On May 11, 1997, Coventry City won a three-team battle with Middlesbrough and Sunderland to secure Premier League survival in the best possible way – on the last day of the season.
Avoiding relegation on the final day is one of the strangest experiences in football.
Finishing comfortably in mid-table does not provoke wild celebration, mass hysteria, or a pitch invasion, but finishing one place above the three worst teams in the league by the skin of your teeth can spark the sort of party usually reserved for promotions and title wins.
Clearly, the thrill of completing a terrible-but-ultimately-not-disastrous campaign is immensely more exciting than the satisfaction of your club achieving a respectable league position with weeks to spare.
It’s a feeling that Coventry City fans have been able to experience more than most. During their 34-year spell in the top flight between 1967 and 2001, the Sky Blues beat the drop on the final day of the season on 10 occasions.
At the start of May 11, 1997, Coventry sat 19th in the Premier League and were battling with North East duo Sunderland and Middlesbrough to claim the final spot of safety, but the Midlanders’ future was out of their hands, knowing even a win at Tottenham might not be enough if Sunderland were to secure all three points at Wimbledon or Middlesbrough succeed at Leeds.
Boro were the neutral’s favourites. With an exotic side including Fabrizio Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson, Bryan Robson’s outfit were not your typical relegation-battling fodder, resembling instead a lite version of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, enthralling in attack but ultimately undermined by their defence.
Only a week earlier Boro had travelled to Old Trafford to play out a thrilling 3-3 draw in one of the games of the season and would have been already safe were it not for a three-point deduction they received for postponing a fixture against Blackburn.
To this day that Middlesbrough team, which also suffered the heartbreak of two cup final defeats that season, is seen as being hard done by, but it is a discredit to a Coventry side who held their nerve when it mattered most.
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The campaign was a baptism of fire as manager for Gordon Strachan, who was not due to replace Ron Atkinson until the end of the season, only for a poor start to the term to see the midfielder promoted to boss earlier than expected.
After taking over in November, Strachan inspired the side to four-consecutive wins in December, but a fallow period of one victory from 12 matches between January and the end of March seemed to have consigned Coventry to the drop.
But what Coventry lacked in the flair of Juninho, who was named the Premier League Player of the Season, Strachan could count on reliable performers such as Dion Dublin and Gary McAllister to turn things around, while the manager made nine appearances as a player himself.
An unbeaten April brought wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, plus draws against Arsenal and Southampton, but the final day was not without its drama.
Despite their late resurgence, Coventry remained 9/1 to stay up, and according to The Independent, Strachan spent the morning of the game with captain and former Leeds team-mate McAllister planning how they would rebuild the club in the second tier.
Even the kick-off at White Hart Lane did not go to plan as the match was delayed by 15 minutes due to an accident on the M1.The hold-up echoed an infamous incident from 20 years earlier, when Coventry and Bristol City, both battling relegation with Sunderland, kicked off late and deliberately played out a survival-securing draw after chairman Jimmy Hill announced over the tannoy that the Black Cats had been beaten at Everton.
Alex Ferguson, who was never shy to publicly comment on his dislike of Strachan – “I decided this man could not be trusted an inch – I would not want to expose my back to him in a hurry,” he wrote in his autobiography – labelled the fact Coventry were once again allowed to kick off late a “disgrace”.
But the scenario remained the same for the Sky Blues: they had to win and pray Sunderland and Middlesbrough didn’t.
When the game eventually got underway in North London, Coventry’s relegation rivals were still drawing, and they took advantage quickly with remarkable ease.
Fittingly, McAllister was at the heartbeat of the performance. It was the Scotland international’s cross which was headed in by Dublin after only 13 minutes, and he turned provider once more to set up Paul Williams’ excellent volley with 39 minutes on the clock.
Tottenham did reply through Paul McVeigh just before half-time, but the pressure was now firmly on Sunderland and Middlesbrough.
Boro eventually fell behind to a Brian Deane goal at Elland Road but equalised almost instantly through Juninho and had 10 minutes to find a winner. Sunderland, meanwhile, were at 0-0 needing only one goal until the 85th minute when Jason Euell struck for Wimbledon to seal their fate.
In the second half at White Hart Lane, Coventry continued to play with impressive calm and composure. At least until the news filtered through that Boro couldn’t find a winner at Leeds and that, as things stood, Coventry were staying up.
At that point they started to drop deeper, Tottenham started to create chances, Steve Ogrizovic had to make more saves and Strachan became increasingly fervent in the dugout.
“I remember a young Stephen Carr at Tottenham going on an amazing run and almost ruining it,” McAllister told FourFourTwo in 2016. “We all ran over to Stephen and said: ‘Pack it in! Your mind should be on a beach in Spain!’”
The final whistle eventually ended the torture, provoking wild celebration, mass hysteria and tears both on the pitch and in the away end.
Speaking after the Houdini act had been completed, Strachan said: “They said ‘we have won nothing’ but they have won something. They have won their pride back. They can look people in the eye again.”
He added: “I have played with world-class players and the players today showed as much heart as any of the top players I have played with. And some of the football they played was superb. That was brave too, a different type of bravery to putting your head in where it hurts.”
Dancing with the devil eventually caught up with the club, and they could not repeat their trick for an 11th time in 2001, when they finally dropped out of the top flight.
They have not yet made it back.
By Rob Conlon