Coventry City: A fall from grace

Coventry City relegation

With Coventry City just one game away from the Premier League, facing Luton Town at Wembley on Saturday, it felt like a good time to rerun this old piece from our sister site Tale of Two Halves.

Football’s a funny old game. At least in the mind of Jimmy Greaves. Try telling that to Coventry City fans as they dwell on the very real possibility that this could be their club’s last season in the Football League.

The club should be celebrating their 100th year in the English Football League this season but an ongoing legal dispute between the Sky Blues’ owners Sisu, Premiership rugby club Wasps and Coventry City Council, could spell the end of league football for the Midlands outfit.

Coventry City left their former home of 106 years, Highfield Road, for the Ricoh Arena back in 2005 but have faced uncertain times since. In 2007, they were 20 minutes from entering administration and despite leaving the Ricoh in 2013 for a groundshare with Northampton Town, they returned a season later.

Embed from Getty Images

Protests against club owners and general off-field problems have haunted the club since and now the EFL have given the club a 2 April deadline to provide a detailed plan for where they will play their home games for the 2019/2020 season.

Should they fail to satisfy EFL regulations, a meeting of all 92 member clubs will be called to decide the club’s fate, with expulsion from the football league on the table.

With a heavy shadow hanging over the club, we decided to take a look back to happier times – the 1990s and Premier League football.

The short-lived glory days

As the club entered the 1990s they had become a powerhouse of sorts at football’s top table. Never among the top six, but always doing enough to stay above the breadline.

A shock 1987 FA Cup Final victory against Tottenham Hotspur had brought a first, and to this day, only major trophy, as John Sillett and George Curtis’ side saw off the talents of Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, and Ossie Ardiles. An extra-time own goal from Gary Mabbutt sent the Sky Blues wild but a European ban for English clubs in the wake of the Heysel disaster prevented Coventry taking their place in the Cup Winners Cup in 1987-88.

Embed from Getty Images

As top-flight football entered a new dawn at the end of the 1991/92 season, Coventry survived relegation by two points and took their place in the inaugural season of the Premier League.

Bobby Gould’s men far exceeded expectation as they got off to a flying start with six wins from their opening eight games, leaving them in second place.

John Williams and Peter Ndlovu had Highfield Road buzzing under the lights but as the wheels came off in the run-up to Christmas, the Sky Blues slipped to ninth.

Just shy of 20,000 watched in awe as Micky Quinn and Brian Borrows put, first, Liverpool (5-1) to the sword, before following up with a 3-0 victory against Aston Villa to keep City in touching distance of a European slot.

The sale of Robert Rosario to Nottingham Forest in January was followed by Kevin Gallacher’s £1.5m switch to Blackburn Rovers in March and the goals dried up. Just eight goals came from their remaining 11 games, leaving the club down the table in 15th, and a 3-3 final-day draw with Leeds United ensuring Premier League survival.

For the four previous seasons, Coventry had been tipped for relegation and despite the same axe hovering over their head again, they started the 1993/94 season in scintillating form. A Micky Quinn hat-trick stunned the Gunners at Highbury on the opening day and an eight-game unbeaten run began.

Embed from Getty Images

But as was now customary for quick-starting City, the wheels began to come off. It still came as a surprise to everyone in football when Gould tendered his resignation after losing 5-1 away to QPR. Bolton Wanderers’ Phil Neal was appointed the manager, tasked with survival.

Ndlovu and Dublin: a partnership to be proud of 

Zimbabwean Ndlovu was making a name for himself at the club and his tally of 11 goals aided Neal’s cause as the Sky Blues rocketed up the table late in the season to finish a worthy 11th. Wins against Ipswich Town, Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers, and Chelsea in the final weeks of the season showed a defiant side to Neal’s men, and hope for long-suffering City fans.

Striker Dion Dublin was signed from Manchester United for £2m in the close season but hopes of another quick-start were squandered as City lost three of their opening five matches. Dublin grabbed his maiden goal in a 2-2 draw at QPR before firing in the winner against Leeds United in mid-September as City recorded their first win of the season.

Dublin formed a formidable partnership with Ndlovu as Coventry claimed five wins from their next 10 games but, again, the bubble burst and an 11-game winless run saw them slip from 10th to 18th.

Embed from Getty Images

A 2-0 away win marked Neal’s last game in charge as Ron Atkinson was brought in as his successor, with Gordon Strachan coming in as his assistant. An unbeaten run helped the Sky Blues move clear of the relegation places and in one of the most remarkable results in the club’s history, Ndlovu scored a hat-trick as City defeated Liverpool 3-2 at Anfield.

Additional wins came against Sheffield Wednesday and Spurs but a poor run to the end of the season left Atkinson’s men in 16th. Clear of relegation and survival achieved.

There was little to celebrate for City fans in the 1995/96 season as they mustered just eight wins from their 38 games. In a forgetful season for Atkinson’s men, the highlights included another victory against Liverpool – this time courtesy of Noel Whelan – and a 5-0 home drubbing of Blackburn Rovers.

Ingrained in the memory of all football fans though will be the horrifying injury sustained by David Busst at Old Trafford on 8 April 1996. While challenging for a corner Busst went in for a tackle with both Denis Irwin and Brian McClair and came off the worse with extensive fractures to his tibia and fibula.

Despite 26 operations, Busst never returned to the professional game and retired from football six months later. A dark day not only for City fans but football fans the world over. The only glimmer for the club was their final day salvation effort in which they avoided relegation – again – on goal difference with a 0-0 draw against Leeds United.

I believe in miracles

Having dodged a bullet on the last day, investment was needed and Atkinson moved fast to sign up Gary McAllister (£3.5m) from Leeds United, while Newcastle United’s Darren Huckerby (£1m) and Gary Breen (£2.5m) from Birmingham City joined midway through the season.

A horrible start to the season saw 11 goals shipped with just one McAllister goal as City lost four of their opening five games. A 2-1 home win against Leeds was followed with six successive draws as the Sky Blues stopped the rot but it wasn’t enough to save Atkinson’s job.

He was moved to a Director of Football role in early November as Strachan became player-manager. An upturn in fortunes led to one of Coventry’s best spells in their Premier League history as they recorded four-straight victories.

With Huckerby finding his scoring boots and Dublin continuing to drag City up the table, contributions from the spot came the way of McAllister as home wins against Newcastle United and Middlesbrough bookended away wins at Leicester City and Leeds United.

Embed from Getty Images

As New Year 1997 began, Coventry had pulled five points clear of relegation. In a disastrous run to the end of the season, the Highfield Road side managed just three wins from their next 17 games. Entering the final day, a miracle was needed at White Hart Lane.

Two points from safety but still just three points from Southampton in 16th place, the Sky Blues headed south to London, to take on Spurs, who had nothing to play for in mid-table. Even if they won, they needed other results to go their way.

With just 12 minutes on the clock, Aston Villa took the lead against Southampton, and as if reacting to the news, Dublin headed home a McAllister cross to give Coventry the perfect start. When Paul Williams volleyed home a McAllister corner on 39 minutes to make it 2-0, the survival miracle was becoming a very real prospect.

However, a Sunderland or Middlesbrough victory could still relegate Strachan’s men, even if Southampton lost. At half-time, Coventry were safe, despite Paul McVeigh pulling a goal back for Spurs. The score would remain the same until the final whistle at White Hart Lane but it was a nervy final 10 minutes for the away fans as they sought news of their relegation rivals.

But when the news arrived that Sunderland had lost at Wimbledon and Middlesbrough could only manage a 1-1 draw at Leeds, Strachan and Coventry had done the unthinkable and escaped the clutches of the Grim Reaper once more.

Despite their survival, Ndlovu was sold to Birmingham City for £1.6m, with Eoin Jess and Regis Genaux also leaving in the same transfer window.

An upturn in fortunes

Having completed mission impossible, Strachan was kept on as manager for the 1997/98 season and Coventry started the season with a statement of intent – a 3-2 away win at Chelsea, courtesy of a Dion Dublin hat-trick.

Finishing as top scorer with 13, 14 and 13 goals in his previous three seasons, Dublin had become a household name and hero at Highfield Road. His goals would be crucial to another season in the top flight.

Embed from Getty Images

Despite their opening-day triumph at Chelsea though, City had to wait until mid-September to taste victory again, ending a four-game winless streak at home to Southampton.

It was to be a season of consolidation for Strachan’s side as they drew a staggering 16 matches from the 38 scheduled. Huckerby had replaced Ndlovu as Dublin’s strike partner and proved a worthy addition.

And in a game that will always stick in my mind from the 1997/98 season was the duo putting Manchester United to the sword at Highfield Road.

Noel Whelan struck first as the hosts took a 12th-minute lead but United weren’t a side that took well to going behind and were level after half an hour as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer danced past the City defence and slotted home.

Teddy Sheringham put United ahead on 47 minutes but Huckerby and Dublin tore up the script to take the headlines. It was Dublin who levelled the match from the penalty spot with just four minutes to go, and surely all the home fans were praying they would hold out for a 2-2 draw.

Step up Darren Huckerby. Collecting the ball in midfield, Huckerby ghosted past Gary Neville and weaved into the box before firing beyond Kevin Pilkington in the United goal to secure all three points. Needless to say, the celebrations were on point.

Five successive wins saw Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace overwhelmed 5-1 and 3-0 respectively as City climbed up the table in February, but five draws from their last six games meant the European dream was agonisingly close, but just out of reach in 11th place.

Dublin’s 18 league-goal haul secured him a big-money move to Aston Villa in November 1998 as Coventry endured their worst start to the Premier League since its inception with just two wins from their opening 10 games.

Back-to-back wins against Blackburn Rovers and Everton lifted the Sky Blues to 15th in the league but just three points from their next seven games kept them in the mix at the wrong end of the table, seeing out 1998 in 17th position.

Huckerby scored a hat-trick as relegation rivals Nottingham Forest were steamrollered 4-0 and Liverpool were the next to succumb under the Highfield lights as they were defeated 2-1, goals coming from George Boateng and Whelan.

A mixed bag of results towards the end of the season ensured Premier League survival, City were no longer relying on final-day miracles to maintain their top-flight stay.

Big plans for a new stadium

As the 1990s came to a close, Coventry were planning big. News of a new stadium – the Ricoh Arena – to be built for the 2002 season, was announced, and before the 1999/2000 season began, Strachan had a double-Moroccan signing in Youssef Chippo (£1.2m) and Mustapha Hadji (£4m).

Wolves starlet Robbie Keane was bought for £6m in a then-British transfer record fee for a teenager and Colin Hendry came in to shore up the defence in his twilight years.

Embed from Getty Images

It took the new boys time to settle at Highfield Road as City claimed just one win from their opening eight games. But once the shackles were off, Strachan’s men were a dangerous side to watch. No longer the happy-go-lucky survivors, Coventry looked the real deal.

Home wins against West Ham United (1-0), Newcastle United (4-1), Watford (4-0) and Aston Villa (2-1) were backed up with draws on the road and Coventry found themselves in 11th as they entered the final month of the decade.

A Boxing Day triumph against Arsenal was followed up by a 2-1 home win against Wimbledon but a lack of consistency would prevent City claiming a top-half finish.

Despite four wins from their last five home matches, City’s form away from Highfield Road was disastrous and saw them stutter to 14th. A disappointing end to the season after so much promise just nine months earlier.

A fall from grace

After 34 years playing in the top flight of English football, Coventry were, as some might say, finally relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2001 season. Their doggedness and determination had served them well through the 90s, but an inevitability caught up with the club and they found themselves playing Championship football in 2001/02.

Embed from Getty Images

Since then, things have gone from bad, to really bad, some good, and now back to really bad. A decade in tier two saw the successful move to the Ricoh Arena, but relegation to League One in 2012 started a spiral of devastation.

The club were forced to find a new home and organised a ground share with Northampton Town, while narrowly avoiding a winding-up order in 2013. The club hit a new low when it was relegated to League Two at the end of the 2016/17 season, despite winning the Football League Trophy at Wembley.

The Sky Blues bounced back to League One at their first attempt and are currently six points adrift of the playoffs in their bid to return to Championship football.

But with the stadium issues once again rearing their ugly head, the next six weeks will be crucial for City as they seek another miracle – escaping expulsion from the football league. For the good of football, and all involved with this great club, let’s hope the organisations involved can find a way forward for Coventry City. Time will tell.