Thirty years after their FA Cup triumph at Wembley versus Tottenham Hotspur, Coventry City returned to the national stadium on Sunday as they lifted the Checkatrade Trophy. Goals from Gael Bigirimana and George Thomas were enough to see off Oxford United, but the Yellows didn’t limp to defeat. Substitute Liam Sercombe gave his side hope with a 75th minute strike, but despite throwing bodies forward, Michael Appleton’s men couldn’t find a leveller. Heroics from goalkeeper Lee Burge and a Bigirimana block in the dying moments ensured the Sky Blues hung on to claim a much needed piece of silverware.
With Oxford having played in the final of this competition just a year ago, I expected them to start with more composure given their prior experience of handling the situation. However, we matched them in the opening exchanges. Appleton’s side did threaten to open up the City back line twice in the first ten minutes, but our defence played the offside trap to perfection. Then, with 12 minutes on the clock, we managed to haul ourselves ahead.
Before the game, I had dreamt of City scoring at Wembley – that’s all I truly wanted from the afternoon, circa 45,000 of the Sky Blue Army going wild and celebrating as one. Thankfully, Gael Bigirimana gave us that opportunity after calmly tucking away a loose ball that rolled his way following a deflected Stuart Beavon strike. Pandemonium ensued and I rediscovered what supporting this football club means.
As expected after conceding, the Yellows immediately started to pile on the pressure in search for an equaliser and the nail biting commenced. With 31 minutes played, Joe Rothwell clipped a ball into the Coventry area and it evaded the limbs of Ryan Haynes and Kane Hemmings as both tumbled to the ground. With the bounce taking it towards the far corner, Burge shuffled across his line to make a fingertip save.
Although United enjoyed more possession in the first period, clear-cut chances were at a premium and Burge was largely untroubled. The organisation Mark Robins has instilled was on display again and our back four were excellent. Chris Stokes is still getting back to full fitness, but he did a great job in the centre of defence alongside Jordan Turnbull. However, having witnessed the same Oxford team dismantle us at the Kassam Stadium earlier in the season, I wasn’t content with the one-goal advantage at half-time.
The hefty contingent of City supporters were jubilant, but clearly anxious. But, thankfully, the start of the second half went some way to alleviating those nerves. Robins watched on as his team came out of the blocks with great intensity and Turnbull’s marauding run on 49 minutes highlighted our willingness to chase a second breakthrough. We then achieved that two-goal cushion after 56 minutes and it came about in some style.
Kyel Reid forced his way down the left before picking out George Thomas, but the finish that followed was sublime. The 20-year-old academy graduate touched the ball away from his body before powering a pinpoint strike into the far corner past Simon Eastwood. Queue more joyous scenes in the Coventry end, but this time with even more excitement. It has been a dreadful season with regards our league form, but Thomas is certainly becoming somewhat of a favourite amongst fans.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for City, however, as Liam Sercombe’s low strike handed Oxford a lifeline with 15 minutes to play. After a corner was half cleared by the Sky Blues, he latched onto the loose ball to beat Burge. The Coventry keeper did respond with a crucial save just three minutes later to deny Rob Hall, though. As the Yellows resorted to pumping aerial balls into the box of their opponents, they couldn’t find a way through. Burge was called into action deep into stoppage time, but he somehow reacted to make a save before Bigirimana clawed it off the line.
When that final whistle went, the realisation began to sink in. I know it’s only the Checkatrade Trophy and people will argue it doesn’t mean much, but I will savour this for some time. After spending thousands of pounds to follow this club around the country, this offers some form of reward for our loyalty. To even see that many City fans in one place was phenomenal, but to then see them with gleeming smiles on their faces walking out of the stadium – brilliant.
As I said previously, the result wasn’t the deciding factor in whether or not it proved to be a great day. We have been through an awful lot as a fan base, enduring some incredibly tough times, but showcasing our potential on the national stage was a magnificent experience. There were plenty of children there who may have been transformed into lifelong City fans after that and that is what it’s all about. I’m sure we still have a lot of tough times ahead, but we are the lifeblood of Coventry City. We will be here long after the current owners, that’s for sure.
Whilst I feel for the Oxford United fans who have watched their team come so close to success in consecutive seasons, we deserved that. Everybody knows about our plight and the fact we have had nothing to celebrate for what feels like an eternity. Now, regardless of how farcical the competition has been in its new format, we have a day to remember. It’s clearly not as prestigious as 1987, but at least I have seen my club lift some form of trophy. The club is still in desperate need of a facelift, but it’s a relative moment of joy I never thought I’d get following Coventry City.
Here’s to hoping that any potential investors took note of that.
Lee Burge – 8
Jordan Willis – 7
Chris Stokes – 8
Jordan Turnbull – 8
Ryan Haynes – 7
George Thomas – 8
Gael Bigirimana – 9
Ben Stevenson – 7
Kyel Reid – 8
Ruben Lameiras – 7
Stuart Beavon – 7
Dion Kelly-Evans – 7
Jodi Jones – 7
Marcus Tudgay – N/A
Coventry City: Burge, Willis (C) (Di. Kelly-Evans 60), Stokes, Turnbull, Haynes, G. Thomas (Jones 82), Bigirimana, Stevenson, Reid, Lameiras, Beavon (Tudgay 90+5).
Unused Substitutes: Charles-Cook, Harries, Gadzhev, Folivi.
Oxford United: Eastwood, Lundstram (C), Nelson, Maguire, Hemmings, Edwards, Rothwell (Ruffels 90+1), Hall, Ledson (Sercombe 57), Johnson, Dunkley.
Unused Substitutes: Stevens, Ribeiro, Skarz, Long, Carroll,
Attendance: 74, 434