Is It Time For A New Football Club For Coventry?
There comes a point in any story when its whys and wherefores start to pale in comparison with that story’s broader significance. What has happened to Coventry City Football Club over the last twelve months or so has been picked over so many times that it feels as if we’ve reached the point at which there is nothing more to say that isn’t an over-familiar circular argument. The news that the club has agreed a ground-share deal with Northampton Town for next season – and the fact that the deal was agreed with just a few weeks left before the start of that new season – can only make it likely that the Football League will ratify the decision, if for no other reason than out of fear that SISU will offer them no alternative, if anything only the perhaps even unspoken threat of closing the club down on the eve of the big kick-off. Everybody’s bluff has been called by SISU at every step of the way in this wretched story so far, after all. Why should they stop now? The arguments against the club moving to Northampton may well not have been heard yesterday. The fact that Rotherham United, the club whose circumstances seem to have provided the precedent for this move, were only moving four miles from home rather than more than thirty and had planning permission for a new stadium when they temporarily moved to the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield, for example, is unlikely to be considered in any great detail. With the possibility of a twenty-three team League One dangled in front of them, though, ratification would be no surprise, no matter how supine it might seem.
All of which leads us to a simple question: what do Coventry City supporters do next? They can – and most likely will – protest, of course, and the likelihood that these protests will most likely fall on deaf ears doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t bother to do so. But in the longer term, what do they do when the start of the new season comes? Some will swallow their misgivings and make that round journey of more than sixty miles every fortnight. The football club habit can be a difficult one to kick, after all. Others, meanwhile, may switch to more local non-league clubs but, while this may scratch an itch, it won’t be Coventry City, the Sky Blues, with whom they may go back generations. It will be football on a Saturday afternoon, but whoever they go and watch may never be their club. Others, of course, will almost certainly drift away from the game altogether, making to occasional trip to Northampton when they can be bothered to, but otherwise discovering that the few hundred quid saved from not buying a season ticket once a year (not to mention all the other stuff that comes with being a fan – the replica shirts, the programmes, the over-priced and under-nutritious food and drink of an average Saturday afternoon, and so on, and so on) starts to come in quite handy, after a while.
None of these options are terribly palatable, though. We have talked on these pages before about the nature of what it means to be a football supporter, and of the misguidedness of describing the modern fan as a ‘consumer.’ One of the key selling points of the nature of consumerism is an element of choice. If, say, you do your weekly shop at Tesco and they start treating you shabbily, you go and shop elsewhere. This flexibility is not available to the average football supporter, and as such we might reasonably suggest that the nature of the football supporter to be more akin to a drug addict than a consumer. Going to Northampton, week in, week out, or finding a local non-league club, would provide a hit, of sorts, but if this move does go ahead, for many it will be the death of Coventry City Football Club. If we can agree the three scenarios outlined above are all unsatisfactory in their own way, though, there is a fourth that is starting to become more appealing to some supporters over recent weeks: a new football club for the city of Coventry.
It would be foolish to suggest that this situation is what any of the club’s support would want. However, there surely comes a point at which enough must be declared as enough and even those who have thus far stuck to the ‘I just want to watch football’ viewpoint must acknowledge that moving to Northampton will mean that any future incarnation of Coventry City will be unrecognisable from anything that they understand as their club. In addition to this, it seems unlikely to the point of implausibility that a sizable proportion of fellow supporters will not be travelling east with them. At this point, perhaps this debate becomes something less tangible. What, we might well ask, is a football club anyway? Is it the legal entity which owns the right to play in the Football League (and even this, in the case of this particular club, is opaque) , or is it something less easy to define? It might well be suggested that a football club is a shared, collective experience. Often passed down through generations it is a collection of memories, colours, in some cases values which somehow come together to embody ‘the club’, a phrase that is simultaneously completely antiquated when discussing football businesses, yet still seems entirely apposite when describing a fan’s relationship with it. A football club without its fans might well be a football team, or a football related company. A ‘club’, however, it is not. The fans are the ‘club’ and not one – not SISU, not the Football League, not anybody – can take that from them.
Considering how badly so many supporters have been treated by the assorted ne’er do wells that have been known to run our football clubs over the years, there have been precious few precedents for Coventry supporters angry enough to want to break away to refer back to. The first such split in modern times came on the northernmost tip of London in 2001, when supporters of Enfield FC, FA Cup giant-killers and twice winners of the equivalent of the Football Conference during the 1980s, voted to break away and former their own club two years after their ground was sold for housing by its owner with, despite numerous promises, no new ground materialising. Twelve years on, Enfield Town FC have a home of their own which opened a year and a half ago and are still owned by their supporters trust. Higher profile examples would follow a year later, with the formation of AFC Wimbledon, and in 2005, with the formation of FC United of Manchester, and there have been further splits since at clubs such as Chester and Northwich, amongst several others. If we take the case of AFC Wimbledon to be the closest parallel to Coventry in terms of the size of the original clubs, then a clear case can be made for arguing that even such a drastic decision as walking away has obvious benefits. Indeed, anecdotally speaking, many Wimbledon supporters, who saw their club rise back to the Football League in nine years from near the very bottom of the football pyramid, speak with considerable wistfulness of the adventure that they went on to get that Football League place back.
If the emotional ties are difficult to break, the practical logistics of starting afresh couldn’t be much easier than they are now. The English league system is more clearly laid out than ever and the financial realities of life in the lower divisions mean that, even if any new club was unable to secure a tenure at The Ricoh Arena – and the question of whether this venue would be suitable for any new club is, at least for now, pie in the sky – some sort of arrangement considerably nearer to Coventry than Northampton should be comfortably achievable. The sheer size of Coventry City would mean that an ascent through the divisions from wherever they were to start should be plenty achievable, and the combination of a winning team and the sense that, after everything, they are in control of their own destiny has been demonstrated to be a successful formula elsewhere more than once before. In addition to this, there is a considerable knowledge-base from which any new club could draw, including Supporters Direct and those running the clubs that are now run by their supporters trust themselves. The days of being dependent solely on the munificence of one person or several individuals has gone forever.
It is not, of course, for one individual on a website that is neutral regarding their club to dictate what Coventry City supporters should want or wish for in the immediate future. What has been striking about the reaction of the supporters of the club is that there does seem to be a tipping point at which a clear majority will say, “no more.” Perhaps the Football League and/or the Football Association will grow a backbone and tell SISU, “You’ve got a perfectly good ground in Coventry itself; now stop behaving like this or get the hell out of our sport,” but it isn’t looking exceptionally likely at the time of writing that this will happen. In that eventuality, the question must become one of what the future of football in Coventry will be in the near, medium and long term. There has been little evidence to suggest that SISU are – or ever have been – involved at this club for any reasons other than their own enrichment and, whilst we cannot predict the future, any degrees of blind faith in them shown in the past can only be considered through the pure facts of the matter regarding where the club is now. If the supporters of Coventry City Football Club want to be a part of continuing to fund and support this, then that is their decision. But there is another way. It won’t be easy and no-one would suggest that it won’t be painful. But it exists – and could it possibly be any more painful than what they are going through at the moment?
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