Book Review: 29 Minutes From Wembley

Picture this, an exciting but inconsistent Coventry City side, puts a cup run together, the whole city gets excited, crushing disappointment, the team gets dismantled soon after.

It’s a narrative that we’ve grown accustomed to in recent times supporting this club, which makes Steve Phelps latest book on the 1980/81 season at Coventry City a reminder that, long before the days of SISU, the Ricoh Arena, and the Premier League, it’s been a common part of the club’s history.

For that Coventry City vintage, the League Cup semi-final defeat to West Ham – in crushing circumstances after clawing back a 2-0 deficit during the first leg – was the zenith of their time at their club. 29 Minutes From Wembley is about is how that team came together, found their feet at first-team level, came so close to delivering the club’s first-ever visit to Wembley, and then moved on before they could achieve more tangible success at Coventry City.

Perhaps overshadowed by the 1987 FA Cup winning side, 29 Minutes From Wembley brings to light the story of arguably a more gifted and exciting set of players. As someone unfamiliar with the 1980/81 vintage, Mark Hateley was the most recognisable name to me. What Steve Phelps’ narrative illustrates though was that this  was a side brimming with talent (many of whom having been handed top-flight debuts as teenagers by the club) such as Garry Thompson and Tommy English alongside Hateley in attack, the enigmatic Peter Bodak out wide, the destroyer/ball-player pairing of Paul Dyson and Gary Gillespie, the exciting Danny Thomas at full-back and the colourful Les Sealey in goal. It was a real conveyor belt of talent with the then-manager Gordon Milne fearless in his faith in young talent.

Through a series of interviews with members of the 1980/81 squad, Steve Phelps provides a pitch-level experience of that season. There’s a clear sense that this was a group of players who enjoyed playing together and made life-long friends while playing for Coventry City, which is refreshing to discover.

It would be easy for the story of 29 Minutes From Wembley to slip into pure nostalgia, but Steve Phelps doesn’t shy away from the difficulties off-the-pitch – both in the boardroom and the rising unemployment in the West Midlands in the early 80’s – that provided the economic imperative behind the eventual disintegration of the 1980/81 side. From the need to generate money via shirt sponsorship and a doomed venture in the North American Soccer League, to the issues of hooliganism and the fickleness of the Highfield Road crowd, this is also the story of English football going through the early stages of modernisation.

While this isn’t the tale of glory, 29 Minutes From Wembley brings to life, warts and all, of the story of an almost-forgotten Coventry City side that was so close to not just one moment of greatness, but an era of success.

’29 Minutes From Wembley: The Inside Story of Coventry City’s 1980/81 Season’ can be bought from Amazon, or wherever else you get your books from.

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