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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 witness it.

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 hour."

Sure enough, just after four o'clock - Aston Villa 0, Coventry City 2 - he was on the phone again.

"Forget it", he chuckled.

"Don't sound so surprised," I replied, "Remember the old joke about the Titanic."

"Yeah, yeah," he laughed again. "Maybe we'll do it in a fortnight against Bradford."

And that was that, or so I thought.

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 man.

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 empty.

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 back!"

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.

Cllr Sheila CollinsKitted out in her full regalia, the Lord Mayor looked splendid as she solemnly told me that Coventry was a city in mourning for its football team.

"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 leave.

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.

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CWN / Sport / Football / Coventry City FC / Stuart Linnell / 9 May 01
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