BLIMEY. Coventry City have had a bit of a makeover. They’ve got a stadium with an enormous casino bolted to the back of it, and their star player not only looks like Tim from The Office, but also hangs out with rock bands – when he’s not attending classical music concerts. It’s all a bit different from the days of John Sillett and Cyrille Regis.
Jay Tabb – who is the Martin Freeman lookalike – spent his Wednesday night at the Barbican Theatre in London attending a concert by the Italian contemporary classical composer Ludovico Einaudi.
He mentioned this in an engaging column for the Coventry Telegraph, during which he also revealed that he is good mates with Hard-Fi’s lead singer Richard Archer, and that he plans to quit football at 30 to become a PE teacher or a sports journalist. (There’s no money in either, Jay.)
I realise that it’s somewhat patronising to affect surprise at a footballer who leads a varied and interesting life away from the pitch. Footballers are, after all, like any other section of society – some of them make entertaining company, some of them display all the intellectual spark of a wet firelighter.
But to suggest that all footballers spend their free time playing pool, buying property and putting linament in each other’s underpants is as ridiculous as suggesting that all journalists are lazy alcoholics. (I’m teetotal, before you ask.)
Nonetheless, when you read (and sometimes, in my case, conduct) so many interviews with players who have been media-trained to be blander than Rachel Stevens, it is refreshing to hear from someone who has a bit more to say than simply “I just want to help the team” or “My dream is to play in the Premier League”.
(I won’t name him, but I once interviewed a Premier League footballer who ploughed through a series of these cliches in such a voice so flat and monotonous that I half-expected him to answer my weary question about his hopes for the season by saying: “The number you have dialled has not been recognised.”)
Tabb’s not a bad player either, but – judging by his comments about quitting at 30 – he’s probably not driven enough to reach the very top. At 24, time is already running out for him.
His chances of reaching the Premier League with Coventry are rather sketchy. They have followed up 34 years of hovering just above the top flight relegation zone with another seven hovering in Championship no-man’s land. Like Leicester, like Norwich, like yesterday’s opponents Southampton, they didn’t manage to get their act together quickly enough after Premier League relegation, and every passing year makes a return less likely.
The Ricoh Arena is remarkable, though. Its reception, complete with water features, resembles a cross between a car dealership and a Jurys Inn hotel. The stadium itself has become a venue for pop and rock concerts, and the club’s official website has been working itself into a state of excitement over the Scouting For Girls gig that will take place there next month.
In addition, the match programme – an excellent read – was keen to flag up Coventry’s burgeoning music scene with a long article on local band Pint Shot Riot, who are hoping to follow The Enemy into the stratosphere. Or at least on to daytime Radio 1. (I expect I’ve probably missed the articles on the history of Two Tone.)
And yet all this vibrancy around Coventry’s cultural scene didn’t translate to the atmosphere inside the Ricoh Arena when the game kicked off.
I can imagine that it would be a pretty special place to be for a game against Manchester United in front of a full house. For a match against Southampton, kicking off in a chilly downpour at 5.20pm on a Saturday, it’s less than special. It felt as though life was going on somewhere else.
As I looked at the sparse crowd, I thought back to a discussion I had heard earlier on Radio Five Live during their commentary on the lunchtime kick-off between Birmingham and QPR. The commentator and his summariser were banging on about the low crowd inside St Andrew’s with the ignorance of those who never have to pay for their tickets.
“Why aren’t there more fans here?” wondered the commentator, repehrasing that sentiment in several different ways over the next few minutes in a manner that made me want to drive straight over to Birmingham, run into the ground, up the stairs to the press box, grab him by his shirt collar and yell: “Have you not been watching the news at all over the last month, you imbecile?”
Eventually, he invited stay-away Birmingham fans to text in and explain why they weren’t at the ground. He seemed genuinely surprised as Blues fans explained that: a) There’s a credit crunch on at the moment; b) It costs £30 a time to watch Birmingham; c) They lost to Blackpool in their last home game with a performance so poor that manager Alex McLeish declared afterwards that the fans were right to boo the team off.
“Ah, that might explain it then,” said the commentator.
So as I sat in the press box at the Ricoh Arena, the only surprise was that as many as 637 Southampton fans turned up, and that the overall crowd was as high as 15,518.
Southampton are a funny team. Dutchman Jan Poortvliet took over as manager, and has implemented a formation that nobody seems able to understand. It’s been described as “total football”, and it’s supposed to be as free-flowing a style as that deployed by the 1978 World Cup squad, of which Poortvliet was a member.
The local paper in Southampton, the Daily Echo, has described it as 4-2-1-2-1. On yesterday’s evidence, it’s more of a 4-5-1 formation in which the five midfield players all get in each other’s way and leave their full-backs exposed. Poortvliet changed the formation round in the second half. But by then, his team were 3-0 down.
Coventry could have had six in the first hour. Tabb, Leon McKenzie and Leon Best scored; McKenzie had another goal disallowed, Best hit the post from three yards and Elliott Ward took one of the worst penalties I’ve ever seen in a professional football match.
Andrew Surman pulled one back for Southampton in the 62nd minute, and they had a few other chances to get back into the game as Poortvliet employed a more straightforward attacking formation.
But Coventry deserved to win comfortably, and Tabb – their best player yesterday – volleyed in Freddy Eastwood’s cross near the end to seal a 4-1 win, which lifted them into a play-off place. The scoreline did not flatter the Sky Blues.
“I wanted 15 points after 10 games, and that’s what we’ve got,” said Coventry manager Chris Coleman. Keep that going over the course of a season, and they will finish with 69, which might – just might – be enough for the play-offs. After a tough few years, that would represent real progress for Coventry. And it might just give Tabb a crack at the Premier League after all.