Sky-blue men going places in sky-high society

Click to follow
If you are so inclined you get your company's name on almost anything at Coventry City's Highfield Road ground this season. The car parks, the stadium steps and seats, the two dug-outs, the litterbins and even the 12 ball boys are all available to carry a corporate logo, quite apart from the promotional opportunities of hiring an executive box or sponsoring a sign at the club's Ryton training ground.

Such marketing ingenuity might seem odd when the Premiership is awash with enough cash to arouse the envy of a Columbian drugs cartel. But while all 20 clubs get equal shares of the television windfall from BSkyB, there is an elite which also benefits hugely from major sponsorship, the merchandising of club souvenirs, corporate hospitality, the generosity of a wealthy patron and, left we forget, sell-out season-ticket sales and gate receipts from those marketing units called supporters.

Coventry, as yet, are not among that elite. Indeed they nearly parted company with the Premiership last season until a belated sequence of dogged performances enabled them to escape the drop on the final Sunday. This glimpse of the precipice, after 30 continuous seasons in the top division, has galvanised the club's efforts not just to survive but also to get up among the big boys in terms of earning power and football achievement.

The signing from Leeds of the Scottish international captain Gary McAllister for pounds 3m in the close season was an important signal of intent to the fans and to the rest of the team. It has also sent a message to the Premiership about Coventry's ambition, its buying power and its ability to attract top players.

"He was certainly the player we wanted most through the summer," Coventry's chairman Bryan Richardson said. "He has been our No 1 target." Richardson sanctioned manager Ron Atkinson's pounds 11m spending spree last season with John Salako, Richard Shaw, Liam Daish, the elegant Noel Whelan and the highly promising Eoin Jess arriving at various stages as the Coventry revolution began. Indeed the pace of change may well have been one of the reasons for their scary season.

But now, there can be few excuses. McAllister has endorsed the club by his signing - "I've got very positive vibes about Coventry," he says - and chairman Richardson insists that more money is available should it be needed. The Northern Ireland midfielder Michael O'Neill was signed quietly for pounds 500,000 from Hibernian and the Standard Liege right-back Regis Genaux has been targeted to join an increasingly impressive squad.

"There's two or three other avenues we're exploring," says Atkinson. He then adds with a chuckle: "The cheque book's still open."

So where is the money coming from? Well, apart from the Sky dividend Coventry's marketing department is acknowledged to be among the most active in the Premiership. The club regularly have a 100 per cent take-up of hospitality and dining facilities on match days.

Mark Jones, the director of sales and marketing, says: "We had 1,400 people taking the full lunch package for our last game of the season, which very few clubs could beat. And apart from hospitality, our other inbound-income arrives through things like the club affinity card with the Bank of Scotland, the travel agency and the advertising hoardings. This particular part of the Midlands is holding up very well in terms of prosperity from the engineering and car industries and that's reflected in the club. We're going places."

With the replica kit sales "doing very well" according to the club shop, last Thursday Coventry hosted an open training session for fans at the stadium to launch their new away strip. And Peugeot continued the lineage of motoring sponsorship of the club which dates back to the days of Talbots and Chrysler.

But the serious dosh behind the spendings has come from a consortium of businessmen which includes the millionaire Labour MP for Coventry North- west, Geoffrey Robinson, who is a director of the club. He is said to have put pounds 4m into Coventry and has orchestrated a further pounds 4m package from two City financiers. It will also help Coventry's relationship with the bank that their president Eric Grove is a multi-millionaire from selling his housing company to McAlpine, although it is believed that his financial role is to be more a guarantor than a benefactor.

When Jimmy Hill's first "Sky Blue Revolution" ended with his resignation as Coventry chairman in 1983, he accepted responsibility for what he called "the monotonous competence" which Coventry had come to exemplify. Their 1987 FA Cup victory was an advance on that, but now that the money and the players to make an impact are seemingly in place, the club's fans and management are expecting higher things. "Realistically our target has got to be a place in Europe," says Atkinson, "and I don't mean the Inter-Toto Cup."

Comments