It’s time to start a new series of articles for the site which will be based around classic seasons in the club’s history. The point of this series is to give a better picture of the club’s past for fans who may not know about the history of Coventry City.
So to begin with I’ve gone for the most obvious candidate, the 1986-87 season, you know the one where Coventry one their first, and only, major trophy in their history. As a note though before this article, I was born after this season happened so I’m relying on second-hand information but hopefully I can illuminate this glorious moment in the club’s history.
To begin with I’ll focus on the state of the club in the summer of 1986, 10 months before that sunny afternoon under Wembley’s famous towers.
The days of Jimmy Hill and promotion into the First Division, almost appointing Brian Clough and having one-time England manager Joe Mercer at the helm were fading into the past. For Sky Blues fans of the time those days in the late 60s and early 70s where the club had ambitions of becoming a force in English football, spurred on by the success of the city’s post-war rejuvenation, were becoming a distant memory.
English football was hardly in a better state at the time either. Due to the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985, unfairly blamed entirely on Liverpool hooligans, English clubs were banned from European competition. The early months of the season were dominated by notable player sales of English club’s star players, Gary Lineker to Barcelona and Ian Rush to Juventus (but loaned back for the 86-87 season) being the biggest names to leave. The other news story in English football was the continued attention on hooligans in the media with Leeds, Manchester United and West Ham ‘fans’ making the headlines. The hysteria even led to Luton Town banning away fans, despite this action leading to their expulsion from the League Cup.
At Coventry City, manager and ex-player John Sillett was preparing to take charge of his first full season at the club alongside George Curtis. Coventry finished the 85-86 season with three games to avoid relegation after previous manager Don Mackay left the club. Sillett and Curtis stepped in to steer the club to yet another narrow escape from top-flight relegation.
The Coventry side in the 80s had been built slowly over the previous regimes of Bobby Gould and Don Mackay, based around bringing in young players from the lower leagues. However the team were consistent only in finishing in the lower reaches of the top flight. Expectations for the 86-87 season were much the same as before.
The transfer business over the summer was quiet with only 3 signings being made in preparation for the club’s opening day visit to the Boleyn Ground to face West Ham. Striker Keith Houchen was signed from Scunthorpe, David Phillips (father of Aaron) signed from Manchester City and Nick Pickering joined from Sunderland. From today’s perspective the squad would have looked small but in the days of two-man substitute benches this wasn’t so strange.
The back pages of the opening few weeks were dominated by Liverpool and Everton sharing the Charity Shield, the two favourites for the league. The other story was that of Wimbledon who had risen from non-league to compete in their first season in the top flight in just ten years. Coventry’s opening day defeat to West Ham went by with little note.
On the 26th August Coventry faced their first home game of the season against George Graham’s Arsenal which Coventry won 2-1. The Sky Blues followed this up by drawing against Everton at Highfield Road the following Saturday.
Coventry’s season was beginning to pick up momentum as the summer faded into autumn. A draw at Stamford Bridge, a narrow win at Maine Road and a 3-0 home win over Newcastle were followed up by a 1-1 draw at Charlton and a 1-0 win over Watford. In the early league standings Coventry were just 4 points away from league leaders Nottingham Forest. In the relegation zone were Aston Villa and Manchester United.
Elsewhere Everton claimed the first trophy of the season with a win over Liverpool in the Screen Sport Super Cup. A competition that had begun over a year ago as an alternative to European competition for English sides and only lasted one edition.
October and November saw difficult times for the Sky Blues. October saw the team claim only 4 points out of a possible 12 in addition to losing 1-0 at home to Villa and being beaten 3-0 by relegation battlers Oxford United. November saw Coventry face a difficult schedule with Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Spurs and Liverpool in the league with an additional trip to Anfield in the League Cup.
Coventry drew with Manchester United at Old Trafford in what became Ron Atkinson’s final game in charge at United, Alex Ferguson was appointed swiftly afterwards. Coventry then took 3 points at home to Brian Clough’s Forest before losing at White Hart Lane and Anfield in the league. A testing month also saw the team eliminated by Liverpool in the League Cup by virtue of a Jan Molby hat-trick comprised of entirely penalty kicks.
December saw Coventry’s form improve, losing just one in four games. This run included a win over Leicester and a 4-3 home win over Spurs just one day after a 3-1 Boxing Day defeat at Q.P.R.
1987 saw Coventry start with an inauspicious defeat to Luton at home and a creditable away win just two days later at Newcastle. However league business took a back seat as Coventry hosted Bolton in the FA Cup 3rd round on the 10th of January. A comfortable 3-0 win over the third-tier side was recorded with the national eyes a shock defeat for Nottingham Forest to second-tier Crystal Palace.
Later on the 3rd round also claimed the scalp of holders Liverpool as Luton knocked them out after a replay. The sense was building that perhaps this season the cup would be wide open for lesser teams.
Coventry though faced a tough trip in the 4th round to Old Trafford to face the nascent Alex Ferguson team. However the side navigated a difficult encounter with a 1-0 victory over supposedly superior opposition.
Since starting their cup run, Coventry’s league form tailed off, failing to win in four games. English sides were faced with the news on the 6th of February that the European competition ban was to be extended for at least one more season by UEFA. Meaning that silverware would be the only reward for English sides this season.
The Sky Blues reacted to their indifferent league form by starting a phenomenal home record that they built their strong finish around. Chelsea and Charlton were both dispatched by Sillett and Curtis’s charges in front of the Highfield Road faithful.
The final order of business for the month was a 5th round trip to Stoke to navigate, which Coventry did with a narrow 1-0 victory. The other news of the round was third-tier Wigan making it to the 6th round and Wimbledon knocking out the Screen Sport Super Cup holders Everton out of the competition. The cup was beginning to open up even more with the Toffees joining Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Manchester United in the casualty list for the competition.
Coventry were now on a 3 game winning streak in all competitions, and made it 5 by beating both Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford at Highfield Road at the start of March 87. Coventry then had to travel to Hillsborough in their attempt to extend their cup run, which was now the joint best in the club’s history.
A surprisingly comfortable 3-0 win at Hillsborough brought the Sky Blues to their first ever FA Cup semi-final. They were joined in the draw by Graham Taylor’s Watford, who beat Arsenal, Leeds, victors over third-tier Wigan, and Tottenham, who overcame Wimbledon at Plough Lane.
Once again though, Coventry’s cup run was taking a toll on their league form, two defeats away to Wimbledon and Aston Villa saw March out. Coventry’s preparations for a second trip to Hillsborough, to face Leeds in the cup semi-final, were boosted by a decent point shared with Nottingham Forest.
Elsewhere, Arsenal won the first ‘proper’ trophy of the season by beating Liverpool in the League Cup final at Wembley. For Liverpool this spelled the start to a disastrous end to the season as their hold over the league title slipped away. They had now surrendered a chance to claim the Charity Shield outright, lost the Screen Sports Super Cup to Everton, been knocked out in the FA Cup 3rd round, the loss to in the League Cup suggested that fate was against Kenny Dalglish’s side.
Coventry’s semi-final against second-tier Leeds was Coventry’s toughest fixture of the run. City began the match as favourites but fell behind as Leeds started the quickest. Micky Gynn levelled for Coventry and Keith Houchen gave City a 2-1 lead as Sky Blues fans began planning for their first trip to Wembley. Keith Edwards had other intentions as he sent the game to extra-time with an equaliser for the Yorkshire club. Dave Bennett though made sure that Coventry fan’s plans for a Cup final day-out were merely premature and not the product of wishful thinking, his goal made it 3-2 and that was where the score remained.
Coventry’s final opponents were decided at Villa Park as Tottenham comfortable beat Watford 4-1. Spurs were the one remaining big side left at the semi-final stage but David Pleat’s side were a class act. With a strong reputation as one of the best footballing sides in the division, with players such as Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle class acts. The goals of Clive Allen had led them comfortable to third place behind the two Liverpool clubs.
Coventry, understandably coming down from their dramatic win in the Cup semi-final lost on their subsequent trip to Kenilworth Road to face Luton. Easter Monday though saw Coventry play in front of a buoyed home crowd as they thrashed Q.P.R. 4-1. The end of April saw Coventry translate their strong away performances in the cup into the league as the drew with Norwich and then beat Watford at Vicarage Road.
By now confidence at Highfield Road was extremely high. After losing their two first home games of the calendar year, since then Coventry were unbeatable in front of their home fans. This was summed up by a 1-0 win over Liverpool which effectively ended the visiting side’s hopes of a league title to sooth their various cup woes.
The league season finished with 3 games in 6 days, all of which Coventry drew 1-1. This extended the club’s unbeaten home record and secured a final league standing of 10th, their highest for nine seasons. Coventry’s wonderful finish to the season was made even more joyous for loyal Sky Blues fans as Aston Villa were relegated, just 5 years after winning the European Cup.
With one week to prepare for the FA Cup final, Coventry were finally receiving attention from the national sports press. However the discussion seemed to be how many Spurs would put past Ogrizovic in the Sky Blues goal. John Sillett though was confident enough to proclaim pre-match that Coventry’s name was on the trophy.
As Tottenham fans lazily made the short sojourn to Wembley, waking up after a Saturday morning lie-in, expectant of a routine victory for their team. Coventry fans had to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch buses and trains to cheer on their side with the hope that Sillett and Curtis had found the right formula to overcome the favoured Spurs.
Within the opening minutes of the match the pundits appeared to have gotten it right. Clive Allen nipped in to score a close-range header in the second minute of the game. However Coventry regrouped and hero of the semi-final Dave Bennett delivered another vital goal for side in blue and white stripes. The first half saw Coventry narrowly escape falling behind again after poor Trevor Peake back-pass saw Ogrizovic charge out of his area and attempt to clear the ball with his weaker-foot. Hoddle blocked the attempted clearance and tried to chip the ball into the empty net. Peake though snuffed out this effort only to quickly surrender the ball to Tottenham’s Clive Allen who, fortunately for Coventry, found the side-netting.
10 minutes later though Ogrizovic misjudged a Hoddle free-kick which fell to Spurs defender Gary Mabbutt who converted the chance to put Tottenham back ahead. The North Londoners then began to dominate as soon as the game resumed for the second-half. Dave Bennett though was able to break down the right-side of the pitch and sent in a wonderful cross to Keith Houchen who sent a powerful header past Ray Clemence in the Tottenham goal.
As extra-time loomed Coventry substituted Captain Brian Kilcline in order to maintain their excellent defensive display at Wembley. Tottenham’s star player Glen Hoddle had been largely subdued by Lloyd McGrath in midfield and Spurs fast began to run out of ideas. McGrath then made the game’s decisive move, breaking down the right-wing he sent in a hopeful cross which was diverted into the net by the knee of Spurs defender Gary Mabbutt. Coventry then had just under 25 minutes to defend their advantage.
The final whistle blew and Coventry had secured their first ever major trophy. No longer the butt of jokes, the Sky Blues had forced the footballing public to take them seriously. The days of hope under Jimmy Hill now were replaced by a genuine glory for the club. John Sillett stated the club’s new found confidence in the summer of 87 after signing David Speedie from Chelsea, “Coventry City have shopped at Woolworth’s for too long, from now on we’re shopping at Harrods”.
Sillett and Curtis’s time at Coventry was one of the most successful and optimistic times at the club, on a par with the Jimmy Hill days in the 60s. The duo followed success in the cup with another 10th place finish in 87-88. The following season saw Coventry suffer a cup shock in defeat to Sutton United but recorded their joint-highest league finish. Sillett and Curtis’s final full season in charge saw Coventry come close to another Wembley final, this time the League Cup, but lost in the semi-finals to Nottingham Forest. A 12th place finish in the 89-90 season, followed by a poor start to the 1990-91 season saw the end of the road for Coventry’s cup winning managerial team, Sillett was informed of his sacking whilst ill at home. A classless act from then-chairman John Poynton brought to a close one of the greatest managerial tenures this club has ever seen.