2014 is drawing to an end and this will be my last non-preview article of the year. It’s been another ‘interesting’ year at the club with court cases, the end of an exile and the sale of our home to a London rugby club. On the pitch, we have taken 46 points from 43 games, which is quite simply relegation form. Saturday’s away win at Port Vale is perhaps a sign that the footballing side of things is slowly improving after a disastrous calendar year but with a general mood of apathy around Coventry City, weary supporters will be forgiven for waiting to see whether this current okay run is merely a false dawn.
But the purpose of this article is optimism, perhaps it’s because of the time of the year that I am in the mood to be relentlessly positive or the fact that most of my recent articles have been best accompanied by a bottle of Vodka and a Morrissey album. Maybe, just maybe though we have genuine reasons to look towards the future feeling that some good times are ahead of us.
- At Least We’re Back In Coventry
We have taken 11 points from 8 league games at the Ricoh Arena this season. That is at a rate of 1.38 per game which places us as the 14th best home side in the division over that period. It could be worse but I think that as Coventry City in League One, we have every right to be disappointed at that return. Barring one brilliant September evening, it have been a return to the same Ricoh Arena that we left behind and for some it has been their breaking point in getting behind the Sky Blues on a regular basis.
One of my favourite reactions to that Gillingham game came from one of their message boards, where one fan wrote, “At one point after the goal went in I did fear we might crumble in that cauldron of noise.” For too long the Ricoh Arena has been an accommodating venue for opposing teams and the anxious atmosphere has arguably contributed to nervous performance from those in Sky Blue. But we have that ‘cauldron of noise’ now in our locker, it was a night that showed that Coventry City really mattered to many people. If we can find some way of attracting decent attendances in the near future, it can really galvanise the team into raising their game.
Whilst the first few months at Northampton felt like a holiday from being ‘same old City’, by the end of the season it was clear that the club was dying in exile. We had farcical situations where players like Chuba Akpom playing youth-team football at Arsenal instead of first-team football with Coventry City, or Jon Stead turning us down to sit on the bench at Oldham, or Rory Donnelly returning to Swansea reserves after just one training session with us. It was emblematic of the fact that there was no attraction to playing in a three-quarters empty stadium for a club in exile due to financial difficulties. I dread to think what implications another season in Northampton would have had but thankfully I don’t have to because we’re back home.
- The Youth
Aside from a few success stories, our youth development in modern times has been rather poor. That’s changed thanks to the work of people like Gregor Rioch, Jason Farndon, Richard Stevens, Darren Murray and of course Steven Pressley, and we now have talented local youngsters starting to come through in droves. When Gary McSheffrey left in 2006, it took the club five years to develop another academy player capable of being sold for a decent transfer fee in the form of Ben Turner. Nowadays we have the situation where Callum Wilson and Cyrus Christie both left in the summer and we immediately have the Jack Finch, James Maddison and Ryan Haynes making an impact at first-team level.
This hydra-like ability to regenerate from seemingly killer blows gives us a massive advantage over other clubs in this division. Relying on the transfer market will mainly get you players fitting in with your level of football. With the academy, there’s the chance that one or two players already at the club may have a talent far exceeding your level. Although there’s the danger of bigger clubs taking these exceptional players away from you, but the money from the Wilson sale has helped the club through a tough summer and his subsequent success helps give our youngsters belief that they might be able to make it too.
This is why Steven Pressley is so important to us right now. He is giving our academy players both the frame-work to succeed by improving the youth coaching at the club and handing youngsters that chances at first-team level that they weren’t getting under previous regimes. Our current under-18 team are having a brilliant season in league and cup and our under-21s have started to compete much better in their division after winning just one game last season. Pressley’s is attempting to change the culture at this football club which is why this season is less important than many people want it to be, the fruits of his labours will be seen more fully in a few years time where hopefully he will be able to reap his own rewards.
- An Active January Transfer Window Awaits
In case you couldn’t guess it, Steven Pressley isn’t happy with the attitude of a number of players in our current first-team squad. With only five players left in the first-team who weren’t handed their debuts or signed by Pressley (Jordan Willis, John Fleck, Conor Thomas, Billy Daniels & Adam Barton), this is very much the team that Pressley built. He has had the excuse of not being free to add his kind of players, as well as being hamstrung by a lack of a scouting network at the club since Andy Thorn’s departure. Pressley needs to get this coming January window right as both of those excuses have now been taken away.
In the most recent Supporters Consultative Group minutes posted on the club’s website, it was revealed that Pressley is looking to off-load nine players (presumably including current loanees) and to sign seven players (which may include Gary Madine and Aaron Martin on permanent deals). Pressley has seemingly already identified areas where we need improvements and is looking to be pro-active in the market rather than waiting to see who’s available.
If Pressley gets things right this January, we are only six points from the play-offs and thus have the chance to make a success of this season somehow. There’s always the worry that new faces will take time to bed in and will make this another write-off of a campaign, but new signings always offer the hope that things will improve. I eagerly await to see what Pressley does in January and what areas he is seeking to improve.
- The Sheffield United Paradigm
Many Coventry City fans have been looking at what Sheffield United did last season in finishing 7th despite being in the bottom four as late as February. Whilst the Blades didn’t actually achieve promotion, or anything tangible, it showed that the season isn’t over until it’s over. The common refrain from many fans of Football League teams is “There’s always one team that goes on a late surge to the play-offs, why can’t it be us?” So, why can’t it be us this time?
The Sheffield United example has felt particularly relevant to many Coventry City fans because there was a clear sense that they were under-performing with a talented squad, just like we have been. Whilst it took a change in manager and the momentum of an FA Cup run to transform Sheffield United’s season, that Worcester City defeat has precipitated a run of defensive solidity that may form the platform for future success.
A recent piece from the brilliant Experimental 3-6-1 blog, provides the encouraging insight that, “Coventry are currently the most clinical shooters in the Football League.” The two options for Pressley then is to either create more chances for our clinical strikers to score or to make sure that we stay tighter defensively. The worst case scenario for a team that keeps clean sheets is that they take a point, which is a line of thinking that has eluded us for much of 2014. There are signs already that Pressley is looking to build success in 2015 from the starting-point of a solid defence.
- It Could Be Worse
I don’t know whether fans of other clubs read my recent piece entitled ‘The End of Coventry City As We Know It?’ but I’m sure that had many a few done so, their reaction may have been, “Oh, boo bloody hoo, an average League One team, what a ‘horrible’ fate.” And these imaginary people may actually have a point.
As hard as it is to believe, there are other clubs who currently have it much worse than us. Look at Portsmouth who look like taking their stay in League Two to three seasons despite averaging crowds around the 14,000 mark. Or Blackpool, who have an owner who, during their stay in the Premier League paid himself the same salary as the entire playing squad, who are now a laughing stock that are certain for relegation this season and look like continuing to struggle next season despite clearly having the resources to avoid doing so. Or Hereford United, who were suspended from all football a fortnight ago, only to be reinstated, have dropped from League One to the Southern Premier Division (the 7th tier) in the space of five years.
In the seven years that SISU have been at the helm, they have failed dismally by any quantifiable measure of success. Yet, to be in the third-tier of English football is hardly the worst fate to befall a football team ever. If can remember the attitude back in 2001 that the second-tier was a level not worthy of being graced by Coventry City but we can now look back upon a time where we spent £5 million on a striker and competed for promotion to the Premier League with nostalgia almost.
Perhaps if we can appreciate the situation that we find ourselves in, we can create for ourselves a future worth looking forward to. Negativity breeds negativity, in football that feeling of underachievement and decline feeds from the stands to the players which makes success harder to achieve. Yes, it’s horrible that Wasps own our stadium and SISU will probably be here for another seven years but we are also just six points from the play-offs with a manager that has a blue-print for the future and a whole bunch of young players desperate to play for their home-town club. Supporting Coventry City can often feel like a chore, but if we can find silver linings to these grey clouds above us, 2015 and years to come will be worth remembering.