In a change of focus, this guest post comes from Coventry fan and writer Tom Furnival-Adams, who in his previous musings provided a call for pragmatism and continual evaluation towards the current Sixfields situation. All very sensible; all very serious too.
But occasionally – especially when you’ve just won four games in a row – it’s OK to take a look at the positives without feeling guilty. The football guys deserve all the plaudits they’re getting.
Especially the waistcoat-wearing, Steven Pressley-shaped man who stands in our dugout.
By Tom Furnival-Adams
So, er, apparently Joy and Ann were prepared to have a conversation with one another. And then everyone said they wouldn’t until after the judicial review. And then they did meet, but no one knows what they said to each other. Which is great.
While these formidable ladies have been busy trading statements in the media, it’s been an unusual (for Coventry) couple of weeks, where most of the debate around the club seems to have actually been about football.
Last Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Notts County concluded a superb run of five wins in six league games. That was followed by a League One Manager of the Month award being foisted upon young Steven Pressley and a characterful, hard-fought win at AFC Wimbledon’s rustic Kingsmeadow stadium in the FA Cup first round on Friday evening. The first half was one of the poorest we’ve been involved in this season, but the psychological response to going behind to underdogs was exemplary. 3-1 may have flattered to an extent, but some of the football being played in the final 25 minutes was sumptuous.
Against all odds, this is a uniquely exciting and rewarding time to support Coventry. I have written previously on the deeply ingrained negativity at the heart of Coventry supporters’ collective mentality, fueled by decades of struggle and decline. We are virtually unique in the football league in lacking any experience of watching our team consistently win games or mount promotion challenges. That is why this season has been so special.
The team plays with confidence and looks full of goals across the attacking unit. The combined impact of Callum Wilson and Leon Clarke need only be summed up by their 22 goals. Jordan Clarke and Andy Webster have steadily fashioned a formidable centre back pairing. In the middle, John Fleck has been masterful. In the Championship years, a win usually felt hard-fought and unlikely; now I almost expect us to go ahead. Once we’ve gone ahead, I expect us to score again. What’s more, Pressley’s passing, possession-based game is beautiful to watch. Every single player brims with self-belief. We have reason to be proud.
A few weeks ago I was one of several fans who, for one reason or another, were invited by the club’s ownership to discuss our concerns and their ‘vision’ for its future. Having grown tired of the Ricoh dispute, the most interesting aspect of this meeting to reflect on afterwards was the opportunity to talk football with Steve Waggott.
In terms of the identity of the team, we agreed that, historically, one barely existed. Interestingly, he pointed out that one of the questions Steven Pressley asked in his interview for the manager’s job was: ‘what is the DNA of the club?’ Evidently, there was a realisation that there simply isn’t one. Since relegation to the second tier, our transfer policy has been player-led, rather than by an overarching strategy. Players have been brought into the club simply because they appeared to be reasonably good value for money and were willing to come to Coventry. Whether this was through sheer panic on the club’s part, or because of the difficulty in attracting good players to the Midlands over London or the North West, it clearly wasn’t working.
The philosophy now being implemented by Waggott and Pressley transcends players or individuals. New players are subjected to personality tests; extensive background research is carried out; there is a strict requirement that they understand and buy into Pressley’s ideal of high-intensity passing football. Not everyone is suited to playing like this, hence the decision to release 19 players over the summer.
Players like William Edjenguele and Steven Jennings are not bereft of qualities, but they were seemingly deemed incompatible – either mentally or physically – with the team’s new style of play, and consequently discarded. There had been a lack of unity in the dressing room and the management team set about ridding the squad of the disruptive influence of particular individuals. Like Jose Mourinho, Pressley favours a small, tight-knit, committed group of players with a desire to work for one another over a sprawling, disparate squad lacking unity and coherence.
Pressley sees the value in investing in youth. By employing a consistent playing philosophy right across the club, young players are easily able to make the transition from academy to first team. This, of course, is nothing new – Barcelona have applied the same approach for many years. Domestically, Swansea, too, have been extremely successful in establishing a similar method. The reason this works for Coventry, though, is that it utilises one of our greatest assets – the academy, and offsets our major handicap – a lack of funds.
As a football league club, by definition we have very little cash to spend and are vulnerable to having our players and coaching staff poached by teams in the Championship and the Premier League. It is therefore vital for individuals to be easily replaceable. In the past the club has been over reliant on the loan market, which is notoriously hit-and-miss. By nurturing the youth teams in preparation for progression to the first team and indoctrinating them into an overall playing philosophy, we have low risk, low cost, ready-made replacements for outgoing players.
Aaron Philips and Jordan Willis are a good example of this strategy in action. Both have excelled in covering for Cyrus Christie’s recent injury-enforced absence. While I hope we can retain Christie for as long as possible, it’s well known that Championship clubs are scouting him. It is reassuring to know that, should he leave, the academy has spawned potential replacements who know the team’s style of play inside out, know the existing squad members, and understand exactly what is expected of them. The financial plight of most lower league clubs means that there is significant risk attached to reinvesting incoming funds in recruiting external replacements.
I also asked specifically about the progress of Callum Wilson’s new contract. Waggott assured me that it was progressing well, and he was confident that Wilson would re-sign. Refreshingly, it has transpired that this was entirely accurate. Waggott outlined Wilson’s commitment to Coventry by describing him as someone who was brought up locally, and would like to play at the top level with his hometown club.
I believe that the management team understand the League we’re in, and aren’t under any illusions about the club’s ‘rightful place’. The primary aim for the time being remains safety, because another relegation would be catastrophic: for fans and Sisu investors alike. Those in charge of the playing side of the operation understand the impact of Financial Fair Play regulations on the ability of football league clubs to assert themselves in the transfer market, and realise that attempting to match the parachute payment-fuelled spending power of sides like Wolves is futile. Coventry’s pedigree may be amongst the most impressive in League One, but in the here-and-now, the club must be adaptable and resourceful to compete. Not just with ‘the likes’ of Wolves, but also with traditionally lower-league teams like Brentford and Peterborough.
I have faith in Steven Pressley because his philosophy is club encompassing. He hasn’t invested £3m in 2 or 3 big name players, he’s taken the whole structure of the club and given it an identity; organised it strategically. On the rare occasion that we’ve managed to put good runs together in the past, it’s felt fleeting and slightly fortuitous. Aidy Boothroyd’s brief tilt at the Championship play-off places was based on an ugly but effective tactical set-up, which was nullified as soon as opposition sides learnt to anticipate it. I was an admirer of Mark Robins, but in hindsight it’s hard to imagine him achieving the success he did without David McGoldrick’s freakish form.
It may still be early days, but Pressley’s success feels carefully engineered. He doesn’t strike me as a manager who leaves much to chance. He isn’t reliant on the quality and sustained fitness of a couple of high-calibre loan signings to raise the whole squad; he doesn’t make excuses when players suffer injuries; he’s astute and selective, and the amount he’s willing to invest in his chosen players lifts them to the limit of their capabilities.
The prospect of a high-profile club summoning him at some stage is not remote, and we should not take him for granted while he remains at Coventry. But off-field issues allowing, I hope that his legacy transcends a one-off season or league position. Pressley himself, I imagine, would only be satisfied if he leaves a club with its own identity, able to replace him with a similarly promising young manager who can continue what he started.
In the meantime: long live Steven Pressley.
You can find Tom on Twitter @tom_fa