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PL25: Coventry pull off the greatest of escapes at the Lane

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a quest for safety that many believed to be impossible.

Languishing as they presently are in the fourth tier it would not surprise if Coventry City fans are rather endeared towards Tottenham Hotspur. It was, after all against the North London giants that the Sky Blues enjoyed their most memorable of days, a classic FA Cup final complete with a thrilling comeback and Keith Houchen’s diving header. And here, ten years on almost to the day, their successful jaunt to White Hart Lane finalised an escape so great it would have made Steve McQueen think twice about attempting it.

It was a recovery that seemed so implausible six weeks earlier. Then a home defeat to West Ham left Gordon Strachan’s men second from bottom and though teams were still comfortably within reach the latter stages of the fixture list was anything but kind. Of the six games that remained two daunting away-days to Liverpool and Spurs offered scant hope for a side with a pitifully low scoring record that term, while home tests against high-flying Chelsea and title-chasing Arsenal were hardly causes for optimism. It seemed that after two successive seasons of just about doing enough to stay in the Premier League, Coventry’s fortunes were finally on the wane.

But then Dion Dublin rediscovered his scoring boots at just the right time, scoring an unforgettable winner at Anfield and starting off a three-goal blitz that downed Chelsea before draws with Southampton and Arsenal meant that come the final day of reckoning the Midlands side still had an outside chance.

Here’s how the table looked at 3pm on May 11th 1997. Forest were down and above them Coventry and Middlesbrough each had 38 points with the latter boasting a significantly superior goal difference (what with Coventry’s shyness in front of goal). Two points ahead of both teetered Sunderland.

The last game at the old White Hart Lane

All three faced difficult away games but with the Mackems heading to Wimbledon and Boro travelling down to mid-table Leeds there was no question that Coventry had the toughest examination. This may not have been a vintage Tottenham side but it was still one that contained Sol Campbell at the back and Darren Anderton on the right. Up front prowled Teddy Sheringham. This was still Spurs.

Furthermore even an unlikely win would probably not be sufficient. Should either of their North-East counterparts also prevail, Coventry would be doomed to endure their first spell outside of the top flight since 1967.

Let’s deploy a shortcut at this juncture and offer up a spoiler alert. Boro drew – with Juninho famously inconsolable on the final whistle – while a poor Sunderland XI went down with barely a fight against Wimbledon at Plough Lane. Victory then, against Sol and Teddy and the lads, would suffice.

12 minutes in and the travelling faithful had something to cling to, as Dion Dublin continued his rich vein of form with a near-post flick beyond the grasping palm of reserve stopper Espen Baardsen. Approaching half-time it got much, much better when Paul Williams stuck out a leg to redirect a Gary McAllister corner goal-bound. It was only the eighth time that Coventry had scored two goals in a single game all season and four had come in the last six games.

If they could take this lead into the break they were surely favourites to emerge victorious but this was a relegation haunted side, and relegation haunted sides never did things the easy way. As the referee prepared to blow up for half-time Sheringham’s long-range free-kick thundered the crossbar and fell to youngster Paul McVeigh to guide it home.

This is my last PL25 look-back and so many of them have featured last gasp winners and spectacular feats. Perhaps it is fitting here to end with a celebration of fortitude and heart.

Because that’s what Coventry showed to see out the game, restricting the hosts to just a single chance (that in truth they really should have dispatched) during 45 minutes of sheer agony and desperate resolve.

As the final whistle blew the players looked stunned and naturally so because they believed this against-the-odds triumph was nothing more than a salvaging of pride. But then realisation dawned: the fans had radios and were going berserk; Strachan was hugging anyone within grabbing distance. The other results had gone their way too.

That April and May, Coventry City jumped over barbed wire fences on their motorcycle. They boarded a train without thanking the guard in English. They had pulled off a great escape.

What happened next?

In his first full season in charge Strachan moulded a side of experience and guile to a mid-table spot with a front two of Dublin and Huckerby that terrorised defences.

Four months in to the following campaign Spurs sacked Gerry Francis and brought in Christian Gross. From bad to gross you might say.