Midlands Week: Coventry City are Going Home
It’s been a long time, but at the end of last week came the announcement. After two and a half year in exile at St Andrews in Birmingham, and with a previous season away at Northampton already under their belts, Coventry City are going home, and Coventry supporters owe a huge debt of gratitude to two people who have managed to not only keep the club afloat during such difficult times, but have actually managed the achievement of restoring it to where it was before any of this blew up.
In short, one might argue that none of the last ten years or so should have happened to Coventry City. A club that had spent three and a half decades unbroken in the top flight didn’t just find itself in the Championship and unable to get back up. When relegation from that division came in 2012, Coventry City shouldn’t have found itself trapped in the lower reaches of League One for five seasons, only finishing one season above halfway in the table. That this should have happened in the first place was an embarrassment to the entire game in this country.
When it came in 2017, relegation from League One, eleven points from safety, it might have been just another milestone on the road to oblivion. In March of that year, though, the club which had made more than its fair share of mistakes in terms of managerial appointments finally got one right. There was little to indicate what a success it would turn out to be at the time, though. Thirteen managers had passed through the club since relegation from the Premier League in 2001 and Mark Robins’ previous spell as the club’s manager, for most of the season following their relegation from the Championship in 2012, hadn’t been particularly successful, and had ended after just five months when his head was turned by Huddersfield Town.
Robins’ return to the club in March 2017 came as the club was sliding towards League Two, but his effect was more or less immediate. Less than four weeks after taking charge again, he was leading them out at Wembley where they upset the odds to beat Oxford United by two goals to one to lift the EFL Trophy. This may have been considered a think veil of a silver lining considering that relegation was looming, but that day did turn out to be something of a turning point for the club, on the pitch, at least. It gave supporters, 42,000 of whom made the trip to London that day, an opportunity to take a day away from the grind of the internecine battles that had broken out amongst the club’s support over the ongoing issues with their owner and their stadium, and it also sent out a clear message to the watching football world: no matter what you might have read, Coventry City weren’t quite dead yet.
Relegation at the end of the 2016/17 season couldn’t be avoided, and promotion back at the end of the following season was a touch and go affair. Playing at this level for the first time since the 1950s, blips in form – three straight losses in February, two wins from five games in April – threatened to derail Robins’ team, but they perked up in their final matches of the season and finished in sixth place, with a play-off spot. After dismantling Notts County in the semi-final, goals from Jordan Willis, Jordan Shipley and Jack Grimmer helped Coventry to a 3-1 win against Exeter City to secure promotion back to League One at the first attempt. In a chilling episode of “what might have been”, Notts County were relegated from the Football League at the end of the following season.
As ever with this particular club, though, the path to recovery has not been without its bumps. Their first season back in League one saw them finish in eighth place in the table, eight points shy of a play-off place. Crowds rose by a third to more than 12,000, and everything seemed set fair for a promotion bid for the following season. Fate, however, had one last gut punch for the club’s supporters. The Ricoh Arena had been purchased by the rugby club Wasps in 2014, and the temporary rental agreement had expired. In July 2020, the club confirmed that it would be leaving Coventry for a second time, this time to go and play at St Andrews in Birmingham, after talks to extend the lease broke down.
Crowds fell by 46% the following season, but Robins managed to hold the team together, and when the season was curtailed they were five points clear at the top of the table. The pandemic has been extremely bad for football in a general sense, but Coventry City were one of the few clubs to seem to benefit from it all. They went fourteen games unbeaten before matches started, and it may be considered that possibly the only circumstances under which playing away from home is easier to take comes when everybody else is playing in an empty ground as well. This season has been a challenge in the Championship, and at the time of writing Coventry are just six points above the relegation places, with their survival far from assured, but they’ve been holding their own at this level, and there’s no particular reason to believe that they will definitely be relegated come the end of this season.
It’s at this point that the appointment of Dave Boddy as the club’s CEO becomes so important. Boddy’s arrival at the club in 2017 went almost unnoticed. Small wonder, when the club made no announcement confirming it. There was reason to be cautious about his appointment at the time, as well. Boddy had experience. He’d been the Chief Executive of Newport County and the assistant general manager of the National League, but while acting as the chairman of non-league club Worcester City, he’d overseen the disastrous sale of their St Georges Lane ground, which resulted in the club ending up homeless and requesting demotion following relegation from the National League North, to the Midland League. The club will moving back to Worcester, wo play at the county FA ground, for the start of next season.
Boddy, however, has fought tooth and nail for the club under the most trying of circumstances. He was unable to prevent the club from leaving its home, but in a fractious atmosphere between supporters, he seems to have focused on the football club, rather than its warring factions and perceived enemies. Voices from within the vulture fund that owns the club could be ill-thought out, at times, and in this day and age negative PR can have real life consequences. The fact that he has managed to secure a return to Coventry at all is a signifier that attitudes may have changed with the passing of time.
Some of the changes have been subtle, and have appealed to the emotional part of the cranium. Signing a kit deal with Hummel and then creating a 21st century update of their masterpiece from the 1980s, was a stroke of PR genius. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If it worked in making supporters happier, it was A Good Thing. And success on the pitch – Robins has won twice at Wembley and got the team promoted twice (one of these, of course, overlaps) – will have helped, as well. And it is worth reflecting on the fact that, during the 2019/20 season, 6,000 people made the journey from Coventry to Birmingham every other week for ‘home’ matches. We’re so used to that sort of support that we take it for granted, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable, if you pause and think about it.
There are plans for a new ground, on land purchased from the University of Warwick on the south-west side of the city. It will reportedly be a a carbon-neutral eco stadium with a capacity with a minimum of 30,000, and tentative estimates have put the cost as high as £100m. The lease to use The Ricoh Arena again is for ten years, with a break clause at seven years. This feels like an appropriate amount of time for the club to be able to put its plans into action, while spreading the cost across a longer period of time will reduce any other financial pressures within the club, though they would pay more in interest in the long-term.
And, of course, while they’re proceeding with this project, they will still be playing at a 32,600 capacity stadium in the form of The Ricoh Arena. If they can fill that, once fans are completely let back in (there’s talk of a limit of 8,000, which would be 25% of its capacity), there’s no reason why they can’t continue to turn the corner that seems to have finally come about over the last two or three years or so. They may have issues with the pitch – this does tend to happen when football clubs and rugby clubs groundshare – but Wasps and Coventry City have jointly said that they will be improving the playing surface there before the start of next season.
So between them, Coventry City supporters do have a lot to be thankful for, to both Mark Robins and Dave Boddy, for their respective roles in getting this club back on its feet. Neither are perfect, but they have both done more than enough, and under extremely trying circumstances. By all accounts Coventry were dreadful last night in losing at Luton Town in the Championship, so it’s clear that there’s still work to do if they are to stay at that level for next season. Whether in the Championship or League One, though, next season feels a little more like something to look forward to. Blue skies ahead, indeed.