Coven­try made a win­ning re­turn to the Ri­coh against Gilling­ham

City end 14-month ex­ile with win

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Chris Dunlavy

COVEN­TRY CITY may have won a foot­ball match. But it is their sup­port­ers who should claim the great­est vic­tory.

For 14 months they have been treated like pondlife, tram­pled and ig­nored by own­ers whose only in­ter­est was profit, whose games and tricks dragged a once-proud club to the brink of ruin.

Rel­e­gated, de­lib­er­ately plunged into ad­min­is­tra­tion and, for the last 14 months, forced to play 60 miles away in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent county.

Sisu, the Cay­man Is­lands-based hedge fund who own Coven­try, stopped pay­ing rent to ACL, the Ri­coh Arena’s own­ers in April 2012.

What should have been re­solved by a ma­ture chat then es­ca­lated into a sit­u­a­tion where Coven­try was ripped from its own city, ex­iled all the way to Northamp­ton and watched by crowds of barely 3,000.

Sisu ar­gued they sim­ply wanted a fair deal.

But when the mat­ter went to court in June, a dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerged.

Mr Jus­tice Hick­in­bot­tom found that the with­hold­ing of legally-owned rent was done ‘quite de­lib­er­ately to dis­tress ACL’s fi­nan­cial po­si­tion’ so they could buy a share in the arena on the cheap.

Where did the fans fig­ure in this strat­egy? Nowhere.

Bob Ainsworth, MP for Coven­try north east, de­scribed Sisu as ‘a hard and ruth­less hedge fund op­er­a­tion’ which he said em­ployed ‘spin and lies’.

Th­ese are the kind of peo­ple Coven­try’s fans were up against.

Yet they never stopped protest­ing, never stopped telling the world about their shabby treat­ment.

They voted with their feet, re­fus­ing to at­tend games at Northamp­ton. They tied sky blue rib­bons to the rail­ing around the Ri­coh.

And, on Fri­day night, they got their re­ward as Coven­try City fi­nally re­turned home.

“The sup­port­ers are the peo­ple clubs are built around,” said man­ager Steven Press­ley. “The re­turn, in many re­spects, shows their value.

“At times, the game has lost touch with the sup­port­ers from ticket pric­ing to de­ci­sions made on the strat­egy of their club.

“Our sup­port­ers have shown that ul­ti­mately foot­ball is about the peo­ple and they should be proud of them­selves.

“The club can’t sur­vive with­out the sup­port­ers.The fans voted with their feet and forced the club back where they be­longed.”

Head­ing to­wards the Ri­coh, the sight of blue-clad fans scram­bling along grass verges sug­gested a pil­grim­age to ri­val the Liver­pool sup­port­ers’ epic jour­ney across the scrub­land of Istanbul in 2005.

So too did a kick-off de­layed by 15 min­utes.

But with the Ri­coh’s own­ers con­tin­u­ing their pol­icy of win­ning friends and in­flu­enc­ing peo­ple by charg­ing an eye-wa­ter­ing £10 to park, per­haps they were sim­ply sav­ing them­selves a few quid by hoofing it.

It was a sub­tle re­minder of the huge prob­lems that the club still face.

Steve Wag­gott, Coven­try’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive, in­sists a fair com­pro­mise with ACL has been reached.

“They gave a lit­tle bit, we gave a lit­tle bit,” he said. “Ul­ti­mately, we all wanted the same thing.”

Yet the de­tails of the deal are sketchy. While the crip­pling an­nual rent of £1.2m is a thing of the past, what can­not be de­ter­mined is just how much – if any – match­day rev­enue the club is re­ceiv­ing.

Un­til the club owns its own ground – here or else­where – it will strug­gle to ever do more than lurch along on life support.

For one night, though, it was fair to kick those con­cerns into the long grass. For more than a year this city has been robbed of its club. Sup­port­ers who did travel to Northamp­ton were scorned and abused, treated as traitors by those who stayed be­hind. They in turn copped ac­cu­sa­tions of dis­loy­alty.

This is a dis­pute that sev­ered not only a club from its city but tore deep di­vi­sions within its own fan­base. But for one night, those wounds were closed, ban­daged by the sim­ple joy of see­ing a fa­mous club back on the big stage.

A 27,000 sell-out, Sky cam­eras in town, jour­nal­ists from ev­ery na­tional news­pa­per in the stands. For one night, it was like the old days, 1987 all over again.

“Isn’t it great to be back, eh?” said a mid­dle-aged man to his son, ges­tur­ing to the gleam­ing mono­lith along­side the mo­tor­way.

“Much bet­ter this, isn’t it? Ev­ery­one is smil­ing for a change. Now all we’ve got to do is win.”

And they did, just. Coven­try’s start was no sur­prise. Pumped up by a pre-match ren­di­tion of Foot­ball’s Com­ing Home and armed to the teeth with ban­ners and rat­tles, Coven­try’s rau­cous fans prac­ti­cally sucked their team for­wards.

And after ten min­utes of grow­ing pres­sure, Ryan Haynes – tremen­dous all night at left-wing back – got in be­hind and pulled back for Frank Nou­ble to slot calmly home.

At that point, you feared the whole thing might just be too much for Gills.

“Coven­try were fly­ing, suck­ing us in with their pass­ing moves, try­ing to get their wing-backs in,” ad­mit­ted man­ager Peter Tay­lor.

“And with the at­mos­phere there were times when I did fear the worst. All you can hope is that your play­ers stick at it.”

And they did, with ad­mirable com­po­sure. Though Coven­try dom­i­nated the first half and went close at the start of the sec­ond through John Fleck’s cheeky 40yard lob, the away side grad­u­ally passed their way into con­tention.

For the fi­nal half-hour, they were all but camped in their op­po­nents half.

Gi­ant cen­tre-back Kort­ney Hause missed three glo­ri­ous chances from cor­ners, ex-Sky Blue Cody McDon­ald hit the side net­ting and, right at the death, sub An­to­nio Ger­man fizzed a cross along the goal-line that was some­how missed by 50 per cent of the Gilling­ham team.This though, was a party that wouldn’t be pooped.

“I was ex­cep­tion­ally proud to be man­ager of this foot­ball club on the night,” added Pres­ley. “The night showed the true po­ten­tial of Coven­try City.

“What’s been ev­i­dent over the last 14 months is that ev­ery sin­gle per­son in the city has been af­fected by us not play­ing here.

“For every­body, it was an emo­tional re­turn.

“But this is just the start for us. We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

TO BE FRANK: Frank Nou­ble, left, cel­e­brates with team-mates after scor­ing the only goal

PIC­TURES: Ac­tion Images

SENT TO COVEN­TRY: Coven­try fans cel­e­brate their long over­due re­turn to the Ri­coh Arena on Fri­day night

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