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Sportsfest, Football, Factories & Finances

This week sees “Coventry Sportsfest 2019” so my themes over the coming days will centre around the history of sport in the city.

In Sunday’s post I mentioned that I had gone along to the Coventry Sphinx v Coventry Utd “local derby” football match. Sphinx and United are fighting it out for the reputation of being Coventry’s leading non-league club. Following the Sky Blues move out of the city for the second time in recent years the leading non league clubs are also fighting for the reputation of being Coventry’s leading resident club.

It has been a strange few years for professional sport in Coventry. Our main football club has moved out to Birmingham, Coventry Bees Speedway has moved to Leicester and (the former London) Wasps are now well established at the Ricoh Arena.

Other twists in local sport have seen Wasps establishing a winning netball team, the City’s leading women’s football team being taken over by Coventry United after feeling of being neglected by Coventry City.

United share the Butts Arena Stadium with owners Coventry Rugby Club. The ground is also home to Coventry Bears Rugby League Club so the current work to install an all weather pitch is pretty much essential!

Over the years the Butts has been a home to local clubs such as Coventry Godiva Harriers (a famous name in the world of athletics), Coventry Amateurs FC and a venue for cycling events – this is to name just a few and I shall return to devote a future post to a more detailed history of the venue.

The story of Coventry Amateurs is one of the changing face of non-league football over the years. Up until the 1970s there was a distinction between professional and amateur football. There was an FA Amateur Cup which attracted large crowds at Wembley. There were also amateur internationals.

As a ten year old I attended the last ever amateur international football match which was held at Coventry City’s Highfield Road ground towards the end of the 1973-74 season. It was England v Scotland with the Scotland team consisting almost entirely of players from Glasgow’s Queens Park club. The match was preceded by a game between the Sky Blue’s youth team and Grasshoppers of Zurich. I did have a programme for this double header and must seek it out for further details!

By the early 70s it was recognised that there was a blurring between the distinction of amateur and professional sport. Leading clubs in the “amateur” sport of Rugby Union would provide sweeteners to attract players (such as promises of employment in the businesses of directors - or more accurately “committee men” and backers). Similar moves were occurring in football and “semi-professionalism” took over the upper heights of non-league football.

Coventry Amateurs FC became Coventry Sporting Club and moved out of the Butts to their new home in Kirby Corner Road in Canley. Their high point came in 1975 when they achieved national fame as “Giant Killers” beating Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup. This was another game that I was present at – again played at Highfield Road to accommodate the crowd. I believe that one of the players that day was Willie Knibbs who went on to manage Sphinx and is commemorated through the naming of the stand at Sphinx Drive. The Sphinx Club is also recognised as a hub of local sport of all kinds over the years.

As has so often been the case in Coventry the financial side of football was to cause Coventry Sporting Club problems. In order to survive their Kirby Corner ground was sold to a brewery. It was eventually sold on by the owners and became the site on which the National Grid headquarters were built. The club requested that they return to be tenants at the Butts but were refused by Coventry Council. The Council position was that as a community resource the stadium should not be dominated by one club and Coventry Sporting Club went to the wall.

Eventually (partially due to a financial squeeze on local government) the Butts stadium was sold and became new home to Coventry Rugby Club. As mentioned above one of their tenants is Coventry United FC . Coventry United’s red and green kit reflects the City’s civic colours. Coventry Sporting wore such a kit as did Coventry City during some seasons in their early days.

When considering the development of sport in the city it is worth remembering that many of the clubs arose Coventry’s factories. Coventry City were originally Singers FC – growing out of the cycle trade. Sphinx are another example growing out of the social club attached to the Armstrong Whitworth aircraft manufacturer. Over this week I’ll be looking at the activities and history of some of these clubs (and also sorting associations with social clubs in general in Coventry) as well as looking at some sports not mentioned today.

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