Coventry Bears against West Wales Raiders tomorrow evening and an opportunity to meet the Cov players and coaches at Cov’s ‘Fun Family Day Out’ on Saturday.
Pretty much the perfect week for me, then.
When Cov’s season ended against Hull back in the last week of April, I had no intention of doing anything other than savour our promotion, enjoy the close season and eagerly await the pre-season and news of the club’s preparations for life in the Championship.
The decision to pop across to the BPA and catch the Bears’ game against York City Knights was taken pretty much on a whim.
A second weekend without any live sport following the Hull game was proving a depressing prospect and a Sunday afternoon spent watching the Bears seemed a good alternative to reading the Sunday papers, entertaining the grandchildren and a probable stint in the garden.
(Fortunately, other than Sam, the kids stopped reading the blog a long time ago so hopefully I should get away with that last comment….).
You’d think an 18-58 defeat to high-flying York might not have been a result to capture the imagination.
However, despite the result and the fact that the Bears were struggling near the foot of the table having won just one game in seven back then, there was something about the whole match day experience that I really, really enjoyed.
The Bears were certainly outplayed by York, but they fought hard right up to the final whistle despite the scoreline. Perhaps it was respect for a side that was, and still is, struggling to compete against teams with better resources, both financial and otherwise, that won me over that day.
That and, I guess, my own propensity to always favour the underdog.
Whatever it was, I was back the following week to watch the Bears against Workington. Not on a whim this time, I’d looked forward to it all week.
Similar result and a similar performance, but plenty to admire in both sides, again. It helped being something of a neutral, the result didn’t hurt perhaps as much as it would have done if the Bears had been my first love.
And there was something about the crowds at those Bears’ games that was so refreshing.
Smaller in number, yes.
Considerably so, with average gates not much more than 450 (ish)
Less vocal though?
Often bolstered by plenty of away support, especially from the northern clubs, the atmosphere was, and still is, lively. And above all else, it’s both friendly and positive.
In the first 3 Bears’ games I watched, we (there we go, first use of the possessive pronoun – I guess that makes me officially a Bears’ fan now) conceded 170 points, scoring just 22 in reply.
It could have been a nightmare had the crowd responded as one might have expected. But there was no negativity, no moans or calls of derision. When the opposition played well, the Cov crowd responded warmly; when the Bears played well, either in defence or attack, they cheered loudly and with pride. And they always applauded them off the pitch at the end of the game. always.
No players were singled out for any blame, however basic the errors, and all I ever heard was calls of encouragement if things went from bad to worse, as they often did in those early games.
It was all so different from watching Cov. Fans are hugely passionate about Coventry Rugby Club, but if I’m brutally honest, the support at a game isn’t – for the most part.
It’s always been the case that when things go wrong, there are those in the Cov crowd who will quickly turn and voice their annoyance. Fortunately, under Rowland Winter, the results have been such that we’ve seen rather less of that than under previous DoRs, but even now if things don’t go quite to plan the crowd is quick to voice it feelings.
And vote with its feet.
Even after two years of relative success, the numbers coming through the turnstiles are still down on what many might have expected. There is a really strong core of 1000ish supporters, the remainder are influenced greatly by the success or otherwise of the club.
It might be a little disingenuous to compare the two sets of fans given Cov’s history and the burden of expectation that has hung heavy on each successive generation of players since the halcyon days of the early 70s when Cov dominated the game nationally at club level.
But in Cov’s case, success did anything but breed success and failure to adapt to the changes to the game in the 70s and the advent of professionalism at club level in the 70s/80s meant a prolonged decline for the club.
The expectations remained but the outcomes always seemed to fall well short.
For the Bears’ supporters, I guess expectations aren’t so great and success for them is measured by the occasional win in a league that is weighted heavily in favour of the more established clubs.
And here’s the big difference.
From what I’ve seen and read, and from the little I’ve spoken to Bears’ fans, they’re just grateful the club is able to compete at this level at all.
Those in a position of power at Cov are always going to have their detractors given the history of the club and the long, long memories that many supporters still have. Jon Sharp, Coventry’s owner and current chairman, is currently riding on the crest of a wave in terms of his popularity amongst supporters for the way he has transformed the club in recent years to the point where it is almost financially self-sufficient these days. And deservedly so.
But he was openly criticised publicly pre-Winter, including on the Messageboard and elsewhere, for his apparently unwillingness to communicate with supporters who felt they had no voice and had been kept in the dark about what was happening for far too long. And they had a point.
Even I voiced my concerns… 🙂
Jon Sharp was also blamed in part (unfairly I believe) for the 2015/16 debacle and it took the arrival of RW and the subsequent adoption of a glasnost-style openness between club and supporters to really understand what had been happening behind the scenes to improve the club’s financial footing as events unfolded that season.
As far as Alan Robinson is concerned, well he will always be a hero to the Bears’ fans simply because he is the embodiment of all that is good about the club. Everyone who supports the club respects the time, effort and sacrifices he has had to make in building the Bears into what is now a force nationally in rugby league from what was, in 1998, a team made up of mostly of enthusiastic university students. All in the space of just 20 years.
Jon Sharp has made huge sacrifices himself, too, but he will always suffer by comparison because of those glory years of the 60s and early to mid 70s in particular. Even though he took on the club at its lowest point and has ploughed his own resources into it, he has, by the very nature of his role, inherited all the doubts and fears in the minds of fans that have been directed towards so many previous club owners.
Only in the last couple of seasons has he really begun to win over the majority of supporters.
So when the Bears were being beaten by 50 odd points with some regularity earlier in the season, the supporters were never disparaging about the coaches or the management of the club because they understand just how lucky they are to be able to watch rugby league in Coventry in the first place.
But for the efforts of Alan Robinson and those around him*, there would be no Coventry Bears.
A run of poor results for Coventry, and the same could not be said of Cov supporters.
*Ron Banks is a name that keeps cropping up although I’m ashamed to say I know little of his role but he is clearly another clubman who is widely respected.
The other thing that has impressed me about the Bears is just what a warm and friendly club it is.
The blog has been in existence for over three years now and during that time I’ve written pretty much in isolation from the club I’ve written about. I’ve sat in with Rowland Winter when he’s chatted to supporters at training sessions a few times or on rare occasions briefly spoken to him pre-match, but other than that I’ve had very little direct communication with the club at all. It’s kept its distance and I’ve tended to keep mine.
A couple of meltdowns on my part, but otherwise it’s been an enjoyable hobby and no more.
Over a million and a quarter words and over half a million blog views and it’s pretty much all routine now during a Cov season – write one day, post the next, pretty much 7 days a week (barring holidays) and hopefully the opportunity to interact with a few supporters who follow the blog and are kind enough to leave comments on occasions.
But it’s been very different when I’ve posted about the Bears.The club is currently in a position where it probably needs a little more publicity which might explain why they have been so supportive, with the club retweeting posts and messages of thanks from the CEO and Head Coach through to individual players on a match by match basis.
And if there’s something I’m not sure about, well there’s always someone from the club offering advice
The two clubs differing approach to the blog has been an interesting one for me.
As far as both clubs are concerned, I’m sure that I’ve included a fair few factual inaccuracies and said one or two things that might not have gone down so well at times, but I think the Bears probably see a blog about the club as far more of a positive thing than Cov does and are prepared to put up with some of the errors or criticisms for that reason.
It helps spread the word, something that Cov wouldn’t be overly concerned about.
The first season I started blogging happened to be Coventry’s poorest for many seasons with problems on and off the pitch – in retrospect, it wasn’t the most auspicious of starts. The posts didn’t paint an altogether glowing picture of what was, after all, a club in some turmoil.
It’s the friendly corner shop as opposed to the rather bigger, rather more impersonal, high street store.
Cov’s approach clearly works for them and I’ve learned to let it work for me, too, but I have to say, it’s been really refreshing to have the obvious backing of the Bears. Whilst blogging is first, and foremost, a hobby and something I took up when I retired to give an interest outside of those I already had, knowing it’s well received in certain quarters makes it that much more enjoyable to write.
With only perhaps one more home Bears game left for me now, I’m sure I’ll miss watching them even once the union season takes hold.
I’ll miss writing about them as well, but I’m equally certain that next season I won’t just be watching the Bears…
….I’ll be supporting them, too.
And maybe there’ll be a separate Bears’ blog as well.
It’s certainly a consideration as of now.
I’ve mentioned both above, and in previous posts, Jon Sharp’s pivotal role in getting the club back on its feet financially and of the sacrifices he has made to get us there.
It hasn’t been the easiest of journeys for the Coventry Chairman and in the early days he didn’t get the recognition he deserved. Indeed, many of us weren’t aware of what was happening behind the scenes to ensure the club was not only fit for purpose at the time, but was also ensuring a longer-term vision was being put in place, one that we have seen start to bear fruits over these last couple of seasons.
Once communication between the club and its supporters improved it became clear just what a massive undertaking it was and how far Jon Sharp had already moved the club forward.
In the light of the above, I thought the Tweet below might be of interest to some. It’s written by a Simon Jones on behalf of the CF10 Rugby Trust (a trust ‘open to all supporters of Cardiff rugby‘) in reference to the financial difficulties currently being experienced at the Arms’ Park and quotes Exeter’s model as the way forward.
You could, though, replace Exeter with Coventry – the numbers might be slightly different (!) but the principle is the same. How many times over the last couple of years have we heard JS talk about the impossibility of running a rugby club on the basis of just 15 games a year?
His vision, and I rather suspect his tenacity, is ensuring that the long-term future of Coventry Rugby Club, and doubtless of the Bears as well, is far brighter than it has been for a long, long time.
And for that, he deserves great credit.
Anyone questioning why we need to get the lease sorted on the Arms Park should read this from the owner of Exeter. The business of sport runs beyond what’s on the pitch.
— Simon Jones (@seimon76) July 22, 2018