SENT TO COVEN­TRY

JOHN WRAGG TAKES A LOOK AT HOW THE SKY BLUES HAVE BE­COME OUT­SIDERS IN THEIR OWN HOME…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

... 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

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