Queueing at the luggage drop at Sydney airport in Australia in 2017, I glanced around and wondered whether any other expats were as desperate as I was. To watch a game of football I was embarking on a 21,000-mile round trip to the UK and sacrificing a few thousand pounds – not to mention my environmental conscience. This wasn’t just any game, of course. This was the Checkatrade Trophy final between Coventry City and Oxford United.
The journey made sense, I reassured myself: Coventry’s last appearances at Wembley came in 1987 when I was four years old and not yet a supporter, and the club had spent recent seasons flirting with extinction. If I wanted to see the Sky Blues at Wembley, alongside my dad, this would be my only chance.
How wrong I was. We are heading back to Wembley together on Saturday for the third time in six years, with Coventry seeking promotion to the Premier League via the Championship playoff final against Luton Town. The club has enjoyed a stupefying rise against a backdrop of chaos.
I cannot yet forgive the club’s previous owner Sisu, and more recently Otium, for their irresponsible behaviour which sank the club and forced us to play our home games in stadiums miles from Coventry. Nor for their rent strikes which caused Coventry City Council and the Higgs charity, co-owners of “our” home stadium, to sell it to Wasps rugby club in 2014. Nor for their inertia when Wasps collapsed last year, allowing Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group to swoop for the stadium. But I am ready to bury the hurt.
Our manager, Mark Robins, has restored pride and positivity. It’s time to celebrate the good within our club.
The shoots of optimism started that day in 2017 when we took more than 40,000 fans to Wembley and won 2-1. Listening to a local-radio phone-in that morning, it felt as if some people were bidding farewell to the club, with relegation to League Two inevitable that season. But, what started as a wake ended as an awakening: there was still spirit in us.
The following season Coventry finished sixth – our highest league position in any division for 48 years – before emerging victorious from a playoff semi-final second leg at Notts County after cult hero Maxime Biamou’s early bicycle kick. At full time, the mood among the City fans inside Meadow Lane was rapturous. It’s among my most treasured football memories.
Liam Kelly was a driving force in the playoff final win over Exeter City and is now club captain. In fact, he is the only player from that team to go through the divisions with us. There is an eye-watering photograph of him which does the rounds on Twitter whenever supporters have cause to celebrate.
Topping League One in 2019-20, despite being exiled in Birmingham, would have felt electrifying had the season not been cut short by the pandemic. It was surreal to see pictures of Robins hoisting the winner’s trophy at the training ground while wearing blue surgical gloves. At least our creative midfielder Callum O’Hare enjoyed a one-man street party on our behalf.
Over three seasons in the Championship since then, Robins has moulded a resilient, counterattacking side, enhancing his reputation as one of the game’s unsung managers. He is uniquely tireless and composed, even if he remains so stubborn about substitutions that one could almost forgive Sisu for its absurd proposal that fans vote via text message for their preferred change.
Robins and his backroom team have bought judiciously and maximised the loan market – needs must when you have one of the division’s lowest budgets. With a squad featuring Gustavo Hamer, the Brazilian midfielder whose goal beat Middlesbrough in the semi-final last week, and Viktor Gyökeres, the league’s second-highest scorer, Coventry’s prospects were always better than our early season troubles suggested.
The bond between fans and players has been fundamental to the club’s ascent, and visiting supporters routinely comment that the atmosphere at the CBS Arena is unrivalled. We’re even getting the rub of the green after so many years of misfortune. At Blackburn Rovers in April, our goalkeeper Ben Wilson bundled in an equalising goal in the 95th minute, despite Rovers claiming handball, to earn a decisive point in the playoff push.
The good news continues off the field too. Doug King, who bought the club in January and wiped out its debts, swiftly secured a five-year rental agreement at the CBS Arena and last week got Robins to commit until 2027, his 10th anniversary.
I now live in Cornwall, so Wembley is only a 12-hour round trip this time. Whatever the outcome, I’ll wake up the following morning “feeling fine”, as the terrace chant goes, because we’ve got our club back.