Stevenage face fallen giants Coventry City as a proud club attempts to rise again
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Stevenage play fallen giants Coventry City at the Lamex on Tuesday in Sky Bet League Two, but how much do you know about the rich and sometimes troubled history of Boro’s rivals? Read Layth Yousif’s in-depth feature on this proud club and city who are attempting to rise again.
For many of a certain vintage the clash will highlight just how far Boro have come since the Sky Blues memorably won the FA Cup, beating Spurs 3-2 in a never-to-be-forgotten final – and unfortunately just how far the once-mighty ‘Cov’ have fallen in one of the saddest stories in English football of recent times.
Speaking to CometSport Lamex supremo Darren Sarll issued regret at the situation off the field.
He said: “What it highlights – and I don’t want to be on the offensive against Coventry as I respect them – but it shows how well we run our football club.
“We’re consistent, progressive and stable.
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“If I was a Coventry fan I would be sore on what has happened off the pitch.
“I think it just shows we’re a very strong, well run club. We have quality people in this club from the chairman onwards.
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“The players get paid on time, we’ve got a lovely little ground. We’ve got a fantastic facility to train and develop our players and prepare for games.
“It just showcases the rise and fall of giants like Coventry and shows the rise of our little club, in our little town in our little part of the world...”
A crisp early November night in 1970. Coventry City are taking on mighty Bayern Munich at Highfield Road - their atmospheric and beloved home ground since 1899. Goals from John O’Rourke and Neil Martin help the Sky Blues win 2-1 on the night in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup.
Nobody much cares the first leg had ended in a 6-1 victory for Bayern. They have come to see their heroes - Willie Carr, Ernie Hunt, Mick Coop and the rest - as they face the mighty Germans. Having finished sixth in the First Division playing progressive football under Noel Cantwell, the team are looking toward the stars. The programme for the night calls itself the European Sky Blue.
Early in the heady summer of 1967, Coventry City had reached the top division for the very first time. They had done it in style, as champions, and set their record attendance - officially recorded as 51,455, although contemporary accounts suggest there were as many as 60,000 against eventual runners-up Wolves.
The optimism that November was palpable. Not for progression in the tournament, as nobody expected a six-goal swing in the second leg, but in hope for the progress of the club. Certainly when you consider what the city had to contend with far different German opponents 30 short years before.
A clear cold early November night in 1940. The RAF have just bombed Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi party, and Hitler seeks immediate, terrible revenge. Under Operation Moonlight Sonata, 515 German bombers form the biggest raid of the war to date, targeting an industrial city at the beating heart of Britain’’s war effort: Coventry.
From 7.30pm onwards, the Luftwaffe hit Coventry with everything it could muster: 500 tonnes of ordnance, both explosive and incendiary. Among the buildings hit was the 14th-century cathedral. Despite the desperate attention of firemen and civilians, it burned to the ground, leaving only a hollow shell.
As the raid progressed, 200 fires merged into one fearful burning hell. Flames leapt 100 feet in the air, and it’s said bombers 150 miles away used the light as a beacon to guide their way in. Attacking in multiple small waves, the bombers would double back to France to rearm and return with more payloads. The all-clear didn’t sound until 6.15am, almost 11 hours after the first attack.
Amid the ruins lay the dead - more than 500 men, women and children. Using 36,000 incendiaries, 500 tonness of high explosive, 50 parachuted air-mines and 20 petrol-mines, the attack had laid waste to 4,300 homes, around two-thirds of the city’s buildings, and practically all the gas and water supplies. The raid was so destructive that Joseph Goebbels used the term Coventriert – ‘Coventried’ – when describing such levels of obliteration.
Yet the people of Coventry did not give in: they rallied in the aftermath. The city mourned with quiet dignity. Unlike the aftermath of many bombings, not one incidence of looting was reported. Neighbours who had lost loved ones, houses and pets gave succour to those who had lost even more, working day and night to help each other. They had a unity and a common purpose: the love of their city. Canteens were set up and the Royal Engineers restored electricity within 72 hours. Water and gas supplies resumed soon after.
These people were simply not going to be defeated. They even collected the nails and melted metal from the ruined cathedral, made them into a cross of remembrance and placed it in the new cathedral; consecrated in 1962, the bold modernist structure of St Michael’s incorporates the skeleton of the original wreckage as a memorial garden. The people of Coventry were proud of their city.
From Blitz to bliss: May 1987. A quarter of a million people throng in the centre of Coventry. The area where German bombs once rained down is now a joyful mass of Sky Blue. Old men who lived through the Luftwaffe attack have moist eyes and young children with wide grins now have stories of their own to tell their grandchildren: the day Coventry City won the FA Cup.
A bus commandeered from the local transport museum is painted sky blue. The club’s players, fans and officials have barely slept due to their celebrations. The city is animated. Even the few of its citizens who do not like football are pleased for the civic pride the unexpected victory provides. The city is happy. The city is proud.
The dilettantes of Tottenham with their fancy ways stood not a chance against the pride and team spirit of the underdogs from the unsung West Midlands. Their commitment was not only testament to their character but an intuitive honouring of the Coventry Blitz spirit and the heroes who lived and died in the worst day in the city’s long existence.
BBC commentator John Motson had called it ‘the finest Cup Final I’ve had the pleasure of commentating on’. Coventry were definitely the underdogs: Tottenham had finished third in the league, with an attacking five-man midfield including Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle and Ossie Ardiles feeding 48-goal Clive Allen.
Allen’s 49th of the season put Spurs in front after only two minutes, but Coventry quickly equalised through Dave Bennett. Gary Mabbutt put Spurs back in front before half-time, but just after the hour Bennett crossed for Keith Houchen to enter history with a magnificent horizontal headed equaliser.
Early in extra time, Mabbutt scored his second of the day. Fortunately for Coventry and lovers of the underdog everywhere, it was into his own net. Coventry City had triumphed: the loveable unassuming little guy had won the FA Cup.
Tottenham had already booked the celebration route; the inevitable Chas and Dave Cup Final single included the line “seven times we won the cup, now number eight is coming up”. But it wasn’t. Coventry won an enthralling final, helped by a glorious, improbably balletic diving header from a footballing journeyman who had previously played for Hartlepool, Orient, York and Scunthorpe.
Indefatigable Coventry City had refused to give up under what could have been seen as insurmountable odds. It was a fitting metaphor to a brave city.
July 2013. After a long-running rent dispute between Arena Coventry Ltd, owners of the Ricoh Arena to which Coventry City had relocated in 2005, and Sisu, the football club owners since 2007, the Sky Blues played their home matches at Northampton – 34 miles away.
Amid the administration and uncertainty, the club’s long-suffering fans wanted City stay in Coventry. “The whole city was against it,” said Steve McCairns, a season ticket holder for 25 years.
The loyal Coventry fan has supported them all his life – after his grandparents followed the club up from Division Three south – and he travels from his home in Gloucester for each and every game.
As the idolised FA Cup-winning manager John Sillett put it, “The people of Coventry didn’t deserve a 70-mile round trip for home games.” Polling their members, the Sky Blues Trust found 98 per cent were against the move.
The people of Coventry mobilised. The “Not One Penny More” campaign insisted fans not go to Northampton or buy any club merchandise while the team was in exile.
Thankfully the club eventually moved back to the Ricoh but on-field fortunes suffered as the club slipped back into the fourth tier of English football for the first time since 1959.
The only bright spot on the horizon was taking more than 50,000 fans to Wembley as they lifted the EFL Trophy against Oxford, their first trophy since the heady days of 1987.
As the loyal McCairns tells CometSport: “I can’t believe what is happening to my club. It seems like a bad dream. It just seems like we’re a pawn in a high court battle.
“A lot of people boycotted the move on principle.
“I loved seeing the club leading the field with the first all seater stadium in 1981. We were the first club with undersoil heating and away fan travel.
“And of course the glorious FA Cup victory in 1987 against the Tottenham all–stars of Glenn Hoddle, Chirs Waddle, Clive Allen and others.
“I’ve watched some fantastic games in the old Division One and founder member of the Premier League.
“I remember beating Arsenal with the irrepressible Gary McCallister blasting past David Seaman, and watching an electric Darren Huckerby score a wonder goal in the victory against Manchester United and was there to see mercurial Peter Ndlovu score a hat trick at Anfield.”
Having watched successive relegations into the Championship 2001 – at arch rivals Aston Villa, then into League 1 2012 under the derided Andy Thorn and now into League 2 in 2017 passionate Steve now follows his team home and away in the bottom tier of English football as they slipped to that level for the first time since the 1950s.
He added sadly: “My club plays at the 18th largest football stadium in the country, built for its European football ambitions – but it’s now not even owned by the club, but by a rugby union club originating in London.
“We’re now purely paying tenants at the stadium, no club merchandise on sale in what is now the Wasps club shop, in the shadow of the Jimmy Hill statue.
“Our only highlight recently was the EFL trophy win at Wembley where 50,000 Coventry fans filled the national stadium.”
After the troubles the club have endured it’s not a wonder they are in the fourth tier rather that they are still in existence.
But they, and are on the rise again and under Robins’ stewardship as they sit in the play-off places in seventh and are expecting a tough match against Stevenage.
As Sarll says of Robins: “I watched Mark play a part in Manchester United’s history by scoring that famous goal against Nottingham Forest in that FA Cup tie in 1990 which probably saved Fergie’s job as they went on to win the FA Cup that season.
“Mark is a very good manager and will bring a very good side with very good players”, Sarll adds.
“They actually blew us out of the water in attempting to sign players over the summer – I won’t tell you who they were – but it should be a good game.
“They’re a big club and I’m looking forward to them bringing a fair few fans to the Lamex on Tuesday in what will be a good atmosphere.
“They’re a club on the rise again.”
Whatever the result on Tuesday evening, football fans of all persuasions will be glad the former top flight giants are on the up – the club’s long-suffering fans such as Steve McCairns deserve nothing less.
Parts of Layth’s story have previously appeared in an article he penned for Four-Four-Two.