The unmistakeably musty scent of stagnation has been in the air at Coventry City of late. As memories of the club as mainstays of the top division of English football fade to become little more than a memory, this is a club that feels shiftless, as if it hasn’t successfully asserted a new identity since leaving Highfield Road for The Ricoh Stadium in 2005. Last season saw the club finish in eighteenth place in the Championship, comfortably above the relegation places but still perhaps looking over its shoulder as the new season started. In this division, there are no guarantees that newly-promoted clubs will be amongst the flotsam and jetsam at the foot of the table, and as we head towards the middle of September with two of them, Brighton & Hove Albion and Southampton, at the top of the table and starting to dream of something that looked so unlikely this time last year – a place in the Premier League – Coventry are starting to look like the forgotten men of the Championship.
It was in December 2007 and Ray Ranson and the SISU group successfully completed the takeover of the football club with only minutes left to spare before the club was placed into administration. A brave new world, however, has failed to materialise at the club and any honeymoon period for the new owners ended long ago. An attempt at a take-over by club supporter and former chairman of the Northern Rock bank Gary Hoffman broke down as the summer came to an end, finishing off any hopes that the supporters may have had of significant money being invested in the team in time for the new campaign. Hoffman had quit as vice chairman of the club in February of this year after a series of disagreements with the other directors of the club but had continued to express an interest in purchasing the club. At the end of July, Dulieu told BBC Coventry and Warwickshire that “There are a number of other investors. My job is to listen to anybody who has proof of funds and prepared to invest”, but when Hoffman submitted his formal offer to buy the club, Dulieu stated that the bid “raises many questions”, amongst which were issues relating to “the transparency of investors’ identities and capability of funding.”
The second half of last season was turbulent for the club, but ended on something of a high. At boardroom level, Hoffman’s departure was followed by that of Ray Ranson, who had been the public face of the 2007 SISU take-over. The replacement of manager Adrian Boothroyd with Andy Thorn turned the fortunes of a team that had looked as if it would get sucked into a relegation struggle around. For all the talk of new investors, though, the club failed to strengthen its playing squad over the course of the summer and they started this season with three defeats in the league, at the hands of Leicester City, Birmingham City and Crystal Palace, and with a defeat against a lower division club in the League Cup, in the form of a 3-1 loss at Bury.
Over the last couple of weeks, however, the team has shown signs of life in the form of a couple of draws, at Middlesbrough and at home against Watford. Even so, however, Derby County were perhaps not the team that they might have wanted to play yesterday. Derby are also out of the League Cup – beaten at home by Shrewsbury Town – but four straight wins in the league had seen them push into the play-off places and even a home defeat at the hands of Burnley in their last league match two weeks ago had failed to completely suppress the feeling that Nigel Clough’s team may be capable of launching bid for a place in the Premier League this season.
Against such a background, we might have expected Derby to arrive at The Ricoh Stadium with the capability of rubbing salt into the wounds left by Coventry’s tepid start to the season. There has been a sense of unease about the club since the start of the season, with demonstrations off the pitch at their recent match against Watford. There was further unrest yesterday, with allegations from supporters that an over-reaction to the protest against SISU from the ground stewards and/or the police was to blame. Fortunately for the majority, though, this didn’t seem to affect the players on the pitch and Coventry, with the little help from a referee that gave them a somewhat soft penalty from which they took the lead, went on to win by two goals to nil. To further lift the mood of the home support, the match saw the debut of Cody MacDonald, who arrived at the club from Norwich City after a successful long-term loan spell at Gillingham on the last day of the transfer window. Although MacDonald has yet to fully acclimatise – he seemed a yard or two off the pace of the game yesterday, which is perhaps unsurprising, considering that this was his first game of the season – he may yet turn into a handy acquisition for a club that was noticeable only for its lack of engagement in the transfer market during the summer.
Yesterday’s win lifted Coventry City to eighteenth place in the Championship, the same league position at that in which they ended last season. The ongoing feeling of unease at the club, however, stunts any feeling that the team’s three recent unbeaten matches are likely to kick-start their season into a significant push up the league table. There is, perhaps, a sense of frustration amongst the club’s support at the fact that, during a period in which it has felt rather as if any club that really gets its house in order has the ability to launch a serious bid for a push in the Premier League (something which is borne out by the promotion in recent years of such clubs as Burnley, Blackpool, Stoke City, Norwich City and Swansea City), Coventry City have under-performed on the pitch in relative terms.
With Premier League play-off money having now been massively increased, there is a possibility that this window of opportunity will now close for the middle ranking clubs of the Championship in the future and Coventry supporters, who grew up with more than three decades of uninterrupted top flight football in both Division One and the Premier League, may well feel that the wrangling behind the scenes is acting like an albatross around the neck of a club which, one suspects, is capable of better than this. Perhaps if the team continues to improve, the protests will die down a little, but the feeling of disquiet continues to bubble away under the surface at The Ricoh Stadium and it feels as if any truce reached between the supporters and the club would be as paper-thin as the first team squad seems to be. The question, perhaps, is that of whether Hoffman and Dulieu can settle their differences and either work together or secure the take-over or fresh investment to breathe a little life into Coventry City Football Club and help it to move out of the shadows of the Championship.
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