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Football: Coventry perform escape act once again

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Coventry City 2
Perhaps Brian Mahwinney should have contacted Coventry City when he tried to plot the Conservatives' escape from the abyss. Not that Geoffrey Robinson, Labour MP for Coventry North-west and one of the prime backers behind City's recent spending, would have given away many secrets.

Not that there is a secret, beyond team spirit when it matters, a steady nerve, and so much good fortune it borders on the supernatural. Yesterday was the 10th time in their 30-season tenure that Coventry have survived relegation from the top flight on the last day of the season. For the seventh time they needed other teams to lose as well getting a result themselves.

Incredibly all the necessary results occurred. But, as so often with Coventry, there was a twist. Traffic problems on the M25 and M1 meant the game kicked off 15 minutes late evoking memories of the notorious escape of 1977 when Coventry and Bristol City started late and ended playing out a draw after hearing that Sunderland had lost.

This was not quite the same situation. Coventry had to win regardless of other results. It did mean, however, that when the other games finished with 14 minutes still left at White Hart Lane, they knew victory would definitely keep them up.

Coventry were 2-1 up at that stage. Dion Dublin, playing in attack, rose unchallenged to glance in Gary McAllister's cross in the game's first significant action after 12 minutes. Then, after two bouts of pushing and shoving - six players were booked in the first 24 minutes - Paul Williams volleyed a second from McAllister's corner.

Two-up after 38 minutes, Coventry's first requirement, a win for themselves, seemed safe. Then Teddy Sheringham's 43rd-minute free-kick hit the post and Paul McVeigh followed up to score his first goal for Spurs.

The nerves began to bite then and the last 14 minutes were fantastically tense. The travelling Coventry support had made the situation clear, but it did not seem to help for Coventry retreated deeper and deeper in an effort to hold on to their lead. Tottenham, struggling to gain something from a disappointing season, attacked incessantly: no one was going to be able to say they had let the Sky Blues off lightly.

Within seconds of the final whistles at Elland Road and Selhurst Park, Steve Ogrizovic denied Jason Dozzell. He went on to save from Ruel Fox before making two exceptional saves in a minute from Dozzell and Neale Fenn. Darren Huckerby, with a little more composure, could have settled the matter from a couple of breaks, but it went to 90 minutes and beyond before Martin Bodenham whistled their survival.

Coventry's fans, who had dusted off the "City are staying up" banners, erupted with joy. This may be a near-annual event but there seems no danger of their becoming blase about survival. "In a way the players are disappointed at being so excited at just being in the league," Strachan said. "They said 'we have won nothing' but they have won something. They have won their pride back. They can look people in the eye again.

"I enjoyed watching the players enjoy themselves celebrating with each other. At the end you feel nothing for yourself, you feel for the players and the fans and everyone associated with the club. You think of the players and managers who kept the club going on a shoestring budget. Everything they had done would have been wasted if we had gone down.

"Throughout the game I was calm until the last 10 minutes, then the boys got edgy. I'm not being big-headed but it's smashing that they have won without me on the pitch. I have played with world-class players and the players today showed as much heart as any of the top players I have played with. And some of the football they played was superb. That was brave too, a different type of bravery to putting your head in where it hurts."

Coventry, having spent pounds 20m in the last two years, must now hope that investment is rewarded next season. "The first 10 games decide how you do for the season," said Strachan. "We have had relegation battles since November and this is the biggest one. We can't go through that again." City fans may have heard that before.

Goals: Dublin (12) 0-1; Williams (38) 0-2; McVeigh (43) 1-2.

Tottenham Hotspur (3-5-2): Bardsen; Vega, Scales, Campbell; Carr, Fox, Dozzell, Sinton (Clapham, 22), Edinburgh; McVeigh (Fenn, 73), Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Brady, Arber.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Telfer, Shaw, Williams, Burrows; Whelan (Jess, 33), McAllister, Richardson, Ndlovu; Huckerby, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Filan (gk), Eustace, Breen, Strachan.

Referee: M Bodenham (Cornwall). Booked: Tottenham: Edinburgh, Sheringham. Coventry: Burrows, Richardson, Williams, Whelan.

Man of the match: Ogrizovic. Attendance: 33,029.