Fans' victory: Coventry City return home

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Last Friday Coventry City played at their true home for the first time since 2013. Keep Cov in Cov (kcic) campaigner Michael Orton explains how the campaign developed and what the homecoming meant for him...

Looking forward to watching your team play at home this coming weekend or next? As many football fans will already know, last season saw Coventry City play all their home fixtures 35 miles away at Northampton Town FC’s Sixfields stadium, plus the first three matches of the 2014/15 season. But in a dramatic turnaround, last Friday saw the Sky Blues return to their Ricoh Arena home in an emotional, celebratory and party-like atmosphere in front of 27,000+ fans for a live televised game against Gillingham.

The saga was often presented as a dispute over rent between club owners, the sisu hedge fund, and Ricoh owners, Arena Coventry Limited (ACL - a joint venture between Coventry City Council and a local charity) but a High Court verdict revealed what many fans had always suspected – the move to Northampton was a deliberate tactic by sisu with the aim of distressing ACL so sisu could then obtain the Ricoh at a knockdown price – a tactic that at least at the moment seems to have failed.

Media coverage has been clear in seeing the return to the Ricoh as a victory for fans. The Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter [Ed's note - FSF Writer of the Year] summed it up as “The club can put spin on [it]…but it was fan power that counted. It was all the campaigners who highlighted the moral disgrace of moving the club out of the city…The return to the Ricoh was a victory for supporters who refused to accept their club being treated like a franchise, moved around, messed around. Coventry fans never stopped believing, never stopped campaigning.” On TalkSport we got Micky Quinn’s Fans of the Week "bacon butty award" – does praise come any higher than that?

kcic was the most active fan group in campaigning against the move to Northampton, but it (kcic) came about in accidental fashion. The local supporters’ trust, the Sky Blue Trust, had been moribund but with problems at the Club growing, it was relaunched in the summer of 2012. With sisu saying they would leave the Ricoh one fan, Jim Smits, set up a Facebook page called ‘Not One Penny More’ (NOPM) which asked supporters not to give one penny more to sisu. NOPM quickly grew in popularity and became unmanageable so Jim asked the Trust if it would take over. The Trust agreed and the NOPM campaign evolved into Keep Cov in Cov. However, the Trust then decided it was no longer going to organise protests and adopted a position of neutrality, including cutting off kcic. kcic was left to stand alone.

kcic operated through an entirely informal, but very extensive network, primarily through social media and relied solely on the efforts of supporters. There was no committee and no resources other than those contributed by fans – everything from designing and printing materials to taking and sharing photographs, videos and film, and providing professional expertise plus huge amounts of time, energy and sheer hard work. With the return to the Ricoh we have been keen to highlight the huge numbers of unsung heroes who got involved in the kcic campaign in a hundred and one different ways. We have also been hugely grateful to fans of other clubs whose backing has been immense and to the FSF for their unstinting support.

When the kcic campaign started it was clear that sisu and the Football League simply wanted fans to accept the move to Northampton, keep quiet and fall in with sisu’s plan. The initial kcic focus was therefore to make sure things did not go quiet and to move this from a local story to a national one. We knew it would be hard to get numbers to protests outside Coventry so developed a campaign of small but focused events, sometimes styled as ‘flashmobs’ that began in Northampton then alternated between the London offices of sisu and the Football League. Other actions included bombarding the Football League, sisu, MPs and anyone else we could think of, with emails, postcards and letters, and plenty of people nagged away at journalists. In January 2014 we were drawn away at Arsenal in the FA Cup 4th Round and with the game being televised kcic organised fans to hold up signs at pre-arranged times saying ‘Why’ (has the fisco been allowed to happen) and ‘When’ (will we return home).

As well as live TV coverage, the protest was featured in all the main national newspapers the following day. Fans did scores of other things too like taking banners to a wide range of televised sporting events; 'Keep Cov in Cov' flags even appeared at this summer's World Cup in Brazil. The single biggest action by Coventry fans was boycotting games played in Northampton. The boycott led to record low ‘home’ crowds, while fans attended away games in huge numbers. Remarkably, in 2013/14 more Coventry fans went to away games than ‘home’ games showing we still supported the team but not the owners. The boycott held firm at the start of the current season.

The most important element, however, was never giving up. We often called kcic a ‘nagging toothache’ campaign – just as sisu or the Football League thought things had gone quiet we popped up again, nagging away and making clear we would never stop fighting. We always kept things 100% peaceful and as good humoured as possible. Protesting with pride and dignity proved to be stronger weapons than the obvious temptations of other forms of action. There were always people keen to tell us it was all a waste of time, it would never work and we were misguided etc etc. That’s the downside of social media and you quickly learn to grow a thick skin as well as realising that for every internet troll there are a heck of a lot more fans who are truly awesome in their commitment and dedication. Through kcic it has been a privilege to meet huge numbers of absolutely fantastic supporters of Coventry and other clubs.

That Friday feeling

Friday night’s return to the Ricoh was about pride and celebration. Anyone who did not know the story would have thought a major prize was at stake, with fans arriving hours early and the excitement outside the stadium palpable long before kick-off. Inside the stadium there was raw emotion. A fifteen minute delay was needed because of crowd congestion but served only to heighten the atmosphere. When the teams finally walked out onto the pitch it was to a roar of such volume rarely, if ever, heard at the Ricoh before, followed by a deafening chant of ‘Sky Blue Army’ – a chant for the fans, by the fans. In a game which was not necessarily the most exciting, despite Coventry winning 1-0, supporters kept the volume going and midway through the second-half a spontaneous round of ‘Stand up, if you love City’ had the whole stadium on its feet with the singing reverberating round the Ricoh and a tear in the eye of more than one fan.

I had a text from one friend who admitted that when he “saw those Sky Blue shirts come out of the tunnel onto the pitch” he did cry and he was not alone in the rawness of his feelings with a whole host of emotions at play. Relief the fight is over; the joy of a victory for fans; anger that the fiasco was ever allowed to happen; both hope and fear for the future; but above else immense pride at being Coventry City fans and the sheer unbridled elation of a great injustice ended and a momentous homecoming shared with so many fellow fans. That such emotion was generated not when a great footballing prize was at stake but at a third-tier game, early season, between two middling teams speaks for itself. This was a tumultuous reminder of the depth of feeling and emotion that football breeds and its importance.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the Coventry experience and there are already questions being asked as to ‘what next?’ both in relation to our club and football generally. Will Coventry be remembered as the low point in English football ownership and governance or is it just a case of which club will be next? As Coventry fans, we are still in the hands of two companies (sisu and ACL) whose interest is their own financial position - not the interests of the team and supporters - and who come out of the fiasco looking anything but good and certainly not efficient and effective businesses. Some fans stayed away on Friday out of principle, saying they will not return until sisu have gone.

But before looking to the future, we need to draw breath.

kcic was the only fans’ group that supported the boycott of Northampton and the words that have meant most to us are from Coventry City Manager, Steven Pressley. Pressley is a rare exception (apart from fans) in coming out of the saga with his reputation enhanced. He proved a consummate diplomat, not criticising his employer but making clear he understood the stance being taken by fans. Last week he said, "If the supporters had turned out in their numbers at Sixfields…there would not have been such a great pressure to return. But the supporters voted with their feet and I think you can never forget that football clubs are built around the supporters".

Everyone involved with kcic feels proud of our role in creating the pressure to which Pressley refers and his final comment about clubs being built around supporters is one that club owners, footballing authorities and everyone else connected with the game, would do well to heed.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.