Following the successful redeployment of Jake Livermore as a centre back on Saturday, we remember five other occasions where City players were forced into unfamiliar roles, with some more successful than others…
1: Andy Dawson – right back
It is pretty much footballing law that left-footed players, and especially left backs, should look unbalanced and foolish would they ever find themselves in the position of having to manoeuvre the ball with their right foot. Peter Taylor was famously so obsessed with specialist left backs that he had at least two, sometimes three, at his disposal during his time in charge at City.
Dawson, almost definitely the best left back in the club’s history, was nothing less than hugely comfortable in his natural position. Whether he was delivering set pieces, nutmegging lower division wingers of limited ability or clean tackling Theo Walcott, his left foot was as versatile as a digestive biscuit and never let down him, or us, or any of his six managers. His right foot, however, was not exactly extensive in its usefulness, as we all found out during an injury crisis at the start of the 2007/08 promotion season when all senior right backs were unavailable.
Phil Brown took a mighty risk in switching Dawson’s flank, presumably deciding that a right-sided Dawson was less of a liability-in-waiting than a right-sided Damien Delaney, but it spectacularly didn’t work, with Dawson horribly ill-at-ease, unbalanced, frightened even, in all three games, although City only lost one of them. The return after suspension and injury of Sam Ricketts restored the status quo and Dawson never had to concern himself with such tricky tactics again, and nobody would have been more relieved than him.
2: Ken Houghton – defensive midfielder
Houghton was such a great footballer that he really could have played anywhere, as long as he had possession of the ball. He was an outstanding, consistent inside forward, scheming around and behind Messrs Chilton and Wagstaff, feeding them both gilt-edged chances, serving the wingers and scoring plenty of goals of his own. But a new role was thrust upon him with some urgency in February 1966 as Nottingham Forest, of the First Division, travelled to Boothferry Park for an FA Cup tie.
On the morning of the game, midfield lynchpin Chris Simpkin pulled a muscle, and so manager Cliff Britton began ringing round the reserves, seeking a like-for-like replacement. He phoned Les Collinson and Len Sharpe, only to learn that one was in bed with ‘flu and the other already driving to the stiffs’ match against Scunthorpe in his car. Britton considered a debut for bright teenage midfielder Malcolm Lord, part of the junior side that had won the Northern Intermediate League the previous season, but then instead chose to disrupt his usually unimpeachable forward line, and shift Houghton back into midfield.
It couldn’t have worked better. In fact, it worked twice over – Houghton totally ran the game from his deeper-lying position, controlling the flow and pace and receiving more touches than anyone else, while his replacement higher up the pitch, the unheralded Terry Heath, scored both goals in City’s 2-0 win. It was a one-off tactic for a one-off occasion caused by a one-off injury, and became one of the definitive games of Britton’s tenure as manager and City’s brilliant season, which saw them crowned Third Division champions while reaching the FA Cup quarter finals.
3: Junior Lewis – centre forward
Only happened once, which most would think was enough. This squarest of pegs failed to convince an awful lot of City fans wherever he played, and disbelieving laughter could be heard in the pubs around the Circle when he was named as a striker for a home game against Chesterfield in October 2004.
Peter Taylor’s belief in Lewis was unshakeable, however, and it was repaid by a stout, disciplined, hard-working performance up top in which the gangly twerp held the ball up well and set up the game’s only goal for Stuart Green. At the time, City had centre forwards who were either injured or chronically off-form, and spent the entire season – which still ended in promotion – relying on Stuart Elliott to blooter them in from the wing. So putting Lewis up front was far from stupid.
He played there again a couple of further times as a sub, but that one occasion against the Spireites will live very long in the memory and is as good a reminder as any that managers are managers for a reason, and fans aren’t.
4: Peter Skipper – goalkeeper
The prospect of any outfield player going in goal these days is bordering on ludicrous. It would take two incidents of injury or dismissal, or both, to force any side to look to someone else to act as custodian. But the idea of an outfield player actually starting a match in that position at professional level could be close to unique, certainly within any modern era of the game. But that’s what happened back in November 1986.
For away games that weren’t in the league, City didn’t often take a reserve keeper along, which sounds crazy today, not least because such games are actively used as tryouts for reserve keepers as a matter of course. In the 1980s, however, Tony Norman’s place was non-negotiable, and the man himself seemingly uninjurable. Tiny knocks, twisted fingers, head wounds, bruised elbows – all were sorted out between matches and he had been literally irreplaceable for four years. The most brutal of lower division centre forwards couldn’t get him off the park, so it was left to a coach to do it instead.
Not a human coach, mind. Dennis Booth or Tom Wilson are innocent here; they had no part to play in Norman injuring his back prior to a midweek Full Members Cup second round tie at Southampton. The coach responsible was of the motorised variety; City’s incomparable Welsh keeper had finally been crocked by a hardened seat that had, after a long, inactive trip to Hampshire, tweaked a back muscle. Had it been a league game, one of reserve keeper John Davies (who himself was about to quit through injury) or youth prospect Gavin Kelly (who had yet to play a first team game) would probably have travelled, but it wasn’t, and they hadn’t. So centre back Peter Skipper, who’d messed about in goal during training sessions and in his schooldays, was given the green jersey.
This wasn’t the only thing that made the game significant – Garry Parker scored his first City goal in the 2-1 defeat, Leigh Jenkinson made his first team debut and the Tigers would never visit the Dell again – but it really was all about a defender playing in goal from the start. Peter Shilton, probably the best keeper in the world at the time, was at the other end. You can barely begin to imagine what the two of them smalltalked about as they tapped gloves on the halfway line.
Four days later Skipper was back in defence and Norman was back in goal. It was the only first team game he would miss in five years and eight months, although as it was in a long-forgotten and now defunct competition, a lot of people think it doesn’t actually count. Well it does.
5: Alan Fettis – centre forward
If you think a defender playing as a goalkeeper is nutty, try a goalkeeper coming on as a substitute striker. And intentionally so, with tactics and everything.
And then scoring.
And then, six months later, starting a game as a striker.
And scoring again.