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Coventry left to reflect on another Wembley heartache - Oppo Profile
Thursday, 2nd May 2024 09:38 by Clive Whittingham

For a second year in a row a promising Coventry City season has ended in penalty shoot-out heartbreak at Wembley, only this time with some added VAR nonsense thrown in for good measure - Neil Littlewood (@littlewood88) and Dominic Jerrams (@SideSammy) take us through it.

How's the season been for Coventry overall? Highlights and lowlights?

DJ: After losing Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres, plus all our loanees from last season, it was highly likely that this would be a transitional season as we integrated nearly an entirely new-look squad. The start to the campaign was predictably slow and the worst it got was back-to-back defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End in November when we looked a complete soft touch.

The run over the Christmas period when Callum O’Hare returned from injury, along with Tatushiro Sakmoto and Haji Wright finding form was the team’s best period of the campaign but we’ve struggled to sustain that over the remaining months, with the squad probably three or four players too small to manage an increasingly hectic fixture list.

That dramatic win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Sixth Round of the FA Cup was one of the club’s most memorable results in a generation – in a seven-year period of memorable results since getting relegated to League Two and coming back. It demonstrated that this team is capable of mixing it at a higher level, but we’ve just not been consistent enough in the league to make that happen, as evidenced by getting hammered by a poor run over April.

Of course, the semi-final at Wembley, coming within a toenail of completing the ultimate FA Cup comeback is likely to be what this season will be remembered for. Otherwise, it’s been an inconsistent campaign of bedding in new players.

NL: We knew before a ball was kicked it was going to be a tough ask this year - we knew Gyokeres was gone and it was inevitable that Hamer was going to move on too. Given we were one kick away from the promised land there was always going to be a hangover, plus we never start well which is a problem I will come on to later. With massive turnover of playing staff, it was always going to take time for them all to gel and get into their stride and I think our early form showed that.

As for individual highlights, beating Leicester and Leeds at home shown exactly what we are capable of when things click, but the horror side reared its ugly head when we lose convincingly at Cardiff, Rotherham & Birmingham. Couple that with late equalisers at home to Huddersfield and Swansea and its only made worse by a comprehensive defeat by Preston. A disappointing League Cup run with a humiliating defeat away at AFC Wimbledon, which proved to be Gus Hamer’s last in a Coventry shirt, was completely counteracted by a fairytale run to the semi-final at Wembley in the FA Cup, which included some brilliant goals, beating of underdogs and the infamous comeback away at Wolves to book our place at Wembley, which I thought at the time could never be topped….

Coventry league results so far…
Leicester 2-1 Coventry Dewsbury-Hall 77, 87 – McFadzean 47
Coventry 3-0 Middlesbrough Godden 11, Wright 70, Lenihan og 90
Swansea 1-1 Coventry Yates 41 – Godden 39
Coventry 0-0 Sunderland
Coventry 3-3 Watford Van Ewijk 41, Hoedt og 64, Godden 87 – Rajovic 35, 79, Martins 52
Hull 1-1 Coventry Connolly 87 – Latibeaudiere 27
Cardiff 3-2 Coventry Goutas 8, Grant 61, Etete 84 – Godden 35, 90
Coventry 1-1 Huddersfield Ayari 27 – Helik 90
QPR 1-3 Coventry Paal 90 – Simms 56, 68, Eccles 60
Coventry 1-0 Blackburn Wright 85
Coventry 1-1 Norwich Gibson og 88 – Rowe 40
Bristol City 1-0 Coventry Dickie 45
Rotherham 2-0 Coventry Peltier 51, Rathbone 90
Coventry 0-2 West Brom Diangana 17, Thomas-Asante 69
Preston 3-2 Coventry Holmes 38, Browne pen 41, Osmajic 71 – Wright 33, 82
Coventry 0-0 Stoke
Millwall 0-3 Coventry Godden 30, Sakamoto 67, Sheaf 88
Coventry 1-0 Plymouth Wright 75
Ipswich 2-1 Coventry Hirst 6, Burns 41 – Williams og 90
Coventry 2-0 Birmingham O’Hare 30, 77
Coventry 1-1 Southampton Wright 50 – Edozie 67
Leeds 1-1 Coventry Summerville 58 – Thomas 66
Sunderland 0-3 Coventry Sakamoto 45, O’Hare 67, Palmer 70
Coventry 2-0 Sheff Wed Sakamoto 20, 89
Coventry 2-2 Swansea Wright 10, Simms 65 – Walsh 7, Cullen 90
Boro 1-3 Coventry Coburn 31 – Sakamoto 31, 69, Wright 58
Coventry 3-1 Leicester O’Hare 79, 90, van Ewijk 88 – Dewsbury-Hall 44
Sheff Wed 1-2 Coventry Windass 68 – Sheaf 40, 57
Coventry 2-2 Bristol City Sakamoto 27, Simms 86 – Dickie 45, Wells 83
Norwich 2-1 Coventry Sargent 60, Sainz 84 – O’Hare 48
Coventry 2-1 Millwall Wright pen 67, 70 – Esse 12
Plymouth 2-2 Coventry Whittaker 54, Miller 68 – Simms 65, Kitching 90
Stoke 0-1 Coventry Simms 51
Coventry 0-3 Preston Riis 1, Keane 20, Thomas og 38
West Brom 2-1 Coventry Johnston 6, Diangana 36 – Wright pen 73
Coventry 5-0 Rotherham Simms 5, 27, 37, Latibeaudiere 23, Tavares 90
Watford 1-2 Coventry Porteus 20 – Wright pen 40, 72
Huddersfield 1-3 Coventry Healey 79 – Simms 16, 22, Wright 90
Coventry 1-2 Cardiff Simms 22 – Kitching og 29, og 67
Coventry 2-1 Leeds Simms 9, Wright 49 - Piroe 76
Southampton 2-1 Coventry Adams 18, 38 – Bidwell 68
Birmingham 3-0 Coventry Thomas og 12, Sunjic 41, Stansfield 59
Coventry 2-3 Hull Palmer 36, Thomas 58 – Philogene 31, Carvalho pen 45, Ohio 78
Blackburn 0-0 Coventry
Coventry 1-2 Ipswich Wright 64 – Moore 8, Burgess 69

Talk to us about Wembley, are you over it? Will you ever be over it? I don't think I'd ever recover from that.

DJ: I think it helped that there was another bruising trip to Wembley that had occurred less than a year before, in missing out on a place in the Premier League on penalties to Luton Town. It also helps that the game was a completely free hit for us, with all the pressure on Manchester United.

The worst thing about that game would have been losing it in the manner we threatened to for the opening hour, falling three down to some pretty soft goals and barely offering anything in response. There’s a lot of pride in the manner in which we roared back. Additionally, that VAR intervention after a 121stminute winner allowed us that moment of believing that we had pulled off the impossible without having to then shell out for another trip to Wembley to get spanked by Manchester City. It’s one way to think about it, but it’s also one of the most agonising things that has happened to this football club, plus it gave Anthony something to celebrate, and no-one wants that.

NL: I don’t even know where to begin with this. We are notoriously terrible in cup competitions, please see AFC Wimbledon in August and our third round exit the year before to non-league Wrexham. The owner publicly demanded a cup run and boy did we deliver. I’ve touched on the transitional season before so to get to a Wembley semi-final it really was dreamland. The draw was kind to us as we avoided the unbeatable Man City, and faced a Man Utd that was ravaged with injuries and not in the best form so we were quietly confident we could cause an upset. Myself, I just wanted to see us score a goal. Once I seen how we lined up shape wise I wasn’t confident at all. It was inevitable that we were going to concede but the manner we did was upsetting. We were still in great spirits and the pregame rendition of “We’ll Live and Die in These Towns” was emotional and inspiring for all. Once we made a few changes and got back into the game it felt like we would score and when we did I felt quite content, even with a little case of the “What If’s” but by the time the second went in there was a real feeling that we could really ruffle their feathers. Once the penalty was given, the jubilation around me was something I had never seen and when it hit the back of the net I seen grown men fall to the floor crying (ok that was me!). Extra time dragged and when Torp slid in to score the “VAR” goal I don’t think that moment will ever be topped. The second we lost the toss and went to the far end for penalties I got PTSD of the Luton game and an unshakeable feel of that’s it now.

The drive home was sombre, and it took a couple of days to shake the disappointment. The fact we had Hull at home three days later was just weird, felt like going to a wedding a few days after a breakup and was hard to be invested in the game. The lads on the pitch played like they were suffering a hangover from the emotional rollercoaster that was Wembley. I’m not sure I will ever get over it and not have the “What If’s” but it was a hell of an experience nonetheless.

Any annoyance/regret that the play-off push has tailed off with recent results, or was that inevitable with the cup run etc?

DJ: There’s always got to be regret when you go a season without achieving anything, having got reasonably close, because there are no guarantees you’ll get that chance again. To get to within touching distance of the play-offs in April and to then go on a run of one win in six (at the time of writing, which is ahead of tonight’s game against Ipswich Town) is poor, but it has been apparent that the players are absolutely spent after the cup heroics.

Unlike last season, there can be a level of belief that this club is in a position to do better next year. The owner, Doug King, has demonstrated – albeit, as a result of once in a generation player sales – that he will sanction investment in the squad and we should continue to do that over the summer, if not to the same extent as last year. This year feels like the first step a new squad is taking together, rather than the last dance.

NL: In terms of it affecting the playoff push, I think it really did. Players seemed distracted by the game on the horizon and fans were more concerned about Wembley plans than concentrating on the games in hand. We didn’t exactly have the biggest squad and it was stretched before an extensive cup run. I don’t think there’s a regret as we were never going to be promoted, the league is much harder this year and we have done well to be in the conversation for playoffs.

Player of the year candidates?

DJ: In a season that has been largely inconsistent, Ben Sheaf is the stand-out candidate in my view for player of the year because of his consistency. The midfielder has handed the reins to take charge in the centre of the park following the departure of Gustavo Hamer and looks to have really matured as an all-round presence. He was always someone who could win the ball back well and keep play ticking over, this season, he’s controlled games on a more consistent basis and has really stood-out in the two matches we’ve faced against Premier League opposition.

Tatsuhiro Sakamoto would have been the closest to putting pressure on Sheaf’s status as the best performer this year, but he has missed the final few months, having only become a regular starter around November. Sakamoto was a delight to watch with his ability to switch feet and beat defenders at ease, hopefully, he’ll be back to that level by the time the new season starts.

Jake Bidwell is being mentioned as a player of the year contender by some Coventry City fans, but they obviously can’t enjoy football that much.

NL: The obvious candidate is Ben Sheaf, not sure how much longer we can keep hold of him, arguably the best central midfielder in the division and is a Premier League player in all but name. Keeping hold of him is key to any success next season. Bobby Thomas is another candidate. A monster of a CB who looks classy and would head a grenade if you threw it at him, whilst posing the ability to pick a pass and pop up with the occasional goal. Milan Van Ewijk has been a revelation at RWB, fast as a cheetah, deceptively strong, picks a good pass and his connection with the fans is unrivalled. The lad is destined for the very top of the game. Honourable mentions for Ellis Simms and Haji Wright, they have filled the void of Gyokeres goals between them after ropey starts and with a full pre-season could be a force to be reckoned with next season. Josh Eccles and Jake Bidwell take the most improved award, both looked out the door in the summer and now are two of the first names on the teamsheet.

Weak links in the team?

DJ: The biggest weak link at the moment is the team’s overall lack of energy as this game will be the fifth, including extra-time in the first of those, in the space of less than two weeks. For QPR, the task here is likely to be keeping it tight until the final half hour, and then taking the game away from a shattered Coventry side in the closing stages.

As for specific weaknesses, the defence has leaked soft goals throughout the season and be relied upon to present chances to opponents even when the team looks to be on top. The team is down to its last two centre-back in Bobby Thomas and Joel Latibeaudiere, with the latter someone who could be targeted for his lack of height by Lyndon Dykes in aerial challenges. On a similar note, if Jay Dasilva starts at left-back, he can also be targeted for his short stature.

NL: Ropey goalkeepers. Whilst Brad Collins has added some much-needed composure to our side he has had his moments.

Do you see this team being built on from here, or picked away at again with the likes of O'Hare leaving?

DJ: I’m largely hopeful that the club will be able to build on this campaign and strengthen over the summer. While Callum O’Hare will almost certainly go, we’re in a good position to hold onto the likes of Ellis Simms, Haji Wright and Milan van Ewijk, who might be of interest to bigger clubs. The only other big name we might lose is Ben Sheaf, who it probably is the right time for him to move onto bigger and better things but I’m not sure who would be willing to pay the kind of fee we’d want to sell him for.

Even without new additions, having Tatsuhiro Sakamoto back fit, Victor Torp getting up to speed with a full pre-season behind him, Ephron Mason-Clark coming in from Peterborough United after being signed with a loan back in January, the squad will be stronger and with the benefit of having had a season to learn each other’s games. As mentioned earlier, I would expect the club to invest on top of that to give Mark Robins an even stronger hand to play.

NL: With injuries we are rotating the side whilst also saying goodbye to club legends like Matty Godden and Liam Kelly so that could be exploited. Think another tumultuous close season is on the cards with potentially ten players in, with the exciting Mason-Clarke over the line already. O’Hare will move on, as well as a couple of others so can see the door to Ryton coming off the hinges with that much use.

Summer Ins >>> Haji Wright, 25, CF, Antalyaspor, £8m >>> Ellis Simms, 22, CF, Everton, £6m >>> Liam Kitching, 23, CB, Barnsley, £4m >>> Milan van Ewijk 22, RB, Heerenveen, £4m >>> Bobby Thomas, 22, CB, Burnley, £2m >>> Tatsuhiro Sakamoto, 26, LM, Oostende, £2m >>> Brad Collins, 26, GK, Barnsley, £500k >>> Jay Dasilva, 25, LB, Bristol City, Free >>> Joel Latibeaudiere, 26, CB, Swansea, Free >>> Luis Binks, 21, CB, Bologna, Loan >>> Yasin Ayari, 19, CM, Brighton, Loan

Summer Outs >>> Viktor Gyokeres, 25, ST, Sporting, £20m >>> Gus Hamer, 26, DM, Sheff Utd, £16m >>> Josh Reid, 21, LB, Ross County, £50k >>> Sean Maguire, 29, AM, Carlisle, Free >>> Michael Rose, 27, CB, Stoke, Free >>> Tyler Walker, 26, CF, Lincoln, Free >>> Fankaty Dabo, 27, RB, Forest Green, Free >>> Julian Da Costa, 27, RB, Sochaux, Free >>> Martyn Waghorn, 33, CF, Derby, Free >>> Todd Kane, 29, RB, Sheff Utd, £13m >>> Jack Burroughs, 22, RM, Lincoln, Loan >>> Ryan Howley, 19, CM, Dundee, Loan

Winter Ins >>> Ephron Mason-Clark, 24, LW, Peterborough, £4.5m >>> Victor Torp, 24, CM, Sarpsborg (Denmark), £2m

Winter Outs >>> Ephron Mason-Clark, 24, LW, Peterborough, Loan >>> Kyle McFadzean, 36, CB, Blackburn, Free

What do Cov need to go one further and get promoted next season? What does the team need?

DJ: Where this season has come unstuck has largely been down to the switch mid-way through the campaign from a back three system to a 4-2-3-1 with only one winger, Tatushiro Sakamoto, on the books. Ever since Sakamoto got injured in February, Mark Robins has had to experiment with personnel and shapes to cover for that lack of natural width and hasn’t quite got it right. Ephron Mason-Clark’s arrival in the summer will add another valuable wide option, I would expect another winger on top of that to be added.

The defence is probably the other key area to address. While there are things to like about each of our defensive players and goalkeepers, there is a lack of authority about them that has seen sloppy goals leak into our game and made it that bit harder to keep the points ticking over. Either a new centre-back or goalkeeper who can dominate the penalty area could make all the difference.

Callum O’Hare will have to replaced, as Kasey Palmer isn’t really consistent enough to take up the mantle as the team’s chief playmaker. That could be the toughest piece of business to get right, although Sakamoto, Mason-Clark and Victor Torp may be able to take up a portion of the slack caused by O’Hare’s departure.

Elsewhere, it’s largely about adding depth to the squad so that Mark Robins can manage the fixture list better. A core of Milan van Ewijk at right-back, Ben Sheaf and Victor Torp in central midfield, Tatsuhiro Sakamoto, Ephron Mason-Clark and Haji Wright in wide areas, plus Ellis Simms leading the attack feels close to a play-off calibre Championship team, it’s just about adding more quality and depth around them to support their efforts.

NL: I think the slow start needs addressing, one way I would combat this would be a more competitive preseason. This year we played, Forest Green Rovers, Exeter, Shrewsbury, MK Dons and Portsmouth. I think we need to be aiming a lot higher than this to make sure we are sharp come that first game.

It makes a nice change to be going into the final game with nothing on the line and we can both just have a good day in the Sky Blue City.

Links >>> Coventry City — Official Website >>> Coventry Telegraph — Local Press >>> Sky Blues Talk — Forum >>> Sky Blues Blog — Blog >>> Sideways Sammy — Blog >>> The Lonely Season — Blog >>> Sky Blues TV - Classic Match Highlights >>> Access All Areas — Podcast

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TacticalR added 13:58 - May 2
Thanks to Neil and Dominic.

It can't have been easy to adjust to the loss of players like Gyökeres at the end of last season, although it looks like a significant amount of the money was reinvested in the squad.

It sounds like you have both taken the FA Cup disappointment well. At least Coventry competed on the day (and were able to get there in the first place).

@Neil 'It makes a nice change to be going into the final game with nothing on the line and we can both just have a good day in the Sky Blue City'. Agreed.

thehat added 08:56 - May 3

Fair play to Coventry - They have had some real tough times and dare I say it it's good to see them back doing well. I've always liked Mark Robins too managed really well at lower levels.

francisbowles added 09:28 - May 4
Thank you guys. Your team did the Championship proud.

boccephase added 04:54 - May 7
Credit to Coventry for their fair play - They have experienced significant hardships, and it is gratifying to witness their successful recovery. I have long admired Mark Robins for his exceptional management skills at lesser tiers.

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