Access All Areas
By Jon Marks
Wednesday night's trip to Coventry was to be a different experience as not only were we to visit a new stadium but I was fortunate enough to have a press pass for the evening. So my anticipation was great as we did the customary crawl along the M6 in the rush hour.
Being in the press area meant we had to be at the stadium a couple of hours before kick-off; therefore, there were not many people about as we approached the newly built Ricoh Arena. From the motorway, it, as most stadium complexes do, looked very impressive but as we got nearer it looked more and more like an industrial warehouse from one end on the outside. There was no real evidence of a 'complex' nor of the hotel and other facilities you come to expect from spanking new stadiums.
The other most obvious feature was that this is a stadium that is far from finished. This was clearly evidenced by the workman in the hardhat strolling across the car park as we looked for main reception and an entrance into it. Slight concern was raised when we asked a steward where we should go for the press area and he hadn't got a clue - he pointed us towards some huge glass fronted doors which apparently was main reception, although I guess one of the outstanding projects is some signage to point you in the right direction.
Once we had been identified so that we could be given our press passes, we were ushered into a vast glass hotel lobby area with a couple of Jaguar cars on display either side of escalators and lifts to various parts of the complex. We were told to go in the lift to 'ground zero' (a slightly unfortunate turn of phrase, maybe?) and we would find the pressroom along the way. Having been met by Coventry's press officer, we were shown around and then up into the stadium itself and to our seats.
As with all the new stadiums around the country, you cannot fail to be impressed once you are looking at the inside towards the playing area. Whilst many look similar, save for the distinctive seat colouring (so this is a dead ringer for the Madejski or the Walkers Stadium and not a lot different to Pride Park), I like the feel of new grounds and certainly don't long for the days of the windswept open terraces again.
As the rain began to fall and the wind gathered up speed, we were forced to move from our original position, otherwise laptops and notepads were going to get a soaking. So we were up with the radio guys and we discussed the team news that was filtering through from the dressing rooms below.
Trying to guess an Aidy Boothroyd team selection looks more like becoming a new fun pastime with every eleven he chooses. He clearly was looking for pace to upset the home side in his bold selection - you can certainly not criticise him for being negative, even if the three changes made raised a few eyebrows amongst us. Junior Osborne missed out completely after his debut at Crewe as Jordan Stewart was restored to left back, allowing James Chambers to move across to the right side. Dominic Blizzard partnered Carl Fletcher in midfield to give Matthew Spring a rest and Joel Grant was handed his first senior start on the right side of midfield, in place of Paul Devlin who also took a seat on the bench.
As kick-off approached the lights went out and, despite the fact that the crowd had come to see a game of football, the darkness was greeted with huge cheers! Within a minute or so, some power was restored and there was sufficient light to begin the proceedings. There were some anxious looks in the press area, however, as battery life spans were quickly investigated to see if laptops and microphones would last the distance if necessary.
How we wished the lights had remained switched off after a first-half that could have the seen the match finished as a contest due to a lacklustre display from the Hornets. The tone was set in the first minute: an under-hit Clarke Carlisle pass to Stewart left the full-back exposed and Willo Flood poked the ball past Stewart, who obstructed him. Free-kick, some forty yards from goal. Referee Mr Joslin began as he meant to continue - poorly. Whilst Stewart's foul was perhaps cynical at worst, it hardly warranted a booking in the first minute. Unfortunately, it did in Mr Joslin's eyes and we feared an eccentric performance was up his sleeve. We weren't wrong. Worse followed from the free-kick, taken lazily left-footed by the man who couldn't even be bothered to be lazy for us, Stephen Hughes. It was flicked on at the edge of the area and Ben Foster rose on the penalty spot to claim the catch. Only he didn't. As he caught the ball, his downward momentum saw him lose it and a Coventry boot was able to flick the ball goalwards toward the unguarded net. First man on the scene, in very similar fashion to the second-leg of the play-off semi-final at St Andrews six years ago, was Dele Adebola to give the Sky Blues the lead. What a mess of a goal and a start. There was a half-hearted protest from the on-loan keeper but he didn't receive much support from colleagues or the Hornets' followers behind his goal.
Adebola continued to cause Doyley and Carlisle problems with his presence and Coventry, with tails inevitably up and the noisy home crowd roaring them on, threatened to steamroller us. They didn't, because they couldn't, because they weren't good enough. We were there for the taking, though. Trevor Benjamin turned nicely on the edge of the box and had a shot blocked, and Dominic Blizzard shot over from twenty yards before more abject defending left us with a mountain to climb.
The lights went out again on fifteen minutes but this was merely to allow the big switch-on back to full power to take place immediately after. No time for the players to leave the pitch, or for a celebrity to come and turn the lights on before Coventry doubled their lead. Marcus Hall had plenty of time to cross from the left hand side and James Scowcroft rose unchallenged to flick the ball on and over Jordan Stewart for Willo Flood, on loan from Manchester City, to race on and look to drive over a cross. However, he either mis-hit it or placed it so perfectly that the ball managed to slide around and past Foster and glance into the net off the inside of the far post. Eyebrows raised as to how the big keeper had been beaten from that angle, certainly, and this was a nervy display that will have the veteran stopper checking out how many appearances he needs for his next milestone.
The tide was flowing in one direction, all towards our goal. We were in trouble and were struggling to get out. Scowcroft glanced wide from a Hall free-kick and then a Hughes corner was headed against the underside of the bar by Richard Duffy. From our vantage point, it looked in all the way but the woodwork and some frantic clearances saw us survive. We then had our best spell of the game - Ashley Young made a couple of nice runs into dangerous areas and one cross from the left was headed over from close range by Blizzard. Young then had a strike from twenty-five yards which went straight at the keeper. There was still time for Carl Fletcher, sporting a shirt with no name and number following a blood spillage from an earlier head wound, to be booked for a foul just on half-time.
Almost inevitably a double substitution was made at the break, the unfortunate Blizzard was replaced by the returning skipper and Big Trev was withdrawn to give Villa loanee Gabriel Agbonlohar a debut up alongside Ashley Young. Adebola didn't re-appear for the second period either, so Andy Morrell was introduced to the crowd by the hugely over enthusiastic stadium announcer.
We were a different team straight away. Mahon seemed to control the game from in front of the back four and Ashley Young caused more and more problems for the home side. A super Joel Grant cross looked destined to be turned goalwards by Agbonlohar before Robert Page cleared inside his six yard box. A word here for Grant; playing out of position he coped extremely well and turned in a full ninety minutes he can be proud of and certainly was well worth his manager's faith in throwing him in.
Five minutes in and the game was back on as a contest. A long Foster clearance was well cushioned by Young, who was allowed to turn on the edge of the box before smashing a fierce right-footed drive that rose past Bywater's outstretched hand and hit the top corner of the net. Another goal of the season contender from Young who, as the senior member of the forward line, carried the responsibility very capably and looked to inspire his colleagues into a comeback similar to the one he effected at Home Park some six weeks previously.
His next meaningful involvement was in the role of victim in the game's most heated and controversial moment. Young won a fifty-fifty ball but was unceremoniously dumped on his backside by Robert Page's horrible two-footed lunge. This sparked a one-for-all-all-for-one bust-up that by the end had all twenty-two players involved and all three officials on the pitch. The unanimous verdict in the press area, in fact in the whole stadium, was that Pagey would be sent packing. The officials held a number of emergency committee meetings before our former skipper was called forward to learn his fate. The conclusion seemed so inevitable that even Pagey himself seemed to be ready for his long walk. Strangely, Mr Joslin produced just a yellow card and, whilst he will always be a hero of mine, I have to say our Wembley winning captain was a very lucky boy. So then we had to wait to see who else had been picked out in the identity parade to receive further punishment. First up was James Chambers, followed by City's Gary McSheffrey. Finally, Ben Foster was called up and shown a yellow card too. Having criticised him for the first two goals, I will defend him vigorously here: I had an excellent view of him racing sixty yards from his goal to get involved; however, he acted purely as a peacemaker, pulling one of our players away from the melee. All this took over five minutes to resolve and the final card toll left a lot to be desired. The potential leg breaking 'tackle' received the same punishment as the squabbles that followed it. There is definitely something wrong there. Of course, it was our free-kick but Ashley Young wasn't allowed to be on the pitch whilst we took it. The farcical ruling meaning that the sinned against ended up with a player disadvantage for a minute or so!
We continued to push Coventry back, so much so that when they made their second substitution that was the first entry into the Coventry side of my notebook in the half. However, apart from a good one-handed save from Bywater that kept out a Fletcher header from a corner, we failed to trouble the keeper.
Paul Devlin replaced Anthony McNamee with eighteen minutes to go but was not quite up with play to take advantage of a great turn and cross to the far post from Young. Grant then swung in another inviting ball that just eluded the onrushing Carlisle, now employed as a centre-forward as we went on all out attack, at the far post.
Doyle was then booked for a petulant off-the-ball ankle tap at Young before the game was finally finished five minutes from time. However, it so nearly became level two minutes earlier as, after some neat interplay, Fletcher fluffed a shot from the edge of the area that fell nicely into the path of Young fifteen yards out. As he pulled the trigger to equalise, Andrew Whing threw himself at the ball and managed to deflect the shot wide. The corner was safely gathered by Bywater who launched the ball upfield, where Scowcroft beat Doyley to flick on and McSheffrey was left with a clear run on goal. He coolly slotted the ball past Foster to seal the points for the Sky Blues.
We still managed to create headed half-chances for Carlisle and the impressive Agbonlohar in the four minutes of added time, but both efforts cleared the crossbar.
As the majority of the crowd drifted away happy, our work was not done. Reports to write, managers and players to interview, and notes to be typed up. A final wander behind the stand and vast concourse to find the way out again was needed before the car could be found.
Work was continued on the car journey home, with interviews being typed up so that various views could be read on-line before the night was out. There is no rest for the pressmen; spare a thought for the genuine ones.