Winning the league title is a time for celebration, but, amidst the many surreal effects that COVID-19 has had on football, fans have been denied the chance to be a part of their team’s glory.
Fears have been raised that supporters of clubs such as Liverpool and Leeds United will gather at their grounds to celebrate if and when those sides earn long-awaited success, but there was no such need for concern on Tuesday when a vote of League One clubs saw the season come to an end with Coventry City crowned as champions.
Instead their fans descended on the city centre, swapping joyful chants on the pitch in front of a packed main stand for singing in the street outside Primark. Perhaps the image captured it perfectly: they may be the club without a home, but they’ll make plenty of noise anyway.
On the road again
That reason that the Coventry faithful had no stadium to head for is the result of disputes, first with the local council and then with the now-owners of the Ricoh Arena, rugby union club Wasps, which has seen them twice leave town in the eight years since they last graced the Championship.
Having played the 2013-14 season at Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium, they were again looking for a place to stay after failing to agree a deal at the Ricoh for the 2019-20 season, and secured a groundshare instead with Birmingham City at St Andrews.
With many fans refusing to make the move with them, it looked set to be another tense year in the Sky Blues’ tumultuous recent history – but manager Mark Robins had other ideas.
Robins had already impressed in the first two years of his second spell in charge. He won the EFL Trophy within a month of taking over in March 2017, even if he was unable to prevent Coventry’s drop into League Two.
They were back at Wembley at the end of the following season as promotion was secured through the play-offs, before an eighth-placed finish in 2018-19 represented a solid return to League One.
City looked set for a top-six challenge next time around but the stadium move put a big spanner in the works before the season had even begun.
Switch makes the difference
Fortunately, Robins and his team carried on regardless. Eerie ‘home’ matches became an opportunity to play with the pressure off, on a smooth surface fit for their passing game, and Coventry would lose just one of their 17 matches at St Andrews. It was in front of more raucous travelling away crowds that things proved trickier, failing to win a single league game on the road before Christmas.
Results were good in the opening month of the season playing a 4-3-3 formation, but a run of just one win in six outlined the need for an alternative ahead of the visit of Fleetwood Town in late October.
Trailing 1-0 at half-time, Robins switched to three at the back and City fought back for a 2-1 victory. From that moment on it became Plan A, and a back four was ditched for good after a 2-1 loss at Shrewsbury Town in mid-December which left them outside the play-off places and 12 points off the top.
But Coventry had hit the winning formula. Their away duck was spectacularly broken by 4-1 victories at both Wycombe Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers either side of New Year, both featuring hat-tricks from now-established front man Matt Godden.
A 14-match unbeaten run put them five points clear at the top when the league came to a halt in March, securing their return to the Championship.
A complete squad
The switch in formation turned Coventry into an unstoppable force, but only because of the huge difference it made to the players within it.
In defence, Robins had the early conundrum of fitting three quality centre-backs into two positions, with the previous season’s Player of the Year, Dominic Hyam, joined in the summer by Michael Rose and Kyle McFadzean, pinched from Ayr United and Burton Albion respectively. Playing all three in front of goalkeeper Marco Marosi helped them finish with the division’s best defensive record, letting in just 30 goals.
For the wing-backs, it was transformational. On the left, Sam McCallum had already been attracting plenty of interest and the 19-year-old earned a move to Norwich City with his impressive performances, returning on loan after signing for the Premier League side in January. On the right, the explosive Fankaty Dabo was given a new lease of life.
The switch was perhaps most important in the centre, with a box midfield allowing them to dominate more effectively. Skipper Liam Kelly was joined in the middle by crucial loan arrival Liam Walsh, from Bristol City, to create an effective base, with Jamie Allen, Zain Westbrooke, Jordan Shipley and Aston Villa loanee Callum O’Hare all fighting for the two positions ahead of them supporting Godden.
The biggest pity is that so few fans were there to see Coventry’s superb achievement. While supporters across the world will be getting used to not being able to see their team live, many Sky Blues fans haven’t been for some time anyway.
The average attendance playing in Birmingham this season has been 6,677, almost half the figure of 12,363 at the Ricoh in the previous campaign, and a return will be a top priority.
Wasps have made positive noises and in ordinary circumstances the financial rewards of the Championship would make a Ricoh deal much easier. The implications of coronavirus on the coffers of both clubs, and the likely restrictions on crowds for some time to come, make things less certain.
There may have been two promotions and a Wembley cup win in the past three years but until a return to their city is secured, the resurrection of a great football club will not be complete.