trouble. Coton arrived at Watford with a court case hanging over his head. He was staring at a prison term after some late night fisticuffs with his old drinking buddy Harford and a pub landlord. When the case came to court, GT appeared as a character witness and managed to keep the keeper out of a bit of porridge. As Coton himself said, getting him off was one of GT's best results. There was talk of many more drunken shenanigans and urban myths throughout his time at Watford, which only added to his lustre.
Despite all of this, Coton set about building a magical rapport with both the Vic Road faithful and with a recent addition to the side, John McClelland. Watford's defensive problems were at an end and the team was safely mid-table by the end of the season. Over the next few seasons, TC became one of the best keepers in the game. How he was overlooked by then England boss Bobby Robson was one of the biggest mysteries of the time.
Coton was one of those immense goalkeepers who simply commanded his penalty area and guarded his goal with his life. He was also extremely agile for a big man and able to make the hardest stops look like a training exercise. One of the traits of Coton's game I can easily recall would often seem to involve a young Nigel Gibbs. Having pulled off yet another super save, Coton would go straight into barking out his orders to the defenders and, more often than not, he would accompany that with a pat on the head or a ruffling of the hoofster's hair.
Far from just being an outstanding goalkeeper, Coton was often involved in moments of controversy on the pitch as well as off. Firstly, during the epic FA Cup Quarter Final Replay against Liverpool at the Vic. In the first match, Coton had been simply magnificent in keeping a clean sheet in a scoreless draw. In the replay, Watford led until the dying minutes until Ian Rush went clean through on goal. TC raced of his line and over went Rush with a triple pike. I'm sure the air around the big nosed Scouse striker turned blue, but Jan Molby slotted the resulting penalty home. Arse. Talking of Arse, at Highbury the following year a typical Coton volley of expletives aimed at a lino earned a red card from the infamous Bryan Stevens. Whatever the exact words used, GT was not happy and would have none of if when the FA appointed Stevens to the Quarter Final against the Gunners later that season, but that's another story.
As we well know, things changed in 1987. Dave Bassett broke up the side that had finished ninth the previous season but TC remained. As Barnes, Falco, Richardson and others all moved on, the faithful feared that "England's Number One" would be next. When Bassett dropped him in favour of the late Mel Rees at Christmas that year, the worst looked as if it would happen. He stayed though and regained his place. When relegation came along the rumours started again, but this man had a place reserved in the pantheon of Watford legends. He stayed despite relegation and despite the play-off defeat at the hands of Blackburn the following season and secured his legendary status by staying for the dreadful 1989-90 season as well.
That last season, Watford may not have been up to much as a team, but we certainly saw the very best of Tony Coton. No doubt about it, if he hadn't been in the Second Division with us he would have made the England squad. Damn it, he should have been in there anyway! Once there, I am convinced he would have replaced Peter Shilton after Italia '90 instead of Chris Woods. There are two games from that last season, at home to Leeds and West Ham, when Coton produced breathtakingly good displays. One save from the Leeds game is etched into my mind's eye. I can still see this simply stunning push over the bar from a diving header by Lee Chapman.
Eventually the move came. Watford's finest custodian moved for a million quid to Manchester City. The deserved England call-up came but he never got further than the squad and remained capless. He later moved on to Sunderland and returned to the Vic with the Mackems for a League Cup tie in 1996. The Vicarage Road stand stood and saluted as the familiar "Tony, Tony" chant rang round the ground as if he had never been away. When interviewed for "Clap Your Hands" in 1997, he said that "the reception brought a lump to my throat. Ever since I had left I had been waiting to return. I do miss the family atmosphere. The reception was fantastic". Now he is goalkeeping coach at Manchester United and can be regularly spotted chucking champagne around during their annual Premiership celebrations. You can't help but wonder what the cosmopolitan Fabian Bartez makes of his coach.
Tony Coton was a great goalkeeper, a hero, a character, and a loyal servant of the club.