Coventry made a winning return to the Ricoh against Gillingham
City end 14-month exile with win
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
SENT TO COVENTRY: Coventry fans celebrate their long overdue return to the Ricoh Arena on Friday night