Dark clouds hover menacingly over fading Sky Blues
Cashless and forced to play youngsters, Coventry City are on the verge of a sadly historic relegation
The five-ringed circus pitches its tent at the Ricoh Arena on Monday, the appetiser for a summer of 2012 Olympic matches at Coventry City's stadium. However, it looks like those visiting the ground after the Games will be less glamorous. Barring an improbable set of results, which would need to culminate in Coventry winning at Southampton next week, the Sky Blues will drop into the lower divisions for the first time since climbing out 48 years ago under the management of Jimmy Hill.
Coventry's decline has been a long time coming: this is the sixth season in succession they have finished 17th or lower in the Championship. But that will not soften the ire of supporters today. If Coventry fail to beat Doncaster, or Bristol City win at home to Barnsley, Coventry are down. Then the blame game will start, with Sisu Capital first in the firing line.
The London-based private-equity fund acquired the club in 2007, initially with Ray Ranson, the footballer-turned-entrepreneur. This rescued Coventry from administration brought on by their relegation from the Premier League in 2001 with £60m debts – and, for a while, there was optimism.
However, Sisu under-estimated the cost of chasing promotion. As recently as December 2010 the club were contenders, but a bad run prompted the sacking of Aidy Boothroyd and Sisu, which has sunk £40m into the club, decided it was time to stem their losses and slashed the wage bill. With Manager Andy Thorn increasingly forced to rely on youngsters, results inevitably worsened.
In the emotional wake of this week's home defeat by Millwall, Thorn said he was "angry" and "disappointed" with the lack of support from above.
In a calmer moment he told The Independent: "I understand it needed to be done for financial reasons – we still have a club – but it's been really tough. Everyone knows how tight our budget is, we've had to rebuild with youth players, not even players from League Two or the Conference. As well as coaching them we have had to show them how to play men's football. They have given everything, but they make mistakes, as young players who are learning the game will, and everyone seems to have been punished."
Thorn will be staying on whatever division Coventry are in next season, said chief executive Tim Fisher yesterday. "We need stability. We've had 12 managers in 13 years. That's enough already. Andy is part of the re-building process."
Coventry have also had seven chairmen in 10 years, with the last, Portugal-based Ken Dulieu, leaving the club after causing a furore when he made himself head of football operations and sat on the bench alongside Thorn. "He meant well," said Thorn, "he wanted to show his support for me, the staff and players." That was December. Dulieu has yet to be replaced , but Fisher, the latest of several chief executives, has improved previously dire relations with fans.
"There will be a grieving period if we go down," he said. "The fans will be angry and rightly so. This year has been painful. We need to communicate with them. But if we start well I think they will come back to us. The example we are aiming to follow is that of Southampton and Norwich. Clubs do come back, many of them have.
"If we go down – and I stress 'if' as we're still fighting – we are going to re-structure, re-group and bounce back. Sisu have asked us to write a plan detailing how we would get back up."
One major problem is that the club do not own the Ricoh, which means even the arrival of the Olympics does not bring much financial cheer. Ownership of the seven-year-old, 32,500-seat stadium is shared between Coventry City Council and the Alan Higgs Charity, a local trust. Coventry pay £1.2m rent, reasonable for the facility, but a stretch on League One income and Sisu would like it reduced. John Mutton, leader of the Labour-run council, is a Coventry fan, but admits: "I don't think we will be able to help while there is a hedge fund involved.
"They won't sell even though there has been interest, because no one will pay the money they want to offset their losses. That's their own fault, there is no sympathy from local people. We won't consider selling our shares to Sisu. If we had a company we thought would take it forward we might."
Such comments underline the scale of the task Fisher has in attempting to restore the community's trust in the club. It is a far cry from 1967, when 51,455 packed the club's former home, Highfield Road, to celebrate promotion to the top flight, and 1987, when the FA Cup final victory over Tottenham Hotspur was greeted with joyous scenes. The 25th anniversary of the club's finest moment is being marked by an exhibition in the local Herbert Art Gallery and Museum which "looks at how a football team can unite a whole city". Success seems to be the obvious answer, but for now there are only dark clouds over the Sky Blues.
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