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FOOTBALL: SKY BLUES: Supporters rally to City's hopeful cause; TEENAGE TALENT TAKES CENTRE STAGE AS CITY LOOK TO THE FUTURE.

Byline: ANDY TURNER Chief Football Writer

COVENTRY CITY 0 GILLINGHAM 0

COVENTRY CITY'S warts-and-all week of coming clean with the fans about some of the reasons behind such a miserable season was a huge success in PR terms.

The proof of the pudding came at 2.45pm when player-manager Gary McAllister and chairman Mike McGinnity bravely took to the microphone to address the supporters at Highfield Road.

They were received warmly as they both acknowledged that it had been a rotten campaign but promised that things will get better - a trend which followed right through the afternoon despite the Sky Blues still not being able to win their last game at home.

As McAllister pointed out in his short address, the fans have not had much to shout about this season, but the 14,000-plus who turned out (admittedly swelled by the special ticket deal and 'kids for a quid' offer) were determined to enjoy themselves and get behind their team who came out on to the pitch to the sound the original version of 'Let's All Sing Together' - a reminder of better days gone by and perhaps a hint that the future will see similar times again.

The fans have had very little to hang on to this season in terms of tangible success but there was plenty to see out on the field on Saturday where, by the end of the game, the team must have been the youngest senior eleven of all time.

Six teenagers, including two 16-year-olds, finished the match and none looked remotely out of place.

Pick of the youngsters was Isaac Osbourne who was given a full senior debut at the tender age of 16. And although understandably a little tentative at first, the central midfielder grew in confidence and showed a keen eye for goal with two long-range efforts.

He also passed the ball well, tackled hard and showed great energy alongside a couple of veteran campaigners more than double his age.

"I thought Isaac was excellent and grew as the game went on," said one of the more senior midfield pair, McAllister, who also gave second-half senior debuts to centre-half Sean Cooney and midfielder Mark Noon.

"You have to bear in mind he's just 16 years of age and I am very, very pleased to be able to get him involved along with Mark, Sean and Ben Mackey, as well as having Andrew Whing and David Pipe in there. So that is one wee ray of hope for us all to see."

But it was the other old stager, 37-year-old Vicente Engonga, who stole the show with arguably his best game for the club since he arrived and quickly disappointed in February - which is ironic considering his name was among those players set for release in the summer.

The Spaniard's experience and obvious class finally came to the fore as he controlled the midfield with his holding presence and fed his team- mates around him to create openings.

The fact that those opportunities failed to bear fruit is a problem the club have suffered for most of the season and is clearly an area which the manager is looking to address in the close season.

"There was some good approach play but we have been lacking up front," said McAllister, who started with the on-loan Matt Jansen and 19-year- old David Pipe up front.

"That is not to say that the two that played on Saturday were poor because I thought they ran and ran and we just didn't get a break on the ball, which is the way it is at the moment.

"But we need some goals and a presence up the park. That is pretty clear and we also need a strong character and someone who can be a role model to the younger strikers and players here as well."

Gillingham, in contrast, saw less of the ball but had a handful of clear- cut opportunities to win the game.

The first two came within the first five minutes when right-back turned striker Nyron Nosworthy was given a free header at the far post before Paul Smith chipped Gary Montgomery and hit the underside of the bar.

Danny Spiller hoofed a shot high over the goal in the second half when he should have buried it in the back of the net while substitute Leon Johnson had a header cleared off the line by Engonga and fired wide from a perfect scoring position two minutes from time.

But City held out and instead of leaving the field to boos and a half- empty stadium as they have done on a number of occasions this season, received a standing ovation as they walked round the pitch thanking the fans for their support.

"There was a very encouraging response from the fans both before and after the game," said the grateful McAllister.

"We have spelled it out very plainly and clearly over the last three or four days and people have taken that on board and understand where the club are going now, and now we must look forward.

"It would have been excellent to reward them with a win in the last home game but we move on to next week and hope that we can get three points and a positive result to finish the season."

TEAMS

SKY BLUES (3-5-2): Gary Montgomery; Mo Konjic, Gary Caldwell, Calum Davenport; Andrew Whing, Isaac Osbourne, Vicente Engonga, Gary McAllister, Dean Gordon, David Pipe, Matt Jansen.

Substitutes: Mark Noon, Sean Cooney and Ben Mackey (77 mins, for Gary McAllister, Mo Konjic and Matt Jansen). Not used: Fabien Debec (goalkeeper), Juan Sara.

GILLINGHAM (4-4-2): Jason Brown; Nicky Southall, Barry Ashby, Chris Hope, Roland Edge; Paul Smith, Simon Osbourn, Danny Spiller, Paul Shaw; Jones Awuah, Nyron Nosworthy.

Substitutes: David Perpetuini (66 mins, for Jones Awuah), Leon Johnson (80 mins, for Danny Spiller). Not used: Vince Bartram (goalkeeper), Richard Rose, Jon Wallis.

MATCH FACTS

SUMMARY: A mildly entertaining game failed to produce any goals for City's last game of a thoroughly miserable home campaign. But the fans appeared to enjoy the penultimate match of the season as they got behind a team packed with youngsters.

BOOKINGS: Danny Spiller (23 minutes, foul on Andrew Whing).

ATTENDANCE: 14,795.

REFEREE: Matt Messias (North Yorkshire) Substituted at half time by Paul Danson (Leicestershire) due to an injury.

STAR MAN

VICENTE ENGONGA

Finally lived up to his classy reputation as he did a solid job in holding the midfield.

CAPTION(S):

PUT ON A HAPPY FACE: Sky Blues skipper Mo Konjic hurled his shirt into the crowd at the end of the final match of a traumatic season Pictures: RICHARD NELMES; THROWN IN AT THE DEEP END: Isaac Osbourne, given his full debut at the age of 16, gets stuck in against Gillingham. Below, Mark Noon, another of the teenage prospects who is being fast-tracked to the first team; STAR MAN: Kev Monks, Coventry City's Fan of the Year for 2003, receives a certificate marking his achievement from Sky Blues midfielder a
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Apr 28, 2003
Words:1172
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