Book Review – When the Sky was Blue: The Inside Story of Coventry City’s Premier League Years by Rich Chamberlain

In the 1966/67 season Coventry City, then managed by Jimmy Hill, reached the top flight of the Football League for the first time in their history after winning the Second Division title, finishing a point ahead of Wolves. The Sky Blues stayed for 34 years amongst the English games elite and would be founder members of the inaugural Premier League in 1992/93. And that initial season of ‘a whole new ball game’ is the starting point for Coventry fan Rich Chamberlain’s look at the West Midlands Club time in the Premier League.

The book benefits from extensive interview with ex-players and management, so isn’t just a season by season trawl through every result. Rather, Chamberlain takes each manager’s reign as the focal point, with the interviews providing an honest and balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the various men who sat in the Highfield Road hotseat and some of the high-profile players who pulled on the sky blue shirt.

In the Premier League years (1992 to 2001), The Sky Blues had four managers, Bobby Gould (for a second stint having managed the Club in the early ‘80s), Phil Neal, Ron Atkinson and Gordon Strachan. Strachan’s stint was the longest, managing more games than the other three combined. What is evident is that all four had very different approaches to the job.

Programme from Coventry’s opening game in 1992/93

Leading Coventry into the Premier League era was Bobby Gould who the author describes as “unorthodox”, a man known for using his contacts to seek out gems from the lower leagues, but who bled “sky-blue blood.” Gould not only managed the Club on two occasions, but also played for The Sky Blues, scoring 40 goals in 82 games before moving to Arsenal.

Gould resigned in December 1983 with Phil Neal taking permanent charge after initially being appointed as caretaker. Whilst some players took to the ex-Liverpool player, many others didn’t with Chamberlain observing, “no doubt in part due to him (Neal) being a far less charismatic frontman than Gould” with ex-player Micky Quinn adding, “Phil was a very good coach but as a manager it’s about making decision, team selections. I don’t think he was a very good manager.” For all that Neal led Coventry to 11th at the end of the 1993/94 campaign – their highest finish in the Premier League. 1994/95 started well, but an eleven game run without a win from the end of November saw Neal sacked as The Sky Blues dropped in the relegation zone, with home gates dropping to around 12,000.

Incredibly after the dour Neal, came the larger-than-life character that was Ron Atkinson walking through the Highfield Road gates. Not only did his presence get fans flocking back to the terraces, but also as ex-Coventry player David Burrows highlighted, “He (Atkinson) attracted higher-profile players. Players didn’t go to Coventry for the money. Most of the players…took a pay cut to play for Ron.” Big Ron brought the razzamatazz and with it national media coverage. Despite all this Coventry were in a relegation dogfight, but a signing that would have a long-term impact on the Club came in March 1995 as Gordon Strachan moved from Leeds United as player and assistant manager. Not only did the Scot’s influence ensure Coventry stayed up but showed his attributes as a talented tactical coach.

Having preserved their Premier League status in 1994/95, hopes were high that 1995/96 campaign under the Atkinson/Strachan combo would not be another one of battling against the drop. However, it was to be another difficult season with their top-flight status only assured after a nervous final day eventually surviving on goal difference.

In November 1996, the Atkinson era ended, but as the author explains it wasn’t quite as simple as that. “The original story was that he (Atkinson) had agreed to move into a director-of-football-style role while Strachan took over as manager. However…not all the boardroom were on the same page with the story.” Ex-Chairman Bryan Richardson hoped that with Atkinson’s father very ill, the manager could be moved upstairs without a loss of face. The decision was somehow leaked and seemingly Big Ron was the last to know. Indeed Atkinson reflected that an incident with board member Geoffrey Robinson was behind it, “the week after I was moved upstairs. There was no directive at all, I didn’t have any directives from the Club.”

Programme from game that relegated The Sky Blues in 2001

Strachan would preside over the Club from 1996 until 2001 as be battled season-on-season to maintain Coventry’s top flight status. Chamberlain says of the Scots era, “He (Strachan) took with him a relegation on his CV that undoubtedly tarnishes his Coventry legacy, despite having been at the helm for some of the most exciting football the club had ever seen.” This was seen in players such as Darren Huckerby, Dion Dublin, Noel Whelan, Youssef Chippo, Mustapha Hadji, Robbie Keane, Gary McAllister and Craig Bellamy, all pulling on the sky blue jersey.

If fans thought back in 2001 that relegation was a minor blip, nothing prepared them for the years since which saw the Club sink to new lows. 2011/12 saw The Sky Blues relegated to League One and worse was to follow as in 2016/17 as they fell through the trapdoor into the basement division of the Football League. Off the pitch their beloved Highfield Road ground was left with residence at the then named Ricoh Arena in the 2005/06 campaign. This proved to be no smooth path, with major financial problems besetting the club, they found themselves having to play seasons at Northampton Town (2013/14) and Birmingham City (2019 to 21). Thankfully The Sky Blues have recovered in recent years, with a return to the Championship and residence back at the Coventry Building Society.

Coventry fans will hope that a return to the top flight is not too far away, but for now will have to make do with memories wonderfully recounted within Chamberlain’s book.

(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. August 2023, Hardcover: 224 pages)


Buy the book here: When the Sky was Blue

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Book Review – Aberdeen FC: Back Issues 1980-1990 – The definite guide to Aberdeen home programme of the 1980s by Peter Elliott

The match programme. Once the only source of information about your club and a must-have for spectators at the game. Now however, with the advent of social media and its ability to provide up to date information at the push of a button, and the recent change by some clubs to a digital programme, the very existence and purpose of the ‘physical’ version is under threat. Collectors though will be please with the recent release of Aberdeen FC: Back Issues 1980-1990 which as the books introduction states, is “the definite guide to Aberdeen FC match programmes issued during the 1980s, the decade which defined the modern club” with, “the aim of producing…a series of similar guides covering each decade”.

The decade was indeed a memorable one for those watching at Pittodrie. Under the stewardship of Alex Ferguson, the club won three league championships (1979–80, 1983–84 & 1984–85), four Scottish Cups (1981–82, 1982–83, 1983–84 & 1985–86), one League Cup (1985-86), the European Cup Winner’s Cup (1982-83), and the European Super Cup (1983). The Dons weren’t as successful after Ferguson left in 1986 but did do the Scottish Cup ‘double’ in 1989-90. The backbone of the team and indeed the Scottish National side, included Jim Leighton, Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan – all Aberdeen legends, with Charlie Nicholas having a couple of useful season at The Dons at the back end of the 80s after a difficult time south of the border with Arsenal.

The reality is that this A5 publication does exactly what it says – it’s a guide to all the home programmes from the 1980/81 season through to 1989/90. Each campaign features the covers from all the programmes produced with a handy checklist detailing the date of each game, the competition and opposition with also the addition of any other fixtures played at the ground, as well as games where programmes were not issued. Brief notes also accompany each season’s summary, generally detailing significant events at the club. It’s a great piece of research by Peter Elliott, that throw up some interesting nuggets of information along the way. For instance, in April 1987 Aberdeen were due to host Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in a friendly, however the players were stranded at Manchester airport due to fog and the game was never played, although a programme was produced. Indeed, it is a feature of the times, that when games were postponed, the original match programme was still issued even when out of date.

A must for all Aberdeen fans whether or not they collect programmes, as it is a handy summary of the homes games at the Club. And on the horizon is the companion to this edition, with the away fixtures from the 1980-1990 period.

(Publisher: First Dons Match. March 2022. Paperback: 90 pages)


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Soccerex European Forum (Manchester): The Future of Scottish Football

Day 1 – Wednesday 10 April 2013

15:30 – 16:30       The Future of Scottish Football

–      Gordon Strachan, Manager, Scotland National Team

–      Stewart Regan, Chief Executive, Scottish Football Association

–      Rod Petrie, Chairman, Hibernian FC

–      Mark Wotte, Performance Director, Scottish Football Association

–      Moderator: David Davies, Senior Consultant, Soccerex


Moderator: David Davies

David Davies opened this last session of Day 1 with his reminiscences of Scottish Football. He for instance recalled that the first European Cup he watched growing up was that at Hampden Park in 1960 between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt. Davies added that it should be remembered that the first British club to raise the European Cup was Celtic in 1967 and that Scotland were the first team to beat England after the 1966 World Cup Final. His favourite Scottish players included John White, Jim Baxter and Martin Buchan and Davies was also an admirer of the Scotland teams that qualified for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

The first question to the panel was whether the rich history of Scottish was indeed a burden to the modern game and its players. Stewart Regan replied that it did provide a huge weight of expectation. He continued that technically, operational and financially countries like Scotland (with only a population of 5.5 million, similar to that of Yorkshire) could not compete at the top level these days. David Davies probed further by asking if the public expectation was realistic. Mark Wotte responded there had been a reality check recently with the results endured by Scotland, but countries with similar populations such as Denmark and Uruguay had made progress and that Scotland had to take their example to aspire to be better. Davies then asked Wotte as a Dutchman as to whether he was aware of the history of Scottish football. He replied with a wry smile that he remembered when Scotland beat the Netherlands 3-2 in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Wotte said this could happen again in the future, but that it would take time and people would have to be patient.

Next David Davies asked if there was a moment in the 70s or 80s when Scottish Football had ‘taken a wrong turn’. Gordon Strachan answered this question by saying whilst others turned left and right, Scotland just went straight-on. He continued that countries like France and Belgium had explored the rules in terms of players’ nationality and so been able to get in greater numbers of quality individuals, whereas Scotland hadn’t. Strachan also added that part of the success of previous Scottish teams was their ability to play in an aggressive manner, which in the modern arena was just not possible. Finally the Scotland manner said that most of the Scottish talent that he looked at for the squad now played in the Championship rather than the Premier League, in contrast to the 70s and 80s when most First Division clubs had top Scottish talent on their books.

Left: Gordon Strachan. Right: Mark Wotte

Mark Wotte was next asked where the future players were to be found – Academies, Regional Performance Schools and how they would be spotted and nurtured. The SFA Performance Director said that there was talent everywhere, but that youngsters needed time to develop. Wotte added that there was no patience in football and that it would be 8 years before the new talent emerged into being internationals. As part of this process, Wotte added that the various age-group teams were playing the best international opposition.

David Davies next asked if clubs were happy to release players for youth internationals. Rod Petrie said that clubs were supportive and wanted the positive progression it provided for their players. He continued that clubs had pride in providing young players for national squads. Mark Wotte added that they wanted to instil a philosophy that winning was not everything and that educating players and developing individuals was important at the U12 and U13 level.

Next Davies asked if the point of nurture was important. Gordon Strachan responded that Scottish players generally don’t travel and tend to be home-grown. Stewart Regan added that getting players in the top leagues was important, as many were plying their trade in the Championship and League One.

Moving away from players, David Davies asked if there were enough coaches in Scotland. The SFA Chief Executive said that you could never have enough coaches, but these needed to be backed by more ‘Quality Mark’ clubs, referees and volunteers. Regan continued that the work had to be tracked and done in conjunction with clubs and that in schools. Picking up on the mention of schools, Davies said that Sport at school these days was so different and would never be what it was. Gordon Strachan replied that you have to love the game and that there was nothing like school football where it was a group of lads together. He added that it was a problem for Academies, where they train for an hour, are brought there on their own and with parents pushing for their sons to be the best. Strachan added that this doesn’t bring camaraderie and only created isolated players, whereas school was about enjoyment. He finished by saying that you were made better by the players around you.

Hibernian Chairman, Rod Petrie was asked about Scottish clubs in Europe. He replied that Celtic had to be commended for their progress in the Champions League this season and gave praise to all the other Scottish teams as they strove to progress and gain points for the UEFA coefficient. He added that Hibernian had struggled in Europe, with qualification games coming too early in the season but that it was always difficult to reconcile ambition with resources. Davis continued by asking if it was conceivable that anybody else in Scotland could currently make any progress in Europe. Rod Petrie said it was what clubs were in the game for, but accepted in the current financial climate it was difficult.

Gordon Strachan was asked about the ‘European nights’ at Celtic. He said that that they had two seasons where they got to the last 16 and that was realistically as far as they could be expected to progress. He added that it was a special job and that the atmosphere on those nights was something else. However, Strachan remembered that as a player at Aberdeen, the wages were the same as at Celtic. When he was Celtic manager, the club paid 20 times more that of the players at Hibernian. He concluded that clubs must not overreach and that at the end of the day, the development of grassroots players was the way forward. Stewart Regan added that football was no different to other businesses, with ‘big brands’ getting bigger and dominating the market. He added that the ‘big’ clubs had a responsibility to ensure the league survived and that meant supporting the ‘smaller’ clubs. The aim had to be to create a vibrant league which fans wanted to watch and contained exciting players.

David Davies turned to Gordon Strachan and asked him how special and how big a challenge was the job of National Team Manager. Strachan responded that he wanted to put something back into the game and bring ‘heroes’ back to Scottish Football. He added that it was so different to club football in that you had to get to know players in a very limited time. Strachan continued that he didn’t mind even it all he achieved was a platform for the next manager. He went on to say that it was part-time hours for full-time stress and he would have to take a few ‘slaps’ along the way. Ultimately he had a vision of how he wanted the team to play, but currently didn’t have the players to do it. David Davies then asked if Strachan believed he would get time and would get to carry out a long-term plan. The Scotland manager replied that in the short-term he had to bring some respectability to their World Cup Qualifying campaign. They were building for the future and for Euro 2016 in France, but he saw the job as a long-term project building foundations for the years to come.

David Davies then asked about the McLeish reforms which relate to governance of the game and which have mostly been implemented. Davies asked if anybody, especially fans and sponsors actually care about them. Stewart Regan answered that fans want to see the club and national team do well and want to see the game run fairly. He added there was no such plan 8 years ago and now the Former First Minister Henry McLeish had made 163 recommendations across a wide range of football related areas. Regan said they would allow on-pitch activities to improve.

The next question asked about the vote to restructure the league which was due next week. Rod Petrie thought that the change being voted through was likely and was part of a process which started 3 years ago. He added there was still significant discussion to be had, but there was a willingness to change. However, every club could have its say. David Davies asked if the current structure was helping. Mark Wotte said that the young players needed to play first team football and in a league that was competitive.

Gordon Strachan, Scotland National Team Manager

Gordon Strachan said that he spent the majority of his time watching Championship football, whilst Mark Wotte kept him informed of the talent North of the Border. Strachan acknowledged that Scotland wasn’t flush with great players at the minute and therefore it was important to get young players in and getting using to the pressure and hardening them to the realities of first team football. He added that David Beckham went on loan at Preston, whilst Jack Wilshere had time at Bolton, spells Strachan believed helped develop them as players.

David Davies asked if there were major worries that the atmosphere and quality in Scotland was now very poor. Rod Petrie responded that many people were very quick and good at talking the game down and reinforcing the perception that history was a burden to the Scottish game. He said that Scotland had the highest attendance per capita in Europe. Petrie added that the league needed to bring in television and support the game.

The next question was in relation to the events at Rangers and what lessons could be learnt. Stewart Regan said that the impact was felt across the country and not just in the football community. He added that between February and June 2012 problems started to emerge and once Rangers went into administration the real investigation started. Regan continued that with 6 weeks to the start of the new season they had to deal with the situation and said that on reflection they tried to handle too much including league reconstruction. He added that the SFA should have just dealt with Rangers and so created less animosity.

David Davies then asked Stewart Regan if he could comment on the racism charges levelled at Rangers Chief Executive Charles Green. He said that the SFA didn’t condone any form of racism and Green had been issued with two notices of complaint in relation to breaking Disciplinary Rule 66 and Disciplinary Rule 71 which guard against comments which bring the game into disrepute and those which are not in the ‘best interests’ of the SFA. Davies asked whether racism was an issue in Scotland. Regan replied that it has re-emerged recently across Europe but it was not a high profile issue as it was in England.

Returning to the issue of Rangers, David Davies asked if there were lessons to be learned for other clubs. Rod Petrie said that other clubs were also experiencing problems, but fundamentally they had to live within their means and the Financial Fair Play Rules and Club Licensing would be vital in achieving this.

The question of Celtic and Rangers moving to England was next put to the panel. Gordon Strachan said that the most important thing was that both these clubs were involved in helping create a healthy league structure, which Stewart Regan agreed with. Rob Petrie added that clubs were always looking at those above them and those below them, but they had to aspire to be the best they could be as Scottish clubs.

David Davies asked if Gordon Strachan was looking forward to the England v Scotland game at Wembley in August, especially as there hadn’t been many in recent years. Strachan said he thought Craig Brown was the last Scottish manager to win at Wembley. He added he was looking forward to it, as it was at the start of the season and the players would be fresh. Mark Wotte was asked for the Dutch view of the game, who replied it was just an ordinary game, but could understand the passions the fans had for the game. David Davies ended the session by asking if there would be a return of the Home Internationals. Stewart Regan replied that the game had moved on and there were no gaps in the footballing calendar. He added that he didn’t believe that clubs would release players, but that after August game at Wembley there maybe discussion for a one-off return fixture at Hampden Park.