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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonny Weeks

Coventry’s street-smarts key to Huckerby’s stunner against United

Darren Huckerby celebrating with teammates as Coventry beat Manchester United in 1997
Darren Huckerby celebrating with teammates as Coventry beat Manchester United in 1997 – their only Premier League triumph over Sir Alex Ferguson’s storied side. Photograph: Ted Blackbrow/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

Football’s “dark arts” can be deliciously contentious. When does game management become flagrant cheating? Is tactical fouling ever fair? And if a ballboy delays the resumption of play when his side are leading 2-1 in stoppage time, is it justifiable for the opponent’s manager to sprint down the touchline and celebrate a stunning two-goal turnaround in the poor lad’s face?

While some cunning ploys ultimately breach the laws or spirit of the game, others nestle sweetly within their boundaries. The former Coventry striker Noel Whelan says his old side should employ the latter to defeat Manchester United in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final.

“When you’re going up against a team with superstars who have more quality than you’ve got on your side, you need to show aggression, you need to show respect but not too much respect, and you need to get in their faces and ruffle up their feathers any way you can,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve got to turn to the dark arts just to get the advantage. It’s not cheating, it’s just about being clever.”

As a lifelong Sky Blues fan, the highlight of my youth was Coventry’s last league triumph over Manchester United in 1997. In 18 Premier League matches against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, Coventry suffered 16 defeats. Their only win came that Christmas – and what a win it was.

Whelan scored an early goal before United, seeking a third successive league title and blessed with players such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Andy Cole, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in their starting lineup, inevitably seized the lead. An 86th-minute penalty from Dion Dublin restored parity shortly before one of the top flight’s greatest solo goals was scored.

Darren Huckerby received the ball on the right flank, with the floodlit West Terrace in the distance and the frosty pitch littered with enough opponents to stop him several times over. Yet he somehow slalomed past three, leaving Neville on his backside, before coolly slotting home.

Whelan says: “Darren always had that capability and once he got going it was very hard to stop him. He came into his own when opponents were getting tired; he was still so strong and quick. It was total elation when he scored.”

At face value, it was a moment of unadulterated skill, pace and balance. But watch carefully and the dark arts were at play. As Huckerby entered the penalty area, Whelan darted sideways, seemingly to evade a collision with his teammate, and bodychecked Nicky Butt, preventing the United midfielder from making a last-ditch challenge. It’s the kind of incident that might draw the attention of the video assistant referee these days. Not so in 1997, when it went unnoticed by the match officials.

I had always wondered whether it was intentional. You bet it was. “I could see the path that Darren was running on and I felt that Nicky Butt would probably get across and force him wider or try to get a tackle in,” Whelan says. “So I thought: ‘I’ll just run across him [Butt], then that frees that pathway for Darren to run through on goal.’ It was just a little bit of quick thinking.

“There’s no better feeling when you’re absolutely shattered, you’ve played against one of the best teams in the world and you’ve come out on top. Highfield Road was so loud you probably could have heard the cheers over in Birmingham. It was one of the highlights of Coventry’s lifespan in the Premier League.”

It wasn’t the only example of Coventry employing street-smarts to great effect that season. The previous month, Dublin scored his famous “peekaboo” goal against Newcastle. Having run off the pitch while chasing a looping cross, he lingered by the advertising hoardings behind Shay Given and waited for the visiting goalkeeper to release possession. Dublin then sprang forth and swept the loose ball into the empty net. There was no recourse for Newcastle because the Coventry striker had broken no rules. Given was duly lampooned for being the only Irishman who couldn’t locate Dublin.

Coventry finished 11th that season, equalling their highest position in the Premier League era, and Dublin was the division’s joint-top scorer. They also lost an FA Cup quarter-final replay on penalties to Sheffield United when it felt as if the route to the final was wide open. How that Sky Blues team didn’t achieve greater success still confounds me.

“We’d gone through a couple of years where it’d been relegation fights and it’d been touch and go. But when I look back, we had an array of quality in our team like Dion, Darren and the legend Roland Nilsson,” says Whelan. “What we achieved that season, we should’ve achieved every season.”

Back to the present day, and the Coventry manager, Mark Robins, may balk at the suggestion his side will need to be cunning to defeat Erik ten Hag’s team. Owing to injuries, United’s defence could be shorn of Jonny Evans, Victor Lindelöf, Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez, and Coventry possess two in-form strikers. Ellis Simms and Haji Wright started the season sluggishly, but the former has 14 goals in the past 13 games and was, until recently, the most prolific scorer in England’s top four leagues this calendar year.

“I think Mark Robins has done an incredible job at Coventry,” Whelan says. “The turmoil that he’s had to go through, the way he’s put a squad together, the way he’s been competitive in the league. I was praying for them to get back into the Premier League via the playoff final last year but it wasn’t to be.

“They’re having another fantastic season and it’s magical when you go on a cup run. Manchester United will not be going into the game relishing it. Anything can happen on the day. There’s going to be a hero and let’s just hope they’re on Coventry’s side.”

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