“In comparison with some players, I’ve not won that many awards at Manchester City. Not as many as some of the great players, but I do think that this is one of the best. I’m absolutely delighted. Thank you” Joe Corrigan collecting the Hall of Fame award in January
Joe Corrigan’s City career is an inspirational story for any young goalkeeper. He achieved great success with the Blues and became a regular member of the England squad. However, there were also significant setbacks along the way which he overcame through determination and desire to prove himself. A very popular figure, Joe was idolised by the Maine Road faithful.
Manchester-born Joe went to Sale Grammar School and enjoyed participating in sporting activities, however the school curriculum put more emphasis on Rugby than football and Joe’s opportunities to develop as a footballer were limited. However he did excel as a second row forward for the school rugby team. This must have helped improve his general co-ordination and ball handling skills, even if the ball was a different shape.
After school he became an apprentice at AEI and played for their football team, sometimes as a centre-half. A colleague was particularly impressed with his general aptitude for the game and suggested he should have a trial at Maine Road. One thing led to another and a trial was organised for him. Joe: “City signed me that night, after my first trial. It was the sort of situation you would never have today.”
It was manager Joe Mercer who signed Joe as an amateur in September 1966. Joe remembers fondly this period of his goalkeeping career and of the roles played by Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison in setting the right environment: “There was such a great atmosphere and the best thing about Malcolm Allison was that he treated every player the same. It didn’t matter if you were in the first team, or the B team. I was only a kid but I could tell Malcolm was a great coach. He was more like another player than management. Joe used to be the front man – the ambassador. He was the manager and we all knew it. Together the pair worked perfectly.”
First Team Debut
On 25th January 1967 Joe turned professional. A little over eight months later, an injury to regular ‘keeper Harry Dowd, coupled with new signing Ken Mulhearn being cup tied, allowed Joe to make his first team debut in the 3rd Round League Cup tie against Blackpool on 11th October 1967. Clearly, his elevation to the first team a month before his 19th birthday was a major test and, for City, a major gamble but the Blues had no real choice. The game itself ended in a 1-1 draw with some reports suggesting a more experienced ‘keeper would have saved the Blackpool goal, however Joe retained his place for the replay a week later and City defeated the Seasiders 2-0.
At this stage of his career it was inevitable that Joe’s spell as number one was a temporary one and for the fourth round League Cup tie a fit Harry Dowd returned to action, while Ken Mulhearn had established himself as the first choice for League games (he had signed for the Blues in September 1967).
Mercer & Allison had found it difficult determining which ‘keeper – Mulhearn or Dowd – was their number one. Injuries, inconsistencies and nerves all seemed to play their part in limiting each player’s spell. Mulhearn made most appearances during the 1967-8 League Championship winning season, while Dowd seemed to be the preferred choice during 1968-9. Joe was really the third choice and this made it difficult for the young ‘keeper to be given first team experience. Joe was determined to learn and had a spell away from Manchester. Joe: “I had three months on loan at Shrewsbury under Harry Gregg, the ex-United ‘keeper. Even though I only played reserve games, I learned so much. Harry was tremendous, a man who knows what keeping is all about and who was one of the all-time greats himself. Up until then, my career had been at a stalemate. Within a couple of months of coming back, I made my full League debut.”
Joe’s full League debut in a 2-1 defeat at City’s bogey team Ipswich Town on 11th March 1969. He made three further appearances that season – 1-0 defeats at mid table Nottingham Forest and eventual Champions Leeds United, and then a 1-0 victory over Liverpool on the last day of the season – although City’s fortunes varied, it’s fair to say the ‘keeper played well. This was Joe’s first clean sheet in the League: “Those games gave me the chance to really show what I can do. Luckily, I did okay and the next season, with a lot of pushing from Malcolm, I was City’s first choice.”
Joe’s progress was relatively rapid, especially when full consideration is given to the fact that Ken Mulhearn had been bought by Mercer & Allison to be the first choice. Joe was still only 20 when the 1969-70 season began and the Blues were proving to be the most successful side in the Country. It is very unusual for any side at the height of its power to make such a young ‘keeper their number one choice, especially when that side already possessed two established medal-winning ‘keepers.
The opening game of the 1969-70 season saw the Blues beat Sheffield Wednesday 4-1 and Malcolm Allison started to tell the media and anyone else who cared to listen that Joe would be “as great as Swift”. Most thought this was typical Allison hyperbole but over the years Joe would find himself rated in the same bracket as Swift and Trautmann. He would also go on to become one of the Club’s longest servants.
On 15th November 1969 Joe played in his first Manchester Derby match. It was a thrilling 4-0 victory for the Blues and was summed up by the Manchester United reporter David Meek as the most one-sided Derby of all time. That wasn’t exactly true, but for Joe it was a significant match, watched by over 63,000 at Maine Road, and the first of his 26 derbies – no other City player has matched that total.
Roy of the Rovers
1969-70 was a rather mixed season in the League with the Blues finishing a disappointing tenth. However, in knock-out competitions City ruled, reaching two finals – the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Joe’s progression was moving at a pace no one could have predicted and he played a significant part as City won both trophies: “Both finals were tremendous thrills. Real ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. The League Cup win over West Bromwich Albion especially. Here I was, three years after playing Sunday football and school rugby, at Wembley.”
Those successes were followed by a call-up to the England u-23 squad to play the USSR and Joe appeared to be on the verge of a truly great career. Then Joe played exceptionally well during the first leg of the 1971 ECWC semi-final with Chelsea. It seemed nothing could go wrong, then disaster struck when he was injured and replaced for the second leg of the ECWC tie. The Blues lost – Joe’s replacement, Ron Healey, was credited with an own goal – and City’s chance of success was over.
Joe continued to be the preferred number one for the next couple of seasons, however criticism was starting to be directed at him. Mistakes made him an easy target for supporters who were expected more and, at one point, it was reported that Joe dreaded the thought of playing at Maine Road. There were even suggestions he was thinking about giving up on the game. He certainly did not get an easy ride and nobody seemed to think about his great contribution during City’s great 1969-70 season. Joe: “It’s a part of football that will never go away. I have no bitterness about it. In fact, I think I was lucky because the press were a little kinder back then. They would lay off a bit. I would hate to go through the same thing now. My view was that I was paid to do a job to the best of my ability. At times that wasn’t good enough to get into the first team and I accepted that. It’s alright moaning in the press or whatever, but you can’t hide – especially in goal!”
Scottish under-23 international ‘keeper Keith MacRae was signed in October 1973 for £100,000 and Joe’s time as first-choice seemed over, especially as MacRae was two years younger than Joe and deemed a much better prospect. Joe: “I went on the transfer list in response to that signing. After all it equalled the record for a goalkeeper at the time.”
However, Joe’s chance was to come again just as it looked likely he would have to leave Maine Road to resurrect his career. Joe: “One thing that was a big help happened in 1973-74 when I broke my jaw and had it wired up for three weeks. I lost about a stone in that time and felt really fit when I came back. That played a big part in keeping me down to 14-14.5 stone – my ideal playing weight.”
Back on Form
A spell over Christmas 1974 didn’t really show Joe at his best, but the following March MacRae was injured and had to leave the field in a match with Leicester. With no goalkeeping substitutes in those days, Mike Doyle went in nets, but for the following match Joe’s opportunity to shine came again. The player was determined that if this was his City swansong he would give it his best shot: “You have these situations in football and have to battle away. If you give up, you not only lose the club you are at, you carry a reputation as a quitter. I was determined to at least go down fighting.”
Joe played the final ten games of the 1974-75 season and, although results were mixed, both fans and the media were impressed with his form. The following season opened with him as City’s first choice and in February 1976 he played in City’s great League Cup final success over Newcastle: “I thought this was the start of another great team at City. Dave Watson proved what a commanding centre-half he was that season. As a keeper it made such a difference playing behind two great centre-halves like Dave and Mike Doyle at Wembley. I remember the feeling of disbelief after I saw Dennis Tueart’s incredible winner. Twelve months earlier I had been told I was useless. Here I was – a Wembley winner! It just shows what you can do if you’re prepared to work at it.”
The amazing turnaround in Joe’s career was the talk of football for a while and City fans fully appreciated the efforts their ‘keeper had made to re-establish himself. Supporters voted him their player of the year in 1976 – an amazing accolade considering the achievements of the other truly great players in the squad that season – and at long last the likeable ‘keeper had established himself as one of City’s best stars. Further supporter player of the year awards followed in 1978 and 1980 but the biggest honour of the seventies had to be Joe’s selection for England only a few months after the 1976 League Cup final.
England were playing in the US as part of a Bicentennial tournament and Joe’s opportunity came on 28th May in New York when he came on as substitute at half time for Jimmy Rimmer: “At half-time of the Italy game Les Cocker, the trainer, told me to get stripped and come on as sub. We were 2-0 down at the time and, while I’m not saying I had anything to do with it, we won 3-2!”
Joe went on to make a total of nine appearances for England but neutrals recognise that in any other era his tally would have been much higher and he would have been given more opportunity. England at this time possessed several fine ‘keepers – Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton, and Phil Parkes – and manager Ron Greenwood tended to share the number one position between Clemence and Shilton, with Joe the third choice. Clemence was the more experienced of the three and was also playing regularly in Europe with Liverpool, as was Joe with City, while Shilton had been more used to relegation dog fights with Stoke at the time of Joe’s debut. His last appearance for England came on 9th June 1982 when he was 33 years old.
In 1981 Joe made another appearance in a Wembley Cup Final. City lost the 100th FA Cup final in a replay to Tottenham, but Joe had received tremendous praise for his performance in both matches. The Blues had also been very unlucky to lose the League Cup semi-final with Liverpool that same season.
Less than two years after Wembley, Joe left City. He had become City’s elder statesman and a much respected figure but the Blues had started to struggle financially. Expensive and largely unsuccessful transfers – City were the first side to buy three £1m plus players – during the late seventies and early eighties impacted City’s ability to develop, and when the struggles came senior players had to be sacrificed. Defeats against Southampton in the League Cup during November 1982 and Brighton in the FA Cup the following January meant the Blues were out of contention for any trophy. Manager John Bond left and his deputy John Benson was left in charge. Joe: “I knew I was on my way. With the Club’s financial position City couldn’t afford to keep the higher paid players. It was very sad to leave.”
Joe was transferred for a surprisingly low £30,000 to Seattle Sounders in the North American Soccer League in March 1983 after making an overall total of 592 League, cup and European appearances – second only to record holder Alan Oakes. He later returned to England with Brighton, and went on loan to Norwich and Stoke.
During the 1990s he became a highly sought after goalkeeping coach. In 2004, after spending several years at Anfield working for a variety of managers, Ian Rush asked Joe to become goalkeeping coach at Chester City.
Joe will be remembered for a very long time as true Blue hero. He is typical of the type of determined, hard-working players the fans love to watch, and his consistency during the late 70s and early 80s helped the Blues enormously as they strove to find success both at home and in Europe. As with Trautmann and Swift before him, many games were won – or salvaged – simply because of the ‘keeper’s committed performances.