So the new home of Coventry City Football Club will not be in the West Midlands, and neither will it be within thirty miles of the city of Coventry itself. It was confirmed last night by the Coventry Telegraph last night that the club is seeking ratification from the Football League to move from the city that has been its home for the last one hundred and thirty years to Northampton. It’s a journey that takes more than thirty minutes by train, and would take longer than that by car. Those that do travel to matches by public transport will find that they have a further two mile journey once they arrive at Northampton railway station.
This moment feels, perhaps for the first time, as if the owners of the club might not have such a grand plan as they had previously been believed. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to presume that there is no way that Northampton could possibly have been their preferred choice as a “home” venue for the next three years, and it is just possible that the decision to move there has come about because nobody in the West Midlands would take them. There is a certain significance to this, because the Football League has rules on ground-sharing and there is an important difference between playing its home matches thirty miles away in the West Midlands and playing thirty miles away in the East Midlands. The Football League rules on the subject are simultaneously very clear and very opaque:
13.4 Ground sharing will only be approved at the discretion of the Board. The Board will not generally approve any ground-sharing arrangement where the club plays its matches outside the conurbation, as defined by the Board, from which the Club takes its name or with which it is otherwise traditionally associated.
In this ruling lays a typical piece of football administration fudgery. On the one hand, the Football League pays lip service to what we all understand and desire, that football clubs represent the communities from which they take their names, that the franchising of football clubs to other communities is a direction that almost nobody within football in this country wishes to take, and that only exceptional circumstances should be taken into account to waver from this path. On the other hand, though, who knows what the “discretion of the Board” might be, how it might be interpreted, or far “the Board” itself might feel it can be extended? In such opacity, the Football League grants itself the right to make up its rules as it goes along.
For many Coventry City supporters, today may well mark a “never again” moment. For all the anguish that we subject ourselves to on the pitch, it is worth recalling – and this is something frequently seems to be forgotten – that this game is supposed to be our leisure time, something that we do for pleasure, and those bewildered at the way that this story has played out over the last twelve months or so could well be forgiven for wondering whether there is a less painful and stressful way to spend their time. If the Football League does ratify this decision, it is likely that thousands will walk away from the club. Some may find other clubs to follow, but many will drain away from the game altogether, taking their money, their visibility on match-days and their support with them, and there can be little doubting that the Football League will, in no uncertain terms, have blood on its hands if this does turn out to be the case. Given that they are supposed to be amongst the custodians of the well-being of the game in this country, it will be well worth asking the question of whether they are fit for purpose should they grant their approval to this move.
We have, of course, been here before, and there is cause for some optimism that they might make the right decision in this case. When the franchisers of Wimbledon sought to move that club in Milton Keynes a little over a decade ago, the Football League refused to ratify the move before shifting the decision on to the Football Association. It was the FA that buckled in that case, appointing an independent three man commission who eventually did ratify the decision, but the immediate aftermath of that was supposed to be a watershed moment for the governance of the game in this country, with the suspicion that many within the FA immediately regretted the decision reached by the panel acting on its behalf. This set of circumstances, of a club being uprooted and transplanted to somewhere with which it had no historical connection, was not supposed to happen again. Yet here we are, in 2013, and history is repeating itself.
They will argue, of course, that it is temporary, that the club will definitely be back in the city of Coventry in three years – although there has been no indication of anything concrete that this will happen – and that they have been forced out by the evil stadium owners and the council. There is little of any substance to back this up. When ACL, the stadium owners, bent over backwards to seek to accommodate them, they effectively received a one-fingered salute from SISU. The fact of the matter remains – and this should, perhaps, be the only matter that the Football League needs to discuss with Tim Fisher and his co-conspirators this afternoon – that there is a perfectly good facility in the city of Coventry that the club could use. The contractual whys and wherefores of how the club plays there may or may not be within the jurisdiction of the Football League. Anything but a refusal to countenance the displacement of this club to another town, another county, another part of the country, can only be regarded as a dereliction of duty on the part of those who agree it.
At the time of writing, though, all anybody can do is wait, and even this is a chastening lesson is how little control over anything in the game supporters actually have. The Football League must be aware of the extent of the fury of Coventry City supporters this morning – their email inboxes must be absolutely humming – so they have no excuse and there can be little justification for their reaching a decision that allows this to happen. We have noted in the past that there has been little to no indication that SISU – and it is always SISU, no matter which legal mask they may be wearing, of this much we can be certain – have any interest in what is in the best interests of the supporters of this football club. The time has now come for the Football League to actually prove that it is not prepared to be roughshod over when it comes to an attempt to circumvent its own rules on ground-sharing. There is no good reason for Coventry City to start next season anywhere other than at The Ricoh Arena, and surely the League must understand that. We shall see.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.