As side from the raw excitement, tantalising thrill and – at times – primeval naked aggression of a cup tie, the only league match that evokes the same response in players and supports alike is the local derby. This week, Merseyside has its second Premier league encounter, when it doesn’t matter where in the table the two sides sit, this result matters more than just three points towards Champion’s League qualification, it’s the bragging rights for days (sometimes weeks) afterwards that mean the most.
Every major region has its own derby, the one game the supporters look out for more than any other. At Coventry, our local derby is against Aston Villa. The two clubs are only seventeen miles apart along the M6, so invariably this fixture would always have the highest attendance of the season at Highfield Road. Additionally, a substantial number of residents within my home city of the Three Spires supported Villa (including a number of my school mates), so going to this game was a must. It also gave the feeling this had turned our little, somewhat compact and bijou stadium into a temporary war zone. So much hostility was expressed by both sets of fans, so much hatred (why? It’s just football) It’s an incredibly intimidating sight. I first experienced this as a thirteen year old in the mid-eighties, and was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt at a Sky Blues game. I couldn’t wait for the final whistle so I could make my leave and scarper. I dread to think what the Glasgow Old Firm matches are like in comparison – crikey!
The unusual situation that had arisen during the Sky Blues – Villa encounters was Coventry had not won a single one of them for years. Not since before the Second World War, to be exact. Obviously, for some of this time the two clubs occupied different divisions in the league, and did not meet at all. But when they did, whether it be league, cup or friendly match, the Birmingham based club seemed to always have the upper hand, and over the years this developed into a psychological ‘edge’. Coventry just could not beat their neighbours, but did draw with them on numerous occasions, not constantly lose. The local media made endless copy of the ‘Jinx’ that existed between these two clubs, which to be honest only added to Villa’s ‘superiority complex’, and the Sky Blues wondering will they ever beat the team in claret and blue from down the road.
However, come late 1988 my Coventry at long last achieved what us Sky Blues fans had previously dreamt of – a victory over the Villa. My father and myself attended this fixture, which had more spice added to it as Villa had just gotten themselves promoted back into the First Division (for the 1987-88 season, the Sky Blues were the only side originating from the West Midlands in the top flight). Excellent goals from Cyrille Regis and Keith Houchen, with a late Alan McInally reply for the visitors to make an uneasy conclusion, saw the game end in a Coventry win. We had beaten the Villa! The smile on my father’s face was equally as huge as when we had beat Spurs and won the cup in ’87!
But it didn’t stop there. In the return game at Villa Park, it ended a draw. The following season, the match at Highfield Road was live on T.V on a Sunday afternoon. We watched this from the comfort of our own home, and when Kevin Drinkell came off the bench just after half-time, and with his first touch put Coventry into the lead, I very nearly threw my drink all over my mother and the family pet labrador in excitement. Drinkell added a second minutes later, and this is how the match ended. The ‘Jinx’ was well and truly dead now.
Over the following campaigns, Villa no longer had their own way at Highfield Road (Christmas 1992 being a particular treat for Sky Blues fans, with Mick Quinn scoring a hat-trick in the match on Boxing Day during the Premier League’s inaugural season), but Coventry had never, ever won at Villa Park. This statistic still loomed large every time the fixture reared its head. Then, in 1998, the F.A Cup drew the two clubs together in the fifth round – at Villa Park. I didn’t hold out much hope myself to win the tie on the day, hoping for a draw so we could beat them in the replay at Highfield Road. This was the spell when it would eventually transpire the Sky Blues had been punching above their weight financially for quite some time, and had gained the services of some excellent players. Coventry’s record signing, Romanian international Vioral Moldovan scored the only goal of the tie, taking City into the quarter finals of the competition, but also laying the other ghost to rest once and for all.
But it didn’t end there, as the following season in the Premier League fixture at Villa Park, Coventry won again beating their hosts 4-1 (Australian International John Aloisi netting himself a hat-trick). This had even more poignant, as Villa had signed one of our more influential players, England International Dion Dublin. I wonder if he considered possibly he’d made a mistake after this result.
So, that’s my memories of Derby Day. Sadly, due to Coventry’s relegation out of the Premier League in 2001 and not being drawn against each other in cup ties, the last meeting was in spring 2001. No friendly game has been played yet between the two sides, but they can be hardly seen as ‘friendly’ as I’ve mentioned earlier. I did briefly work as a crowd control steward at Highfield Road in the mid-nineties, and one of my first games on duty was Steve Ogrizovic’s testimonial against, Yes – you’ve guessed it, the Villa. He got a capacity crowd for the match, but it was the usual ‘controlled riot’ atmosphere – I was stuck amongst the visiting supporters too. I think they knew my true allegiances when City scored. I tried my best not to rub it in, but I always look the Jolly Fisherman of Skegness when Coventry score – can’t help myself. Think I might have just gotten away with it. I was transferred indoors for the next fixture, working as a wine waiter in one of the club’s restaurants, with the strict instructions not to upset anyone there!
Coventry City’s ‘derby’ games now are against Walsall and Wolves, being stuck in League One as the three clubs are. Maybe not as geographically close to us as the Villa, this is even greater irony to myself as I now live in the Black Country with my fiancée. I’m a Sky Blue in exile, surrounded by Saddlers and Wolves fans – might have to keep quiet if we beat them. If I can. Derby games definitely get the emotions running.