For football fans who have not signed up for, or subscribed to, one of the Premier League’s perennial powerhouses, the reality of following the local bunch of strugglers offers a much starker and less glitzy menu. I speak from the sometimes bitter, often deflating and once in a while, even joyful, experience of following Coventry City.
For more than three decades, through varying stages of childhood, adolescence, and, finally, manhood, I have trudged up to Highfield Road and then the Ricoh Arena for my fortnightly fix of football’s snakes and ladders. As adulthood beckoned, I grew out of Rupert the Bear, Sherbet Dips and Match of the Day magazine, but I could never quite grow out of the lure of the relegation-dodging team, just ten a minute walk from home.
The excitement started at my first match; walking through Gosford Park, joining a long trail of spectators, shuffling to the stadium. With the floodlights hovering, UFO-style, over the corners of the ground, and my neck straining upwards, I was like a gob-smacked tourist in New York. If it was mind-boggling outside, inside was better still; from my high seat, the players were Subbuteo-sized, the terraces full of singing fans and there was even a high-tech, blinking, winking, electronic scoreboard. By ten past three I had got the bug and I simply never gave it back!
Following City, I’ve watched games on gorgeous, balmy evenings against Manchester United, Arsenal and even Zimbabwe; equally I could have been certified with hypothermia, during winter matches on the tiny bank of uncovered seats on the old, open East Terrace. As with most football fans I have a fine collection of memories, the great and the inglorious sit side by side; one year winning at Wembley, one year shamed at Sutton. However, when you have seen your team go from sometimes beating Chelsea to crashing at Crawley, and from winning at Anfield to slipping up at Crewe Alexandra (again and again), you have to be made of sturdy stuff – there hasn’t been much glory-seeking for a while.
Although City enjoyed a longer ride in the top flight than many other clubs, the thirty-four years sequence remains a proud boast, the decade and a half since they slipped down the pecking order has opened the eyes of all City fans to the wider footballing universe. Relegations, a share of cup-humblings and being homeless for a year have mightily tested the mettle of all Sky Blue nuts; but the Coventry tale might, just might, be about to take an upward turn.
The latest incarnation are holding their position at the top end of League One, Division Three in old money, and a first top-six finish since 1970 is looking perfectly possible. After years of lows and then even lower lows, the skies are less grey and just a little more blue is on the horizon. Indeed such is the optimism in the air that the local radio station has taken to asking callers if they think it will be promotion through the play-offs or the automatic slots.
As this, better-than-most, season reaches its denouement, the fun of watching and wondering remains as addictive as ever. The Sky Blues may be far removed from the prism of the Premier League these days, but if the new crop of heroes do make some new memories to savour; with luck, we soon won’t have to open YouTube, or a nostalgia-tinged book to relive the glory-days!
By Michael Keane