FA Cup: Brighton v Coventry City - can the Seagulls' story give the Sky Blues hope?

By Ged ScottBBC Sport
Ricoh Stadium, home of Coventry City and Wasps
Coventry City moved to the Ricoh Arena in 2005 after spending 106 years at Highfield Road

Coventry City's long-suffering supporters can be forgiven for still having one eye on the past when they head to Brighton on Saturday in the FA Cup fifth round.

As the recent passing of ex-player Cyrille Regis reminded the football world, it is now 31 years since the Sky Blues famously won the cup, in one of Wembley's most fondly recalled great finals. And the intervening years have not been kind.

After a 34-year stay in English football's top flight, the Sky Blues' slide since exiting the Premier League in 2001 has been one of football's most bewildering, yet upsetting sagas.

Three relegations, three home grounds, three different owners, 13 managers, countless mistakes, too many lost games of politics with a supportive local council, a temporary exile 33 miles away in Northampton, a briefly uplifting return to the Ricoh Arena, a change of landlord - and almost a decade now of protesting by their fed-up fans.

They head to the south coast playing in the fourth tier for the first time since 1958-59 and, at ninth in League Two, are the lowest-ranked side left in the competition.

But, if ever there was hope for a brighter future, they only have to look at this weekend's Premier League opponents.

Exactly 10 years on from Coventry's greatest day at Wembley, Brighton were on the brink of experiencing their darkest hour - and in danger of going out of business.

Robbie Reinelt's second-half equaliser at Edgar Street in 1997 kept Brighton in the Football League
Robbie Reinelt's second-half equaliser at Edgar Street in 1997 kept Brighton in the Football League

Had they lost at Hereford on the final day of the 1996-97 season, they would have been plunged into non-league football.

With half an hour left at Edgar Street that would indeed have been their fate, but Robbie Reinelt equalised in the 62nd-minute and sent the Bulls down instead.

Brighton lived to fight another day, even though they still lost their Goldstone Ground home to redevelopers. They had to suffer two seasons of doing a 150-mile round trip to Gillingham for home games, a journey that now almost makes the Sky Blues' fortnightly jaunt to Sixfields for one season in 2013-14 seem like a breeze.

By the time Coventry themselves left their own long-time home Highfield Road to move to the Ricoh Arena in 2005, Brighton's home was the meagre 8,850 capacity Withdean Stadium, a converted athletics stadium.

Not ideal after 95 years at the Goldstone Ground, but certainly an improvement on two seasons of making that trek to Priestfield. And, all this time, the relentless fans carried on campaigning, eventually got listened to, attracted interest from worthwhile investors and finally had a new 30,000 all-seater stadium built for them back in their own town.

The fact that promotion to the Premier League soon followed was the icing on the cake. But it is a dream for Coventry fans, like 52-year-old Moz Baker, to cling to.

What is the current state of Coventry?

With the prospect of having no home ground for next season, last week's announcement that the club will be staying at the Ricoh for at least another 12 months, might appear to be a positive development.

But Baker, chairman of the fans' group the Sky Blue Trust and a Coventry supporter for over 42 years, fears the club will not progress under their owners of 10 years, Sisu.

"If the club is to start moving forward the current situation is not sustainable," said Baker.

"Mark Robins is doing a great job as manager but there's neither the ambition, inclination nor interest from our invisible owners to support the team's efforts.

"The recent agreement to play another season at the Ricoh is a welcome relief to many City supporters fearful of having to repeat the disastrous period in Northampton, but a long-term deal to remain in Coventry, at the Ricoh, the only show in town despite any propaganda to the contrary, needs to be established very quickly."

'The relationship with fans is toxic'

EFL tweet about Coventry's crowd against Accrington
Despite the record league attendance at the Ricoh, Coventry were beaten 2-0 by Accrington

As Coventry have slid down the divisions, the disaffected fans have also voted with their feet, which is a problem for a club who, as Wasps' tenants at the Ricoh, raise money from matchday ticket sales but not those of food and drink at the stadium.

Although the Sky Blues top League Two's average attendances charts this season, at 8,843, that figure is boosted by the 28,343 recorded for Saturday's defeat by Accrington for the club's community day when over 14,000 tickets were given out free.

"The relationship between owners Sisu and the fans is so toxic that it's beyond repair," said Baker. "Many lifelong fans have drifted away for ever. Some will only return when Sisu have gone. Some will only go to away matches regardless of how well the team perform at home.

"Under Sisu, home crowds have struggled to get anywhere near the 9,200 break-even figure.

"Last Saturday against Accrington we had a League Two record attendance of over 28,000. A fantastic initiative from the club, but 14,000 of those were free tickets given to local primary school children, whilst others paid only a fiver.

"A good number of those who went did so to help demonstrate the club's potential fan base but won't be back for the next home match against Lincoln nor further games whilst Sisu remain at the helm."

Who will buy?

There is interest in buying the club, with former Sky Blues vice-chairman Gary Hoffman leading a consortium who have had several offers rejected by Sisu boss Joy Seppala.

"The time has come for realism and pragmatism," added Baker. "Seppala needs to accept that whatever figure she believes she has invested in the club, no potential investor will touch a club with few assets for the sort of crazy figures she has bandied about.

"The club's future lies with investors who care about the future, with the financial acumen to move it forward, who will work with supporters' organisations such as the Sky Blue Trust to allow fans, the people who love this club, the chance to invest and help return it to something approaching its former self.

"Anyone looking from afar can surely see the vast potential of a club with a rich history and a huge fan base, many of whom are lying in wait, ready to return."

The Seagulls' perspective - 'don't lose heart'

Brighton were a newly promoted Championship club when they moved into their new, now 30,750-capacity home on the outskirts of the town at Falmer in 2011
Brighton were a newly promoted Championship club when they moved into their new, now 30,750-capacity home on the outskirts of the town at Falmer in 2011

If a set of fans appreciate what Coventry supporters are experiencing, it is those of Brighton.

"The similarities between these two clubs are huge," said lifelong Brighton fan Paul Samrah, who was one of the driving forces behind the Seagulls getting the Amex Stadium as part of the 'Falmer for All' campaign.

"Coventry are a club that have gone by the wayside, and you really feel for them. If they happened to win on Saturday, we would still be rooting for them in the next round. Brighton fans love an underdog.

"The key for them now is not to lose heart. Fan power really can deliver. Don't resort to ridiculous tactics. Do it in humorous ways that can catch the eye. You never know who might be out there to take it forward.

"Look at AFC Wimbledon. I'm sure they never dreamt they could be a Football League club. And, 20 years ago, we never dreamt we could be a Premier League club.

"The darkest moment for me was the eve of our game at Hereford in 1997. You know that, 24 hours later, you're either still a Football League club with no ground or a hopeless non-league club, that it is outside your control and that you've done everything you can.

"As it was, we won that day and it was the dawn of a new beginning. From the depths of despair, it's amazing what you can achieve."

How will it go on Saturday?

Chris Hughton was a Tottenham Hotspur player when Coventry City won the FA Cup in 1987, watching in anguish as Keith Houchen equalised on the way to the Sky Blues' famous 3-2 Wembley triumph
Brighton boss Chris Hughton (second right) was a Tottenham Hotspur player when Coventry won the FA Cup in 1987, watching in anguish as Keith Houchen equalised on the way to the Sky Blues' famous 3-2 Wembley triumph

Coventry have so far disposed of non-league clubs Maidenhead and Boreham Wood, and were followed by almost 8,000 travelling supporters as they won at League One side MK Dons in round four to reach the last 16 for the first time since 2009.

But they have also already accounted for one Premier League side, having disposed of Stoke City in the third round, a defeat which cost Potters manager Mark Hughes his job.

And, after going out in the fourth round at then non-league Lincoln last season, Brighton boss Chris Hughton will be wary of striking the right balance between keeping his regular Premier League side fit and fresh for their fight against relegation and being strong enough to get past Coventry and reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 1986.

Brighton are on a four-game unbeaten run, which includes their fourth-round 1-0 win at Middlesbrough, having seen off rivals Crystal Palace in round three, both thanks to late Glenn Murray winners.

Coventry, meanwhile, go into the game off the back of three successive league defeats.

But this is the FA Cup. And upset though it would be if Coventry were to win, victory at a such a seemingly low point in their history would, after last season's Checkatrade Trophy triumph, in fact leave them one game away from Wembley for the second successive season.

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