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Liam Kelly can pinpoint the exact game that set Coventry City on the path to promotion.
Mark Robins’ team hadn’t started the League One season calamitously, sitting in sixth, but they had only won six, drawn eight and only scored as many goals as Wimbledon, who were in the relegation zone at the time.
Then, through circumstances as much as anything else, Robins hit upon the change that would alter the course of their season and ultimately lead to them winning League One, which was confirmed on Tuesday when clubs voted to curtail the season and decide final positions on points per game.
“We were playing 4-3-3, and then we played Colchester away in the FA Cup,” Kelly, the Coventry captain, told Adrian Clarke on the Totally Football League Show. “I think we just didn’t have many fit strikers at the time, and obviously we had a lot of centre-mids that were fit, so we went to three at the back, four centre-mids playing, wing-backs, striker.
“I think on that day everything just just clicked, and it worked so well. We were brilliant on that day, against Colchester: we controlled the whole game, and we played some fantastic stuff, created chance after chance and we stuck with it and we played some fantastic football.
“At the same time, there were times when you get into January, February, where the pitches aren’t that great, the weather is terrible and we found ways to grind wins, when we weren’t playing well. But, you know, some of the stuff we played in that formation is fantastic. That was a turning point for us when we switched to that.”
After that game, Coventry only lost one more league game all season, a brilliant run that established them at the top of the table, five points clear of second and seven ahead of third place, when League One stopped in March. Of all the understandable grievances about how the season has been decided, crowning Coventry as champions can’t realistically be among them.
“This is obviously a great, great achievement,” says Kelly. “Coventry is a massive club with a massive fan base in what’s been a very different year – playing away from home all season, with everything that’s been going on with corona virus, you know, just to finally get over the line and get promotion confirmed is massive, Massive for me, massive for the club – it’s just a great day for everyone involved at Coventry.”
It is especially remarkable that Coventry have been so good despite not really having a home ground. The rolling shambles that is their ownership situation has meant that they have been unable to play at the Ricoh Arena, and have instead been forced to call Birmingham’s St Andrew’s ground their home for the season. How did they not only cope, but thrive in that situation?
“I think from day one, as soon as we learned that we were going to be playing at St Andrew’s for the season, the mindset of the staff or the players was: “there’s no excuses.” You can’t dwell on the fact that we’re not playing at the Ricoh. From day one of pre-season, we just got down to business. We just said the situation is what it is and we’re going to work as hard as we can.
“We want to go back to the Ricoh because it’s a big, fantastic stadium and it’s our stadium. It’s the fans’ stadium. It’s in Coventry. But if we are at St Andrew’s next season, I don’t think anything changes for us.
“It’s tough on the fans because we don’t know what the situation is going to be with fans turning up to games next season. I think all the players in the club appreciate that it’s a large cost for a lot of people to travel over to Birmingham and to buy season tickets. So it’s fantastic, the ones that did. And they’ve got a great season – well, three quarters of a season of football.”
Work has already started to retain and augment the squad that has achieved this promotion, but Kelly thinks that even if there aren’t significant additions, the existing team has enough to compete in the Championship.
“If you look at the big games we’ve played this season against the big clubs in League One, and even the two games against Birmingham [in the FA Cup, when they lost on penalties after a replay], we probably should have won both games – we played really well in both and we were just unlucky.
“We’ve got is very good squad, very competitive – I keep saying great character, but that’s what makes a successful season. And I’m sure the club is working really hard behind the scenes just to add that little bit more quality to us. We’re confident that we’ve got another good season. We will obviously be watching the Championship, sitting at home and getting ourselves ready for pre-season. It’s going to be fantastic just to be a spectator for once, seeing what we’re going to come up against next season.”
Preparation for next season will be particularly strange, given that when the 2020/21 campaign does begin – realistically in late September at the earliest – Coventry won’t have played a competitive game for six months.
“I think we’re just waiting for the date when it’s going to start. I think that’s going to come off when the Premier League starts and the EFL take their dates from that. I think we’re talking about having an eight week pre-season just because we’ve had so long off.
“I think we need that time to get that training to get back up to fitness, because Championship clubs will have been playing for the next two months, and they’ll be they’ll be ready. So we need to make sure that we’re ready to start the season.”
You can here more from Richie on the latest edition of the Totally Football League Show here, to which you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.