Sunday 8 September 2013

Reflections on the Sixfields boycott

Well here we are: half-a-dozen games into a new season for the Sky Blues and we have a team that is serving up entertaining games of football week in week out and scoring goals for fun. If you’re a Coventry City fan what’s not to like?

Well, quite a lot as it happens. For the uninitiated the simple version of a highly complex set of circumstances goes like this.

The football club and the stadium, built eight years ago for the express purpose of staging the club’s games, have different owners. And they don’t like each other: even more so since the club stopped paying the rent and finally bunked off to play in Northampton.

The fans don’t much care for the club’s owners either after a so-far five year tenure that has seen a Championship club with ambitions of a return to the Premier League exit that division at the other end. Add to that the fact that they are now required to make a 70 mile round trip to watch their local side play their “home” games, and little wonder so many of them are staging a boycott of matches played at their temporary abode.

Now I do love a good boycott. South African produce during the apartheid era was a no-brainer. Since 1986 and News International’s move to Wapping any product associated with Rupert Murdoch has been a no-go. Shell’s pillaging of the Ogoni people’s land for oil revenues made them beyond the pale. I never watched Neighbours again after the entire cast gleefully scabbed on the strike precipitated by Mrs Mangle’s sacking. And on it goes.

I even refused to renew my season ticket at Highfield Road and attend the first game of the season after Eric Black was sacked. That’s just the rebel I am. So boycotting games in Northampton? Also a no-brainer, right?

No, wrong actually. Thing is, there are boycotts: an organised campaign carried out by as many as possible to achieve a clearly-defined and achievable end, and boycotts: it kind of feels the right thing to do. I’ll leave you to judge which of my own litany of refusenikism is in which category but, after extensive research—well, a lot of time on Twitter—I’ve concluded most boycott-minded Coventry City fans fall into the latter category.

And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing. For the boycotter, the action is the thing. But in this particular instance I feel strongly that not only are they wrong to believe this action will achieve an end—the return of the football club to the City in which it belongs—but that it is actually proving damaging to the very club it is supposed to save through the reduction in match day revenue and the demoralising effect it must be having on the players—not that they’ve shown much evidence of that so far.

I have a further problem with this action. It is becoming increasingly widely accepted that the owners of the stadium (and ultimately this is essentially the City Council via the holding company ACL) are not an entirely innocent party. And yet the boycott targets one side in this dispute, and one side only. Often known under its slogan “Not One Penny More”, the campaign and its main spokespeople leave no doubt where they feel the blame lies: with Sisu, the owners of the football club.

So much for what’s wrong with the campaign, but what should we be doing?

I would look to other clubs that have been in a similar situation, particularly Swansea and Portsmouth. Both are now owned by their supporters and that is where I believe the future of football lies. Fans, not only at Coventry City, commonly call for the return of “their” club from owners who have no real emotional investment in that club, merely a tawdry financial one. But football clubs have never belonged to the supporters, not in a real sense. Of course football, like much else in life, was once less cynical and some clubs were owned by people who really did care: arguably Jack Walker at Blackburn was the last of this breed, before English football sold its soul to Rupert Murdoch.

Is fan ownership possible at Coventry City? Absolutely. But it won’t happen tomorrow—this is a long haul. In the meantime we need to accept that the current owners are going nowhere. The fans’ main representative body, the Sky Blue Trust, needs to drop its hostilities towards the owners and work towards gaining representation at boardroom level as a first step towards running things. In the meantime they can help hold the owners to their promise—at the moment a return to the “Coventry area”—or better still convince them of the need to return to the city itself.

At the same time pressure must be brought on other parties—primarily the city council, but also the Football League whose role in all of this has been shameful—to bring this sorry saga to a happy conclusion. The Trust can play a vital role in brokering deals. And when the time is right, when Sisu want to sell, the true fans will be in place, ready to take the club off their hands.

In the meantime no-one’s really happy, me as little as anyone. Feeling unable to support the boycott, but equally feeling like attending a match would be like scabbing, I’ve taken to going on long runs during matches, the drama at Sixfields conveyed to me through headphones by Stuart, Clive and Geoff. Not being there doesn’t break my heart, it hasn’t killed me—football most certainly is less important than life and death—but it would make me a tad moody and irritable to be with on a Saturday, I mean Sunday, afternoon if I was confined to the house.

So, as I prepare set off on another run I’m hopeful of another hatful of goals and a scintillating performance, regretful that I’m not there to see it, but hopeful before long to be back watching my team in its rightful home.

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