A CLUB in administration with a hefty points penalty; fighting relegation with a team dominated by kids. No, this is not Hearts, it is Coventry City. Although the manager has distinct Tynecastle connections.
Steven Pressley left Falkirk for Coventry in March and has endured probably the most turbulent six months of his footballing life. Bear in mind we are talking about the founder member of the Riccarton Three, who publicly eyeballed Vladimir Romanov at Hearts and lived to tell the tale. Now he finds himself managing a club battling for survival after a political battle drove them out of their stadium. There is also the small matter of points deductions. That’s plural.
Since Pressley was appointed, Coventry have received two ten-point penalties – one last season and one on the very eve of this campaign. They have had to move out of the Ricoh Arena, their home since 2005, and play home games 34 miles away at Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium because of a bitter dispute over unpaid rent of £1.2million between the club’s former owners, Sisu, and Arena Coventry Limited, the Ricoh Arena landlords.
The fallout has seen Coventry placed in administration as a subsidiary of the club faces liquidation. The transfer embargo leaves Pressley with a team mainly comprising youth academy graduates. The first ten-point penalty in March was followed by another the day before their 2013/14 League One season was to begin. To the credit of Pressley and his players, they have already clawed back the deficit and sit second bottom of the table on one point.
Similarities with Hearts end there. Coventry’s fans are bitterly divided over the decision to play in Northampton at a venue with a capacity of just 7653. Thousands are staying away in protest. In Gorgie, there is a united front as the supporter-led Foundation of Hearts try to gain control and fans’ fundraising has helped keep Hearts afloat over the last year. Pressley has surveyed both situations. He can see similarities but insists there are also clear differences.
“What I need to stress is that our situation isn’t quite what people on the outside might think,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “At no point did any of our players or staff go unpaid. There have been no redundancies, no-one has ever been asked to take a cut or reduction or had a delay to their wages. The club, at all times, have fully honoured every contract for every member of staff.
“Although there have been issues, they haven’t really revolved around the finances of the club. They’ve revolved around other issues which have ultimately resulted in us playing away from our stadium. I think it’s been hardest for the supporters. The Ricoh is a fantastic stadium and everybody connected with Coventry wants us to be playing there. A number of fans are staying away just now and demonstrating by refusing to come to Northampton. The truth is we understand their frustrations and their reasons. Hopefully, the right outcome can be found in time.
“The ideal outcome is that the club return to Coventry and play football there. I don’t know when that will be. It’s definitely going to happen. If a solution is not found with the Ricoh then the club plan to build their own stadium in Coventry. That is planned within three years so the outcome will be the club returning to Coventry. Obviously the most sensible solution would be eventually to return to the Ricoh but there is no guarantee. Hearts is far more a financial issue. I know on the outside it looks like that at Coventry. Hearts has been a situation revolved around outstanding debt, players’ contracts not being honoured, redundancies and all these things. There is stability about the finances at Coventry just now, while it’s the opposite at Hearts. Although we’ve had two points penalties during my time here, our situation has been more about the stadium and the supporters.
“At this moment, Hearts are still playing in their own stadium and selling out. The fans are very much united. We aren’t at our stadium and the supporters are very divided about the situation. That’s the differences between the two clubs. From the outside looking in on the Hearts situation, the manager is doing a very good job and I think they will get out of it. I think Hearts will avoid relegation this season.
“If they do that, it is a wonderful season for them. I’ve stated that down here as well. This season is about developing a young group of players at Coventry and avoiding relegation. If we do that, considering the circumstances, then for us it’s a very successful season.”
Coventry’s start has exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. They have wiped out the ten-point deficit by taking 11 points from their opening six league games. However, given the turmoil which has engulfed the place, the question remains: why did Pressley decide to continue a promising managerial career at Coventry?
“During the interviews, the club were completely open with me about everything,” he explained. “I came here with my eyes wide open. The problem was things evolved into a far deeper situation than anybody could have imagined.
“The worst time for something like this to happen is at the season’s end. Over the summer, everything written about the club in question is about off-the-field matters because there is no football being played. The off-the-field politics dominate the situation and that’s very much what happened here.
“The ten-point deduction came on the eve of the new season on the Friday. It was a real hammer blow for us. We are under transfer embargo which didn’t allow us to bring in any players. We moved 15 to 18 players out of the building over the summer so we have a far smaller squad. I don’t influence the other activities because the football department can only influence the football. My focus has been on improving the team and the players.
“There is a great unity within the group. We’re working with many young players from our academy and several young players we’ve recruited from elsewhere. We have four senior players. I’d say there is a good energy and a good belief in the group just now.”
Pressley is a bit of an expert when it comes to promoting and developing kids, as any Falkirk fan would attest. “I think one of the attractions for Coventry to myself was the work I’d done at Falkirk, working with a young team and bringing an identity to a football club. Everybody talks about Coventry City being this huge club. Over the last 15 years, their highest league position has been eighth.
“Only on three occasions have they finished in the top half of their table. So, although they’re a big club, there has been a steady decline. It got to a stage where the club felt definite foundations needed to be put in place. There needed to be greater use of the club’s assets, like their youth academy. With what I’d done up the road, they felt that type of model was something they wanted to mirror here to a degree.”
One of those senior players referred to is a defender who learned his trade at Pressley’s side in Edinburgh. “Andy Webster, a little bit like myself, was ready for change,” said the manager. “He’d played a long time in Scotland and played at the same grounds in the same competitions many times. He had several offers in Scotland but he felt this was the right time for a new challenge.
“Obviously, I have a good relationship with him and I’m delighted he’s come here. He’s fitted into the group extremely well. We have a young squad that needed leadership and he will provide us with that. It’s very much the right move for him. He has played in our last five games and has yet to be on the losing team, so he’s made a big impact.
“For anybody who was to come here, this club has terrific potential. We have a wonderful training base, better than any club in Scotland outwith Rangers and Celtic. If Coventry were in Scotland, they would be one of the top three or four teams.”