At the full-time whistle on Saturday afternoon many Coventry fans realised that the team now finds itself on the precipice of a relegation battle. Whilst starting the season with a 10 point penalty meant that this was always a likely possibility, the fact that we would be 8th without the points deduction makes this a bitter pill to swallow. From looking like an unstoppable force in the first few months of the season we are now a damp squib struggling to even create let alone score chances. Coventry fans are now wondering where the next win is going to come from and whether it will be soon enough to stave off the pull of the relegation contenders.
The most obvious prognosis that has made of our recent form has been the loss of Leon Clarke. Whenever he played he not only provided a quality in front of goal but he linked play between midfield and attack which brought the best out of Callum Wilson’s pace. Without him we have not only struggled to score and create chances but we’ve also been beset by a spate of bad luck with recruiting reinforcements that left us without a recognised centre-forward against Tranmere last Saturday.
Most of the signings that have been made subsequent to Leon Clarke’s departure have been in the loan market which also poses the question as to what happens when these players return to their parent clubs in the summer. The answer is that we’ll be in the same situation, and also hopefully still in the division. Thus far Nathan Delfouneso and Chuba Akpom have flattered to deceive in their 3 appearances for the club between them. The two seem to prefer playing on the shoulder of the last defender rather than linking play meaning that we’ll have to really on other sources of creativity for the rest of the campaign.
The three other signings made by Pressley are an attempt to address the creative void left by Clarke’s absence. Dylan McGeouch is an attacking midfielder who seems to prefer playing behind the striker but has yet to be given that chance due to a lack of match fitness. Mark Marshall is the stereotypical pacey winger that most lower league sides crave. Finally Mike Petrasso is a hard-working wide player with a decent touch in the final third. All three are the types of players that we haven’t really seen in the side this season which suggests that Pressley is seeking some variation to our attacking play.
Thus far though only Petrasso, here for only two weeks more, have completed 90 minutes and with McGeouch and Marshall both currently set to leave the club in the summer it feels like Pressley is seeking a blueprint for the type of player he is looking for come the summer. Fortunately it seems that both McGeouch and Marshall have the opportunity to extend their stays should they impress enough so hopefully we can see both of them make an impact in the final two months of the season.
The big question hanging over our transfer activity in the winter is why were the club not prepared to make the signings to spur us on and into the play-offs. Had the club already assumed that the play-offs were out of reach in January? For me the answer to these questions is related to the ongoing financial and psychological impact of the move to Sixfields. The club can’t take the risk of signing one or several big name players because if they don’t come off financial fair play would leave us hamstrung for the next campaign. Furthermore we can’t lure big name players to the club because we play in front of around 2,000 spectators in a stadium 30 miles away from our home, it’s why Leon Clarke left, it’s why Cyrus Christie is leaving in the summer and it’s why more of our best players are sure to follow.
From day one since Steven Pressley was brought to the club his remit has been to build a youthful side on a low budget because that’s our only way to succeed nowadays. Gone are the days that we could sign a Marlon King, a Clinton Morrison or a Freddy Eastwood and hope that they could produce the goods. The only players who would want to play for Coventry City are there to build a reputation in the game and either go on to better things or hopefully help win the club promotion.
Saturday’s game against Shrewsbury is looking like a ‘must-win’ fixture. It’s vitally important that the club does not get relegated this season as the fall-out could have further reaching consequences than simply playing at a lower level. We find ourselves at a juncture as a club where we can either continue to tread water and eventually drown as we have done for the past two decades or we can use these final fixtures as an opportunity to build for next season. The result against Shrewsbury won’t be the most important thing, the performance and finding a reliable way to win without Leon Clarke is also vital.
At the end of last season we played Notts County and drew 2-2 with Chris Dunn, a player everyone knew was set to leave the club, in goal with Lee Burge on the bench. On Saturday we were very close to having to hand Lee Burge his debut. In my opinion this should not have had to have been a possibility. Why Pressley chose not to give Burge his chance at Notts County was puzzling to me as it was a meaningless fixture and we would have given a youth team player his chance to get used to first-team football at the club.
Hopefully the final games of the season will see Pressley allow players with something to prove to make an impact. Although this was what he did at the end of last season, the fact that we were a side with nothing to play for meant that many who were given the opportunity chose not to take their chance. Look at the difference between Conor Thomas at the end of last season and the beginning of this one, it’s almost as if they’re two different players. In this respect it’s hard for Pressley to experiment with his line-up and keep performances at a high level as many professional footballers like to choose when they want to put in the effort.
However there have been many performances over the past few weeks, as well as over the season, where individuals who have been more or less guaranteed first-team football have seriously underperformed. Carl Baker is the probably the most obvious example of a player who’s been allowed to put in sub-standard performances yet be continue to start games, his partner on the right flank, Cyrus Christie, is another notable example. For me, these are the types of players that Pressley needs to send a message to that they can’t expect to start games, in the case of Carl Baker he needs to be dropped every once in a while to give him something to prove. Cyrus Christie’s case is different, ever since he returned from injury in November it’s been an open secret that he’s set to leave in the summer. In a similar fashion to the decision to play Chris Dunn in stead of Lee Burge at the end of last season, Pressley has chosen a more senior player ahead of someone who would benefit from first-team football.
The challenge for our manager over the final 15 games of the season is first to win games of football, second to find a new way of planning that can be built on for next season and finally to give players deserving of first-team football a chance to stake a claim for a starting spot. Although I don’t think we will be relegated this season, seeing as we only need 3 or 4 more wins as a minimum, were we to scrape across the line eeking out wins with a team that will be disbanded over the summer it’s hard to be optimistic for next season. The final third of the season for this club is about becoming the team that Pressley wants to build over the next season or two.