Coventry City Season Preview: arresting the slide

Last season was a painful one for Coventry City. Not only did they return to the fourth tier for the first time in 58 years, they did so finishing 11 points adrift of safety. The mood around the club however, has improved under Mark Robins, helped by bold recruitment. Supporter Dom Jerams  of the superb Sideways Sammy blog discusses all.

If you had to pinpoint three main things that led to your downfall last year, what would they be?

1.   A terrible summer in the transfer window where we signed almost no-one of any quality.
2.   A terrible winter in the transfer window where we failed to address the issues from the summer.
3.   Russell Slade.

You had something of an Indian summer in the last two months, with that EFL Trophy win at Wembley. Does the improvement in form under Robins give you a little more optimism?

Adding that to the excellent, but short, spell he had in charge of us this season, and the decisive moves he’s made thus far in the transfer window, it’s hard not to be optimistic. The impression I have of Robins is that he’s someone who can organise a team well, doesn’t accept low standards, and is pragmatic enough to make the most of the resources available to him.

However, it would be foolish to read too much into in two relatively short spells in charge, especially considering he doesn’t have a great track record elsewhere. Maybe this is the club where things are just right for Robins, but it appears that he’s guilty of being overly cautious at times, which may be more conducive to solving a poor run of form than it is to winning promotion.

Returning club legend Michael Doyle captained Portsmouth to the title last season while fellow addition Liam Kelly is seen to be League One standard. You should have plenty of bite and leadership in midfield…

Doyle is probably the embodiment of the changes that Robins has looked to make to the squad over the summer. The younger, nimbler technicians of the Mowbray-era have been almost entirely jettisoned and replaced by older, harder professionals – a Michael Doyle who turns 36 just days into the new season embodies that.

With Ben Stevenson still on the books at the time of writing, hopefully there is still a platform for players of technical skill to force their way into the team. Liam Kelly is probably a happy medium based on what I’ve seen of him at other clubs, and my preferred midfield two would be Kelly playing alongside Stevenson.

Stuart Beavon is known for his work rate and hold-up play while new signing Marc McNulty has an excellent goalscoring record. An exciting combination?

Beavon, when fit, looked like the ideal lower-league attacking foil when he arrived in January. The problem was that we probably needed more of an out-and-out goalscorer at that time, rather than someone who facilitates other players scoring goals and wasn’t fully-fit.

McNulty should address that need for a goalscorer in the team to benefit from the hard yards that Beavon puts in. Probably the bigger question is whether we can get Beavon fit enough to make the kind of impact he showed in about four or five games last season.

New addition Peter Vincenti was used predominantly as a wide forward at Rochdale. If you use a two-striker system to incorporate Beavon and McNulty, can you fit him in?

Without the benefit of pre-season games to judge just what Robins has in mind, I’m presuming that Vincenti has been signed to play on the right side of midfield in a 4-4-2-style system. However, Vincenti appears to be a fairly versatile player, so I would imagine he’ll cover a number of positions in various formations over the course of the season – provided he’s over the injury that saw him miss most of last year.

Kyel Reid did well at Bradford and youngster Jodi Jones showed potential at Dagenham. Do you expect to have pace in wide areas?

There is a possibility that either or both may not be with us come September, but presuming they’re both here, they add another, pretty exciting, dimension to the solid template Robins is looking to build here. Both players have issues in delivering an end product to their game, which could place a lot of pressure on McNulty to carry most of the goalscoring burden if neither are on form for sustained periods.

Ruben Lameiras has left for Plymouth. Might he have had something to offer at League Two level?

Despite a strong run of form towards the end of last season, I think Lameiras’ style of play and relative lack of end product always made him expendable when push came to shove. He’s a delightful player to watch when on song, but we need players in his position to be more reliable in terms of goals or assists this season, and couldn’t afford taking a punt on him possibly adding consistency to his game and physical strength to his body.

Chris Stokes and Ryan Haynes have signed new deals this summer. Do you see the former as a more conservative left-back option than the latter?

Both have a lot to offer the team, and in different ways. Stokes is a solid defender who rarely lets the team down. Haynes is more of a risk defensively, but has the ability to beat defenders and put in crosses that Stokes would never be able to offer. If Haynes can continue to improve his defending, he could emerge as one of the star players in League Two this season. While Stokes is the safe option and can also fill in quite well at centre-back.

At the time of writing you’ve not signed a right-back. Is this a show of faith in 20-year-old Dion Kelly-Evans, or do you expect one to come in? (Update – Jack Grimmer has since joined on a free transfer)

Robins seemed to go to great lengths towards the end of last season not to play Dion Kelly-Evans and given that we were linked with signing Michael Smith (formerly of Peterborough) recently, I would imagine that the plan is to add a first-choice right-back to the squad. Failing that, Jordan Willis is very much an option in that position, depending on who plays at centre-back. Kelly-Evans is going to have to go to great lengths it seems to earn his place in the starting XI.

25-year-old Rod McDonald signs from Northampton to become by far your oldest defender. Do you fear a lack of experience at the back?

It was a big issue for us last season when Willis and Jordan Turnbull struggled badly during the opening months of the campaign, and the signing of Nathan Clarke didn’t make things any better. I haven’t seen too much of McDonald to form an opinion of him, but, on paper, his signing does little to address what is probably the biggest weakness in this squad.

Goalkeeper Lee Burge is staying on but new signing Liam O’Brien was a respected number two at Portsmouth. Who do you see starting between the sticks?

Robins endorsed the signing of O’Brien with a statement along the lines of ‘I’m building a squad, not just a first XI’, which is a pretty strong indication that the new keeper will be the back-up option.

It remains to be seen whether Burge has the ability and confidence to be the number one goalkeeper in probably a promotion-chasing side. While I think he’s shown he’s earned the chance, at times he appears to be one of those goalkeepers that has a general aura around him that a mistake is impending, even if there have been relatively few of late.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

It’s a step into the unknown, so I’m not as confident in predicting how this League Two season may go as I would have League One in recent years. For example, I’m not entirely certain whether someone like Mansfield have made loads of good signings, or have simply made loads of signings.

Nonetheless, I think Luton Town are looking more and more like the favourites to win the league due to having a good last season and making some two or three high-calibre signings thus far on top of the platform they’ve given themselves. I’m not sure whether they count as a dark horse or not, but I’m liking the look of Notts County – despite them having a positively Precambrian-era squad.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Coventry have signed five recent League Two promotion winners, including club legend Doyle. If more defensive experience is added, Beavon and McNulty could combine to fire the Sky Blues back up. 3rd

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