Wednesday 6th December 2017 ko 19.45
FA Vase 3rd Round Replay
COVENTRY UNITED 3 (Rankine 80 Morris 90og Mussa 90)
BROMSGROVE SPORTING 3 (Clark 4 Gregory 18 Cowley 40)
AET Bromsgrove won 4-3 on penalties
Att 205 at Butts Park Arena, Coventry
There can’t be many clubs in the Midlands as groundhopper-friendly as Coventry United. Easy parking (for £2), midweek games on a Wednesday, and an informative Twitter feed. In fact so hopper-friendly are they that earlier this season the league version of this fixture was scheduled for a midday kick-off allowing for all kinds of doubles. Now okay it probably took 20-30 off of each the attendances on the North Berkshire Hop that day and as event organiser that was a shame, but there was no malice in it. As organiser sometimes you have to simply shrug your shoulders and make the best of it. And there are so many reasons to like Coventry United.
As is common knowledge the club were formed in 2013 by 4 Coventry City fans unhappy at Sky Blues’ owners SISU moving the club into a groundshare at Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium. The unofficial moto for the club was and still is “No politics, just football for Coventry”.
I’m not sure whether the reason is that motto, but the club has managed to avoid the split personality that aflicts other protest clubs. Attend an FC United game and you’ll hear their fans sing songs relevant to their former selves- Manchester United. There’s none of that here. A telling comment came from the raffle ticket seller who commented,
“If it wasn’t for SISU, we wouldn’t be here!”
Here of course is the Butts Park Area, home to Coventry RUFC and Coventry RLFC. United moved here this season following a stint sharing at Coventry Sphinx. The club’s spiritual home will always be “The Cage” , the caged grass pitch at the Alan Higgs Centre, which is now being used by Coventry City’s youth team, and the connections continue.
Coventry City’s lease at the Ricoh Arena with owners Wasps RUFC (and you can imagine how happy Coventry RUFC were having a London-origin club moving into the city!) only runs until the end of this season, and they are on the look-out for somewhere else to play. The Butts Park Arena has been mooted, if the current single 2000 seat stand could be replicated across all four sides. There’s certainly plenty of room for expansion, should the will be there and the necessary permissions gained. It would be highly ironic that 4 clubs representing Coventry could end up based here with the club that doesn’t in the city’s (sky) blue riband venue.
For now Coventry United represents association rules at the Butts Park Arena, and the whole edifice is clearly a rugby union stadium, down even to having to buy your ticket at a booth because the turnstiles don’t fulfil FA criteria. There’s no barrier between the stand and the pitch and no dugouts either, so the substitutes sit in a small section of the stand. But with my groundhop organisers hat on, the catering was massively impressive.
With a larger than average crowd keeping the crowd moving was no mean feat and was done so my keeping the menu straightforward (pies, sausages, burgers, baked beans and chips) and maximising the serving space by eschewing serving through a hatch. As a fellow hopper put it,
“You want good catering at a football ground? Go to a rugby ground!”
It is a stadium that will allow Coventry United to grow and progress, and with the rugby club profiting from the rent, parking and catering it looks to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Opponents Bromsgrove Sporting are another young club, born out of the ashes of the bankrupt Bromsgrove Rovers. Even if it was their change kit it was good to see Bromsgrove back in green, and they clearly still can pull a crowd!
The two teams served up a classic, although when Jason Cowley curled in the free kick to put Sporting 3-0 up after 40 minutes. What changed everything was the introduction of Aaron Opoku at half time. He offered United a focal point up front, but it took until 10 minutes left for United to start to see any tangible benefit. Lewis Rankine’s goal produced a siege on the Sporting goal for the last ten minutes.
Surely there couldn’t be a three goal comeback in so little time? A Jack Jeys free kick spun off Manuel Morris’ head for 3-2 then a scramble in the box saw Gift Mussa stab home in the melee with virtually the last kick of the game. Cue pandemonium, and amongst it all it became clear that Sporting keeper Reece Francis had damaged his hand.
I’m sure all present thought that with no keeper on the bench, all United needed to do win was either create a half-chance, or simply take the tie to penalties. The early minutes of extra time saw Francis fail to catch basic chances, his hand simply couldn’t grip properly. A substitution allowed further treatment, and his performance improved, including a spectacular tip over the bar from a Chris Cox header, but what chance would an impaired goalkeeper have in a penalty shoot-out?
The answer was to become a hero. Both sides scored their first 3 penalties, and missed their next two. Sudden-death penalties always brings out the the nervous and unwilling from the spot, and unsurprisingly the next two kicks were missed. But then stepped up Aaron Opoku the man who’d changed everything, and Francis saved his kick. It was left to Matt Loveridge to stroke home the winning penalty, the Bromsgrove fans went mad, a pitch invasion ensued, but quietly leaving the pitch with the physio was Reece Francis, still holding his damaged hand gingerly.
It was one of those games where you wanted to grin at the sheer rollercoaster nature of the game, but that risked irking the hosts. The truth of it was that neither side deserved to lose, but one had to.
As ever though both sides will move on from this. I’ve little doubt that Bromsgrove will enjoy their tie with Wisbech Town on their gradual rise back to the heights reached by their former selves. As for Coventry United their rise seems inexorable, to the point that with Coventry City’s continued problems you can paint a picture where they are the top football club in the city. The tragedy of the piece is that noone would actually want that to be the case.