My inclination to write about Coventry City may have waned over the last 12 months, but my passion for the club has never been stronger. Life brings its ups and downs; its heartbreak and its elation; its punishments and rewards. It’s an enduring journey and I find myself learning each day about how I want to live it and what makes it as good as it can possibly be. Writing about football used to be a big part of that and made me happy.
Now? Not so much. But I’m fine with that. Coventry City still forms a predominant part of my life. It’s an all-encompassing investment of time, emotion and sanity.
But as with life, we’re ultimately seeking happiness and satisfaction. Which leads me to one question: what is the ultimate goal in supporting Coventry City? Why do we continue to support a team if there isn’t the intention to achieve something that can be deemed “rewarding”?
This season meant a lot to me. I needed it. I needed the distraction. I needed the pick-me-up. I needed that reward. And for a long while I was certain we’d finally come across the solution to the puzzle to make that happen. Now, I’m not saying it’s Coventry City’s obligation to rally round and focus on winning just to alleviate my personal annoyances or satisfy my desires, but it’d fucking help if the people responsible for delivering cared about actually succeeding as many of us do.
I’ve always felt there’s a nuanced difference on a football pitch between trying and caring. I’m sure the players go onto the pitch and try. Nobody wants to look crap.
But do they care? Is their effort reflective of them actually caring where Coventry City end up next year? Does being in League One cause them genuine anguish like it does for so many fans?
The approach to the last couple of months suggests not as much as is necessary.
Now, you could argue that the players and management are only reflecting human nature. Why would you care for something that has absolutely no relevance to you and your emotions? It’s a valid point, but we all know that really doesn’t hold true in football otherwise the only teams that would win anything would be those riddled with local players and supporters. Nothing in sport is that black and white.
As the season draws to a close and our hopes of the play-offs evaporate with every passing matchweek, I watch in disbelief as a unit of players that was so brutally devastating in the first half of the season now struggles to pass itself off as a competent League One team. Can these players really have lost their quality overnight?
Over the years I’ve made my opinion clear about the importance of a forthright and ambitious culture. For too long I think we’ve lacked direction and an intention to succeed. This was the year I was determined the club would adjust this, but after a wave of excitement when the club was winning, it’s the inherent commitment to achieving the success we were primed for that I feel has been promptly abandoned, long before it could/should have been deemed out of reach.
There’s a cumulative effect here. I don’t think it’s a conscious adjustment; more an impulse to protect and prepare for the worse that feels engrained throughout the club and its support. The team and fans don’t actively show lack of caring, but I do feel the situation and culture of club allows a lack of desire to occur. We were heading for success – it only needed a reasonable final three months to achieve it – but can you honestly say there’s been a concerted effort to get promotion once things started to get tricky and every other team started to fight for their own seasons?
Do you sense the pain when you hear the players or the manager or the players talk about our performance? When Tony Mowbray manages to condense his views into a blanket “we’ll see what the next game brings” statement? I don’t feel like there is a real Leeds Utd/Man City determination to get the fuck out of the third tier as soon as possible.
Being in League One should hurt. There should be a desperation and urgency rife throughout the club to get out given its history and just how rotten the last 15 years have been for us all, but there isn’t. The only thing that’s rife throughout our club is a culture of deference and deferral. There’s always a reason why failure is OK or expected. There’s always someone telling us that we’re punching above our weight, regardless of circumstance. I thought we were moving in the right direction when we were riding high, but it only took a few defeats in January to prompt the old habits back into life.
Journey back to Reice Charles-Cook’s list to Santa in December. It was a funny, light-hearted roadmap towards a trophy-laden future for the club, but also reflective of the mindset of the squad and gave me great encouragement. They puffed their chests and had strong ideas about how good they were and what they could achieve. We saw this on the pitch. We sensed their arrogance. They knew they were going to get promoted.
Move forward just a couple of months and the notion that this squad has ambitions for a future with Coventry City is laughable.
Maddison was sold in January in the midst of a couple of bad results, and suddenly promotion to the Championship became less and less of a formality.
And it’s this swiftly-erased vision of success that pains me. Coventry City achieving top 6 in League One should never be a pipe dream or something that a few defeats should entirely quash. This league isn’t about money; it’s about team spirit, cohesion, confidence, maybe some special individuals, and loads of determination. But ever since the results in January dented team confidence and our bid for automatic promotion lost momentum, the familiar Coventry City “mediocrity insurance” protocol kicked in, and far earlier than should ever have been allowed.
“Don’t forget we’re still overachieving.”
“Whatever happens it’s still an improvement.”
“We would have taken top half in August.”
My point of contention isn’t around whether or not these messages are true – that’s down to perspective. What I really struggle with is just how noticeable our instinct to mitigate and prepare for failure is. Especially when we’ve gone so many years without succeeding. It’s been galling to observe the gradual increase in people employing the familiar mechanism of telling ourselves that even if things go tits up, we should be happy. When things are going badly in football, I can’t see how justifying further disappointment will ever provide the catalyst to resolve or resurrect confidence. This isn’t about blind faith and ignoring problems; it’s about ensuring that you don’t look to defer achieving your goals the moment you encounter difficulty.
I often think we immerse ourselves in superstition and reverse-psychology. This idea that it’s somehow better to predict failure or mediocrity, then it won’t feel as bad if you do fail. I don’t see it this way. We’re in drastic need of a cultural shift to turn our mindset into one of a club that is determined to succeed. You don’t do that by offering excuses and reasons to believe that not making the play-offs in League One is acceptable. The mindset of the club isn’t the sole reason things have fallen apart, but until there’s a strong communication about our season aims I’ll always wonder if there’s really the requisite drive to be winners.
We have to acknowledge that we’ve been very fortunate this season with the opportunities that have been afforded us in the transfer market. While the Joe Cole signing hasn’t exactly worked out, we have essentially had our pick of the very best Premier League players available to loan at our level.
Loans form the very bedrock of League One life. We’re not alone in relying on them. It’s the reality of things, but with acquiring better quality of loans you also have to contend with the potential of those players’ mindset waning when things don’t go as expected.
Murphy, Maddison, Armstrong, Fleck, Cole, Hunt, Fortune, O’Brien, Ricketts, Phillips. That’s just a quick bunch of players I can think of who are in our squad who probably/definitely won’t be with us next season. But there are so many more beyond that. These are the players we’re expecting to thrust us to promotion during our biggest slump of the season. While they were able to ride the crest of a wave earlier in the season when the pressure was off and time was on our side, as defeats became more and more impactful, so does the lack of resilience and determination it seems. It’s pure conjecture, but you can’t help but consider the influence that wandering mindsets can have, even on a subconscious level. So many of our players are being asked to fight for something that’s got nothing to do with them or their futures. Those margins could be the difference during a game. They shouldn’t be, but you do wonder.
I guess what I’m trying to say in a very long-winded way: we may try to rationalise this decline and make ourselves feel better for throwing it away by telling ourselves that we weren’t expecting promotion, but that won’t wash with me, and having those noises coming out of the camp hasn’t been helpful.
Relinquishing control of the situation and their destiny in such a limp yet stark way only serves to indicate a lack of desire to achieve for Coventry City. This isn’t a quality thing – it can’t be, we saw their capability for four months – but when they’ve needed to force the issue, they’ve wilted.
Now they’ve got 8 games left to prove that they’re not just another bunch of losers. Realistically we probably won’t make the play-offs after such a shameful collapse, but does that mean they’re allowed to give up like so many other Coventry City sides have done? Are they bollocks.
We gave them more praise than any of them will probably receive again in their careers. It’s their turn to give us a reason to believe they deserved it.
They may think their season appraisals are secure because they’re performed in the opening games, but all this does is showcase how terribly they’ve let the club down in the second half of the campaign.
So the message to the players: You have eight games left to salvage your Coventry City reputation. You were revered as heroes because of how happy you made us.
Those first few months were incredible and we loved you for it.
It’s time to step up and ensure that the only memory Sky Blues fans have of you is of full-blooded, blistering, red mist-fuelled, goal-hungry, rage-filled desperation to leave an indelible mark on this league and your time at the club.
We can’t control what position we finish in now. The only thing we can only control is how many games we win to give ourselves a fighting chance. And that still matters to us.
Show us that it matters to you.