My first away game was against Coventry City in 1982. I’d been to big stadiums before, but this was the first time as a bona fide away fan. We’d just tanked Brighton in the FA Cup – a moment that might later be looked on as the Big Bang that sprung The Glory Years. Coventry City were next up and me and my dad decided to go.
I remember us having to weave our way through towns and villages as the M40 link from Oxford to Birmingham wouldn’t be complete for another year. It made the journey feel decidedly more epic than it does today. The scene on our arrival at Highfield Road could have been a parody documentary on 1980s football hosted by Danny Dyer – I opened my door and was nearly knocked over by an Oxford fan being pursued by a group of Coventry fans; it was the beginning of a particularly unpleasant day.
Coventry felt like a big, modern club, they were in the 1st Division, they were the first to have an all-seater stadium and they had embraced the commercialism of the modern game with a kit that embedded the logo of their sponsors, Talbot, into the design. I thought it was the greatest kit ever, although they didn’t wear it on the day.
We conceded late in the first half and were pulled apart in the second, eventually going down 4-0. Oxford fans spent most of the second half ripping seats out and throwing them on the pitch. When my dad asked a policeman what we should do to avoid the trouble, he said we should throw our scarves in the bin and run. Interestingly, the game was part of a document submitted as part of the Hillsborough review.
The experience stayed with me, there was a sense of fear and awe, Coventry were a big club. This continued through their FA Cup win in 1987 and into the 90s when they eventually succumbed to relegation from the top flight in 2001. But, recently I found out something remarkable; they have not finished in the top six of any division for fifty years.
Half-a-century and barely a whiff of joy. The Cup win apart, they have suffered a slow, imperceptible decline. It feels like one of those people who dies on their own and nobody notices because their standing orders kept paying the bills. Dying of sadness in a way that nobody else cares enough to know about.
They are embroiled in their latest crisis, an existential battle with Sisu over their ground and ultimately their future. They might look and feel like a big club, but this is League 1, the elephants graveyard. I think we all thought they were a dying animal waiting to be put out of its misery.
I would like to offer some kind of analysis of the game, but I was sat practically at pitch-level. This didn’t stop the bloke behind me being able to argue about offside decisions which he could only have seen if he was using a camera mounted to a drone.
Whatever our tactical failings, this felt like the Wimbledon game, a lesson in self-destruction. We seemed to assume we’d turn up and perform, but nothing seemed to work as it should. We seem to lack the experience we got from people like Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins which meant we kept our focus whoever we faced. It was something that Michael Appleton commented on last year, he had a small group of players that would lead discussions and solve the squad’s own problems. Do we have those players now?
John Lundstram came in for quite a bit of criticism, but rather than dropping him ,as some seem to suggest, I think we need to look at whether his captaincy plays too heavily on his shoulders. But then, if not him, who is the captain? Chey Dunkley has the greatest presence in the team, but he’s also young and would we want to be risk his development giving him the burden of the armband. Which brings back to the key point; how many leaders have we got?