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04th Feb 2020

Coventry City: A season of away days

Simon Lloyd

Coventry City are enduring another season in exile, playing their ‘home’ games in Birmingham

It’s 10am on a Saturday morning. Dhillon’s Brewery has opened early ahead of today’s game: Coventry City’s FA Cup fourth  round meeting with Birmingham City. Tucked away in a corner of a small industrial estate, five minutes’ walk from the Ricoh Arena, the microbrewery’s proximity to the stadium has made it a popular spot for Sky Blues supporters to sink a pint or two before kick-off.

Last season, it was common for hundreds to stop by on the days Coventry were at home. This season, numbers have plummeted. While Dhillon’s continues to open its bar for ‘home’ fixtures, those games – for this campaign, at least – are being played 20 miles away, at Birmingham’s St. Andrew’s Stadium.

Despite the pleas of the Sky Blue Trust, Coventry’s owners SISU confirmed the ground-share last June, the second time in seven seasons they had opted to uproot this proud old club from its city. Just as was the case with their controversial move to Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium in 2013, the decision has been unpopular with supporters; many vowing not to attend any of the games in Birmingham. The decision has had ramifications for local businesses, too.

“It’s made a massive difference for us,” explains Dhillon’s bar manager, Mark Harland. “It’s quite busy today compared to other games this season. This isn’t typical of how it’s been for us and the other places nearby. It’s hit us all very hard.”

Dhillon’s now provide coach travel for those supporters wanting to attend games at St. Andrew’s, partly compensating for some of their reduced matchday custom.

“It wasn’t just a business decision for us,” Harland adds, as he pulls one of the first pints of the day. “We felt a duty to the loyal fans that had used us as a meeting point beforehand. The club themselves have put some coaches on but a lot of the fans wanted an alternative. That’s the main reason we’ve done this. As fans we’ve suffered, as a community we’ve suffered. That will only continue  until we come home.”

The Ricoh was built during the early years of the century. A replacement for Highfield Road, it was funded entirely by the city council on the basis that any revenue and running costs it generated would be split equally between themselves and Coventry City. By the time the Sky Blues played their  first game there in 2005, their decline had already started. A 34-year run in the Premier League ended in relegation in 2001 with financial troubles mounting from thereon. It was ultimately decided the club would sell its 50% share in the stadium operating company to the Alan Edward Higgs Charity, with an agreement that they could buy it back when in a strong enough financial position to do so.

SISU bought Coventry in the December of 2007 with grand visions of returning them to the top flight. Despite their early investments in the squad, promotion to the Premier League failed to materialise. The club stalled and eventually suffered relegation to League One in 2012. Investment in the team appeared to have dried up with SISU appearing to switch focus on reacquiring the club’s 50% ownership share of the Ricoh.

In April 2012, SISU withheld rent payments on the arena, an action the High Court ruled in 2015 had been a calculated attempt to weaken the financial position of the stadium operating company, paving the way for them to try and buy the Ricoh at a knockdown price. While continuing the rent strike, SISU also had an offer for the Alan Edward Higgs Charity’s 50% ownership of the stadium rejected. The move to Sixfields soon followed, seemingly motivated by a belief that no other team would move into the Ricoh in Coventry’s absence.

This, however, was not the case. Wasps had become tenants by the time Coventry returned and, towards the end of 2014, they completed a takeover deal for the Ricoh, agreeing terms with both the council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity. It is this that is at the heart of Coventry’s current plight. SISU claim the Ricoh was undervalued by £28m and have been appealing against the decision not to allow a judicial review into its sale.

A Supreme Court appeal was lost towards the end of last season and SISU’s complaint has now been taken to the European Commission. Though they have insisted their dispute is with the council, not Wasps, the rugby club warned they would not allow Coventry to continue a lease agreement which allowed them to play at the Ricoh until legal proceedings ceased. SISU subsequently made arrangements to shift home fixtures to St. Andrew’s.

Three hours before kick-off and Dhillon’s is full. The peculiar nature of the fixture – where Coventry are ‘hosting’ Birmingham at a ground they have called home for over a century – has brought the brewery one of its highest pre-match turnouts of the season. The crowd at the bar is three-deep. Outside, there are two coaches in position to take them to St Andrew’s, instead of just one.

Gary Stubbs, a Coventry fan who helps coordinate travel plans, is putting final arrangements in place.

“I was watching the draw and as soon as we were drawn as the home team, I just knew it would happen,” he says, breaking away from a conversation with one of the coach drivers. “It was written in the stars. It’s a sad situation, to be honest. Yes, today’s unique, but we shouldn’t be in this position. No set of football supporters should.”

The cruel irony, Stubbs points out, is that their journey to St Andrew’s will begin by passing the Ricoh.

“I remember the first game there so well,” he says, nodding in the direction of the stadium. “There was 23,000 of us for a game against QPR. Everything was rosy in the garden, it felt like a brand new dawn. It felt like the only way was up. Actually, with hindsight, it feels like that was where things started to go wrong.”

Stubbs acknowledges that another season of away days has divided the Coventry supporters, though not to the same extent as the year the club spent in Northampton.

“That was a horrible time,” he says. “I refused to go, a lot of other supporters did the same. There isn’t the same animosity as back then, mainly because we’ve effectively been told we can’t play at the Ricoh by Wasps. Some fans are against going this season and I completely respect that – it’s the principle of not watching Coventry play a home game out of Coventry. I just feel that in the Northampton era, it felt like it was a forced move when there was an option to stay.”

Gradually, the supporters filter out of Dhillon’s and on to the two coaches. The journey to Birmingham takes little over an hour when factoring in the traffic on the approach to St. Andrew’s. Onboard, an occasional chorus of Let’s All Sing Together breaks out. There’s a smattering of jeers as the buses pass Villa Park. Then, finally, police direct the buses into a side street, yards from the St Andrew’s turnstiles.

Inside the ground the atmosphere is largely good-natured between the two sets of fans. Any attempts from the Birmingham support to antagonise their Coventry counterparts about their unusual predicament fall short. Chants of “You’re the wankers in our seats,” are swiftly met with “We’re the wankers in your seats,” which draws laughter and approving cheers from the Birmingham fans.

“There isn’t that much of a rivalry between the two clubs,” says Chris Goulding of the We Are Birmingham podcast. “I can’t speak for all Blues fans but I think there’s sympathy towards their situation.

“To begin with [when the ground-share started], it was about if we can help them out and, in any way, benefit ourselves, it was a bonus.”

After Coventry sub Callum O’Hare spurns a golden opportunity from close-range in stoppage time, the game ends goalless – a result that, predictably, ensures a replay. “We’ve done well to take them back to their place,” quips one Sky Blues supporter. Back on the buses, Coventry fans wait for the crowds outside the stadium to disperse and for police approval to set off home. When it comes, the traffic is heavy until they reach the M6.

It’s gone 7pm by the time the buses arrive back at Dhillon’s. Wearied from the journey, the majority of those on board opt to head home. The rest file through the brewery doors, back to the bar area, for a final drink.

Thoughts  have already turned to their next two away games – genuine away games – at Fleetwood and Bristol Rovers. Under Mark Robins, Coventry are in the thick of a promotion push in League One. Though it is still unclear if they will return from exile next season, it remains a possibility they could do so as a Championship club.

“One of the saddest things for me is the football Robins has us playing at the minute could be attracting 14 or 15,000 if we were here in Coventry,” says Darren Ramsey, a lifelong supporter. “For the youth to miss that opportunity to grow that love for their own city’s club is devastating.

“For my boys, they play for a local team and they’re the only ones turning up to training in Coventry shirts. The rest are in Man United and Liverpool shirts. The local youth, they’re not interested in their own club. Moving away from the city has killed it even more.”

“We need to be back here. Soon. Will we be? Nobody knows.”