It’s often said “it’s the hope that kills you” – a phrase usually applied to football. Fans spend weekend after weekend following their team up and down the land, knowing more often than not, failure will triumph over success. Indeed, no club in English football history has ever had more ups than downs, even the successful ones. Despite the three post-war top division titles won by Manchester City, they suffered seven relegations in that period. Chelsea had to wait fifty years between their second and third league championships. Manchester United fans have had to watch Louis van Gaal wage a one-man war to suck all the entertainment out of the game, culminating in a ten match run at Old Trafford earlier this season in which his team only scored two goals before half-time. The ups and downs are all relative, of course – United’s biggest ‘down’ would be higher than the biggest ‘up’ for the majority of teams – but for fans, these are ups and downs nonetheless.
Yet far from being a death wish, hope is an important part of the fabric of the game. At its heart, hope contributes to what the game so intoxicating – the relentless optimism that, no matter what went before, things might be better this season, or even just for the next ninety minutes. As an Aston Villa fan, I can attest that this season has at times, seemed hopeless; yet come August, we will start on the same points as everyone else, with an equal chance of winning promotion to the Premier League (well, at least theoretically).
The title run-in, or the promotion push, or even the excitement of gunning for the play-offs; nine months of watching your team play game after game, minute after minute, all culminating in the chance that for once, success might actually vanquish failure.
But what if there were no highs at all? Not even a sniff of success? What if your team hadn’t come close to mounting a challenge for a league title (at any level) for almost two generations? Worse still, what if they weren’t even threatening a promotion push – what if they hadn’t even finished in the top six for over forty-five years?
Welcome to life as a Coventry City supporter.
Coventry have not finished higher than 7th, in any season and in any division, since finishing 6th in Division One in 1970. For most of their top flight existence, they languished in mid-table mediocrity, staving off relegation in the Premier League era before succumbing to the inevitable in 2001. Since that relegation, there has been an ill-fated move to a new stadium; a sequence of ten bottom half finishes in eleven seasons; relegation to League One; a lengthy ownership dispute; and even a temporary relocation to Northampton. Tony Mowbray is the twenty-fifth manager since 1970 to try and engineer a top six finish. After Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Wigan, Coventry sit 13th in League One, eleven points out of the play-offs. It doesn’t look as if their unfortunate streak is going to be broken this season. In fact, it looks as if they are going to finish in the bottom half of a league table for the eleventh time in twelve seasons.
The top six is often used as a measure of success in the top four divisions in England. In the Premier League, a top six finish means you’ve either spent the season challenging for the title, or at worst, in the mix for European places. In the Football League, you’re destined to be in the promotion shake-up, either automatically or via the play-offs. Finishing outside the top six would be widely accepted as a season with little to celebrate. Coventry have done exactly that for the last forty-five seasons.
How does Coventry’s barren spell compare with other clubs? Well, their streak is almost thirty years longer than any other team in the top four divisions of English football – they are one of only three current Premier League/Football League clubs who haven’t had a top six finish since the turn of the millennium, and the other two (Fulham and Bradford) did at least accomplish it in 1999. Furthermore, Fulham have reached a Europa League final since then, and Bradford improbably made it to a League Cup final. Aside from their memorable victory over Tottenham in the FA Cup final of 1987, Coventry fans have had nothing to get excited about, a situation further exacerbated by the off-field turmoil their club has endured in the last decade.
What is even more remarkable about this streak is that, amongst the problems at the club, Coventry haven’t been victims to a fall through the league system, akin to a Portsmouth or a Bradford. Yes, they’ve been relegated twice, but suffering only two relegations in over forty years is not a disaster by any means. Coventry’s problem has been their inability to mount a challenge at the top of any division – even since their relegation to League One in 2012, they have finished 15th, 18th and 13th in subsequent seasons, with a very similar placing on the cards this season.
As a football fan, put Coventry’s history in the context of your own club. In your time as a supporter, there are bound to have been good times and bad times. And yes, the downs will hurt – you’ve suffered at the hands of championships snatched from your grasp, or relegations, or you’ve experienced play-off anguish. But amongst all that, at least you’ve had a good time or two – a league title, a fight for European places, or a promotion push. You’ve got a reason to hope that next season might be better.
Next time you lament the plight of your own club, spare a thought for Coventry fans. Since 1970, they’ve only won more games in a season than they’ve lost on eight occasions. They’ve been outscored by opponents in thirty-eight of the last forty-five seasons. Their goal difference in that time is minus 424. It’s not the hope that’s killing Coventry City fans; after all, if you don’t know what hope is, how can it kill you?
Raw Data (Excel) – Showing the years each of the 92 Premier League/Football League clubs finished in the Top 6, as well as a managerial history and season-by-season statistics for Coventry City (covering 1970 to 2015).