Sent To Coventry: The End Of The Road For Mark Hughes
He’d been standing at the gallows drop for such a long time that yesterday’s result might have been considered something of a formality, but for Mark Hughes yesterday evening’s sacking by Stoke City still most likely stung all the more for the further humiliation heaped upon both his and Stoke’s reputation by their loss at League Two side Coventry City in the Third Round of the FA Cup. This was the day upon which Hughes ran out of excuses. Slumps in the league can sometimes be mitigated by promises of jam tomorrow, but cup football, with the harsh glare provided by its ninety minutes or be eliminated format, has a tendency to shine unwanted lights upon failing teams, and yesterday afternoon at The Ricoh Arena, Stoke City failed.
By the time the full-time whistle blew at The Ricoh Arena yesterday afternoon, the veneer of sophistication that coats any Premier League club these days had been well and truly wiped away. Stoke City ended their final match with Hughes in charge with six forwards on the pitch as the manager threw the kitchen sink at trying to avoid the humiliation of FA Cup elimination at the hands of lower division opposition, but it can hardly be said that Stoke didn’t have their chances. Having fallen behind to a first half goal from Jordan Willis, Stoke were handed a route back into the match when Willis found himself lured into a trap of the making of Ramadan Sobhi, committing a foul which allowed Charlie Adam to bring the visitors level from the penalty spot.
It should have ended there, of course. Stoke pushed on to try to save themselves the inconvenience and indignity of a replay, but midway through the second half Jack Grimmer let fly from the edge of the penalty area and suddenly the Premier League side were chasing the game again. Hughes threw everything at trying to rescue a draw, but in a match of chances at both ends of the pitch it was difficult to avoid the feeling that Coventry might just as easily have extended their lead by a goal or two. Sometimes, the nature of the defeat can be as important in the overall perception of a team as the mere result in splendid isolation, and so disjointed were this – reasonably strong, considering the players at Hughes’ disposal – team that the manager may well have not survived even had they scrambled a draw. Between the two sides, it would have been difficult to spot which of the two was a Premier League club and which was plying its trade three divisions lower.
Stoke City’s slide towards the relegation places at the foot of the Premier League has been of the aimless drift rather than precipitous plummet variety. The team won two matches in December, one at the very start of the month against Leicester City and the other two days before Christmas against West Bromwich Albion, but this faltering form came at a time when other clubs towards the bottom of the table were starting to patch together slightly better form than they had at the start of the season. Defensively careless – December saw five goals conceded against both Spurs and Chelsea – and unimaginative when pushing forward, Stoke came into the new season having had an uninspiring summer in the transfer market, with that existential fear of relegation from the Premier League becoming increasingly real with each passing week. And yes, that FA Cup defeat might have been the spark that lit the powderkeg under Mark Hughes, but it’s retaining access to the Premier League’s golden teat that really counts.
There was a time, of course, when the presence of Stoke City in the top flight of English football had something of an element of novelty about it. Promoted from the Championship as runners-up in 2008, it had been more than twenty years since their last previous appearance at this level – the 1984/85 season was particularly traumatic for the club, which ended the season relegated in bottom place having accumulated just seventeen points from a forty-two match league season – and throughout their decade at this level they’ve seldom bothered either the top or the bottom of the table. But the club has undoubtedly changed. The siege mentality managership of Tony Pulis is a rapidly fading memory, and it has been suggested that the once fearsome atmosphere of The Bet365 Stadium has been diluted by a degree of complacency that has come with this lengthy unbroken run.
Yet at the same time, Stoke City have become something of a byword for the futility of life in the Premier League for all bar a gilded few. Stoke finished each of the last three seasons prior to the last in ninth place in the table, smacking their faces firmly against the glass ceiling above them. Critics and cynics have questioned how futile this might all feel, given that the only way from the sort of position that the club has been maintaining is down. There is a certain irony to the fact that the FA Cup provided not only the coda to Mark Hughes’ time in charge of the club, but also one of its authentic highlights of a decade of Premier League football. Their appearance in the 2011 FA Cup final might have ended in defeat to a Manchester City side that was just starting its journey to where it resides today, but a first FA Cup final appearance after one hundred and forty-eight years felt like an appropriate marker for the progress that the club had made in ascending to the Premier League and staying there with a degree of comfort. This all feels like an increasingly distant memory, especially when set against elimination at the hands of League Two opposition in the Third Round this weekend.
At the same time that Stoke City were getting promoted into the Premier League in 2008, Coventry City were surviving in the Championship by the skin of their teeth. Coventry were in the Premier League themselves until 2001, but even the most pessimistic of supporters swould have been unlikely to predict just how far the club would fall. Relegated to League One in 2012 and again at the end of last season, Coventry City remain one of English football’s enduring crisis clubs, a stark reminder of what can go wrong when speculators and investors become entwined with the game. Sisu, the club’s hedge fund owners, have overseen two relegations, a year spent in exile at Northampton in what many considered to be a naked attempt to wrest ownership of The Ricoh Arena from the charity/council partnership that owned it.
The council eventually lost patience and sold the shareholding in the company that owned the stadium to the London Wasps rugby union club. Court case after court case has rumbled through the courts as Sisu’s modus operandum, to seek to bulldoze their way to what they want through the heavy-handed use of litigation, have amounted to little to benefit the club so far. Coventry’s short term lease agreed with Wasps to keep playing at the Ricoh Arena, ends at the end of this season. The club’s long-term future remains in the air with promises of a new ground having come to nothing and crowds have dropped to six or seven thousand people rattling around The Ricoh Arena as some supporters boycott, while it is now a genuine concern that a potential generation of supporters might have been lost to the club altogether.
One of the more peculiar truths of Coventry City’s history is that the club hasn’t finished in so much of the top six of any division in which its played since 1970. Indeed, the club’s top ten finishes over the course of the last thirty years can be comfortably counted by the fingers on one hand. Against such a backdrop, that manager Mark Robins has been able to put together a team worthy of the name is an achievement in itself. This is Robins’ second spell in charge of the club. His first came during the 2012/13 season when, in spite of a ten point deduction from the Football League for entering into administration, he took his team to the brink of being able to challenge for a place in the play-offs – before moving to Huddersfield in February 2013.
Robins returned to Coventry in March of last year. At the time of writing, his team sits in the third automatic promotion place in League Two, perhaps the sort of spot where one might have half-expected them to be before taking into consideration the disruption and corrosion behind the scenes, whilst towards the end of last season he was in charge of the club at Wembley when Coventry defeated Oxford United to win the EFL Trophy in front of 43,000 Coventry supporters, a reminder of the weight at which this particular club should be punching. His team is currently at the cusp of being able to end a forty-seven year long barren run, but would Sisu invest in the team were it to get promoted back to League One? Little in the history of the hedge fund’s ownership of the club suggests that they would, so the question of whether even promotion back would be anything more than a temporary distraction from other more fundamental issues facing the club remains open to question.
Coventry City may be an extreme example, but their position continues to flag the enormous differences in the lives of clubs of the Premier League and the rest. Whilst Coventry supporters fret over where their club will even be playing in the reasonably near future, Stoke City are troubling themselves over the thought of losing £100m a year in television money should they be relegated from the Premier League at the end of this season. To put those numbers into perspective, that £100m is five times the value that Sisu have put on Coventry City if they are to sell the club altogether, and that figure is widely considered to be hopelessly over-optimistic. This in itself explains why Mark Hughes’ fate was sealed upon the blowing of the final whistle at The Ricoh Arena yesterday afternoon. When the financial gulf is that big, there are no excuses and there is nowhere to hide. The FA Cup may or may not have mattered to Stoke City this season, but when one year’s television contract money would buy your opposition at least five times over in their entirety, losing to that opposition demonstrates how disjointed have become within the club this season. Being sent to Coventry has probably never sounded quite so apposite.