Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Highfield Road

This week Coventry fan Paul Price who blogs at The Sky Is Still Blue takes us on a trip down memory Lane to Highfield Road. You can also follow him on Twitter @Pricep87

It was dubbed the “end of an era.” An era that had spanned 106 years. An era that started on 9 September 1899 with a 1-0 win over Shrewsbury Town in front of 3,000 spectators and ended on 30 April 2005 with a 6-2 victory against Midland rivals Derby County in front of 22,728 fans.

For 106 years Coventry City called Highfield Road their home, before moving into the state-of-the-art Ricoh Arena at the start of the 2006/07 season.

Built in a residential area just outside the city centre on part of what was then the Craven Cricket Club, Coventry’s old home has seen it all, not least the 1940 blitz in which surprisingly nothing but the pitch was destroyed by the German bombers.

Highfield Road
Football-wise it’s darkest day came in 1952 when the side were relegated into the old Division Three, the lowest level the club have ever played at. Enter Jimmy Hill. Now a legend of the club - a statue of the former manager and chairman is due to be unveiled outside the Ricoh Arena in the coming weeks - the unmistakable figure took charge in 1961, setting about rebuilding the stadium as well as the team.

Inside three years, the stadium had a new stand and a new league, gaining promotion to Division Two. Just two years later and Hill had won promotion again, reaching the lofty heights of Division One and setting a new record attendance for Highfield Road in the process when 51,455 turned up to see the local derby against Wolves.

Hill resigned as manager before the next season, so never got to manage the club in the top flight but he did return as a managing director and then as the club's chairman in 1967. During his reign, Coventry’s Highfield Road became the first all-seater stadium in England in 1981, although the total capacity was reduced by 15,900 in the process.

It proved an unpopular decision with the fans and just months later Leeds United fans tore out several hundred seats in an act of hooliganism, turning the Kop into a terrace once more. In 1993 the team played in a three-sided stadium as a new East Stand was built in time for the 1994/95 season, meeting the new laws that all top division clubs in England must have an all-seater stadium.

My first personal experience of the old ground came in the early Nineties, when Coventry replayed their 1987 FA Cup Final triumph against Tottenham in a testimonial for former player and manager John Sillett. I really can’t remember much about the game, least of all the result, being not much older than five or six at the time.

The first memorable one came in 1995, when my Father took me to a game against Blackburn Rovers. I was a fan of Blackburn at the time, more than likely for glory reasons - as most young kids tend to be - having seen Alan Shearer and co lift the Premiership title the season before.

Earlier on in the season, Blackburn had beaten the Sky Blues 5-1, so there wasn’t much optimism in the ground on a snowy Saturday afternoon. Surprising everyone, Coventry won 5-0, and that was the day that I started my long, but ultimately disappointing, love affair with my home-town club. I also featured on Match Of The Day highlights that day, sitting just to the left of the goal at the East end of the stadium.

The stadium in 1981
My Highfield Road visits were few and far between, never having a season ticket and only getting to see the odd game here and there. Being so young I had to rely on others to take me, but my best memory of the ground will always be that 5-0 drubbing of the Champions.

That final game at the end of the 2005 season was an emotional one. I wasn’t at the game personally, but those that were there tell the tales of tears, ripping out seats as souvenirs and invading the pitch to get your own piece of Highfield road turf. 106 years of history, knocked down quicker than you could say “I’m going to miss this place,” and turned into yet another housing estate.

The bigger, better Ricoh Arena took its place, but it has never quite been the same. The old cliché of “they don’t make them like they used to” can definitely be applied to football grounds. The character and atmosphere-generating grounds of old have been replaced by architectural magnificence and corporate facilities. Football grounds no longer cater for the everyday fan, but instead for those who bring the most money to the turnstiles.

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Filbert Street, Leicester

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