Echoes of a Sky Blue past

FAN'S EYE VIEW No 101: Coventry City
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Coventrians had cause to remember St Valentine's Day. It was the day Brigitte Bardot came to the cathedral but it was the arrival of another wrinkly which was to be of more lasting consequence as, half a mile away, Ron Atkinson made his grand entry at Highfield Road.

Going out through another door was the deposed Phil Neal. If one wishes to gauge the state of a club's health, you can do worse than eavesdrop in one of those little hostelries that cluster around football grounds. In the case of Coventry, the Elastic Inn is as good a place as any to meet the Sky Blues cognoscenti. In there, the death sentence on Neal had been passed some weeks earlier, and it was always just a matter of time before the boardroom caught up.

Poor Phil Neal, he had sneaked into the position in the first place, following Bobby Gould's surprise resignation. His side became obsessed with getting everyone behind the ball while continuing to defend with remarkable ineptitude. However, a closer examination of City's personnel belies their image as a dreary and colourless outfit. Peter Ndlovu, Dion Dublin and Roy Wegerle could grace any Premiership side, but this season Ndlovu has taken a step backwards while Wegerle found himself consigned to the substitutes' bench.

So, enter Big Ron, and within 24 hours he had plugged the gaping midfield hole with Kevin Richardson, and last week he bought David Burrows to solve the long-standing left-back problem. The Coventry Evening Telegraph is almost beside itself, with headlines like "Big Ron Fever Grips City." Who can blame them? Last Monday's edition generated eight pages of "Big Ron" copy, including a "Hello" style double-page spread on Ron's "luxurious" home life.

The old city has not had this sort of thing for years - some are saying not since Jimmy Hill's arrival in 1961. In fact, the two appointments have little in common. Hill, at 31, was an unknown quantity who had never managed a club before, and it was to be another year before the Sky Blue revolution got underway.

A more apt comparison would be with a now almost-forgotten figure: Jesse Carver. In 1955, with City malingering in the Third Division South, the chairman announced "the most important step in the club's history" - the appointment as manager of Carver.

Carver joined City from Roma in a deal which was said to have made him the highest-paid manager in the Football League. He had coached Juventus to the Italian title in 1952 and had largely rebuilt the Torino side when their entire team had been lost in an air crash. For Carver, the appeal of Coventry was "the chance of taking a club from the Third to the First Division."

Excitement mounted throughout the summer as headlines like "Mystery Moves at Closed Ground" and "The Man Who Holds Soccer's Secrets" fuelled expectation. City kicked off with a 3-1 win over Bournemouth and all were suitably dazzled by the "close-passing and beautiful rhythmic patterns." The side's form under Carver was, in a way, remarkable - at Highfield Road. They were unbeatable but they lost almost every away game during his reign and promotion was never a possibility.

Not that it mattered to Carver. At the end of December, after less than four months in charge, he announced his resignation "on health grounds." A couple of days later, he flew out to Rome where, upon arrival, he was appointed manager of Lazio - thus bringing to an end City's brief and somewhat barmy flirtation with the exotic world of Serie A.

Will Ron outstay his illustrious predecessor? He should do, with a contract that makes him virtually unsackable. But if you really want the answer, ask the regulars at the Elastic.