Coventry fan Graham Jones: 'We've got a chance'

Thursday 18 April 2024 06:00

It's no exaggeration to claim that Manchester United's season hinges on Sunday's Emirates FA Cup tie against Coventry – but how are Sky Blues fans feeling ahead of their first semi-final in 37 years?

Coventry season-ticket holder Graham Jones is expertly placed to fill us in on that front. 
In fact, he might be the best-suited person in the entire country when it comes to speaking about this game, because not only does he follow his hometown team everywhere, but he also holds a season ticket at Old Trafford!

We caught up with the football-mad Midlander to find out how he ended up following two clubs, which way he thinks Sunday's game will go, and why former United player Mark Robins is so revered in his city...
Graham – seen here with his wife and daughter – follows both the Reds and the Sky Blues with a passion.
Graham, you're a season-ticket holder at both Coventry and United – how did that happen?!
"First things first, I'm a Coventry fan, through and through. I was born here and my dad took me to Highfield Road when I was five. But my second allegiance is United, mainly due to the fact that I had family up there, near Altrincham, when I was young. My mum's sister moved up there, married her husband, and my cousin was a United fan.

"So when I was young and went up to my aunty's for holidays and such, if Coventry weren't at home or whatever, then I'd go to United with my cousin. I used to stand in the old Stretford Paddock, which is where they come out now."
How do you manage your diary, following two different clubs?
"Basically, I go to Coventry, home and away, and when United doesn't clash with it, I'm at Old Trafford. Last season, I think I only missed about four home games, including League Cup and FA Cup. This season, because Coventry have been doing well, they've been moving more matches to 12.30 and God knows what else. Coventry are my team, and United are my second team. I love going up there, and I want them to beat everyone else – apart from Cov. I'm a season-ticket holder at both clubs. I've got cousins that are Red first and Cov second. Then there's others like myself who are Cov first and United second. It runs in the whole family!"
Your passion for football is clearly pretty strong...
"I absolutely love it. The one thing that is common with both teams: I despise Liverpool with a passion [laughs]."

What was your reaction when Coventry were drawn against United in the semi-final?

"We were walking back from the Liverpool cup game at Old Trafford, because the draw was made around that time. One of my sons text me and said: 'It's United.' Most Coventry fans wanted United. Who wants to play Manchester City at the moment? Chelsea? You never know with them. And if United win, it won't hurt me so much, you know?"
Graham with his United-supporting pals from the Rugby and Nuneaton branch.
It's been a rollercoaster ride for Coventry in the last 15-20 years. Talk us through that mad journey...
"Well, we've had to move grounds twice. There's been a lot of politics, but basically our owners then made a deal with Tesco to sell Highfield Road. We moved to the Ricoh and we couldn't afford to build it at the time, so the council built it. We chugged along in the Championship with managers such as Micky Adams, Chris Coleman, Aidy Boothroyd, Iain Dowie. 
"Then, in 2006, we were near bust and this hedge fund called SISU took over. They ploughed quite a bit of money into the club at the start. We were spending a million or a million and a half on players, which for a Championship side was quite a lot in 2006-2007. It just never worked. The club was renting the ground off the council. Then the owners got into a dispute with the council.
"In 2013, I was at a do and I got a text from the finance director at the club saying: 'We're moving out. We're going to Northampton.' So we went to Northampton for a season, with gates of 2,000. Sixfields is down in a dip, and Coventry fans who were against people going used to stand on what they called 'The Hill'. There was a lot of animosity between supporters who went and who didn't go. Anyway, they did a deal with the council to come back the following season, 2014, and lo and behold, the council did a deal with Wasps Rugby Club. So the next thing we knew, Wasps owned the ground. We were again tenants, and there was a lot of animosity towards that.

"In 2018, Wasps kicked us out and we went to play at Birmingham City. So we went there. In saying that, we got relegated in 2017, and in 2018 we came back up from League Two, winning the play-off against Exeter. Then we had a year at the Ricoh, finished eighth, and that year they said: 'No, we're kicking you out.' So we went to play at Birmingham for the Covid season. The Covid season finished in March, and we'd been at Birmingham for that season, and were top of the league when it finished. They did this points-per-whatever and we were actually crowned champions of League One in June. 
"The Covid season we played at Birmingham and then they agreed with Wasps to come back for 2021/22. Lo and behold, a year later, Wasps go bust and the Commonwealth Games were at the CBS Arena, because Coventry Building Society are now the sponsors. We didn't play a home game last season until we'd played six away games. 
"It's been an absolute nightmare! But now, Mike Ashley's group, the Fraser Group, owns the ground. We've struck a deal with them to play there, the rent's good, we're getting gates of 30,000. Things are as good there now as I can ever remember. I'm going back now to the late 60s, when we got promotion in 1967, the Jimmy Hill days, when we got into Europe for a season. This is why I'm always telling United fans to be grateful for what they've had, because at Coventry we've had one season in Europe and won one FA Cup [in our entire history]!"
Mark Robins (pictured here after scoring the winner in United's 1990 semi against Oldham) has led Coventry's recent revival.
Your manager, Mark Robins, is a former United player. Is it fair to say he's a bit of a hero in Coventry?
"He is a hero. He came in for six months in 2012 and left for Huddersfield, and he came back in 2017. We were near enough relegated when he came back, but if you look back at what he's done... every year for seven years he has improved us. We've had two promotions, we were a penalty kick away from being in the Premier League last year, and we're in and around the play-offs this year. 
"The new owner has given us money to spend this year and, you know, it's a lovely atmosphere there now. The support is good. We'll make some noise at Wembley, I'll tell ya! We sold Viktor Gyokeres to Sporting Club, so we got a bit of money, and Robins bought well last summer. We bought Haji Wright and he's our biggest deal ever, at £7.7m. Before that it was Robbie Keane. 
"But the wheeling and dealing Robins did to get us up from League Two to where we are now... we were in the play-off final last year, we're there this year, and we've had this cup run. I would have expected us to beat Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday and Maidstone, but we went to Wolves and turned them over on their own patch. We out-footballed them. That was another good weekend: I went to that game on the Saturday and United-Liverpool on the Sunday! Greg, who runs the [Rugby and Nuneaton supporters' club] coach, he said: 'Bloody hell, Graham, you're a lucky guy seeing two games like that!' It was just tremendous. The atmosphere... you can't get it unless you're there." 

FA Cup semi-final: Early team news


Get the lowdown on both squads ahead of our Wembley meeting with Coventry City.

Which Coventry players should United fans be looking out for on Sunday?
"Well you've got the two strikers, Ellis Simms and Haji Wright, but keep an eye out for Milan van Ewijk, who can either play right-back or right wing-back or right wing. He's really quick. Ben Sheaf, in the middle of the park, came from Arsenal. A really good footballer. I think they'll enjoy playing against United. We're a decent side. My worry with United is that teams run through us so easily. Coventry have got a chance. You would expect United, with Fernandes, Garnacho, Hojlund [to win], but if they're not on it... I personally think United will probably just beat us 2-1 or something like that. But it wouldn't surprise me if Coventry won."
And you've sold all your allocation... it should be a cracking atmosphere!
"We're taking 34,000. I'll have mates everywhere! It's going to be a great day. I hope the sun shines and may the best team win."