It began as these tragedies seemingly always do: with lofty ambitions built on a flimsy premise. Coventry City’s decision to leave Highfield Road was a drive for the stars. An attempt to swell their attendance, increase their revenue and reach for European football.
It was also hoped that a new arena would become part of England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup and that, by building a suitable facility, a seven-day-a-week stream of concerts and top-flight football would rejuvenate the city’s decaying north.
English football was chaotic in the 1990s. The Premier League era may have begun and BSkyB’s cash might well have started pulsing through the communal veins, but it’s easy to forgot how the game was laden with debt. By the turn of the Millennium, Coventry were servicing loans of nearly £60m and their decision-making process seems to have principally been instructed by desperation.
Speaking to the BBC in 2012, former chairman Bryan Richardson outlined the stark financial realities that Highfield Road imposed: “We averaged 19,000 a game and brought in receipts of £5m a year. Our break even attendance at the time would have been 83,000.”
The area around Highfield Road was and remains typical of grounds up and down the country. Red brick terraced streets criss-cross each other and, originally, the ground was tucked in amongst them. It was its charm and its curse. The surrounding community gave Highfield Road its authenticity, but it also prevented its expansion beyond a 23,400 capacity. The argument for a move to a bigger stadium on a new site made itself.
However, of all the misjudgements made by the club, the premature sale of their existing home was probably the most damaging. In 1999, to raise the capital required for a new ground, Coventry’s board accepted a £4m offer for Highfield Road with a provision to lease back the ground. It would be reductive to describe that as the beginning of the nosedive, but it was a critical mistake – one which occurred within the context of the Co-op bank’s diminishing appetite for lending to impoverished football clubs.
For all the modern angst about football operating as a business, it’s not without its advantages.
After all, it’s preferable for sound financial practice to facilitate ambition rather than the other way around. In this instance, Coventry had traded away their only true asset and were faced with a future which depended on the construction of a stadium which they could not afford to finance.
It’s part of a bigger, more convoluted story. In Coventry City: Club Without A Home, Simon Gilbert does an admirable job in retelling the chaos. As thoroughly researched and informative as the book is, though, the first few chapters really need to be read two or three times – not through any fault of the author, but because the scale of the ineptitude and the naivety is almost too vast to comprehend. SISU are today’s villain and with good cause, but the path which led the club into their arms and the team into the fourth tier was lit by institutional hopelessness.
The local rage, understandably, is focused towards the Ricoh Arena. But what of the area which was left behind?
Old grounds should radiate an aura; the plot of land on which Highfield Road was built absolutely does not.
Coming here in late February, with a cold winter sun dancing on the rooftops, should feel like being in the presence of something. The crowd should murmur in the wind and, if you listen closely enough, visitors should still be able to hear Jimmy Hill sing. But that’s not the case. All this area offers to the travelling football tourist is a reminder of the game’s brutality.
The legacy of that sale, other than Coventry’s tenuous existence in the years since, is a housing estate which now sits on the old site. Local people tell me that there’s nothing to see there and that, beyond a blue plaque, there’s little to recall the area’s history. In one sense they’re correct, but in another they’re quite wrong: the housing project has been constructed from paler bricks and has been designed as a courtyard. Within its centre is a children’s play area and, actually, it looks like a nice, safe place to raise a family.
When the property was designed, its communal centre was intentionally grassed over in a way which would recall its past. A nice thought if true, but too tenuous to be of any real worth.
Standing there is a strange experience. The shape of the plot makes it obvious that this was once a football stadium and the architectural differences with the surrounding area make it very clear what has happened. It’s a transplant; Highfield Road has been crane-lifted out and this dropped in its place. The blue plaque is there and it does mark the club’s 106-year residency, but it seems insufficient. It’s the kind of gesture afforded to a fleetingly famous writer or actor, not a pivot of the community.
Inevitably though, what isn’t there is as important as what is. When football leaves an area, business – obviously – often goes with it. The transient vendors have gone, of course, packing up their scarves and badges many years ago, but more permanent parts of the landscape have vanished too. The Binley Oak pub, once a match-going yardmarker, now sits vacant and unused.
Some remain, though. The Nisa store on Nichols street is still there, and so too is Julia Kelly after 26 years. Born on nearby Wren Street, Julia has lived and worked in the area for nearly 60 years, and remembers Highfield Road fondly, and also the regulars who used to drop in as part of their match-day ritual.
“We almost got to know some of the people. Now, it’s become more of a student area. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many of the families are gone.”
Universities are big business in a lot of towns and, like many others, Coventry has made plenty of concessions. Student libraries and other facilities line the walk from the city centre to Highfield Road and so the population shift Julia notices might just be a modern economic reality. Possibly, but she’s also aware of creeping disinterest in the area.
“In my eyes it’s been neglected, because when outsiders were coming in the council kept an eye on it. There were always sweeping the streets and keeping the area clean, but now we hardly ever see council employees up here.”
The evidence for that isn’t hard to find. Nearby Primrose Hill Park has certainly seen better days. Rubbish litters its bushes and, Julia says, there are ongoing problems with graffiti and vandalism. For an area which once throbbed with so much life, it’s now remarkably desolate. Not because the local residents don’t take care of their homes or aren’t welcoming, but because the world has lost interest.
It’s quite impractical, of course, but there should be scarves and statues here, maybe Steve Froggatt’s thunderous goal against Everton – projected onto a wall – should play on a continuous loop.
But there’s nothing. Maybe it’s only football supporters who care about these things, but this is just another unmarked, unattended grave – another invisible monument to English football’s rush to forget itself and to forget everything which allowed it to recklessly chase dreams.
Seb Stafford-Bloor – follow him on Twitter