Apparently Coventry City only had to win their five remaining home games to save themselves from relegation to League One, but that proved to be easier said than done, writes Ed Wilson
Forget fancy notions of skill and tactics. Relegation battles, the professionals tell us, are all about belief. Nobody – not the manager, players or supporters – believes Coventry can stay up more than the psychotically optimistic radio presenter I am listening to on the way to today's game. For him, survival is almost guaranteed. "All we have to do," he insists, "is win our remaining five home games." He is not deflated by the knowledge they have managed only seven victories all season. They are due a change of fortune. You begin to wonder what it would take to undermine his chirpiness. His wife could ask for a divorce during Donna and Althea's Uptown Top Ranking and he would be back on air seconds later, joshing his way through the traffic and travel.
In the real world, this has been a dreadful season for Coventry. In addition to the old woes of player sales, falling attendances and rumours of terrifyingly large monthly deficits, the club go into this fixture under a transfer embargo – a punishment from the Football League for having failed to file their accounts on time.
Performances on the pitch have done nothing to alleviate the misery. Andy Thorn's side have not been out of the bottom three since October. Along with Doncaster Rovers and Nottingham Forest, they are the lowest scorers in the division. Alex Nimely, the brightest playing star in our feeble firmament, does not even belong to us. He is on loan from Manchester City. Every silver lining has a cloud.
Birmingham City, our opponents today, have their share of off-field problems too. In addition to their own transfer embargo, Carson Yeung, Birmingham's owner, continues to be investigated in Hong Kong for money laundering. The team's response to this adversity has been impressive. Despite a glut of games and their limited resources, they are having a great season and currently occupy the division's final play-off place.
Outside the ground about an hour before kick-off there is little of the tension you might expect from a potentially season-defining clash between two fairly local rivals. Like many new stadiums, the Ricoh Arena is not a hotbed of atmosphere. This is partly because it is still struggling for an identity seven years after the club moved in. Is it a football stadium? Is it a music venue? Or is it a "state-of-the-art conference facility located just yards from junction three of the M6"? Other clubs remember their successes and traditions by naming stands after iconic players and managers. With the Lloyds Pharmacy Stand, we honour exceptional customer service and an unparalleled knowledge of flu remedies.
That is not to say there is no atmosphere. There is, but it is not one you would normally associate with football. In an effort to connect with the community, Coventry have invited several local scout groups to today's game. Officially, they have been allocated 2,000 tickets, but the way they fill the concrete concourses of the stadium makes it feel as if there are ten times that number. The incongruity of it is almost creepy – part football match, part jamboree, part David Lynch film. This unusual flavour continues in the stands. Guided by the philosophy that if something is worth doing it is worth doing in uniform, the scouts add a third colour to the sky blue and royal blue palette – a mass of khaki covers one corner of the ground.
For a long time it looked like the highlight of the day would be the pre-match marching band's free-jazz deconstruction of the theme from Rocky, as the game refused to get going. Both teams spend much of the first half knocking the ball around in the middle third of the pitch, often without any obvious intent. Chris Burke does some decent work on the Birmingham right, but he is not able to carve out a real opportunity. Marlon King, returning for the first time to the club he left last summer, divides his energies between neatly linking up with the Birmingham midfield and standing offside. He is booed half-heartedly when he goes near the ball. For Coventry, Carl Baker manages to get Jonathan Spector back-pedalling a few times, but cannot deliver a telling cross. Alex Nimely is booked for diving. That's about it, really.
Neither team allows this lack of incident to tempt them away from their commitment to passing. Perhaps this is not surprising, as the obvious target-men – Clive Platt for Coventry and Nikola Zigic for Birmingham – have started on the bench. This patient approach is not appreciated universally. Midway through the half, Coventry's goalkeeper Joe Murphy rolls the ball out to Richard Keogh, who exchanges passes with his centre-back partner Nathan Cameron while he assesses his options. An elderly man sitting near me, who appears to have wandered into the match from a Samuel Beckett play, whimpers "Oh God, not this" and covers his face with his hands.
In fairness, his desire to see something – anything – happen is understandable. From the way the game meanders by, you would be forgiven for assuming both teams have nothing to play for. The home supporters are generally mute with apprehension, shifting uncomfortably in their seats and checking the time on the big screen every few seconds. Occasionally, fear bubbles up into a therapeutic scream of incoherent, often contradictory instruction: "Get tight! You're too tight! Space! Space! SPACE!" Birmingham fans – giving an indication of how low this tie ranks on their list of Midlands rivalries – entertain themselves by detailing the ways in which they would like to degrade Villa supporters. The half ends without either team mustering a shot on target.
Presumably the managers take advantage of the interval to remind the players there is quite a lot at stake, as both sides start the second period with more ambition and purpose. The quality, however, is still patchy. Around the 55-minute mark, Cody McDonald receives the ball midway into the Birmingham half with space in front of him to run at the defence. But McDonald – recently returned to Coventry's starting line-up after a layoff with injury – requires several touches to reacquaint himself not just with the ball but, seemingly, his own feet. His eventual pass out to the right flank is three or four yards behind the sprinting Baker, destroying the momentum of the move and uniting the home crowd in exasperation.
After an hour without a clear opening, the big lads are finally introduced as Platt comes on for McDonald and Zigic replaces Erik Huseklepp. In a vindication of the grey-haired depressive, the game really opens up. Several of Platt's knockdowns find their way to Baker, who is having more and more success against Spector. In the 70th minute he lopes past the former West Ham defender and floats a cross towards the back post. Gary McSheffrey, running into the box from the opposite flank, heads the ball back across the goal and into the corner of the net.
It is a great finish, but the celebrations are muted. Normally, winning a free-kick in his own half would be a sufficient reason for McSheffrey to tear his shirt off in ecstasy, but today he makes do with a raised index finger. Presumably this is a demonstration of respect for his former club, but it also serves as a reminder – if one were needed – that we should not get carried away. Prior to this game, the Sky Blues had dropped 13 points from winning positions at home, more than any other team in the division. I prepare myself for a horrible 20 minutes.
In the event, I am spared the anxiety. It takes Birmingham just two minutes to equalise. Keogh and Cameron misjudge the flight of a long, looping throw into the box, allowing it to clear their heads. King, loitering on the six-yard line, nips in front of Jordan Clarke to sweep the ball into the bottom corner of Murphy's goal. Like McSheffrey, he does not overdo the celebrations. His simple but clinical finish sums up exactly what Coventry have missed this season.
This sudden flurry of activity seems to alert both teams to the possibility of victory. Coventry pile forward. A half-cleared corner falls to Oliver Norwood, a 20-year-old loanee from Manchester United, who controls the ball on the edge of the box and chips it delicately towards the goal. Boaz Myhill, the Birmingham keeper, watches as it sails over his head, clips the outside of his right-hand post and bounces to safety. Having survived that scare, Chris Hughton's team exert some pressure of their own. With five minutes remaining, Burke hits a deep cross towards King at the far post. His header ripples the side-netting.
In the final minute of the 90, just as we are resigning ourselves to a deadlock, Birmingham win a free-kick on the edge of the Coventry box. Jordon Mutch, on as a substitute for Guirane N'Daw, hits a dismal effort into the wall. The ball ricochets high into the air, prompting Mutch and Nimely to contest a header in the penalty area. For the second time today, the latter falls to the ground theatrically. On this occasion, he is adjudged to be the victim of an arm across the face, for which Mutch is shown a straight red card. I miss the incident completely – my powers of observation are impeded by the fact I am screaming for someone to lump the ball over the stand to safety.
The sending off, and the announcement of seven minutes of injury time, give Coventry hope they can win the game. But the Sky Blues have been haunted by a lack of conviction all season and today is no different. They resort to launching hopeful balls into the box, making it easy for Birmingham to keep them at arm's length. Conor Thomas, a replacement for the injured Baker, has half a sight of goal but refuses to shoot with his left foot. Myhill, who can set himself in the time it takes Thomas to drag the ball onto his right side, blocks the eventual effort.
And that is the final chance. The game finishes as a draw, which is not particularly helpful for either side. For Birmingham, the two points dropped will be a disappointment, a setback in their pursuit of promotion. For Coventry, despite a respectable performance against a good side, it feels like a minor disaster. Relegation looms large. Clearly, the radio presenter's message did not get through to the players. They just had to win all their remaining home games. Simple as that.
From WSC 303 May 2012