SENT TO COVENTRY
JOHN WRAGG TAKES A LOOK AT HOW THE SKY BLUES HAVE BECOME OUTSIDERS IN THEIR OWN HOME…
... and trying to find the Sky Blues
THE thing is, when you are sent to Coventry it is very hard to find where Coventry City FC play. There’s the club crest on the roadside corner of the Ricoh Arena. But it’s high up, easy to miss.
When you get in the ground there’s the blue seats with CCFC and Sky Blues picked out in white, so you do know you are in the right place. Bit late by then though, isn’t it?
On the Ricoh Arena website there’s advertising for the Grosvenor Casino that’s part of the stadium complex. There’s the Double Tree By Hilton at Ricoh Arena Hotel. As hotel names go, it’s more of a complete sentence.
There’s Wasps Rugby Club. “World class rugby at the Ricoh Arena” it is billed.
Then there’s the Rolling Stones at the Ricoh in June, Billy Ocean and an 80s revival a fortnight later, Peter Andre in a 90s concert in October.
Aussie Peter Andre might not know this, but Mick Jagger, a football fan, will and Billy Ocean ought to if he does his history of major events in this country in the 80s: Coventry City won the FA Cup in 1987 in one of the best finals ever.
You will find no mention of it at the Ricoh Arena. You will find very little mention of Coventry City FC at all at their home ground.
It’s as if they don’t exist, airbrushed, a gypsy club that plays games where they are virtually ignored. The club is run from offices at the training ground and tickets are sold from yet another rugby club, Coventry RFC.
Out of all this chaos football manager Mark Robins has halted an awful decline on the pitch that has seen fourth tier football in the city for the first time in 59 years.
He has a young vibrant team bidding to get promotion out of League Two despite playing on a pitch that is a throwback to the 1960s, never mind Cov’s 80s heyday.
As you walk around the Ricoh to a grandiose main entrance that looks more Hollywood than even the Emirates, there’s not a mention that this is a) a football ground or b) Coventry City play here.
The only Sky Blue you will see is in August, maybe September. There are plaques in the stadium wall at one point that pay tribute to George Curtis, John Sillett, Keith Houchen and Steve Ogrizovic, heroes of Coventry’s football club.
The seven foot bronze statue of Jimmy Hill, a true innovator of football both at Coventry and nationally, stands, incongruously, in front of the Wasps club shop.
Needless to say, there is no Coventry City FC club shop.
There’s branding in the lounges but otherwise anything that publicises Coventry City FC has to be put up six to eight hours before a game and taken down again between six and eight hours after a game. It’s IKEA football. The Junior Sky Blues club is run voluntarily by Pat Raybould, a Cov fan for 60 years, before Saturday games.
It costs her £30-£50 to put it on each time and Kirk Stephens, president of the former players’ association, went to see the family zone and wrote a cheque for £250 to cover the next few sessions.
All the paraphernalia it takes to keep the kids happy, electronic football, Subbuteo, televisions, FIFA, it all has to be removed from the ground each day and stored elsewhere. They are not allowed to keep it on the ground.
Behind reception at the Ricoh, where you go to the smart kiosk to pick up a ticket, there are the Coventry City banners that are not allowed to be put up until the specified six-eight hours before kick-off and taken down straight away at the finish.
“The average supporter has got no idea of what goes on,” says a Coventry insider.
The dressing rooms Cov use now were all refitted to suit Wasps’ requirements when they took ownership of the Ricoh four years ago. “The Ricoh was built for use by a football club,” says a Cov fan.
“I’ve tried to embrace what has happened but it has never felt like home. Fans still go and buy season tickets because if we don’t then the manager doesn’t have a budget for the team.
“The team is doing a lot better, but the atmosphere is still not good. As soon as we are losing it’s ‘SISU out’ and the protest banners go up.”
The anger is with SISU Capital, a hedge fund that bought 90 per cent of the football club ten years and four months ago.
Coventry were in the Championship then – just about having survived a flirtation with relegation – and attendances were around 20,000. SISU no doubt thought ‘right, easy-peasy, get the club into the Premier League and we’ll make bundles’.
But instead of having a bucket to fill with money, SISU decided not to do that and then found the bucket had a big hole in it. And down went Cov.
Down to League One first of all and that’s when the joyless Joy Seppala took charge of SISU’s operation.
Coventry City FC were turned into tenants in their own city when SISU did not take up a deal to buy the Ricoh Arena.
Court cases – still going on with
mediation being tried between warring factions Coventry City Council, Wasps and the football club – brought arguments and acrimony.
Goodwill became a faint memory and it all led to Wasps taking control of the Ricoh.
The football club packed its bags and went to play at Northampton Town for a year.
The rows got worse, finger pointing took over from football as the city’s favourite sport, Coventry City Council didn’t come out of it well and it’s an awful mess.
A 32,000 high tech, posh stadium doesn’t often get more than 67,000 in it these days, even with Robins having done his mini-miracle and stopped the club’s rot on the pitch.
There is a bit of light bouncing off that big Wasps club shop window these days. Robins and Seppala do meet. Players are being signed on two-year deals now rather than the raft of loans that underlined just how precarious the club’s financial plight was. Although the training ground could be the next asset to be sold for housing, football chairman Tim Fisher is still working from there trying to balance books and sound optimistic. There is young talent assembled by Robins, some of it already sold off for around £4m, and that will be more than doubled if 26-year-old Marc McNulty ( pictured left) keeps scoring goals the way he has this season. SISU’s total bill stands at something like £70m. Stubborn isn’t strong enough to describe the way Seppala has gone about her custodial duties of looking after a 135-year-old club.
There’s talk of takeovers but none of it seems to have substantial legs and who’s going to pay at least the upfront £20m SISU would want for a club with no ground and thread-bare income?
It’s likely that SISU will sit it out and continue with the legal wrangling about ownership of the Ricoh Arena that is filling lawyers’ pockets fuller than Alexis Sanchez’s Man U pay packet.
Coventry City FC are looking for their first top six finish in any division for 46 years this May.
If you want a ticket for their last game of the season at home to Morecambe, ring 08444 539134, Coventry Rugby Club, Butts Park Arena.
Clockwise from top left: Current manager Mark Robins, the 1987 FA Cup winning team, the Ricoh Arena and fans protest against owners Sisu