What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not ..the executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.
Whilst Sir Bobby Robson’s words were originally made in reference to the sport of football, they also imply a universal truth across all sports and all across clubs therein.
And never more so than Coventry Rugby Club in recent times.
I rather expect this is going to turn out to be one of the more controversial posts I’ve written, but given all the upheavals that the club have suffered and the changes we are presently undergoing, Sir Bobby’s words ring as true today as they did when he first uttered them.
They transcend sport and we should reflect on them.
And what I am about to write might not meet with everyone’s approval, but its message is ultimately one of optimism and belief.
Sir Bobby was a man who understood sport and understood what it meant to be a supporter. His words echo what most fans will feel to be true…
…whilst a club might be owned by the board of directors, or by the chairman, it belongs to the supporters.
Take the fans away and a club will cease to exist…
…they are the heart and soul of its existence and they remain the reason it survives.
It will come as no surprise, therefore, when I say I believe this season should be as much about rebuilding the club and giving it back to the supporters , as it is about the results the team achieves on the pitch over the next few months.
And that’s why I think the club needs to be given massive credit for already having begun that process so quickly, after all the disappointments of last season.
That’s not to say that the performance on the field isn’t important, of course it is, and to its credit, the club is investing heavily in trying to ensure that the structures are in place to move towards its aim of promotion into the Championship, whether it be in 12 months time or more realistically in the next 2-3 seasons. A new DoR, 4 new coaches, pretty much a new squad…the playing side of the club has undergone a complete and radical rebuild and for the next 12 months at least that side of things is more or less complete – there might be one or two players still to come in, but the rest of the season is about using the material it now has to build a competitive team.
12 months down the line and hopefully there will be minimal changes to make, some new players perhaps as others move on, but certainly far more stability than we saw at the end of last season. The status quo is retained and Coventry continue to progress.
That goes on pretty much year-on-year…some out-goings, some in-goings…from 2011-2016 that was pretty much the norm.
But, and here’s the controversy, if controversy it is, the game has moved on, not just at Premiership level, but in the tiers below too and the I don’t think the club reacted to the change as quickly as it should…
…the roar and the passion on a Saturday has remained, but outside of that, the club failed to capitalise on the its standing as the only top level rugby club in the city…the supporters’ club petered out, coaches no longer took supporters to away games and little happened to maintain the interest of supporters in between Saturdays.
Little news came out of the club during the week and supporters grew more and more frustrated. The faithful kept coming, as they always will, but Coventry’s attendances, other than in the 2014/15 season, haven’t increased as much as one might have hoped.
In essence, we haven’t been able to pull in new supporters or keep a high percentage of those who are initially bitten by the bug – or if I’m wrong, and we have, then as numbers have remained around the 1100-1200 mark (2011/12 – 1051, 2012/13 – 857, 2013/14 – 1201, 2014/15 – 1506, 2015/16 – 1152), we’ve lost a fair amount of the longer-term support along the way.
And I know it’s partly results driven, but not entirely…
Are youngsters coming to the club, ‘seeing the hallowed turf and falling in love with the club’ in the way I did when I was brought to Coundon Road back in the day or when my son did in the late 80s and early 90’s?
I’m not sure they are, not in any great numbers, and despite all the work being done through the community programme, with lots of youngsters coming to visit the ground and to watch Cov through their schools and through the holiday camps, the pull of Wasps or simply other interests away from sport , or from rugby in particular, is proving too great. Coventry haven’t really been able to create that sense of pride that Sir Bobby alluded to – either on the pitch or off it.
And as a youngster being introduced to rugby by my parents in today’s era, which would attract me more – Saturday afternoons watching rugby at the Butts or the razzmatazz, child-centric and family orientated afternoons watching Wasps?
And with the costs of tickets not that dissimilar…what about parents?
Yes, I am being provocative and playing devil’s advocate…but that youngster ‘clambering up the steep steps’ to get their first view of the Ricoh pitch is going to feel stronger emotions than perhaps he or she would going through the turnstiles at The Butts. We can’t compete with that and nor should we, but there are other ways of making Coventry more attractive to its supporters…
And this is where in recent weeks I’m become far more positive than I’ve been for a long, long time. Rowland Winter seems to have a much more holistic vision of the club than many of the previous DoRs and in Jon Sharp he appears to have a willing ally, a chairman who is prepared to back him in his desire to move the club into the professional era in all areas of the club.
The regular updates from John Wilkinson now ensure that there is a link between club and supporter during the week and not just the weekend. The new website will further improve communication well beyond anything we have seen up to now and the return of the Supporters’ Club is already developing a lot of interest outside of the newly formed committee. The possibility of organised travel on most away days will certainly create further interest and fans travelling together is going to add a social dimension to the away day experience as well, encouraging others to come along. And I’m sure they’ll be more – with opportunities to meet the players, attend social events at the club (the Comedy Club, for instance) and junior sections hopefully on the website and/or the match day programme.
Regular opportunities to listen to the DoR and his team have been extremely well-received and with more planned hopefully through the Supporters’ Club, there are lots more reasons for supporters to fall back in love with the club – at times the relationship between the two has been more akin to an affair rather than a full on relationship…
… a pleasant enough distraction, but something that isn’t necessarily going to last.
Apologies if that’s offended anyone – It’s just that I was struggling for the right analogy…
The club is certainly reconnecting with its supporters, something that is so important if Cov is going to be sustainable at the level it sees itself at in the coming months and years ahead. Such changes can and will strengthen supporters ties to Cov and in so doing will create that stronger sense of belonging that Sir Bobby referred to.
Coventry are undergoing a pretty radical rebrand at the moment with even the club badge changing by the look of it (as seen on the temporary entry page of the new website). We are now Coventry Rugby, not Coventry Rugby Football Club as was. The club is rightly promoting it’s links to the city, too, through the tagline of ‘Your City Your Club’ which it seems is designed to further extend that sense of belonging beyond just the club itself – if you are a Coventrian, then Coventry is your club.
And that makes sense to me.
In the long-term, success for Coventry is going to be a combination of things…a winning team, a business that at least breaks even and a strong and loyal fan base. It would be interesting to ask the board of any club to prioritise those three areas – I imagine the success of the business plan is as important as any to them, but I’m not so sure. To me, they are all inextricably linked and to concentrate on one is going to be to the detriment of another more often than not, especially for the smaller clubs.
Most supporters would, I think, agree with Sir Bobby Robson when he said a club was more about:’…the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city’ than it is about it being a business.
And I think if Coventry continue to put such emphasis on its supporters, then that passion and sense of belonging will grow, as will attendances, especially if we do even more to attract younger supporters, together with their families.
What is a club?
Sir Bobby knew…