Paul Newman: Coventry's decline makes glory days seem so distant

The Football League Column: Three years after promotion, Coventry enjoyed their best season at the top, finishing sixth and earning a place in Europ
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The Independent Football

How quickly times can change. Look back at the League tables at the turn of the century – just 11 years ago – and it seems like another era. Bradford City were playing in the Premier League, Blackpool and Hull were among those in what is now League Two and Wigan and Stoke were one division above them. Wimbledon – remember them? – had just been relegated from the Premier League after an eight-year spell in the top flight.

The 2000-01 season was also Coventry City's last year in the Premier League. What now seems so remarkable was not the fact that Coventry had been at the top as the length of their time there. Relegation ended an unbroken 34-year run in the highest division, with Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool the only others to have stayed alongside them throughout that period.

Promotion to the old First Division had been secured in 1967 at the height of Jimmy Hill's Sky Blue revolution, when the visionary manager turned Coventry into the most enterprising club in the country. Highfield Road, where a club record crowd of 51,455 saw a championship-clinching 3-1 victory at home to Wolverhampton, was transformed into a modern stadium, while Coventry made innovations – a match-day magazine, a club radio station, pre-match entertainment – which have now become an established part of football's landscape.

Three years after promotion, Coventry enjoyed their best season at the top, finishing sixth and earning a place in Europe. Over the next 30 years, guided by a succession of leading managers in men like Joe Mercer, Dave Sexton, Don Howe and Ron Atkinson, they became mainstays of the top division, their finest hour coming in 1987 with victory over Tottenham in the FA Cup final. Keeping a place among the elite became increasingly difficult, however, and in 2001 Coventry were relegated. In nine subsequent seasons they have finished in the Championship's top 10 only once.

The move to the Ricoh Arena – Coventry left Highfield Road six years ago after securing their Championship status with a 6-2 thrashing of Derby County in the final match at their home of the previous 106 years – did little to improve the fortunes of a club weighed down by huge debts, which at one stage were reported to have topped £60m.

The current chairman, Ray Ranson, whose consortium took over three years ago, is looking for new investors and says that staying in the Championship is a crucial part of that process. What he could do now with the £13m Coventry received from Internazionale in July 2000 for Robbie Keane, whom they had bought from Wolves for a club record £6.5m less than a year earlier.

This season is the fifth in a row in which they have been dragged into a relegation struggle, although that hardly seemed likely three months ago, when Aidy Boothroyd's team were fifth in the table, just three points off an automatic promotion place. The former Watford manager, having taken over at the start of the season, was sacked last week after a run that produced just one win in 16 Championship matches, following which Andy Thorn and Steve Harrison have been placed in caretaker charge. Saturday's defeat at Preston, the bottom club, leaves Coventry just two places above the relegation zone, looking nervously over their shoulders at Sheffield United's mini-revival.

"We have to pick ourselves up and we have two weeks without a game so we can get a lot done," Thorn said after his team were denied a point by Nathan Ellington's injury-time winner. "I'm just getting on with the job and we'll see what comes, but the most important thing is getting the boys playing."

Whoever is next to fill the managerial hot seat at the Ricoh Arena might be advised to seek only temporary accommodation in the area. Boothroyd's successor will be Coventry's 10th manager in the last 10 years. Contrast that with Coventry's best years: between 1961 and 1972 the Sky Blues had just two, Hill and Noel Cantwell. Yes, times change.