Escape Artists Never Die: Coventry United’s Trip There, And Back Again

One of my favourite phrases in the English language is “the long dark night of the soul”. It is an ancient phrase used to describe the feeling of hopelessness when it seems that for whatever reason, nothing will go right and no matter how hard one works, there never seems to be a reward. Watching a football team go through a losing run is very akin to a dark night of the soul, and also being around one doing so, especially one you’re emotionally attached to, is a painful experience – even more so when you see the relentless willingness not to give in and the struggle that everyone at the club goes through to pick themselves up and go again after an increasing number of gut-punches. It can break you. It can rebuild you.

In Coventry, they are used both to dark nights of the soul and the blinding power of the sunrise that comes after. As a football club, the staff and players who have called the Butts Park Arena at any point in the past 18 months have experienced more highs and lows as a collective than some clubs do in decades. The highs of the Great Escape, the lows of a twelve game losing streak.

And yet, like the city that they call home, United have endured this season when fate has tried to wipe them out. The players and staff have stared at the wreckage time after time, wiped their mouths, pulled themselves to their feet, wiped their mouths and stepped back into the ring to take on the next opponent. In January, the BPA has seen the kind of changes many clubs don’t see in a summer in two weeks. Seven new faces have come through the doors. 

Whatever the struggles pre-Christmas, the turning of the year is a chance for a new beginning for a club battered and bruised by the Fates – one with a history of being written off prematurely. Though many of the names around the stadium are different to this time last year, Coventry is not a place that forgets. The deeds of those who’ve come before echoing across Butts Park with every gust of wind. 

It is impossible to escape what this club can do to you, because in a women’s football world increasingly dominated by financial muscle, Coventry is proudly a football club where guts, hard work, and sheer bloody-mindedness are the currency that matters.

`I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.`

Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit, or An Unexpected Journey’

In a weird echo of last season, though, it is once again on a silent coach in the car park of an away ground in January where things are both at their darkest and simultaneously where the fire begins to burn. After a game in which Coventry, bolstered by new recruits in the January window, have taken league leaders Bristol City all the way, there is an air on the coach. An air of fury and injustice, but also the same feeling that last manifested itself on a dark night in Southampton in November… but stronger still. This is a team that have got used to seeing themselves as others think of them – one that has been wrestling with its demons all season as a collective. Tonight the scoreboard shows they may have lost another battle, but the war is nowhere near over & they have lost with honour. As the coach rumbles through a freezing evening, the prevailing mood is that something has shifted in the universe. Finally, this collection of talented players have seen a glimpse of what they can be. And with every quiet utterance of “play like that and we can live with anyone” the spark grows.

It is the Tuesday after, the sun is hanging low on a cold Coventry afternoon at Butts Park and Alannah Mann is laughing fit to bust. The reason for this is that in attempting to pass a ball back to her that’s gone into the stands during a training drill, I’ve kicked the ball off the fence and into my own face. But even had I not shown myself up so spectacularly, the girls would have found something else to laugh about in training…as they go back and forth in a competitive shooting drill, the laughter is loud, the banter is flying, and there is a new feeling around the Butts Park. The shadows seem less dark under the Railway End, and through some of the coldest days of the year in the lead up to the game against Crystal Palace, there is a warmth again.

This team has never given up, but Lee Burch has been open about how one of the main struggles for both players and staff has been keeping morale up and the belief in the players’ own minds. That game against Bristol City has been the best evidence yet that the work this team has been putting in to training every week might actually be rewarded. With Palace a team in a much better position than Coventry but facing their own struggles after their own 5-0 home loss to top-of-the-league London City, the mood is focused for the first home game of the second half of the season. This team is ready to turn a corner.

…“IT SOUNDS LIKE A WHISPER“Don’t you know? They’re talking ’bout a revolution…

Tracy Chapman: ‘Talking ‘Bout A Revolution’

A roar shatters the calm of another winter Sunday afternoon in Coventry. That roar is caused by a record crowd for a Coventry United game of over 500 people reacting to the fact Mary McAteer has prodded the ball past Fran Kitching in the Crystal Palace goal and for the first time this season, Coventry lead in a league game, three minutes in. Twice more before half time that roar goes up for Katy Morris and Eleanor Ryan Doyle, and in the last 90 minutes of football Coventry have scored more goals than in the previous eleven games combined.

The second half is much closer, though, and on 80 minutes Crystal Palace pull within one goal. On the 90th minute, the ball breaks to the goalscorer, Annabel Blanchard, once again, in space with time to shoot. Before Christmas, it’s almost certain that the football deities decree she will find the net. This time though, another new arrival, Khiara Keating, smothers the ball. It is the last time Palace threaten.

As the final whistle goes, a scream of cathartic joy goes up. Keating goes charging out of her goal and embraces captain Jodie Bartle. The players, old and new alike, celebrate the victory with unrestrained joy. More than anything else, there is a sense that “we’ve deserved this for weeks and finally we’ve actually got reward”.

Post-game all the talk is not of the past or indeed the game just gone but of the future. The following week Coventry have the noisy hype machine of Hashtag United arriving in the women’s FA Cup, and pre-Christmas in Essex noises have been made about how the fourth-tier side fancy a shock result. It would be disastrous for any momentum to be immediately snuffed out, but as the noise swirls around the tie on social media, Coventry themselves remain quiet and focused. Youtube influencers can run all of the hype they want, media can speculate about shocks, but this is a very, VERY different Coventry United to the one that beat Stockport. And it has seemingly happened almost unnoticed since Christmas – despite all the new arrivals, the real change is an increase in quiet confidence – the silent growing of belief.

And then, on the Friday, the Women’s Championship and indeed women’s football Twitter resounds to the news that a heroine has returned to join the Red and Green charge. Mollie Green, the player who will forever be the face of Coventry United’s finest moment to date, she of the free-kick heard round the world, is back in Coventry. With her usual number sixteen taken by another January arrival, Ellen Jones, Mollie needs a new number.

The one she picks is both a tribute to the past and a rallying call to the future. It is the number ninety-seven. Ninety plus seven. The moment she struck a ball in Watford’s Vicarage Road and passed into women’s football folklore.

It’s a promise for the rest of the season as Coventry find themselves tasked with a similar fight for survival, although this time without an enforced handicap of ten points and the gap already closed to half that after the win against Palace.

But talk of the Great Escape 2 is still rife and only fuelled by her return, and as Mollie herself says with a smile “Sequels are usually better, aren’t they?”

We’ll start a fire, and burn some bridges, and make it out of here tonight

Funeral for A Friend: ‘Escape Artists Never Die’

And so to last Sunday. Hashtag United travel up full of Youtube-bred hype and, dare we say it, arrogance. They are a team high on confidence coming up with nothing to lose and the kind of team that before Christmas would have seemed like the exact opposite to Coventry…even a danger. Certainly the brash attitude of their pre-game chat shows that.

But on the pitch, Coventry’s own new-found confidence shines through, most notably in the front three, who between them cut Hashtag apart. First of all, left-wing Ellen Jones fires home a rebound for her first goal for the club. A Liv Rabjohn corner causes havoc to allow right-wing Mary McAteer to fire home her third strike in as many games. Then a gorgeous flick from spearhead Eleanor Ryan-Doyle puts Jones through again – she is taken out by Hashtag’s Jamie-Lee Bamford, who is rightly sent off. Moments later Alannah Mann steps up from full-back to a lofted clearance, takes one touch off the chest and volleys a swerving, dipping howitzer shell of a strike from fully 35 yards past Christie Hale, and the tie is almost put to bed before half time.

In the second half, debutant Izzy Goodwin tears the Essex team’s defence apart time and again, Freya Thomas revels in her playmaking role pulling the strings like an artist wielding a brush, and the fourth goal comes inevitably. Two of the front three are involved as Mary McAteer flies down the right, fires a cross that eventually reaches Eleanor Ryan-Doyle, who has done everything but score…her shot is tipped onto the post but Thomas hits a lovely volley off her weaker foot to confirm that the Essex team will be sent home realising that racking up goals against overmatched opposition in the fourth tier does not lead to matching Championship teams, even those that have been struggling.

Photos: Jeff Bennett

The result is not the key thing though – it is the manner of the performance. This is a team freed from doubt – a team playing with joy and confidence, as new players integrate seamlessly and players who have been in Coventry all year and seen the low times rediscover how good they are or in some cases, how good they can be adjusting to new positions (Liv Rabjohn, signed as a midfielder, has performed well in her preferred position all season when called upon but in this game, playing out of position at left-back, she performs as she has never played anywhere else as she wins player of the game).

This is a team reborn…a team that has hit rock bottom and survived.

And that bodes incredibly well for the rest of the season in Coventry. The circumstances may be slightly different, but once again a Coventry United team has suffered some of the worst a group of footballers can face in the first half of the season, gone through a long dark night of the soul, and as the season turns on its halfway point, begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel after being already written off as their own mental strength and belief has carried them through.

Once again, everyone who calls the Butts Park Arena their footballing home have been there, and once again, they’re now on the way back again.

As the days grow lighter, so does the future in Coventry once again, starting with a tough trip to Charlton on Sunday and a fifth round tie in the FA Cup against the WSL’s Brighton-a game they will travel to with absolutely no fear in the position this club likes best – as the underdogs.

Now, we’ll see if Mollie Green’s belief that “sequels are always better” comes true.

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