Book Review: There To Be Shot At: The Autobiography of Tony Coton
There To Be Shot At
by Tony Coton
Published by De Coubertin Books
Cards on the table before we start: I’m not coming at this from an unbiased perspective. Perhaps this is no surprise; Tony Coton retired from playing twenty years ago and whilst he was a successful top flight goalkeeper this book is surely targeted squarely at supporters of Birmingham City, Watford (my team) and Manchester City, the clubs that accounted for all but 10 of his 500-odd senior starts. Few others would provide this review, perhaps.
Coton arrived at Vicarage Road in 1984 to replace Steve Sherwood as the Hornets’ first choice stopper. The young and impressionable amongst us rapidly concluded that he was a goalkeeper of unparalleled magnificence whose enduring neglect on the part of the England national team was both a mystery and an outrage. That’s the thing about being young and impressionable, strong statements come quick and easy. These ones also happened to be accurate.
Footballers’ autobiographies can be painfully heavy going, but reviewing this one for this site was never likely to be a hardship. Whilst Coton never did get his England cap despite touring with the squad – a subject much discussed in the book – his career was far from dull. He made his senior breakthrough at St. Andrews as part of a side managed by Ron Saunders that had a brutal and well-earned reputation. More than thirty years on the names of Mark Dennis, Noel Blake, Robert Hopkins, Pat van de Hauwe and Coton’s best buddy Mick Harford provoke a sharp intake of breath. Coton lived up to this reputation, and arrived at Vicarage Road with a charge of ABH – his second in twelve months – hanging over his head, and for a £300,000 that was at the time a princely fee for a goalkeeper. His six years at Watford saw him stick with the club on relegation in 1988 and win Player of the Season three times before returning to the top flight with City. After his playing career was ended through injury he became Manchester United’s first goalkeeping coach, staying at Old Trafford for ten years before being forced to retire.
As well as being an extraordinarily agile stopper, Coton was a formidable character. Distinctive in his perm and ‘tache, he ruled his penalty area with the same unsmiling bullishness that Peter Schmeichel would later adopt at Old Trafford. Even from the stands, he was a little bit scary. Not inconsistently there’s a blunt honesty about the way Coton walks you through his life. As accounts of his misadventures as a youngster pile up its difficult not to raise an eyebrow at protestations that it was the other guy that started it… except that equally frequently he holds his hands up and admits culpability. This came as no surprise… many years ago, when interviewing Coton for Watford’s match programme the same candour was evident; it goes without saying that this is a vital component in making this book the very readable account that it is. By the time he savages Danny Mills, that high priest of banal outrage, any neutral is likely to be well on side.
The other key component contributing to the success of this book is the skill with which the story has been told. Ghost-writer Simon Mullock surely takes credit here, but the personal nature of the detail that Coton relates suggests events well remembered, not “merely” well researched. I can judge this best with relation to the Watford chapters and events that are seared on my memory… Ian Rush’s dive to win a penalty, denying the Hornets of a Cup quarter final win over Liverpool in 1986 is one example. Coton’s sending off at the hands of Brian Stevens at Highbury later the same year is another (the subject of one particular piece of candour in that programme interview – he told me exactly what he’d called him). If the editing is occasionally careless – the world will never know what Noel Blake was dashing through passport control with on the way to Ibiza in 1982 – there’s a subtlety too, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about Coton’s rough treatment as a non-contract youngster at Villa and his subsequent attitude to youngsters without spelling it out in capital letters.
Most of all it’s compelling, interesting and, in dealing with the challenges Coton faced after football, an emotional read. Those who follow Blues, the Hornets or City will certainly enjoy it the most. Others won’t regret giving it a go.