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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 16/03/02, 3pm
Coventry City
Lime Street
By Matt Rowson

Lime Street Station in Liverpool is, in most respects, similar to most other large railway stations. There are, naturally, lots of trains. And people. And taxi cabs, WH Smiths selling lots of magazines that you don't want to read, overpriced food retail outlets and pigeons. Actually I'm not sure about the pigeons, but I find it hard to believe that there weren't any, you'd sort of notice.

Everything is normal and unremarkable, then. Until you walk into the Gents.

Of course, if you're female then walking into the Gents isn't something that you'd do on a regular basis, one hopes and suspects, and if you do then I'm afraid we're heading off at a tangent that even the painfully tenuous links drawn in these previews won't rescue you from. I have no means of commenting on the Ladies' conveniences at Lime Street either, naturally, but one can only assume that the same phenomenon applies.

So you're at Lime Street with fifteen minutes before your train departs. You've wandered the aisles of unappealing magazines in WH Smith and rejected out of hand the offerings from the food outlet, expenses or no expenses. Before you head for your platform, you make your way to the Gents.

It's a C.S.Lewis moment as you step through the opening. No longer are you in a bustling railway station. You're in a kind of eerie, shocking nightmare. The room smells slightly unpleasant, as do many such conveniences. There are no locks on the toilet doors, crass graffiti everywhere and old men shuffle backwards and forwards between the sink and the paper towel dispensers. Again, nothing unusual. But everything is blue. Not blue in colour, but lit blue by the neon striplights hiding behind grills in the lavatory ceiling.

The policy, one assumes, is to dissuade theft of the bulbs via the double whammy of the grills and the appallingly disconcerting blueness of the lights. One can only further assume that this strategy is borne of experience and of many previous incidences of striplight theft.

Thus the Gents at Lime Street Station have adapted, or been adapted, to suit their circumstances. So too have Coventry City, to an extent. Having gone through the obligatory stripping of highest earners in the summer, City's parlous finances led them to rid themselves of another expensive burden recently, namely their megalomaniac chairman Bryan Richardson. His replacement, former deputy Martin McGinnity, has this week launched an unrestrained verbal assault on Richardson, accusing him of lying to the bank, keeping information from the rest of the board and using his position as one huge ego trip.

Part of Richardson's legacy at City is a huge debt, approximately £30million, and much discussed but much less progressed plans for a new stadium, the "Coventry Arena". Good news for City this week however saw Coventry Council agree to buy the land and develop the Arena in conjunction with City should, as seems likely, they not be able to go it alone.

It's a marker of what a wasted opportunity this season has been for the Hornets that City, despite having gone through spells of very indifferent form this season, find themselves a strong fourth going into Saturday's game. You'd have to suspect that on previous track record alone, City would probably make a better stab of staying in the Premiership than any of their rivals for play-off positions. City winning the play-offs would seem like a bit of a waste though - no disrespect to the Sky Blues. Burnley going up, for example, would be much funnier.

In goal for City will probably be Magnus Hedman, no longer a terribly popular figure at Highfield Road and not someone expected to hang around should he have a decent World Cup in the summer. More favoured is Tim Flowers, currently on loan from Leicester and a City fan... he covered successfully for Hedman during a recent injury to the Swede, and Hedman's reintroduction did not go down well.

At the back, with regular right-back Marc Edworthy injured, the versatile Barry Quinn stepped into the breach last weekend. Swede Tomas Antonelius (né Gustafsson) has left to join FC Copenhagen after an injury-wrecked two year stay. Veteran Richard Shaw was played slightly out of position on the left in place of Marcus Hall, also coming back from an ankle injury and rumoured to be on his way in the summer.

In the centre, Irish international Gary Breen, once rumoured to be a Watford target, is another expected to leave in the summer - he has captained the side for much of the season. He has partnered Bosnian Mohamed Konjic, who has become a favourite after a slow start to his Coventry career. As well as Shaw, cover is provided by Callum Davenport, a youngster rumoured to be interesting Arsenal.

In midfield, the solid defensive Moroccan Youssef Safri has put in some good displays recently, whilst fiery scouser David Thompson is probably the most talented player in the side. Colin Healy, on a season's loan from Celtic, is cited as a key reason for Lee Carsley being permitted to join Everton, whilst another Moroccan Youssef Chippo makes up the regular quartet. Other options include eighteen-year-old Lee Fowler, named as stand-by for the Welsh squad this week, Robert Betts and Ivan Guerrero, defensive options on the right and left respectively. Keith O'Neill is, as ever, injured however and John Eustace has barely played since being made captain in the summer, although he may be close to a first team return. Gavin Strachan, son of wee Gordon, is on loan at Motherwell playing under former City boss Terry Butcher.

Up front, Lee Hughes' City career has been progressing in fits and starts since his arrival in the summer; recently subject of an optimistic loan offer from his former club and involved in a touchline argument with his manager following a recent substitution, Hughes has also scored reliably when provided with decent service. He scored both goals on Saturday.

Some uncertainty surrounds the identity of his partner, with a number of candidates failing to impress this season. Lee Mills has consistently failed to deliver since his move from Pompey was made permanent - he was injured in the warm up on Saturday and played no part in the game. Jay Bothroyd, who played in his stead, arrived from Arsenal with a reputation and has so far looked lazy but frustratingly capable when he puts his mind to it. Julian Joachim is leaving it very late to fulfil the promise of his Leicester days - he remains either injured or flattering to deceive. Popular Peruvian Ysrael Zuniga has always looked a little lightweight in the first team fracas, whilst Gary McSheffrey and Honduran Jairo Martinez are both injured.

Against Norwich on Saturday, City came from behind to win for the first time in three years. Indeed, it was the first time this season that City had claimed any points from a losing position. On such turns of fortune are seasons made and broken, as we know only too well. Our season now consists of building up as much of a head of steam to bomb into the next campaign with as possible. Following Saturday's splendid win, and with this our only remaining game against any of the sides above us, that makes this the most important match left this season.