COVENTRY City were demoted to the fourth tier of English football at the weekend with a spell in League Two awaiting the Sky Blues next term.
A huge fall from grace for a team that was playing Premier League football just 16 years ago, and drawing 3-3 at Leeds United in the top flight 21 years ago this coming weekend.
The Coventry side featured an ex-Leeds favourite in Noel Whelan – and a future White in Darren Huckerby who impressed his would-be employers in no uncertain terms with a 42-minute hat-trick just two days after his 22nd birthday.
Leeds had finished 11th the season prior under George Graham, who had taken over from Howard Wilkinson the previous September.
In his first full season in charge, Graham’s Whites were on their way to a fifth-placed finish and a return to Europe in the UEFA Cup.
Coventry, meanwhile, began the campaign merely grateful to be competing in the top flight after a miraculous great escape saw the club survive relegation on the final day of the previous season under former Whites favourite Gordon Strachan.
A final-day victory over Tottenham and losses for eventually relegated duo Sunderland and Middlesbrough ensured a 31st-consecutive season in the top flight for the Sky Blues. And City were on their way to an 11th-placed finish the following term – with no sign of the disastrous collapse down the leagues to come.
Even so, Coventry arrived at Elland Road as underdogs against a United side who had won six of their last eight league games – inspired by the goal prowess of Hasselbaink, who had been signed from Boavista the previous summer.
And it was Hasselbaink who gave the Whites a 16th-minute lead when latching on to Ian Harte’s long, raking pass before beating Coventry ’keeper Steve Ogrizovic from a tight angle for his 20th goal of the campaign.
But the Sky Blues hit back just four minutes later when Huckerby raced on to a Paul Telfer header in similar fashion and easily slammed past Nigel Martyn when one-on-one.
Coventry found themselves level for just eight minutes as a free-kick on the edge of the Sky Blues’ box was then drilled home by Hasselbaink into the same corner as his first strike.
But Coventry – and Huckerby – again hit straight back just six minutes later when Trond Soltvedt released the City striker who showed blistering pace to skin the Whites’ defence before launching a brilliant effort into the top-right corner.
And 27 minutes into the second half, Soltvedt and Huckerby combined again to put the Sky Blues ahead for the first time as the midfielder’s pass presented the striker another one-on-one which he finished with aplomb.
Leeds were suddenly heading for a first league loss at Elland Road since February but, after great work from Hasselbaink, David Hopkin wriggled a square ball through to Harry Kewell to net the game’s third equaliser and sixth goal 15 minutes from time.
Nevertheless, Huckerby had stolen the show with his hat-trick taking his seasonal tally to 15. After scoring another 12 for Coventry in the following season, Huckerby then joined Leeds the next summer.
But two years later his former side were relegated en route to a slide down the league that was even worse than United’s own.
Leeds United 3
(Hasselbaink 16, 28 Kewell 75)
Coventry City 3
(Huckerby 20, 34, 62)
FA Carling Premiership Saturday, April 25, 1996
Leeds United: Martyn, Kelly, Wetherall, Hiden, Harte (Robertson 88), Halle, Haaland, Bowyer, Kewell, Hasselbaink, Wallace (Hopkin 72). Subs not used: Molenaar, McPhail, Beeney. Coventry City: Ogrizovic, Nilsson, Shaw, Breen, Hall (Williams 86), Telfer, Soltvedt, Boland, Whelan, Huckerby, Dublin. Subs not used: Moldovan, Strachan, Shilton, Hedman.
Referee: M D Reed (Birmingham).