What was set to be a normal game live on Sky Sports’ “10 in 10” festive football schedule turned out to be quite the opposite for those watching, as the game was twice interrupted due to fans entering the field of play.
Coventry City, a very troubled club languishing towards the bottom of the third division of English football, were at home taking on Sheffield United at the Ricoh Arena, who have been in good form and are mounting a serious promotion push. Immediately after kick-off, hundreds of Coventry fans blew whistles for prolonged periods of time, of which Sheffield Utd striker Billy Sharp remarked, “We just said play to the whistle, but there were that many whistles going on…” You can clearly hear the whistles in the coverage of Sharp’s opener from Sky Sports.
— Sky Sports EFL ⚽️ (@SkySportsEFL) December 15, 2016
After around five minutes, home fans surged towards the front of the stands seemingly threatening to invade the pitch, and Sky commentators recalled that they were warned of potential protests before the game by the club. Police lined the offending stand and held fans back, although just one got through and sat in the centre circle for three minutes before being led off the field.
Loud protesting and chanting was heard from the home support for a long time after, calling on owners SISU, a hedge-fund run out of the Cayman Islands, to sell up the club after a disastrous 9 years at the helm. Fans cited their dismay at frequent player sales, lack of football investment, the potential sale of their training ground, and unhealed wounds from a brief relocation to nearby Northampton as reasoning for their protests. To compound the misery, their side had lost 5 league games on the spin before this game and are without a permanent manager.
There was, of course, a football match taking place at the same time, and the League 1 high-fliers took a first half lead when Billy Sharp slotted under Coventry ‘keeper Charles-Cook. After the break, the home side came out swinging and got a fortuitous equaliser as a shot from forward Dan Agyei took a huge deflection and looped over the goalkeeper and into the net. United looked the most threatening from then on, but Coventry still had chances through fast counter attacking.
86 minutes in, Coventry fans who were earlier seen scuttling across an empty and unstewarded stand managed to find their way onto the field, streaming on and forcing the referee to call the players back into the tunnel. Those who took part in the protest brandished a black pirate flag with the words “SISU OUT” emblazoned on it, whilst also taking the time to explain to their players why they were protesting.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) December 16, 2016
Off the pitch, there were minor scuffles between opposing supporters, with tensions brewing after away fans chose to sing pro-SISU songs which some in the home end took exception to.
The players emerged from the tunnel to complete the match, but it took less than a minute for Billy Sharp to poach a late winner for Sheffield United and send their fans into raptures, giving them a vital 3 points which sends them level with leaders Scunthorpe. Meanwhile, Coventry stay in the relegation places in 21st, despite having played a game more than their rivals who compete on Saturday.
Most Coventry supporters seemed less bothered about the result than would usually be the case, with many pleased that their plight is yet again in the public spotlight, and that they have got their point across in a way that no one could miss. From the outside looking in, you would expect fans to be most concerned about the possibility of relegation. Instead, things have got so desperate that many supporters are focussing their efforts on ridding their club of its current owners in order to get a fresh start. Coventry are just one of several clubs in the English leagues that have been mismanaged and neglected by owners who don’t care enough about the clubs and communities within them, joining a group which includes Charlton, Blackpool and many others.
Coventry chairman Tim Fisher vowed to slap the invading protesters with the “maximum possible penalty”, meaning those identified could face substantial fines or possibly lengthy banning orders from football grounds. Coventry meanwhile, face a £50,000 fine of their own for the fan disturbances and theoretically could get a points deduction, although this would be a drastic step and seems unlikely.