WORDS: TOM FURNIVAL-ADAMS
It feels like the last 10 or 15 years have been a prolonged psychoanalytic journey for Coventry City supporters, but like a downtrodden prole, the longer the downward trajectory persists, the more I feel emotionally invested in being there when it is eventually arrested – and that is its own reward…
Image: Redwood Photography (via Flickr)
“The pleasure of despair. But then, it is in despair that we find the most acute pleasure, especially when we are aware of the hopelessness of the situation…everything is a mess in which it is impossible to tell what’s what, but that despite this impossibility and deception it still hurts you, and the less you can understand, the more it hurts”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground
The more out of hand the marriage between the Premier League and Sky has become, the more I’ve followed Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea et al with an acute sense of alienation.
I’m captivated by Premier League football, but it feels distant and remote. If money is limitless and winning every game is a basic expectation, where, as a supporter, do you find joy and exultation? It all seems so routine, the hype machine so hollow and formulaic.
I don’t believe in a hierarchy of fandom, but increasingly I feel that those of us following football outside of the Premier League’s top six or seven operate in a separate sphere, where a degree of perspective remains and regularly visiting football stadiums is still viable. There are no rules for supporting football teams, but at the very least we should learn to endure the lows in order to appreciate the highs. Following Arsenal or Manchester City must be akin to Class A drug dependency; every slight drop in performance seemingly resulting in a wildly disproportionate response that is suggestive of a total lack of self-control.
It is ironic, then, that my choice to support Coventry City probably originates from the lure of the Merlin 1995 Premier League sticker album. It would seem drab and understated compared to the presentation of top tier football today, but perceiving in Dion Dublin, Peter Ndlovu and Cobi Jones genuine stars, the family ties I already had to the city and the club were compounded. A visit to Highfield Road in October 1996 to watch us draw 1-1 with Southampton (a 90th minute Dion Dublin equaliser cancelling out Matthew Le Tissier’s first-half opener) illustrated the magnitude of Premier League football and the attraction of watching a match inside a stadium.
I grew up in London near to Brentford’s Griffin Park (I even had a season ticket there for a season), and could have legitimately supported them, Fulham or Chelsea as my local teams. Family links rendered Newcastle United an option, too. It’s hard to remember exactly why now, but Coventry emerged as the club I naturally gravitated towards. My dad is a lifelong supporter and it made sense to combine trips to the midlands to see family with regular visits to Highfield Road. As unlikely as it sounds, Coventry – in the mid-nineties, at least – possessed an exoticism with which Division Three Brentford and Fulham could not compete. In that sense, I suppose I was a childhood glory hunter. The contrasting fortunes of Coventry, Fulham and Brentford since then probably represent some sort of morality tale that should be passed down to generations of kids tempted by distant, affluent London and Manchester Champions League stalwarts.
As a southerner, the response to finding out that I’m a Coventry fan is usually one of bemusement. Next comes a polite variation on: “What league are they in these days, then?”
Depending on age, the conversation then usually either quickly turns to the subject of the 1987 FA Cup final (the towering backdrop to subsequent ills), or peters out altogether. The city of Coventry has never been synonymous with glamour and neither, it’s fair to say, has the football club.
Until last season’s exile in Northampton, the club’s recent history was notable only for the steady decline and a lingering stench of failure. Scratch beneath the surface though, and there is something almost remarkable about the extent to which the club has disappointed.
Coventry City have not finished in the top six of any division since 1969/70; have never accumulated more than 66 points in a league season; have not reached the semi-final of a major cup competition in nearly a quarter of a century; in 34 consecutive years as an established top-flight club, have only finished higher than tenth on four occasions; and have won absolutely nothing in my lifetime.
I believe that this prolonged drought has engendered a unique mentality in Coventry supporters. It seems to have fostered a suspicion that we are destined never to consistently win football matches. The nature of league football should lead to a rollercoaster-like experience with fortunes fluctuating and seasons alternating between divisions, but all we’ve known since the 1970s is a steady downward trajectory. Fans therefore respond to every setback with a knowing “here we go again…”
The club is defined by an inferiority complex bred from failure. This manifests itself at games; supporters audibly lose patience quickly because we expect to fail. Sideways passes tend to be perceived as a sign that the players are playing without direction, as opposed to doing a good job of keeping possession and frustrating the opposition. Years of living with – but in the shadow of – the elite have rendered us psychologically unworthy.
Bearing this in mind, it feels like the last 10 or 15 years have been a prolonged psychoanalytic journey, forcing us into introspection and the attempted resolution of past traumas as the steadiness of the downward trajectory has given way to a sharper descent. The final day Premier League escapes were the equivalent of fate saving the need to delve within, like a failed relationship prolonged by accidental impregnation or the burden of a joint mortgage. As long as Premier League – and then Championship – football remained, we needn’t seek to understand our identity or establish a forward-looking philosophy. Relegation to League One in 2012 followed by two seasons of points deductions have given everyone a reality-check.
There is despair in constantly expecting failure, but having an emotional attachment to something so hopeless can be complicated. The antithesis of supporting a top-six Premier League side, every glint of hope is magnified disproportionately. When you expect the worst, you’re never disappointed. It is in despair that we find pleasure because despair allows us to see the possibility of pleasure more sharply. As a Coventry fan, you simultaneously harbour the expectation of being let down and a muted hope that a turning point may be imminent.
Supporting Coventry should be a miserable experience, but it’s not. It feels like a long-term journey, rather than a short-term cash grab that requires fans as part of its branding strategy. Like a downtrodden prole, you believe that you will be rewarded for all of the hardship eventually, because it would be unjust not to be, wouldn’t it?
On a personal note, it keeps me attached to an area that’s an undeniable part of my identity. If not for the football club, I would have no reason to visit Coventry. It has become synonymous with spending time with my dad and provides a pretense to spend time with family.
It’s also always been bound up with long car journeys. A trip to the Ricoh (or Highfield Road before it) is roughly a 300-mile round jaunt, and so the experience of watching home games has always felt somehow significant. A whole day (sometimes weekend) is devoted to it, therefore it carries extra weight. Setting an early alarm on an often-hungover Saturday morning, knowing that I won’t be home until late that night or the following morning. The long car journey is time devoted to anticipating the game on the way there; reflecting on and discussing it on the way back; listening to football debate on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire and then 606 as the regional signal fades.
If I lived anywhere near the midlands I would be a season ticket-holder and go to every game. I regret that that’s not possible, but I also appreciate that the matches I do attend are always special, never routine.
There is a theory in the psychology of relationships (the Investment Theory [Rusbult 1983]) that investment is the most significant factor in determining the success and longevity of a relationship. Regardless of the presence of alternatives, or whether or not the costs outweigh the rewards, it suggests that most people make decisions about their relationships based simply on how much they have put in (time, emotion, material investment). As time passes, I realise more profoundly how constant the presence of Coventry City has been in my life, and how far it stretches back. There is a sense of stability in knowing that the club has always been there. The longer the downward trajectory persists, the more I feel emotionally invested in being there when it is eventually arrested.