Where We Were
After a mixed October it looked like this season would be at its very best a mid-table affair. November was important in finally putting distance between us and the relegation battle but there was still work to be done to allay any fears. The win over Hartlepool showed us that Robins had got us to a level above the relegation contenders and that we shouldn’t really be comparing ourselves to them. So far however we’d struggled to assert ourselves on the best teams in the division, defeats to Notts County and Brentford coupled with unconvincing draws against Swindon and MK Dons showed that we were close but still a little bit behind the very best in the division. The next two months were going to be about proving how far Robins had taken us in his now 2 month spell in charge.
Before we could get back to league action following that frustrating home draw against Portsmouth it was time for the small matter of the FA Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. First up it was a home game in the FA Cup against lower league Morecambe (One of Carl Baker’s former clubs). The 2-1 scoreline belied the comfortability that Coventry showed against their lower league opponents, the comfort perhaps the reason for the low scoreline. In the JPT it was another home game against Sheffield United. The two teams looked fairly well-matched and it duly headed to penalties where Coventry advanced 4-1. Suddenly the JPT campaign was building momentum and fans were feeling optimistic of a chance to see their team at Wembley.
Back in the league it was time for a local ‘derby’ match against a horrendously out-of-form Walsall team. For Coventry the game came at the perfect time, confidence and form rising with their opponents experiencing the absolute opposite. However years of supporting Coventry has told us to reign in our expectations and confidence in these situations. Despite this history of underwhelming Coventry won the game 5-1 and after falling behind. Something seemed to be changing in the very culture of the club, consistent performances (albeit over a period of a month) and being comfortable in being favourites going into matches.
A side-note was the retirement of Kevin Kilbane who despite being captain played only 6 league games and was clearly not in favour. He has subsequently had a successful media career in the past few months and has completed the London marathon.
The next fixture was against the league leaders and eventual champions Doncaster. In terms of the league this was the first time we were up against a strong team during our now 4 game unbeaten run, or going further back, a streak of 1 defeat in 7. It was time now to test the idea that Robins had installed a winning and competitive mentality in the club. From Franck Moussa’s third minute opener onwards it was one of the most spectacular performances and results that the team produced in years. In a largely counter-attacking 4-4-1-1 formation headed by a confident and in-form David McGoldrick we proved that we were now one of the better teams in this division. The game was won 4-1 and we had now scored 9 goals in two matches and were in our highest league position since the opening day and were tantalisingly close to both the top-half and the play-off places.
However dark clouds were hanging above us. The next home game against Preston was supposedly going to be the last at the Ricoh. ACL had issued a winding-up order against the club for unpaid rent and had set a Boxing Day deadline for the club to stump up the cash.
The combination of the good form and prospect of saying goodbye to the Ricoh meant that the match saw the highest attendance since the Sheffield United game back in August. Many were feeling confident that they would be cheering on a confident Coventry side who were going to put a stuttering Preston side to the sword in the manner of their previous few performances. A side story to this game though was the Preston manager Graham Westley who had been the subject of much ridicule ever since taking the Preston job and was also being maligned for his long-ball tactics.
The game itself saw Coventry start well, with Barton playing in behind McGoldrick this time and using his height to some effect early on. When Coventry took the lead through James Bailey it seemed like a regulation win was on its way. However Preston came back strongly, countering through their pacey wingers and putting in some strong challenges up front. Coventry were lucky to go into the break still in the lead but were increasingly looking out of ideas in attack. The second half continued in a similar manner and when Preston eventually equalised in the 77th minute it seemed a familiar story for so many Coventry fans was taking place. In the end Preston could count themselves as unlucky not to win, Coventry though could also say the same. The Preston manager Westley though became the subject of ire from Coventry fans for his supposed long-ball style and abrasive touch-line antics, another of those managerial spats that dotted this season.
Boxing Day came and there was no word on what was happening vis-a-vis the Ricoh dispute with both sides staying schtum. It was also seeming likely at this point that McGoldrick wasn’t going to stay beyond his current loan spell due to expire after the New Year’s Day Shrewsbury match. The bully-boy from the Scunthorpe match, Leon Clarke, had been training with the club and seemed set to take up McGoldrick’s mantel, seeming a decent choice.
On the pitch the team headed into the Stevenage match on a 6 match unbeaten league run and having only lost 1 league game in 2 months. The game was also the start of the second half of the season and it seemed like we could mount a charge to an increasingly realistic looking play-off places. Stevenage were no slouches themselves and had looked like a top-half side in the first-half of the season. It was nonetheless disappointing when they took the lead through a first-half penalty. Things were looking slightly desperate and the momentum from the Walsall and Doncaster games seemed to be petering out. Richard Wood, as so often he was under Robins, scored a header from a corner to level things with just over 10 minutes left. Against tough opposition I think most fans would have accepted a point at this juncture in the match but Coventry and in particular Carl Baker and David McGoldrick had different ideas. Baker put Coventry ahead just past 90 minutes and then in stoppage time McGoldrick scored what many would describe as a ‘wonderful lob’ from around 30 yards out.
Ecstasy. We were in the top half of the table for the first time since the opening day. However there was no time to rest upon any laurels as we had to travel to Milton Keynes but without James Bailey and David McGoldrick, Bailey because his loan was over and McGoldrick because he’d been suspended for 5 bookings. So when MK took the lead I think many were fearing that we’d run out of steam and were perhaps regressing to the mean of our pre-December performances. Franck Moussa though thought differently and scored probably the goal of the season, a pitch-long dribble, which put us level. Stephen Elliott who we hadn’t seen much of since the Sheffield United league match stepped up to the plate and scored twice in 2 minutes to put us in the lead after MK had re-taken it just before half-time. Even O’Donovan got in on the action and had a decent impact, you know it’s going well when that happens.
Cue yet more ecstasy. Also cue the bitterest manager comment I’ve ever heard from MK manager, Karl Robinson, who described Coventry as moaning about having no money. What a tit.
The start of a new year seemed set to herald our push towards and into the play-offs. There was a slight hitch though that our top scorer was no longer going to be with us. McGoldrick’s final game was the New Year’s Day home match against Shrewsbury, which was played at the Ricoh after all. The game was also the highest league attendance of the season at over 15,000.
I cite this game though as the start of 2013’s precedent of home performances. We played decently and really should have scored but the opposition sucker-punched us on the counter and we had no response. Our first defeat in 8 games and given who we had played it was shocking that it was to lowly Shrewsbury, who had now ‘done the double’ over us.
Next up was another cup match in North London where we had no prospect of winning. We looked star-struck by Tottenham and lost 3-0 without them leaving first gear.
With Clarke drafted in the next match was at home to Preston in the JPT. The game was pretty even looking in the first-half but Jennings gave us the lead from an Edjenguele flick-on from a set-piece. The second-half was well-matched but Preston’s two goals had more than a hint of fortune about them in the shape of lucky deflections. All of a sudden the optimism that we began the year with was sapping away, worst of all we were giving fan enemy number 1, Graham Westley, the chance of going to Wembley. Despite not really putting Preston under much pressure Carl Baker levelled the score in the second minute of injury time.
Pandemonium. But more was to come as Preston keeper Steve Simonsen fumbled a shot and three Coventry players had read it perfectly. It fell to Leon Clarke who had a tap-in but in the fifth minute of injury time in a cup match it didn’t matter. It seemed like destiny, Coventry were surely heading to Wembley.
The away game to Carlisle though felt like a damp squib despite the very real matter of league points being played for. It felt that perhaps the prospect of Wembley in the JPT was exceeding the prospect of playing for something in the league. Carlisle scored early and Coventry barely threatened to take something back from the game.
We had now lost 2 in a row and were back in the bottom half of the table. Very much a case of 2 steps forward and one step back. The next match seemed vital in re-establishing league momentum. Fortunately we were able to beat Tranmere in a game low on quality and chances. We next played an Oldham side who weren’t in great form and seemed a great opportunity to re-ignite our charge towards the play-offs. Another win, despite giving up the lead in the 89th minute and it seemed like we were winning games that the best teams should with a genuine belief around the squad that we were good enough.
Back in a bit of confidence and now in 7th, a place behind the play-offs. It was what had now turned into a grudge match against an ambling Preston side under Graham Westley’s loosening charge. Whether it was the animosity clear to see between the two teams or a lack of assertiveness from Coventry, we couldn’t really dominate in the same way we had against other teams recently. Preston took the lead, Coventry equalised (Clarke again), Coventry took the lead, Preston equalised. Probably a fair result but it’s always frustrating not to win when you take the lead.
By the end of January we were in our highest league position all season, 7th. The transfer window saw limited activity Leon Clarke and Blair Adams both signed their expected transfers and Bailey extended his loan. Out of the door were the deadwood of the squad in Chris Hussey and Roy O’Donovan. The squad was solidifying and we had our strongest line-up in that 4-4-1-1 shape which was: Murphy – Christie, Wood, Edjenguele, Adams – Baker, Jennings, Bailey, McSheffrey – Moussa – Leon Clarke.
Robins appeared contented despite murmurings of other clubs’ pursuits. Despite the rent situation not being sorted the failure of the past deadline suggested that neither side had a particularly strong negotiating position and it could rumble on and be sorted soonish. It all seemed geared to a successful final push in the league and JPT.
Well, we’ll look at the final bit in Part 4 sometime soon then.