Much as we love the FA Cup, there can be no mistaking the lack of glamour that envelopes evenings like this. The ITV4 coverage flicks over to The Ricoh Stadium just after seven-thirty. There are fifteen minutes to kick off, and it doesn’t look like there are many more than a few hundred souls inside the place. Bucket seat after bucket seat. In some respects, it’s difficult to blame them. It’s a bitter, perishing cold night – the sort of weather during which each intake of breath scours the lungs like bleach and each gust of wind takes the breath away completely – and the match is live on the television as well. There are two matches if you are broadband-savvy – the FA’s website is showing a snow-bound match between Bristol City and Cardiff City.
By kick-off time, the crowd has swollen to a few thousand. Avram Grant looks grimly focussed. The now obligatory shot of the players limbering up in the tunnel shows a couple of Portsmouth players leaning against the wall looking strangely disconsolate. The facial expressions are telling. They don’t look much as if they want to be here tonight. Coventry City have half vanished from the football radar since their improbably long run in the top division of English football (thirty-four years, from 1967 until 2001). Occasionally, they pop up, somewhere or other – rumours of a fresh financial crisis or half-pushing for a play-off place. They left Highfield Road in 2005 for The Ricoh Arena. Highfield Road was English football’s first all-seater stadium, and it held 23,000 people. How many times, one wonders, have they had more than 23,000 at The Ricoh for a match over the last five years?
The heart and soul of the club is still there, lurking around the corner somewhere. They still play “The Sky Blue Song” as the teams come out onto the pitch, which is a nice touch. The supporters still sing it, too. It’s best not to dwell too long upon the mental image of Jimmy Hill (for it was he, in one of his earlier footballing revolutionary moves), smashing his guitar in frustration as he tries – and fails – to come up with a rhyme for “Cobblers”. What had Northampton Town done deserve a special mention in the song? Just as puzzlingly, who are the “Oysters”, also referred to in the original version of the song? Rumour has it that it was Colchester United. Colchester United? Peterborough United? One could be forgiven for thinking that Jimmy had taken a cursory look at a map and arrived at the conclusion that Coventry was in East Anglia.
For fifteen minutes, Coventry City aren’t particularly gripping. They’re still edging it over Portsmouth, though. Is this how far Portsmouth have fallen? They’ve put quite a strong team out tonight, and they’re largely being outplayed by a mid-table Championship team that is looking a little off-colour itself. Peter Storrie sits in the stand, looking strangely enthused by what he’s watching. Maybe he’s given up all hope and is now just in a state of permanent hysteria at what the next few weeks may hold. Maybe he’s drunk. It would be difficult to blame him if he is. On a night like tonight, though, streaking might not be the wisest thing that he could do. Twenty minutes in, and quite out of the blue, Coventry take the lead. A long, agricultural ball down the middle is only half cleared and Leon Best volleys in an absolutely sensational volley. It’s a better goal than the game deserves. At first glance, Best looks as though he might be wearing gloves knitted by his mum. A second look confirms that they have “CCFC” knitted across the back of them. They’re probably from the club shop. Did he pay for them?
Half-time comes with Coventry still leading by the odd goal. Portsmouth show flashes of Premier League quality, but their shooting is wayward, their touch is often too leaden or too light. They are playing like a team that has had its self-confidence amputated. As if to add to Coventry’s air of the mysterious, their team is peppered with players that you have half forgotten about. There’s Clinton Morrison up front, and he’s being supported by Freddy Eastwood. As the second half progresses, Portsmouth start to edge their way back into the game as Coventry City, as Championship teams are wont to do when they’re playing Premier League teams, start to get anxious. Wayward shots – and there are several from Portsmouth – are greeted with the traditional inexplicable wolf-whistle (Have you ever done this? Do you even know anyone that has?), which echoes off the concrete and around the ground.
This anxiety rises when Danny Webber replaces the hopelessly ineffectual Tommy Smith with twenty minutes to play. Webber automatically looks like the most likely player to score for Portsmouth, looking lively and energetic up front. With five minutes to go, Coventry have a chance to wrap things up when Asmir Begovic spills Aron Gunnarsson’s shot, but Clinton Morrison dillies, dallies, takes the most cumbersome root around Begovic possible (short of digging a tunnel and going underneath him), and is eventually forced into a half-hearted cross back across the face of goal. In the dying seconds, Coventry have almost predictable cause to regret their profligacy. A swirling cross sees two Coventry defenders go for the same ball, and Stephen Wright loops a header over his own goalkeeper Keiren Westwood to level things up and take the match into extra-time. There don’t seem to be many howls of anguish from the home crowd – more grumbling at having to spend an extra half-hour out in the cold. It’s that sort of evening.
Leon Best is withdrawn two minutes into extra time. Surprising, really. Coventry start the extra thirty minutes with renewed purpose, and he has looked like their most likely source of goals. The mediocrity continues. The midfields cancel each other out. Portsmouth hit the post, but the flag is already up. In the second period of extra time, Coventry start to tire. John Utaka finds himself a little space on the left hand side of the goal but has a shot blocked. It looks as if the match is draining away towards a penalty shootout. Extra-time ticks over thirty minutes. A Portsmouth corner from the right hand side swings out to the penalty spot, where Aaron Mokoena is completely unmarked and heads wide of Westwood to win the match for Portsmouth. Tired defending, and a lazy, easy goal. Portsmouth have won it.
The actual fact of the final result aside, there was little for Portsmouth to take much heart from this evening. Coventry’s limitations were straightforward, but it still took a shade over one hundred and twenty minutes for them to edge their way through to a home match in the Fourth Round against Sunderland. Mid-table in the Championship and not firing on all cylinders, Coventry still came desperately close to knocking them out of the FA Cup. There must have been points this evening when that balmy day at Wembley less than two years ago couldn’t have seemed further away. Still, they’re through. A little extra money, a little extra kudos, but the suspicion remains that Portsmouth will have bigger fish to fry over the next few weeks or so.