Football / Fan's Eye View: Sky Blues back on the brink: No. 50 Coventry City

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The Independent Online
WORKSOP/King's Lynn/Sutton United. Finding the link could be a teaser from one of those obscure football quizzes. But to a Coventry City supporter, at least those of a historical bent, the three together sound a deathly knell.

With a past generously littered with FA Cup disaster, the above trio represent our benchmark of embarrassment. The first, Worksop, was in 1925. City had just been relegated to the Third Division North. The 1-0 defeat to the humble Midland Leaguers was made no easier when it was revealed Worksop's players had spent the morning of the game working down the mine while our prima donnas had a week of fun at the brine baths of Droitwich.

Thirty-six years later, in 1961, it was the turn of King's Lynn, by which time I'd already had a couple of seasons cultivating the moody fatalism of the terraces. City went down 2-1 to a side who, we were constantly reminded, were bottom of the Southern League. This time reactions were swift and pitiless. The manager and his entire training staff got the boot and four days later Jimmy Hill arrived. This was not the now familiar Hill of perpetual irritation but a young man bristling with ideas and ambition. Everything at Coventry changed.

As our brave-new-world city centre took shape around the cathedral, at last we had a team to go with it and for five blissful years of my youth it was fun all the way. Before one game Hill lapped the pitch on horseback in full hunting pink. Today we'd probably have chucked a brick but then we roared approval at almost anything he did.

It was no more than was expected when we finally beached in the First Division - unshakeable in the belief that the Cup, League and Europe were rightfully, inevitably ours. But Hill headed for London Weekend Television and City finished 20th in 1968 and 1969.

For the next 25 years City raised brinkmanship to an art form. Other traditional practitioners - Fulham, Sheffield United, Luton - were mere fly-by-nights in comparison. Of course there were bursts of success but it was never long before we rediscovered our raison d'etre.

Managers came and went - Cantwell, Milne, Sexton, Gould, Mackay, Sillett . . . it made no difference, all of them have taken us to the final game of the season needing a result to survive. Top honours must go to the otherwise forgettable Don Mackay - his year at the bottom was 1984-85. This time City were not simply in the coffin but several spadefuls of dirt had followed. In March the team had been hit by a flu virus which caused three games to be postponed. The upshot was that when everyone else's season was finished, City were in 20th position, eight points behind the nearest team, Norwich, but with three games left to play. First, Stoke fell to a Stuart Pearce penalty. Next Luton went down 1-0 to a very late Brian Kilcline free-kick. Finally Everton, already crowned champions, were overrun 4-1.

Where could we go from here? The 19th spot was clearly ours for the taking. But then something went seriously wrong. In 1987 the Sky Blues did the unthinkable and beat Spurs in the Cup final. It redefined our heroes overnight - clustered around the glamour of Cyrille Regis, City acquired a positive image throughout the land.

Of course some of us knew better. I like to imagine I did, but that's probably wishful thinking. Just 18 months after Wembley the last of the terrible trio tossed City a banana skin and Sutton United dumped us out of the Cup 2-1. And two years ago we were back to final-game survival at Villa Park.

Last week all looked set for the annual cliff-hanger. Then our Bob decided he'd seen enough. Accusing glances were cast in the direction of the board, widely perceived as Jack Walkers in reverse - just itching to flog the family silver. But we Sky Blues fans know how to handle a crisis, and whatever else goes, surely tradition will prevail.

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