Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
In August 2021, Coventry City strode out in the Coventry Building Society Arena to play their first Championship game in Coventry for nearly ten years. In front of a returning crowd of nearly 21,000, the Sky Blues beat Midlands rivals Nottingham Forest thanks to a 96th-minute winner. During the previous decade, Coventry had to up sticks and move to Northampton. then come back to what was then the Ricoh Arena, only to move home again, to Birmingham.
During this time, fans’ protests against the club’s controversial owners, SISU, took many forms, flares, toy pigs and tennis balls launched towards the pitch. In 2017, City descended to the league’s lowest rung for the first time since 1958, this a club that had been a mainstay in the top flight from 1967 all the way to the new century.
Perhaps even more positively, the club’s ten-year deal as tenants at the renamed arena includes a caveat that it may leave after seven years, allowing for the planned building of a new stadium, in co-operation with the University of Warwick. For once in far too many years, the future looks brighter for the Sky Blues.
The previous example of blue sky thinking surrounding Coventry City had come in the early 1960s, the thinker being the much-maligned but genuine pioneer, Jimmy Hill. Later to leave the club he loved for an influential career in the media, only to return, Hill completely transformed Coventry during 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 then sank further.
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 became a relative if short-term success as a groundshare operation. In 2019, a further fall-out with Wasps, Coventry moved again, to Birmingham.
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. That April, his ashes 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.
Arriving in town, local transport and tips
Birmingham Airport is 14km (nine miles) north-west of Coventry, connected by a frequent direct train (£3, 10min journey time). Local Allens Taxis (02476 555 555) quotes £27 for the same journey. Coventry train station is south of the city centre a 10min walk away. A direct train from London Euston takes 1hr, singles around £20. Note that adding a Coventry PlusBus supplement (£3.40) allows you to use local services for the day you arrive.
The stadium way north of town has its own rail stop, Coventry Arena, 7mins direct from Coventry, but trains have limited seating space and buses from town are recommended.
Several bus companies serve the city, most notably National Express Coventry, (single £2.20 contactless/exact change, Day saver £4), under the umbrella of Network West Midlands. Information and tickets are available at Coventry bus station, beside the Transport Museum in town.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
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 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 Philip Larkin took the name of Coventry’s famous poet after operating as the Tudor Rose – and still goes big on TV football. Nearby, at the Town Wall Tavern, 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.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the ground and around town
Coventry is one of a growing number of clubs with a hotel built into the stadium complex, namely the DoubleTree by Hilton Coventry Building Society 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. The Anecdote doubles up as a pre-match bar, with its oversized table-football table and other pub games, in urban, funky surroundings.
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 (Belgrade Plaza), near the Belgrade Theatre, with its own evening-only restaurant. The other, generally cheaper, Premier Inn Coventry City Centre (Earlsdon Park) is a shortish walk from the train station, and also with its own restaurant.
Close by is the business-friendly Ramada Hotel & Suites by Wyndham 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.