One Inch At A Time — Coventry United Back From The Brink

``We are in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And, we can stay here and get the **** kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell… one inch at a time.”

Al Pacino as Tony D’Amato in 'Any Given Sunday'

Days like this should be dark and threatening, but moments before kickoff it is a gloriously sunny April afternoon at the Butts Park Arena in the centre of Coventry as two of the three clubs in the top two tiers of English women’s football not affiliated to EPL or EFL teams meet in the penultimate game of the FA Women’s Championship season. 

Coventry United and Lewes are standard-bearers for independence in the FAWC along with Durham as rare examples of women’s clubs playing in the top two tiers without the backing of high-profile men’s teams to sustain them.

Sunday is a fixture of huge importance though, as Coventry have to win to even give themselves a chance of staying in the second tier, a level they’ve been at since 2019, after a story of near-death and rebirth that captivated social media and led indirectly to the FA mandating better support for players in the women’s game, including widespread contract reforms, so it can be said that already, the Red & Greens have left a permanent legacy on the game this season. They have managed to battle back from a ten-point deduction that many in women’s football feel was unjustly harsh to a point where two games before the end of the season they are still in with a chance of safety — a chance almost nobody outside the club gave them when the deduction was announced.

That, however, will mean nothing to Jay Bradford and her team if they fail to get three points today, as the Red & Greens will drop to the Women’s National League, the third tier of English women’s football.

A tense game, roared on by the biggest crowd the Red & Greens have seen this season, remains 0–0 until half-time despite Liv Fergusson terrorising the Lewes defence with her running and Coventry having the majority of the play and the defence being impregnable to the point most of the game is played in the Lewes half. But with Watford, their nearest rivals, losing away at Crystal Palace and the two sides meeting next week United’s fate is still in their own hands as the two teams disappear into the brick building in the corner of the stadium that serves as the changing rooms.

Photo: James Boyes

It is the story of how they got here, though, that means that as the players leave the pitch, women’s football is watching, hoping Coventry can find a goal. A story that started when the club were saved from extinction in early January.

“It’s early days, but everyone wants to help us”. Coventry United’s new owner Lewis Taylor smiles as he answers questions at a local radio station. It’s been a whirlwind day for the Wolverhampton-based businessman as he’s met the players and management and assessed just what he’s taken on after becoming aware of the club’s plight on social media and stepping in. Over the next few weeks, he and his staff will begin to put their stamp on the team.

Coventry will find a new training venue at local grass-roots side Rugby Borough, lose their first three games of the reborn league campaign to Sheffield United away, a narrow 1–0 defeat to London City Lionesses in their return to Coventry, and a loss to eventual league champions Liverpool away from home, while also surviving a nervy FA Cup tie against fourth-tier Billericay, going through on penalties, but off the pitch the feeling is very much a team getting back to normality.

Structures are put in place, and the team take the loss of their current top scorer Rio Hardy to Durham almost in stride as a tight-knit group of players are clearly delighted to be given the chance to stay together. Despite the gap, there is no real worry or lamenting the points deduction, just a team who are continuing to build from the foundations being put in place over a tricky start to the season.

Despite the results the mood in the camp is optimistic — as Natalie Haigh and Elisha N’Dow arrive on loan from WSL side Aston Villa and integrate seamlessly into the squad the performances get better and better and the grit and character of the team, best exemplified by their battle against Billericay, begin to come to the fore.

Photo: @CovUnitedLFC

On a grey day against league pacesetters Charlton Athletic at the BPA in mid-February, the fighting spirit finally pays off, as captain Katie Wilkinson hammers home a late equaliser against the team sitting second in the league — the roar from the crowd and the ensuing point is Coventry’s first since the rebirth.

A 4–2 win against West Brom later in the month sets up a glamour FA Cup quarter final away at Arsenal to look forward to also, but with the team still sitting at -3 points and 10 points back from Watford, the trip to Crystal Palace to start March looms large.

“Up the Cov!” The voice comes from the back of the bus as the team pull into Hayes Lane, Bromley, on a viciously windy March day. It might be one of the first examples of the phrase that has since become the Red & Greens rallying cry, and after Katie Wilkinson scores the only goal of the game with a looping header, the journey back is full of smiles. Manager Jay Bradford talks of the psychological milestone of getting back to zero in the points column. The next weekend another clean sheet away at Durham secured by an incredible save by goalie Lucy Thomas means that United are back in the positive column and gain a point on Watford.

The following week sees interest resurge in the Red & Greens from local media ahead of a glamour tie vs Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter final, although this is taken with a pinch of salt, with one player being heard to remark “where will these guys be when we play Blackburn next week, do you think? Not at the BPA, anyway”. And so as they prepare to travel to Arsenal in hopes of a cup shock, many are still focused on the league and privately say that a Cup win would be a nice fairytale, but it’s not the one they want the most.

It seems strange to talk of a 4–0 loss being key in building belief further, but when that loss is against one of the best women’s teams in the world and Arsenal have to work hard against a committed and disciplined Coventry side to break them down, the mood getting back on the coach is proud and the general consensus is “play like this in the Championship and teams will struggle against us”. A surprise win for Watford against London City that weekend, however, means the gap is back to nine points. If there is any sign that this has made the task weigh any heavier, then the team aren’t showing it.

Photo: Hana Gul

Back in the league, a vital one-nil win at the BPA vs Blackburn is followed with another nil-nil draw away at Sunderland. On Easter Sunday, the team travel down to second-placed Bristol City for their game in hand with Watford knowing that two wins will put them above Watford on goal difference. The trip down is notable mostly for Zack, one of the medical staff, being surprised by the amount of grease in a farm shop sausage roll but the first half sees Bristol City’s Abi Harrison cement her status as top scorer in the FAWC with a breakaway goal.

Despite the setback and several more chances for Bristol, though, Lucy Thomas continues her incredible form in goal for Coventry and then Wilkinson pops up at the other end to win a header and score a late equaliser in a game that typifies the battling spirit of the Coventry side. “Up the Cov!” comes the yell from a bench that roared louder than the home crowd’s celebration of Harrison’s goal for Wilkinson’s equaliser.

The final whistle and another point means that United are five points behind Watford and so anything less than a win vs Lewes and anything more than a draw for Watford will see United relegated despite being unbeaten in six games. But ahead of the game, the club are ready. As head coach Jo Potter puts it “we’ve been playing in must-win games since January”.

And so we come to the second half vs Lewes. Once again Coventry are the better team but cannot make their pressure count until Natalie Haigh is hauled down in the box on 71 minutes and a penalty is given. Katie Wilkinson, of course, steps up and as a hush falls on the Butts Park Arena some can’t watch — the season could rest on the next kick of the ball. The outcome, however, is not in doubt.

The next nineteen minutes are almost unbearably tense, with Coventry taking their time over every set piece. In the final minutes Lewes win a free kick on the edge of the area and with news coming through that Watford have halved the deficit at Crystal Palace nerves are stretched like bowstrings. It’s cleared though and when the final whistle goes defender Mollie Green collapses on her back in relief in the penalty area as her team-mates celebrate. The great escape is confirmed as on, and Coventry’s extraordinary season will go to the final day against Watford at Vicarage Road on May 1st.

After the game the joy is palpable among players and fans, along with the belief that the job is not yet done. Jo Potter and Jay Bradford say in their post-game interview that “our destiny is in our hands now”, echoing defender Naomi Hartley, who sums up the belief by saying simply “anyone who doesn’t believe we can will get a pie in the face, cause we ARE gonna do it”

Photo: Jeff Bennett

As the Great Escape plays over Coventry, the team dance, hug and walk smiling into the changing room, and post-game sees the word “if” banned from any talk of avoiding relegation. This is a team that will not stop until the job is done and as they have throughout this run, are already looking ahead to the next game.

That next game, the final game of the season, will have a stage-worthy of its importance in the Premier League ground of Vicarage Road.

Coventry as a city has a proud tradition of great escapes from relegation thanks to Coventry City’s last-day exploits in the past, and the women of Coventry United, from Lucy Thomas and her defensive compatriots who’ve only conceded three goals in the last six games to the inspirational leader Wilkinson will walk onto the turf graced already this season by some of the best players in the world next week convinced that they, too, can keep up their adopted city’s proud tradition of great escapes. They will likely have all of women’s football behind them, too. If nothing else, they’ve more than earned the chance.