‘Real deal’ Robins relies on Sky Blues thinking for reunion with United

<span>Mark Robins’ tenure at Coventry has seen apathy from supporters replaced by excitement in the stands, quality on the pitch and stability behind the scenes.</span><span>Illustration: Graham Hunt/Shutterstock; PA Images/Alamy; Guardian Design</span>
Mark Robins’ tenure at Coventry has seen apathy from supporters replaced by excitement in the stands, quality on the pitch and stability behind the scenes.Illustration: Graham Hunt/Shutterstock; PA Images/Alamy; Guardian Design

When Jürgen Klopp announced in January he would leave Liverpool at the end of the season, it was not just the news itself that seemed strange. The shock, the communal widening of the eyes, was in part because, with the shelf life of managers shorter than ever, rarely does anyone go on their own terms.

Since Klopp informed the Liverpool hierarchy last November of his intention to step down, 27 managers in the top four divisions – almost one third of those employed – have been dismissed. At eight and a half years Klopp has worked unbroken in the Premier League or EFL for longer than any other current manager and the heir to that throne, Pep Guardiola, reached a similar untouchable point some time ago.

Related: ‘That goal kickstarted an era’: how Mark Robins saved Alex Ferguson

The same goes for Mark Robins, the 54-year-old who ranks third on the list. Last month Robins celebrated seven years in his second spell at Coventry City, marking the anniversary by teeing up Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against his former club Manchester United, and there is a reason why supporters speak of him, as they do Klopp and Guardiola, in a godly light. Robins’ staying power is even more admirable given the challenges he has overcome, the battles he has won.

His success is a victory for longevity and stability, two fingers to short-termism and the volatility that stalks the game. Last year Michael Doyle, whom Robins made his first signing and captain on his return in 2017, suggested the achievements were statue-worthy, but since then Robins has led the team to within a penalty shootout of the Premier League and now there is another Wembley trip to relish.

Coventry, again, will travel in numbers and a glance at their attendances captures the transformation under Robins. He led the club out of League Two at the first attempt and has restored pride in a club bruised by off-field trauma: despised owners, groundshares and broken relationships. Dave Boddy, the former chief executive who until leaving in January had been on the journey every step of the way, remembers when the visits of Carlisle and Cambridge in 2017-18 saw little more than 6,000 fans trickle into the vast stadium bowl.

In February that season they lost three in a row – Forest Green, Accrington and Colchester – and secured a playoff spot on the final day after a 0-0 draw against Morecambe. A fortnight ago, a record crowd of 30,232 filled the ground for victory over Leeds. “We are averaging 25,000 this season – the highest average attendance since 1971,” Boddy says. “That is the mountain we have climbed.”

In the undisputed era of the head coach, Robins is surely a dying breed. “He is totally in control of everything and rightly so, in the old-fashioned sense of a manager,” Boddy says. “He runs it from top to bottom. That is the way that he has probably been brought up, coming through Manchester United’s ranks. That was the way Sir Alex Ferguson ran Manchester United and while I’m not comparing the two, it is not dissimilar in the way that he goes about it. He is an excellent man-manager, a brilliant tactician. Adi [Viveash, Coventry’s assistant manager] is also extremely skilled as a coach and a player developer, that makes them the real deal and, in many ways, the complete package.”

On Robins’ first day back, he was dismayed when one player arrived on the training pitch eating toast a minute before the session was due to start at 10.30am. Those who work with Robins talk about how his professionalism and determination to drive standards underpin their rise. “There are no easy days,” says Liam Kelly, the Coventry captain who joined the club in the fourth tier in 2017.

“Training is such a high standard every single day. You have to work hard and that has been one of the key components to the success through all of the teams that have played the last few seasons. The bar is set so high. It’s not about being content with where we are but always wanting to push one step further.”

Coventry make their first FA Cup return to Wembley since Brian Kilcline, Keith Houchen, Steve Ogrizovic et al pulled off that famous 3-2 win over Tottenham in the 1987 final (pictured). Looking for an omen? As in that famous run they have already overcome Sheffield Wednesday this season: Callum O’Hare scored twice in a 4-1 fourth-round replay win after a 1-1 draw at Hillsborough; in 1987 Houchen bagged a brace to add to Cyrille Regis’s goal in a 3-1 quarter-final win over the Owls in Sheffield. And on the way to glory John Sillett’s side faced a Manchester United team with an embattled manager in the dugout – Houchen netted the only goal as they beat Alex Ferguson’s side 1-0. Erik ten Hag’s 2024 vintage stand in the way tomorrow afternoon. Guardian sport

One of the significant steps that helped Robins build bridges with an apathetic fanbase was to engage with supporters’ clubs set up in surrounding towns – and beyond – by partaking in monthly Q+A sessions. “We’ve got a London supporters’ group and we travelled down on the train after training to do one there on several occasions,” says Boddy, acknowledging they would not always have the answers. “We had to take the punches and remember actions speak louder than words. It has not all been roses and light but it is about putting in the hard yards, isn’t it?”

Coventry need a flawless finish to have a chance of making the playoffs for a second successive season and extending their run of year-on-year improvement under Robins, after finishing fifth last season. He rebuilt the team again last summer after absorbing the departures of Viktor Gyökeres, who Robins believes will excel at the peak of the game, and Gustavo Hamer, to Sporting and Sheffield United respectively. Off the pitch, they have also made strides. Their Ryton training base is being revamped, with medical facilities such as hyperbaric and cryotherapy chambers introduced, and staffing levels have multiplied since the days when Robins had to moonlight as an executive and peacemaker. Dr Claire-Marie Roberts began her role as performance director this year after almost a decade at the Premier League. “One of Mark’s strengths is that he always wants to drive it on,” Boddy says. “We knocked on the door last season and he has the ambition to be a Premier League manager.”

Related: ‘We move on’: Ten Hag forgives Garnacho and calms talk of divided squad

Sunderland came calling in 2019 – the only known attempt to prise Robins from Coventry – but he rejected the chance to speak to them and signed a new contract. Now he can look forward to a fourth Wembley trip in seven years, another outing for the supporters to savour. “We’ve given them a special occasion just being there; being in the national stadium against Manchester United, it doesn’t get much bigger than that,” Robins says. “We’ve also got to carry a threat because otherwise we’ll just be sat there [passively] for 90 minutes.”

Robins acknowledges his perception as a serious, measured character. “He is absolutely that, but he is also good fun and good company, a big family man,” Boddy says. Robins scored the goal that was widely thought to keep Ferguson in his job in 1990, against Nottingham Forest in this competition, but the chances of him replaying that moment over in his mind before Sunday are zero.

The manager is more concerned about trying to beat United, but stresses it is important his players are not duped by the negativity surrounding Erik ten Hag’s side. “Pundits, people in football talk in a derisory way about Manchester United, what they’re doing and how they’re performing,” Robins says. “But the truth of it is they have got top, top players. Manchester United are the biggest club in the world. If you cannot enjoy that, you shouldn’t be playing.”