The Starting Eleven – Tommy Caton

It’s the 40th anniversary of the 1981 FA Cup final on May 9 and ten years ago, as we looked forward to Manchester City appearing in the 2011 FA Cup final, I was asked by the Manchester Evening News to write profiles of the eleven players who started the 1981 final.

For the next few days I will post those profiles, one a day, free to read here. These will only be free to view until May 16, so please read them while you can. Thanks.

Here’s the latest (appearing here as it was written in 2011)…

As we look forward to the 2011 FA Cup final, Gary James takes a look at the eleven players who made the starting line-up for City’s last FA Cup final in 1981.  Today, centre-back Tommy Caton.

Together with Nicky Reid (aged 20), 18 year old Tommy Caton made history by forming the youngest pair of centre-backs ever seen in the FA Cup final when they played at Wembley in 1981.  Despite their age both had been playing first team football for a couple of seasons with Caton managing 12 first team appearances before his 17th birthday.  

Caton was actually the fourth ever youngest City player when he made his debut on the opening day of the 1979-80 season.  The media and most supporters thought pre-match that this was one of Malcolm Allison’s more off-the-wall selections.  In fact Allison had wanted to play the defender in the first team the previous season, but claimed he had been prevented from doing so by the school authorities because of Caton’s age.

All suggestions that the 16 year old’s debut was an Allison-gimmick were soon proved false.  Caton helped City keep a clean sheet and his assured performance proved he thoroughly deserved the chance.  The defender retained his place for the rest of the season and, together with Joe Corrigan, Caton was an ever-present in all competitions that season.

Shortly after his 17th birthday, Caton gave his view of his career to date:  “I came to City in March 1978, signing on associate schoolboy forms and then started a full time apprenticeship in July, this year.  It was a bit strange to say the least when I played in my first few games.  I think the biggest tests have been against Arsenal, at Highbury, facing Stapleton and Sunderland.  Plus the match against Forest when it was Woodcock and Birtles.”

He struggled with injury a little during 1980-81 – a chipped ankle bone caused him to miss a period of what became a crucial season – yet he recovered in time to play a major part in John Bond’s Wembley bound side.  

Although the Daily Mail described Caton as “City’s inspiring young defender” in their match report of the cup final replay, the positive aspects of his contribution were soon overlooked as Ricky Villa’s goal became the media’s defining incident.  On his way to goal the Spurs player passed the 18 year old Caton twice, as well as others, and the media proclaimed it as a truly great goal.  City Manager John Bond was not impressed:  “I bet if Keith Burkinshaw [Spurs] had been in my place he wouldn’t have said it was a good goal.  He seemed to beat six or seven people in the space of four yards or so.”

It is worth recalling that Caton had an unusual claim to fame by becoming the first man to be booked twice in one final – he was booked in both the first game and the replay.

In March 1982 he created another record when he became the youngest player ever to appear in 100 League games for any club.  He was also, by this point, regularly tipped to become a full England international, but City’s relegation in 1983 suggested Caton needed to move to progress his career. 

In November 1983 he was sold to Arsenal after rumours that he stood little chance of playing for England while playing for a northern Second Division side.  Worth noting though that the Blues desperately needed the £500,000 fee they received, and so he was encouraged to make that move.    

Caton’s move south was not the success everybody hoped.  After only 95 League and Cup appearances with the Gunners – a developing Tony Adams was challenging him – he became Oxford’s captain.  

Early in 1993 he was forced to announce his retirement after a serious foot injury while playing for Charlton required repeated surgery.  That April he died suddenly at the age of 30 of a heart-attack. 

Of all the players who appeared in the 1981 final, Caton was the one expected to have the greatest footballing career ahead of him.  Sadly, the potential was never really fulfilled.  Caton should however always be remembered as a highly talented defender who, by the age of 17 was easily able to outperform some of the game’s biggest names.

Caton had enormous talent and ability, but ultimately so little time. 

NOTE: Tommy Caton’s son Andy made 13 appearances for Swindon Town between 2004-2007 before damaging his skull in a car accident.  A spell at Bath and Weymouth (in 2009) followed.

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