A sceptical Neville Hadsley wonders if Foleshill Gasworks will ever become Arena 2000

The most potent symbol of Coventry City FC these days is not Gordon Strachan urging on the troops from inside his technical area, but a gas tower in the north of the city. This historic relic – local folklore has it that it acted as a navigational marker for Nazi bombers in the Second World War – stands on the site of Coventry’s proposed state-of-the-art stadium, Arena 2000. While it stands, scepticism about the project will remain among many Sky Blues fans.

Some cast envious eyes at Southampton, who should be playing in their new ground in a year. By contrast Coventry’s more ambitious plans – the new beast will have a sliding roof and retractable pitch – have stumbled. The site, the old Foleshill Gasworks, was earmarked over three years ago but the gas tower still stands. Highfield Road has been sold to build­ers and will be leased back by the club for the foreseeable future. The announcement came in the local newspaper via the builders in question, who could hardly contain their delight at capturing “the spiritual home of the Sky Blues”. No figures have been revealed.

No one seems to know when the stadium will be finished, with the result that some Coventry sup­por­ters have come to refer to it as Arena 3000. Chairman Bryan Richardson is insistent that a 2002-03 opening is the target, although he admits candidly that that will require “a following wind”. The key is the gas tower. The problem has been finding a relocation site for a family who have been living beside it since 1945.

“The demolition of the gas tower is an emotive issue,” he says. “ There’s no question that that is what people want to see. They want the big one to come down and when it does it will have a big effect because people will know we are on our way.” He even muses about bringing a bit of theatre to its demise, having a celebrity demolition or offering the honour of pressing the button in a competition.

The other worry to many fans is the cost, but Rich­ardson is again dismissive. “People are not interested in the cost,” he says. “The figure of £70 million means nothing to the ordinary fan.”And yet it will almost certainly be the most expensive stadium built by a football club in England, one with an average gate of less than 21,000 last season. Can we afford it? Will it drag the club down? Was Robbie Keane sold to help pay for it?

Richardson moves in on such questions like a boun­cer trying to stop a fight. “We have ring-fenced the Arena from the football club,” he says. “They are two are separate companies. We’ve seen other clubs having to sell their best players and jeopardise their futures to build a stadium and we are not going down that road.

“You’ll find that once it is built there will be a whole new breed of football supporters who will come to the new stadium,” he continues. “People who have not gone to football before will go and will get hooked. It’s happened everywhere. Look at Derby. Average gate before Pride Park 18,000. Average now 32,000. Same at Sunderland and at Middlesbrough.”

So, if there is nothing to fear, why the secrecy? The fact remains that there is no reference to the stadium in the matchday programme and the information on the official website is vague, though the claims are grandiose (“it has attracted praise from all quarters both for its design and incredible versatility”). Rich­ardson’s view is that the fans are not too interested in their new home. “What the fans want is money spent on players,” he argues. “The more the better and as much money as possible.”

So the selling of our “spiritual home” is a deal done without comment and the building of our new one is deemed to be less important that the latest import from Honduras or the Nationwide. For all Richardson’s confidence there is still a gulf between club and support. Such communication as there is merely invites us to keep buying our season tickets – and please don’t boo Colin Hendry. And, such is the nature of the average, placid, malleable, good-natured Coventry fan, we obey.

From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month

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