Coventry City have their best chance of getting back to the Premier League since they were relegated in 2001, which would have seemed unlikely six months ago.
When Coventry City travelled to Ewood Park on April 19, the race for the Championship play-offs was wide open, with just six points between Millwall in fifth place and Watford in 12th. In such an environment, every point counts and things were looking fairly bleak as Coventry moved into stoppage-time at the end of the game a goal behind.
But fortune has a strange way of manifesting itself at this time of the year, and five minutes into that added time, Coventry got a break when goalkeeper Ben Wilson, who’d executed the ultimate football desperation manoeuvre of going up for a corner, bundled the ball over the line from at least three inches out to rescue a crucial point for the Sky Blues.
The number of clubs in touch with those play-off places has reduced since then, but Coventry remain right in the mix. Two home wins against Reading and Birmingham City have lifted them to fifth with one game left to play, and while they’re not quite mathematically over the line yet and face a tricky away game at Middlesbrough on the last day of the regular season, it seems likely – though not certain – that they will be taking their place in the play-offs.
Blackburn Rovers, meanwhile, were in sixth when the two teams met, but turned out to be in the midst of an end-of-season implosion which has seen them fail to win any of their last eight matches and slip to ninth. They can still sneak back into the top six if they can win at Millwall and results elsewhere go their way, but their chances have dramatically faded.
That Coventry should be going into their last game of the season with a good chance of making a play-off place is all the more remarkable when we consider how their season began They took just three points from their first seven matches of the season in the league and were eliminated form the EFL Cup by Bristol City, but there was part-mitigation that only one of these games was played at home after the pitch at the Coventry Building Society Arena was torn up after being used for rugby sevens at last summer’s Commonwealth Games. With the Queen’s death and funeral causing a further home postponement, they’d only played one home match by the end of September.
The CBS Arena pitch was repaired, but this was only the start of what was becoming becoming yet another turbulent period in the history of a club that has become wearyingly used to them over the last decade and a half. The club was finally sold to Doug King, ending the lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful ownership of the Sisu hedge fund, who twice moved the club out of the city for extended periods of time and took them as low as League Two. But in the middle of October, Wasps RFC (who owned the Arena) and ACL (the company through which they did so) plummeted towards insolvency.
The stadium was eventually purchased by Mike Ashley, who went so far as to issue the club with an eviction notice after they failed to sign a lease until at least the end of the season in December, with the previous one having been nullified by ACL’s insolvency. The club eventually signed, and at the end of April it was confirmed that they had agreed a five-year lease to stay at The CBS Arena.
King, who’d initially bought an 85% shareholding, took full ownership by the end of January, and changed the name of the company from Otium Entertainment Group Limited – a Sisu concoction of a name – back to ‘’Coventry City Football Club Limited’. An opportunity for everybody to put the acrimony of the past behind them.
And whilst correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s difficult not to look at the timeline of their season and raise an eyebrow at the similar lines between the mood of the club and the form of the team. When the pitch was bad and they couldn’t play there, they lost a lot of games. Form improved after they moved back in and King’s intention to buy the club became clear, but took a downturn again when Mike Ashley issued an eviction notice. On the day after King’s 100% ownership of the club was confirmed, Coventry beat Huddersfield Town 2-0. They lost their next match, but have only been beaten once in the 16 games since, a run of form which has taken them from 14th to fifth with one game to play.
It remains the case that one of the very few things that Coventry City’s previous owners got right was to keep hold of manager Mark Robins, who had been popular during a brief spell in 2012/13 before decamping to Huddersfield, but who returned in 2017 and has been there ever since, often working under pressures that many others would surely consider intolerable.
When he returned in March 2017, Coventry were hopelessly adrift at the bottom of League One. He was unable to keep them up that season, but he did win the EFL Trophy less than a month after taking charge, and has since got them promoted from League Two back to the Championship, and now to their best chance of returning to the Premier League since they last fell from it in 2001.
There remain potential forks in the road. The last day of the season might go badly. Victor Gyokeres, the Swedish striker whose 21 league goals this season have done so much to propel his team towards the upper end of the table, has been earning admiring glances from higher-placed clubs and could be tempted away during the summer.
And in the slightly longer term, while five years is a start, it’s not a particularly long lease on the stadium, and although Doug King has confirmed that he sees the club staying at the Arena ‘for the foreseeable future’, while they remain tenants they do not remain in sole control of their own destiny. Whether owners or tenants, and wherever that might be, the club both deserves and needs long-term security.
But the position in which the club finds itself is almost unrecognisable from the chaos that not only afflicted the first half of this season, but also much of their last 15 years. The crowd for their win against Birmingham was over 30,000, another show of faith from a city which has had a fractious relationship with football for a very long time. Coventry City aren’t there yet but they’re healing, and after a decade and a half in footballing purgatory, that counts for quite a lot.