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Coventry City, in sky blue, used to play in front of large crowds when members of the Premier League. They are averaging 14,900 fans a game this season in the Championship.
Coventry City, in sky blue, used to play in front of large crowds when members of the Premier League. They are averaging 14,900 fans a game this season in the Championship.

Clubs on the outside of the Premier League but looking in

Fallen giants fight to make it back to the top flight, but factors, including finances and bad management, hinder aspirations

 

It is so cold by the statue of Jimmy Hill that the group of Coventry City fans seek warmth in the adjacent club shop of the impressive Ricoh Arena. Outside and inside the stadium, there are more reminders of the past than the present.

Replica shirts from the 1987 FA Cup final are more prominent that the current version, while postcards of past heroes like Steve Ogrizovic and Cyrille Regis proliferate over modern day players for the side stuck at the bottom of England's second tier, the Championship.

Coventry and their opponents on this wintry February afternoon, Ipswich Town, have been in the Championship the longest at present. Both were founder members of the Premier League in 1992/93, but Coventry were relegated in 2001 after 34 years in the top tier - known as the "annual great escape" as they somehow stayed in the top flight.

It is thanks to Hill that they ever reached it.

Before Hill, Coventry struggled in the third and fourth divisions. The controversial moderniser Hill became manager in 1961 and they were in the elite league by 1967.

By the time they were relegated, only Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal had longer top-flight tenures.

The highlight was their '87 cup win over Tottenham Hotspur, but despite a new 32,000-seat ground, a home so impressive that it will stage football games as part of the London Olympics, Coventry do not own the stadium and their fortunes have steadily declined since that heady afternoon 25 years ago.

"It has been a miserable last 10 years," said Andy Turner of the Coventry Telegraph. "Coventry used to regularly compete with the biggest teams before relegation, but have never looked like getting promoted back."

This season has been the worst. The current club owners arrived in 2007 when Coventry were on the brink of administration. Money was earmarked for investment and an idealistic plan involving promotion with a young (and cheap) side was floated. The potential was clear. Coventry crowds averaged almost 20,000, which is more than three current Premier League teams.

"Some talented players did arrive, like Scott Dann," said Turner, "but because the club continued to lose money and gates continued to fall, they had to be sold."

With their best players gone and wage bills continually reduced in an attempt to break even, a circle of decline set in. The unpopular owners SISU, a hedge fund group, have put in £25 million (Dh146.25m) since taking over. It is nowhere near enough and they are reluctant to pledge more money. And because Coventry are not owner-occupiers of their ground they need crowds of 22,000 just to break even - this season's average is 14,600.

"The fans have completely lost faith," said Turner. "The situation now is that Coventry have been reduced to loan players to help them stay in the league."

Two are from Manchester - Oliver Norwood from United reserves and Alex Nimely from City's second string. It is a long way from when Coventry paid £6m for Robbie Keane and then sold him to Inter Milan for £13m. Today's top earner is on £8,000 a week and Coventry are among the division's lowest payers. They have also been hit by a transfer embargo after failing to submit their club accounts on time.

If this is a cautionary tale of what can happen after relegation from the Premier League then so is that of Ipswich, though their decline has not been quite so severe.

Relegated a season after Coventry in 2002, they have been in the Championship ever since. Like Coventry, Ipswich acquired new owners in 2007, but unlike Coventry, owner Marcus Evans spent heavily on the loss-making club and appointed Roy Keane as the manager in 2009.

"Keane was a great player, but he was a disaster as a manager for Ipswich," said the former striker, James Scowcroft, who played for both clubs and is now a radio analyst. "He was supported financially, but bought poorly and left the club in a worst state than he found it in.

"Ipswich and Coventry both have the infrastructure to be in the Premier League, but unlike Coventry, Ipswich threw a lot of money at getting back up. It didn't work."

They are not alone. Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United all boast Premier League stadiums with 30,000-plus capacities and average crowds which still exceed several current Premier League clubs, but starved of the top flight television money and a benefactor, they have withered.

All three clubs went all the way down to the third tier; the two Sheffield clubs are still there, fighting for promotion along with Charlton Athletic, another former Premier League side, while Forest are likely to return there this season.

Further down the footballing ladder are Bradford City, who spent two seasons in the Premier League from 1999 to 2001. Their stadium holds more than 25,000 and they have a top attendance of 17,014 this season, but they went have been in administration twice and had to sell their ground.

Other clubs have shown that you can go up and stay up. Stoke City's Peter Coates, Britain's 90th richest individual, has invested millions, but he also tapped into their potential and has doubled their average crowds to 27,000 - the 11th best in the league. There are other success stories, like Ipswich's main rivals Norwich City, who were promoted alongside another great football story, Swansea City, last season. Neither of these have obvious benefactors, yet boast excellent managers.

Norwich can count on constant full-house crowds of 26,000 and plan to expand Carrow Road beyond 30,000. Other clubs, such as Watford and Blackpool, excelled to reach the top flight, but they punched above their weight and their stays were brief.

Portsmouth, despite excellent support, were hamstrung by the 20,000-capacity Fratton Park. They lived well beyond their means - winning the FA Cup in 2008 - before a financial implosion. They recently went into administration for the second time, and some fears exist that they will not be able to complete this season.

Clubs need to grow their crowds sustainably because, as Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic have found out, even a benefactor pumping in millions is no guarantee.

Evans may have bankrolled Ipswich, yet they have underachieved.

Keane was replaced by Paul Jewell in January 2011, but a glance at the Ipswich sports newspaper, the Green Un, shows how some fans feel about the Liverpudlian.

"I've been horrified at the demise of the club I've supported for 50 years," starts one letter. "Poor signings, poor team selections, poor substitutions," moans another, who wants Jewell dismissed. Ipswich are 16th, with the worst defence in the league. Coventry are third bottom, the only team in the top 92 professional clubs in England not to win an away game all season and they've lost their last nine away games.

Their fall from grace is summed up by the club's anthem, to the tune of the Eton Boat Song.

 

"Lets all sing together

Play up, Sky Blues

While we sing together

We will never lose

Tottenham or Chelsea

United or anyone

They shan't defeat us

We'll fight 'til the game is won!

City! City! City!"


United, Tottenham or Chelsea?

Coventry are likely to be playing Yeovil Town, Stevenage and Bury next season.

 

Five teams who started the inaugural Premier League season (where they finished that year):

Oldham Athletic (19th)

Oldham’s surprise win at title contenders Aston Villa in April 1993 helped them stay in the Premier League on goal difference, but they were relegated the following season and have not returned since. Now in League One.

Nottingham Forest (22nd)

The 1979 and 1980 European Cup winners finished bottom in 1993. They returned immediately and finished third in 1995. Relegation followed in 1997, before another immediate promotion. Forest went down again in 1999 and became the first European Cup winners to fall into their country’s third level in 2005. Now in the Championship.

Leeds United (17th)

The last winners of the old First Division in 1992, Leeds dropped to 17th a season later. They finished the decade strongly and competed for European places – reaching the Champions League semi-final in 2001 – before a financial meltdown. Leeds were relegated in 2004 and dropped into the third level in 2007. Now back in the Championship.

Wimbledon (12th)

The 1988 FA Cup winners were relegated in 2000 and announced their intention to relocate to Milton Keynes in 2001. MK Dons – Wimbledon were known as the Dons – now play in League One.

Sheffield United (14th)

Relegated in 1994, the Blades were promoted back to the top flight in 2006 but stayed just one season. Relegated to England’s third tier for the first time in 23 years in 2011, they are currently second in League One – one place above neighbours Sheffield Wednesday, who finished seventh in the first Premier League.

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