'Cov' back on firm foundations

Fairbrother returns Sixties greats to their roots and nurtures bright future
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Resurrecting a famous old brand can be an expensive and painful business. Last week Jaguar reversed out of Coventry, but the good news for the city is that Keith Fairbrother is almost as permanent a fixture as the statue of Lady Godiva.

Resurrecting a famous old brand can be an expensive and painful business. Last week Jaguar reversed out of Coventry, but the good news for the city is that Keith Fairbrother is almost as permanent a fixture as the statue of Lady Godiva.

Fairbrother, a former England prop, is at the heart of a campaign to restore the good name of Cov, as the rugby club have been known for 130 years. "We have the history and the pedigree,'' Fairbrother said. And they now have what they claim are the best facilities in National League One.

When the Butts Park Arena opened in July it was an emotional homecoming for Coventry RFC. Six years ago the club, after spending £3 million in a drive to break into the Zurich Premiership, went into liquidation and might have disappeared without trace but for the intervention of Fairbrother and friends. Coventry came close to promotion, losing to London Irish in a 1997 play-off, but it was a massive gamble that backfired. A members' club, they had mortgaged their home at Coundon Road. Fairbrother drew up a business plan, won the backing of the Rugby Football Union and the administrators, and a matter of days before the start of the 1999 season assembled a part-time squad.

Following the sale of Coundon Road and the purchase of the eight-acre Butts site from the city council, Coventry think they might be in a position to take the next step. "The example of clubs like Richmond, London Scottish and Rotherham should have taught us a lesson,'' Fairbrother said. "That's why we were determined to establish a first-class base before financing a squad. People make the mistake of doing it the other way round. We're in a position to meet the criteria for entry to the Premiership.''

When Coventry were founded in 1874 they played at the old Butts stadium before moving to Coundon Road in 1921. "We've come home,'' Fairbrother said. "We used to be one of the most powerful clubs in the country. It's close to my heart to become what we once were. We've got to give it a go.''

Fairbrother is Coventry born and bred. He left school at 15 to become a tinsmith at Jaguar, making by hand the bodywork for classic marques, including the XK140, 150 and E-Type. "My salary was £2 15s 9d, and I had to pay £3 a week board to my mum, so I started to do car repairs in my dad's garage at the bottom of the garden,'' he said. It was the beginning of a 40-year business career during which Fairbrother became a fruit-and-veg merchant - if you ate an apple or a potato in the Midlands it was probably one of his - a shoe salesman in Russia and a developer in the leisure industry.

Fairbrother joined Coventry as a 17-year-old prop at a time when the club had a production line in great forwards, every bit as reliable as the local car industry. He won 12 caps for England (he is the only prop-forward in history to turn up for training in an E-Type), his finest moment coming in the historic victory over South Africa at Twickenham in 1969. England's first victory over the Springboks coincided with Peter Hain, then the leader of anti-apartheid demonstrations, now the Leader of the House of Commons, attempting to disrupt the match with pitch invasions and smoke bombs.

Fairbrother's opposite number was Mof Myburgh. "We had a hell of a battle,'' Fairbrother recalls. "He was a huge policeman who was alleged to have killed a lion with his hands. They never expected an English front row to smash them, but their scrum started to go backwards and that was the turning point.''

Today Fairbrother, at 60 the full-time chairman of Coventry, will be at Penzance to see if the players in the famous blue- and-white hoops can maintain a winning start to the season following victories over Nottingham and Orrell. The squad have been strengthened since last season, when the club avoided relegation in the final match. Fairbrother is flanked by two former England No 8s: Graham Robbins, general manager, and John White, head coach, who is assisted by Steve Williams, recently retired from Northampton, and the player-coach Mike Umaga. Adrian Olver, a prop who has seen service in the Premiership, is the new captain.

The players are described as semi-pro, training four times a week. Coventry, who are sponsored by Peugeot, have a salary budget of £600,000, which is less than a third of the Premiership clubs and less than some other wannabes in League One, including Pertemps Bees (formerly Birmingham-Solihull), Plymouth, Bristol and Exeter.

"It's a league of two halves,'' Fairbrother said. "Some are really ambitious, some aren't, but it's a tough competition. I regard promotion as the Holy Grail, although I think the Premiership has room for more than 12 clubs. Any successful business should look to expand.''

The Butts stadium was once the venue for a number of sports, including cricket, tennis, archery, cycling and, as the home of Coventry Godiva Harriers, athletics. Fairbrother is hoping the revamped complex will become a centre of excellence for the community. "Coventry Bears rugby league and ladies' rugby teams already use it, and I'd like to see local football clubs involved,'' Fairbrother said. "There's room for development. We have 6,000 seats and planning permission for another four. We paid a commercial price, but the great thing is that Coventry Rugby Club own it.'' Coventry City, who sold their Highfield Road Stadium to the council, will have to pay rent when they move to the £113m Jaguar Arena next year.

"The city has been starved of success,'' Fairbrother said. "There's a big rugby public out there and the area is still producing the players. Many of them end up at Leic-ester. If we were in the Premiership they would play for us in front of big crowds.''

Today the Butts Park Arena's immaculate pitch - it was laid by the ex-England prop and ace agronomist Piggy Powell - will host a competition for marching bands. If Coventry begin to make sweet music they could become a regular feature.