Robbie Keane in action for Coventry City against Manchester United's Roy Keane. Alamy Stock Photo
Different Strokes

The wild paths of Coventry and Man City since Premier League relegation

The two sides dropped out of England’s top flight together in 2001 and this week illustrated the contrasting nature of their fortunes.

DESPITE ALL OF the jokes about Robbie Keane fulfilling a childhood dream with various transfers throughout his career, Coventry City’s revival this season is a reminder of a time he was actually British football’s most expensive teenager.

Gordon Strachan was the Sky Blues manager when, as he eventually made it through the other side of a four-day virus that had left him shaking, sweating and hallucinating in bed, the club’s chairman informed him that their £6 million bid for the 19-year-old had been accepted by Wolverhampton Wanderers.

“I lost track of what time it was, what day it was even,” the former Coventry manager later recalled.

It was a fee that both Aston Villa and Middlesbrough refused to entertain, while Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson would later seek an apology from a freelance reporter who quoted him at a supporters’ function as saying Keane was not worth £500,000 and would need two years in the club’s reserves before he could consider being ready for the first team.

Keane scored 12 Premier League goals in his one season at Highfield Road before Inter Milan came calling and more than doubled Coventry’s profit margin with a £13m transfer.

It was the beginning of a sharp descent for the club.

richard-dunne-manchester-city-fc-maine-road-stadium-manchester-england-27-january-2001 Richard Dunne in action for Man City in January 2001. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

They were relegated from the top flight at the end of the campaign which followed Keane’s departure, and it is only now, 22 years later, that they have even a sniff of a return.

Much has changed in the landscape of English football since, so it felt as if there was a strange kind of symmetry to seeing Mark Robins lead Coventry into the Championship play-off final with a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough on the same night Manchester City ran amok against Real Madrid to reach the Champions League final on Wednesday.

Coventry and City were relegated together from the Premier League in 2001.

Coincidentally, Bradford City finished bottom that year and their manager now is a certain Mark Hughes, a man with ties to the red and blue halves of Manchester.

His Bradford side were beaten by Carlisle in their League Two play-off semi final last night, while Sheffield Wednesday — another former giant of the English game that has not been seen at the top tier since its fall from grace in 2000 — produced a sensational four-goal turnaround in their League One semi-final play-off on Thursday night.

Three other Premier League teams from that 2000/01 vintage also spent the most recent campaign battling it out in League One. Ipswich Town, Charlton Athletic and Derby County finished fifth, ninth and 17th, respectively, more than two decades ago, with Ipswich securing automatic promotion back to the Championship for 2023/24.

So much of the Premier League was different when Coventry and City slipped out in tandem.

By the end of that season, there were just four managers not from Britain – David O’Leary at Leeds United was one of them and the only Irishman in a job among the elite.

coventry-citys-robbie-keane-l-puts-his-sides-third-goal-past-arsenals-captain-tony-adams-during-their-fa-premiership-match-at-highfield-road-final-score-coventry-city-3-arsenal-2 Robbie Keane (right) scores despite the attention of Arsenal's Tony Adams. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Sportswashing and clubs being backed by seemingly limitless funds from nation-states was was preceded by media tycoon and BSkyB owner Rupert Murdoch having his attempt to buy Manchester United in 1999 blocked by the UK’s monopolies and mergers commission.

Now the British Government is welcoming Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to Newcastle United – hardly a surprise given former Prime Minister Liz Truss resumed their arms trade in 2020 while Trade Minister in the middle of 2020.

No one had even heard of Roman Abramovich.

Sky Sports’ Richard Keys was even deemed a celebrity fan worth boasting about for Coventry.

While City were able to bounce straight back to the Premier League as First Division champions, Coventry’s slide towards the bottom tier of the English Football League began.

Robins is the man who has led them back to the brink of ultimate glory – not to mention an estimated £180m – since promotion from League Two five years ago.

Yet around the turn of the century Strachan had been the one who broke the club’s transfer record twice, first signing Morocco international Mustapha Hadji from Deportivo La Coruna for £4m (his compatriot Youssef Chippo followed from FC Porto) before Keane’s £6m arrival.

Two of City’s biggest transfers prior to that relegation season were the £3m capture of Richard Dunne from Everton and Alfe-Inge Haaland coming from Leeds for £2.5m.

For Coventry, such spending – unlike in the later case of Leeds – was not the sole reason for the turmoil.

As City left Maine Road for the council-owned City of Manchester Stadium in 2003, two years later Coventry departed their own home of 106 years when Highfield Road was sold in a controversial property deal.

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-sunderland-v-coventry-city Coventry signed Mustapha Hadji for £4m in 1999. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Their tenancy at the Ricoh Arena – since renamed Coventry Building Society Arena – proved to be nothing short of a disaster and almost led to the club’s collapse.

There have been groundshares with Birmingham City and Northampton Town. The stadium is now owned by Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group and an eviction notice had been served at the mid-point of this season before eventually being resolved.

City, well, their new home has been no such burden.

Indeed, after Abu Dhabi took control in 2008, they secured a record sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways three years later worth a reported £400m.

Pep Guardiola’s arrival as manager has led to the kind of domestic dominance not seen in England since Alex Ferguson’s reign at United.

A fifth Premier League crown in six seasons – their third in a row – was secured yesterday following Arsenal’s defeat to Nottingham Forest.

Despite the 115 charges of breaking financial fair play rules by the Premier League back in February, it means today’s visit of Chelsea will be a title celebration.

A week later and Coventry face Luton Town (another story in its own right of fan-led redemption) with a chance to once again share a stage with a club who were once their equal.

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