Coventry City and Southampton are, in many respects, two sides of the same coin. They are clubs that became regular components of the top division of English football for many years, arguably punching against their weight. For both of them relegation brought about the end of an era for both clubs from which they haven’t fully recovered. They both managed a solitary FA Cup win and moved from idisyncratic stadia into purpose-built modern grounds which have failed to bring them much success. Both clubs have sailed close to the wind, financially speaking, but while Coventry City have had their spell in administration and appear to be starting out on the road to recovery, Southampton are continuing to battle against their demons and what would be their first relegation into the lower divisions of the Football League for the first time in almost fifty years.
Both clubs were propelled up the divisions by one visionary. At Southampton, Ted Bates took them from Division Three to Division One in six years, and kept them there until he was sacked in 1974. Under the managership of Lawrie McMenemy, they won the FA Cup as a Second Division side in 1976, with Bobby Stokes’ goal being enough to beat Manchester United at Wembley, and were promoted back in 1978. With Jimmy Hill in charge, Coventry were promoted from the Third Division in 1964, and then into 1967 three years later. They won the FA Cup in 1987, beating Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 after a thrilling match at Wembley. Hill’s influence over the club was often as damaging as it was positive. It was Hill the brought the concept of the all-seater stadium to England, claiming that “you can’t be a hooligan sitting down”. Crowds slumped, however, and after Leeds United supporters tore the seats up and used them as missiles during a League Cup match at Highfield Road, terraces were reintroduced as Hill departed in 1983.
Both clubs eventually lost their Premier League status after protracted battles. Southampton left their cramped home, The Dell, for the St Marys Stadium in 2001, but the new stadium didn’t prove to be the good luck charm that they might have hoped that it would be. They got to the FA Cup final in 2003, losing 1-0 to Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium, but were relegated at the end of the 2004/05 season, after a disastrous year that saw Harry Redknapp take over as manager, having come directly from their arch rivals, Portsmouth. Once in the Championship, the full extent of their financial troubles started to become apparent. Players such as Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott had to be sold to balance the books, but on the field they failed to impress, losing in the play-offs in 2006 against Derby County. Coventry City fell through the trapdoor in 2001, and had similar problems adjusting to their more straitened circumstances. They only narrowly avoided relegation in 2004 and 2005, and left Highfield Road for The Ricoh Arena in 2005. Both clubs had a terrible time last season. Coventry City avoided entering into administration with a take-over in December 2007, while Southampton struggled what looked like being a losing battle for the whole of the season. On the last day, however, Southampton beat Sheffield United to send Leicester City down. Coventry would have gone down themselves had Leicester not failed to win their last match of the season against Stoke City.
Today’s match, then, is at The Ricoh Arena. What a strange environment for a football stadium this is. It’s impressive from the exterior, if depressing – like most new-built stadia, it is part of an out of town shopping centre. Once inside, three-quarters of it is your bog standard modern football ground. A lots of sky blue seats and a PA man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “unnecessary”. What catches the eye, however, is the other stand, which runs the length of one side of the pitch. It seems to “stop” two-thirds of the way up, with a row of executive boxes and a big, empty wall. One can’t help but think that this is a hangover from when the stadium was due to be a 45,000-seater stadium rather than holding the 32,500 seats that it does now. The two sides have had differing starts to the season. Coventry start in mid-table, having been singularly unable to display an consistency so far this season. Southampton started disastrously, including a 3-1 defeat in the League Cup against Rotherham United. Two straight wins, however, against fellow strugglers Norwich City and Doncaster Rovers have lifted them out of the relegation places.
The match kicks off in driving wind and with rain starting to fall, and Southampton’s new and youthful side take the early initiative, though the problems that they face are evident from the fact that they create so little whilst having the majority of possession. After nineteen minutes, though, Coventry take the lead with their first significant attack of the match. Freddy Eastwood’s smart pass plays Leon McKenzie into space on the left hand side, and his cross is met by a flying Jay Tabb, whose header is too powerful for the Southampton goalkeeper Kelvin Davis. Ten minutes later comes the moment that the match will probably be best remembered for come the end of the season. Oliver Lancashire doesn’t really look in too much trouble as he tries to clear a long ball with Coventry’s Leon Best bearing down on upon him. Best, however, nicks the ball away from him and then goes down under the challenge. It looks as if there has not been any contact at all, but a penalty is given nevertheless. Elliott Ward steps up to take it, but he seems unsure of whether to try and place the ball into the corner or try a little Antonin Panenka-esque chip down the middle. Davis can’t believe his luck as he catches the ball while almost on his knees.
Southampton don’t use this let off particularly productively. Within a minute, Best has hit the post for Coventry from three yards out. Southampton bundle the ball into touch, but Gunnarsson’s resulting long throw is flicked into the path of McKenzie who is completely unmarked and drives the ball in from six yards out. Southampton look beaten already, and Coventry should really extend their lead still further just before half-time when Gunnarsson is put through but shoots straight at Davis. Still, Coventry lead 2-0 at half-time, and look nothing like a team that had scored just eight goals in their previous nine matches this season.
Any lingering doubts over the destination of the three points this afternoon are ended two minutes into the second half, as Coventry extend their lead to three goals. Southampton are still – at least mentally – in the changing room as McKenzie feeds Fox, who’s low cross is turned in from close range by Leon Best. It’s Best’s first goal for Coventry, and he has scored it against the club that he signed for them from. With the win more or less sewn up, Coventry take their collective foot off the pedal. On the hour, in one of those moves that only a properly panicked manager would make, Southampton coach Jan Poortvliet makes a triple substitution and, whilst is does reap almost immediate dividends, there is an element of luck to it. Bradley Wright-Phillips has been on the pitch for barely a couple of minutes when he shoots from the left hand corner of the penalty area, but his shot is so wayward that it acts as a perfect cross for Andrew Surman, whose instinctive reaction sends a flying header past Keiran Westwood to pull one back. Briefly, it looks as if a Southampton revival could be on the cards, but the final chance of this happening is extinguished when Andrew McGoldrick gets through for Southampton but rushes his shot and the save is a comfortable one for Westwood. It is a miss that seems to exemplify the complete lack of confidence that embodies Southampton this afternoon, and in the closing minutes, Coventry seal the deal. The left-hand side of midfield again proves to be fruitful for Coventry, and this time Eastwood’s cross is volleyed in by Jay Tabb.
Both of these sides had a narrow brush with the First Round of the FA Cup and the Johnstones Paint Trophy at the end of last season. Both escaped narrowly, and Coventry seem to be considerably better placed to avoid a similar battle again this season. The biggest problem that they face seems to be the number of empty seats at The Ricoh Arena. The ground was more than half empty, and it seems that, as ever, no thought has been put into the location of the place. Unless the football is good (and this afternoon it was reasonable, against a poor side), who is going to travel nearly four miles from the city centre on a cold afternoon to pay £25 if times are tough? They should, at least, be good enough for mid-table, though, and with the Championship starting to take that “everybody beating everybody else” look that it had last season, that could be good enough for them to maintain the play-off place that they hold tonight. For Southampton, however, the prognosis is considerably more serious. After two straight wins, it only took one Coventry goal for their confidence to visibly ebb away. They will need more character than that if they are going to avoid another winter of discontent this season. These two clubs, who have had such similar histories for the last four decades or so, might just be set to go in opposite directions at last.