Football: Coventry's last stand

COMMENTARY; BASEMENT BLUES: Strachan's Premiership stay running out but all is far from lost for his rival Robson
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The Independent Online
The last time Coventry City played outside the top flight the Beatles were still together, man had yet to set foot on the moon, Match of the Day was in black-and-white and England were world champions.

It was 1967 when Coventry, still fresh from the old Third Division, were promoted to then First Division for the first time. A quick return was forecast and they have been written off many times since - but only Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool have been members for longer.

This year, however, the obituaries may finally be published. Saturday's 3-1 home defeat by West Ham was a serious blow to their chances of staying up for the 30th successive season. With Middlesbrough reviving, it dropped them back into a bottom three they hoped they had left behind them after a run of wins in December. There are black clouds over the Sky Blues.

For Coventry fans, the bitterest pill is that this was supposed to be the season they finally achieved something in the league. Thirty years of survival had not stopped them dreaming and, with more than pounds 20m pumped into the team over the last two years their eyes were on Europe, not the Nationwide.

For West Ham fans, Europe had come to them with a polygot team that also promised more than it produced. High expectations have been dashed for their supporters as well but, aided by their new Anglo-Welsh striking partnership of Paul Kitson and John Hartson, it seems survival is now likely.

The commodity those two, and most of their team-mates, have, and Coventry apparently lack, is desire. Kitson and Hartson have something to prove after their experiences at Newcastle and Arsenal, John Moncur and Julian Dicks are naturally competitive and even Slaven Bilic is sufficiently fond of the Hammers to put off his impending big money move until they are safe.

Only Darren Huckerby of Coventry's outfield players seems similarly motivated, though the likes of Dion Dublin, Kevin Richardson and Paul Williams are honest triers. Too many others are either paralysed by their predicament or do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of it.

Gordon Strachan, their manager, hinted at the latter afterwards. Having said his players' commitment "was not too bad" (a backhanded compliment in their position) he added: "For 15 minutes we played as we had practised this week. Then we scored and the players, in their infinite wisdom, decided they knew a better way to play football."

Strachan meant that, instead of continuing to using the pace of Noel Whelan and Huckerby to get round West Ham's three centre-backs, his players began playing purist football, slowing the build-up with square passes and balls into feet. The consequence was an almost total absence of goal attempts.

Strachan, wisely, refused to accept an opportunity to blame Gary McAllister but his captain did appear primarily responsible for the change. Strolling around the midfield, his interventions did little to speed up Coventry's game or worry West Ham. One reader's letter in the local "pink" called for the captaincy to be given to someone "who will battle", stating "you can count McAllister's good games on one hand", (strangely, two of them have come against his former club, Leeds).

It is a difficult situation for Strachan to deal with. McAllister is a long-time colleague and, potentially, his best player. But unless he can persuade him to sacrifice his principles, or change his style, for the sake of survival his influence will be as much negative as positive.

Coventry, who had been for a midweek "bonding" exercise of paintball war-gaming in nearby woods, began as if still on manouevres. Marc Rieper was booked inside 90 seconds for body-checking Huckerby and the goal, after eight minutes, was no surprise.

A corner was poorly cleared and, when Kevin Richardson's cross came in, Rieper, who had scored in his last three matches against Coventry, redresed the balance a little by inadvertently glancing it over his own keeper.

The crowd, pumped up by John Sillett's warm-up act, roared its approval and Coventry, with one Premiership win in 11, prematurely assumed it was game over. They did not manage another shot until the 86th minute. A month ago it would not have mattered, but West Ham have since aquired strikers and heart. In the past week they had scored an injury-time winner against Chelsea, a last-minute equaliser at Wimbledon, and held Aston Villa to a goalless draw away from home.

Though West Ham were not playing well at this point, these results did give them enough hope to push forward. Reward came with two goals in seven minutes. Both were from badly defended crosses, Kitson was involved each time and first Hartson, then Rio Ferdinand, took advantage from close in. Four minutes after the break, another cross was half-cleared and Hartson scored again.

Almost inevitably the young Welshman had to spoil things with yet another silly booking, but even that failed to take the shine off Harry Redknapp's day. Now he could admit he had once thought about resigning, that he had thought West Ham would be relegated and that they would never score another goal.

Coventry's contrasting mood was summed up by an angry fan who ran towards his highly-paid team at the final whistle and threw what appeared to be the torn up remnants of his season ticket at them. Presumably he will not be able to see them again - not a bad judge.

Goals: Rieper (og) (8) 1-0; Hartson (26) 1-1; Ferdinand (33) 1- 2; Hartson (49) 1-3.

Coventry City (3-5-2): Ogrizovic; Breen, Dublin, Shaw; Telfer, Richardson, McAllister, Williams, Hall (Ndlovu, 51); Huckerby, Whelan (Burrows, 68). Substitutes not used: Borrows, Jess, Filan (gk).

West Ham United (5-3-2): Miklosko; Breaker (Rowlands, 33), Rieper, Bilic, Potts, Dicks; Ferdinand (Dowie, 85), Bishop (Porfirio, h-t), Moncur; Kitson, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Lazaridis, Sealey (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham). Bookings: Coventry: Telfer. West Ham: Rieper, Hartson.

Man of the match: Hartson.

Attendance: 22,291.

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