Catching Back Up

A month can seem like a long time in football. It certainly seems like a while since I lasted posted. Typically, such tardiness has occurred at a time when Coventry City have given me quite a bit to write about. Five wins on the spin, eh? An extra sixth game unbeaten, Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Accrington Stanley – whoever they are – sees me return from my accidental sabbatical, to provide a quick overview of the last few matches that I was able to watch (at least, what I can remember of them, anyway).


Coventry City 1-0 Wycombe Wanderers – 13/10/18

Having come into the game off the back of an impressive-if-not-deserved late win against promotion hopefuls Charlton, we were faced with a Wycombe side who had just started to pick up some points following a poor start to their season.

I’d argue that Wycombe were the worst side we’ve faced at home in the league this season, beating Plymouth in the race to the wooden spoon by virtue of how much more dangerous we were allowed to be this time out. Despite this, we only scored one goal, and that came with only ten minutes left.

The game can simply be described as Wycombe having a game plan, and having it outright fail; whilst our game plan worked but for some poor execution on our part in the final third. While Wanderers were intent on their attacks centering around the footballing equivalent of a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attraction – Adebayo Akinfenwa, who really does have to be seen in the flesh. He must be worth the attendance fee alone down at Adams Park – it became clear that it just wasn’t working for him. For all that is said about him in the lower tiers of English professional football, he wasn’t able to impose himself on the game in the slightest. Jordan Willis, who had excelled against the same player last season, once again had a simple task against a player who just wasn’t mobile enough against two fast centre-halves that could jump. Who knew? Had Wanderers had the gumption to try and play the ball into his feet, with his back to goal, he might have been a different proposition on the day. To our benefit though, Wycombe were stoic in their approach.

For us, Jordy Hiwula was drafted into the XI ahead of Jordan Shipley, who was called up for Ireland U23s duty. This helped provide a sea change in our attacking play, as Hiwula’s direct running; often positioning himself as an auxiliary striker rather than the left winger he was picked as, gave us a more dynamic left wing, more in tune with our other flank. With this added pace and directness, we were creating more chances than we had in previous matches. Not to look too far ahead, but this set a theme for us to take into the next few matches.

The only thing missing was a goal. As I had touched upon briefly, we were letting ourselves down in the final third of the pitch, much to the detriment of our otherwise very good build-up play. In the end, it took Dujon Sterling running the length of the entire right flank with the ball and without any options, to create our only goal. A chop inside the left-back was followed by the ball being knocked back outside him. Sterling then played an inviting ball into the box, and Conor Chaplin jumped, rather intriguingly, to head home his first goal from open play, and first at the Ricoh.

Barring a rare scare involving the unlikeliest of sources; Wanderers keeper Ryan Allsop skying a last-gasp chance over the bar, we comfortably played out the last ten minutes, and won our second consecutive league match, for the second time this season.


Bradford City 2-4 Coventry City – 23/10/18

It’s a little harder for me to comment on this game. I watched it, yes, but only via the medium of an iFollow stream. It is in no way the same as watching it live in the ground. You cannot get as good a read on the game, the atmosphere, and the little nuances in a match, when all you can see is what it put in front of you on the screen. Oh, and you have to listen to BBC C&W radio for commentary. How blessed we are on this day.

What I will say, is that this game played out in a similar fashion to our much-loved win away at Notts County in the play-off semi-final second leg, last season. We took a very early lead following a corner, and then doubled it. Our opponents then grabbed a goal back and put a lot of pressure on us, before we grabbed a third on the break, and Tom Bayliss slotted home a fourth with his left foot from outside the box. The home team even had a goal (incorrectly) ruled out. How familiar does that all sound?

Of course, there were still some differences. We were 2-0 up within the first ten minutes, thanks to Jonson Clarke-Harris, and an excellent free-kick from Conor Chaplin. However, we then seemed to invite Bradford onto us, rather than challenge them to up their game against our cavalier attacking play. Fortunately, Bradford were poor in their approach, especially in the first half. Their method of attack was to consistently try to play the ball through, or more to the point, over, our defence. However, they only had any sort of (limited) success with this strategy when the ball was received by their players in a wide area, meaning they still had to try and work it into the box somehow. Rinse and repeat.

It took a freak moment of finesse from centre-half Anthony O’Connor to get Bradford back into the game just after the hour mark, and given how they had been knocking feebly at the door prior to this, most Sky Blues fans would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the Bantams’ catalyst to what had looked like an unlikely turnaround.

However, moments later, Chaplin played Hiwula in down the left, in a fast counter-attack. Hiwula was then able to score his second league goal in succession (having got his first in the previous match; a 2-1 win away at Southend). While not the most well-placed of finishes – the keeper got a touch to it and arguably could have done better with that in mind – it had enough pace on it to nestle in the net and restore our two-goal lead.

Five minutes later, Bayliss ran in from the right flank. With no-one in a claret shirt really fancying the task of closing him down, lest they end up flat on their arse as per usual against our no. 20 in full flight, all that was left for young Tom to do was to pick his spot from 20 yards. Our fourth goal. FOUR. It sounds barmy that given how our season had played out to this point, that we would even be able to score four goals. But perhaps that is also a testament to how disappointing Bradford have been this term.

With a little over ten minutes left, the slightest bit of sheen was taken off the scoreline, as O’Connor managed to volley into the ground, and have the ball bounce over everyone and in. Then, with only a few minutes left of the 90, Bradford had a third. Only, they suddenly didn’t.

Luke Thomas made an absolute faff of a clearance, somehow managing to slice the ball behind him and towards the far post, where George Miller bundled home. However, the referee ruled the goal out for an alleged handball, earning Mr. Miller his second yellow card, and an only-slightly-early bath. A big, big let-off for us, as it would appear that there was very little evidence of a hand in the available replays. Whatever, we would’ve won 4-3 anyway.


Coventry City 2-1 Doncaster Rovers – 27/10/18

Ugh, Doncaster.

I had this game pegged down as a loss for us. As far as I can recall, we never play well against Donny, especially whenever they are doing well for themselves. Of course, they were sniffing around the play-off places when they made the trip down to the Ricoh, which was even less encouraging.

And yet, we played really bloody well in the first half, and found ourselves two to the good. Just after twenty minutes, a Michael Doyle free-kick from the right wing was cleared away, but only as far as Hiwula, who displayed excellent technique – and all the confidence of a man in form – to hit a delectable volley with his supposedly weaker left foot, across the goal and neatly into the far corner. Having already forced Rovers’ keeper into two good stops, it was no less than we deserved. We were on fire, and burning profusely. Our next chance saw the ball fall to Willis from four yards out. The man who can score 20-yard curlers on the spin in front of 45,000 Cov fans at Wembley, naturally, sent the ball to the moon.

Fortunately, Doncaster were having a particularly poor day at defending set-pieces. A corner from the left was cleared to Thomas 20 yards from goal. His marker decided to do the weirdest stationary jockey you’ve seen, allowing Thomas to sell him a dummy by shaping onto his right foot. Rookie mistake: If Luke Thomas is going onto his right foot, let him go onto his right foot. This allowed the winger enough time to get back onto his left, and he was now afforded the space to shoot. Only this shot was different. It went in. Who’d have thunk it?!

2-0 up at half time, we adopted a pragmatic approach to the second half. We sat back and allowed Doncaster to see a lot of the ball. While this invited a lot of pressure onto us for the majority (if not the entirety) of the half (as well as inviting a lot of criticism after the game), for me it made sense. Doncaster can have the ball all they like if they aren’t getting in behind us, and they weren’t. Willis, and the reinstated Tom Davies, were having a formidable match. I for one drew parallels to how Portsmouth shut up shop  against us earlier in the season, having taken a lead into half time. It’s not entertaining, no, but it is effective.

Of course, if you’re going to batten down the hatches when fighting against a storm, you can expect the odd leak. Doncaster managed to get a goal back in fairly innocuous circumstances, but then suddenly they seemed less threatening after that. However, it still took the last-ditch heroics of Junior Brown to block an otherwise certain goal right at the death.

Still, we came away with another three points. The old argument is that if you’re winning, does it really matter how you play? I for one am pleased to see that we can change to a risky yet effective defensive outlook, rather than go out for the second half trying to play like we did in the first, and potentially leave ourselves all at sea as the opponent came out like a house on fire.

All in all, we’d now won five league games in a row, for the first time in twenty years. We dared to dream a little more. Six wins on the bounce hadn’t been achieved in over a century, and this ragtag rabble of Robins’ recruits were about to become the history boys. We just needed to beat our next opponents at the Ricoh. Who are they?


Coventry City 1-1 Accrington Stanley

Oh God, not Accrington.

For most people, it would seem almost laughable that some Coventry fans weren’t looking forward to playing that little club, made mostly famous by being the butt of a joke in an 80s advert about Ian Rush and milk (yes, it really is that absurd). But then, that would be immensely disrespectful to Stanley, who really are more than the sum of their parts. John Coleman deserves every accolade he’s attained so far in his spell at the club, and has instilled an ethos and winning mentality that is quickly becoming admired by many footballing peers around the country. Not to mention that the club had twice trounced us last season, on their way to beating even the much-fancied Luton to the League 2 title. No, it was no fluke, and their lofty 5th place in the league table going into this match was testament to the fact. We’d have to recreate Notts County away, and throw in a good dose of Exeter at Wembley, in order to make history.

To make matters more precarious, Tom Bayliss was missing from the starting XI through injury, allowing Abu Ogogo a way back into the side. Furthermore, Dujon Sterling, a man going through a wonderful patch of form following his 45 minutes-long nightmare against Bristol Rovers, was also absent. Strangely though, Jack Grimmer remained on the bench, presumably still not fit enough to be trusted to start the match. This meant Jordon Thompson came in at right-back.

One thing that became evident quickly on, was that we missed Bayliss. Ogogo is absolutely fine at winning the ball back, even if it is after letting the play go past him, but to be fair to him from what I’ve seen, he really can’t play a decent forward pass. This meant that Doyle was relied upon as our outlet through the middle, and you can already see the problem there. Against such an organised defence as Accrington’s, there really was no change being gotten from Doyle leading the team in aiming balls up for Clarke-Harris. The forward would occasionally get in a good knock-down or flick-on for Chaplin, but for the most part he was outdone in his efforts by his marker. Add to this the fact that Hiwula, who had been so effective in recent weeks, was getting no luck against right-back Callum Johnson, it was left to Chaplin and Thomas’ fast runs on the counter attack to get us anywhere near the goal.

Despite that overarching theme, we had two excellent chances within the first half to take the lead. The first saw Doyle play a short corner on the left to Thomas, whose dangerous cross was headed over by Hiwula from only yards out. A poor header, and a chance to at least test the keeper went begging. Next, another excellent cross, this time from Brown, saw Clarke-Harris knock the ball back down in the area. Chaplin ran in front of his marker, and connected with the ball on the stretch, flicking it up and towards goal. It was directed high and well enough, forcing the keeper into a good save, tipping it over the bar. However, had it gone it you would have been amazed at how the keeper hadn’t saved it; it was one of those weird chances.

Despite that, Accrington had the best chance of them all. Jordan Clark cut in from the right, and ran at the defence. An attempt at a one-two saw the return pass catch Tom Davies off-balance. His attempt to do… Something… With the ball, only aided in giving the ball back to Clark, who was now ten yards out. Perhaps put off by Willis charging him down, the winger could only hit the bar. A big let-off before half-time.

The second half saw us survive an early onslaught, partially of our own making, from Accrington, before things calmed down slightly. And yet, minutes later, a defensive mix-up between Davies and Brown allowed Offrande Zanzala enough time to rifle home at Burge’s near post. Not the best goal to concede in the slightest, but at this point in time it was hard to say it hadn’t been coming.

We slowly started to come to life. Thomas was trying his hardest to create anything, but had reverted to type following his goal in the previous game. He was getting shown further and further inside on the edge of the box, before failing to hit the target, or being forced to play it further out wide again. Chaplin’s influence on the game had significantly waned in the second half, and Robins took him off for Jodi Jones, pushing the arguably just as ineffective Hiwula up front instead.

As the clock ticked past 80 minutes, we started to push further up the field, helped partly by Liam Kelly, on for Ogogo, wanting to venture into the final third once or twice. In the end, a shot from Jones was parried by the goalkeeper, but only as far as Doyle, who already had some sections of the crowd celebrating. The skipper had no problem pushing the ball over the line for the equaliser, and even less problem in doing the classic grab of the ball before running to the centre circle in celebration. We even then had the gall to push for the winner, but this was a bridge too far.


 

Post-Mortem

I don’t think anyone would have been able to predict this. We’re Coventry City. We don’t win games this frequently, and we don’t go six games unbeaten unless they’re all 0-0 draws.

What has been interesting to see this season, is the way that we seem to respond to little changes in circumstances, for the better. We responded to losing Max Biamou for the season by having JCH grab the opportunity to lead the line with both hands. We responded well to having to shift around our back four during a big game against Sunderland. We responded to Robins’ ‘throw it to the wall and see what sticks’ substitutions against Charlton by getting two late goals to win the game. We responded to losing starting left midfielder Jordan Shipley to international duty by reintroducing Hiwula to the XI and seeing him hit a purple patch. We then most recently responded to losing two starting players versus Accrington, and not having it disrupt the team entirely, despite a resultant lack of attacking impetus. Maybe I’m reading too much into these minute details, but I like it regardless.

I do want to focus on a couple of players during this run of form, and the first in line for special attention is Dujon Sterling. A passable, albeit somewhat disenchanting start to his Coventry City career, came crashing to a head at a miserable Memorial Ground in blustery Bristol. Sterling was getting the lions’ share of heckling and bad blood from the attending Sky Blues fans, having played a part in the conceding of three goals, and was (almost mercifully) hauled off at half-time. It would’ve been fair to assume that he would not have featured for at least a few more games at least following that showing. And yet, the following Saturday, he stood out taller than many of our other players with a strong, confident display out of position on the left against Sunderland. He even had the audacity to get an assist, the madman. Since then, he has improved week upon week, to the point that those who were apoplectic at his showing weeks before, had been silenced, or at least drowned out by a much more vocal support in favour of him. In truth, I’ve said ‘well done, Sterling’ quite a lot recently. It was a shame to not have him against Accrington, though Thompson, while not as potent in attack as Sterling or Grimmer, deputised well enough, despite signs of fatigue towards the end of the match. The right-back berth is as such of no concern.

We now shift attention to the opposite flank. Junior Brown, come on down.

It’s hard to talk about Brown. He hasn’t convinced me from the moment I first watched him in pre-season against Derby. I’ve given him time, though, and can say this much about him. He currently looks a better player defensively without the ball, than he does with it. His positioning is actually quite good from what I can see. Although he can sometimes be done for pace when ran at/past, he has been making quite a lot of interceptions down his side, too. However, I see a concerning lack of composure in his play, too. Brown can be a little too eager in the tackle, especially when he feels he has to make up for a previous mistake. In fact, it was this over-zealousness that lead to Doncaster’s goal. Having missed one tackle, he then carelessly flew into another seconds later, conceding a dangerous free-kick. He certainly has technique though – he made a few good crosses against Accrington – but sometimes he takes a painfully long time on the ball, perhaps in fear of taking a risk, to the point where he is often closed down and runs out of options, shy of punting it off the winger for a throw, or playing it back to Lee Burge yet again.

Lastly, I want to talk about Hiwula. It’s funny how, earlier on this season, we looked at Thomas being the direct, pacy, trouble-making inside-forward on the right, and how Jordan Shipley was the Yang to Thomas’ Yin, offering more defensive cover, not exposing his full-back, at the cost of being less direct and not stretching the play as much. We liked the balance, and that was that. Yet, Hiwula has allowed us to attack equally down both flanks. At times, he can be so far inside that Brown hasn’t got the foggiest as to where he’s gone as he looks for the pass, but that just shows how Hiwula wants to play. He wants to be a presence in the box, and has been rewarded with three goals in three league games. Though it is quite clear that he would much rather be playing up top, he certainly has put in the hard yards down the flank. He has helped to defend the wing (I lost count at how many times he tracked back and blocked crosses against Doncaster, but then, I wasn’t expecting to count that stat at all!), and with Thomas also showing some due diligence in this regard on the other side, it has helped us become a tougher team to create chances against. He wasn’t as effective against Accrington, granted, but this could again be put down to how well-organised and resolute the opposition were in defence. At the minute, I can’t see how Shipley could regain, and then retain, his place in the side at left midfield. Add Jodi Jones’ return into the mix, and the fact that Robins could bring in Reise Allassani (once his loan at Ebbsfleet comes to a close) as a like-for-like swap for Hiwula, and it looks as though Shippers’ days as our left-midfielder might well be over. However, all is not lost for Shipley, as perhaps this could see him given a chance to cover for Tom Bayliss as an option as a more attacking central midfielder partnering one of Doyle, Kelly, or Ogogo. At least, that’s what I’d like to see.

All in all, it’s been an entertaining ride as of late. Following an upcoming week off from league action, where we play Walsall in the FA Cup, and Cheltenham in our last Checkatrade Trophy (Completed it, mate!) group match, we go down the A444 to Burton. Another tough test for us, but now we have the confidence, and a settling first eleven, to really press for a play-off berth. Of course, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but every result matters come the end of April. Who’s to say we can’t keep this up? Onwards and upwards.

Oh, and I almost forgot…

LEEEEEEEEEE BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUURGE!

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