The second coming of Mark Robins at Coventry City began with a home defeat, 2-0 by Bradford City. As omens go it was not totally bad. So did his first, in September 2012, and he left in 2013 as the best manager the club has had with a league win percentage of 52%.
In 25 games he took them from 23rd in League One to eighth in February. But the situation is more desperate now. Even Messiahs need time – not Easter. Coventry, still in League One by a thread, are 14 points from safety with 10 games left.
Robins is their fourth manager this season after Tony Mowbray, Mark Venus and Russell Slade. Without a club for over a year, since Huddersfield tempted him to the Championship followed by a spell at Scunthorpe, he was happy to accept a contract to the summer of 2018 and a poll in the Coventry Telegraph showed three to one happy to have him back. He was possibly the only man prepared to take it. The club is in dire straits and dire hands.
This did not stop Robins talking up the future. “I have entered the role with the mind-set that, assisted by the right tools, we can begin to change the fortune of this once-mighty club,” he wrote in the programme. “We must rebuild in a sustainable way, for the betterment of the club as a whole. I want us to be cohesive and to restore the trust and unity between the club and its fanbase.”
The voice from the boardroom said: “I know Mark and the players will be giving everything to try and glean some positives from an otherwise disappointing season. As an upmost priority the club will support Mark with the implementation of a robust recruitment structure in order to build a successful team going forward. Recruitment is the bedrock of any football club and we must get this right once and for all.”
If that hints at admission of past fault by Sisu, the hedge fund owners from 2007, it is a first. They are supposed to rescue distressed companies not do the distressing. For more than nine years they have supervised a steadily less successful operation going downward, stripped as bare as Lady Godiva.
In September the Telegraph called on Sisu, now hiding behind a hedge called Otium Entertainment, to put the club up for sale and leave because “during their time in charge attendances, revenues and league positions have all declined”. Its accompanying petition drew some 20,000 signatures. Tim Fisher, the club’s chairman, at once imposed a ban, denying the Telegraph access to manager and players. He is a former Sisu man and this betrayed ignorance of the function of the local paper in a football community and amounted to an admission of unfitness to serve. If fans are the heart of a club, the paper is a no less vital organ. Robins should demand access or resign.
Straight after the match he struggled to glean a positive but identified a problem. Bradford have lost only five league games this season, fewer than any EFL club and the same as Coventry have won, and they are challenging for automatic promotion to a level they left in 2004. “They had the nous, we had naivety,” Robins said. “Against good teams you’ve got to stay in the game. We’ve got to develop that mentality.”
For the first half they matched Bradford but straight afterwards seemed as mystified as England’s rugby players against Italy’s non-ruckers when, at a corner, Bradford held back on the edge of the penalty area instead of packing the goalmouth. Alex Jones raced into the space to score and, before Coventry switched on, Jordy Hiwula doubled it.
The Ricoh has proved a conceit whereby the club were sent to Coventry’s outskirts in 2005, thence to administration and Northampton, before returning to find they were to be Wasps’ tenants. So the football club know all about rugby boots even before the league franchise in the offing. The churned pitch justified playing the bulk of the match in the air but on the ground the holding midfielder, Ben Stevenson, 19, looked an elegant one to watch.
On FA Cup sixth-round day it was impossible not to reflect on how far Coventry have sunk. They were on their way to Wembley 30 years ago, having done for Manchester United with Spurs to beat 3-2 in the final. On 2 April they return for the Checkatrade final with Oxford United. Between times, in 2001 with Bradford and Manchester City, they left the top tier after 37 years. Thus have Robins’s “mighty” club fallen. But the Sky Blue support at Wembley, five or six times what comes to the Ricoh, will be another measure of SISU’s abject failure and insensitivity. Was that Otium or Odium?
•If fame is about seizing opportunities, then Mark Wright did not miss his and may have matched his siblings. Gillingham were 2-0 down at home to Scunthorpe in the 77th minute when they were awarded a penalty. The midfielder Wright converted to the goalkeeper Luke Daniels’ left. Five minutes later they had another and, from the same approach, he scored to the keeper’s right. Then, in the 86th minute, they got a third and again, with an identical run, he dead-pan duplicated the second – 10 minutes for three. He had a couple of seasons at Scunthorpe but before Daniels was there, so there was no foreknowledge from training. Wright’s brother and sister are Mark and Jessica, stars of The Only Way Is Essex. Is his own distinction to hold the record for fastest professional penalty hat-trick in football?
•Walking to grounds and talking to fans has been one of the pleasurable rituals of reporting football. Four years ago it led to a chance chat at Plainmoor with Mark and Rachel Rapsey. They were up from Truro, to watch Torquay v York, both in League Two then. Mark was still playing and had a target. A fortnight ago he reached it. He scored his 2,000th goal in competitive non-League football, for Wadebridge Veterans. Next month he will be 50. He scored his first at 13, which would not be allowed now, for Malabar. He was “a skinny left-wing” then. He grew into a more substantial target-man, on Bristol City’s books as a schoolboy and, in 1986-87, a quarter-finalist with Falmouth Town in the FA Vase. More than 900 of his goals were semi-pro and his 2,000th was a penalty (he scored all but four of 162), so for good measure he made it 2001 and bowed out on crackling knees and a 25-yard chip. He and Rachel both work for the NHS and on 1 April they have another target. Their son Jack, if recovered from injury, should be playing for Cornwall against Middlesex in the FA County Youth Cup final at Barnet.
•Enough of records. Tony Mowbray, first of Coventry’s four managers this season, has resurfaced at struggling Blackburn and not lost in his five games to date. Saturday’s draw at Norwich brought his haul to nine points and may give them confidence get something out of the next four: Fulham, Preston, Brighton, Reading – all in the top eight with eyes on the Premier League.
•Carlisle United were the last club in any division to lose a league match, going 15 games before succumbing in the 16th on 12 November at Newport County, who have regularly been propping up League Two. Now Keith Curle’s side have lost four in a row, including two 3-0 home defeats. What would they do to recall Charlie Wyke, continuing his free scoring at Bradford?
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