Coventry: Why Championship play-off final success and a Premier League return for Mark Robins' Sky Blues matters

Coventry: Why Championship play-off final success and a Premier League return for Mark Robins' Sky Blues matters

On Saturday, Coventry City and Luton Town have the chance to put years of pain behind them and step into a world many of their fans have never known: the Premier League.

What makes it really special? These are two clubs that really shouldn't be there. The odds say so. The balance sheets say so. Common sense says so.

Thankfully, if you support either club, common sense is in short supply right now - and it sets up a match overflowing with consequence, emotion, and probably a good bit of desperation.

Why desperation? Well, whichever side you're on - and I am a Coventry fan, for clarity - we need the success. We need the kudos, we need the validation, and my word, we need the very significant cash injection from winning a game widely acknowledged as the most lucrative in football.

Back in early 1992, as English football tried to learn the horrendous lessons of the 1980s, the recommendations of the Taylor Report were being put in place, but the biggest change was still a few months away. The proposed Premier League, complete with a fancy new TV deal, went to the vote.

As top flight clubs at the time, Luton and Coventry were in the room and had a place at the ballot box. By 14 to six, the vote said yes, but only one of the two clubs would go on to experience the new venture in August.

Luton went down in the final relegation place on the last day of the 1991/92 season. Two points and one place above them in safety? Coventry. Cue an era that saw everything change, as Coventry fans endured more of their familiar last day survival acts - but they also started to enjoy an amazing cast of heroes who gave them memories they would later need to hold on to for dear life.

For the first nine years of the Premier League, the fans lived and loved life at their Highfield Road home with Peter Ndlovu (check him out on YouTube if you can't remember him), Dion Dublin (he didn't always flog houses), Gordon Strachan, Darren Huckerby, Noel Whelan, Robbie Keane and a whole host of crowd pleasers.

All of this was just a few years on from the 1987 FA Cup win - and it was wonderful.

It sometimes felt like a party - but the problem with parties is, they tend to end. In May 2001, with a deal already agreed to make Highfield Road history and move to a new ground, the music stopped playing. Coventry had nowhere to sleep. They had no cab home. Soon, they would have no home to go to at all.

They slid into the second tier at a time when - get this - there were no parachute payments for relegated teams. Just crack on with the big contracts you handed out. Oops. Eleven years followed in the rebranded Championship - and when the exit came, it was not upwards.

There were good days, of course, but they became more and more scarce.

The final game at Highfield Road in April 2005, overseen by the club's Godfather Jimmy Hill, was a grand farewell - a 6-2 win over Derby to stay up, people hugging and singing songs as they said goodbye to the stadium they'd frequented with their friends and families. A 106-year partnership waved off into the hands of property developers.

Onto the Ricoh Arena then! Only thing is, it was never truly theirs. By 2005, finances meant the club were now tenants in a property rather than the people holding the deeds. It was a catastrophic turn of events that still isn't resolved, but it remains home - just about.

What happened next played out like a prolonged nightmare. SISU - the mysterious and distant hedge fund that bought the club in 2007 - had a brief spell of investing in the team, but with little in the way of quick returns, and a financial crash in 2008 taking effect, it all went sour. The money dried up, players left in a hurry and the relationship with the fans disintegrated.

Soon, it was about anything but football. Ground disputes dominated as SISU tried to find a way to buy the Ricoh Arena. Accounts were frequently filed late - and twice in two years, points deductions were applied to the team. The rows over the stadium led to the club being exiled to Northampton, and in-fighting between fans over whether they should attend.

Some chose to stand on the hill overlooking Sixfields, rather than enter the ground and be part of the strange new world. Perhaps the lowest point was seeing fans of the same club arguing over whether to go in and watch the game. The people in charge had divided everything, but conquered nothing. We were on our knees as a club and fanbase and it felt like no one who could do anything about it cared.

To deepen the gloom, rugby club Wasps unexpectedly left London and bought the Ricoh Arena while the football club was at Northampton. "Wasps buzzing as they land super stadium" headlines were not welcome in Sky Blue homes - and the more ludicrous the situation got, the less anyone on the outside understood it.

In those days, the following sort of questions were typical of what a Coventry fan could expect from mates who were watching from afar:

"What league are you lot in these days?" (Ouch)

"Why are you playing in Northampton?" (Mate, don't)

"Why have you got fans standing on a hill outside the ground during games at Northampton?" (Just make it stop, please)

The horror continued in 2019 with a two-season move to play home games in Birmingham. By then, a bit of a miracle was under way on the playing side - and Mark Robins just did what he does. He scowled a little, shrugged, and got on with it.

In doing so, he got the club back to the Championship after eight years that saw a dip down as far as League Two. Guess who got promoted alongside Coventry from League Two that year? Luton. They'd spent five years in non-league just before that after some horrendous fortune - and it's exactly that empathy there that makes Saturday's game shine.

The biggest promotion in club football is there to be had. Two of the great 'have nots' of recent times have the chance to shape a different narrative. Time for one of these teams to wave off the ghosts of the past 30 years and step into the light.

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