Conversations with Neil Allison (Coventry City)
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