Half a decade ago, Coventry City were widely regarded as English football’s crisis club as they suffered relegation to their lowest level in 59 years.
However, four years on from their spell in League Two, almost everything has changed for the Sky Blues.
The club has progressed with every passing season, first winning the League Two Play-Offs in 2017-18 before securing a top half League One finish in the following campaign.
In 2018/19, Mark Robins led the side to the third tier title and then helped Coventry to two comfortable finishes in the Championship, even having a faint sniff at the top six last term.
The ownership group led by Joy Seppala has taken a step back, with Chief Executive Dave Boddy and the aforementioned Robins leading day-to-day operations superbly, with the support of an excellent coaching and recruitment team.
As they continue their preparations for what they hope will be another productive campaign of progress, we spoke to David Moore from Sky Blues Extra.
Firstly, how would you assess last season?
DM: “Last season was a good season overall for the Sky Blues. We flew out the blocks and stayed around the top 3-4 for a couple of months. Viktor Gyokeres was on fire and looked unstoppable.
“Unfortunately, our fast start slowed and we struggled to keep momentum across the whole season. One disappointment was that our home form dipped which had been so solid at the start of the season
“We finished 12th in the end which all in all, given it was our second season in the Championship, was respectable.”
What do you make of the released/retained list and your business in general so far?
DM: “This summer has been about getting rid of some dead-wood with regards to players like Hilssner and Da Costa.
“I feel harsh calling Shipley and Jones deadwood, but they also were players who were ready to be moved on and progress their careers elsewhere.
“It’s been a slow summer on the transfer front with just one first team signing in the form of Kasey Palmer, however he looks to be a shrewd signing and will offer Callum O’Hare some much needed support in the number 10 role.
“Talk from the club suggests we’ll see two more bodies in most likely in the defensive area of the pitch. Given our limited financial situation they will most likely be loans – like Callum Doyle, on loan from Man City, who looks a player!”
What is the aim for this window and what positions wouldd you like to see strengthened and why?
DM: “Defence has been the main focus for this window. With Jake Clarke Salter and Ian Maatsen going back to Chelsea, we were a little short in that area.
“Also, the fact that Kyle McFadzean isn’t getting any younger means it’s a key window for Robins to bring in some decent defenders, starting with Doyle who we’re delighted to have.
“I would expect at least one more central defender, a left wing-back and possibly even a right wing-back if rumours around Todd Kane’s future are to be believed.
“An extra midfielder as cover also wouldn’t go amiss.”
What should be the target for next season?
DM: “The target, first and foremost, is to stay in the division. However, Mark Robins will be looking to make an improvement on a respectable 12th place and 60 points last term.
“An improvement on that would put the Sky Blues not too far off the play offs and with a fair wind and a bit of momentum who knows – 6th place really doesn’t feel like it’s a million miles away.”
With David’s insight in mind, these are the suggested #SuttonsSignings for the Sky Blues…
Jonathan Panzo (Nottingham Forest, loan) –
Panzo has not done anything wrong since moving to Forest from Dijon in January, but has been very unlucky that his positional rival, Scott McKenna, has been undroppable.
The Reds will play fewer midweek games in 2022-23, so depth is less of a priority and Steve Cooper – having managed Panzo to Under-17s World Cup success with England – may want the defender to build Championship experience on loan.
Panzo would likely operate on the left of a back-three for Coventry, although he could also cover left wing-back or left-back in a conventional back-four, meaning he could fill the void of the departing Clarke-Salter and Maatsen as David mentioned.
The 21-year-old reads the game well, defends space in behind, has strong physical qualities including pace in recovery, as well as not only composure in possession but also the ability to carry the ball forward and glide beyond his challengers.
The 6’1” defender looks perfect for the outside centre-back role in Mark Robins’ system, and is set to join Doyle in arriving on Trentside in a loan deal.
Zac Williams (Crewe Alexandra) –
If Coventry are looking for a long-term investment as a left-sided defender, they could do worse than Zac Williams.
The Wales Under-19s star was able to stand-out last season in statistically the worst League One side since Stockport County’s 2009-10 outfit, with Crewe flopping to relegation with just 29 points.
Williams, though, is such a graceful defender who always has the presence of mind to turn an opponent and switch play to the other flank – ideal for building play from deep.
Whether the 18-year-old is ready to play regularly in the Championship is questionable, especially given the physical and mental demands.
However, if Coventry gain an eight-figure fee for one of their big-hitters – Gus Hamer, Callum O’Hare or Viktor Gyokeres – they could do worse than invest a fraction of that money in Williams.
From there, they could either gradually integrate him into the first-team fold, or hand him a League One loan with a view to accelerating things in 2023-24.
Kaine Kesler-Hayden (Aston Villa, loan) –
Villa have already loaned Finn Azaz to Plymouth Argyle, Viljami Sinisalo to Burton Albion and Louie Barry to MK Dons, so Steven Gerrard’s side are clearly at the stage where they are happy to send their talent out on loan having assessed them in pre-season.
Kaine Kesler-Hayden, meanwhile, has already proved himself in League Two with Swindon and in League One with MK Dons, so could be ready for the step up to the Championship.
Quick, strong and aggressive as well as being capable of excellent link-up play, Kesler-Hayden would improve Coventry’s squad significantly.
It might not be a given that he starts every game, and right wing-back may not be a number one priority, with Fankaty Dabo having been such a reliable operator over the last three years.
Dabo, though, is also capable of covering on the right of the three-man defence, and competition is always a good thing.
Kesler-Hayden would certainly provide that, as well as allowing Coventry to sell Todd Kane and loan out Jack Burroughs or Blaine Rowe.
Alvaro Fernandez (Manchester United, loan) –
Manchester United’s first signing of the summer has been Tyrell Malacia from Feyenord for an initial fee of £13 million, which pushes their other left-backs down the pecking order.
Alvaro Fernandez is training with the Under-23s this summer, rather than going on United’s pre-season tour, as the club are set to line up a loan move.
The 19-year-old has not yet played senior football, so it would not be a huge surprise to see him loaned out to a top League One club like Ipswich, where former coach Kieran McKenna works.
Equally, Fernandez was the Red Devils’ U23s Player of the Year for 2021-22 and he has the physical qualities to adjust to the Championship.
Plus, if he does well at this level, he’s then closer to the first team contention the following summer, so a second tier loan may appeal.
Panutche Camara (Plymouth Argyle) –
Aggressive high-pressing has to be Coventry’s blueprint for a Play-Off push.
Although Hamer, O’Hare and Gyokeres are all capable of quality, as they showed last season, the Midlanders do not have oodles of top level ability in depth – they simply cannot afford it.
Robins’ troops can, though, force opponents onto the back-foot with a high-energy game and Camara fits into that like a glove.
The former Dulwich Hamlet man was initially a striker and, while at Crawley, he was capable of hassling and harrying up to the opposition goalkeeper for 90 minutes.
Towards the end of his stint in Sussex, Camara was converted into a tough-tackling midfield role, and that’s what Argyle signed him for.
The Guinea-Bissau born runner helped the Devoners stabilize in League One in their first season at that level, then started 36 league games for the side that amassed 80 points in the division.
Not only does Camara have boundless energy as well as an infectious attitude and work ethic, he is also something of a physical specimen.
When he closes down opponents, he inflicts fear and in doing so, can force clearances or misplaced passes that allow his teammates to pick up second balls and assume control.
Coventry also have one of the best pressers in O’Hare; add Camara into the mix and things could really click.
That pass from Ethan Brierley for the first goal yesterday 🤤#RAFC pic.twitter.com/yU6v5fQV3b
— ROCHDALE AFC FAN PAGE (@RochdaleFan) May 8, 2022
Ethan Brierley (Rochdale)
Similarly to Williams, Brierley would be a long-term investment for Coventry, as opposed to somebody they would expect to hit the ground running from the off.
As recently as 14 months ago, the deep-lying playmaker was given the opportunity to train with Manchester City, who wanted to examine his potential ahead of a potential signing.
As it happens, the move did not occur but it shows that the youngster, still only 18, has enormous potential and the fact he’s not yet had a major breakthrough season in senior terms means he is available at a more affordable price.
Brierley may not be going for a steal exactly, especially having just signed a two-year contract with Dale, but Coventry can still get a player with huge potential for a modest fee.
One option would be for the Sky Blues to loan him out to Rochdale immediately after signing him, with a view to managing his progression if he does as well as expected.
The good thing about having the managerial stability that Coventry do is that Robins can make decisions that may not benefit the team in the next 12 months, but could be of huge benefit in the long-term.
George Hirst (Leicester City) –
Hirst was very highly rated at youth level, representing England at four age groups up to Under-20s, with whom he scored seven goals in 13 appearances.
The striker has taken some time to translate that potential into senior football however, and after a controversial exit from Sheffield Wednesday to OH Leuven (Belgium), he was picked up by Leicester.
Hirst has found opportunities hard to come by with the Foxes and struggled in his 2020-21 Championship loan spell at Rotherham, but last season he kick-started his career.
After a tricky start, Portsmouth boss Danny Cowley got the best out of the 23-year-old. While possessing moderate physicality, as well as the height of a target man at 6’3, Hirst is a deft operator.
When balls are played to him with accuracy, which he received at Pompey due to goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu’s distribution, he’s capable of a stooping header, a swish flick-on or stylish link-up play.
Rather than attacking goal like a more traditional centre-forward, the Sheffield-born man has a penchant for late, well-timed runs into goalscoring positions.
Plus, while Hirst doesn’t quite possess the agility or turn of pace to leave defenders on their backside, he is capable of motoring once he breaks into a linear stride.
The striker position is not an immediate priority for Robins, but if the right offer comes in for Gyokeres, Hirst would be a great option.
The centre-forward could either join on-loan from the Premier League side, or be poached permanently if he wants to settle somewhere over the next two or three years.
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