The sun shone, the drinks flowed at the beer festival next door but inside Nuneaton Town's Liberty Way Stadium the mood was less cheery. Five days after learning that their football club would be playing their "home" matches 35 miles away in Northampton for at least three seasons, more than 721 Coventry City fans turned out yesterday to show their opposition.
Black balloons were released from the packed away end as the teams ran out and the chant of "We want Sisu out" was the first of many aimed at the League One club's unpopular hedge-fund owners.
This was a pre-season friendly, but not as we know it. As Jan Mokrzycki, a spokesman for the Sky Blue Trust which organised the black-balloon protest, says: "This is the time of year we should be getting excited, talking about how we're going to do this season but we're not – we're talking about finance, politics and where we're going to be playing."
In their days in the old First Division, Coventry were famed for their late-season survival fights; the 2013-14 campaign has not even started and yet arguably the biggest battle in the club's history is in a critical phase.
Last Monday the Football League accepted Sisu's proposal to escape a long-running rent dispute with the owners of the Ricoh Arena, Arena Coventry Limited (ACL), and ground share with League Two Northampton Town with a view to building a new ground in Coventry.
The reaction locally has been a mixture of anger and defiance. There is fear, too, despite the £1m bond Sisu must pay as a pledge to return to Coventry. Fewer than 2,000 fans are expected to follow their side to Northampton.
It is easy to empathise and all too tempting to question the motives of Sisu. How can owners who have left the club in administration and under a transfer embargo talk seriously about building a stadium? "We don't know what their motives are. Is this brinkmanship?" asks the Sky Blue Trust's Ian Devoy, a great-grandson of Willie Stanley, who founded the club in the Singer motor factory in 1883.
"We have a world-class stadium we can continue to use," he says. "There is an offer on the table to play at the ground rent-free." That offer, rejected by the club's owners, came this week from the former vice-chairman of the club, Gary Hoffman, who had been part of a rival bidding consortium overlooked in June as the Sisu-appointed administrator, Paul Appleton, selected Otium Entertainment, another Sisu company.
Earlier yesterday on a roundabout outside the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton a dozen Trust members stood displaying placards reading: "Send us to Coventry", with a faceless mannequin in a sky-blue bodysuit to represent Sisu. The hedge fund may have inherited the stadium problem (a £1.28m annual rent) but all sympathy has gone.
Coventry MP Bob Ainsworth, raised questions in Parliament this week about the presence of two separate companies with club assets, CCFC Ltd and Coventry City FC Holdings (Ltd), and raised the spectre of fraud.
Concerns have also been voiced by Supporters Direct. According to their spokesman Kevin Rye, the Football League's decision to allow the ground share underlines "why the government is threatening regulation for football. The Football League board tend to act as if these people's intentions are honourable."
Rye suggests that Coventry's situation is far from the scenario in which Rotherham left Millmoor after a rent dispute and spent four years in Sheffield while building a new stadium. "[The Football League] have seen that seemed to work [but] the owner, Tony Stewart, did a huge amount of work with the supporters, the council, MPs to make the return almost a racing certainty."
With ACL due for talks with the Football League tomorrow, nothing is certain. Steven Pressley's side – with four untried teenage starters – won yesterday, but the football seems incidental. "They're ripping our club to shreds," says Dave Bennett, a scorer in the 1987 Cup final win over Tottenham, Coventry's finest hour. A face in the crowd yesterday, he is hopeful that a solution may be found. "They need to get together and talk before it's too late."Reuse content