MAY 01] THE STUART LINNELL
Down With Dignity
Saturday 5 May 2001, ten past
three in the afternoon, I am sitting at home in Coventry having
failed to buy a ticket for Aston Villa v Coventry City.
I guess I could have got one if
I'd really tried, but I convinced myself that if the worst was
going to happen, there of all places, I'd really rather not
So, ten past three, I am
listening to my good friends Rob Gurney and Geoff Foster on BBC
CWR - sorry, I forgot that our local radio station has bizarrely
now been given the same name as the station that covers
Birmingham, so I was actually listening to BBC WM!
The mobile rang and on the other
end was the duty editor at SkySports.comTV for whom I am, these
days, a freelance reporter.
"Fancy going to Villa Park
and interviewing the Coventry fans as they leave the
ground?" he asked.
After a moment's hesitation about
having to go there after all, my professional disciplines
prevailed and I agreed.
"Don't set off yet
though," said the editor. "I'll call you in about an
Sure enough, just after four
o'clock - Aston Villa 0, Coventry City 2 - he was on the phone
"Forget it", he
"Don't sound so
surprised," I replied, "Remember the old joke about
"Yeah, yeah," he
laughed again. "Maybe we'll do it in a fortnight against
And that was that, or so I
Less than forty-five minutes
later - Aston Villa 3, Coventry City 2 - we were talking again.
"What can you do
now?" he said, beginning to sound mildly desperate.
The words "drowning"
and "sorrows" came to mind, but I told him that I knew
where the official coaches would return to.
"Get a cameraman to meet
me at Highfield Road and we'll talk to some of the fans as
they return," I said.
By six o'clock, I was waiting at
the ground for cameraman and coaches when the mobile rang yet
again. This time it was my camera operating partner for the
evening to tell me that he was driving past Oxford on the M40,
having been summoned from High Wycombe as the nearest available
He reached me soon after 6.30, by
which time the coaches had been and gone. The travelling fans
were on their way home and the Thackhall Street car parks were
Fortunately, one or two fans had
told me that they would be heading for a couple of local
hostelries and so it was that The Wallace in Keresley and The
Chestnut Tree in Craven Street provided the backdrops to
interviews with some seven or eight city fans on SkySports.comTV
that Saturday night.
Joe Elliott, Associate Director
of the football club, local businessman and general all-round
good guy who had also been to Villa Park, also spoke to me when
we took the camera into his Coventry home.
Joe can't help himself but say
positive things about the club he has supported since he was a
small boy and it was therefore no surprise to me that he
answered every question with the words "we will be
The following morning - Sunday, 6
May - the same duty editor (they work them hard at Sky) was on
the phone again.
"What can we do today
then?" he asked.
I gently pointed out that it was
a Sunday and the middle day of a three-day Bank Holiday weekend,
but - again - if he sent a cameraman to join me, I would get
what I could.
The man who came to join me this
time travelled from Nottingham and arrived just in time for us
to interview the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Councillor Mrs Sheila
Collins, as she led a Civic Procession out of Holy Trinity
Church where they had attended a service to commemorate the
city's Freemen's Guild.
out in her full regalia, the Lord Mayor looked splendid as she
solemnly told me that Coventry was a city in mourning for its
"But we'll come out of
it," she added with typical defiance, "and we'll
come back stronger for it."
Echoing Joe Elliott, she threw
the odd "we'll be back" for good measure.
Calling in to the restaurant in
the East Stand at Highfield Road, we found Sean Stanton and his
lovely family enjoying Sunday lunch. Sean told me how, after
buying two sets of the new strip for his two young children the
Friday before, he had gone straight to the bookies and placed a
£500 bet on the Sky Blues avoiding relegation.
He would have won £6,000 if
they'd done it!
His daughter had the words
"Loyal Supporter" emblazoned on the back of her
football shirt and they provided us with lovely pictures.
Also at Highfield Road, Rob
Newman, whose face had been seen on national television on
Saturday night in floods of tears at the end of the Villa match,
was playing in goal for Coventry City FC staff in a match
against Middlesbrough FC staff. We spoke to Rob, too.
Our final port of call was to the
home of former City favourite Cyrille Regis, who told me that,
in his opinion, City would have to come back within two years or
risk staying out of the top flight for a long time.
And that was Sunday. Without
planning to do anything other than follow events from a
distance, I found myself reporting on the saddest day in the
history of the Sky Blues.
Quite a contrast from the day I
commentated on the greatest day in the club's history, at
Wembley in 1987. [LISTEN
TO SKY BLUE MAGIC IN REALAUDIO]
The Chairman has said that the
past should be put behind us now and that the future is all that
matters. I know what he means, but no one will take away the
memories I will always cherish of that great FA Cup win, nor the
very different reflections I will also carry with me of the
weekend City were relegated from the Premiership.
Thank you to all the people we
interviewed. Thank you to the cameramen who travelled from
outside the area to work with me.
Thank you most of all to the city
of Coventry, its Lord Mayor and its proud citizens.
Yes, there were reports of minor
trouble at Villa Park. Sadly, many of us predicted that there
would be. But overwhelmingly, the people of Coventry, the vast
majority of whom love their football club and desperately want
it to succeed, conducted themselves with dignity throughout
their great disappointment.
Knowing the man, I am not the
least bit surprised that Gordon Strachan is already laying down
the blueprint for a swift return. Something of a culture shock,
mind you, to see the bookies making us the favourites for a
change. They are quoting us at 5-1 to win promotion at the first
attempt, and 10-1 to go up as First Division Champions.
Kevin Gallacher, Keith Gillespie
and Steve Stone are three of the names already being linked with
City after Gordon's pronouncement that he wanted to sign
"old heads" to help his young squad. It's no surprise
to see Hadji, Chippo and Hedman listed as the men most likely to
What they need though, like never
before, is the backing of their supporters. As ever in
Coventry's history, when we all pull - or sing - together, it's
remarkable what we can achieve.
Joe Elliott and the Lord Mayor
may well be right. Given a massive push by all concerned,
"we'll be back."
And the sooner the better.