Stuck on repeat

Neville Hadsley explains what it is like to be stuck following a team to whom very little has happened for over four decades

Many football fans love this time of year. The season has not yet begun and anything is possible. The start of the campaign cannot come soon enough. As a Sky Blues fan of four decades all I feel is the onset of mild resignation. Experience tells Coventry City supporters  that, in all likelihood, our dreams will be squashed by Christmas and all Santa will bring are the annual recriminations and the knowledge that all that lies ahead is six months of treading water until the whole thing starts over again.

I’m sure the fans of many clubs are reading in this and nodding, muttering: “Yes, that’s us too!” Let me tell you, it isn’t. You may have felt misery, but you cannot comprehend the remarkable depth of mediocrity endured in the living memory of Coventry fans. In the championship of nothingness, we top the league.

For I’m sure that if you fans of other clubs stretch your memories you can recall a good season in the not too distant past. Maybe you got in to Europe? Or nearly did? Maybe you got promoted? Or made the play-offs? Lucky you. No Sky Blues fan under the age of 45 can remember what any of that feels like.

The fact is Coventry City have not finished in the top six of any division since April 1970. For sheer absence of achievement, it’s a record no other club in all four divisions can come close to, let alone match. It’s true that there have, over the same period, been very few lows. Only one relegation in all that time. But even that feels like a failure – no automatic hope of doing well at a lower level to sweeten the pill of a wretched year. It says a lot that perhaps the best time I’ve ever had following the Sky Blues in the league was seeing us beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane in May 1996 when an almost unbearably tense 2-1 win, combined with results elsewhere, kept us in the Premier League.

But escaping relegation – an art at which Coventry were once masters – is not success. It is just a stark reflection of what we are – a club that never finishes as also-rans, let alone champions. When it comes to titles, promotions, play-off finals or even play-off semis, I am still a virgin.

And now, stuck in the mud at the lower end of the wasteland of the old second division – a place where escaping relegation no longer impresses – I feel utterly convinced that I will remain one forever. We always start well, of course – we haven’t lost on the opening day for ten years and I still have a yellowing cutting showing that Bobby Gould’s Sky Blues were top of the very first Premier League table. But, without fail, it always slips away.

When I see young kids and teens in their Sky Blue shirts at the Ricoh Arena, I see a whole generation who have been cheated of one of the fundamental rights of the football fan – the experience of the ups and downs. Most of those who loyally attend are too young to have experienced even the rationed ecstasy of finishing seventh in the old First Division in 1988. As I sit there in the vast expanse of sky-blue bucket seats I sometimes marvel not at how many are empty, but how many have an arse on them. There’s up to 20,000 fans a fortnight who have had nothing to sustain them since long before every player in the team before them was born.

In 1962, Jimmy Hill took Coventry by the scruff of the neck, changing the kit, the nickname and even writing the lyrics to the club song which is still sung today. More importantly, he delivered the miracle of two championships in four seasons to take us into the top flight for the first time ever. When, in 1970, his successor Noel Cantwell steered us to sixth in only our third season in the top flight, it seemed like just another step up the ladder.

A trip into Europe and the Fairs Cup followed and it seemed that the sky was the limit. Even a hammering by the Bayern Munich of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller – followed by a consolation victory at Highfield Road – could not dampen the optimism. That win against Bayern was the first ever match I went to. Little did I know that – with the exception of a Wembley win in 1987 – this was as good as it would ever get.

For the start of this season, we have a new manager in Aidy Boothroyd, our 20th since Cantwell was sacked less than two years after taking us into Europe. I really hope that Boothroyd can end four decades of mediocrity, of knowing our place, of being gallant failures. If he does, he will deserve a statue, right next to the one currently planned for Hill.

From WSC 283 September 2010