Neville Hadsley bemoans the problems which mean Coventry still play at Highfield Road
When I was a kid, nothing could get me to leave the room faster than those dire Norman Wisdom films – the ones where everything went wrong and it all collapsed into high farce. The embarrassment was all too much for me.
The story of Coventry City’s new stadium has much the same feel. You’ll laugh as a small Premiership club plan the most ambitious club stadium project in Britain – but somehow fail to buy the land! You’ll scream as they discover they can’t afford it – so try to get the government to cough up! You’ll cry as the club, now broke, beg the local council to build it for them!
XIt all began in 1997 when Coventry City’s then chairman Bryan Richardson unveiled plans for a new ground. To give you an idea of the timescale here, it was called Arena 2000. The proposed stadium was to be built on the site of an old gasworks and would incorporate a retractable roof and a pitch mounted on rollers. The details of the funding were always fuzzy at best. When questioned, Richardson, though charming, was evasive. I rang him once and asked him about the whole thing. He assured me everything was fine and said that the club had spent £15 million on preparing the site.
What I didn’t know was that the club didn’t own the land. Worse, it soon became clear that the club did not have anything like the £70m required to build what was now being dubbed “Arena Whenever”. Just about that time, the future of Wembley was in doubt and the government invited bids for a National Stadium. Richardson, along with the club president, the scandal-dogged Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, saw this as a perfect opportunity to get out of the club’s little conundrum. Let’s get the government to pay for it! Champagne all round!
Of course, anyone with any understanding of the Football Association could have told them from day one that they would never sanction a move away from Wembley. But we all played along – the plans were redesigned to double the capacity, adverts were placed, badges printed – and then Wembley got the nod. By now, the project was four years old, Coventry were about to get relegated and the site, still the property of a German construction firm, remained a wasteland.
The chronic mismanagement at Highfield Road was revealed shortly after our first relegation for 48 years and suddenly we were told the club were £60m in debt. Fan unrest led to Richardson falling victim to a boardroom coup orchestrated by Robinson’s and Richardson’s hitherto loyal ally, vice-chairman Mike McGinnity. Writs were exchanged – Richardson claimed unfair dismissal, Robinson claimed financial negligence. It all ended up settled confidentially out of court with Richardson agreeing to sell his 35 per cent stake in the club to Robinson for a quid. I’m still trying to work that one out.
Can you guess what comes next? That’s right – a second redesign. Gone are the retractable pitch and roof and in comes a bog-standard, off-the-peg stadium. By now it’s 2002 and, with Richardson gone, outside funding starts to flood in. The city council pledges cash and the land is bought – for £20m. Suddenly it’s full steam ahead for Arena Whenever.
The only thing is, the project is no longer Coventry City’s. The stadium will be owned by the council and, with the club having nothing but the takings in the coffee machine to bring to the table, Coventry City are reduced to the status of tenants.
As in all Norman Wisdom films, there’s a late twist. A previously unheard-of partner in the deal pulled out late last month and unless the local council stumps up another £21m, the project will die. As always, Coventry need a result elsewhere. Do the council come good? Of course they do – £21m is found, just like that! Norman gets the girl and the city is wreathed in smiles.
But hang on. How did we go from a solvent club with a three-decade unbroken run in one of the richest leagues in the world to a financially ruined club that no longer owns its own ground? I’m still trying to work that one out as well.X
From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month