It could be argued that this last year has been one of the most testing times to be a Sky Blues fan. The way things are shaping up could indicate that matters are only going to get worse. Since SISU refused to pay rent which then forced ACL into filing for the club via CCFC Ltd to be placed into administration back in the spring of 2013, it is fair to say things have spiralled out of control and have now left fans with the potential threat of having to travel 35 miles to watch Coventry City FC play their homes games. As Tim Fisher, CEO of the club, pursues on his quest to send fans to Northampton and claims that a stadium will be built in the Coventry ‘area’ within three years, it is important to look into what affect the proposed ground share could have on the identity of the club and the fans of Coventry City FC.
It is within the primeval nature of the game of football that identities have been created through the concept of two teams attacking and defending each other, invasion and retreat, home and away and thus creating the notion of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. It is the ‘us’ element that defines our collective identity. The attitudes we possess and the emotions we feel are shaped through the history, tradition, culture and experiences which develop and build our identity as fans. Football accentuates the partisan feeling of one tribe taking over another town, the other defending its territory and accepting no ‘outsiders’, as fans follow their club by entering another fan’s stomping ground. However, when fans lose their home territory altogether it begs the question, what affect will this have on their identity?
The role of football stadia in contributing to a club’s identity can not be overstated. Stadiums in England have become part of the identity of fans and no better example can be found than at Liverpool, with fans referred to as Kopites in reference to the legendary terrace behind the goal. The intensity there is matched across Europe, by the curve at Lazio or the ‘welcome to hell’ message warning visiting fans at Ali Sami Yen, home to Galatasaray. Further afield, La Bombonera situated in the heart of the working class district of Buenos Aires, home to Boca Juniors, literally jumps through the sheer force of collective movement, particularly during the ‘superclassico’ when the ‘millionaires’ of River Plate travel across town. Not all clubs can match this intensity, but all fans have an attachment to where they ‘belong’ that helps from that collective identity with the aim of becoming the infamous twelfth man.
Coventry City fans have recently began to sing ‘Take me home to Highfield Road’ to the tune of the John Denver classic, which highlights that potentially a part of being a Coventry City fan is now missing and has done since the move to the Ricoh. In a recent study conducted at Liverpool Hope University involving Coventry fans, the evidence was clear that fans regarded Highfield Rd as the club’s ‘spiritual home’ and that there was a strong sense of attachment and affection towards the former home of the Sky Blues. Other research has also found that fans of older grounds felt more attached to their team’s ‘home’ than supporters of stadia built more recently in the last 15 years. This was also present in the attitudes of Coventry fans towards the Ricoh Arena, as some fans felt it was ‘soulless’ and ‘sterile’, with it’s bright corporate title providing little more than lucrative revenue rather than contributing to the clubs, and fans, identity. With the looming possibility of Coventry City relocating to Sixfields, the club’s identity is under serious threat, potentially damaging it beyond repair. It is an area that fans have acted quickly to protect. The ‘Not One Penny More’, ‘tie a sky blue ribbon’ and ‘Keep Cov in Cov’ campaigns and the work of the Sky Blue Trust recognise the need for the club to play in the city of its birth, with the emphasis on the links between the club, the city and the fans.
In addition to the obvious economic benefits for the local area, accessibility for fans and preventing the potential huge loss of public money, it is vital for the identity of the club to remain at the Ricoh Arena and playing in Coventry. Although it could be argued there is a lack of attachment to the Ricoh compared to Highfield Rd, it cannot be disputed that the majority of fans would not feel any attachment to the Sixfields Stadium, if many actually even make the journey. The Ricoh has steadily incorporated the club’s identity into the fabric of the stadium. The seats are sky blue, the clubs emblem was proudly displayed all around, ‘Singers Corner’ replaced the West Terrace, the creation of Bar 87 referenced the clubs finest hour and the recent statue erected in honour of Jimmy Hill, the man who created a huge part of the club’s identity with the Sky Blue Revolution back in the 1960’s, confirmed the connection of the venue with the traditions of the club. The symbolic presence of the football club has bloomed, assisted with these touches to help smooth the relocation process. These additions have helped to express the club’s identity through an appreciation of the clubs history, tradition and culture, represented throughout the stadium. The Ricoh helps set the club and fans apart from the ‘other’ and makes it exclusively ‘ours’.
Emotional ties with the stadium have been reinforced through the ‘buy a brick scheme’, the establishment of the memorial garden and lifetime seat licenses that gives fans a sense of ownership and meaningful attachment. The match day routine that fans have come accustomed to represents the behaviour of the Coventry City supporter. Traditions have adapted. A visit to the Casino before the game can almost be viewed as symbolic act, a metaphor for the huge gamble the club took in leaving Highfield Road. Add the essence of desperation and a visit neatly sums up what it means to be a Coventry City fan. Former Players gather on match days to celebrate the history and tradition of the football club with the fans, enhancing the expression of identity of the club. The Ricoh Arena’s formidable potential characterises how fans see the club. After the relatively recent relegations, supporters view the club as a sleeping giant that lies in the lower leagues awaiting greater times ahead. The stadium reflects this back to the fans. These factors contribute to the constant reinforcement of role of the stadium in contributing to, and helping to shape, the identity of the club and its fans. This connection is now in danger as the move to Northampton seems inevitable.
If, or perhaps when, the football club moves from the City from which it takes it’s name, it immediately loses the legitimacy to use the title of Coventry City in that name. It is no longer from the City of Coventry. The club also loses it’s home advantage, as both home and away fans will pass ‘Welcome to Northampton’ signs on the way to the game, which removes the psychological advantage gained by a home team, with the away fans no longer entering another club’s patch, the territorial intimidation of home fans outnumbering the away fans with the loss of the ‘Sent to Coventry’ attitude. Playing in front of small crowds in an unfamiliar claret-coloured stadium strips the club of any sense of ownership, attachment or dominance with the over-awing essence of a club with no place they can call their own. Not playing at the Ricoh and in Coventry removes a huge part of the identity of the club as all the small symbolic touches that make the Ricoh ‘ours’ will not be seen for some time and may be replaced and never returned. Fans fear that the extreme case of Wimbledon and MK Dons may well be repeated. Legally, the club was simply a tenant at the Ricoh, yet the stadium was built for one club and one club only. The stadium was designed to match the aspirations of what could be achieved, to cater for the potential fan base that would grow with promotion and would help to put Coventry back to the top.
In the study carried out with Coventry fans back in February, concern was expressed towards where future generation of Coventry fans would be found. Many fans believed the rapid increases in the commercialisation of the sport coupled with the media focus aimed towards the more fashionable clubs and the Premiership undermined attempts to gain supporters from children and teenagers in the city. The costs involved in following ‘your’ team is seen as too expensive for many. This will be further undermined with the potential ground share, where thousands of fans are insisting that they will refuse to go to Northampton and will not renew their season tickets. Potential young fans face being deprived of watching their local team, in their city, and could miss on that defining moment of being taken by their father to their first game. The club will miss out on perhaps thousands of future fans if the ground share goes ahead and the club remains outside of the city for up to five years as is now predicted. The relocation puts the future identity of the club into a dangerous predicament. The proposed ground share is putting the future of Coventry City into a delicate position, splitting and losing many supporters, an extremely destructive act it may never recover from.
It is clear to see that the idea of a ground share with Northampton will be highly damaging for the identity of Coventry City fans. It gives fans no ground to call their own, an environment with no expression of the clubs history and tradition and a long and unfamiliar journey to watch a home game outside of the City’s borders. It will destroy a community built over 130 years who have collectively felt the same highs and more common lows, undermine the shared attitudes and emotions and remove the possibilities of sharing the same experiences. It threatens to isolate thousands and fans simply may never return after decades of loyal support, that appear to be simply disgusted with what has happened to their club. It is vital for the club to return to the Ricoh Arena for many reasons, but most importantly for the fans, an agreement needs to be negotiated to get the club back in Coventry, back home to protect the identity of Coventry City Football Club.
By Thomas Hall. Additional background added by APOMTime.