What If…? Coventry City Had Stayed At Highfield Road

To start this new series, is the biggest ‘What If?’ that currently defines Coventry City. The (for the purposes of this article) Ricoh Arena was a project that began as an attempt to establish the Sky Blues as a force in the top-flight but went resulted in two periods outside of the city and a spell in League Two. The club has yet to fully recover from the decision to move away from Highfield Road, and may never reach the status it once has. How different would things be if the club had remained at the venerable old ground?

What Would Have To Change?

The project that would become the Ricoh Arena was very much the brainchild of Coventry City’s chairman of the mid-to-late 90s, Bryan Richardson. An ambitious man who was desperate to shake-off the tag of the Sky Blues as perennial top-flight relegation battlers, a new stadium was part of a drive to increase the club’s profile, which also involved the appointment of a big-name manager in Ron Atkinson in 1995 and the signing of Gary McAllister, fresh off the back of a starring role for Scotland in Euro 96.

Originally mooted as a 45,000-seater, multi-use venue where the pitch could be slid away to facilitate concerts, and at one point pushed to be a gargantuan 90,000-seater to replace the demolished Wembley Stadium, various delays and issues with contractors forced the project to be scaled back significantly – not least, because of the club’s relegation from the top-flight.

Despite the rising cost and declining need for a new stadium, the club were effectively locked into the project in 1999, when Highfield Road was sold – for just £4 million. This is around the time where history would need to change, with any cancellation of the move to the Ricoh Arena after 1999 being all but impossible.

Aside from Bryan Richardson not having become chairman of the club, the two key factors that could have prevented the Ricoh Arena from being built were being able to significantly redevelop Highfield Road or being relegated from the top-flight prior to 1999. With the redevelopment of Highfield Road being highly difficult due to its location in a densely-packed area of terraced housing, in this article, I will explore how relegation around this time could have kept Coventry City at their spiritual home.

The most likely point where Coventry City could have been relegated during this period was in 1997. It took a combination of a heroic final day performance at White Hart Lane, results going in the team’s favour, and for Middlesbrough to have been docked three-points earlier in the season for postponing a game against Blackburn Rovers due to a horrendous injury list to keep the Sky Blues in the top-flight. If Middlesbrough had put out a side for that Blackburn game, Coventry City’s modern history could have been significantly different.

However, relegation in and of itself wouldn’t have been enough to put the kibosh on the Ricoh Arena project. If the club had bounced-back quickly, Bryan Richardson’s rationale for a new stadium would have remained in place – perhaps, even have been strengthened. A spell of at least three-to-five years would have had a more permanent effect on the club’s level of ambition. This begins this alternate scenario.

What Would Be Different?

That three-to-five year spell in the second-tier, chasing promotion back to the promised land could have proved to be an exhilarating, albeit frustrating, era in Coventry City’s history. While the club were in quite a fragile financial state in the mid-to-late-90s, with relegation, as detailed in the excellent Rick Gekoski book, Staying Up, the evidence from when the club were actually relegated from the top-flight in 2001 is that Bryan Richardson would have been willing to sanction some big spending in order to plot an immediate return.

Without the burden of a new stadium to build, the level of spending could have been sustained over at least another year or two in the quest for promotion. Instead of Coventry City very quickly settling into lower-end status in the First Division, as they did following the failure to achieve promotion in 2002, the years in the lead-up to the millennium, and maybe even just beyond it, would have been about this desperate, promotion at any cost, mentality where big names came and went, there was pressure on every game and there were some agonising close shaves with promotion.

However, that level of spending would not be able to go on forever. Eventually, Bryan Richardson’s ambition would have had to have been significantly curbed, which would roughly coincide with the disastrous collapse of ITV Digital’s support of the Football League in 2002. This would make a regime change at this juncture highly likely, with it probably being the result of administration – in an era before this carried a points deduction penalty.

This would mark another significant divergence from the real timeline, as it would end the influence of Bryan Richardson, as well as Mike McGinnity and Geoffrey Robinson, around five years earlier, well before SISU and Ray Ranson were on the scene. Furthermore, a Coventry City attached to Highfield Road, albeit a stadium that would need work done to it, would be a more attractive proposition than the one that was sold in 2007, paying an exorbitant rent at the Ricoh Arena.

Just what would happen after this point would be entirely up to the identity of whomever had bought Coventry City. This is really where this ‘what if’ gets into wild blue yonder territory as there is a significantly wide array of possibilities from this point. The new owners could have found the formula to get Coventry City back into the big-time or they could have been disastrous, bringing forward relegation to the third-tier by six or seven years.

An interesting, maybe even likely, possibility is that a new owner would have looked to build a new stadium, which could well have been at the same location as where the Ricoh Arena is. While Highfield Road wasn’t quite falling apart in the early 2000s, the costs associated with modernising the old ground may well have made a new stadium a more attractive, and feasible, proposition.

Given that this article is a fantasy scenario, let’s rule out the possibility of a new stadium and look at the longer-term impacts of Coventry City being inextricably attached to Highfield Road.

Most notably, staying at Highfield Road would have prevented the two spells outside of Coventry that the club experienced over the past decade. Furthermore, the club having ownership of its own stadium would have made it very difficult to sink as low as League Two. By the same token, it would have made a return to the top-flight easier to achieve than in the club’s current guise.

Of course, those assumptions are underpinned by assuming that any owner of the club during this period was reasonably competent and well-intentioned. Over a 20-year period, there is a lot of variance in what can happen to a club. However, using historic attendance levels as a guide – Coventry City averaged between 15,000-20,000 at Highfield Road in the late-90s/early-00s – the most likely scenario is that the club would have been a stable second-tier side with probably just as good a chance of making the top-flight as it would dropping to the third-tier.

While that doesn’t represent much of a divergence from the current Coventry City, the last 20 years at Highfield Road would likely have been a period of lesser anxiety, fear and tension as it has been for the club at the Ricoh Arena.

That’s what I think would have been the impact of this ‘What If’, but what about you? Leave your comments and feedback below.

2 thoughts on “What If…? Coventry City Had Stayed At Highfield Road

  1. It is always interesting to ask “What if….”.

    It would have been very different today if the Sky Blues had stayed at Highfield Road, for that to have happened the ground would have needed to be completely redeveloped, but that wasn’t as big a fantasy as some would have you believe. Way back in the early to mid 1970s there were plans for a huge stand to be built where the Spion Kop was, the stand would have been at least as high as the West Stand, it would have also been very deep with hospitality facilities, a new restaurant, meeting, conference and exhibition spaces, and with the club’s commercial and administrative teams also based there. There was also talk of it including a hotel. I still have the brochure the club produced somewhere! The stand would have been so big that Swan Lane would have been in a tunnel under the stand, with the building reaching the railway line (what is now Jimmy Hill way). This, it was suggested, was merely Phase 1 of the ground’s redevelopment!

    At around this time I seem to remember that the club owned most of the property surrounding Highfield Road, which would have removed one of the major difficulties in getting the project started. A bigger, more luxurious ground would have helped the club weather the difficulties of the late 70s and early to mid 1980’s and set us up for the current money dominated era. It might have attracted a better group of players, and hopefully improved the status of the club all round. Whether the team on the pitch could have been more successful than the one we saw in the late 1980s and 1990s I don’t know, but at least we would have avoided over a decade of poor decisions about where we play,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a fantastic piece of insight there, Ian, into a CCFC era that I’m not familiar with – beyond Steve Phelps’ excellent book ‘29 Minutes From Wembley.

      Perhaps the biggest ‘what if’ with Coventry City is what could have been different if the club hadn’t been so desperate to stay up across the top-flight era and had been willing to take a short-term step back or to to make a greater leap forward over the longer-term.

      Like

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