Time and the Coventrys

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

22 March 2018

Fans attending Town's FA Cup tie at Coventry in 1973 would be amazed at the way the game has changed since.

I am preparing to attend Town's game at Coventry. This is an important game and there will be a large contingent of Town supporters at the match. However, we are clearly underdogs and highly unlikely to emerge with a victory. It is 3 February 1973 and this is my first ever away game, in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Memories of that day are hazy; just impressions really. A seemingly endless car journey due to the weight of traffic from Grimsby. The incredible noise of the huge Town support. The strange scalloped-edged construction of the roof of the stand opposite us. The match itself passed in a blur, but one thing remains very clear in my memory even to this day. A tackle a yard outside the Grimsby box in the dying minutes, and the ref inexplicably pointing to the spot. Beaten 1-0 by that late penalty, it was a defeat, but a great moral victory against a top-flight team, and I still left the ground immensely proud of my team.

Forty-five years later I will be heading there once again. I will be witnessing the black and white stripes against the sky blues. There will be 11 players per side. Coventry will be favourites to win. That much remains constant. But in so many other respects the nature of the game has been totally transformed. Football, as a game and a cultural phenomenon, has changed dramatically over the years. Sometimes for the better, sometimes less so. A common driving factor behind many of the changes is money, the pursuit of profit. If my 14-year-old self were to be transported to 2018 he would be amazed, but in some cases also saddened.

Let's start with the nature of the ownership of clubs today. In the past clubs were essentially owned by local business people and were clear manifestations of the hopes and desires of the communities from which they sprang and in which they were embedded. Today the larger clubs are profit centres, investment vehicles for multinational business interests. Coventry are owned by SISU, a hedge fund whose catastrophic management of the club has seen it tumble down the divisions and brought it into open conflict with both fans and the community.

Highfield Road and the Ricoh Arena

The location of the stadiums themselves is another manifestation of the dwindling relationship between clubs and communities. Our 1973 match took place at Highfield Road, Coventry's home since 1899, a short walk from the city centre. On Saturday, we'll visit the Ricoh Arena, three miles north of the city but with good links to the M6 motorway. Where once grounds were located in the heart of the towns and cities that they represented, the 1980s saw the beginnings of a migration into soulless out-of-town locations. Today, making your way to your home ground is likely to be a journey by car.

The nature of the competitions that clubs play in has also radically altered. The long-established League structure of 92 clubs was too egalitarian. So the very largest and richest clubs decided to splinter off into their own organisation in order to retain the lion's share of commercial revenue coming in to the game, particularly from broadcasters.

The Premier League was simply another step in a process which began with the abandonment of the established practice of sharing gate receipts. In 1973 the visiting team would receive a substantial portion of the gate receipts of a game in which they were playing. This seemed logical considering that a portion of those receipts were generated by the visiting supporters. Today this practice survives only in certain cup competitions. In the day-to-day league matches the home team keeps virtually all of the gate receipts, with the visiting team receiving only match-day expenses. This means that the larger, better-supported clubs maximise their revenue, restricting the redistribution of income from large to small clubs.

The very largest and richest clubs decided to splinter off into their own organisation in order to retain the lion's share of commercial revenue coming in to the game

That is precisely the basis on which the Premier League was established. As the satellite TV broadcasters became willing to pump in increasingly exorbitant amounts of cash to televise games for the benefit of armchair supporters willing to pay subscriptions, the larger clubs were determined to take the lion's share of these proceeds.

One side effect of these massive cash injections was to hand effective control of fixture lists to the broadcasters. Today you will find televised games on Friday evenings, Saturday lunchtimes, Saturday evenings, Sunday lunchtimes, Sunday afternoons, and Monday evenings. Typically only half of Premier League games take place at the same time on a Saturday afternoon.

Having created the Premier League, the remaining 72 clubs now compete in what is known as the Championship, League One and League Two. So the bottom tier is no longer branded as Division Four. This is of course simply window dressing. Whichever way you look at it, this is indeed the fourth tier of professional football.

In 1973, with very few exceptions, it was essentially the same 92 clubs that competed every year. Clubs finishing at the bottom of the fourth division would be forced to apply for re-election, which in the majority of cases was granted. The fact that League status is now determined by promotion and relegation is in my view a positive step.

The game I attended in 1973 was in the FA Cup. The trail of vehicles from Grimsby to Coventry accentuated the great occasion it was, like most other cup ties. In those days the dream of every football fan was to see their team play at Wembley in the FA Cup final. In 1987 Coventry fans achieved that dream as the club achieved the first 'major' honour in its history.

Incredible as it would have seemed to supporters in 1973, today it is questioned whether the FA Cup even counts as major. There is not enough money in it. The lucrative competition is the laughably misnamed Champions League, where the top handful of clubs from each European league play a series of matches to maximise TV revenue before embarking on the meaningful knockout stages. The pressure this European structure imposes on the fixture list relegates the status of the FA Cup. 

I could go on describing the way the game has changed since 1973: the way English clubs feature players from around the world; the increasing availability of substitutes and the use of squads; that challenges by Tommy Smith or Chopper Harris which today would merit a straight red card would then have been deemed fair tackles; even that the goalkeeper can no longer pick up passes back.

This season we have a further change: the referee standing motionless while awaiting the decision of a counterpart in the stand watching key incidents on a video monitor. That might kill the game for the paying spectator – although in 1973 VAR would surely have ruled against the late penalty and given Town the chance of a replay at Blundell Park.

But one thing is for certain. Should the ball hit the back of the Coventry net, my 14-year-old self will leap up and scream in delight for all he is worth. Despite the myriad changes to the game, some good, some bad, some debatable, that at least will never change.

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