Wednesday, 11 May 2016

1984/85: Coventry City's great escape

1985 had been a fun time to be a Norwich City supporter. Victory in the Milk Cup final had seen the club qualify for the UEFA Cup, the run to the final including a delicious semi-final win over local rivals Ipswich, and a win over Coventry the week after Wembley saw the team move up to 13th in the table and seemingly moving towards a solid mid-table finish. But sometimes it's funny how quick the milk can turn sour. Come May, these canaries would fall from their perch with a bump.

Eight defeats in nine matches edged Norwich closer to the trap door, yet four points from their last two fixtures appeared to have settled any nerves. Indeed, the 2-1 win at Chelsea looked to have confirmed their survival, the club climbing above both West Ham and Coventry at the bottom of the table, the three clubs battling not to join Stoke and Milk Cup finalists Sunderland in dropping into Division Two. Crucially Norwich had now finished their league programme, and with West Ham confirming their escape with a victory over Ipswich, the last remaining relegation spot was now a straight fight between Norwich and Coventry.

Ah, Coventry City. Those perennial escapologists, the club that often left things to the very last minute, somehow surviving in the top flight for 18 seasons between 1967 and 1985. They should have painted the Titanic in sky blue, as it wouldn't have gone down. Well that joke was looking decidedly shaky come the 1984/85 campaign. Coventry were in a fine mess and as May 1985 progressed, the club now needed snookers. The equation was simple: anything less than three wins from their last three matches would see the club relegated.

In fairness, Don Mackay had done a sterling job in getting Coventry that close in the first place. Taking over from the sacked Bobby Gould in December 1984, the club sat in 21st position, with just 19 points from their 21 games. From this point on Mackay and his players were constantly struggling manfully to keep their heads above water. Five wins in the first eight league matches of 1985 raised hopes, but six defeats in the next eight then saw a grey cloud looming on the horizon. Surely not even Coventry could get out of this?

The grey cloud had a tiny bit of silver lining on it if Coventry fans looked hard enough. The first match of the three was against a Stoke City team that was the very definition of abysmal, the club enduring a campaign that became known as The Holocaust season. One day I will get around to writing a blog about Stoke's 1984/85 video nasty, but for now just take at these bare facts: before the Coventry match, Stoke had a record of Pld 41 W3 D8 L30 F24 A90. If Coventry couldn't inflict a 31st league defeat on this Stoke team, then they truly did not deserve to stay up.

Despite this poor Stoke side, Coventry very nearly blew the first leg of the escape plan at the Victoria Ground. In a match of two penalties, a 23-year-old Stuart Pearce gave Coventry the lead from the spot, yet when Stoke were awarded their own penalty with just six minutes to go, the large Coventry following held their breath. Luckily, Ian Painter crashed his effort against the underside of the bar - Stoke felt that the ball had in fact crossed the line - with a grateful Steve Ogrizovic grabbing the ball on its way down. The Sky Blues lived to fight another day.

After proving that they could just about do it on a Friday night in Stoke, Coventry would have to wait until the following Thursday for their next match against Luton at Highfield Road. In between times, Manchester United had won the FA Cup final against Everton, and England limped to a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw in Finland, and in a period of fixture congestion, Coventry's late season programme was having a real impact on Bobby Robson and other international managers.

The FA declared that Coventry's final fixture against Everton had to be played on Sunday May 26, stating that if City beat Luton then all international players had to be released to play in the crucial league match. A headache for Messrs Robson, Hand and Stein, who would lose the likes of Steven, Sheedy, Gray and Sharp, the latter being denied a first international cap in Scotland's Home Championship match against England. But first, Coventry had to do their job.

Once again Coventry would test the nerves and fingernails of their supporters, and rely on a defender to give them the three points. Former keeper Les Sealey threatened to send his old employers down, pulling off saves from Micky Adams and preventing Mick Harford from scoring an own goal. Terry Gibson would also go close, but down the other end Emeka Nwajiobi tested Ogrizovic, highlighting the precarious nature of the evening for the home team.

With just six minutes remaining, centre back Brian Kilcline ventured forward to drive home the vital winner, setting up Coventry's date with destiny just three days later. "We faced a situation similar to a cup competition whereby we needed to win a quarter-final, a semi-final and a final," Mackay said prior to the Everton match. "Having succeeded in the first two, this game is now more crucial than a final. There will be no replay if we draw."

"There could have been a worse time to meet the League champions," wrote Clive White in The Times, and he had a valid point. In what would be Everton's 63rd game of a gruelling season, there was definitely an impression of one drink too many for Howard Kendall's weary men, quite literally if Stuart Pearce's comments in Psycho are to be believed. "You could smell the booze on the breath of the Everton players," Pearce writes. "We were sure that they had been out on the Saturday night to celebrate."

Pearce's recollections may be true or not - he does also claim that the Stoke match was the penultimate fixture of the season, and his penalty was scored in the last ten minutes, when in fact it was scored in the 66th - but there could be no doubting that Everton were vulnerable. Their injury list was shocking. Gary Stevens, Derek Mountfield, Ian Atkins, John Bailey, Peter Reid, and Andy Gray were all ruled out, although undoubtedly many a Norwich fan would have raised an eyebrow when the final name on that list played for Scotland just two days later.

The defensive crisis resulted in Pat Van Den Hauwe shuffling across to centre back to partner Kevin Ratcliffe, with Alan Harper and Darren Hughes at full back; Hughes had already been told he could leave the club at the end of the season on a free transfer. Coventry sensed blood, with Cyrille Regis in particular enjoying himself, a happy conclusion to what had been a difficult first season at the club.

Regis had signed from West Brom for £300,000 seven months previously, yet his struggles neatly reflected that of his new team. Going into the Everton match, he had only managed three goals in his last 30, so his performance in Coventry's crunch affair was timely indeed. Opening the scoring after just four minutes, Regis set up Adams for a second 13 minutes later, and the unthinkable was now thinkable.

Nevertheless, Paul Wilkinson's strike just before the break did raise the prospect of a buttock-clenching second half for Coventry's faithful, the majority of the bumper crowd of 21,224 probably fearing the worst. They need not have worried. Just a minute into the second half, Regis added his second after a smart turn and shot from Gibson, and when Gibson himself added another after 78 minutes, the party could begin.

"They were the sweetest goals of my career," a delighted Regis revealed after the great escape, Coventry's record signing paying back a big part of his fee with his display against the physically and mentally drained champions. "I've had something of a nightmare time here and I was aware that if we had gone down the fans would have blamed me for my lack of goals. And they would have been right."

Regis, along with seven other members of the eleven that played against Everton, would go on to even greater glory in two years time. But the manager who had helped to keep the Sky Blues in the First Division would not be at the helm during the club's finest day. Mackay had been awarded with a three-year deal just a day after the drop had been avoided, but resigned the following April with Coventry again flirting with relegation. George Curtis and John Sillett came to the rescue, and the rest is history.

Alas for poor Norwich things initially went from bad to worse. Admirably manager Ken Brown was magnanimous in his reaction to Everton's showing - "We said then (after Norwich's final League match) that if Coventry won their last three games to pip us at the post they would deserve it, and I take my hat off to them" - but with speculation growing over his job, the Milk Cup win must have seemed a distant dream.

"Right now I would forsake all the Milk Cup glory to stay in the First Division," Brown admitted, yet within a week even the added bonus of that Wembley win was taken away from the club. The horror of Heysel saw English clubs banned from European football, a restriction that would also impact Coventry after their FA Cup win. Norwich, like their famous resident Alan Partridge, did bounce back, winning the Second Division in the following season. But May 1985 must still bring back bad memories for their supporters.

It would eventually take 34 years for Coventry to finally drop out of the top division, but of course the club will forever be linked with the ability to perform a Houdini act. None more so than in 1985. Needing nine points to stay up, the team squeaked home in two win or bust encounters, to set up the chance of the clincher against an admittedly fragile Everton. A fine achievement worthy of praise, although I'm not sure that many Norwich fans would be as appreciative of those events in May 1985.