Conversations with Neil Allison (Coventry City)

Posted by on Jul 19, 2011 in Conversations with | 14 Comments

Our latest fat-chewing exercise has put us in the genial company of Neil Allison, landlord of the Sky Blues Blog, an essential stopping off point for all things Coventry City. If you don’t support the Sky Blues and you think your club is a selling one, read on – although it should be said that Neil generally just about manages to retain his optimism. As ever, comments are welcome – be they from within the vicinity of Spon Street or from without (and do persevere as blogger has been icky in this regard for a good while now):

Lanterne Rouge: According to The Coventry Telegraph, Sky Blues’s financial plight has worsened to the extent that the club has borrowed several million pounds in advance of season ticket sales and payments from the Football league in order to meet debts due now including wage bill commitments. Analysts including local academic John Beech have been warning about Coventry’s parlous financial state for some time now – what are the root causes of this?

NA: Blimey, where to start? A completely jumbled up approach to running a football club, bad decision after bad decision, not owning the Ricoh Arena and consistently poor attendances. There are plenty of other contributing factors, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Let’s be fair, SISU (the guys in charge), have thrown a lot of money at the club since getting us out of trouble back in 2007. But at important junctures, they’ve seemed unwilling to show genuine commitment to developing a successful football team. Instead, they’ve opted for the quick return, and we’ve had to start again.

As it stands, we’re desperate for investment just to cover the £500,000 we’re losing a month, but we’ve come to realise that investment needs to be more than just hands in wallets. There has to be a plan. The business isn’t working at the moment, and it’s clear that some radical changes are needed in order to fix it.

LR: Coventry suffered from a transfer embargo until earlier in the Summer and are clearly not out of the woods, even if most of SISU’s cash injections have been aimed at balancing the books since they took over in 2007. Two of the most important players to leave in recent weeks have been long standing “best keeper outside the Premier League”, Keiren Westwood and the controversial but effective striker Marlon King. Now, promising Icelandic long throw specialist, Aron Gunnarsson has jumped ship to Cardiff City. Is it dispiriting to see such a good trio of players leave or is it simply necessary for the future of the club?

NA: While you try to be as rational as possible, it’s certainly dispiriting when key players leave, that’s for sure. But they were all offered new contracts, so the intention was there from the club to keep them if at all possible. Finance didn’t force our hand in this case particularly (aside from not being able to offer them absolute mega-bucks). They all decided their careers lay elsewhere and there was nothing we could do to stop them.

It doesn’t make it any less of a kick in the teeth for the fans though, but it’s mighty hard to keep good players if you’re not performing well on the pitch. Westwood and Gunnarsson in particular have been part of the same team that’s not progressed over the last 3 seasons, so it’s no real surprise that they wanted to try their luck at another club.

I’m not sure which disappoints me more about the situation; the frustration of having to let several million pounds worth of players go for next to nothing when we’re desperate for money, or the fact that we were unable persuade them that we were a team worth staying with. It’s not that long since we were seen as a pretty attractive proposition, but with the financial problems there’s a cloud of negativity looming over the club right now.

That said, I am optimistic about Andy Thorn, given the brand of football that he managed to get out of a team horrendously short on confidence last year. The big three are gone now, but we’ve already replaced Westwood with Joe Murphy from Scunthorpe, and having won plenty of games last year without King, I’m genuinely excited to see what Thorn can do with the players he’ll have come 6th August.

LR: Yes – Andy Thorn seems to have started very well in the job. You allude to a change in style after the short lived tenure of Aidy Boothroyd. I always associate Coventry with pleasing brands of football – do you expect City to keep the ball on the floor or will they mix it up a bit? What formation do you think Thorn will employ? Which players are the most crucial?

NA: Plan A will be to keep the ball on the floor, I’m sure of that. As I say, in the short time that Thorn has been at the club, he’s introduced a totally different footballing philosophy to that of Boothroyd, and the players seem to be thriving under it. He’s using players like McSheffrey and Clingan the way they need be used – trusting them to be in the thick of the action – whereas they were regularly by-passed by drilled balls into the channels under the previous regime.

I think what’s impressed me most is the noticeable shift from direct and panic football, to a far more patient approach, and the noises from pre-season suggest that we’ll be building on that next year. Thorn appeared to hammer home the importance of valuing possession, as was so brilliantly demonstrated by QPR and Swansea getting promoted; it’s the key to success nowadays. It’s refreshing to see, as we haven’t had that at the Ricoh in a long time. So much so that I actually found myself blogging a few games into his reign about the need for our fans to understand this new style, rather than screaming “shooooot” at any player within 40 yards of goal. We’re quite an impressionable bunch, and if one person does it, soon enough the whole stadium will be screaming it at Richard Keogh. And he’s bound to give it a go, the daft sod. We’ve an important job as fans to embrace this more cultured style as well.

Another change was Thorn quickly adopting a variant of the 4-3-3 formation, giving McSheffrey a free role in behind the strikers, while allowing David Bell (a supposed winger) to play slightly more central. Both players were notoriously inconsistent throughout the season, but this change in tactics gave them a new lease of life. McSheffrey especially, who unfortunately had his season cut short, but was totally reinvigorated in the role.

Given the lack of incoming players up to this point, I see Ben Turner, Sammy Clingan, Gary McSheffrey and Lukas Jutkiewicz as the ones I expect to really stand up and be counted next year. Turner has developed into an absolute machine, and even though he was only able to play a few months of last season, he proved himself to be an imperious central defender. He will be key.

Sammy Clingan is a classy player with a tremendous poise and understanding of the game. He’s just been given the captaincy full-time which was a nailed-on decision in my eyes, and providing we’re able to continue the same playing style next term, he’s the man to keep everything ticking over in the middle of the park.

I’ve already mentioned how important McSheffrey can be to our side when he’s on form, but of all our players last year, the one who I think could really do some damage if he’s able to step it up a gear is Lukas Jutkiewicz. He’s tall and strong, and has a real determination about him. His finishing let him down quite a bit last season though, and with King gone, we’ll be looking for someone to pick up the mantle and grab some goals for us. He’s still young, and is highly thought of around here, so everyone is willing him to do well. If he can work on the technical side of his game and become a bit more comfortable around the penalty area, he could be the surprise package next season. He’s a genuine handful.

LR: It’s good to hear that you are so optimistic and I am particularly intrigued to see a bit of Ben Turner, whom I haven’t seen much of. Previously on The Two Unfortunates, I have posited the notion of “slow decline” at Coventry – unlike Leeds, Forest, Leicester, Southampton and others, all of whom have suffered vertiginous plummets into the third tier, City seem to have wallowed in the lower reaches of the Championship for aeons now – from the outside, that scenario has looked thoroughly depressing and uncannily mirrors those long seasons of top flight football. Can the Sky Blues break out of the rut?

NA: We can, but there’s a huge cultural issue to address if we’re to do so. We spent so long in the top-flight being mediocre, the idea of success seems to be a foreign one throughout the club, and you’ll often find an acceptance of that mediocrity amongst fans, along with the idea that we’re punching above our weight when we do move into the higher reaches of the table. That’s the problem.

There’s just not enough genuine pressure to achieve – instead there’s relentless talk about stability and giving the club time to build amongst a high proportion of fans. It’s all very noble, but this attitude transcends into statements like “we’re a mid-table club”, “this is a building period”, “at least we’ve improved on last year” and similar sentiments. Deferring judgement for another season is all too easy. Before you know it, ten years has passed and you’re no further forward. It doesn’t make you a bad fan if you demand high standards. We’re not talking about calling for the manager to be sacked or booing individual players – it’s about making sure the team knows what is expected of them.

I’ve already mentioned Richard Keogh, but he is a perfect example of the standard that’s being rewarded currently. He is a decent player, but often lacks the quality to implement what his brain is clearly telling him to do. He received various player of the season awards at the end of last season, and to me that’s a good indication of our priorities as a club. We know it’s the same at other clubs where trying hard gets many players ahead, but players like Michael Doyle and Andy Morrell were adored here because of their effort while those such as Jay Bothroyd and Stern John were abused, even when they had obvious quality. There’s a balance somewhere, and I do worry that we regularly fall the wrong side of the effort/ability divide.

I don’t want this to feel like a character assassination of our fans, because I’m one of them, and it’s truly not the case. It’s more the mindset throughout the club that I’m referring to, from the board through to the players and even the local media, but it’s one that I’m hopeful we’re addressing. The reason I’m so optimistic about Thorn is because he has brought about some real changes to what we’ve been used to. Boothroyd talked us up and had ambition and that’s certainly part of what is needed, but his methods didn’t really align. The style of football offered was never capable of matching his ambition.

Thorn on the other hand has spoke openly of his philosophy. It’s not recklessly attacking; it’s considered and creative. The most important thing is having possession of the football, and being comfortable with it. Aimless hoofs forward will no longer be tolerated, and that’s something our fans should be happy about.

There’s understandable worry at the moment given the financial situation, but that aside, if we can start to shake off the inferiority complex and aim higher than we do currently, that can only help us in attempting to finally make some sort of impression on the league.

LR: I remember Andy Morrell coming to the Madejski and playing a blinder one time but, moving on, as an outsider, one Coventry decision that appears to have affected the past few years was the stadium move. To me, it seemed that Highfield Road was an enjoyable ground to visit, quite modern (they pioneered the all seater concept back in the Seventies) and yet was perhaps prematurely jettisoned in favour of the Ricoh – as a final question, how did you feel about the move at the time and how has it hampered the club’s development?

NA: You can probably guess given my stance so far, the move to the Ricoh was one which I was very much in favour of. I do look back with fond memories of Highfield Road but in my mind it was a long-awaited progression. I think many of us felt we’d ground to a halt and a new home could be the fresh start the club needed. Hindsight has proven that to be slightly misguided, but I’ll come onto that in a minute.

In terms of hampering the club’s development, the one clear problem the move has caused is that we now no longer own our own stadium – we’ve lost that asset and are merely renting, which has played a part in the financial difficulties we find ourselves in. Yes, we have an option to buy a share in it, but we’ve yet to come anywhere close to being able to exercise that right. It’s such a crucial step in securing our future and gaining some financial stability too. The Ricoh has grown into a highly-regarded venue, and to think that the club is not benefiting from that in any way is again, hugely frustrating.

The size of the stadium is also a cause for debate. Is it too big for us (as the song from just about every travelling support goes)? Well our recent attendance record does little to dispel that, but I can assure people that the fan base is certainly there. It turns out years of inadequacy is quite a put-off, though.

Given our status as a perennial mid-bottom half team, this has meant very few games of dramatic meaning just lately. However, the game that sticks in my mind from last season was Leeds, where for no apparent reason, the attendance swelled to more than 28,000. Now that was early November, and was only prompted by a couple of wins and the prospect of Leeds bringing a few fans themselves. That attendance required very little catalyst – I just think what a hint of success could do for us.

At this point many will question the loyalty of our fans for not turning up, when similar-sized clubs like Leicester and Derby regularly get attendances of 25,000 plus. I agree that more fans should turn up to the ground, but would also point out that neither of those clubs have gone through quite the same barren spell with regards to success as Coventry has. In fact, I defy anyone to find a more unsuccessful club in the Football League over the last 25 years. Leicester and Derby have both had promotions and periods of success relatively recently – so those days are still fresh in the memory, meaning there’s always the promise that things may come good again. Give them 25 years of nonsense and the numbers may start to dwindle. Apologies, I may be letting my bitterness show here!

I can’t deny, I am proud of the Ricoh, and when we get the crowds down there, it can be a great arena and generate a terrific atmosphere. We’re still finding our feet there though, and it’s always going to be difficult to feel fully at home knowing that it’s not really ours yet – we’re just lodging.

Thanks to Neil for some insightful comments. He can be followed on Twitter at @neilallison

Lloyd
is co-editor of The Two Unfortunates. He’s 30, supports Plymouth Argyle and takes a particular interest in the fortunes of those Football League clubs west of Bristol.

13 Comments

  1. John McGee
    July 19, 2011

    Keeeeeeeeeeeoooooooooooooogh!

    Neil, well done for capturing in a nutshell the essence of Richard Keogh. Hard working but markedly limited. His 'cult status' at Carlisle was of a similar hue. Whilst I admit to being wrapped up in it and still have fondness for the man I think he is emblematic of a wider problem with English football culture; it isn't just a problem for Coventry.

    At Carlisle right now we have two defensive midfielders looking at one place – Paul Thirlwell and Tom Taiwo. There's an obsession with picking Taiwo as he 'gets stuck in' but the fact is that his distribution is poor. Thirlwell will never be a tackler but is an astute reader of the game, we're a smarter and more effective team with him there. Yet the myth perpetuates that Taiwo is 'the heartbeat of the team' where Thirlwell makes the team one paced (footballish for composed) and is only picked as he has favour with the gaffer.

    An interesting and insightful piece as ever LR. Cheers.

    Reply
  2. Neil Allison
    July 19, 2011

    Appreciate the solidarity on the Richard Keogh argument, John. As you can imagine, given his popularity, it doesn't always go down well when I raise my concerns about him!

    Couldn't agree more about it being a wider issue. I just wonder how many cultured young players are missing out on proper Football League development in favour of the Connor Wickham-sized beasts who are a “handfull”.

    Reply
  3. Frank Heaven
    July 20, 2011

    I think a big problem is the Ricoh. It's not just the size, it's the location – out of town retail park, miles from a decent pub – in complete contrast to Highfield Road.

    Having said that, Stoke and Bolton have similar grounds, and have made them work.

    Reply
  4. Lanterne Rouge
    July 20, 2011

    That's true – Bolton benefits from having a train station right at the ground. I actually went via Nuneaton last time I went to the Ricoh. As Neil says though, the lack of ownership is the main problem – to adapt the name of a popular television series: “Not owning one's own stadium: a warning from history”.

    Reply
  5. Stanley
    July 20, 2011

    Some very interesting comments there, Neil.

    The Ricoh shouldn't be considered too big for a city of that size. Having lived in Cov, I know there is a lot of latent support in the city and the surrounding areas, but the club has been in a rut for so long that people see no reward for attending matches. I totally agree with Frank regarding the awful choice of location. There's nothing wrong with the stadium itself, but until there are proper transport links to the city centre, it'll only make the job of building attendances more difficult.

    First, though, the club needs to gain full ownership. Division of club and assets has been the root cause of most recent financial disasters. I would have thought that Cov were ripe for investment. It's vision that is needed more than massive expenditure. Something that SISU have been lacking.

    Reply
  6. Ben
    July 20, 2011

    Interesting stuff, Neil. It's a bit unusual to find that a club that should in theory be relatively stable is struggling. It's not as though you've recently had the cords of PL parachute payments cut – but I guess it's the slow decline that LR talks about.

    Westwood is a big loss, though Murphy's certainly a handy replacement. You don't say much about King, though – did the fans warm to him? (Personally speaking, he comes across as a scumbag you'd hope fans would be glad to see the back of…) Jutkiewicz has flattered to deceive on the very few occasions I've seen him, but if you could find a bit of cash down the back of the sofa we'd probably let you have Leon Best back!

    As a Newcastle fan, I have mixed memories of my one visit to Highfield Road – Dion Dublin scored *that* goal by bamboozling Shay Given, but Rob Lee scored a screamer of an equaliser and we even got the rare sight of a John Barnes goal. Yet to visit the Ricoh, but if it's even half as horribly sited as the Reebok and the DW then I don't really want to…

    Reply
  7. Yasser
    July 20, 2011

    The phrase 'latent support' is bandied around so often these days, even for clubs smaller than Coventry, that it's difficult to take this on face value.

    When have Coventry ever sold out Ricoh? Apart from the cup game against Chelsea, when they came close. Average attendances have remained low for the last couple of years. A hint of success would help the figures but at what cost?

    The priority at the moment, should be to sort out their finances and ownership of the ground. Otherwise, the cancer will slowly eat up the club.

    As Neil said, there are some good players at Coventry in Clingan, McSheffrey etc but the squad, quite clearly, lacks depth in my opinion, which again links to the earlier point about success.

    It's a vicious circle. Something has to give.

    Reply
  8. Lanterne Rouge
    July 21, 2011

    The Ricoh is a well appointed ground and remember fans don't have much say in where their homes are located. Sadly, having recently been asked to make some predictions for the coming season by Two Footed Tackle, I did earmark the Sky Blues as one of a few clubs who I think will struggle – Doncaster and Crystal Palace are others.

    Reply
  9. Neil Allison
    July 21, 2011

    Ben – regarding King, unsurprisingly, he split opinion and there was initially all kinds of talk about booing him, not celebrating his goals and turning our backs on him. Imagine that. Needless to say, when the same player is the only one getting you goals, any sign of discontent soon vanishes – it's bloody difficult not to celebrate your team scoring.

    Looking back, he was more hassle than he was worth, and I would have preferred us to steer clear. It causes enough stress supporting a team like Coventry as it is, I resent having tricky moral dilemmas like that thrown at me too.

    There's no getting away from the fact that he's a good player, and as we're bereft of those at the moment I suppose he is a loss in that sense. But he's someone else's headache now, and for that at least, I have to say I'm thankful.

    Reply
  10. Sky Blue Gaz
    July 24, 2011

    Oh,dear ! You went and spoilt the very good points made in the majority of what you said by your ridiculous comments about Richard Keogh. Our only ever-present, marauding forward runs (wish David Bell was half as effective. So does David Bell), effective defending against some of the division's most dangerous tricky raiders, and filling in at centre-back with a poise and performance level that maintained normal standards in this area of the pitch (by commom comsent where our playing strength among the current squad is highest).Our team performances for the majority of last season were abysmal. If you want to illustrate why, plenty other players to choose from ! Also (and the only other point on which I disagree strongly), Highfield Road knocked the (spit !) “Ricoh” into a cocked hat. For atmosphere, location, size (see “atmosphere”, previously) and – as we now know (correction – knew AT THE TIME of that crook selling our ground and making us hostage to all the misfortunes that have subsequently overtaken us , in large part as a direct result of that disastrous action)- financial stability.

    Reply
  11. Chad
    July 29, 2011

    Gaz, I think you have unwittingly proved Neil's point…! Our fans love a trier…!

    Reply
  12. Bobby Peru
    July 31, 2011

    Good read, that.

    Reply
  13. Have Coventry City said Goodbye to the Ricoh? | The Two Unfortunates
    December 23, 2012

    […] Sky Blues’ slow on-pitch decline hasn’t helped and nor has their lack of control over the premises, with the stadium joint owned […]

    Reply

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