Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
COVENTRY CITY — the English club considered an all-weather friend of Zimbabwe football which gave iconic former Warriors’ skipper Peter Ndlovu his breakthrough into the professional ranks of Europe — have hit hard times and slipped into the backwaters of Division Four for the first time in more than half a century.
On the 30th anniversary of the year the Sky Blues celebrated their finest hour, when they beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 to win the prestigious FA Cup in 1987, Coventry City crashed into League Two — the fourth-tier league in English football — after finishing second from bottom in League One this season.
The club, who were playing in the English Premiership as recently as 2001, won just nine of their 46 regular season games, drew 12 and lost 25 in a troubled campaign that was marred by unrest off the field with disgruntled fans staging regular protests calling for the owners of the team to leave the club.
A 1-1 draw against Charlton Athletic, which confirmed their relegation, was marred by protests as fans threw plastic pigs on the pitch, delaying kick-off, and also unfurling banners calling for the owners of the club to end their relationship with their beloved team.
Coventry City’s stunning fall from grace, culminating in their relegation into Division Four, passed largely unnoticed in this country despite Coventry City being considered an all-weather friend of Zimbabwe football who played a big part in the development of the game here.
The English Midlands club toured this country in May 1983 and then hosted the Warriors in Coventry in August, that same year, where the national team — under the guidance of Mick Poole and captained by Sunday “Mhofu’’ Chidzambwa — played a friendly match against the Sky Blues while also using their developed facilities for their training sessions.
That national team was an All-Star cast of Warriors whose other members included goalkeepers Japhet M’parutsa and Raphael Phiri, Stanley Ndunduma, David Mwanza, Misheck Chidzambwa, Joel Shambo, Hamid Dhana, Charles Sibanda, Ephert Lungu, James Takavada, Oliver Kateya, Stanford “Stix’’ M’tizwa, Joseph Zulu, Friday Phiri, Eddie Katsvere and David Mandigora.
The Warriors lost their friendly match against Coventry City 0-2 in a game which Arsenal legend Charlie George — scorer of the winning goal for the Gunners in their victory in the 1971 FA Cup final, to crown a successful season in which they also won the league championship — scored one of the goals in his final appearance in a football match.
Although the Warriors lost that match, the visitors picked some big lessons on that tour and, in just two years’ time, a number of those players featured prominently in the successful campaign in which the team won the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup after beating Kenya in the final in Harare in 1985 with the late Shacky Tauro and Gift M’pariwa scoring the goals.
Three years after that landmark success, at a time when the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup was a major tournament, Coventry City again toured Zimbabwe and, for Peter Ndlovu, who was then just a schoolboy, it proved to be a life-changing time for him.
Coventry City’s 1987 FA Cup winning manager, John Sillett, said it was on that tour that he first spotted Peter and his brother Adam and developed an interest in the duo.
‘’Afterwards I said: ‘What chance have we got of getting the two of them to England?’ We were allowed to bring both of them over,’’ he recalled.
‘’Eight months later I signed Peter — I wanted to sign both of them, but the board would only let me sign one of them.
“Adam went off to Switzerland and had a good career but Peter was the most talented player I have ever seen. They were both cracking lads, and were very, very close as brothers.”
Peter, who later became the most successful Warriors’ skipper ever, would turn himself into a star at Coventry City, where he was compared with the likes of George Best and Ryan Giggs and in August 1992, he made history as the first African footballer to play in the new English Premiership.
“Ndlovu achieved iconic status during his six years with the Sky Blues, where he netted 39 goals in 176 (League)appearances for the club,’’ Coventry City said recently.
And, on Peter’s 42nd birthday two years ago, the club gave its fans a chance to relieve some of the Warriors star’s best goals for the Sky Blues:
VERSUS LIVERPOOL (Hat-trick) — March 14th, 1995
“Some people would be daunted going into a tough away trip to Anfield. But not Ndlovu. He fired a hat-trick, the first by a visiting player since 1961, as City earned a famous win. His first goal was a real poacher’s effort, arriving at the back post and firing past David James.
“His second was a confidently taken penalty. But his last goal was something special. Picking the ball up from halfway he slalomed his way through the Liverpool defence before unleashing an unstoppable strike that drew applause from the Kop end.”
VERSUS ASTON VILLA — September 28th, 1991
“In one of his first games for the club, Ndlovu became an instant hero as he scored the only goal of a passionate Midlands derby against the Villa.
“There did not seem to be much on when he picked the ball up, but his trademark dribbling offered him a sight at goal and he smashed the ball into the corner with the outside of his foot, sending Highfield Road into raptures.”
VERSUS ARSENAL — September 7th, 1991
“City made a habit of winning at Highbury in the early 90’s and Ndlovu announced himself in the top division of English football by scoring the winner on this occasion. He nipped in to dispossess the defender, before showing remarkable composure to fire the ball past David Seaman.”