10 September ~ Anybody who has noticed the slow decline in attendances at the Ricoh Arena over the last few years won’t be surprised to learn that Coventry’s game against Derby today may well take place in front of a small crowd. But for once, the swathes of empty seats wouldn’t just be related to ticket prices, the fact the game is being televised or the superior appeal of the massive shopping complex next to the ground. Instead, a boycott of the match – preceded by a demonstration outside the stadium – has been proposed as one possible form of protest against the owners of the club, the investment fund SISU.
Safe to say, it hasn’t been a happy first month of the season for the Sky Blues. Five games in, and with only two points gained and two goals scored, my WSC pre-season prediction of a 15th-place finish looks crazily optimistic. Truly, I was a dreamer.
In addition to the disappointing results, City fans have endured the slow fizzling out of a takeover bid led by Coventry supporter and former Northern Rock chairman Gary Hoffman. The bid, which promised much-needed investment in the squad and part-ownership of the stadium, broke down amid undignified accusations and counter-accusations via the local press between Hoffman and the current chairman, Ken Dulieu.
This grisly situation shone a light on the supporters’ principal gripes against the owners: shortage of money for wages and transfer fees, and a lack of transparency over their long-term plans for the club. Although a board member recently issued a statement promising to improve communication, similar assurances have been made in the past to no noticeable effect.
The underfunding of the squad is obvious. Three first-team regulars – Marlon King, Aron Gunnarsson and Keiren Westwood – left over the summer. Only Westwood’s replacement, Joe Murphy, was recruited from outside the club. Elsewhere, youngsters or reserve-team players have been forced to step up. Injuries have reduced manager Andy Thorn’s options further.
The sad thing is, last season ended so well. Thorn confidently guided the team to safety by replacing the long-ball game of motivational sloganeer Aidy Boothroyd with a pass-and-move style that was good to watch and yielded results. Unfortunately, the loss of key players has meant the pass-and-move is still there, but the goals and results haven’t been. Inevitably, some supporters are frustrated by this. It won’t be long before the warm appreciation of neat passing triangles turns into screamed demands that big Clive Platt be dusted down and strategically deployed in the mixer.
It seems like a bad time to be taking on Derby. Despite their recent home defeat against Burnley, they lie third in the table, having racked up good wins against Birmingham and Blackpool. Their squad was bolstered over the summer by signings such as England Under-21 goalkeeper Frank Fielding and former Forest striker Nathan Tyson. The only cloud on the horizon might be the recollection of last season, which began well but ended in a miserable relegation battle.
But there are some reasons for cautious optimism among Coventry supporters. The right-back Cyrus Christie and the central midfielder Gael Bigirimana, both of whom moved from the academy into the first team, have been brilliant, and not in the patronising “didn’t they do well” way that young players are often praised. Cody McDonald, a striker who scored 25 goals in 41 games while on loan at Gillingham, arrived from Norwich on the last day of transfer window and may add bite in the final third. Just as importantly, there was no deadline-day exodus with Ben Turner was the only senior play to leave, going to Cardiff for £750,000.
And while Derby have made a good start to the season, there’s always reassurance in the fact that they’re as adept as City at turning the early-season optimism of their supporters into whimpers of dejection by Christmas. Ed Wilson