Coventry City are back in Coventry. A sentence that shouldn’t have needed to be written once and definitely not twice, but that isn’t to downgrade the significance that we are back.
The big question to ask about this return is what is different about this time that rules out another spell in exile?
The answer is that the situation in which the club is returning to the Ricoh Arena is much clearer than it was in 2014. Last time, the club was seemingly brought back to Coventry on the false pretence that there was a prospect of owning the stadium, while at the same time a deal was being made to sell it to a rugby club from London. This time around, we know who the owners are and there is a plan in place to eventually build a stadium of our own.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that events could again transpire to send the club out of the city, but a ten-year deal suggests there is a strong level of commitment from the current key actors involved in this saga to prevent it happening any time soon.
However, what is galling about this return is that everything that is true about the situation now was just as true it was two years ago. As brilliant as it feels to be back and as great as it has been to have been successful during this two-year spell in Birmingham, it is a situation that simply didn’t need to happen. That said, given the intransigence of the parties involved, special credit has to go to Dave Boddy at Coventry City, his counterparts at Wasps, and anyone else involved in overcoming seemingly irresolvable differences to make this return happen.
It shouldn’t have taken two years to realise this but the mutually beneficial solution all along has been for Coventry City to remain at the Ricoh Arena, even as a stop-gap before building a new stadium. For the club, it was unrealistic to spend five-to-seven years, or more, outside of the city before a new stadium could be built. For Wasps, the extra revenue coming from at least 25 more matchdays at the Ricoh Arena, plus rent, would only have strengthened their ability to make Coventry home. For the council, Coventry City remaining at the Ricoh Arena reduces the possibility of a stadium they have invested a lot of financial and political capital into becoming a white elephant – that, and a successful football team being a good thing for a city.
Fortunately, this second spell in exile hasn’t been as nearly as dire as the first. At Northampton, it felt like the club was set to die. With a skeleton squad and attendances generally around the 2,000 mark, it was hard to see any other direction than the abyss. It speaks to the professionalism and organisational skills of Mark Robins that this two-year spell in Birmingham has felt like barely a bump in the road. Where there were constant reminders at Northampton of how far the club had fallen, you could have been forgiven in Birmingham for forgetting that anything had changed apart from the colour of the seats.
Coventry City returning to Coventry really is a game-changer for this football club. While the past two years have shown that short-term success is possible with the right manager and squad, over the long-term, we were always going to be at a significant disadvantage. Although the terms of the return are important, the simple fact is that playing in Coventry attracts bigger crowds, more money and better players, enhancing our prospects of establishing ourselves in the Championship, and one day even aspiring for better.
Although we saw that it was possible for the club to be successful on the pitch outside of the city, each passing year in Birmingham would have made it increasingly difficult to maintain our current position. Adding an extra barrier for people simply getting to games would have seen crowds dwindle, financial resources decline, our best players leave, which would likely have had the effect of crowds, resources and player quality declining further. The club was very lucky to get away with a second spell in exile.
However, we haven’t completely gotten out of this two-year spell away from Coventry without taking damage. It will go down as a huge missed opportunity for the club not to have won a first league title in over half a century in Coventry. Although success in the Checkatrade Trophy and League Two Play-Offs rekindled interest for some, winning a league title and promotion to the Championship would have added another wave of fans – either new or those getting back into the habit – and further added to the momentum the club has built under Mark Robins over recent years.
Who knows? That extra level of revenue and general feelgood factor that could have been caused by winning a league title in Coventry could have been the difference between the season of struggle in the Championship that we are currently enduring and something more exciting.
Instead, the club is going to have to work hard, once fans are allowed to attend games, to win those fans over that we have missed out on over the past two years. There may be an extent to which the return – along with hopefully the easing and eventual end to social distancing restrictions – will drive interest to higher levels than they would ordinarily be, but there is a decent chance that last season was our best opportunity in a generation to garner the level of support that could transform the club’s prospects over the long-term.
Now that we are back, just how important it makes staying in the Championship is a debate to be had. On the one hand, playing at the highest level possible is clearly more enticing than heading into a season at a lower level and off the back of a relegation. On the other, the point of this long-term nature deal is that the club is in a better position to sustain Championship football, regardless of what division we end up in next season.
It the worst was to happen and we were to get relegated this season, the club would be in a much better place to return to the Championship, and stay there, than they were two years ago when we won promotion. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be better to be in the Championship next season than League One, the point is that survival is more about our immediate prospects as a football team than avoiding the club sinking back into the abyss.
This debate is what makes returning to Coventry so brilliant. Once again, the talk is about what the team can achieve on the pitch rather than the rights and wrongs of a saga that has gone on for far too long. The first thing non-Coventry City fans will say to Coventry City fans won’t be about how terrible a situation the club is in, it will be about how we’re doing on the pitch. (Those unoriginal pre-match ‘C̶o̶v̶e̶n̶t̶r̶y̶ Birmingham’ tweets from opposing clubs will soon be a thing of the past).
Returning to Coventry makes Coventry City a football club again. Even better, this time it feels like it’s for good…