We are all football fans, we all appreciate what a club can mean to an individual. In times of need my football club and the fans have often ‘saved’ me. When Maxi Jazz of Faithless sang the line ‘This is my church, this is where I heal my hurts’, as far as I was concerned he was singing about Sincil Bank.
For people living in the CV1 postcode and perhaps further afield, he could have been singing about Highfield Road, or the Ricoh Arena. The location may be different, but the passion is the same whatever colour the team you support play in.
I thought I’d write a little about the Sky Blues today, and as I’m a Lincoln City blogger I guess I’ll have to provide some sort of tenuous link to the Imps. Coventry City were the first FA Cup winners I remember properly. I attended my first City game in October 1986, and in May 1987, just weeks after we were relegated from the Football League, ‘little’ Coventry beat Spurs 3-2 in perhaps the best FA Cup final of the era. Keith Houchen’s diving header will live forever in my memory, even as a neutral. Of course Trevor Peake was on the pitch that day for Cov, and as an ex-Imp my interest was sparked.
For a really short while Coventry were my younger brothers ‘little’ club. Dad had told me I needed to support a big club as well as Lincoln, and I chose Luton Town. My brother, then a Chelsea fan decided that meant he needed a little club, and at just six years old I suppose he figured FA Cup winners were as little as he dare go. By the time Sutton United knocked them out in the third round of the 1989/90 competition Paul (my brother) had firmly placed his allegiance with the boys from Stamford Bridge. Anyway, there’s your link to me and to Lincoln City. Before all this private posturing in the Hutchinson household you had to go back to March 1963 when Coventry hammered us 5-1 in the FA Cup for our last meeting. Coventry and Lincoln do not have a great amount of history.
The reason I’m banging on about the Sky Blues is, in part, due to their protests against Sheffield United yesterday. With the telly cameras focused on them at the Ricoh, fans decided to up the ante in their protests against owners SISU by staging a pitch invasion on 88 minutes. Their actions brought to national attention the discontent and suffering that fans of this once-top flight club have endured. Further footage emerged today of a Coventry fan breaking through the segregated area and attacking a Sheffield United fan for chanting pro SISU songs during the game. There is an awful lot of anger in the West Midlands at present.
I was reminded of the demonstration that took place outside the ground at Lincoln ahead of our clash with Newport a few years ago. I understood the frustration that our fans were experiencing, relegation and an apparent lack of ambition had boiled over into demonstrations, albeit far more peaceful. Bob Dorrian was the villain that day, but in the long term he’s proven that despite some early misguided decisions, he does have the clubs best interests at heart.
Can the same be said of SISU? No, of course not. It could be argued that Coventry’s fall from grace has been more spectacular than ours, once serving 34 years concurrently in the top flight, they’re now firmly ensconced in the League One relegation spots, and even the most die hard Cov fans aren’t optimistic about the future.
So who are SISU, and what exactly have they done to warrant the level of vitriol being aimed at them? Well unlike Bob they’re certainly not lifelong fans of the club they own, and they don’t seem willing to invest in the club either. Unlike our chairman, I don’t think they’re ever going to ‘get it right’ either.
Before we look at them I think it is prudent to note that they were not there at the very start of the issues. Coventry were relegated from the Premier League in 2001, but still pressed on with plans to move to a new stadium. At the time of relegation only Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal had spent a longer period in the highest division. It was widely expected that this stalwart of the top flight would return fairly quickly. They opened their academy in 2004, and left Highfield Road a year later for the Ricoh Arena.
The comparison between Highfield Road and Sincil Bank is striking. In the days before all seater stadiums it could hold a lot more people, 51,000 the record. Once it became all-seater though the capacity dropped significantly. When that was coupled by the lack of parking close to the ground, and the aging facilities a move was always on the cards. I suspect had City been promoted to division two in the early 1980’s we would have faced similar problems, and that lack of access and facilities is the main reason we are pushing on with a move today.
In actual fact Highfield Road was England’s first all-seater stadium, another pioneering move by football trail blazer Jimmy Hill in 1981, some eight years before the Taylor Report made it compulsory. Leeds fans tore the seats up just months after they were fitted though. It’s always Leeds, isn’t it?
In 2005 Coventry moved to the Ricoh Arena, and there began the rapid decline. They were simply tenants in the ground which was owned by a third party, Arena Coventry Limited (ACL). This point will become crucial later on.
In 2007 Coventry were on the brink of administration when Ray Ranson and SISU saved them with just 20 minutes to spare. Ranson was a former Man City defender, but SISU were not as involved with the beautiful game. They were (and still are) a privately owned hedge fund sponsor, a firm which invests in the public equity, and a firm that I expect saw Coventry City and the ‘football club bandwagon’ as something they could make money from. That hasn’t happened.
In 2012 after five successively poor seasons the club were relegated to League One for the first time in 48 years. Worse was to come. Owners SISU entered into a dispute with ACL over the rent Coventry were paying to use their stadium. They were (perhaps rightly) complaining about a lack of access to match day revenue. All parties had previously agreed that the rent would amount to £1.2 million per year, but this did not give Coventry City access to money taken on the gate. SISU stopped paying rent, they were given a deadline to pay up, and it passed.
ACL planned to get a High Court order to place Coventry City FC Ltd into administration, but SISU beat them to it and entered administration anyway. They accepted the 10-point penalty from the Football League as a result of doing so. A further 10-point penalty was incurred when ACL refused to accept the terms of a CVA proposed by the administrator. Two different entities were tearing each other apart, and the club was stuck in the middle. It was almost as if two parents were arguing over who got the child, but only because of the financial benefits of having them.
In 2013 Coventry left their ‘new’ home, much to the disgust of the long suffering fan. All of the posturing and arguing between these two companies meant many lost sight of the real victims in the saga, the honest football fan that just wanted to watch and support his team. The young lad who wanted to wear his replica shirt and cheer on his heroes was the one who suffered, whilst these corporate companies looked to shift blame and argue over money.
Coventry agreed to play their home games in Northampton at the Sixfields stadium to ensure it could meet the fixture requirements, which essentially would be like Lincoln agreeing to play their home matches at York Street. This resulted in the then-villains of the piece, ACL threatening Northampton with legal action!!
Eventually ACL and Sisu agreed a two-year deal for Coventry to return to their rented home, and they went back to the Ricoh Arena in 2014. That was not the end of the problems though.
It is now 2016. The club languish in the relegation spots in League One, and should we gain promotion we have a very real chance of facing them next season. They are currently manager-less after Tony Mowbray left at the end of September. The hostility around the club has grown, with anger directed at the owners SISU and their apparent lack of interest in helping the club regain some of it’s lost pride. Mowbray failed to win any of the first ten matches of the season, but Cov fans didn’t hold him responsible. He wasn’t given money to invest, and after a promising campaign faded the year before, it was thought a bit of investment might have seen them ascend the league.
Two and a half months later nobody wants to take over the club. SISU have got through eight managers in nine years, with only Chris Coleman lasting more than 100 games. They are struggling to attract players to the club, and although perhaps Blackpool’s mis-management has caught the headlines, what has happened at Coventry is a far more sustained decline, a decline brought on by neglect by non-football people owning a football club. I doubt very much the SISU knows or understands what a football club means to the community and the people who have supported it all their life. I doubt very much that they care.
Their fans have quite rightly had enough, moving grounds, managers coming and going, administration and extended uncertainty. At the centre of all this mess is a proud football club with a strong history, and long suffering fans who deserve better from the people entrusted to run their club.
The headlines of pitch invasions and fighting in the stands may not be what the club needs when trying to find new owners, a new manager and new players, but as a die hard supporter of a football club I can empathise with them completely. They have troubles in their own lives like we all do, and yet they don’t have that 90 minute escape every Saturday. I heal my hurts at Sincil Bank, but when they go to the Ricoh those wounds are opened up and exposed. I understand what drove our own protests four years ago, but looking back I think it’s clear things could have got a lot, lot worse for Lincoln City.
I’m sending a message of solidarity to Coventry City fans, keep fighting the disease that is hedge fund investment sponsor blah blah blah, keep fighting for your football club. Eventually, you will win.
If you’d like to sign the petition to help drive SISU out of Coventry City, then click here.
If you’d like to buy my book that has nothing to do with Coventry and everything to do with the Mighty Imps, click here.