Down side

Coventry City's first ever relegation will cost them on and off the pitch, writes Neville Hadsley 

For Coventry City fans, relegation is a new and strange experience. It is the first time City have been relegated from any division since 1958. Even that was more of a reshuffle as Divisions Three North and South became Divisions Three and Four. In fact it is the first time Cov­entry have finished in the bottom two of any league since 1952.

Thirty-four years in the top flight have brought the club little of substance: one mem­orable FA Cup victory, three or four dec­ent seasons, two League Cup semi-finals and an overdraft that would raise eyebrows at the IMF. It’s not much to show for a stint in the top flight that has only been bettered by Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal.

In those 34 seasons, the Sky Blues finished in the top ten just seven times – the last 12 seasons ago – and only once in the top six (1970). It is possible, seeing as almost every other club has had a promotion or title win at some point, that Sky Blues fans have seen more defeats in the last 34 years than any other set of fans in the country.

There is a myth that we secretly enjoyed the relegation scraps, but I never liked them any more than you might enjoy being taken hos­tage and then released by armed troops. Relief at escape soon turned to anger that we had been put in that position in the first place. This season we certainly did nothing to suggest that we deserved anything other than relegation. The team, a mediocre bunch, played with little of the skill, determination or pride of the sur­vivors of the past. For all the millions they cost in fees and wages I doubt if any of them would have got into the 1987 FA Cup-winning side.

As for Gordon Strachan, everyone outside Godiva’s own city loves him. He’s funny, and every football fan remembers with affection (as indeed I do) the way he played the game. But his inability to spot our weakness up front, and his refusal to play proven goalscorers like John Aloisi and Ysrael Zuniga, proved fatal.

As did his penchant for playing players out of position. Gary Breen, our best centre-half and player of the year, couldn’t get a game until October and even then it was as a right-back. It took the Wee Fella until December to con­clude that Craig Bellamy – all £6.5million of him – was not a striker. His four goals from open play in 33 Premiership appearances tell their own tale.

But it was not Gordon Strachan’s fault. Our demise, in the end, was all the work of the bank manager. That is according to chairman Bryan Richardson, who is now telling anyone who would listen that the bank told him to sell Robbie Keane. The club’s debt (estimated at anywhere between £30 million and £50 mil­lion) forced his hand, he says.

You might ask how a club in the Premiership since its inception could run up such a massive debt. You might ask why a club so in debt would pay £6.5 million for a player who had just returned from a serious knee injury. You might ask why such a club would plan to build the single most expensive stadium built by a club in Britain on the basis of a home support that hovers around 17,000. No doubt there is a chap in a pin-stripe suit sitting in the offices of the Co-operative Bank who has all the answers.

Few will admit it, but some Sky Blues fans are genuinely relieved it is all over. Many have seen, the John Sillett/George Curtis years apart, 30 or more years of continuous struggle. Gordon Milne, Bobby Gould, Terry But­cher, Don MacKay, your boys took one hell of a beating. And Phil Neal – sacked by Richardson in 1995 because of poor results but who still has a better record at Highfield Road than either Ron Atkinson or Gordon Strachan – can now afford himself a characteristically crook­ed smile. Go on Phil, treat yourself.

From WSC 173 July 2001. What was happening this month