The great surrealist filmmaker, Luis Buñuel would have relished the scenes at Northampton’s Sixfields stadium on Sunday as Coventry City staged their second League 1 fixture of the 2013-14 season.
Scarcely more than 2,000 souls were present as the Sky Blues entertained Preston North End, almost half of them from Lancashire, while the Alwyn Hargrave Stand was left empty for the occasion.
The Sky Blues fans who were in attendance were mainly situated opposite in the prosaically named West Stand and given my last visit to watch a football fixture in Northampton had seen fans stretched out in single file behind a rope at the old County Ground, these lodgings will have felt luxurious even if Sixfields is unscintillating by the standards of the post-Hillsborough meccano era.
So what of the ethics of attending such a parody of an occasion?
The small smattering of Sky Blues followers perched on the rim of dell in which Sixfields is situated seemed to move on at half-time and whether this was at the insistence of the authorities, I could not say. Either way, they and the thousands of supporters who decided to give proceedings a miss entirely have decided they have a point to make.
And it’s a good one – with new ownership currently being sought, the brinkmanship of current stewards Sisu Capital continues to foster new lows. Having decided to opt out of paying rent at a level they had agreed, the venture capitalists have refused the most recent offer of a reduction from Arena Coventry Limited, owners of the club’s rightful home, the Ricoh Stadium.
These terms are organised so that the amount of rent paid according to which division Coventry City are playing in, with the price set at £150,000 per year while the club remains at its current level, £100,000 were they to end up in League Two and £400,000 in the Championship.
Although crowds at the Ricoh were far from huge, it’s possible that anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 season tickets could have been shifted had Sisu continued to pay their dues whereas less than 1,000 fans are currently showing up at Sixfields – continuing to play in the shadow of the famous National Lift Tower makes no sense to anyone bar Sisu.
But what of the football authorities? Questions have been asked by Coventry North East MP Bob Ainsworth as to whether legal threats have been issued by Sisu towards the Football League. They may not have been but in which other environment can a person not be brought to book for non-payment of rent?
When Lady Godiva was still to be seen riding through the streets of the city perhaps – but not in these more regulated times.
So Coventry fans are right to give the fixture a miss – any monies spent will find their way into the pockets of Sisu and while this tactic is unlikely to smoke them out in the short term, it is perhaps the only way supporters can register their dissatisfaction.
I did wrestle with my conscience as to my own attendance. Accompanying two Preston North End fans, I took up my seat in the South Stand (once gloriously sponsored by Paul Cox Panel and Paint) and should state that I am not a Coventry City follower.
But on reflection, I should perhaps not have paid my £16. Sure, the number of Coventry fans who will have attended last season’s fixture away at Stadium: MK will have been large and the number of Preston supporters who will have thought twice about the location of Sunday’s match countable on the fingers of one hand. In short, we don’t tend to immerse ourselves overly in the problems of other teams.
But as purveyor of a Football League blog which has a position on these issues and has published a number of articles from the likes of Ian Palmer, Tom Furnival-Adams and Neil Allison on this topic, I should perhaps not have been in attendance – if we don’t recognise the commonalities present in financial malpractice across the leagues, then it will continue to prosper.
Had I decided to opt out, I would have missed a simply extraordinary match, made all the more remarkable in that the 4-4 score line followed on from a 5-4 win for the Sky Blues over Bristol City a fortnight ago.
Coventry’s impressive attacking display featured players at the opposite end of the scale in career terms. Leon Clarke has cast a somewhat sullen figure at various of his pit stops, including a simply dreadful spell at Sheffield Wednesday where his lack of commitment was marked. Here though, he was menacing indeed – pouncing on a breakaway ball from Callum Wilson to finish coolly – little did we know that the net would be breached on a further seven occasions at that point.
The striker’s protruding tongue as he made a point of circling the back of the goal in front of the away fans perhaps gives an indication of the ‘swagger’ that has frustrated assorted managers and it is to be hoped that the career lying in wait for Wilson will be less chequered.
For not to put too fine a point on it, the former winner of a national apprentice of the month award was a revelation, showing pace and skill as well as great finishing ability. His first may have been a tap in after Clarke had stung the fingers of Declan Rudd but his second saw him advance into the worryingly large gap in Preston’s defence to rifle a shot into the corner.
Amid the humble surrounds of Sixfields, it was easy to forget that Coventry are a big city club and hence, the pool of talent from which to draw on locally is often an impressive one. Another youth product, the rangy Bristol born midfielder Billy Daniels also had a great game while Conor Thomas also showed well as City increasingly dominated the midfield battle.
Much of that superiority can be put down to a passing style as well as a real measure of individual skill. The twists and turns of the forward pairing were enhanced by the promptings of Franck Moussa who, while perhaps less noticeable than he has been in the earlier fixtures this campaign, often proved to be too fleet footed for Preston’s more lumpen personnel. Moussa, Thomas and Daniels were joined by John Fleck, the former Glasgow Rangers prodigy, long since converted to a midfielder and always looking to play the defence splitting pass.
So with so many notable performances, why did City fail to win the match?
It certainly wasn’t due to the displays of full backs Blair Adams and Cyrus Christie, both at the club for some time now, and who are as dynamic a pair of defensive wing men as this division is likely to see. No, it was more in the centre and between the sticks that problems reoccurred – newcomer Andy Webster and another youngster, Jordan Clarke both looked shaky even if veteran Kevin Davies was kept remarkably quiet. Clarke had looked set to leave Coventry in July but has received a welcome stay of execution.
Which leaves keeper Joe Murphy and his personal meltdown on the day was the chief reason why the West Midlanders failed to claim what should have been a deserved victory. At fault for Preston’s first and final goals, he let Peter Clarke’s back post volley evade him while he somehow failed to collect as Chris Humphrey gave PNE a seeming winner. Usually an efficient custodian, let’s put it down to an off-day.
Thank goodness then for Mathieu Manset, a mercurial striker who I have seen pounce late before. His direct running caused Preston problems in the final stages and his equaliser rounded off a truly kamikaze afternoon.