View from the opposition: FA Cup frenzy for Coventry City, Mark Robins, and the impatience of football fandom

I caught up with Coventry City fan and writer Neil Allison to gather his thoughts ahead of the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.

Just two days to go until Manchester United are back at Wembley to take on Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-finals. The two teams have not met in any competition since September 2007, in the third round of the League Cup, as the visitors won 2-0 at Old Trafford.

Mark Robins’ side will retain hope and belief that they can continue their cup run by progressing past United, while Erik ten Hag cannot afford such an upset.

United will be without many players for the semi-final, but Ten Hag has confirmed that Scott McTominay and Antony are available to take on the Championship outfit on Sunday.

Without further ado, check out our conversation with Neil Allison, editor of Sky Blues Blog.

What does the FA Cup mean to you after winning it in 1987?

Neil: “For much of my life it was the only thing we spoke about. We spent the 90s finishing in the bottom half of the Premier League and the first 15 years of the new millennium making a pig’s ear of the Football League, so the FA Cup was the single moment of joy many fans would reference. It still means a lot – it’s our only major trophy – but fortunately, things have gone so well for us recently that it means we have a whole new generation of fans learning what it feels like to win. For the earlier generation however the FA Cup and the entire run that led to it remains the pinnacle of our achievements, and for good reason.”

Coventry City are currently 8th in the Championship. Rate your season so far out of 10.

Neil: “It’s all relative. If you get drawn into comparing our overall league position to last season you could argue that we’ve underperformed, but I really don’t see it that way. We’re in line with the same points as last season, have scored way more goals, are in the FA Cup semi-final and are technically still within reach of the play-offs, all while losing £40m worth of talent in Gyokeres and Hamer. The play-offs were the aim and we may fall short of that, but we’ve competed really well, had some great victories, and are still fighting to achieve things as we near the end of April. That’s a solid 8 out of 10 for me.”

Tell us about your run to this year’s FA Cup semi-finals.

Neil: “I’ve had the semi-final in my mind for quite a while to be honest. I know that sounds ridiculous but ever since we knew we were playing in Morecambe in the 5th Round and knew a victory would leave us one game away from Wembley, I started to imagine the possibilities. You could argue that it’s been one of the easier runs in the competition having only played one Premier League side so far, but we were clear underdogs for Wolves away and delivered an immense performance to not only compete but impose our own quality on the match. That was so pleasing given our own aspirations as a club. I thought we’d thrown it away at the end, so to turn it around in the final 3 minutes was mind-blowing. It’s certainly up there with one of our greatest-ever wins and has really whipped everyone up into an FA Cup frenzy.” 

How are you feeling ahead of Sunday’s trip to Wembley?

Neil: “Excited and proud, albeit slightly less optimistic than I may have been a couple of weeks ago. Form and intensity have dropped in our last two games and we’re coming into it following back-to-back defeats and bruised playoff hopes. That’s not the ideal prep for a Wembley match, but we’ve had a full week to focus and know what we’re capable of when we play to our capabilities. Losing last season’s play-off final was a kick in the teeth, especially the nature of the defeat, but we know we’re the underdogs this time around so hopefully that allows us a chance to play with a little less pressure.”

Is Mark Robins popular among fans?

Neil: “Mark’s the king. He’s low-key, direct, calm and keeps everybody in check. And he wins. Seven years into the role he’s still lauded every game by the fans. That’s a rare thing. I heard him speak recently about how he’s been lucky to avoid the sack on a couple of occasions, but unlike many clubs we’ve fortunately kept our head during periods of bad form. Mark has proven time again that he understands what it takes to win with this football club, so when he tells you that he’s working on it, you have to listen and trust that he knows what he’s doing. He’s the figurehead we’ve been crying out for and after everything he’s contributed, he leaves when he wants to leave. Let’s hope that’s not any time soon.”

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Viktor Gyokeres is a player I told a few friends about last season before his transfer to Sporting Lisbon. Has anyone at Coventry been able to fill the void?

Neil: “Yes and no. If you’ve ever seen the film Moneyball, we’ve essentially recreated him in the aggregate because we’ve scored more this season than last. Between Haji Wright and Ellis Simms we’ve got two strikers who can do much of what he offered, but of course we’ve missed him, especially his explosiveness. Gyokeres is an absolutely tank of a striker who is very willing to play isolated, hold up the ball, and burst into live when he needs to. And once he’s gone – you won’t catch him. Our attacking players aren’t quite as assertive with their physicality meaning we’ve had to adjust to a different style of play, but as Ellis Simms has come into form, his self-believe has grown and he’s starting to show a willingness ability to stretch his legs against defenders. We’re hoping he and Wright are in the right sort of mood on Sunday.”

What do you think of Manchester United a) the club; b) the team; c) the manager; d) the fans? 

“That’s a good question. Football can be cyclical and United are a perfect example of a team that’s struggling with that notion at the moment. I saw the ubiquity of them in the 90s and at times they felt unstoppable, then as big money arrived at other clubs, they had to work harder for the trophies and have certainly had to work very hard to find a leader to replace Ferguson.

“However, I don’t see these troubles as solely a United problem; it’s endemic of the impatience of football fandom in general. Losing is unacceptable to you, even in a world where there are now other clubs with exactly the same agenda and resources. I’d argue that’s an imperfect way to view football and develop as a club – all clubs can’t win all the time – but unfortunately, you’re probably only going to settle down as a club when you do start to win trophies more consistently than you have been. That’s a tricky one to reconcile as a fanbase.

“Ignoring the wider hoopla and irrespective of form, Rashford, Garnacho and Fernandes are the players I’m most concerned about. Fans of lower league clubs often underappreciate the speed of elite players, both psychically and mentally, and those three have the ability to work at a level that we’ve not really experienced before.

“As for your fanbase, I don’t have much of an opinion as we very much exist in different circles and have done so for quite a while now. But I grew up in an era when the Premier League was launching and Man Utd were the team of choice for most kids in my school (even though I lived in middle-class Warwick), so I know plenty of fans that are still knocking about and will take great pride in rubbing it in if we’re able to lay a glove on you this weekend!” 

All-time Coventry City hero and why?

Neil: “The official answer is Robbie Keane because he was an icon of my youth and delivered top class performances in every game. We might have only had him for a single season but for that one season we had one of the best strikers in the country. Losing him to Inter was gutting.

My secret answer is James Maddison. People don’t quite understand that given that we only really got a cursory view of him in his early years, but I have never enjoyed watching a footballer more. He was tiny back then, but his ingenuity was mesmerising – so much so that even after he left I would continue to watch any game he played in, simply for the joy of it. It’s a shame he’s not quite the same footballer nowadays with a safer approach to his play, but he’s still lovely to watch and very much top of my list.”

Scoreline prediction for Sunday?

Neil: “I’m not really a predictions kind of guy because it’s all hunch and feeling, and given that I’ve seen both of these clubs at their best and worst over the last few months, who knows which version will turn up? If we play to the same level that we did against Wolves, I’m sure we can compete and cause you issues. But if we struggle to assert our own enthusiasm and energy levels, I think we could be in trouble against the athleticism of international class players. Either way, we aim to be a Premier League club sooner rather than later, so have to take the opportunity to show that we have the talent compete in games against high calibre opposition. I can’t wait.

“That’s right. No prediction for you!”

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