Coventry filled their old ground for a fantastic finale, but often struggled to do so and Neville Hadsley wonders why they have to move to a venue fit for Kylie and U2
It hasn’t been a good 12 months for Coventry City chairman Mike McGinnity and his board. First he sacked a popular manager, Eric Black, then compounded the error with City’s worst appointment in living memory – Peter Reid – who, instead of achieving the “instant success” McGinnity declared he wanted, pitched the club into a relegation battle.
If that wasn’t bad enough, McGinnity then chose to embroil himself in a damaging legal case against some of the club’s supporters over some low-level name-calling in private correspondence that was inadvertently made public. McGinnity scored another yet own goal earlier this year when his plan to replace the club badge with something that looked like it had been designed by a child was overwhelmingly rejected by the club’s supporters. The appointment of Micky Adams gave McGinnity some sign that redemption was possible, but if anyone needed a successful send-off for Highfield Road it was him.
As it turned out, the last game at Highfield Road after 106 years was could not have gone better for McGinnity and the Sky Blues supporters. The sun shone and the ground filled to its 22,700 capacity – no mean achievement in a season when the “Sky Blue Army” was often down to a hard core of 13,000. Perhaps fired by the best atmosphere since the FA Cup-winning season of 1987 – and certainly motivated by Adams and the need for a win to seal survival in what they laughingly call the Championship – the Sky Blues delivered their best result and performance of the season, a 6-2 drubbing of play-off contenders Derby County.
With the obvious exception of the away end, the whole ground seemed drunk on the emotion of the occasion and emboldened by the unravelling of events on the pitch. Even the obligatory Mexican wave seemed less of an irritant than usual, although starting it at 0-0 when relegation was still a possibility did seem recklessly presumptuous.
When the first goal came in it was scored by Coventry kid Gary McSheffrey and, when he made it two from the penalty spot soon after, it was hard not to think of those terrible “soccer” movies in which the sun always shines and the local hero, plucked from the obscurity of park football, wins the cup and is carried, shoulder high, off the pitch at the end.
We were 4-0 up at half-time – even the Hollywood cheese-meisters would have rejected such a plot, but it seemed to be real. The scenes long after the final whistle, with Jimmy Hill, hero-manager in the 1960s but a less successful chairman in the 1980s, leading those who could not bear to leave in a mass rendition of Hill’s own Sky Blues Song on the pitch, brought many to the brink of tears, and beyond. But many years ago, I made a rule for myself that I would never cry at a football match and I passed the test again as I walked away from the ground that I had known for almost 40 years.
It’s hard, in all honesty, to see any logic behind the move to our 32,000-seat new stadium. Even in the heyday of Premiership football at Highfield Road, there were only one or two sell-outs per season.
What’s more, poor financial management has ceded control and effective ownership of the new stadium to Coventry City Council, which means that none of the financial benefits of sponsorship will accrue to the club, yet CCFC will have to find a substantial rent, thought to be in excess of £1 million per annum.
In the week before our departure it was announced that the club’s new home will be called the Ricoh Arena. Tellingly, and humiliatingly, Ricoh’s own website announced that it was sponsoring “the home of entertainment” before going on to talk about the place hosting such artists as Kylie Minogue, David Bowie and U2. At no point did the Japanese company mention that Coventry City would be playing there. Unbelievably, it didn’t even mention which city its new arena was in.
A humbling start to a new era, then, and it is easy to be sentimental about Highfield Road. For all its faults – the restricted views, the cramped facilities – our now former home was a true community stadium that was accessible to all.
The new place is on the edge of the city and does not have the network of pubs, chip shops and curry houses that are crucial to the matchday experience. What’s more, it is only accessible by car and, with limited car-park spaces and a draconian street parking regime imposed, many fear an environmental and logistical nightmare.
Die-hard football fans instinctively resist change. Who’s to say they are wrong?
From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month