The year of the Sphinx – Record crowds, the great escape and new beginnings

edgar-stWell what a year it’s been  for Coventry Sphinx. We started it in the relegation zone after playing in front of a record crowd at Hereford and we end it in the Top 10 of the MFL Premier Division after a remarkable escape from relegation. Here we take a look at the year including the key stats and moments of the last 12 months at Sphinx Drive.

WINTER – The first few months of the 2015/16 season had seen a change in manager in November and multiple changes to the squad and this had left us firmly entrenched in the relegation zone with just 13 points accumulated after 17 league matches. The man at the helm was rookie manager Robbie Banks who had stepped up from the playing squad for his first venture into management during the season.  As we began the year we had just been on the end of a 6-1 thrashing to Hereford at their Edgar Street home. This smashed the record attendance for a Coventry Sphinx match with a crowd of 2,910 there to see it. It was an incredible occasion for the club and when Sphinx equalised after good work from Jacob Dodds had left Blenkinsopp with a simple finish, there was a sense that Sphinx could get an incredible result too. It wasn’t to be though, with Hereford showing their obvious class to run away with a 6-1 win in the end. The team that day for Sphinx was perhaps an indication of the chaotic nature of the season with none of the starting 11 still with the club today. The Sphinx team that day in Hereford was: CONNOR, MULDOON, SOCKETT, ALBRIGHTON, ROONEY, JACK DOWNES, GROCOTT, RANKIN, THOMSON,DODDS, BLENKINSOPP.

 

Goal scoring was clearly a problem for Sphinx at this point in the season with just 21 goals scored from their 17 games in the league. Another obvious problem was their away record with just one win on the road to their name. They sat in the bottom 3 with Continental Star and Dunkirk and they had a huge task on their hands to recover from this start and stay in the division.

SPRING – The extreme rainfall had decimated the fixture schedules so Sphinx, along with many other clubs, were playing catch up with their fixtures and Sphinx had a spell of 4 games in 8 days at one point. Sphinx were well aware that manager Robbie Banks needed help and two men who are Sphinx through and through stepped up to the plate when needed to give that critical help when it was most needed. The two men who provided that vital assistance were Lynton Wilkinson and Martin Ascroft who had previous experience within the management set up at Coventry Sphinx.  The key period in their battle to stay up was a 2 week spell of 4 games that produced 3 wins and 9 massive points. They didn’t just gather the points, they also banged in 16 goals in those 3 victories which improved their goal difference and lifted the belief that they were going to pull off the great escape. At no point in the season did I sense that the coaches and players had stopped believing they could do it and that self belief made the difference in the end.

There was now 3 games to go in this season and Sphinx looked like they needed one more win to be certain of staying up. Unfortunately the next match was the visit of Hereford to Sphinx Drive in late April and victory here for Hereford would secure the League title and promotion. Another record was broken that day with 935 crammed into Sphinx Drive to see Hereford win and celebrate the winning of the league. The Hereford fans were full of joy but they were first class visitors and they were a credit to their club. While they have fans like that they will not go far wrong in their quest to climb the leagues again.

The Sphinx team that day was vastly different to the team that had appeared at Edgar Street just 4 months earlier with Lewis Rankin and Mark Albrighton the only players to start both games. The changes to the squad throughout the spring were necessary and there were a number of players who should be credited for their contributions. Experience and quality came in with the likes of Jon Haynes, Garfield Robinson and Jean Dakouri joining. Solihull Moors also allowed a group of young players to join Sphinx on loan. Sam Delaney formed a good partnership in the centre of defence alongside the experienced Albrighton, Kieran Nesbitt scored some crucial goals and Trey Brathwaite added pace and skill to the side. Lets not forget the manager Robbie Banks who ignored medical advice to get back out on the pitch and help his team.

Sphinx got that last win to secure safety just days later with a 3-0 win over Westfields at Sphinx Drive and after months of anxiety they had done it. Against the odds, Sphinx had survived and they did it comfortably and in style in the end. They ended the season one place above the relegation zone but 9 points clear of the drop and Bardon Hill ended up being relegated with Dunkirk and Continental Star. After getting 13 points from their opening 17 games they got 26 points from their final 25 games to finish on 39 points. The effort to stay up was based on positivity with those final 25 games producing a sensational 102 goals between the sides.

The end of season player stats tells the story  with 57 players appearing for Coventry Sphinx at some point during that season. 9 of those players made over 20 appearances that season but the stand out stat for me was the 9 goalkeepers who had played for the club that season. Ash Malhotra was the top appearance maker between the sticks with 16 games and even the 40 something father of midfielders Luke and Jack Downes had a game in goal. Gav Downes played well that day at Loughborough University and was unfortunate to finish on the losing side. His willingness to step in at the last minute was another fine example of people stepping up to the plate when the club needed them. Just three players got into double figures for goals and all of them would not consider themselves as genuine strikers. The three were midfielders Rich Blythe, Lewis Rankin and Mitch Thomson who all scored 11 goals each. The goalkeeping position provided a headache all season, there was no genuine striker in the side, the amount of changes in the squad and the change of manager during the season all had an impact but despite all the problems Sphinx maintained their place in the division.

SUMMER – Shortly after the end of the season the manager Robbie Banks took the decision to step down from his post. It was a baptism of fire for the young rookie manager and he must have learnt an incredible amount in a short space of time. I’m sure Robbie will return to management at some point and the experience he gained will no doubt stand him in good stead. The man to take up the managers position was Stuart Dutton who will be familiar to many people at Coventry Sphinx and the Coventry Non League scene in general. Dutts had done very well down the road at Coventry Copsewood the previous season and helped them win a cup at the level below Sphinx. Copsewood had beaten hot favourites Nuneaton Griff in the cup final and this combined with his success with the Coventry Sphinx youth team a couple of years previously were the key factors in him getting the job.

Stuart Dutton had been left without a coaching team, a physio and very few players so he had a total rebuild on his hands. He had the benefit of the whole summer to get to work and he wasted little time in bringing in coaches and players. A few of last seasons players signed up for the coming season but his main focus was to add local players to his squad. A few made their way down the A444 from Nuneaton Griff and a few crossed the Allard Way to follow Dutts from Copsewood. All but one of the Nuneaton Griff lads have already moved on but the Copsewood lads have stayed with the club  and they have all settled in well. Reece Blackmore has really come on since moving into his favoured midfield position and the improvement in Ryan Harkin has been clear with the young striker already having  8 goals to his name. Young midfielders Luke Downes and Jackson Downie continue their football careers at the club and they are the only two now left at the club from last season. A early FA Cup exit was followed by an 8-0 victory over Brocton in the first league game and Sphinx have gone to on to have a solid start to the season despite the continuous squad building. The key early signings for me were goalkeeper Scott Dutton (son of Stuart), Darren Eggleton, Ryan Harkin and Scott Lower. Scott’s presence will provide much needed stability to the goalkeeper position, Eggleton has provided solidity to the defence, Harkin is a an out and out striker and you will do well to find a better right back than Scott Lower at this level.

AUTUMN – Scott Lower had joined from Barwell who are two divisions higher than Sphinx and he is a Coventry man too. He has appeared to have been the catalyst for the recruitment of other Coventry born players to re-join the club during the season. Players to return from higher levels are Jamie McAteer, Jamie Towers and Callum Woodward and we’ve even had a few games from Liam Kay. The squad has constantly been evolving for the better as the season has gone on and there was some uncertainty around the background staff too during the early stages but that appears to have settle down as well now. There is now a physio in place and Dutts has the reliable assistance of Scott Furlong and Rich Webb in the dug out. Scott Furlong took Folly Lane to the Coventry Alliance Premier Division title previously so he knows all about winning.  When you consider the work Stuart Dutton was left with in the summer you cannot fail to be impressed with the start he has made to the job. As we approach the end of the year, Sphinx are in the top 10 of the MFL Premier Division and already have 30 points on the board which is just 9 points short of last seasons final total. The improvement since last season is obvious when you look at the stats. The first 22 games of this season has produced more wins, less defeats, more goals and more points than at the same stage last season. There has still been a lot of players used this season with the total already standing at 46. That has settled down considerably in recent weeks and the vast majority of the squad now are Coventry lads who understand what it means to pull on the shirt of Coventry Sphinx. A key point is the difference in  goal with Scott Dutton being ever present except for a one game ban he served. Already we have 5 players who have made over 20 appearances and that is again a demonstration of the squad becoming more settled. The five regulars are Scott Dutton, Darren Eggleton, Scott Lower, Liam Cairns and Ryan Harkin.

WINTER – The end of the year is approaching and only Luke Downes and Jackson Downie have been constant factors in the squad over the twelve months. These two are Sphinx lads through and through and their loyalty to the club should not go unnoticed. 47 league games have been played from last Christmas to this Christmas and that has produced 16 wins. Those games have featured an incredible amount of goals with a total of 192 scored by both sides in those games. Sphinx have scored 90 of those and their progress is now on an upward curve. Whatever the result, it’s almost certain you will see goals in a Coventry Sphinx game and you will not be lacking in desire with a Stuart Dutton team either. The key word now is improvement. That’s exactly what has been happening over the year and with the support of the everyone I’m confident that improvement will continue. At the start of the season there was a feeling that “no relegation battle” would be enough as the rebuild got underway but a top 10 start to the season has the people around the club looking upwards. Positivity can have a remarkable effect on people, particularly players so lets get right behind the team and see how high we can finish.

Up The Sphinx

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