It’s been a very Coventry City start to the season. What optimism that had been accrued from our results at the end of April, and May, and through the acquisitions we’d made over the summer, has started to fade in comparison to what can only be described as ‘Business as Usual’. Promising – if not entirely convincing – performances, as well as an abysmal showing at Bloomfield Road, has allowed our well-seasoned pessimism and masochistic lust for chaos to reign supreme amongst the Sky Blue supporters. Five points out of a possible fifteen, from a team for whom many people expect to roll most of our opponents over this term, has led a few to let anger rear it’s ugly head once more. It’s almost as if we’re playing in a new, higher, division.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Let’s not forget, that the teams we will be facing in League One this season, are in the same division as us, due to being within the same ballpark of quality as us (in theory). Perhaps it is wise of fans to remain calm during this bedding-in period, and have faith that we shall come good eventually. It’s also important, however, to know when to draw a line. Most observers will say to give it at least ten games before we start to really make any (rash?) decisions, and perhaps that is for the best. Though of course, we are all only human, and it is borderline impossible, if not wrong, to allow those first few games to give you an indication of where we’re heading.
So, where are we heading? Well, for yesterday at least, we were going to Kent; alighting at Priestfield Stadium, home of Gillingham – often considered a terrible experience for travelling fans. I (almost jokingly) decided to see what all the fuss was about, and go to my first Coventry City away match, (not including neutral venues; hi, Wembley!), for what I’m ashamed to admit, in over seven years!
Gillingham FC Vs. Coventry City FC – 25/08/18
The drive to the ground was fraught with queues down the M1. Having been unable to leave home until Noon due to having work in the morning, there was a distinct worry on my part that, for the second attended game running, I would be late for kick-off. (Due to other commitments on the day, I missed the first forty minutes of our tie against Plymouth. I parked my backside within a minute of us winning the match-winning penalty). Of course, I still had to contend with the M25, and the much-maligned Dartford Crossing. Surprisingly, both were fine, and a pleasant drive. A short jaunt down the M2 was next, and I soon arrived in Gillingham.
Priestfield is located (hidden, if you will), amongst rows and rows of terraced housing, along narrow streets. Permit parking is enforced on match days, and the lack of readily available parking meant that, despite arriving at the ground in my car a good five minutes before kick-off, I did indeed miss a couple of minutes of game time, as I drove around the surrounding neighbourhood before finally finding a space. As the weather was nice at the time, I decided to risk it, and left my coat in the car. More on that later.
The first half (sans the five initial minutes I couldn’t bear witness to), was for the most part, relatively even and unspectacular. One of the first things to catch my attention was Jack Grimmer. Reinstated to the XI ahead of Dujon Sterling, Grimmer seemed a little more cautious in his forays down the line, and this could perhaps be deemed a little frustrating at first. The enterprising Luke Thomas – on loan from Derby – was playing in front of Grimmer on the right wing, and when he received the ball (which he did quite a lot), he would cut inside onto his left foot. This left Grimmer with a lot of space to run into down the line, but, for the first half at least, he didn’t want to advance into a position further than one level with the central midfielders. This seemed uncharacteristic when compared to the Jack Grimmer we were so familiar with watching last season, but this leads me to believe that he was under instruction from Mark Robins to do this. So far this season, we have been caught out on the break where our full-backs have pushed far up the pitch to help the attack, so it was interesting to see both Grimmer and Brandon Mason not push into the final third of the pitch at all; instead staying in that aforementioned location, and either play simple passes infield to our attacking midfielders, or try to play a cross in from deep. This did aid us defensively, despite Gillingham continuing to focus their attacks down the flanks, but also left us wanting on occasion. Sometimes, our wingers, or midfielders, would look for the overlap and not find it, often killing an attack’s momentum. Gillingham, however, also seemed to employ a similar tactic with their full-backs; instead relying on the dangerous-looking Regan Charles-Cook (brother of former Coventry goalkeeper Reice), and Josh Parker to supply balls in from the flanks, aimed towards their front two; Brandon Hanlan, and the hulking Tom Eaves. It should also be noted that Gillingham did not use the presence of a player such as Eaves up front as an excuse to lump the ball up the field. They played in a manner similar to us; building up from the back, and trying to make moves happen down the flanks. Eaves and Hanlan would often come out wide to help their wingers in the absence of an overlapping full-back, knowing that they would still have an option in the box. With this said, we tended to deal with their threat somewhat comfortably, at least for the most part…
Gillingham were the first team to put the ball into the net, courtesy of Eaves, but the linesman correctly flagged for offside. Cue an immediate silencing of the home fans, and a reprieve of “You’re just a shit Andy Carroll” aimed at Eaves. A reprieve so fitting, even the Gills supporters opposite us in the Rainham End joined in with our karaoke heckling, later in the game.
The ruled-out goal seemed to spur us into life for the last fifteen minutes of the first half. While Thomas continually caused havoc with his runs inside from the wing, Tony Andreu pulled all the strings, while Jordan Shipley grew into the game and started to stretch the play from out wide. Tom Bayliss was Tom Bayliss, effortlessly gliding through the middle of the park (it must be noted that instead of being dropped for Thomas at RW, Bayliss was re-accommodated back in his natural central midfield berth, and provided a bustling, but physically tiring, performance. Perhaps this proves Robins’ continued faith in a player that he feels has to play as much as possible, for both his and the team’s benefit). Jonson Clarke-Harris led the line well, cementing my opinion that he is arguably the player best-suited to the lone-striker role. We started to fashion out more, and better, chances for ourselves. Andreu came close with a first-time curling shot that ended up travelling past the wrong side of the crossbar. Jordan Shipley found himself through on goal following a lovely pass over the top of the Gills defence, but his volleyed chip on the outside of his left boot went just wide of the far post. In a strange turn, the closest we came to scoring was from a crazy back-pass from Gillingham left-back Bradley Garmston from 25 yards. Gills keeper Thomas Holy was M.I.A, and was thankful for Gabriel Zakuani’s late intervention, much to the travelling contingent’s chagrin.
As we inched towards half-time, the Sky Blue Army were given a reminder of why Priestfield is considered a bit of a dump. Having a stand exposed to the elements is very rare in modern professional football in the U.K, and for good reason: It’s England – there’s a reason why we’re known for talking about the weather. As the referee brought the whistle to his lips, he seemed to summon the rain. And rain it did. Now, my aforementioned risk of leaving my coat in the car came back to bite me. This wasn’t just heavy rain lashing down on my epidermis, it was also regret smacking me in the face, and common sense sitting on the sidelines, gleefully mocking me. It didn’t help that the facilities for away fans at Priestfield could be described as partisan at best, and the outdoor queue for a quick, warming, brew wasn’t moving much quicker than that I’d experienced on the motorway. Eventually, the stewards came to the fans’ aid with some rainproof ponchos, which I snapped up as soon as possible. This is not the first time I’ve had to swallow my pride, but it is the first time that I’ve unironically wanted to wear a poncho.
“We’re getting wet! We’re getting wet!”, sang a good portion of the newly-founded Poncho Possé, as the teams lined up for the second-half. We were soon ignited. From kick-off, we worked the ball forwards, and then out wide to Mason, who delivered an aforementioned cross from deep. This was met by a diving (falling?) header at the back post from Clarke-Harris, which went back across the goal, and in. 1-0, and deservedly so.
We then played out the start of the second half, much like the manner in which we ended the first. We crafted out plenty of chances for ourselves, but were constantly let down by indecision and poor judgement in the final third of the pitch, along with finishing more suitable for rugby posts. We were, however, confident, and in control. If we kept this up, we would be good for the three points. Our best chance during this period came from a Tom Bayliss signature waltz through the middle. If I had to conjure up an image to put in the dictionary next to his name, it would be one of opposition midfielders falling over. As he marauded his way out wide, he managed to play a 20-yard pass to Thomas, on the edge of the box. The winger then instinctively flicked the ball behind his leg to Andreu, whose first touch was excellent to take it away from the defender, but also left him on the stretch to get the shot away, which crawled wide of the post.
Come the hour mark, and Gillingham decided that they could profit from our profligacy, and they started to get themselves back into the game. Naturally, they ended up grabbing an equaliser that few could see coming. With twenty minutes left, a clearance from the Gillingham defensive midfield area was poorly dealt with by Jordan Willis, who unintentionally sliced his clearance back towards his own box. Under pressure from the onrushing attacker, Grimmer hooked a decent clearance out to Thomas on the halfway line. Despite his attempts to control the ball, he lost out under pressure from first-half substitute Elliot List, who ran down the line unopposed, until he got level with our box. By this point, Thomas had managed to get back and meet him, alongside Grimmer, who came back out from a central position. Thomas, and then Grimmer, both made poor attempts at winning the ball back, and list found himself on the edge of the six-yard box. He then hit a right-footed volley into the goal from the tightest angle, and at the near post, too. 1-1. If you’re a Gillingham fan at this point you’d think it was an incredible goal; but for a Coventry fan, it was a poor, poor goal to concede, in many aspects. List could have had a second goal later on, but his effort this time was blocked.
We had been tiring, and Gillingham were starting to use that fact to get the better of us towards the end. Robins made three late substitutions, as is his wont, but despite the best attempts of Reise Allassani on his league debut, neither he, nor Amadou Bakayoko or Jordan Ponticelli could change the scoreline, and the game petered out to it’s conclusion.
Full-time: Gillingham 1-1 Coventry
I don’t think there were many negatives to take away from our performance as a whole on the day, but a couple of things stood out to me that need addressing if we really want to improve. The main thing, which I touched on above, is our decision-making when we attack. Our build-up play is, for the most part, pretty good. Sometimes we slow things down a little too much in midfield, but we still work it forwards ultimately. However, we find ourselves either taking too long in getting a shot away (both Thomas and Andreu were guilty of this often), or played a pass when a shot would have been possibly more apt. We didn’t really test their keeper in making saves, despite our numerous chances, and I think this is partly due to the reasons stated, and not just the quality of our finishing at the moment. I am tempted to say that in another game, perhaps a lot of our other chances would have resulted in goals, but I also feel as though it is far too easy to say that, and also somewhat trite: We’re talking about the game in question, and you can’t fashion some of these chances we’re not taking in every other game, hypothetically speaking.
I also still am frustrated with Mark Robins’ reluctance to make a substitution any earlier than the 70/75-minute mark. We were tiring after about an hours’ worth of play, and maybe Allassani (or others) being introduced around that time, rather than with ten minutes left, might have made a greater difference on proceedings.
On the subject of substitutes, it was amusing to see Bakayoko’s greatly exaggerated attempt to stay onside during one passage of play following his introduction. As the move built up on the left-hand side, Bakayoko pushed onto the shoulder of his last man, then as the move slowed, he ran 5 yards back inside his man, before again trying to burst past the man, and back again. He eventually got the ball and a shot away, but it was blocked. It is otherwise hard to comment on both his and especially Ponticelli’s performances, when they had so little time in which to do anything.
On a more positive note, we saw a lot of good things from players such as Dom Hyam, Bayliss, Andreu, Thomas, Shipley, and Clarke-Harris. Hyam was defensively solid; covering both Mason and Willis when needed, and held his own. His footwork is especially of note at this level. Is it too early to dub him as a ball-carrying defender? We’ll have to wait and see, but he had one particularly enjoyable run with the ball into midfield, and given our play style at the moment, it’s another attacking asset. He also got away two shots in the Gillingham penalty area (one in each half), that you have to admit were unorthodox for a centre-half: One a half-volley on the spin; the other a chip towards the far post, which the keeper scrambled across to hold. Bayliss and Shipley put in the types of performances you would expect from them, but I thought Andreu stood out amongst our attacking players. He dictated a lot of the play; either slipping his wingers through, playing one-twos with both Bayliss and Clarke-Harris, or fashioning a chance for himself, seemingly comfortable with either foot. What impressed me most, however, was his movement and work-rate. I initially had him pegged as a player who will just sit in the hole and let the play move around him, but he covered a great deal of the midfield area, often drifting out to the left whenever Shipley pushed forward, and covering Bayliss whenever he had burst through from the middle. He even put in a couple of good tackles. Naturally though, and this can almost be excused given his long-term injury layoff, he was tired towards the end, and as he slowed down, so did our attacks, unless we played it wide, bypassing him. Luke Thomas was a livewire down the right-flank, but that’s almost a misnomer, given that he was more often found in the half-space between the wing and the centre of the pitch, given how much he cuts inside. This makes him a threat as it overloads the centre-halves, but it is also a little-bit one-dimensional; a theory not helped by the impression he gives off, of not being able to use his right foot to kick the ball. At the moment, he reminds me of Ryan Kent, in that he is exciting to watch, and excels in running at his man, but needs to develop a bit more of an end-product in order to move to the next level.
I dare say that we’re getting there. If we can settle on a starting XI, and use our bench more effectively, we could be one of the more exciting attacking sides in the division. In order to do that, though, we need to supplement our attacking play with a few more goals. I’m sure they’ll come. Let’s take Rochdale to the sword at the Ricoh on Saturday. Onwards and upwards!