Hamer blow fells Middlesbrough to put Coventry in Championship playoff final
Four-year contract extensions are rarely as deserved as the one signed by Mark Robins on the eve of this triumph. Not content with leading Coventry from League Two to the Championship, the former Manchester United forward has now guided them to the verge of football’s promised land.
Gustavo Hamer’s winner, bent superlatively into the top corner, secured the visitors a Wembley playoff final date with Luton, where victory will mean entry to the Premier League. Robins is on the verge of what many deemed mission impossible.
After spending years dodging homelessness and extinction, and, even now, coping with one of the second tier’s lowest budgets, Coventry are one game away from returning to the top flight after 22 years.
Credit is due not merely to Hamer, a dangerous Brazilian-born midfielder, and Victor Gyokeres, Coventry’s excellent Sweden striker, for undoing Michael Carrick’s Middlesbrough, but also to Robins’s outstanding defence. Rarely this season can Chuba Akpom, the Championship’s leading scorer, have been restricted to such thin pickings.
“That was the longest game of my career,” said Robins. “Middlesbrough are so good, give them any time and space and they’ll hurt you. But my players are so tactically clever they stopped them. It’s been an unbelievable team effort – and our supporters have really driven us home. We’ve got to enjoy tonight.”
Small wonder that Steve Gibson, Boro’s owner, seemed a study in directors’ box dejection. He has a fine manager in Carrick but the former Manchester United midfielder – responsible for transforming a team that had looked relegation-bound under Chris Wilder last autumn – was left ruing his side’s failure to translate the lion’s share of possession into clear cut chances.
“I’m gutted for our fans,” said Carrick. “Coventry are a very good, well organised, team, they defended very well and we’ve just come up a bit short. These experiences are never very nice. But congratulations to Mark and his staff, they’ve done an unbelievable job.”
A flag had been placed on almost every seat and, at kick off, the Riverside was transformed into an evocative sea of red. Once the action began, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the good times here, most notably in 2006 when Steve McClaren’s Boro swashbuckled their way into the Uefa Cup final.
At their very best, Carrick’s class of 2022-23 can look almost as strong in midfield as that band of European adventurers and this perhaps explains why Robins tweaked Coventry’s formation, leaving Gyokeres as his lone striker.
Ben Sheaf took the additional precaution of swiftly flattening Akpom early on when Boro fully stretched their guests courtesy of a stream of one- and two-touch passes. After prolonged treatment, Akpom eventually rose, albeit rather gingerly, to his feet and continued but he was never at his best.
Sheaf continued to prove a somewhat abrasive figure as he drew Hayden Hackney into an intriguing midfield duel. For quite a while Hackney looked to be winning it, yet for all Boro’s overall dominance their final ball was wanting as they struggled to deconstruct Coventry’s high efficiency rearguard.
Indeed as the clock ticked past the 40 minute mark the match still awaited its first shot on target and Carrick, otherwise a study in elegantly straight backed technical area calm, began balancing a notepad on his thigh and jotting frantically.
Robins, meanwhile, remained still, staying so tranquil he barely twitched a muscle. No matter that Boro controlled almost 70% of the first-half possession, they barely tested Ben Wilson. Tellingly, Coventry’s goalkeeper did not face his first effort on target until the verge of half-time when Darragh Lenihan’s soft header from a corner fell straight into his arms.
Then, in the 57th minute, Coventry emphasised their counterattacking threat by scoring with their first shot on target. It began when Ryan Giles conceded possession and the increasingly influential Gyokeres collected a through ball over the top and drew Zack Steffen off his line.
The Swede toed the ball on for the onrushing Hamer to send an imperious shot curving into the top corner after cutting in from the left, dodging a marker en route.
As Hamer, who would subsequently hit the bar with a free-kick, celebrated in front of the exultant visiting fans, poor Giles looked desolate but, exhibiting impressive management, Carrick summoned the defender for a quiet supportive word.
“It’s a tough one to take and I’m so disappointed but I’m genuinely proud of the boys,” said Boro’s manager. “We’ll come back stronger.”