04 Nov Bad Luck, Fallen Trees & Turning Points: Why Coventry United’s Tough Start To The Season Can’t Go On Forever
``You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find...you get what you need``
Rolling Stones - 'You Can't Always Get What You Want'
Maybe, at the end of this season, Coventry United will look at a humble oak tree as the thing that finally turned their season around. Another almost unbelievable entry in the mythology of a club who have made an existence out of scratching, clawing, and overcoming adversity when many would have simply stopped and hoped someone else would save them. It is a story that encapsulates what Coventry United is as a team and who the players and staff this season are as people.
Writing this (just after the tree incident, which never fear, we will get to), I am sitting on a darkened coach on a filthy November night not even fit for a dog to walk out in, never mind play football. But Coventry United just have, because that is what the fixture list has said they should. The team assembled over the summer from scratch by Lee Burch and Sian Osmond, a management team who came in late in the summer after the previous coaching team of Jay Bradford and Jo Potter moved on. They have taken on the task of rebuilding after the heroines of last season were scattered far and wide after financial necessity forced the club had to return to a hybrid model to ensure sustainability, which left the club vulnerable to being outbid for stars by teams who could offer full-time contracts. The rebuilt squad have just suffered their eighth league loss in a row, to Southampton, a team with a budget at least five times that of Coventry, and adding insult to injury the football gods have twisted the knife once again as all three of Southampton’s goals were scored by former Coventry captain Katie Wilkinson – they are the first goals Wilkinson has scored for her new team.
A team suffering like this – the kind of pain that sees players openly emotionally in tears of frustration after games, one that week after week gives their hardest for no reward – is one that no team wants to be. Even being on the periphery of it, when you travel with the team and see behind the scenes, it is hard not to become emotionally involved and carry their burdens as yours.
For many teams like United – a team where the oldest player, Jodie Bartle (returning to what she calls “home” from Celtic) is 30 years old, the start to this season would have been crushing. The average age is 22 – by far the youngest in the Championship. They are a team who outsiders watch with interest as the losing run continues – a run that has included an 8-0 loss to Sheffield United, a 5-0 loss to London City, and a whole bunch of one-goal losses.
But outsiders will only see the table and those eight league losses in a row – one that sees Coventry United bottom, with no points and a goal difference of minus 25. Outsiders will see a team that is, already, a lost cause.
The mere results, however, do not even begin to tell the story of this team. They don’t tell the story of the jokes in training, the laughter, the constant, dogged work on and off the field to compete in a division where most of the teams are backed by major men’s teams, crypto millionaires, or both, by a group of players who were still being signed the Tuesday before the first league game and barely had a pre-season.
They don’t tell the story of management team Lee Burch and Sian Osmond pounding up and down the motorways from their homes down south, spending days away from home trying to build an identity of positivity and learning. Or of players like Anna Wilcox, Katy Morris and Freya Thomas, putting in the hours off the field to try and build the club’s local community presence. Of players like Merrick Will trying to balance playing in a now almost-overwhelmingly fully-pro league while having jobs elsewhere.
It doesn’t tell the story of the staff and coaches banding together to shield and back up young goalie Jodie Whiteman after an ill-judged tweet by Sheffield United caused several thousand abusive messages from idiots towards her goalkeeping ability on Twitter – a tweet which, to this day, is still up despite requests to take it down.
Nor does it tell the story of the thousands of miles already travelled on coaches in relentless hope that this game, this day, will be the one that pays off.
And lastly, it doesn’t tell the story of the tears of pure frustration as the football gods seemingly toy once again with Coventry, whether it be through referees decisions, injury bad luck (at the time of writing Coventry have six players on the treatment table and have only been able to put out a full-strength lineup once) and the story of off-field staff like the goalie coach Mikey, medical staff Connor, Andy and Armani, the GM Jack Heaselden, the media officer (also called Connor), the photographer Jeff, and all the other people who travel up and down the country with the team and live and die with the losses like the players do while trying to rebuild a football team from the ground up.
Most importantly, though, the results alone don’t tell the story of a group of women mostly at the start of their careers thrown into the high-pressure world of professional football and written off by many observers before a ball has been kicked, but still having enough belief in themselves that if they just keep working, sticking together and trying, they will be rewarded. A group of women who are unfailingly cheerful, open, and welcoming both to each other and to outsiders.
Anyone who has followed Coventry United’s tale over the past few seasons will know this. The Great Escape of 2021/22 is a feat written in football folklore. Dead and then reborn in a Christmas and New Year miracle, then handed what many thought was a coup-de-grace from the FA, they survived in the Women’s Championship with the last kick of the last game, coming back from so far gone their eulogy had already been written by many.
Coventry as a city and people is one that is used to surviving when logic says it would be easier to roll over. Here we are used to being written off, and taking blow after blow from fate. This city and its natives have resilience flowing through their very veins. Living here does something to you. If you let it, that doggedness, that sheer bloody-minded refusal to lie down gets under your skin and becomes your identity, and though this team are new and come from as far apart as Norfolk & the Midlands and London and Lancashire, they have adopted the city as their own just as the Great Escape team did and like them, they reflect its identity in spades.
Over the first eight games of this season, as the losses have piled up, this group of men and women have, in the finest traditions of Coventry, refused to lie down. As someone who lived through that Great Escape with the team, this season reminds me of that spirit already – the early-season struggles, the self-doubt, the tears of frustration in unguarded moments. And most of all, the sheer bloody-mindedness and togetherness to suffer all of these, wipe one’s bloody mouth, and get back into the ring. The mental strength and resilience to keep going that the results simply don’t show. The kind of spirit that, eventually, will grind down the toughest hurdles.
``It takes one hot second to turn it around, it takes one hot second to turn it around...``
George Ezra: ``Hold My Girl``
And so we return to the story of The Tree.
Coming out of Southampton this evening, the coach is quiet and frustrated after another loss. Knowing we won’t arrive home until past 1am, the last thing anyone on the coach wants to se, including me, is a fallen tree blocking the road. But there, in the coach’s headlights, it is. A massive oak tree, lying across the road, with a line of traffic the other side and a long delay. One last bit of mocking laughter from the universe on a tough day.
Perhaps it is the sheer frustration of a 300 mile round trip followed by an evening spent outside at work in the kind of weather more suited to a disaster movie than football that makes someone who shall remain nameless pile towards the front of the coach saying “absolutely no way am I sitting waiting for this to move-let me out, and I’ll move it”.
But what happens next is a beautiful thing, as, after initial confusion, the whole coach, players and staff both, rise as a shout of “if you’re going, we are” goes up, laughing and joking. We all pile out into the rain as one (and remember, most of this crowd have just played a high-intensity professional football match) – and the tree (and watching motorists) don’t know what’s hit it. Through sheer muscle-power, a venerable tree that has succumbed to the vicious winds off the Solent and in doing so brought the major road out of Southampton to a standstill shifts, inch by inch, out of the way.
Who doesn’t like a late night work out in the rain, moving a massive tree? 💪— Coventry United FC - Barclays Women’s Championship (@CovUtdWomen) November 3, 2022
Well that’s what we had to do on the way back from Southampton last night 😅
Team on the pitch, team off the pitch 🙌#CUWFC | #BarclaysWC pic.twitter.com/ScSA5MsO6A
Striker Keeley Davies nearly goes with it at one point as she, pushing from one side, is lifted and carried with it by the sheer force of her teammates puling from the other as astounded locals watch. A superfluous road worker stands by his digger, not quite able to believe his industrial machine is playing second place to a women’s football team.
The seemingly immovable moves. With a many-voiced yell of triumph, it is dumped on the side of the road out of the way, clearing the path home. And in that metaphor, you see a team who refuse to be beaten by circumstance.
And, just perhaps, it’s a turning point for the season.
The Tree is something that will never show on a stats sheet, but for anyone who was there, it is a reminder of what this team is. Who it is. What it can be. What it can do.
And how no matter what the universe throws at this team, they’ll take it on. Together.