Mark Robins: Ready to accentuate the positive in bid to banish the gloom from Coventry, starting at Arsenal
New Coventry manager faces Arsenal with club in a downward spiral but, he tells Simon Hart, he envisages a brighter future
You have to go back 20 years now to the day in August 1992 when Mark Robins helped cause a stir by scoring twice on his Norwich City debut in a 4-2 victory at Arsenal. It was the first day of the inaugural Premier League season and the 42-year-old remembers it well. "I was a sub, I'd only signed the day before and I came in and scored two goals," he recalled yesterday. "One was a header with my first touch and the second one a volley."
Robins heads to north London today in new-boy mode once more, albeit this time as the freshly installed manager of a Coventry City side facing Arsenal in the League Cup third round.
Upsetting Arsenal again appears a mission impossible for Robins with a Coventry team at their lowest ebb for nearly half a century: Saturday's 2-1 home defeat by Carlisle in his first game was their fifth league loss in a row and left them joint-bottom of League One. "See what I mean about negativity?" he joked when this was put to him, but he knows it is no laughing matter.
"There is an air of negativity around from everybody I speak to," Robins observed, adding: "We've got a group of players here who've been battered from pillar to post. We've got to start being positive with them."
Lifting the gloom will take some doing given Coventry's downward spiral. Since exiting the Premier League in 2001, they have had 11 different managers in 11 years yet have managed just one top-10 finish in the Championship. The 2005 move from Highfield Road to the Ricoh Arena, meanwhile, did not have the desired impact after the club sold their 50 per cent stake in the new ground to the Alan Edward Higgs Charity to raise much-needed funds. As a consequence, Coventry have been paying £1.2m in rent annually while receiving no income from stadium commercial activities.
Then came last season's relegation from the Championship which left Coventry in the third tier of English football for the first time since 1964, when Jimmy Hill led them to the first of two promotions. The high point of the club's subsequent 34-year stay in the top flight came fully 25 years ago now with their 3-2 FA Cup final victory over Tottenham Hotspur in a thrilling match famous for Keith Houchen's diving header.
That triumph is a fading memory and, Robins, the former Rotherham and Barnsley manager, will encounter a disillusioned fan base. Although some 8,000 Coventry fans are expected at the Emirates, only 10,674 were at the Ricoh Arena last Saturday, and for Dave Bennett, scorer of their first goal at Wembley in 1987, the apathy is understandable. "I do feel for the fans, I am sure they want to come back and watch Coventry but with everything going on it doesn't feel good," he said. "The fans do feel a little bit let down."
The cost-cutting of the club's hedge-fund owners, Sisu, has alienated some supporters and led to the departure of Ray Ranson, the man who attracted their investment in 2007, averting administration in the process. Last season's doomed campaign offers a case in point. After losing nine players in the summer of 2011, Coventry brought in only one outfield player and manager Andy Thorn then had to sell his leading scorer, Lukas Jutkiewicz, in January. Bennett said: "[Thorn] lost good players with a bit of experience, and then they couldn't get players in to help the youngsters." Then, after retaining Thorn and allowing him to recruit nine new players this summer, Sisu dismissed him after he began the campaign with three draws.
Yet the club's managing director Tim Fisher apologised to a fans' forum this month – "to draw a line once and for all under the previous mistakes that have been recognised by Sisu" – and is eager to look forward. The club's £500,000 monthly losses have been halved and they are reportedly close to agreeing a deal to buy back their 50 per cent share in the stadium. "It is critical – access to the matchday revenues is very much part of being a football club," said Fisher.
Despite their worst start since 1974, promotion remains the aim according to Steve Waggott, the club's development director, who points to a £4.2m investment in a squad bolstered by four players recruited by Robins.
The new manager is happy with this ambition. Soon after his Highbury double, on this very day in September 1992, Robins actually played for Norwich against Coventry in a fixture between the then top two teams in the Premier League. He cites Norwich's success in rebounding from the third tier as cause for hope for Coventry. "[This] is a magnificent football club, it is a club that was in the top flight when I was growing up and one that wouldn't be out of place in the top flight should it return there, should we make sure the building blocks are in place. Don't get me wrong, it's a long way off but you look at Norwich, Southampton who have done particularly well and ended up with back-to-back promotions."
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