Relegation Week: Coventry City aiming to build on four draws

Andy Thorn’s Coventry City are still yet to reach double figures in terms of goals scored away from the Ricoh Arena this season, so their 2-2 draw at Cardiff in midweek must have felt like a victory. Wins remain elusive, but safety is well within reach. Neil Allison speaks to Joe Harrison about his club’s chances of staying up.

So far, the Sky Blues have spent just six weeks of the season outside of the bottom three. Was this sort of a struggle anticipated by fans in August?

I guess so. Although, at the start of the year my personal view was that if we could somehow replace the big players who’d left the club in the summer, it wouldn’t necessarily be the useless year that everyone was expecting. We’d seen new boss Andy Thorn bring an improvement in style as we’d closed out the previous campaign, and there was nothing to suggest that on the pitch we couldn’t at least maintain the same level of performance. I made this point in a few season previews, all with the very big caveat that – and I can’t stress this enough – we replaced those who’d left.

Unfortunately, the owners had other plans. Just before previous boss Aidy Boothroyd was given the boot last March, it went public that our finances were in big trouble. As fans we had to adjust very quickly from looking up at play-off places a few weeks earlier to fighting potential administration.

With this in mind, there was very little intent during the summer to bring replacements in, and as we entered the opening game at Leicester, the mindset amongst the fans had turned into one of immense worry for the season ahead. We’d been left with a squad that had been dramatically weakened, and it was clear that strengthening was not on the agenda.

People said I was barmy in thinking we could do anything but fight relegation. It seems odd to say this now, but I do still stand by the sentiment – maybe if we had managed to bring in a few players before we started, there wouldn’t have been the overriding negativity and acceptance of relegation blighting us from the off.

We’ll never know now, I suppose. Thorn got no backing and there was a swift realisation that the season was going to be a tricky one.

One noticeable feature of Coventry’s season is that while their home form is that of a mid-table side, away form has been disastrous, why are the team so much worse away from the Ricoh Arena?

We barely score and always concede. You don’t need to be Clarke Carlisle to understand the difficulties that’ll cause you. Nine goals away from home, and only one clean sheet (which funnily enough came last weekend against Watford) really is despicable behaviour if you’re looking to stay up.

That doesn’t really answer your question though – why exactly are they so much worse away from the Ricoh?

Well, the home form has only really picked up this side of Christmas, coinciding with a change from our much-maligned diamond formation, and the dynamic Alex Nimely having an impact up front. We’ve moved to the fans’ favourite 4-4-2 and suddenly appear more expansive and play in a way that suits the dynamic of a home team, with the opponents usually a little more reserved and inviting pressure.

Strangely, the move to 4-4-2 has also led to some horribly ineffective performances away from the Ricoh. Prior to the change, we were mostly competitive in away games using the diamond, and were only outplayed on a couple of occasions.

It has got me thinking about the nature of these two formations, and how they suit our approach at both home and away. I know there’s little scope for experimentation at this stage, but could it simply be the case that we have a system that works better for us at home, and we need something different away. That’s one possible theory.

Whatever it is, the management team still haven’t found a solution, and until we do, we’ll continue to bumble our way through the games on our travels.

With top scorer Lukas Jutkiewicz now departed, are the remaining attacking players capable of scoring the goals needed to propel the team towards safety?

It’s going to be difficult, but ironically, it kind of it feels like we’re more of a threat now he’s gone. Jutkiewicz was a top player for us, but he missed ever such a lot of chances. As Middlesbrough fans will no doubt verify, he’s not the most clinical of strikers.

In his place we’ve brought in Man City youngster Alex Nimely who has stepped up the individual quality in the attacking areas, but the goals haven’t come for him. He’s at his most dangerous when he runs at players, but the end product has been either a wayward shot, dive, or winning a penalty. Sometimes useful, but often frustrating.

I took the liberty of looking at the figures to see how things have gone pre and post Lukey Juke. At first glance, the records are pretty similar – we scored 21 in the 25 games prior to him leaving, and are ever so slightly more clinical in the post-Juke era with 13 in 13 games. So while that’s certainly not anything to be proud of, at least there’s not been a decline. In actual fact, we only scored two or more goals on four occasions while he was here; we’ve already done it four times since.

But the concern is still there. We didn’t score enough with him, and we’re still not scoring enough now. The onus is on our strikeforce of Nimely, elderly chap Clive Platt, local hero Gary McSheffrey and new boy Cody McDonald. We create a reasonable number of chances but they’ve got 13 league goals between them up to this point. I’ll leave you to decide whether you think they’ve got it in them increase that figure between now and the end of April.

There has been a lot of criticism of the club’s owners regarding their lack of investment and cost-cutting. Do the fans blame the owners for this season’s struggles, or are frustrations directed more at Andy Thorn and his players?

It became clear early on that the men in charge were content to leave the squad as it was, and that alone has been enough to deflect any widespread criticism of Thorn. He’s been put in a very tricky position from the outset with such poor backing. We’re a very unforgiving group of fans, but even now you will hear the fans chanting his name at each game.

That’s not to say that he’s immune from all criticism. The owners can’t be blamed for throwing away the points we have done this year, and in the manner those lost points have come about.

When he first came into the job, Thorn’s attitude was a refreshing one and he seemed keen to allow the players to express themselves and play with a positive attitude.

That’s really changed this year, and there have been far too many goals conceded which have come about late on through his refusal to change the team or try and affect the result in a positive manner. He’s rarely pro-active, instead preferring to wait and react once something (usually a conceded goal) forces his hand. This winds up the fans right up, as it seems we spend the final moments of most games just asking for trouble.

But generally, the fans anger is aimed at the owners and the dramatic fall from relative grace we’ve been subjected to over the last 15 months or so.

Finally, with games against Portsmouth, Millwall and Doncaster still to come, do you think the Sky Blues will be able to pull themselves out of trouble?

My main worry is that we’re running out of time. We’ve drawn the last four games, but at this stage, still adrift, each draw is another two points sacrificed.

There are certainly some winnable fixtures ahead (as I’m sure they’re saying about us), but with eight games left, we’re looking at play-off form to get us into the mid-40 point range. Of course, everyone’s playing each other so it’s very hard to identify a points target, but 100% home form is unlikely to be enough; we’ve got to do the unheard of and take some away points too.

It’s going to go down to the wire, but with the prospect of a Southampton promotion party on the final game of the season, the ideal scenario would be if we could have sorted things out by the time we’ve played Doncaster the week previous. There’s a lot of hard work to do, but we’d bloody love if that’s how things panned out.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

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