COVENTRY City moved to the top of League One with a hard-fought 1-0 win against promotion rivals Sunderland in front of the TV cameras.
Excitement turned to euphoria among fans as a scrappy, full-blooded and often frantic promotion fight was played out on an unusually bobbly and slower St Andrew’s pitch.
All connected with the club are now collectively trying to keep their feet on the ground with 11 tough matches still to play, starting at Ipswich on Saturday.
But the enormity of the potential achievement raised more plaudits nationally as Mark Robins’ men battled for every ball, showed resolute defending and touches of footballing class – in circumstances and conditions that were never going to be conducive to their flowing, passing football.
That said, team selection returned to the personnel and formation that has been their possession-based hallmark. Midfielder Jamie Allen made a welcome return after two strikers started the midweek home draw with Rotherham, who City replace at the top.
Allen put in a man-of-the-match performance, passing though and running past opponents while continuing with his impressive hard work off the ball, as seen last week at Rochdale.
The same qualities were also again demonstrated by bandaged Aston Villa loanee Callum O’Hare. The pair combined brilliantly once more – bringing in teammates including lone striker Matty Godden. who again put in a tireless shift stretching the play and leading the line.
Right wing-back Dabo and central midfielder Walsh were less influential than usual but still made major contributions. McCallum returned to his best at left wing-back, and a rock-solid back-three in McFadzean, Rose and Hyam were key to the momentous win.
Godden’s fine turn and low strike past Mclaughlin’s right hand from inside the area, after being put in by a clever Allen through-ball, came after just two minutes. It turned out to be the match winner, with Coventry moving the ball around magnificently and dominating the early stages.
But the visitors were on top for most of the first half, closing down well in midfield, playing in the channels notably on the right with the threatening Chris McGuire, and having height in the box from crosses and set pieces.
On six minutes. Sunderland’s lone striker Wyke struck just wide from outside the box after mistaken juggling by Walsh. Good pressing earlier by O’Nien had robbed Kelly.
On 17 minutes, the tall defender Flanagan missed a great chance at the far post with a volley over the bar from an excellent long McGuire free-kick.
A minute later, Godden went down in the box claiming a penalty after good approach play from O’Hare, City’s biggest threat in the first half. Flanagan has appeared to take the man and the ball.
On 31 minutes, Wyke headed just over from one of several Sunderland corners after a mix-up between the otherwise impeccable McFadzean and Marosi, who was booked for hitting the ball away just seconds after Flanagan had been warned for doing the same thing.
On 47 minutes, Coventry had a penalty shout, with Kelly nudged in the back by ex-City defender Jordan Willis from an Allen cross.
The home side were again well on top in the opening exchanges of the half. Dabo crossed just too high for O’Hare, Kelly fired wide from a McCallum corner, and O’Hare was put through by Walsh but he couldn’t quite gather to shoot.
Just after the hour, another Sunderland corner saw wrestling and tugging in the box by Kelly and particularly Walsh, for what could have been a penalty.
On 65, Kelly fired over again after a good move on the right involving Allen and Dabo. Then Allen shot at the keeper from a Walsh through-ball, after clever combinations on the right involving Dabo and Allen.
Sunderland put on a second big striker, Lafferty, for left wingback Hume, on 68 minutes. Then a Wyke header went straight at keeper Marosi from another good Maguire deep cross.
The 3,000 Sunderland fans thought they had equalised on 73 minutes when Kelly was robbed by good pressing from Gooch. Midfielder Max Power’s shot was deflected off O’Nien in an offside position.
On 82 minutes, Godden was put clean-through from a McCallum long ball. But he took the shot too early and fired just wide of the near post.
The winner meant Godden had scored the crucial only goal in each of Coventry’s three huge recent games against promotion rivals – including the spectacular winner against Portsmouth and equaliser against Rotherham.