A new stadium has Sky Blues looking upwards

Coventry City's soon-to-be-opened Ricoh Arena will be a top-of-the-range BMW compared with the Mini Metro of many a new ground - so says Paul Fletcher, the former England Under-21 striker who is chief executive of the stadium development company. Given events in the Midlands' car industry, he demonstrates tact by not extending the metaphor to Highfield Road as Coventry prepare to vacate their home of 106 years against Derby County today.

Coventry City's soon-to-be-opened Ricoh Arena will be a top-of-the-range BMW compared with the Mini Metro of many a new ground - so says Paul Fletcher, the former England Under-21 striker who is chief executive of the stadium development company. Given events in the Midlands' car industry, he demonstrates tact by not extending the metaphor to Highfield Road as Coventry prepare to vacate their home of 106 years against Derby County today.

As the white curves and angles of the futuristic Arena roof loom into view a mile from the M6, looking not unlike the venues at Bolton Wanderers and Huddersfield Town whose construction Fletcher also oversaw, it is curious to reflect that Highfield Road was once considered a thoroughly "modern" ground. That was in the 1960s, when Jimmy Hill's managership led Coventry into what is now the Premiership and revamped the venue as part of his so-called Sky Blue revolution.

Later, as chairman, Hill would convert Highfield Road into England's first all-seater ground. Circumstances forced him to reverse that bold move, but as was often the case, the now conservative television presenter proved ahead of his time. The Taylor Report, prompted by the deaths of 96 spectators at Hillsborough in 1989, led to all top-flight grounds following the early example set by Coventry, as well as nearly one in six of the 92 League clubs relocating to new sites.

Hill's latest successor as manager, Micky Adams, is desperate for Coventry to be a Championship club when the 32,000-seat Arena - which is indeed a stylish cut above several "DIY superstore" stadiums - opens in August. Another victory would ensure survival in the second tier. However, with only a last-day visit to Crewe Alexandra to follow and Derby pursuing a play-off place, Adams warns his players must not become "caught up in the emotions" stirred by Highfield Road's final, sell-out fixture.

When the club first played there, in 1899, the idea that it would ever be a setting for the kind of passion play that will be enacted this afternoon would have seemed highly fanciful. Then, as now, it was a busy time for stadium construction; Hillsborough had recently opened and White Hart Lane, Fratton Park and Ibrox were about to follow suit. The original main stand, a 2,000-seater, carried a pitch-length advert for a popular magazine that boasted: "If it is in John Bull, it is so."

The opening game, against Shrewsbury Town in the Birmingham & District League, drew a crowd of 3,000. In 1919, when Coventry started life in the League, 16,500 watched the inaugural fixture, which Tottenham Hotspur won 5-0. It would be Christmas before Highfield Road witnessed a win for the side then nicknamed "The Bantams".

Between the wars, the Kop was built using waste concrete from the laying of the city's tram track, while cover for 11,000 was bought from Twickenham.

German bombers struck in 1940, destroying the pitch. Hill sparked the next flurry of development, introducing restaurants and electronic scoreboards. Near the end of his first coming, a record 51,455 saw Coventry play Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1967.

During a remarkable 33-year residency among the English élite, Coventry beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Uefa Cup (they had, alas, lost the first leg 6-1); the Sky Blues and Bristol City, drawing 2-2, passed the ball around in midfield for 15 minutes so both would avoid relegation in 1977; the switch to an all-seated ground, designed to reduce hooliganism and restore a "family" atmosphere, foundered because gates halved; and the FA Cup, still the club's only major honour, was paraded in 1987.

Now, with Highfield Road sold for housing, a new era beckons.

The Ricoh Arena will cost £113m (some £62m of which came from Tesco, which has erected its biggest European supermarket a drop-kick away). The site is to house a hotel, casino, conference centre, restaurants, offices, concert and community facilities, keeping it in use seven days a week. Coventry will pay the same rent whether they attract 3,200 or 32,000, and, unlike some relocating clubs, Fletcher points out that they will retain all revenue from admission, advertising and corporate entertaining.

"The club should be able to make a healthy profit to facilitate the opportunity to return to the Premiership," said the ex-Burnley and Bolton Wanderers player. "That gives them the incentive to pack the stadium, which is an excellent, well-designed, value-for-money venue that could attract England Under-21 fixtures and rugby internationals."

Ricoh, the Japanese IT giant whose previous sponsorship deal coincided with Stoke City enduring the top division's worst-ever season 20 years ago, has paid £10m for the Arena's naming rights. The company claims that its roof-top logo, a latterday equivalent of the old John Bull sign, is visible from space. One more win, sending Coventry over the moon, and Adams will be able to verify the boast.

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