“Get us back to the Ricoh, and we’ll show you. Maybe then you will realise exactly what you’ve been preventing. That first game back is going to be unmissable.”
Not to quote myself too vigorously, because that’s not something I’ve ever actually said verbatim, but it certainly forms part of an internal dialogue I’ve been having ever since we left the Ricoh. In my psyche I deliver this speech in an imaginary meeting with Tim Fisher, shortly before I slug him in the gut and stroll out like Tony Soprano.
We knew what this occasion could become, but you can never be sure whether it will actually deliver. There was no doubt what it meant to be back, and the scramble for tickets was immense – but there’s no preparing you for the atmosphere we’ve just experienced.
I can’t have missed more than a handful of home matches since we moved to the Ricoh. No previous game has come close to providing the jubilation of Friday. Admittedly it felt slightly weird being so whipped up for a game against Gillingham, but the occasion hit me like a burst of sky blue delirium as I turned the corner and the Ricoh entered sight. There wasn’t any sobbing or dramatic behaviour like that, but seeing the crowds, the stadium, the smiles. It was a relief to finally have the confirmation. This wasn’t all an elaborate hoax – it was happening.
You know it’s a big game at the Ricoh when you walk into the stadium and it’s already packed. Walking back to my old stamping ground, trusty row T, people who we’d never spoken to before greeted us like old friends. Not that we didn’t recognise them, these were the same faces from months ago – Tall guy, blanket lady, Bisto gravy man, Sandi Toksvig – they were all there. But there’s nothing like familiarity after absence to ignite an unspoken bond. The glances, the handshakes, the nods of acknowledgement – we knew what each other had been through to get to this point.
Once game time arrived, the fans were primed. Months of defiance had built up within us, words can’t really do justice to the heartfelt roar of appreciation when the players walked onto the pitch.
You can dream about how a moment will make you feel, but nothing prepares you for the actuality.
At risk of dramatising the situation beyond what’s necessary, during my darkest moments, I feared this game would never come. I didn’t want to give up on the club, but at points it felt too difficult to keep on going, when all it did was cause annoyance and seemingly endless frustration. Was it all really worth it?
Friday night showed that this club is worth it. Anything that unites so many people with such unadulterated happiness is worth every drop of energy spent ensuring it remains.
The irrational concern for Coventry fans on the big occasions has long since been about being let down on the pitch. It’s by no means a definitive pattern – we’ve had some great games in front of big crowds – but we have selective memories and you can see why some people prefer to guard against the disappointment.
We needn’t have worried.
This team drew every ounce of positivity emanating from the crowd and delivered a performance in pure alignment with the dynamism of the evening.
Before the game, this wasn’t a familiar group of players for most Sky Blues fans. They felt more like a passing acquaintance. The new boys in down, trying desperately to be your friends. It’s amazing what a single game can do to raise familiarity levels. Already I sense a greater affinity between fans and players. Before Friday, there was still a distance. Not anymore.
Yeah, there were mistakes, and some finger-pointing at players who were more culpable than others. But for sheer commitment to the cause, to the event, to the expectations of the fans, and to the gameplan and system – that display was on the money.
The start helped set the tone. The players opened with great intensity, real purposeful passing, and certain individuals were stamping their quality on the match from the off – namely John Fleck, O’Brien, Nouble and Johnson.
Our aim under Pressley has always been to control the play as well as anybody, but our greatest threat last season came in the transition and our devastating speed on the counter. This side may not possess the same pace, but showed strong capability in possession and that was evident throughout.
The goal came from an early period of concerted pressure. It was patient but meaningful, with Frank Nouble linking things up really nicely, and O’Brien in particular playing with his head up, on the look out for incisive passes. It was his work which was pivotal in the opener, with another one of his already trademark pivots on the ball.
Ryan Haynes had a brilliant impact on the first half and did a great job at catching the eye of the Sky cameras and everyone else in the stadium. The way he drove on to O’Brien’s pass showed some genuinely exciting qualities. I’ve been willing him to show more confidence in his ability to take the ball himself, and he did that with a touch that took him straight into the danger zone. Once in position, you often forgive players for going for the default option and drilling the ball low across the six yard box. He didn’t though, he spotted Nouble which was impressive in itself, but the disguise on the pass was also a sign of player forgetting for a second where he was, and doing something that came naturally.
Nouble’s finish was perfect, and stadium madness ensued. The roar was breathtaking. I’m currently nursing a git of a knee injury, but that couldn’t stop me leaping to my feet. I collapsed in pain immediately afterwards, but I’d do it all over again.
The game followed a familiar pattern. It was a strong first half, but we struggled to duplicate in the second. For what we lacked in attacking intent however, we continued with our focus and commitment to getting the job done.
Conor Thomas had an intriguing second forty-five. The energy the man shows is astonishing. That sort of work rate is invaluable in a 3-5-2 formation, and its unrelenting. Unfortunately he seemed to put so much into the performance for the opening hour that a few mistakes started to drift into his performance, knocking his confidence and seemingly breeding more mistakes. Some fans have picked up on this, questioning his value to the team – but these things happen – you have to judge as a whole, not your most recent memories. He gave so much, I wouldn’t hold the mistakes against him. He’ll be back.
The moment of the second half came from my personal man of the match John Fleck. I’m thrilled that he was able to perform to his capabilities in front of the cameras. I know many people are wary of players performing so well on TV, lest they’re poached by bigger clubs, but we can’t shelter our players from success for reasons like that. Life’s too short.
Fleck went a long way towards proving his standing alongside League One peers, demonstrating complete comfort on the ball, and coming up with one particular moment of genius which had an entire stadium cooing with adulation. With Gillingham increasing the pressure, Fleck took up his new outlet position from defensive set plays, before chasing down an innocuous wide pass. Usual behaviour in this position would be to hold the ball up and wait for assistance. Not Flecky. Out of nowhere he looped an inexplicable effort high into the sky in an attempt to catch Bywater off his line. The audacity of it caught the keeper unaware, but he was just able to prevent it dropping in. If it wasn’t for Bywater being one of the better keepers in the league (and such a stingy bastard), Fleck would have the goal of the season award wrapped up already.
Our end-of-game management was solid, if not slightly reserved, with the focus for the final ten minutes very much on ensuring our defensive shape remained intact. The wing backs kept their discipline, and Fleck and O’Brien resisted the temptation to steam on to join the strike force. It wasn’t the most emphatic of victories, but this game wasn’t about being emphatic. It was about victory. Rounding off a unique occasion with three points and making sure nothing was going to sully a memorable experience.
Coventry City are back at the Ricoh Arena my friends, with Steven Pressley as our manager. It doesn’t get much better than that.
You’d have to be barmy to not want to come back next weekend for Yeovil. This is a clean slate, a new era for the team and the fans – there are no excuses for being bored already. After the year we’ve endured, it’s time to treat yourself to some football. An empty north stand is going to be a huge kick in the teeth after what we’ve been a part of this weekend. We have the power and the momentum to ensure that doesn’t happen, a low attendance is certainly not a given.
We’re in a position now where we can have an influence over proceedings. Our club is back, and we don’t have to watch from afar any longer. Let’s not take that for granted, let’s set our own expectations. Who cares if this is League One? Nobody cared that it was the JPT. Did that stop Wolves last year? Or Southampton when they went flying up the leagues?
The only thing that should matter is that we’re six games unbeaten now, and it’s time to stop punishing ourselves and get our arses back into full-blown Coventry City-obsessed mode.
It’s time to show this league what we’re made of.