In February 2016, a memorial service took place at Coventry Cathedral for Jimmy Hill. Mourners, encouraged to ‘wear something sky blue’, included almost every major presenter, pundit and commentator from the world of TV football that Hill had helped revolutionise in 1970.
The club he loved and left, briefly, for an influential career in the media, had also been completely transformed during Hill’s various stints as coach, manager, director and chairman.
Before Hill, Coventry City had done little with their four decades of Football League status. Emerging as the factory side of local bicycle firm Singer, the club had just lost 2-1 at home in the cup to King’s Lynn when Hill came on board in 1961.
Coventry, a hub of vehicle manufacture in the West Midlands, was slowly emerging from destruction during the Blitz. Its modernist cathedral wasn’t yet built, the devastated, roofless medieval predecessor left as a poignant reminder alongside.
Choosing sky blue as his leitmotif – the club had previously worn various sickly combinations of pink, blue, red and green – Hill not only changed City’s shirts but introduced supporters’ trains, songs, modern match magazines and pre-game entertainment, all underscored by the same colour.
On the pitch, Coventry ascended to Division One for the first time, attracting 51,455 fans for the visit of local rivals Wolves, to a Highland Road ground Hill would later make England’s first all-seater stadium. Electronic scoreboards, live match broadcasts, they all happened first in Coventry.
While Coventry became a regular fixture in the top flight, taking on Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich in the Fairs’ Cup, Hill was behind the concept of a pundit panel for TV coverage of the 1970 World Cup.
For two decades, his would be the face of football, Hill dividing his time with boardroom duties at Highfield Road then at his old club Fulham in 1987, the year Coventry won their single major honour. City – in sky blue-and-white stripes – upset the formbook with a 3-2 win over favoured side Tottenham in an excellent FA Cup final, Keith Houchen famously diving in for an equalising header to take the game to extra-time.
The Sky Blues held onto top-flight status, often precariously, until 2001. Relegation forced the club to downsize its plans for an ambitious new ground north of town by the M6 motorway. Local Jaguar Cars duly pulled out of a naming rights deal, taken on by Japanese electronics firm Ricoh. The stadium, financed by Coventry City Council and a local charity, was opened in 2006.
Later that year, nearly 31,000 filled the Ricoh Arena for an under-21 game between England and Germany. Men’s and women’s matches in the 2012 Olympic Games football tournament drew similar crowds.
But by the time Jimmy Hill was unveiling his own statue by the main entrance in July 2011, the club’s rental agreement with the stadium owners was taking its toll. For five seasons, City had finished just above the relegation zone of the Championship. The following April, the club dropped to League One and has stayed there ever since.
With dwindling crowds and an alleged £1 million-plus owed in rent, not to mention a byzantine tussle over club ownership, City left the Ricoh Arena for the Sixfields Stadium, home of Northampton Town – a bizarre case of a club being sent from Coventry. The Jimmy Hill statue became a rallying point for protests against the move and the club’s cost-cutting ownership.
Salvation came in the form of rugby club Wasps, originally from London but nomadic since 1996. Moving into, then buying outright, the Ricoh Arena, this popular, multi-titled club introduced crowd-pleasing deals on public transport and beer consumption in the bar of the business-friendly hotel now built into the stadium complex.
A bumper crowd of 27,000 witnessed Coventry’s City’s return to the Ricoh in 2014, a 1-0 win over Gillingham.
With an exhibition hall, casino, shopping centre, family-friendly eateries and another business-friendly hotel being built alongside, the Ricoh Arena has been a relative success as a groundshare operation.
In April 2016, the ashes of Jimmy Hill were scattered at a memorial garden beside the Ricoh Arena, open for other supporters of Coventry City to do likewise for friends, family and fellow fans. Sky blue was very much in evidence.
Birmingham Airport is only 14km nine miles north-west of Coventry, connected by a frequent direct train (£2-£2.40 single, 10min journey time).
Coventry train station is south of the city centre a 10min walk away. A direct train from London Euston takes 1hr, online singles £16.50, £7.50 for a slower or non-direct service.
Note that the stadium now has its own rail stop, Coventry Arena, 7min direct from Coventry, but trains have limited seating space and buses from town are recommended.
A single ticket in town is £1, further afield (such as the Ricoh Arena) £2 and a Daysaver £4. Information and tickets are available at Coventry bus station, beside the Transport Museum in town.
Coventry is one of a growing number of clubs with a hotel built into the stadium complex. Changing ownership in January 2016, the DoubleTree by Hilton at the Ricoh Arena. Because of strict regulations, rooms overlooking the pitch have differing check-in and check-out times to prevent guests gaining a free view of the action. That apart, with its Coventry-themed mill bar & brasserie, the Hilton provides an excellent pre- and post-match bar. Own-made cookies are dispenses to one and all, and there’s a restaurant and gym as well. Another upscale hotel is currently being built across the stadium car park.
Hotels dot the ring road surrounding the city centre – within, one of two options is the seriously retro Britannia. The blocky exterior, bar, the bathroom fittings, everything feels like you’ve woken up in 1973. For all that, it’s friendly and affordable, a welcome change from the uniform French chains and directly opposite the bus station, so convenient for the stadium.
The other is the Premier Inn Coventry City Centre, near the Belgrade Theatre, with its own evening-only restaurant. The other, generally cheaper, Premier Inn is at Earlsdon Park, a shortish walk from the train station, also with its own restaurant.
Close by is the business-friendly Ramada Hotel & Suites Coventry – those not on expenses should beware that a £50 security deposit is taken at check-in.
Further round on the ring road, the Days Hotel Coventry is another old-school choice, with its own sports bar. Back round the ring road in the other direction, past the train station, the ibis Coventry Centre is reliably standard and affordable, built into an old red-brick cycle factory.
The narrow streets around Coventry’s original medieval cathedral are dotted with historic pubs and modern-day makeovers. The most historic, the Golden Cross, dating back to 1583, miraculously survived the Blitz and now shows TV sports. A few paces away, The Establishment, while contemporary, and also with TV screens amid the tapestries and gild-edged mirrors, is a former law court of 18th-century vintage.
A short walk away down Greyfriars Lane, The Squirrel could lay convincing claim to be being the best bar in town, a buzzy, contemporary venue offering craft beers, live music and a quality kitchen. There’s TV football too but many are here for taps of Moretti, Estrella Damm, Budvar and Sharp’s Doom Bar lining the bar counter.
At the opposite end of the city centre near the Belgrade Theatre, the ever-busy Tudor Rose goes big on TV football. Nearby, a more grown-up, discerning crowd gather at the Town Wall Tavern, where cask ales, high-standard pub food and TV football await in a pre-Victorian building. Also close, the Gatehouse Tavern is an Irish sports pub with a six-foot screen and lush beer garden.
If you’re staying at a hotel on Butts Road, the Aardvark is a handy choice, big on televised sports, pub food and world beers. Opening hours, until midnight during the week, 2am at weekends, are another boon.
In the student quarter on the other side of town, The Phoenix by Coventry University ticks most boxes, with live sports, burgers, craft beers and cocktails.
Finally, right in the city centre, The Flying Standard is the main Wetherspoons, its name linking back to the early days of the local motor industry.