Nottingham Forest took a step towards safety with their first home win since November.
And when Portsmouth are deducted their ten points it will see Forest move out of the bottom three.
Neither team looked confident in a quiet first half which showed little quality and looked like the relegation battle that is was.
It was a much improved performance by Forest in the second half with them hitting the post and having a close-range shot well-saved before a superb goal from McCleary put them in front.
And they took the pressure off when Robbie Findley made it two with six minutes of normal time remaining.
Forest got forward early on with a great ball forward from Adlene Guedioura which picked out Chris Gunter, who put the ball out off a Coventry player. Andy Reid put the corner in from the right hand side and Coventry keeper Joe Murphy did well to come out and gather.
A good break by Coventry saw Alex Nimely send the ball flying towards goal from 25 yards out but it went a yard wide of the post.
It was the 20th minute before Forest had a chance, similar to Nimely's effort, when Garath McCleary sent the ball forward to Marcus Tudgay, whose long-range effort was just wide of the far post.
There was a half chance from Forest when Reid flicked the ball towards George Elokobi as he ran into the box but his low cross went right across the face of goal without anyone being able to get on the end of it.
But chances were few and far between as the half progressed, with both sides creating little and giving the ball away too often.
It was the 38th minute before Forest created anything else when McCleary moved out to the left and then cut back in to curl a shot across the face of goal and out off a deflection to give Forest a corner.
Coventry threatened when Oliver Norwood sent the ball in from the left for Gary McSheffrey whose low shot was easy for Lee Camp to gather up at the near post.
The away side won a corner when McSheffrey won the ball to get a shot in, which was deflected out.
And with three corners in quick succession, they finished the half putting the Forest goal under pressure.
The second half saw Scott Wootton replaced by Dexter Blackstock and Robbie Findley coming on in the place of Tudgay, who has been unwell all week.
It was a positive start by Forest and for the first time they put the Coventry goal under real pressure.
A cross came in from Gunter and the ball went up in the air before Blackstock challenged the keeper for it. Murphy dropped the ball and it came off the post before being scrambled away for a corner.
And Forest threatened again when McCleary and Gunter combined well to get the ball forward and Murphy did well to come out and smother it.
A good break forward by Coventry came close to giving them the lead when a long ball forward was nodded down by Clive Platt for Gary Deegan who ran onto the ball and smashed it towards goal from 20 yards out but it flashed wide of the post.
And they looked dangerous again when McSheffrey's effort went across the six-yard box and Carl Baker sent it back from the other side before it was deflected wide by Luke Chambers.
A great save by Murphy prevented Forest from taking the lead when the ball was driven in by McCleary and Reid stuck a foot out to divert the ball in from two yards out and somehow the keeper managed to keep the ball out.
The Forest fans wanted a penalty when Blackstock fed the ball through to Findley who went down in a crowded box but referee Mark Clattenburg kept his arms firmly at his side.
Seconds later Forest were in front from a magnificent solo effort from McCleary who ran at pace from the half way line and shot from the edge of the penalty area low into the bottom corner.
McCleary was substituted straight after, replaced by Jonathan Greening, to the dismay of the home crowd, but he was soon receiving treatment in the dugout, with an ice pack on his leg.
An injury to Guedioura saw him go off to receive treatment. He went back on but was gingerly holding his right arm against his side.
Forest were two goals in front six minutes before time when Reid crossed the ball to Findley who timed his run perfectly, chesting the ball down and with only Murphy to beat, slotted the ball under him to secure the three points.
Nottingham Forest: Camp, Chambers(C), Wootton(Blackstock 45min HT), Higginbotham, Elokobi, Gunter, Moussi, Guedioura, McCleary(Greening 78min), Reid, Tudgay( Findley 45minHT)
Subs not used: Smith, Lynch,
Scorer: McCleary 74min, Findley 86min
Coventry City: Murphy, Keogh(C), Christie, Clarke, Norwood, McSheffrey, Deegan(Eastwood 89min), Nimely, Cranie, Platt, Baker(Bell 77min)
Subsnot used: Dunn, Willis, Thomas,
Referee: M Clattenburg
Attendance: 21,588 away attn: 2,663