Coventry City are the club with no home, the team who had to play all of this season’s 34 League One games on the road.
Some fans have become so disaffected with the owners they do not go to matches any more, and the club remain at loggerheads with their own city council after a stadium row which has lasted almost a decade.
Yet the Sky Blues, outcasts from their own city and playing at ‘home’ more than 20 miles away in Birmingham, have done the almost unthinkable and won promotion.
Mark Robins’ side were crowned League One champions on Tuesday when, after almost three months of living in the shadow of a pandemic, clubs voted overwhelmingly for the season to finally be brought to a premature end.
“This was not the conventional way of doing it, but it was the next best thing,” manager Robins told BBC Coventry & Warwickshire.
“A lot of people have lost their lives during this pandemic and we should never forget that.
“But we’ve lost just three league games all season. The players and staff have been magnificent. They’re the best I’ve managed,” added the 50-year-old former Manchester United striker, who was also in charge at Rotherham United, Barnsley, Huddersfield Town and Scunthorpe United before returning to Coventry for his second spell as boss in March 2017.
‘Promotion all the sweeter’ – CEO Dave Boddy
“The achievement is all the sweeter, considering the adversity we’ve been dealt with over the last few years,” added chief executive Dave Boddy. “Going into administration, ground sharing, the budget restrictions.”
Promotion lifts the Sky Blues back to the Championship for the first time in eight years – and within one rung of returning to the top tier of English football.
The club served 34 years among the game’s elite before being relegated from the Premier League in 2001.
Worse was to follow when they went down from the Championship in 2012, and the slump continued as they ended up in the Football League basement in 2017.
But it only took one season to start the journey back up, via the play-off final at Wembley – and skipper Liam Kelly, who was one of Robins’ first signings that summer of 2017, believes much of the credit must go to City’s long-suffering fans.
‘Unbelievable away support’ – captain Liam Kelly
“We saw how big the fan base was when we got promoted from League Two,” Kelly told BBC Coventry & Warwickshire. “And the away support has been unbelievable this season. Look at the amount of key games we’ve won away from home – Wycombe, Tranmere.”
Those successive 4-1 away wins at Wycombe and Tranmere in the space of four days over the festive period – both courtesy of Matty Godden hat-tricks – were the high point of the 14-match unbeaten run that effectively won City promotion.
“The players have really responded to it,” said Robins. “The thing that binds us all together is the support. It’s glaringly obvious just watching the games being played behind closed doors in the Bundesliga right now that it’s not the same without the crowds.”
Only once did the season threaten to derail, back in October, when they lost twice in successive games, a 4-0 thrashing at rivals Rotherham, then at home to struggling Tranmere – their only defeat at St Andrew’s – and picked up just six points in a run of six games.
But, other than going out of the FA Cup on penalties to landlords Birmingham in February after two tight games at St Andrew’s, the 2-1 defeat at Shrewsbury on 14 December was this season’s last setback. And they were five points clear at the top, with a game in hand, when football ground to a halt in mid-March.
Where next for Coventry City?
Coventry’s move to St Andrew’s was only ever meant to be for a year, in the wake of failing to secure an agreement to remain at the Ricoh Arena, owned by Premiership rugby club Wasps.
There is an arrangement that could allow Coventry to again share with Birmingham next season. But, despite having been happy there and making their home in the second city very much ‘a second home’, Robins makes it quite clear where they would rather be.
“We want to be in our own stadium in Coventry,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing that can happen for this club.
“Birmingham City, both their staff and as a club, have shown unbelievable class in welcoming us with open arms. The playing surface was outstanding and is being replenished too.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen – that’s above my pay grade. But clearly coming back to Coventry has to be the goal,” he added.
“Birmingham have been very supportive in letting us play at St Andrew’s,” added Boddy. “But obviously we want to be back in Coventry, playing at the Ricoh, which was built for us.”
Will they ever get to celebrate?
“We’ve thought it was coming for a little while now,” said Kelly. “But just to get that final phone call and confirmation of our promotion was fantastic.
“We’d love to have an open top bus but, at the minute, we know we have to hold back. Maybe it might happen some time in the future.”
Boddy added: “Normally you’d have an open top bus parade, but we’re going to have an online party instead.
“It has all been a bit surreal. There were not really any raised voices in Tuesday’s meeting. Clubs seemed more resigned to their fate. But there have been a lot of meetings over the last six weeks, with raised and angry voices during those.
“It had to be resolved, there was no way we could deal with the cost of carrying on. I don’t know if ‘fair’ is the right word but I think this is the nearest to fairness you can find.”
‘Robins has instilled belief’ – analysis
BBC Coventry & Warwickshire’s Clive Eakin
Coventry’s promotion to the Championship continues a dramatic turnaround in the club’s fortunes and is more remarkable than when they bounced back up out of League Two at the first attempt.
City are going up as champions of a league for the first time since 1967 and they’ve done it without a home ground of their own.
The architect has been Mark Robins, who started his second spell as manager when the team were rock bottom of League One and facing relegation to the bottom tier.
He seems to have instilled a belief right across the club. The owners have been convinced to invest more in the squad, which has consistently been a tight and confident unit.
The fans, for the most part, have been persuaded to put any misgivings about off-field matters to one side. Although some have been unwilling or unable to support the team at St Andrew’s, crowds have been far higher than they were the last time the club were in exile at Northampton, in 2014.
And the Sky Blue Army travelling to away games has become a formidable force.
But competing in the Championship will be a whole new challenge, especially with the stadium issue still not resolved.