By Richard Clarke
Coventry’s last trip to Arsenal did not live long in a memory. Few will recall Sylvain Wiltord’s opener midway through the first half at Highbury in September 2000, nor the home side’s second just before Mustapha Hadji pulled one back 10 minutes from time.
Arsène Wenger’s team held on and, with the job done, everyone went home happy enough. They were on the way to a decent season - second place and an FA Cup final. Coventry went down alongside Bradford City and, incredibly enough, Manchester City. The West Midlands side have never recovered their top-flight status.
However the Sky Blues’ visit to Emirates Stadium on Wednesday for a Capital One Cup third-round tie now sheds a special light on the long-lost game 12 years ago.
Yes, there is Nico Yennaris, Arsenal mascot against Coventry in September 2000 and probable Arsenal right-back against Coventry in September 2012.
Then there is the tale of Paolo Vernazza,
The midfielder was as local as Arsenal players come. After all, his father ran a hairdressers on Blackstock Road, just a goal-kick or so from Highbury. Silky and creative, Vernazza worked his way up through the ranks to be one the youngsters knocking loudest on the door of a first-team opportunity. The year before that Coventry game he had represented England Under-19s at the World Youth Championship alongside Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch, Andy Johnson and Matthew Etherington.
Still, first-team chances were rare so scoring Arsenal’s second goal that day was significant.
But not as significant as the celebration that followed.
Vernazza brushed off his team-mates and ran away pointing towards the ‘Paddock’, an area behind the dug-outs where the younger players watched the senior games. He explained later that the reserve team members had agreed the first of them to score at the highest level would share it with the others.
It was not his goal, it was theirs. Vernazza may have hit the shot but all his team-mates had helped put him in position.
And before Wenger prepared to unleash another set of youngsters in the finishing school of the ‘League Cup’, the manager readily admitted that the ‘up-and-comers’ are always a team within a team. They are a tight-knit group playing and fighting together in the knowledge that they maybe honing their skills to one day compete against each other for the ultimate prize - a first-team spot.
“It is always like that,” agreed Wenger. “Because they wait for their chance and, of course, they want it. There is solidarity and yet a competition within the group. That is the mystery and magic of football. There is a solidarity for the unit and what the group represents but internally a competition to be the first to get a chance. It is a great process of learning life, because really that is what life is about.”
In Vernazza’s time the League Cup hopefuls included Moritz Volz, Graham Barrett, Stuart Taylor, Jermaine Pennant and Ashely Cole. The new names to conjure with on Wednesday include Hector Bellerin, Martin Angha, Thomas Eisfeld, Serge Gnabry and Damian Martinez.
For the last of those, this game will be massive - and not just for the player himself. Injuries elsewhere have meant the Argentinian has been the substitute keeper for the first team during much of this season. Martinez has represented his country at under-17 and under-19 level. He even got a call-up to the full squad but did not feature. His pro career to date amounts to one game on loan at Oxford United. With Wojceich Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski out for a few games yet, you could argue that Wenger wants Martinez to play as much as the stopper himself.
“Goalkeeper is maybe the position where you get the fewest chances and when you play you must give a good impression,” said the manager. “This will be an opportunity for him.”
At the other end of the scale there is Andre Santos. A seasoned international full back with Brazil who has had just eight minutes of first-team action this season.
“Yes, it’s another chance for him,” said Wenger. “I have confidence in Andre Santos but, at the moment, Kieran Gibbs is doing well. The defence overall has done well since the start of the season, so Andre has not had many opportunities. However they will come because we play so many games. If we do well in the competitions, that will come absolutely naturally. Nobody can play all the games.”
Plenty of players in a similar position will get a run-out too - Andrey Arshavin, Olivier Giroud, Johan Djourou, Marouane Chamakh, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott. In addition, Emmanuel Frimpong is set to be involved after a long-term knee injury.
As for Coventry, they have not registered a win in League One this season and only goal difference is holding them off the bottom of the table. Mark Robins was installed as their new manager last week but saw his side beaten at home by Carlisle in his first game. The most familiar names to Arsenal fans will be captain Kevin Kilbane and former Birmingham striker Gary McSheffrey.
“When we played against Coventry City in the Premier League they were always a good side,” said Wenger. “They had Robbie Keane and some fantastic players. For me it is a football city.
“But on Wednesday it’s an opportunity for us to go through. We have always managed to deal well with these games and I hope we will do it again.
“Let's not look at their position in the table because a cup game is a cup game. Everybody forgets their current position and just focuses on a possibly exceptional day for them. So let’s just prepare properly and focus on the match.”
That is what Wenger has always done when playing lower league opposition in this competition and two defeats in 35 such games suggests the approach has served him well.
As for Vernazza, he moved to Watford two months after that goal with a total of 12 Arsenal appearances against his name. Then he represented Rotherham, Barnet and Dagenham & Redbridge before moving into non-League. He retired in 2010.
That strike against Coventry would be his only goal for Arsenal, the club he had grown up supporting and then grown up with.
By making the first team at all he had achieved much more than most. And by scoring against Coventry he ensured he will always be remembered.
Even if it is every 12 years or so.
* Wednesday’s tie will be decided on the night via extra-time or penalties if necessary