In one of the games of the season at the weekend, Coventry City ran out 5-4 winners over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light to boost their League One playoff chances and dent the automatic promotion hopes of their hosts.
It was only the Black Cats third defeat of the season, but some of the gloss was taken off Coventry’s performance when reports emerged of bad behaviour amongst a small contingent of the 2,683 Sky Blue fans who made the trip to Wearside. Northumbria Police made eight arrests amid reports of violence, disorder and even missiles being thrown before during and after the match.
The behaviour of some of their supporters prompted what looked like a reasonably routine statement on the Coventry City website which said the club would help the authorities investigate the disturbances and take appropriate action if necessary.
However, the statement ended by saying; ‘This follows incidents between Coventry City and Sunderland fans earlier in the season when steps were required to protect the Jimmy Hill Statue and the Memorial Garden at the Ricoh Arena and fans confronted each other in Car Park B.’
The statement was referring to incidents before the reverse fixture at the Ricoh Arena in September when Sunderland fans were seen abusing Jimmy Hill’s statue and labelling him a cheat.
It would appear that Sunderland fans anger towards Jimmy Hill, the legendary former chairman and manager of Coventry City, dates back to a Division One relegation battle in the 1976/77 season when the Sky Blues clung on to safety in the final fixture of the campaign against Bristol City and in the process condemned Sunderland to the drop.
A draw would have suited Sunderland and Bristol City, but Coventry had to win to be certain of safety.
The game at Highfield Road was delayed by fifteen minutes due to traffic congestion with chairman Jimmy Hill said to be keen to ensure the late kick-off.
Coventry looked set for the drop before the news reached that the final whistle had gone at Everton where Sunderland had lost 2-0.
Hill ensured the result was announced over the tannoy so the players could hear it.
Provided there was no change in the 2-2 scoreline both Bristol and Coventry would be safe, so they reportedly stopped playing.
Relegated Sunderland were understandably furious, but a hearing exonerated Coventry City and Hill of any wrongdoing.
It seems like some Sunderland supporters have long memories and the bad blood between the two fans has been further stoked by an article in the Sunderland Echo which, when commenting on the atmosphere at the match on Saturday, said ‘The fans were pretty quiet last Saturday. This was due to a combination of Sunderland never taking the lead and an insipid visiting club who, let’s be honest, don’t arouse much interest in their own city, never mind anyone else’s (in fact they may soon be cancelled due to lack of interest).’
‘We knew that the little club would be more enthused than normal by their trip to the big club. This happens regularly.’ it added when commenting on Coventry’s performance.
The comments of local journalist Tony Gillan have been widely reported in the outraged local Coventry media and will do little to ease the bitterness between the two clubs that has been four decades in the making.
It is not uncommon for feuds between unlikely rivals to rumble on for years and years.
Football supporters do have long memories, with issues often passed down the generations.
However, there is no place for violence and disorder at football, and the scenes on Saturday are not acceptable.
Both sets of fans need to calm down before their next meeting, which could well be in the playoffs this season.
The journalist involved has not helped matters, his comments around the future of Coventry are misguided and sure to anger Sky Blue fans facing possible expulsion from the EFL next season due to a long-running legal dispute between their owners SISU and Coventry City Council.
It is not the fault of the supporters that Coventry’s future is in jeopardy and Gillan should acknowledge this, and both clubs should attempt to build some bridges rather than play tit for tat before the two sides meet again.