We’ll Live And Die In These Towns: Inside Coventry United LFC’s Great Escape

“It never happens for people like us, you know”
Well nothing ever happened on its own…”

The Enemy: “We’ll Live And Die In These Towns”

It is early morning on Friday 29th April at Coventry United’s training ground, and the Red & Greens’ media manager Connor West is staring out of the window at his car after arriving for the usual pre-game media conference. The current biggest issue facing him, though, is one that seemingly hasn’t been a problem at all the rest of the season. And it’s one that, at that moment, means this is probably the most crucial car-parking decision in Britain.

Let me explain. After we’ve arrived, Connor has realised that he’s parked his car in the place assistant manager Jo Potter usually leaves hers, and not the training ground car-park space he’s used throughout the Red & Green’s seven game unbeaten run – the one he used last week for Coventry United’s latest must-win game of the season – one that saw them beat Lewes at home to put them 90 minutes from an incredible redemption story. As anyone who watches sport knows, superstition goes hand in hand with football, particularly on a weekend where your team are trying to do what many said was impossible.

After another minute or two of debate and initially deciding “it can’t make a difference – that’s silly” he goes out and moves the car. Just in case.

After all, when you’re trying to come back from a ten-point deduction to pull off an escape many thought was impossible, it doesn’t hurt to look for help any way you can.

Sunday 1st May dawns grey and rainy as I take the walk I’ve taken all season, from my house, along the edge of the Coventry ring road to the radio studio I work at to get the kit I need to broadcast.

As a Coventry native I’m attuned to the rhythm of my city – a scarred, cynical city that has seen a history where it has been razed to the ground by war and rebuilt, suffered heartbreak and setback and always survived against the odds. It is a proud city, one whose people have remained hopeful and rebuilt from the ashes more than once, and we Coventrians are fiercely proud of it. We take anyone who shares that pride in representing the city to our hearts. I muse on how in their no-nonsense, hardworking efforts this season and banding together against adversity while rebuilding from near destruction, the players and staff of Coventry United reflect the city whose badge they wear so well, even though the vast majority are not from here. Sometimes, people just find the place they’re meant to be.

It is quiet on this Sunday morning…traffic is light. I catch myself, though, staring at the massive mural across the infamous Coventry Ring Road’s flyover – one that can almost be seen from the Butts Park Arena, United’s home ground, a few hundred yards up the road. The one that says simply “WELCOME TO COVENTRY”. It always gives my heart a lift as a Cov Kid, and today, it does the same. Standing in front of it clad in exactly the same clothes I wore last week against Lewes (superstition again), including the knitted red & green hat made by my mum’s hands, I offer a silent prayer to the football gods.

Here we go, then”.

I am not the only one to be enlisting luck any way I can. All of the players, in their own ways, have their pregame rituals. I am last on the coach (another superstition) and as it sets off the playlist starts again as it has 11 times previously this season from a massive speaker. The players are ranged in their usual seats at the back of the coach, at the front of the coach the staff are chatting in relaxed fashion about anything and everything other than the upcoming game. The usual jokes, the usual discussions, the usual rituals.

But there is a feeling in the air. A quiet confidence. You’d expect teams heading to a game with so much riding on it to be quiet, focused. But this group aren’t like that. They are more like a group heading away on holiday than a group heading to play a make-or-break game…a measure of the closeness of the team and the environment Jay Bradford and her staff have created. This is a group of players and staff who have lived through the worst thing that can face a football team and come out of the other side. As head coach Jo Potter has said repeatedly over the past few weeks “we’ve been playing in must-win games since February. What’s another one?”

The rain hammers off the windows of the coach as it flies down the M1 past Luton Airport, carrying the Red and Greens of Coventry United towards Watford’s Vicarage Road. “Lose Yourself” by Eminem pounds through the speakers. United defender Anna Wilcox is rapping along to the words with Zach from the medical staff, captain Katie Wilkinson is nodding her head along in her usual seat. It’s a routine that has been repeated ten times already this season as the Red and Greens have travelled all over the country, but today, the feeling on the coach is different.

Part of the routine is a stop at a service station, and some of the team use valuable food-shopping time to pay special attention to a Golden Retriever waiting patiently with its owners in the bay next to the coach, joking that it could be a lucky charm. I end up having a conversation with Jo, one of the staff, about religion. Although I’m not religious, I admit that I am still not averse to asking a favour of whatever deities may exist, just in case. Football makes believers of us all.

After a quick stop, the team are back on the road.

There is suddenly a voice from the back of the coach….

Jay – have you got the socks?”

Another sidebar is required here. Coventry United Ladies’ manager Jay Bradford has a pair of socks that she has worn for every game throughout the Red & Greens’ unbeaten run to this point. They have gained power to the point that for the 1-1 draw against Bristol City, when they were in the wash, Jay took them with her wet on the coach and dried them using a hand-drier in the Robins HPC changing rooms. Such are the rituals of success. The socks are confirmed as present and the Red and Green’s rallying cry of “Up the Cov!” briefly becomes “Up the Socks!”

And then, all of a sudden, coming round a corner, the stands of Vicarage Road loom in front of the coach.

The mood changes and as the coach backs into the parking space, the players begin to hype themselves up. As usual, the last thing said as the players prepare to get off the coach is the yell that has become the team’s mantra and rallying cry in one. One last time, the shout goes up.

“UP THE COV!”

Photo: Jeff Bennett

Walking into Vicarage Road the players head straight for the changing room, whilst Connor and I make our way to the broadcast position. Pre-match media duties are carried out, but the traditional “tunnel walk” to show that the Red & Greens have arrived at their venue for the day has a little more occasion than usual…

Pre-game warm up is like any other – the players go through a fast and focused warmup as the media settle into their seats and take a bit of a tour of the Elton John Stand, with a few of the staff and Alan, one of the loyal volunteers who has accompanied United all over the country on the coach this season setting up the club flags behind the dugout and he and Connor taking the opportunity to photograph themselves on a Premier League dugout…

Photo: Jeff Bennett

On the pitch though, it’s a game like any other. Liv Clark, Lucy Thomas and Jodie Whiteman, the goalies, run through their practice, there is laughter and joking between the Coventry players (who look far less nervous than their Watford counterparts despite having the harder task), and in the press box the topic of conversation amongst those seeing United live for the first time is how to tell the difference between Charlie Estcourt and Liv Fergusson, who look VERY similar on the pitch (they usually wear slightly different colour boots, if you’re interested). The Red & Green off-pitch machine is well-oiled too…by now the staff know each others’ routines inside out and set up with quiet professionalism. You’d never know how much this game meant to the team – emotions are carefully controlled.

Over the tannoy as time builds to kickoff, we hear the Watford men’s team, who suffered their own possible relegation-sealing defeat on the Vicarage Road pitch 24 hours earlier, wish the women good luck. The teams are announced. The teams walk out and prepare for kickoff.

The only indication of the nervous energy Coventry United suffer is just before kickoff, as captain Katie Wilkinson is so eager to get on with the game she mistakes referee Georgia Ball’s whistle to trigger the now-traditional taking the knee in support of racial equality for the kickoff, and plays a pass to Charlie Estcourt as the Red & Green’s kickoff routine kicks in a little earlier. The misunderstanding is resolved with laughter and smiles. But it is the last time Coventry United’s players will smile for the next 97 minutes.

The first half, as a spectacle, is not one that will live long in the memory. If it wasn’t for the importance of the game, then it would be hard to understand. Watford, only needing a draw, sit back and invite Coventry on them, clearing the ball long and high whenever they get the chance. The experienced home strike pairing of Helen Ward and Gemma Davison are reduced to virtual spectators as Coventry, in all green, dominate possession. But aside from a chance cleared off the line after ten minutes, Watford goalie Georgia Ferguson isn’t really tested and when she is she is more than equal to the task.

It is, to put it bluntly, a dire game. The waves of green come forward over and over again and break against an immovable yellow and black wall – Watford play five across the back and three defensive midfielders as they clearly have a plan to stop Coventry scoring rather than trying to win the game themselves.

Photo: Jeff Bennett

At half-time, the score is 0-0. Coventry’s players leave the pitch, frustrated but confident. All the talk is on how Watford are executing a perfect plan. Right now, the miracle looks a long way away.

“So what do you want of me
Got no cure for misery
And if I go around with you
You know that I get messed up, too”

The Primitives: “Crash”

The second half is much of the same. Coventry United come forward, Watford defend. For seventy-odd minutes, very little happens. Watford pull back further and further into their shell seeking the point that will ensure their safety, and Coventry work, hassle, and hustle but simply can’t break the wall. Then comes the first turning point of the match. A rare Watford range forward leads to a corner, the header is won at the back post, it drops and as Watford’s Anne Meiwald chases it away from goal, Nat Haigh goes in for a tackle. The Watford player drops, time stops, and just for a second, the hearts of everyone Red and Green in Vicarage Road, both players and the coachload of fans, sinks. But referee Georgia Ball waves play on, the ball is cleared. Was it a penalty? Watford think so. But the game continues.

A Katie Wilkinson free-kick is saved. Grace Riglar, normally a defender, comes on to play as an emergency striker for the Red and Greens due to her power in the air as time ticks towards 90 minutes. Watford are trying every tactic to run down the clock, with the pacy Adekite Fatuga-Dada, also on as one of Watford’s five subs, chasing down long balls and keeping United from launching attacks. Hope is slipping away in the stands. But on the pitch, the team keep going.

And then, the Red & Greens have a moment that, on any other day, would be heartbreak. Liv Fergusson summons the energy for one more raid down the right yet again on a day she’s run herself into the ground as the clock ticks over 90:00, whips in a perfect cross that Riglar hurls herself at and meets perfectly….and the ball strikes the bottom of the post. On commentary, I say “That could have been the moment”. It feels like it. As a Watford player goes down injured, the clock ticks. And then comes the announcement…

The fourth official has announced there will be seven minutes of injury time”.

And then….

“There’s just too many dreams in this wasteland
For you to leave us all behind.”

The Enemy: “You’re Not Alone”

The clock above the Rookery End says 90+7. We have no idea how long is left. Watford try to take the ball into the corner and see out the game. It’s dug out eventually by Nat Haigh and Lucy Thomas, the Coventry goalie, launches it forward again as an exhausted Katie Wilkinson tries to flick it on. As the ball floats around the Watford half Thomas is on the halfway line and as the ball is lumped forward by Watford again, she finds herself in a one-on-one race with Adekite Fatuga-Dada for the loose ball. She wins it, and squares it to Naomi Hartley. The pass forward comes off Wilkinson, is recovered by Charlie Estcourt and bobbles to Katy Morris, who races forward and is impeded by a Watford player for another attacking free-kick. The Watford wall is set up five yards outside the 18 yard box.

This is Mollie Green’s territory, but with the ball nearly 40 yards from goal, every player apart from Lucy Thomas is in the Watford penalty area. Green steps back, silver hair catching the light. The whistle blows. A hush falls over Vicarage Road.

She runs up. And then, this happens.

Photo: Jeff Bennett
Photo: Jeff Bennett

Watching it back, the ball only flies for a second, but at the time it seemed to fly forever.

The team stream onto the pitch. Nobody in the stands can quite believe what they’ve just seen Mollie Green do.
Next to me in the media box the Watford staff, who have been exemplary and incredibly welcoming all day, turn to the Coventry United staff and simply hug in congratulation in a beautiful display of the solidarity of football.

In a second, all the pain and heartbreak threatening to overwhelm the Red and Greens goes away. It is replaced by the kind of sporting joy people are lucky to feel once in their lives. And yet, the game is not yet over. There is still time for Watford to make one last attack through Rosie Kmita and launch a desperate free-kick into the box with the last action not just of the game, but of the season, that bounces onto the top of the bar and just for a second looks like it’s going in.

Then, in the 99th minute, Lucy Thomas launches the ball away, Georgia Ball blows the final whistle…and the celebrations begin.

Do you believe in miracles?!”

Photo: Jeff Bennett
Photo: Jeff Bennett

The postgame passes in a blur. At one point Mollie Green is alone on the pitch as her teammates have headed in to celebrate. She’s simply sitting at the centre circle, taking in what she’s just done. Postgame interviews are full of emotion. I play Mollie the commentary of her goal and as she hears me say “Mollie Green’s thinking about striking this one” she smiles and says quietly in her soft Scouse lilt – “I was, yeah!“. The Watford staff are gracious and Coventry’s staff are respectful…no doubt thinking “that was so nearly us”. I find myself staring at the words emblazoned on Watford’s Elton John Stand “How Wonderful Life Is, When You’re In The World” and it just seems…perfect.

There are so many stories on this team. Anna Wilcox, who suffered two major injuries but was one of the heartbeats of the dressing room. Katie Wilkinson’s leadership. Jay and Jo’s quiet confidence. The contributions of every player and staff member, big or small, are celebrated. The joy is unconfined. This is a group of people who have lived something truly extraordinary, and they have done so together. They have achieved something that, in Jay Bradford’s words, “will never be done again”

Photos: Jeff Bennett

As the coach pounds back up the M1, some of those stories come to an end. Liam, one of the fitness coaches, is moving on to take a new job – he’s serenaded and applauded.

The staff plan to get a tattoo to celebrate the great escape that simply says “90+7”, the moment of Mollie Green’s strike.

Mollie’s goal flies around the world. It is viewed by over half a million people in 24 hours, and at the time of writing is at nearly a million. It is shared by FIFA. The football world is captivated by the greatest of escapes.

The players and staff sing, and dance…at one point the coach resounds to a raucous chorus of “We’re green, we’re red, we came back from the dead!” Wilkinson gets a burst of “Wilko’s on Fire!” – her goals have been the thread that United have clung to throughout this run. “We All Dream of a Team of Mollie Greens!” rises too somewhere around Northampton.

The songs go on. It is a journey nobody on that coach will ever forget. It is not just a celebration. It is a team telling the world that they have been through the fire of near liquidation, of points deductions, of adversity, and they have beaten them all. They have faced demons and survived.

It is an exorcism.

Back at the team’s base of the Village Hotel, the party continues until late. The players and staff sing “WE ARE STAYING UP!” And then, the players begin to drift away. The night ends.

Eventually I find myself walking through the centre of a darkened Coventry on a Sunday night – a city with a history of great escapes. My city. I walk back past the Ring Road flyover.

I stare at the “Welcome to Coventry” sign that I offered up a prayer in front of this morning.

Alone in the quiet, embracing dark, under the lights of my home-town, early on a Bank Holiday Monday morning, I think of my home city’s history of rising from the ashes to rebuild, and how these women have added another chapter to that story.

And I finally let the tears of joy flow.

Coventry United have pulled off the Red And Green Miracle. Once again, as so often in history, the phoenix soars proudly over the city of Coventry.

And tonight, it is red and green.