Feature

Two decades of hurt: Coventry's long road to playoff final

By Andy Turner, Coventry Live 23 May 2023
Coventry fans

Coventry City reporter Andy Turner charts club's journey since they last played in the PL

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Ahead of the Championship playoff final between Coventry City and Luton Town, which will decide the third and final team to be promoted to the 2023/24 Premier League, Coventry reporter Andy Turner gives a guide to a turbulent 22 years since the club dropped out of the top flight. 

Coventry City

After 22 years of hurt, Coventry City are on the brink of a return to the top table of English football, ahead of Saturday's Championship playoff final.

The Sky Blues were relegated from the Premier League in 2000/01, bringing an end to 34 proud and unbroken years in the top flight.

Coventry, 2001
John Hartson shows his despair after Coventry are relegated from the Premier League in 2001

It’s been a torturous journey back overseen by 14 managers, including two stints from current boss Mark Robins. It has included liquidation, points deductions and two further relegations down the pyramid to the fourth tier, plus three ground shares and two promotions, to get back to within a whisker of restoring the club's Premier League status.

See: Who are the key men leading Coventry's push for promotion?

Coventry dropped out of the top flight under Gordon Strachan, but he lasted little more than a month into the new season before Roland Nilsson was charged with leading the club to a swift return.

However, despite sitting pretty in fourth place with seven matches remaining, Coventry finished outside the playoff places in 11th spot.

New stadium

The club moved to its new 32,000-seater stadium, the Ricoh Arena, in 2005 but the highest finish was eighth in an 11-year run in the second tier that ended in the 2011/12 campaign.

Coventry, 2005
The 32,000 Ricoh Arena became Coventry's new home stadium in 2005

Having previously sold its 50 per cent share in the part council-owned stadium to the Alan Higgs Charity to repay debts, the club’s financial problems continued to the brink of administration in 2007, when London hedge fund Sisu Capital prevented Coventry from going out of business with an 11th-hour takeover, led by former footballer Ray Ranson.

Despite signing several promising youngsters in the early Sisu years under manager Chris Coleman, the Sky Blues failed to achieve on-field success and mounting debts and reduced investment led to Ranson’s resignation in 2011.

Upon relegation to League One in 2012, Sisu caused outrage among the fans by taking the club out of the city that bears its name to ground share with Northampton Town for over 12 months from 2013, following a rent dispute with the Ricoh Arena owners.

The club also fell into liquidation and suffered a 10-point deduction, but quickly overhauled that deficit under the guidance of Steven Pressley, and with the help of 21 goals from Academy graduate Callum Wilson, now at Newcastle United.

Nonetheless, in 2016/17 Coventry were relegated to League Two under Russell Slade, with Robins appointed just too late to save them.

Trophy success and promotion

But, in his second stint at the club, Robins led the team to Checkatrade Trophy success at Wembley Stadium in front of 43,000 fans in the same season – the first trophy for 30 years since winning the FA Cup in 1987.

The following season, their first in the fourth tier since 1959, Coventry were promoted straight back via the playoffs after finishing sixth and beating Exeter City in the playoff final in a return to the national stadium.

Two seasons later, they were promoted again, being awarded the League One title via a points-per-match system after the season was curtailed due to the pandemic.

But more off-field turmoil followed with Sisu once again in dispute with the stadium owners amid protracted legal action over the 2014 purchase of the venue by rugby club Wasps, resulting in the Sky Blues moving to St Andrew’s, home of Birmingham City, for two seasons from 2019 to 2021.

The 15-year Sisu era at Coventry ended in January 2023 when Stratford-based businessman Doug King purchased the club.

Coventry, Doug King
Doug King purchased the club and became owner in January 2023

King attempted to acquire the re-named Coventry Building Society Arena after both Wasps and the stadium holding company fell into administration, but his bid came too late and it was instead sold to Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group.

Back on the field, however, the team got a foothold in the Championship and at the start of this season, in their third campaign back at the level, they shrugged off yet more adversity by being forced to play six of their first seven league matches away from home, due to an unplayable pitch caused by their home stadium being used for the rugby sevens competition in the Commonwealth Games.

Although bottom of the league in mid-October, Coventry climbed the table and secured an unlikely place in the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, before booking their place in the final after a second-leg semi-final success at Middlesbrough.

Luton Town now stand in their way, just one match away from a return to the promised land.

Andy Turner, is the Coventry City reporter for Coventry Live, and has covered the club since 1998

Also in this series

Part 2: Coventry's key men
Part 3: How Luton fell far and rose high again
Part 4: Luton's key men

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