LEWIS STEELE: Coventry are nearly back at top table of English football after decades of darkness
When Coventry’s 34-year stay in the top flight ended with relegation at Villa Park in 2001, cameras panned to a crestfallen fan, John Mullaney, holding aloft a cardboard sign. ‘We’ll be back,’ it read.
The context, of course, meant a swift return to the Premier League. But in many ways, the Sky Blues are already back.
Back at the Coventry Building Society Arena after years in exile at Sixfields and St Andrews. Back with steady finances. Back at the top table of English football… nearly.
It’s been a long road. After falling out of the Premier League 22 years ago, Coventry have never been too far away from farce.
The club was bought by hedge fund Sisu Capital in 2007, who went to war with the council. Sisu defaulted on rent payments and a nasty row ended with them playing at Northampton – in front of little over 2,000 – and then Birmingham.
Coventry are eyeing a return to English football’s top flight after more than two decades
Cameras panned to a crestfallen fan John Mullaney after the Sky Blues’ relegation in 2001
Mark Robins has guided the club to six straight years of season-upon-season improvement
Wasps, previously known as London Wasps, relocated to the Midlands and the two sporting clubs clashed over the use of the stadium, before the rugby union club entered administration themselves.
Despite the Sky Blues’ story being stalked by ignominy, the team has always been OK. Up and down the land, our game is sadly littered by teams submerged or suffocated by financial difficulties. But Coventry have often flourished in the face of adversity.
‘We had the low points where we had to play at St Andrews – but weirdly we had a good record there,’ says Liam Kelly, who joined the club in League Two.
‘We’ve managed to achieve a lot through adversity. There’s been tough times but we have pulled through them and always created the best.
‘When I first signed for Coventry in League Two the aim was to get promoted – to League One… not the Premier League! But it’s been a great journey but we’re not finished here.’
The theme of thriving amid off-the-pitch hardship started with Mark Robins guiding the club to six straight years of season-upon-season improvement, with two promotions and an EFL Trophy win along the way.
Even this season began with farce. Coventry were deducted five points – mercifully suspended – after postponing three home games due to an unplayable pitch caused by the Commonwealth Games rugby sevens. It left them bottom of the table in mid-October with one win in 10 games.
At that stage, it seemed hard to envisage the Sky Blues in the Championship come next season. That still might be the case, of course, but Coventry are now only looking upwards.
Coventry are back at the Ricoh Arena after years in exile at Sixfields and St Andrews (above)
Coventry captain Liam Kelly, joined the club in League Two, is eyeing the Premier League
New owner Doug King has rekindled a line of communication between fans and club
That is testament to Robins, who has led the club from League Two – one promotion via a play-offs – to this point, three games from a first Premier League return in 22 years. Pound for pound, has anyone in English football done a better job in the last five years?
‘We’ve had so many obstacles thrown our way and we’ve overcome those,’ says Robins. ‘We will embrace it, give it everything we’ve got – there’s a lot of clubs who thought they might be there (in the top six) but aren’t.
‘We couldn’t get going at the start of the season. But it’s over and done. We’re in the play-offs now. We should’ve been a lot closer a lot earlier but ultimately it’s been a brilliant turnaround.
‘Whatever happens for us is a learning experience. We’ve got absolute zero to lose and everything to gain.’
New owner Doug King has helped put the dark days of Sisu in the past and this play-offs feels like a financial win-win: get promoted or sell star men Viktor Gyokeres, with 21 goals and Gustavo Hamer. King has rekindled a line of communication between fans and club.
More importantly, the supporters now have a club to be proud of after two decades of darkness. Wherever this play-off journey ends, Sky Blues are only heading upwards.
Kelly adds: ‘I live on a farm just outside Coventry. But when I’m around the city, people are very excited – they feel like they have their football club back where it belongs. I’m going to do everything I can to put Coventry back on the map with the big boys.’