Coventry City Season Preview: on their way back?

With the 2018-19 League One season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Dom Jerams, writer of Coventry City blog Sideways Sammy (@SideSammy) – a must-read for EFL lovers.

You won promotion last season but it didn’t always look like a given; the mid-season injury crisis threatened to derail the campaign. How much credit does Mark Robins deserve for re-building that side so quickly?

It’s possible to look at last season for Coventry City in two different ways. The first is that the team showed on a number of occasions last year that it was more than good enough to have at least troubled the automatic promotion places in League Two. On that count, Mark Robins under-achieved last year with the squad he had.

The other way to look at it though is to the amount of set-backs the team faced, but still managed to deliver promotion at the end of the season. The set-up of the side almost completely changed between the first and second half of the season due to the injury to Jodi Jones – I can think of few Coventry City managers who have been able to do something like that over the course of a season and managed to keep results coming. Moreover, there were a few bad runs, some scarring defeats, but Mark Robins found a way to galvanise the side ready to win the play-offs, that deserves immense credit, even if the squad was strong relative to the level we were playing at.

The board have rightly been held accountable for the clubs decline until 2017. After a successful season therefore, what is the feeling towards Tim Fisher and the general ownership of the club?

There was a moment while the players were celebrating victory at Wembley when the big screen in the stadium cut to Tim Fisher, and he was roundly booed. Too much has happened to change the way most feel about the owners, despite some better decisions over the past year and a more hands-off approach than we’re used to.

Lee Burge perhaps hasn’t been universally rated since coming into the side in 2014. How far will his heroics in the play-off semi-final against Notts County go to winning fans over?

I think goalkeepers face a tougher time than any other player in reversing a negative opinion about them. Lee Burge made a number of errors early in his career, and the general impression about him from fans is that those errors are still waiting to happen.

Overall, Lee Burge enjoyed a solid and reliable campaign as part of one of the best defences in League Two. However, there were about four or five notable clangers last year that cost us points, which have only served to confirm to many that he cannot be relied upon.

I’m happy with Lee Burge heading into this season as he has shown – as he did during the play-offs – that he has performances in his locker that can save us points, but he would have to put in an immaculate season to win over fans.

Jack Grimmer scored a beautiful strike in the final win over Exeter. With Dujon Sterling joining on loan from Chelsea, do you have two of the most exciting right-backs in the division?

It’s hard to say without assessing all the other right-backs in League One, but Grimmer and Sterling look to be two good options for us in the position heading into this season.

Grimmer faces a big season, not only does he have serious competition for his starting place in the form of Dujon Sterling, but his defensive capabilities are going to be tested much more sternly this year than they were last time out. At times, Grimmer looked a weak link defensively in our back four, but he has had a number of strong defensive performances, so it looks like concentration could be his biggest issue. Going forward, Grimmer needs to work on his final ball, but his energy and willingness to support attacks was an asset for us last year.

I am yet to see Dujon Sterling play, so I’ve got no idea how good he is. As an England youth international and reportedly one of Chelsea’s brightest youth prospects, it seems an exciting signing. However, there is no telling how a young player is going to take to life in professional football during their first loan spell until they actually start playing. For every Adam Armstrong, there’s several Chuba Akpoms or Andre Wrights.

You had four centre-backs last season – Rod McDonald, Jordan Willis, Tom Davies and Dominic Hyam – the latter had the fewest starts yet was one of your best players in the play-offs. Robins must have a real dilemma on his hands?

All four of our centre-backs seem to be of relatively even quality, which gives us good depth, but I wonder whether we could do with upgrading at least one of the four because they looked exposed at times once we went to a more attack-minded approach last year and ditched playing with a cautious central midfield duo of Michael Doyle and a disciplined Liam Kelly.

I genuinely can’t tell you what I think our strongest centre-back pairing is heading into this season, although I like having a physically strong centre-back in Tom Davies playing alongside the mobile Jordan Willis. Dominic Hyam improved immeasurably over the course of last season and seems to be mobile, relatively good in the air and decent on the ball. Rod McDonald offers a left-footed option and seems to be the most composed of our centre-back options, despite several errors towards the end of last year.

You’ve swapped Shrewsbury Ryan Haynes for fellow left-back Junior Brown, while Brandon Mason arrives from Watford. Did you need someone who might offer something different to Chris Stokes?

It’s interesting that Mark Robins has signed two left-back options who seem to be attack-minded because I thought there was a useful balance that rotating between the attacking Ryan Haynes and the defensive Chris Stokes brought to the side. If we needed to set out and pin teams back, Haynes’ ability to stretch the play was useful – although his lack of a final produce was disappointing – if we needed to keep things simple and focus on defending, Stokes gave us more solidity.

Mark Robins has shown ruthlessness in seeming to get rid of two decent left-backs who didn’t quite make the position their own last year, however, I wonder whether bringing in two replacements who both seem prone to getting caught out positionally is a risky move.

Liam Kelly picked up a brief injury last season while fellow ball-winner Michael Doyle did well to start 44 games last season at 36. Are you glad Robins now has the option to replace Kelly or rest Doyle and bring in somebody with Abu Ogogo’s energy and tenacity?

One of the stories of this season looks set to be how Michael Doyle is phased out of the side. While Doyle’s on-field contribution last year was somewhat hit-and-miss, he seemed to bring a character and tenacity to the team that allowed us to recover from poor results or to squeeze out wins in games we weren’t necessarily playing well in. However, Doyle cannot be expected to last much longer and had looked exposed at times to quick opponents.

Abu Ogogo provides us with a younger, more mobile, sitting midfielder to step into Doyle’s shoes. Importantly, having Ogogo to play as the deepest central midfielder keeps Liam Kelly free to play as an assertive box-to-box midfielder who can get into opponents’ faces – which is where he came into his own last year after a slow start. Whether Ogogo can offer the same mental qualities Doyle offers us remains to be seen, but at least Doyle will be snarling and seething somewhere near, but in favour of, the team for the coming season.

Your midfield in the play-offs had a nice balance with Tom Bayliss drifting in from the right channel and Jordan Shipley tucking in just to the left of the central midfielders. Do you think you’ll start this season with a narrow setup?

It seemed a certainty heading into the summer that Tom Bayliss would be sold to a bigger club, however, Mark Robins has stated recently that the youngster is keen to sign a new deal with us – which would be a huge coup for us. Bayliss isn’t a winger by any stretch of the imagination, however, his touch and ability to drift past defenders made him an important ball carrier for the side and effective in a wide role. He showed in the FA Cup games against Stoke and MK Dons last year that he’ll take the step-up a level into his impressive stride and looks set to further enhance his reputation.

Jordan Shipley is another central midfielder playing out wide but has been less of a blockbuster player than Bayliss – instead, steadily growing into being a useful player for us. He strikes the ball very well, which saw him become the first-choice set-piece taker in his first few appearances for the club, but his energy and intelligent use of the ball made him a secure and reliable performer on the left side of midfield. Shipley’s place is probably under the most threat from the returning Jodi Jones, or any possible new signings, but he will be a useful squad option at the very least.

With Jodi Jones yet to return to full fitness, it’s hard to see Mark Robins deviating too heavily away from the tactics that saw us win the play-offs. It will be interesting to see how they work against a higher-calibre of opposition where we might miss having pace in wide areas on the counter-attack.

It was a real shame to see Jodi Jones’ 2017-18 campaign cut short. Are you looking forward to his return?

The way Jodi Jones was playing last season, it looked almost certain that a Championship side would have plucked him away from us either in January or this summer. Instead, his injury triggered a butterfly effect whereby Marc McNulty hit goalscoring form and Tom Bayliss emerged from the youth-team to become a key player for us. While we evolved away from him last year, it is exciting to have someone available who might have otherwise been playing at a higher-level than League One.

Any excitement upon Jones’ return has to be tempered by how difficult it is to return physically from a long-term and serious injury, as well as the mental impact that might have on his approach to the game. The injury has taken momentum away from him at during the first consistent spell of his career for us where he was delivering an end product. The hope is that the qualities Jones was showing last year haven’t disappeared with his injury, but it may take some time for him to recover the intent and confidence he was playing with.

You’ve lost 23-goal striker Marc McNulty to Reading – will you miss his movement and quality? And do you expect Jonson Clarke-Harris, who signs on a permanent deal, to partner Maxime Biamou?

I have to say I’m surprised that a Championship club wanted to sign McNulty, but losing our top goalscorer has to be seen as a serious blow to our hopes this season. It changes the dynamic of the squad dramatically and means that the first few months of this season are likely to involve Mark Robins tinkering to find the find the right formula for the side.

Jonson Clarke-Harris, as well as Jordan Ponticelli, should be looking at the departure of Marc McNulty as an opportunity to establish themselves as the main goalscorer for the side. Clarke-Harris has so much going for him – he’s physically strong, quick and has a powerful shot – however, he has never been prolific in his career and we saw during his loan spell last year that he hasn’t figured out the best way in which to exert his talent on-the-pitch. Ponticelli could well make a name for himself this season, but probably needs to add an intelligence to his game to go with his finishing ability and work-rate.

Other than those two and other potential signings, Maxime Biamou himself could well step-up with more goals this season than he managed last year if he can start this season with the same belief in his ability in front of goal as he finished last year, he’ll at least be important in the creating of chances. Tony Andreu, who spent most of last season out injured, offers a different option as a more orthodox number 10/attacking-midfielder who can provide goals.

Mark Robins has to hope that at least one of the aforementioned options steps up to the plate. It would be an exciting prospect if it transpired that two or three of those were able to.

Sky Blues aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I think it’s really wide open. Sunderland and Barnsley have to be considered the favourites due to their financial advantage, however, Sunderland haven’t made any particularly eye-catching signings yet, while Barnsley haven’t made any at all.

What makes it particularly interesting is that each of the sides who finished in the play-offs last year have had difficult summers. Charlton are in a bit of a limbo surrounding the takeover of the club, Scunthorpe have had to cut their budget, and Shrewsbury have lost almost the entirety of the team that got to the play-off final.

Portsmouth and Burton have stability on their side, which make them reasonable tips for at least the top six this season – although I’m not sure they exactly qualify as ‘dark horses’. I like the look of Southend under Chris Powell, who seem to be going under the radar slightly.

It’s almost certain that we’ll see a surprise challenger for promotion this year in League One. I’ve got no idea which team that might be.

Where will you finish?

The sale of Marc McNulty has got me down on our chances to exploit the open-ness of the field in this division this season. I’m not sure how prolific we’ll be in front of goals and there are concerns over the ability of several of our defenders to step up to this division. I think we’ll finish somewhere between 15th and 10th.

Thanks to Dom for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Coventry can be found on We Love Betting from late July.