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Coventry City’s resurrection: How manager Mark Robins and chief exec Dave Boddy saved the Sky Blues

Coventry City fans cannot believe what they are seeing, on the pitch, in the stands or in the Championship table.

After 15 turbulent – and too often miserable – years the Sky Blues are back and in numbers.

The nomadic club has returned to Coventry this season after being forced to play at rivals Birmingham City for the last two terms and previously in Northampton because of protracted ground disputes around the Ricoh Arena. 

Coventry City’s Matt Godden celebrated his goal against Derby County in front of 23,829 fans

Coventry have plumbed the depths of the English Football League, but now the club deservedly sit fourth in the second tier, with average gates of 19,310, the highest for well over a decade and their jubilant fans are daring to dream of the Premier League.

On Saturday, 23,829 supporters, the highest attendance this season, were at the Ricoh, now known as the Coventry Building Society Arena, to see City share the points with Derby County following six straight home wins.

‘It is not just the numbers, it is the noise they are generating,’ said chief executive Dave Boddy, who has been instrumental in the resurgence of the club since his arrival in 2017.

‘The supporters have been galvanised by the return to Coventry. They are incredible.’

And so is the turnaround in City’s fortunes and the job done by Boddy and manager Mark Robins.

Sky Blues fans have returned in numbers this season to roar on their team home and away

Sky Blues fans have returned in numbers this season to roar on their team home and away

Club has sold more season tickets than it has for 50 years and performances have been great

Club has sold more season tickets than it has for 50 years and performances have been great

Coventry and Charlton Athletic fans joined forces as part of a 'pigs might fly' campaign and threw plastic porcines onto the pitch highlighting the decline of their respective clubs

Coventry and Charlton Athletic fans joined forces as part of a ‘pigs might fly’ campaign and threw plastic porcines onto the pitch highlighting the decline of their respective clubs

‘It is literally unbelievable,’ one diehard fan told Sportsmail ahead of the weekend’s fixture, as he reflected on how far the club has come on and off the pitch.

Four years ago, fans were protesting loudly and often, calling out the owners, London-based hedge fund SISU, accusing them of running the club down after taking over in administration in 2007.

Coventry chief executive, Dave Boddy, has been instrumental in City's resurgence

Coventry chief executive, Dave Boddy, has been instrumental in City’s resurgence

NEW STADIUM PLAN

Coventry City are committed to developing a new stadium to end the long-running uncertainty over their home at the Ricoh Arena, and generate more matchday revenues.

But following recent success, the club will have to cater for more than the 18,000 capacity in their initial plans for a new complex at the University of Warwick.

Coventry are back at the Ricoh, now called the Coventry Building Society Arena, this season after agreeing a 10-year contract with current owners, Premiership rugby club, Wasps. There is a break clause that would allow them to go after seven years.

And in a rare interview since SISU took over the Championship club in 2007, owner Joy Seppala confirmed last month she is ‘fully committed’ to creating a new ground to provide a secure base for the club and to generate much-needed revenue.

The protracted disputes with various owners at the Rico have centred on rent and revenues.

‘Quite frankly I think that Covid has demonstrated to the rest of the sporting and football world what we as a football club have experienced for many years, which is not having our matchday revenues.” Seppala told BBC Midlands in September.

However, the capacity of any new stadium, initially put at 18,000, will be a crucial question as Coventry are proving they are still one of the biggest and best supported clubs in the country.

‘That figure was mooted initially, even in the last month we have tested that number, maybe there will be a position to rethink that and I think [the owners] recognise that,’ said chief executive, Dave Boddy.

But after years of pain and upheaval, Boddy is keen to keep the focus on the football and day-to-day running of the club.

‘[The stadium] is for the future. We are at the Ricoh for the foreseeable. For me, in the medium term we have stability, back at the Ricoh,’ Boddy told Sportsmail.

‘I want to build on what we have got. This season we are just a few short of 11,000 season ticket holders which is our highest number since 1969. Those are the things I want to build.’

 

They had suffered too much. There was open revolt.

Disgruntled supporters threw plastic pigs onto the pitch as part of a ‘pigs might fly’ campaign, highlighting the hopelessness of the club’s plight as they plummeted, inevitably in the direction of League Two.

There was a street protest, pitch invasions and an incident where a supporter went on to the field of play during a match against Forest Green Rovers to inform the players they were simply not trying hard enough.

Other protests included a whistling campaign, although that lost support after Coventry conceded a 91st-minute equaliser against Bolton Wanderers in January 2017 and it was alleged the players had been distracted.

Supporters even staged a mock funeral, processing with a coffin ahead of a 2-1 home defeat to MK Dons ‘in affectionate remembrance of Coventry City Football Club which is dying due to neglect’, they said.

‘It was toxic, definitely,’ admits Boddy who arrived as the club’s commercial director in February that season, a month before manager Mark Robbins returned for his second spell in charge. A couple of months later Boddy was promoted to chief executive.

But how have they engineered Coventry’s Houdini act? And what makes City competitive in a league where parachute payments mean the top clubs are paying out £60M-a-year in wages and those of more modest means, less than £10M.

It has been a combination of stability, teamwork, a ‘brilliant’ coach, good recruitment, a clear business plan and determination to bring the fans back behind the club, says Boddy.

‘We tried to create a new ethos,’ he explains to Sportsmail. ‘We absolutely did. We have tried to connect the players and fans.

‘We went back to the good, old fashioned supporters’ clubs. We have supporters’ clubs dotted all around our catchment area in places like Leamington, Warwick and Bedworth.

‘We have taken players out there, done Q&As, there has been a real connection between supporters and players and I think that is where the atmosphere comes from.

‘Mark Robins was doing them on a monthly basis. I was doing them [pre pandemic]. That has gone a long way to creating that spirit.’

It is working. A week ago, Coventry took almost 4,000 fans to Blackburn Rovers on the Saturday for a 2-2 draw and then another 1,000 were back up the M6 for a 2-1 defeat to Preston North End on the Wednesday. They have sold the most season tickets since 1969, more than 50 years ago, when they were in the old First Division.

The club’s decline has been hard for supporters. Perhaps the fans had become comfortable in the top tier, where they were entertained by the likes of Robbie Keane, Dion Dublin, Gary MacAllister, David Speedie, Gary Gillespie and Terry Yorath, during 34 years in the highest division.

But the crash following relegation in 2001 was inevitably tough and it eventually hit home in administration in 2007, when SISU stepped in 20 minutes before the deadline.

However, Coventry fans have had it worse than most. Long-running disputes over match-day revenues at the Ricoh Arena led to City playing at Northampton’s Sixfields Stadium in the 2013-14 season, a round-trip of 70 miles; and at Birmingham City’s St Andrews ground, 22 miles from their home, in the last two seasons.

It has turned cherished match-day routines on their head and split families, since multiple generations, who had always gone to the game together, could not all make the arduous journeys. More was lost than just the opportunity to watch a game of football.

Manager Mark Robins (l) has been critical to turning around the fortunes of Coventry City

Manager Mark Robins (l) has been critical to turning around the fortunes of Coventry City

But gradually Coventry have worked their way back and Robins has been the catalyst.

It began in the 2016-17 season. In many ways it was the worst of times. Coventry were relegated to League Two and recorded their lowest ever attendance for a first-team game, just 1,338 fans at home to Crawley Town in the EFL Trophy in a stadium that holds 32,600.

However, Boddy and Robins arrived at the club towards the end of the season and while the manager could not avoid the drop, he led the team to win the EFL Trophy, at Wembley, with 45,000 Sky Blues fans travelling to watch a 2-1 triumph over Oxford United.

It stirred memories of the one of the greatest FA Cup Finals of all time, Coventry City’s 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur, 30 years earlier. And it was clear that whatever strife had befallen Coventry, it could still be a big club.

Robins, the former striker who famously kept Sir Alex Ferguson in his job when he scored for Manchester United at Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup third round win in 1990, arrived as the third manager of that chaotic season.

He is now in his fourth full campaign. This stability has allowed him to shape his own coaching team, quickly recruiting assistant manager, Adi Viveash, who was hugely successful as the Chelsea Squad Development Manager, and this year adding, Dennis Lawrence, as First-Team Coach, who previously managed Trinidad and Tobago.

Manchester United's Andy Cole is upended by City's Gary Breen during a top flight clash

Manchester United’s Andy Cole is upended by City’s Gary Breen during a top flight clash

He has aligned the youth teams with the first team squad and developed a DNA for player recruitment to ensure City get what they need in the market. Not to mention an incredible win percentage of 51 per cent.

‘Mark has led from the front, he has been brilliant,’ said Boddy. ‘He highlighted the recruitment was the first area we had to look at. And the recruitment has been very good.

‘Mark has set the tone and vision of how he wants to play. You speak to our supporters I think they will tell you we are attractive to watch.

‘You have always got to be looking to improve the squad window by window. He says what he needs and the recruitment team are given the task of doing that within our resources.

‘That is, I think, why we have done so well. We have managed to improve it.’

Recruitment has been creative.

Gustavo Hamer (l) joined Coventry from Dutch top tier in a creative recruitment strategy

Gustavo Hamer (l) joined Coventry from Dutch top tier in a creative recruitment strategy

Swedish international striker Viktor Gyokeres, 23, brought in from Brighton for £1M this summer, after a previous loan spell with City, has certainly ‘improved it’. He has scored nine in 14 appearances.

At the beginning of last season, Coventry’s big signing was defensive midfielder Gustavo Hamer, 24, for £1.4M from PEC Zwolle in the Dutch top tier alongside youngsters on free transfers or loan deals.

In contrast, Matt Godden, who opened the scoring for Coventry against the Rams on Saturday, has a CV that reads like an A-Z of the East Midlands with the likes of Tamworth, Scunthorpe, Gainsborough, Ilkeston and Brigg featured among former clubs, before he had his break at Stevenage and Peterborough, then linked up with City in League One.

Meanwhile other players have made the journey with the club all the way from League Two, like Scot Dominic Hyam, who is still only 25 and who played in the 2017-18 League Two play-off final victory over Exeter City. He has been ever-present at centre back in the Championship this season.

‘It has been a team effort,’ reflects Boddy. ‘It’s a combination of the right people in the right place and the key is we have stability. Mark is the second longest serving manager in Championship now. And I have been there with him.’

‘And then it is how you spend your money,’ said Boddy. ‘So far, we have spent our money pretty well.

‘If we can survive this season, we are a step nearer to becoming an established Championship club, we have got there by bringing the players with us who got us here but you do get dragged into that real world.’

Manager Mark Robins has led from the front at Coventry, says chief executive, Dave Boddy

Manager Mark Robins has led from the front at Coventry, says chief executive, Dave Boddy

The reality is that the pressure to spend more, the demands of players, agents and selling clubs is likely to increase. And unless Tracey Crouch can persuade the Premier League – or government – to control parachute payments for relegated clubs that pressure will only increase.

‘It will get more difficult,’ Boddy concedes.

However, Robins and Boddy have both said they are keen for the fans to dream of promotion back to the Premier League, but they will not declare a grand ambition themselves.

‘A top half finish would be a massive achievement for Coventry City this season,’ said Boddy.

‘We have to have realism and be realistic about what we are and where we are. And my overriding message to supporters is, enjoy it.’ And they deserve it. 

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