Coventry is steeped in sporting pedigree. The city’s name is associated with various clubs and franchises from the worlds of football, rugby, ice hockey and speedway. But while this hub of sport should be celebrated, it’s currently suffering from much division, with the epicentre being a 32,500-seater stadium located to the north of the city.
The Ricoh Arena is one of the most controversial venues in the UK. Coventry City were its tenants for eight years before a rent dispute meant they had to play a season at Northampton’s Sixfields Stadium.
The Sky Blues returned to the Ricoh the following year with rugby union side Wasps moving in as well. A stable five-year existence ensued but City left the ground again at the start of this season and are currently playing their home fixtures at Birmingham’s St. Andrew’s.
Recently, whilst one of Coventry City’s ‘home’ matches took place, Coventry United Ladies were preparing to host London City Lionesses. As United play in the FA Women’s Championship – the second tier of women’s football in England – there’s a legitimate case to say they can provide the best footballing experience in Coventry this season. I travelled to the Butts Park Arena to sample it.
A good battle
The home team have struggled in the Women’s Championship so far, having been promoted from the National League South last season. A point in their opening game was followed by three consecutive defeats including a 5-1 hammering at Sheffield United last time out. However, against a side that had won over half their games, United looked very good.
London City gave a debut to Vyan Sampson at centre-back and she looked pretty shaky in the opening exchanges. A few loose passes invited pressure before a free-kick given away on the edge of the box led to Coventry taking the lead. Helen Dermody struck to become United’s fifth different goal scorer of the season.
Soon, though, the visitors began to get a foothold in the game thanks to a great midfield performance from Freda Ayisi, who drove the team forward. Eventually their equaliser came when Flo Fyfe managed to beat United goalkeeper Sue Wood to the ball and Ylenia Priest tapped in.
After the break, the game became incredibly tense as both sides missed chances but United will feel most aggrieved as they hit the bar and couldn’t profit from a goalmouth scramble.
That feeling of anguish was only compounded further when London City took all three points in added-time. Leanne Cowan played an exquisite long ball to Juliette Kempi, who set up substitute Kallie Balfour to score the winner on her birthday.
Evie Clarke was sent off for a second yellow card moments after the goal for alleged time-wasting but the away side held on to keep up their 100% record on the road, much to the delight of their healthy – and vocal – travelling support.
Seeing The Ricoh
Behind the goal at the Butts Park Arena was a sign saying Coventry was a 2019 European City of Sport. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable having taken a trip to the Ricoh Arena before the match to see Coventry City’s former/current/purgatory home ground.
It looked like a great venue but the whole place felt haunted. Wasps had covered the outside in shiny, new, black and yellow logos but the faded remnants of their previous roommates remained, including a wall of fame and a number of supporters’ bricks.
I looked at the empty car parks and thought about the fans who were watching their team play Tranmere Rovers at ‘home’ in Birmingham. It seemed like such a sad scenario to have the stadium sitting empty at the same time.
The saddest sight for me, though, was a statue of former Coventry City manager Jimmy Hill surrounded by Wasps advertisements – a stark reminder of how much the stadium has been, and still is, struggling with its own identity only 14 years after being built.
My trip to Coventry was a strange experience (not just because my Coventry Arena train ticket wouldn’t grant me access through Coventry station and I had to ask to be let through the barriers four times).
The city seemed like a confused place. Streets that were adjacent to tall, modern buildings would take you to run down areas and then end in front of a medieval house. I enjoyed visiting the ruins of St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Lady Godiva statue in the shopping centre but I didn’t see what else the UK’s 2021 City of Culture had to offer.
Like the Ricoh, I’m not sure whether Coventry knows its true identity, particularly when it comes to sport. Is it a rugby city now? The faded football pitch markings inside the rugby club-owned Butts Park Arena appeared to indicate that’s the case.
However, there’s no reason why football can’t thrive alongside it. Hopefully Coventry United pick up the points their performances warrant to remain in the Women’s Championship and continue to showcase how sport can co-exist in the city.
Coventry United Ladies 1
London City Lionesses 2
FA Women’s Championship
Ground rating: 4/10