Coventry City’s time at Sixfields has now come to a close. Fittingly, the final game came on a Tuesday night and with the news of the return to the Ricoh Arena coming the following Thursday, there was no pomp and ceremony about a disappointing 2-2 draw with Barnsley. This article focuses on three performances at three different stages of our time in exile in an attempt to analyse what happened and where that leaves us heading towards that glorious evening on September 5th.
1) Coventry City 5 Bristol City 4
A sunny Sunday afternoon in August marked the start of a new era at Coventry City. A new stadium, a new team and a manager who had only managed the team in three genuinely competitive games. After opening the season with two defeats and yet another points deduction, expectations were low against Bristol City side many expected to run rampant.
With Andy Webster making his debut for the club after signing a few days prior, the team at least had a senior recognised centre-back. The Scotland international was surprisingly paired alongside Jordan Clarke, an unspectacular right-back for most of his Sky Blues career, in central defence. To replace Carl Baker in the starting 11, Billy Daniels was another strange choice to play out of position on the right wing.
For all the peculiarity of the circumstances of the fixture, the unfamiliarity with the manager and his team selection, the strangest thing to happen that day was the performance itself from Coventry City. This wasn’t a team playing in fear of the drop like Andy Thorn’s side two years ago, this was a team that was bold, exciting and enterprising. Goals in the first-half came from relentless pressure on the opposition defence from the team’s passing, pace and pressing.
Fans exchanged bewildered looks amongst themselves as Coventry City led a heavily-fancied Bristol City team 3-0 at half-time. The over-riding emotion was that this was the opposite of ‘typical City’.
However that pessimism, which is so quick to gather at the earliest sign of adversity, returned when Bristol City managed not one, not two, but three goals to cancel out Coventry City’s half-time lead with just 15 minutes left of the game. This was going to be a long season.
Yet this new team showed that they were better than that ‘typical City’ tag. They responded themselves by scoring almost immediately from the kick-off after Bristol City’s third to make it 4-3. When our opposition levelled again, it was almost unsurprising that the Sky Blues managed to score yet again to make it 5-4.
The sense at the end of the game was that this was the start of something special. We may have lost an entire team over the previous summer but the players we had now we not only better but were working for each other in a way few other Coventry City sides seemed to do. Every player in that team had a role to play and they complemented each other’s abilities perfectly.
Following on from that spectacular win, Coventry City eased to victories over Carlisle, Colchester and Gillingham to sail away from the relegation zone at almost the earliest time possible. It began a period of 15-20 games which will be hard to forget for those who were able to witness this special team. It seemed then that leaving the Ricoh Arena allowed a clean break from our dismal past. With a team featuring many players produced by the academy, fans felt that much closer to the players than ever before.
2) Coventry City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0
However, by the following March the team had endured a winter of discontent. Our talismanic striker Leon Clarke had left the club after handing in a transfer request. We were finally reaping what the impact of the move to Sixfields should have sowed at the beginning of the season.
Steven Pressley had only been able to replace Clarke with a series of loanees, each with coming with baggage that dwarfed even Clarke’s own problems. There was Rory Donnelly who left the club after one training session. Nathan Delfouneso, a one-time ‘next big thing’ now taking final orders in the last chance saloon. Summing up the club’s fall from ‘grace’ was Chuba Akpom, who was fitting in time at Coventry City around a busy schedule of youth-team fixtures at Arsenal.
Heading into this meeting with Shrewsbury Town, the team had lost three games in a row and were now in danger of slipping into a genuine relegation battle. After seeing what was once a vibrant, fluid attacking unit transform become a limp and defensively leaky one, Steven Pressley decided to focus on tightening up that defence rather than persisting with his ‘philosophy’ as a manager. The Scot chose to line up with a four central defenders across the back-line, with attacking full-backs Blair Adams and Cyrus Christie both dropped.
The one boost though was the return of Callum Wilson who had been conspicuous in his injury absence for much of that winter. The one highlight of the performance against Shrewsbury came in the very first minute of the game. Wilson immediately robbed the Shrews from their own kick-off with his first-touch of a football in two months. The drive, energy and desire was exactly what the team had been missing in recent times, not to forget his quality as a striker.
That though was the zenith of a drab Coventry City performance. It was only Shrewsbury’s own lack of quality that saved us from a demoralising defeat that day. With Callum Wilson clearly lacking in match fitness, the team offered very little in attack.
Eventually, the team crawled over the line, largely due to the brilliance of Callum Wilson in the final ten games of the season. From that optimism in August came the grim reality of playing in front of sparse crowds in a tiny stadium miles outside of our home city. Not only could we not attract the players required to maintain that early season form but we could barely inspire our existing set to another other than par performances. Once again a Coventry City team ended the season doing the bare minimum required of them to survive.
3) Coventry City 1 Sheffield United 0
Heading into the first ‘home’ league game of this current season there were a few similarities to the scenario 12 months before. Another new-look team, similar doubts over the ability of the manager, a match against one of the pre-season favourites and two defeats to begin the season with.
However 12 months of life at Sixfields had left everyone feeling more jaded about the situation than ever before. A series of court cases from the club’s owners had done little to bring the club back to Coventry and our star players had left and been replaced by a series of freebies and loan players. The grey sky overhead and the emptiness of staring into an unfinished stand in Northampton emphasised how different things seemed compared to a year ago.
For the opening 20 minutes of that game the team did little to assuage the doubts against them. Steven Pressley’s experimentation with a 5-3-2 system had left the team making little impact upon the game aside from surrendering all possession to our superior looking opponents.
However a wonderful save from Ryan Allsop completely changed the game. All of a sudden there looked to be a method to what had seemed a mixture of madness and desperation to our summer recruitment. From then on we were very rarely concerned with Sheffield United’s attack and the team were working admirably hard despite lacking quality in a number of areas.
A heavily deflected goal to decide the game late on summed up a win which owed more to hard-work and persistence rather than incisiveness and quality in attack. It was a commendable performance after a summer of battling the odds to put together a cohesive team from Steven Pressley.
Heading into the return to the Ricoh Arena though, is that good enough any longer? This team has undoubtedly been set up under the assumption that fixtures would continue to be played in Northampton. Can this team actually break down opponents now content with a point against us? Will this team be able to handle the increased expectations? Will the crowd be patient with them? Can Steven Pressley alter the side to our new set of circumstances?
The fact that we have four strikers already in the team shows that the preparations for this season had already been made. Simeon Jackson aside, not one of those four strikers appear to have the technical and physical qualities to consistently hurt opponents who are set up not to concede. One of the priorities now would have to be to bring in a striker who adds a further dimension to our attacking unit.
Elsewhere in the side, we are slowly starting to build a cohesion in our new shape. Yet now we are back at the Ricoh Arena it suddenly seems too pragmatic a set-up to entice fans to return in their numbers. This early fixtures back in Coventry are a once in a generation opportunity to get many people hooked again who have given up attending games regularly due to the continual decline of the club. Whilst most won’t be demanding pretty, attractive football, they will want to see a Coventry City team that can play on the front-foot but more importantly win games.
The move to Sixfields and the kerfuffle over the Ricoh Arena rent has cost us not one but two opportunities for promotion from this division due to the two ten-point deductions that were meted out against us. A major concern is that the continued legacy of the move to Sixfields, both in crushing some of the ideals that Steven Pressley arrived at the club with and in how the team are set-up for those early games, that it could dissipate that early optimism that the return to the Ricoh Arena has generated.
If there is any man to overcome the challenge of turning this current Coventry City side into one that can utilise this return to Coventry then it is Steven Pressley. He handled the move to Sixfields like no other Coventry City manager would have. He has already shown he can create a team worthy of putting all our hopes and dreams on, he just needs a bit of time and patience to do so again.