Coventry Rugby

It’s survived World Wars, industrial collapse and royal insults, but Coventry has always shrugged its shoulders and got on with it. Its rugby club is no different. Once, only hours from extinction, it now turns over £1.6m, regularly pulls in crowds of over 2,000 (in the third tier), has internationals both playing and coaching, and has run away with the league title. And that’s before we mention UB40 and Steps.

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Coventry rarely gets the credit it deserves, just ask Sam McNulty. “Not a lot of people know this, but the enigma code was cracked and they knew Coventry was going to get bombed because we were supporting the war by making tanks,” explains the Coventry-born backrower. “But they couldn’t evacuate the city because they’d have known we’d cracked it, so they let them bomb Coventry. We took a hit for the country. That’s the way Coventry rolls.”

Few cities roll with the punches quite like Coventry. Even aside from the physical blows inflicted by the Nazis, it’s been beaten by industry, politics and even mocked by royalty. Queen Elizabeth I, who grew up in the city, apparently once gave the locals a ticking off for having low morals. 

Perhaps, it was too much to expect the rugby club to have an easy ride. Until recently, professionalism had never been the best of friends to Coventry Rugby. Forever struggling to make it work for them since it dawned in the 1990s, it was then given an even bigger task by one of the most professional rugby outfits in the country moving in next door. 

Not that Coventry need feel inferior to their city neighbours, Wasps. They’ve had their ups and spectacular ones, too: 72 post-war games won on the bounce; 13 players turning out for England at the same time; back-to-back John Player Cup wins; and even British & Irish Lions honours since the 1800s. More than most, Coventry deserves that hackneyed ‘sleeping giant’ prefix. 

But, without wanting to get too lost in a metaphorical word jungle, giants don’t find themselves ‘sleeping’ without good reason. They tend to get knocked out. 

Coventry’s most recent near-fatal blow came almost a decade ago when owner Andrew Green put the club into voluntary liquidation in December 2009 and walked away. Hefty tax bills threatened to crush the club and, along with lots of smaller bills, it would be a death by a thousand financial cuts were it not for the giant HMRC guillotine hovering over its neck waiting to deal the killer blow.  “We were hours from going under,” admits Brian King, the club’s assistant team manager, and currently helping to get the home changing room sorted before the game against Fylde. “There was about 10 to 12 of us who put in money to stop the club from disappearing altogether. The supporters chipped in whatever they could and when we got relegated (from the Championship), we got in lads from local clubs, who were only on bus fares, and they managed to keep us in the league. 

“Without them we’d have gone down again, and I think that was one of our greatest achievements – saving ourselves with lads on bus fares.”

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While the small band of saviours, led by former player Peter Rossborough, had stopped the rot, it wouldn’t last forever. “There were a lot of people who put in a lot of effort,” continues Brian. “They put in a lot of time, a lot of heartache, there were a lot of tears, a lot of phone calls and people were running around the country to keep the club in existence.

“We were hand-to-mouth but, to become competitive again, to get us out of the situation we were in, we needed somebody as generous as Jon to come along. He’s brought in skills in organisation and management that weren’t here before. That’s what has given us the opportunity to be where we are – 15 points clear at the top of the division.” 

The ‘Jon’ in question, is Jon Sharp, the local-lad-done-well, the rugby fan and now multi-millionaire backer of Coventry Rugby. His influence has swept quickly across the club, even in the changing rooms we’re standing in. This isn’t National One décor, this is individual cubicle, Championship-standard. Add in a plunge pool and a few more square metres and it could even be Premiership-standard. 

The changing rooms though had been given a facelift before, what really makes a difference are the players and coaches standing within its walls. They include former All Black Sam Tuitupou (not playing today, but still busying himself around the place), Scottish centre Alex Grove, ex-England and Gloucester No.8 Luke Narraway to name three. International experience spreads to the men giving directions, two wiser club heads you couldn’t wish for in Louis Deacon (forwards) and Nick Walshe (head coach) and with Narraway doubling up as defence coach, they’ve got an all-international coaching team. This isn’t a picture painted for National One. The composition is the work of one of Jon Sharp’s biggest appointments, Rowland Winter. Not perhaps known by many, he spent years developing talent for Northampton, before learning his trade, and impressing, as director of rugby at Bedford Athletic and then Cambridge.

Just 30 years of age when appointed, he wanted his Coventry canvas as blank as possible before beginning. “I kept four of the 35 players and none of the staff and we moved on quite bluntly,” he tells us. “It sounds ruthless but it was needed, to freshen up a culture that hadn’t kicked on. I was at Cambridge until May [before officially starting], but I spent January to May coming over here and watching training sessions, watching games, meeting players, and trying to meet as many staff and key people in and around the club to understand what the problem was. I’m sure there were some good players let go, but it needed freshening up so we sat down with all the players around January time and told them they weren’t going to be needed.”

Face-to-face? “Yup,” continues Rowland, happy to talk openly in the changing room as his players start to arrive. “We were honest with them, for some of them it was rugby reasons, some of them it was financial, some just because we needed a clean slate. It was tough, some felt they could contribute but I didn’t think they would. But that gave us a chance to bring in our own people and provide a network that buys into the vision.”

Rowland talks and thinks like a modern-day Premiership director of rugby. Culture (‘no dickheads’) is given level-pegging with infrastructure and the right support team. He heralds the signing of head of medical Hannah Walker with a Team GB background as much as any player or coach and figure. Although hands-on at previous clubs, he’s happy to let Nick, Louis and Luke do the work on the training field. 

When it comes to his stable of players, he’s largely cherry-picked from the National Leagues, with a few from the Championship and two or three Premiership old hands. His academy is beginning to bear fruit – including our wartime story-telling backrower Sam – and the squad is ready for the next level. Fully professional? “Not compared to the Premiership,” he says. “But a lot of players add to their week with community coaching which makes them full-time. They get increased salary from that work to allow them to commit to rugby and it allows us to engage with the community and have our first team players out there.”

Coventry had attendances of more than 2,000 several times this season. Today, the weather is likely to take the number beneath that, but not by much. They average 1,800 for every home game. It’s a figure that takes them comfortably above any National One rival and most in the Championship. Even when playing away they’ve been known to take as many as a thousand fans with them. They’re not quite at the level of their Coventry neighbours, Wasps, yet, but they’re generating a good roar at the Butts Park Arena. 

The ground is filling fast and the crowd today includes 250 ex-players, including Harry Walker, England’s oldest surviving international, celebrating his 103rd birthday. Hospitality – the lifeblood of any successful professional club – is full and it’s here we meet Jon Sharp. “This gentleman to my right, I’ve not seen him for 60 years,” Jon tells us as we take our seat on his left. “I found him on Facebook,” explains his friend, “I was glad he wasn’t dead.”

“We grew up in the same part of the city,” continues Jon, “it’s one of the worst parts now, but it used to be one of those places you could say that old ‘leave your backdoor open’ cliché about but it was true.”

Of Coventry stock, Jon’s dad ran a fishing tackle shop, but he took a different route. A business studies degree, working for Rolls Royce for 20 or so years, a job at London Stansted, before eventually striking out on his own. “I started leasing spare aeroplane engines,” he explains. “In the 1980s there was this massive growth of companies leasing aircraft to the airlines, but with these engines getting more and more expensive, I just thought ‘why don’t I do that?’ The first engine I bought cost a million dollars, today a single engine – like one on a Boeing 777 – could cost 36 million dollars. If you’re an airline and you’ve got ten aeroplanes, that’s 20 installed engines, and you need two engines available to cover rotation for maintenance, then that’s 72 million dollars sitting in the corner of a hanger somewhere. Seems a bit wasteful doesn’t it? I buy the engine and then lease them to the airline for about ten years. I started with one employee – me – and today I have 83 employees in six countries and a portfolio worth about three billion dollars.” 

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It all amounts to a fair amount of business acumen to bring into a National One rugby club. A Coventry rugby fan since childhood, Jon was a regular at the ground and as such was one of the first called upon to help keep the club afloat. “The income levels were pretty poor, it was a case of ‘the cooker’s broken, we can’t provide any pies and chips for Saturday, who’s got £500 to mend it?’ I was involved in the bail out, but then they asked me to be chairman, so I went home to discuss it with my wife. I had to think about this. I’m still working full-time, it’s a big job, it’s not just a commitment of time, it’s a commitment of passion. I owe a lot of people a lot of things if I get this wrong. I’ve got to get it right and, after a lot of consideration, I decided ‘yeah go on’.”

And ‘go on’ he did. He secured the lease on the ground surrounding the clubhouse and pitch allowing them to develop and grow; the club’s ltd company had been restructured into a share-based system that meant no one individual could ever ‘take control of the club and run it into the ground’. “I’m currently the largest shareholder but I don’t have control and I’m very, very happy with that situation,” he says. “The investment I put into this club has nothing to do with me wanting a return, it’s wanting to give something back to my city.

“I want to see the right thing is done with the club,” continues Jon. “Look at the fortunes of rugby clubs. Look at the Premiership where there is only one club not making a loss, and the Championship where a number of clubs are quite clearly struggling. This league has such a varied set up with old boys’ clubs who don’t have anything at all and legacy clubs who are attempting to get back up – we are one of them. We have by far the biggest gates of any club in this league and we have the base to build on.” 

In his five-year tenure, turnover has gone from £600,000 to around the £1.6million mark. The ground is home to not only Coventry Rugby, but also rugby league side Coventry Bears and men’s and women’s football sides, Coventry United. It’s why the state of the pitch for today’s game may give Fylde some hope. Even internationals struggle to run ankle-deep in cloying mud. It’s a situation Jon is going to rectify. “We might only have the one pitch, but location is everything, we have a great city centre location so when we get a 4G pitch here, we can try to leverage that city culture. We can run the facilities around the clock and do that without fear of ruining the pitch.”

With kick-off minutes away, Jon prepares to head to his usual spot in the ground. “I usually go over there and have a fag,” he says pointing to the sideline opposite the main stand. “I’m a non-smoker, but I just get too wound up – can’t help it.”

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“We had UB40 here, do you know who they’ve got at the Ricoh? Ronan Keating.” Without realising if this is a good thing or bad thing, just like these fans at the game today, comparisons with Wasps can’t be ignored [although for the record Steps, Aqua AND Blue are appearing at Butts Park Arena this summer]. 

The former London Wasps are now most definitely Coventry Wasps, which can’t be good for the ambitious Coventry Rugby. Can it? “We have a different product,” explains Jon as he puffs on his first matchday cigarette. “You go to the Ricoh and it’s Premiership rugby and I understand that, but this is more, well, home-grown. Wasps played Leinster in the cup a couple of seasons back and they had an early kick off so quite a few of the Irish boys came here afterwards. One of them said to me ‘they might have the razzamatazz of that there big stadium, but you come down here and it’s blood and guts rugby – you’re close to the action, you can hear the hits and smell the blood’.”

On the pitch, the hits are coming in, but it’s from the Coventry defence and it’s the visitors that can smell blood – Fylde are applying all the pressure, pinning the home side back deep into their own half. “What are you going to do about this pitch Jon?” asks one of the regulars, clearly familiar with the chairman. “You want to buy me a new one?” responds Jon. Another, questions why a local paper doesn’t give them the credit they deserve. “It’s another man’s organ,” responds Jon, talking like the fan he is.

“Come on Coventry, get a grip,” he shouts as Fylde continue to frustrate his side. A dropped ball leads to a break for the Coventry wing. “They won’t catch him,” he says, “they will not catch him. Oh, they did. Told you he was quicksilver though. Max Trimble he’s called, he was playing soccer in Dubai when we signed him, I think Rowland knew him from some time ago.”

Fylde are broken at last. A penalty try is still testament to their resilience. A second penalty try follows just before half-time. The pitch hasn’t helped Coventry. “Even if you’ve got a superior scrum,” offers Jon at half-time, “on a pitch like this it’s hard to get the traction to make it count.”

Coventry’s rise hasn’t pleased everyone, with some eager to knock them, labelling them ‘galacticos’. “It annoyed me to be honest,” admits Jon of the jibe, “but there you go.”

With so much ambition both on and off the field, it’s hard to believe the Premiership hasn’t crossed minds. “We were frightened the drawbridge was going to come up,” says Jon, “so that’s why we decided we’d make a special effort this year to get that extra…” 

He’s cut off as Coventry begin to tighten the noose, a third penalty try is followed by the first player actually crossing the whitewash for a fourth. “There is a three-year plan which is underwritten by budgets, with objectives on the playing front, but you can only plan so far ahead,” he says. “But the world changes, sport is a fickle mistress and you don’t know what’s going to happen, you have to be proactive and reactive.”

The game ticks into the final ten minutes, a win becomes a thumping scoreline. A fifth, sixth and seventh try in an eight-minute spell kills off Fylde and Coventry run out 47-3 winners. “Seven tries. That’ll do me,” sums up Jon. With rivals Darlington winning but without the bonus point, their lead is stretched to 16 points and the club takes one step closer to their inevitable next stop, the Championship.

The march to the title may be inevitable, but even without the silverware on the mantelpiece just yet, there’s plenty to be proud of already. First, there’s the fact that Coventry Rugby  even exist – that’s the most important. Then, there’s the fact Coventry average six tries a game, always entertaining for fans. “Even when we lost to Blackheath we scored five,” says Jon. There’s also the fact his first team players are doing their bit in the community. “If a guy in a dog collar walks into one of the city’s difficult communities, the kids are going to say, ‘what’s this all about God botherer?’, but if a guy walks in with massive muscles wearing a Coventry rugby shirt, they take notice.” 

And there’s the fact they’re Coventry, which is clearly enough in itself. Jon peppers our conversation with titbits of local history. It’s all very well knowing that the lad Trimble is ‘quicksilver’, but did you know the Coventry cap is defined by having eight panels and a button in the middle (which apparently also used to have a farthing in it)? 

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You may know that the club does at least 8,000 hours of work in the community each year, but did you know that Coventry was home to ribbon weaving and the phrase ‘True as a Coventry blue’ derived from the blue die used by the makers that wouldn’t fade when it was washed? Coventrians are champions of their city, and Jon is no different. A defining trait, echoed by the rugby club, is to take whatever’s thrown at them. ‘Reinvention’ is almost always on the city’s ‘to do’ list. “I think it goes right back to November 14th, 1940 when the heart was bombed out of the city,” says Jon. “Thirty thousand people lost their homes and the city rose from the ashes, and then in the 1950s and 1960s it was simply the most commercially active and wealthy city in the country. The car industry was booming, the population was 335,000 but then the car industry self-destructed. Poor management, lack of investment and idiot unions. And so it declined again, and the population declined to about 300,000. A lot of people left Coventry as a consequence – that’s where The Specials song Ghost Town comes from.

“But it came back again. I think today that there are more workers involved in the car industry in Coventry than there ever have been, but they’re not producers, they’re CADCAM experts, they’re designers, they’re electronics experts, they’re computer experts. I have a Range Rover, which I’m told has more computing capability than the Apollo 14 spacecraft.

“Cov’s ability to reinvent itself, to rise again from the ashes, I think, is brilliant. And I think this rugby club is tracking that, we do the same thing. We are going to rise again.” 

Words by: Alex Mead

Pictures by: James Cannon

 
GrassrootsSimon Campbell