By Philip Vaughan-Smith
It seems that the Horns had used up the remainder of the season's grit, determination and poise against Chelsea in the Cup. Back to the grim, twilit world of the First Division relegation struggle in suitably uninspiring surroundings. In anticipation of their move to the glitzy new stadium on the outskirts of the city, and the promise of a Brave New World of success - as we were offered in the Vialli era - Coventry have allowed Highfield Road to decay into a state of unremitting squalor. No doubt the home fans associate it with the fading glories of the past and find its strange warren of carpeted bars and balti pie outlets homely. Visitors are less impressed.
I made the most serious of fan faux-pas and was persuaded by colleagues of the Coventry persuasion to join them in the home stand. When Gavin Mahon found himself on the edge of the area with the ball at his feet after five minutes, I could not resist shouting "Have a go!" and got strange looks from the sparse Coventry crowd around me. Still, it was more passion than they showed in the whole game. I was disappointed not to be in the two splashes of yellow in the stand opposite but quietly proud of their constant support of the Golden Boys. The lethargy of the home support and the quality of the football militated against such na´ve enthusiasm.
Ah yes, the football. Only Gavin Mahon stood out in either side in a first half which gradually ebbed away from us. He was everywhere, working hard not just with brute effort but reading the game superbly. He was commanding the troops, teasing on the edge of the area, distributing with authority from the centre circle. He charged into the corner to deliver a tackle like an axe blow to bring a Coventry attack to a dead halt. Bruce Dyer seemed prepared to work and delivered some effective runs up the right but little came of this without Helguson in the centre. The home fans had the consolation of hitting the post with Pidgeley stranded, but little else of note marked the first half.
The referee - improbably named Mike Pike - gave almost literally nothing to either side. I was expecting, even hoping, that this total absence of refereeing might lead to something exciting like a twenty-two man brawl, just as a challenge to see if he would do something. No such luck. None of the players could even remotely be bothered. Instead he continued to referee with two hand signals - a strange patting motion with clasped hands palms down and an even stranger motion which seems to indicate pregnancy. He only burst into life to speed up goal kicks and throw-ins. If he wanted to keep the game flowing to give the fans their money's worth he need not have bothered. The concept of flow was entirely alien to this game.
Matters deteriorated even further in the second half. There were no excuses for the poverty of the play: no howling gale, no heavy, uneven pitch, no cloudburst, sleet or snow. There were, for example, four continuous missed passes as both sides gave up possession to the other side with barely the need for a tackle. Coventry pressed better than Watford and Pidgeley spilled a cross for the easiest of tap-ins. Fortunately, the nearest Sky Blue was ten yards away. The ref only woke up to give Micah Hyde a yellow card for a tackle, when he should have been commended for at least showing some commitment. And so it ended: a game with "0-0 written all over it". Gazing across at the departing away support, I noticed that with the empty blocks each side of them, the seats spelt out the letters S-K-blank-blank-L. For a moment I pondered whether the obscured letters were I and L. Fat chance. Can't we play Chelsea every week?