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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 09/12/01
Coventry City
Refocusing in an exciting and cost-effective way
By Matt Rowson

Icarus would have warned them.

It's not easy to pinpoint the instant when it all started to go wrong for City, it's less hard to diagnose the reasons. Many Sky Blue fans would like to blame Gordon Strachan, whose charisma and curiosity value always, one suspects, outweighed his management ability, but crap managers had never been an insurmountable obstacle to City's survival before. Neither Terry Butcher nor Phil Neal managed to sink the Sky Blues in previous seasons despite sterling efforts.

No, City were doomed from the moment they got ideas above their station, which was very clearly to hang around the bottom half of the top flight being a bit rubbish but not quite awful, occasionally having an okay season and regularly annoying more illustrious rivals by just not going away. Simple.

So when did City begin to lose the plot? 1987? Probably not, the fast moving world of British football, it would have taken the laziest seeds far less than fourteen years to sprout and drag City under. In any case, the Cup win over Spurs was a less dramatic pastiche of what was to follow so entertainingly a year later...John Sillet's side was full of comic-book heroes like Cyrille Regis, Steve Ogrizovic and Brian Kilcline (we'll gloss over Trevor Peake for the moment) and their win over David Pleat's pretentious side has to remain a Good Thing.

But certainly by the time they started signing Moroccans, City had got things badly out of proportion. Coventry were supposed to be the epitome of inconspicuousness. They were the team you always forgot when trying to list the sides in the top flight, the last kid at your new school whose name you got to know. They shouldn't have been doing anything nearly that unusual.

So by the time the ridiculously ambitious plans for a new stadium, reputedly due to compete for international fixtures, concerts, seats of governments and space exploration launchpad status amongst other things, was announced things had already gone too far. Shaken from their stable berth City were doomed, and succumbed to the drop last summer.

Ironically enough, City's new ground is still as close to becoming reality as York City striker Lee Nogan is to achieving that famous ambition to play in the Premiership as estimated costs escalate and plans are continuously reviewed. A statement on the club's official site dated September announced that the plan was to "refocus the existing Arena development in an exciting and cost-effective way". Good, as long as it's not all going belly-up then.

Pre-empting this, unofficial site LAST! reports a rival project to develop their own Arena in a similarly attractive motorway-friendly location. That their stadium is made of Lego makes it a more realistic proposition for a club £60m in debt. the risk of sounding like a broken record, if there's one thing that could make the Phoenix (Albatross) League an even more ridiculous proposition than its premise (a safety net for ludicrously overspending sides like City) suggests, it's the reported involvement of the City chairman. Richardson and his equally conceited Bradford City counterpart Geoffrey Richmond lend the project an air which triggers images of Monty Python's sketch about the Expedition to scale the twin peaks of Kilimanjaro. There's a horribly accurate metaphor in there somewhere that would be hilariously funny if it wasn't so depressing....

In goal for City will be Magnus Hedman, Sweden's number one whose status as the second-best keeper at Highfield Road last season was cemented by the fact that he stayed in the summer whilst young prodigé Chris Kirkland headed for Merseyside. Hedman, a fine shot stopper, is let down by his nervousness on crosses. His cover is veteran ex-Scottish international Andy Goram, originally signed on a short-term contract as cover for then-injured Hedman, as nominal cover, Dane Morten Hyldgaard, is himself permanently injured.

Regular right-back is the experienced Marc Edworthy, although competition is provided by Swedish right back Tomas Antonelius. There's probably a reason behind Antonelius changing his surname from Gustafsson to something that makes him sound like a Roman Centurion from an Asterix cartoon, but I can't imagine what it might be.

Another option at right-back is Antonelius' predecessor as Sweden's right-back player-manager Roland Nilsson, still outstanding at 38. On the left is local product Marcus Hall, who displays all the best traits of England U21 left-backs by being caught out of position occasionally. Hall's cover is Honduran Ivan Guerrero, one of Strachan's more eccentric signings.

In the centre, Gary Breen and Mo Konjic have formed one of the more reliable partnerships in the division. However, Breen has this week been listed by the club having dawdled over a new contract - his current deal expires in the summer. Nilsson is spared a selection poser on Sunday as the Irish international is suspended in any case, having recently picked up his fifth booking of the season.

With Richard Shaw out with an ankle knock and promising youngster Calum Davenport also injured, Bosnian war veteran Konjic will probably again be partnered by Lee Carsley, more naturally a grizzly midfielder.

In midfield, Youssef Chippo is back in favour after a highly disappointing second season in England. His new partner in the centre is another compatriot, Youssef Saffri having arrived from Raja Casablanca. On the right, tricky Belgian winger Laurent Delorge is finally getting a run having been the twenty-ninth player to fall out with Gordon Strachan and be sent to Coventry (geddit?) in the reserves. He was particularly impressive in the weekend victory over Wimbledon. On the left is the industrious former Liverpool man David Thompson, currently City's leading scorer with seven in all competitions.

Also competing for midfield berths are tubby Irishman Keith O'Neill, the defensive Barry Quinn, highly rated youngster Lee Fowler and flaky Norwegian winger Runar Normann. Normann's most significant impact on the English game to date was to delay our signing of Heidar Helguson from Lillestrøm. Having seen Watford scouting at a Lillestrøm game, Strachan panic-swooped with a six-figure bid for Normann leaving the Norwegian side flush and less willing to release the Icelandic attacker.

John Eustace, another competitive midfielder, is injured.

Up front, the relatively high-profile snatching of Lee Hughes from unappreciative neighbours West Brom is beginning to show signs of bearing fruit; some hardworking performances from the obnoxious striker are now being fed by a suitable foil, Lee Mills. In what looks like a canny piece of business from Nilsson, Mills has joined on loan from Pompey with a view to a permanent move. Never one to play down his own ability, Mills had held fire on alternative loan offers before a club with Premiership pretensions came in for him.

This leaves Julian Joachim, finally back from injury, out in the coldish for the billionth time in his career. Gutsy Peruvian Ysrael Zuniga has rarely got the games that his popularity would suggest he merits, far less so another mystery Honduran Jairo Martinez. Another option, the awkward ex-Arsenal man Jay Bothroyd, has a knock and Gary McSheffrey has joined former teammate Carlton Palmer at Stockport on loan.

A quick flick through the record books reveals that we have lost our last five games to be played on this day of the year, scoring one goal and conceding fourteen in the process. The earliest of these was, in fact, a 5-0 League Cup reverse at Highfield Road in 1980 so history is hardly in our favour.

Which all goes to prove nothing much. Except that...should the Hornets fall to another defeat on Sunday we'll at least have the consolation of knowing that we haven't risked the wrath of fate by disturbing life's great equilibrium. City did, and lived to regret it...