Coventry & Exeter: An End Of Season Tale Of Two Cities
It might be argued that to support Coventry City is to take a long-term view upon being a football supporter. This season has just ended with the team having finished in sixth place in League Two, a statistic that feels unremarkable until we remember that this is the first time that the Sky Blues have finished as high as sixth place in any division in which the club has competed since finishing in sixth place in the First Division at the end of the 1969/70 season. They reached the final of the Football League Trophy at the end of last season, but this was their first trip to Wembley since the 1987 FA Cup Final.
Having been relegated into League Two at the end of last season, this time around was an opportunity at least for Coventry to win a few matches, and while they were unable to challenge to any significant extent, at least sixth place was an opportunity for the club to get into the play-offs, for the first time since they were introduced, the same year that they last won the FA Cup, thirty-one years ago. With five minutes left to play of the first leg, it felt as though getting this far might have been a step too far for Coventry. A goal down from Jonathan Forte four minutes into the second half had given Notts the lead, but with three minutes of the ninety left to play, a tackle by Matt Tootle on Coventry’s Tom Bayliss was ruled – somewhat controversially – as a penalty kick which was converted by Marc McNulty to level the scores.
The second leg turned out to be just as controversial as the first. Coventry won the return match by four goals to one at Meadow Lane, but the final score only told a part of the story of the evening, with both Jonathan Forte having a goal which would have brought the home side level being disallowed for offside and Max Diamou looking offside in the build-up to the third Coventry goal, which effectively ended this semi-final as a contest. It was a result which marked Coventry out as the only one of the six clubs to reach the final of their play-off after having played their second leg away from home.
Exeter City, meanwhile, went to Wembley for a second season in a row, quite possibly with demons in the backs of their minds. Relegation from the Football League in 2003 led to five years in the relative wilderness of the Football Conference before promotion back through the play-offs in 2008 and a second successive promotion into League One the following year. The club spent three years there before getting relegated back and had been living a fairly quiet mid-table existence until the last two seasons, when the play-offs have come calling.
The club is still owned by its supporters trust, and the manager, Paul Tisdale, has been the longest-serving manager in the top four divisions since Arsene Wenger left Arsenal at the end of the Premier League season, having been appointed into the job in June 2006. There have been considerable upgrading works going son at their St James Park home this season, finally bringing two sides of what had been one of the Football League’s more rustic homes into the twenty-first century. This, of course, is in sharp contrast to Coventry City, who have had ten managers in the time that Tisdale has been in charge at Exeter, were sent to a season in puragatory in Northampton after a rent strike designed to force the owners of the stadium to reduce the rent they were paying, only for the owners to sell the ground to London Wasps rugby club, who now entertain the club for whom the stadium was built as tenants.
Court papers continue to be flung around like confetti and there remains some degree of talk of a new stadium – this has been going on for years with nothing bar a couple of artists’ impressions nothing concrete has ever come of it – and the atmosphere around the club, whilst it might not be quite as poisonous as it was two or three years ago, remains one of a very uneasy detente. The club’s owners remain in place and nothing much has changed, with average crowds of around 9,000 continuing to leave the Ricoh Arena looking somewhat sparsely attended on match days.
But cometh the big occasion, cometh the fans. Reaching this play-off final – just as happened with last year’s Football League Trophy final – was an opportunity for the supporters of the club to flex their muscles, to remind the world that they still exist, and of what they might be capable of should the owners of the club get their act together and focus on running the club rather than their extra-curricular activities. Thirty-five thousand Coventry supporters made the trip to Wembley on Monday afternoon – another Midlands club experiencing, by their own standards, lean times, Aston Villa, took a similarly huge support to London at the weekend – in a crowd of a little over 50,000 people. We can argue long and hard over the effects of having a huge crowd behind you, but whilst it didn’t seem to do Villa much good, Coventry’s players seemed to rise to the occasion.
Coventry City may also have been assisted slightly by the uncertainty hanging over their opponents at the moment. Exeter may be a very different club to Coventry, but Paul Tisdale has been linked with other jobs and the relegation of Milton Keynes into League Two seems to have made his moving there some form of inevitability and it felt as though, in a game of thin margins, this might have proved to be a significant difference as legs started to tire a little in the second half of the match. Coventry won comfortably, in the end, by three goals to one. Indeed, it was the most comfortable play-off final win of the weekend by some margin.
But where do Coventry City go from here? This is a question with both literal and philosophical answers. In a literal sense, the rowing regarding the Ricoh Arena may have become little more than a background hum, but it’s still there and it’s far from beyond the realms of possibility that the club could end up walking out from its rented home again, although the likelihood of aa new ground doesn’t seem much more likely that it did four or five years ago, when it was definitely just around the corner. On the pitch, once the optimism of the play-off final win starts to subside a little, then the reality is that promotion after having finished in sixth place in the table carries with it challenges for the new season.
Mark Robins has done well this season. Merely turning around the despondency that came with relegation at the end of the previous season is worthy of credit. But League One will be a very different challenge to League Two, and a season of mid-table stability might be the best for everybody, giving an opportunity to build from the bottom. In recent years. Coventry have found themselves highly dependent on loan signings, and it was certainly encouraging to see Robins move away from that model, in League Two. Of course, more cynical Coventry supporters might well feel that stability is not a word that has been readily associated with their club in recent years. Perhaps a feeling of what success can feel like for the owners of the club will change the attitudes of those that have done so much to damage Coventry City over the last few years.