Sky Blues look back for the future

Stephen Brenkley finds the Coventry chairman upbeat on Premiership survival
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It is business as usual at Coventry City. Spring has no sooner arrived than the Sky Blues are embroiled in a frantic struggle for their lives in the top division. By the middle of May, if a hackneyed but exciting plot follows its traditional course, they will have mysteriously extricated themselves from the mire.

If this is not one of football's annual certainties, like the FA Cup final and a Vinnie Jones run-in with authority, it feels like it. Coventry have competed in the old First Division or the Premiership for 30 consecutive seasons, a continuity inferior only to that of Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool. But they have finished in the bottom half in 22 of those seasons, have been in the bottom five in 13 and their prolonged membership has depended on the final day's results in nine, all figures probably about to be extended by one.

"I think we'll stay up, though I accept there's a mathematical possibility of going down," said the chairman, Bryan Richardson, citing not only precedent but the latent quality of the squad. "But it seems people are more worried this time so we're starting a specific campaign in the town to get a real buzz behind the team."

The sensation of that buzz will be heightened if the team can prise something from the match against Liverpool today. Present form points to the likely difficulties of this - Coventry have not won in seven matches, gaining only four points - but Richardson rather prefers the statistic that they have not lost at Anfield in their past two visits.

He is an ebullient, twinkle-eyed fellow of 53 with big plans for the Sky Blues. On his desk at the Highfield Road stadium sits a model of the new arena in which he intends Coventry to be playing within four years. This will have a sliding roof and a sliding pitch, and, while it will be the home of the football team, that will not be its solitary purpose.

Richardson rejects any suggestion that despite Coventry's long tenure they are a Division One club in Premiership clothing. The new ground, embryonically called the Heart of England, was only the latest in a long line of Sky Blue innovations, he insisted. They led the way in seated stadiums, executive boxes and grandiose training pitches. "I don't believe the Premiership has to be entirely the province of three or four clubs," he said. "They may have an advantage, certainly, but I don't see why any club, with the money now available, can't create a side to compete in the top eight."

Yet despite the Cup Final triumph of 1987, Coventry have not done so. After another last-day escape last season, this was to be the one in which they asserted themselves. But they started badly. Ron Atkinson, whom Richardson had brought in, was kicked upstairs to be director of football and Gordon Strachan took over. Discernible improvement has been followed by more wretched form. Though the Atkinson appointment might be seen as a failure, Richardson notices only the change in mood and the huge rise in gates at the club since Big Ron's arrival. "As soon as he walked in the door, the place smiled."

Richardson joined the board in 1992 and became chairman in 1994. He has been a lifelong Sky Blues fan with a brief gap in his boyhood when his brother Peter, the former Worcestershire, Kent and England cricketer, brought home Dennis and Leslie Compton one evening. They bowled at six- year old Bryan in the back garden and the youngster was briefly entranced by Arsenal, for whom both brothers played.

Bryan also became a county cricketer, turning out for Warwickshire in 40 first-class games over five years. He had his day in the sun by scoring two centuries in a match, albeit against Cambridge University, 30 years ago. Later he went into publishing but he could not resist the Coventry call. He moved from Sussex to the Midlands.

"I don't interfere in football matters but I'm sure my connection with sport helps, " he said. "They know that I know what a dressing-room is all about." For the moment, only history suggests it will not be a Nationwide League dressing-room next season.