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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/01/04, 3.00pm
Coventry City
Sent to...
By Matt Rowson

There are, Coventry University's School of Health and Social Sciences Website reports, a number of theories.

"Around 1648, during the civil war, Oliver Cromwell sent many Scottish Royalist prisoners (who had been fighting for Charles I) to be imprisoned in St. Johns Church in Fleet Street, Coventry. Whilst exercising in the streets, the soldiers were completely ostracised by the strongly parliamentarian Coventry folk. Since then, people who have been shunned in that way are said to have been 'sent to Coventry'."

"A second possibility suggests that after that civil war, the town's people were so anti-military that they forbade anyone to socialise with any soldiers that were posted here. Thus, for a soldier, the thought of being sent here was very unpopular indeed."

"Long before this however, Coventry was a place used to carry out executions and so a third theory is that to be 'sent to Coventry' had far more serious connotations"

It's difficult not to ponder which theory Gary McAllister and, latterly, his assistant and stand-in Eric Black adhere to. It's a rather depressing symptom of the financial gulf between the Premiership and everyone else that Coventry, one of the many ex-Premiership shells skulking around Division One (and now seeping into Division Two), find patching up their side with loan signings from Premiership reserve squads a more viable route than building a successful squad of permanent players.

They're not alone, of course. A remarkable nineteen of the twenty-four clubs in the division have already fielded Premiership loanees this season (I'll leave you to work out the abstainers...*). But the vogue is most earnestly practiced at Highfield Road, with four players arriving on loan already this season and ten having been "sent to Coventry" last year... culminating in a side over half-full of borrowed players being named on at least one occasion.

There's nothing wrong with bolstering your squad, however temporarily, with a loan signing or two of course - nobody could argue that Lennie Pidgeley's arrival hasn't boosted our own form - but City seem particularly reliant on this policy which has to have its drawbacks. For one thing, you're kind of constrained as to how well you can do. As City have just learned to their detriment, if a player does too well he might find himself in demand back on his employers' turf... Johnnie Jackson was recalled by Spurs after some impressive performances for City, has done well in their first team and doesn't look like coming back in a hurry.

Secondly, you'd have to question how easy it's going to be to motivate loanees when the chips are down... particularly when the loanees are in anything like a large minority and tend to have bigger, comfier clubs to go back to. City's reliance on loaned players is a function of their perilous finances to an extent, but hasn't delivered on-pitch success. City only won eight league games in 2003.

Thirdly... there will come a point for teams like City when the benefit to a Premiership club of dispatching their junior players on loan has to be questioned. Competitive football is always going to be an attractive draw, but when the loanees are lining up alongside fellow Premiership reserves rather than more experienced, if only Nationwide-level, pros, surely much of the benefit is lost.

Coventry's form has come in fits and bursts all season... not better illustrated than when an eye-catching late win over West Brom was followed up recently with defeats to Sheffield United and, pitifully, struggling Bradford City against whom Coventry's misfiring forward line have failed to score in their two encounters - both within the last two months. Most recently, City progressed into the fourth round of the Cup on the back of a less than convincing 2-1 home victory over a Peterborough side reduced to ten men for almost half an hour.

Gavin Ward will keep goal for City, the experienced stopper having held the starting spot since late November. Scott Shearer, custodian in the early part of the season, lost confidence after some bad mistakes and has been largely on the bench since being dropped for to the Vicarage Road game in October. Pegguy Arphexad made his City debut that night and kept goal for half-a-dozen games... he's currently haggling over a new contract.

The back four looks relatively solid and settled. The influential Mo Konjic partners Calum Davenport in the centre with Richard Shaw on the bench. Popular nineteen year-old Andrew Whing should play at right-back whilst Steve Staunton, scorer of that remarkable volleyed equaliser at Vicarage Road, provides experience at left back. Dean Gordon is also still knocking around, but has only made one appearance off the bench thus far.

The absence due to personal problems of Gary McAllister, a ligament injury to Graham Barrett and the inexplicable ostracisation of Claus Jørgensen, who hasn't featured since October, conspire to provide a distinct lack of creativity in the midfield. Youssef Safri is the pendulum, the main man... he plays his last game for City on Saturday before linking up with Morocco for the African Nations Cup after City negotiated a one-day postponement to his call-up. Less certain is the destiny of Algerian Yazid Mansouri, on loan from Le Havre, who appears to be umming-and-ahhing about his call-up, a decision that would have a direct effect on his availability for Saturday.

Liverpool loanee Stephen Warnock tends to play on the left of midfield (although he can also play left-back) with the aggressive Micky Doyle on the right. Winger Courtney Pitt, a leftover from Graham Rix's Pompey side, arrived on loan from Fratton Park, impressed on his debut and has been stuck on the bench since. Youth products Craig Pead and David Pipe, meanwhile, have slipped back into the reserves this season after featuring last term.

Up front, Coventry's lack of goals recently has got the fans on the backs of the forward line. Andy Morrell in particular appears to be suffering a crisis of confidence; the summer signing from Wrexham hit five goals in September but hasn't scored in sixteen since and is being linked with a loan move back to the Racecourse Ground. Dele Adebola in particular is coming in for a lot of stick... a man of little mystery, Barry Fry claims to have tacit agreement from City to recruit Adebola for Peterborough in the near future.

Julian Joachim, who started on the right of a three against Peterborough, comes from the Stan Collymore school of never quite having his head right, whilst Cameroonian Patrick Suffo, who looked bullish against the Hornets in October, has looked lacklustre and been outmuscled too often in recent games.

The one possible light amongst the attacking malaise is long-term nearly-man Gary McSheffrey... back from a prolific loan spell at Luton in which he scored ten goals in less than twenty games, McSheffrey scored against Posh to confound McAllister's early assertion that he wasn't prolific enough. The rest of his game, however, was less impressive according to reports.

We've a famously decent recent record against the Sky Blues, who are hardly in the best of form at the moment. This is a hugely significant game for Watford... the monumental performance against Chelsea should breed confidence and you'd fancy our chances with anything like as gutsy, focused and committed a showing on Saturday. Anything less, particularly if the performance tails off, will be a massive anticlimax.

* Oh, okay. West Brom, Preston, Reading, Cardiff, and Franchise haven't loaned Premiership players. Yet. Only Preston and Franchise haven't used borrowed staff from any source.