It’s a personal business being a Coventry City fan. Our situation throws up complexity at every corner, provoking decisions and natural feelings; ones which are often led by cultural expectation, but are also driven by factors relevant solely to our own perspective.
Barney Pell is a Sky Blues supporter living in France. Like all of us, he holds a unique perspective and back story providing the context for his affinity with Coventry City. In the first of his articles from abroad, Barney begins by pondering his own recognition of the value and meaning of “identity”.
By Barney Pell
Signed up to the Sky Blues Blog to write under the heading View from Abroad, it has finally behoven me to write this piece about identity. Not instead, you understand, but because of the suggested title.
What is it to be a fan of a football club that you almost never go to watch playing? What is it to support obsessively a team from a city you’ve hardly ever been to? What difference does abroad make? Read my secret diary, fair reader, then hasten back to GMK or Sky Blues Talk for better stuff.
Following Kuper and Sysmanski’s categorization of fans in a chapter of Why England Lose (HarperSport 2010), I would normally have no hesitation in describing myself as a diehard, obsessive Nick Hornby-style Coventry City fan. City till I die. That’s what football is, isn’t it?
I live in France now and sometimes find myself informing French football fans of this need for unending commitment as justification for supporting les Bleu Ciel. Hereupon they will often reply to me, “Yes, but which is your favourite Premier League team?” I shrug and remind them of Chippo, Hadji, Safri and Jean-Guy Wallemme. I have no other favourite Premier League team. Here in Lille they all know Wallemme from his days down the road as a folk hero for the enemy, Lens. Some remember too with a jubilant, commiserating smile that we used to be in the Premier League, il y a dix ans.
The French, not in the main a football loving people, warm to this image of the hard-bitten English lower league fan, seemingly at odds with their hyped-up Canal Plus coverage of the Premier League.
“Aah, oui. Coh-ven-tree.”
In return I may grudgingly admit an admiration for Arsène Wenger, which always opens the floodgates because they all bloody love Ar-se-nalle. No one has ever yet heard of Fabien Debec, William Edjenguélé or Kévin Malaga. Plus ça change…
So, a Coventry City fan? Abroad? I opened this piece drawling about identity, so, here it is. Tarry awhile as I set out my credentials.
In the beginning
Moving away from the Northampton area where I was born long before I got into football, there was nonetheless never any question of my being a Cobblers fan. Sorry, SISU, ACL et al, I know you were looking out for me personally with the move to Sixfields, but try again.
No, it was two contemporaneous phenomena that beweaved me into Coventry-supporting when I was but ten: relentless bullying by my new North Nottinghamshire schoolfriends and my Grandad’s growing keenness to introduce me to his team, Coventry City. Hélas, fates, you clever puppeteers!
It all suddenly made sense. My family ties in Rugby and her surrounding villages. My need for self-identification and justification in this new mining region that still wasn’t mine. A way into the boys’ world of football that wasn’t just gasping out that I supported Spurs to stop the freshly-cut grass being forced down my throat on the school playing field.
Of course, I could have gone for Forest, United or Wednesday, but they were just a conceptual exaggeration of my uprooting to the mining village. Even bigger hostile places I’d never yet been to. Coventry was out of reach, the people had friendly accents and Dave Bennett was a wing wizard.
Coventry City since the age of ten. Taken to my first match (1-0 win over Wimbledon, October 19th 1986) by my Brinklow-born granddad who had lived in Rugby and followed the City all his life. Every single win since then has made me happy, every last defeat despondent.
Not been to many games: never missed a match. Countless weekends spent looking for final scores in Irish theme pubs, on friends’ mobiles and during snatched twenty-minute slots in Internet cafés. Innumerable Saturday teatimes and Tuesday evenings feeling pretty pleased with myself or powerless and angry according to the result. Miserable weekends: no sex please, we’re City.
So The Sky Blues it was. The Sky Blues supported from afar though, topping off at ten games a year even then and Ceefax my principal connection with the club. I got to away games at Hillsborough, Bramall Lane or the City ground as often as Highfield Road. Why, my love/hate relationship with the untouchable Forest side of Cloughie remains to this day. I regret basely before you, livid reader, having no opinion whatever on Villa or Leicester, but irritating, clean-cut, unbeatable Cloughie-era Forest? They made my life hell (except the 5-4 League Cup beanfeast, you can keep ’87, this was it).
Schoolboys would come wearing Scunthorpe scarves into form period with a skilful selection of four consecutive letters tricked out at the front. They were lucky, following their local team at The Old Show Ground or Sincil Bank every other week.
In my head
No feeling of belonging has ever been as strong for me as approaching our stadium’s King Richard Street entrance. The sense of total rightness, of goodness of fit, of having made the right choice along with all the thousands of other unknown suppliants in sky blue kits and jeans. One day I was going to live here and be like them and then I’d never be away or abroad again.
At the moment and from afar, (though not nearly as afar as Tom in Beijing or the Norwegian fan clubs who used to send delegations over to attend games), I gather we’re no longer playing at Highfield Road. Hell, I’ll stop dissembling. I’ve even been to the damn Ricoh – to rattle around in the dome of vainglory with the other few thousand – probably a dozen times since 2005. Last I heard though, we were no longer at the Ricoh, either.
This kind of fast and loose is hard for me to get to grips with. It reminds me of the hoary question of identity over time. Had they only chosen to rebuild Highfield Road brick by brick, plank by plank and girder by girder over a period I would have been happy to call it the same ground. But losing it altogether was a different Ship of Theseus.
Maybe someone has kept all the original bricks, girders and planks from Highfield Road in a safe place, the air there conditioned by the warm breath of a thousand autumn terraces and the ground heated by the human energy of all those goal celebrations, spontaneously summoned up from a pumping West End and reaching down pitchwards to reel Houchen, Speedie, Quinn and Huckerby up towards them.
Maybe Joe Dhinsa will fund the shipbuilders, stevedores, skipper and a crew to refloat the original vessel, rebuilt from all the authentic parts?
Daydreaming? The thing is, after all these peregrinations, I’ve never actually met another Coventry fan, to talk to, like. The Sky Blues are in my head, with a compassful of intensely private points. To answer the three opening questions – being a City fan from elsewhere who barely knows the city and now lives under a foreign climate – it feels like being a troubled invalid seaman, whose profound humours have always depended on far-off weather systems other people don’t even notice. I think it would do me good to talk about it.
Every season a new kit – are we still talking about CCFC?
We have changed ground – is it the same club?
The players move on the promise of a couple of grand a month more – but does the team remain?
To take another example, what if the owners changed, what then? Would it still be the same thing? Assailed by such topical questions, you and I, fatigued reader, both know that only literature can save us. And talking of troubled seamen…
Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.
Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record (1912)
But fidelity to what?