In October 1991 I went with my dad and cousin to Edgar Street, the rickety home of Hereford United, to watch them play Aldershot in the old fourth division. The match itself was a forgettable experience but afterwards we at least got the autograph of Greg “he’s got no hair, but we don’t care” Downs. The former Coventry City full-back and FA Cup winner, who would go on to become the Bulls’ player-manager, had been signed for Hereford by John Sillett, the architect of that most unexpected of triumphs for the Sky Blues in 1987.
I recall the post-match so vividly only because my cousin, a Hereford fan, was given a replica shirt by one of the Aldershot players. I’m not sure if either of us knew the state Aldershot were in at that point – in fairness we were nine and eight years old and were rather more concerned with our Subbuteo rivalry than the fortunes of actual clubs.
Aldershot were liquidated by the high court later that season, the first club to be wound up mid-season since Accrington Stanley in 1962. And despite Hereford later climbing into the third tier, they eventually slid through the divisions, were briefly expelled from football and were also wound up because of debts in 2014. The fates of those clubs come to mind now as I follow with trepidation the declining fortunes of Coventry, my team.
The catalogue of mismanagement at City over the past 15 years, and in particular under the investment fund Sisu (now Otium) who took over in 2007, is so extensive and so warped that even as a fan it sometimes feels impossible to keep track. Suffice it to say: the club was thrust into administration, forced to play its home games in another town, shorn of its most promising talent, robbed of its stadium and robbed of its dignity; our precious academy is now under threat from the “local” rugby club, Wasps, who may also oust us from the Ricoh Arena when our tenancy expires; our training ground could be sold off for housing; we have sunk to the foot of League One (we are second bottom) and seem certain to fall into League Two next year.
Daniel Taylor’s excellent piece for the Guardian last month chronicled the devastation in eye-opening fashion. As he put it, Coventry have been “dragged through a hedge-fund backwards”. Quite.
Sisu/Otium are widely despised by Coventry fans, despite their initial investments, because they have always valued the financial potential of the stadium (though they could never get their hands on it) more highly than they valued the supporters. The recent pitch invasions against Sheffield United, during the team’s sixth straight league defeat, followed on from other supporter protests at Charlton Athletic and Rochdale this season. Fans are gasping for air, hoping someone will come to our rescue.
The state of the club is so parlous that the local paper, the Coventry Telegraph, was moved to demand in a front-page editorial in September that the owners “Sell Up And Go”. These owners have at least curbed heavy annual operating losses, but their intentions remain unclear and their past behaviour, which has been castigated by the courts and the council, is portentous. The appointment this week of Russell Slade as our eighth manager in nine years – until the end of the season – does not yet feel stabilising. Like some fans, I fear for the club’s long-term future.
Unfortunately the Football Association doesn’t give a damn about us. Given the chance to free the Sky Blues from the tyranny of Sisu when the club went into administration in 2013 they instead granted Otium, a subsidiary, permission to take over the “golden share”. Fit and proper? Do me a favour.
As I now live on the other side of the world I witness our downfall through the prism of fans’ blogs, social media and online reports. I stay up until 5am watching the live-text feed every weekend, repeatedly hitting refresh until I learn that another goal has been scored against us. There is no joy anymore. I’m just clinging to memories, to the past, in the same way that I am by keeping my collection of autographs, sticker albums, programmes and ticket stubs from my youth.
I looked back at that collection on my last trip to the UK and remembered how my dad and I used to sneak into the main stand after matches at Highfield Road, wait for a gap in the security, then dart up into the executive suites and down into the restricted zone where the away players exited. The list of visiting Premier League stars whose autographs I got was quite remarkable – almost as remarkable as the Sky Blues’ frequent relegation escapes.
Coventry stayed in the top flight until 2001, 34 consecutive years. Their tenacity (beating Spurs 2-1 away on the last day of the season in 1996‑97 when only victory would do) and luck (there were nine other last-day escapes over the years, some rather more deserved than others) at times gave rise to shoots of genuine talent. The 1997‑98 season was the high-water mark of my youth when they came from behind to defeat Manchester United 3-2 at Highfield Road with Darren Huckerby’s electrifying, jinking run from the halfway line securing victory at the death. That was 19 years ago this Christmas.
Such was the exalted company we kept in the top flight that Jimmy Hill’s original Sky Blue Song, written before the promotions of the 1960s, had to be amended. Where he penned “Proud, Posh or Cobblers, Oysters or anyone, they shalln’t defeat us, we’ll fight ’til the game is won”, we gleefully name-dropped “Tottenham or Chelsea, United or anyone”. But I was naive. I never expected anyone could do what Sisu/Otium have done to us.
By misjudgment, misfortune, intention and neglect they have broken our club apart. Every day they remain in charge is a defeat.