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Cathedral’s Sky Blue thinking

12 September 2014


ONE month ago, fans of Coventry City FC were contemplating another year in exile, as they began a second season playing home games 32 miles away, in Northampton, after a rent dispute with the company that runs their home ground, Ricoh Arena in Coventry.

On Friday, however, more than 27,000 fans streamed into the Arena to watch the Sky Blues defeat Gillingham 1-0, after the year-long deadlock was broken, thanks in no small part to Coventry Cathedral.

The dispute over rent flared up between the club's hedge-fund owners Sisu, and the company running the council-owned Ricoh Arena, in 2012. It eventually led to Coventry City's leaving the city to play home games at a stadium in Northampton, where crowd numbers fell as low as 1500.

The Dean of Coventry, the Very Revd John Witcombe, said on Friday that the city was despondent, and most fans doubted that the two sides could ever come to a compromise to bring the Sky Blues back home.

"We were beginning to pray on a fairly regular basis for the people involved," Dean Witcombe said. "I was approached with a suggestion that various of the key people around the dispute would be willing to get into a dialogue and a conversation. What we actually brought to the table, was the table itself."

At a secret meeting in a London restaurant, Dean Witcombe introduced the different parties to Bill Marsh, a mediator who had worked with Coventry Cathedral's reconciliation-ministry team before, and, by chance, had experience of negotiating a similar dispute.

"We have got a long history of bringing different sides together and being able to make a difference in that way," Dean Witcombe said. "What did we bring that made a significant difference? It was being able to invite people into a different sort of conversation, where people are able to meet together as human beings rather than in the blaze of publicity or across a courtroom."

The details of the agreement eventually hammered out with the help of Mr Marsh have not been released, but on 21 August it was announced that a two-year deal had been agreed between Sisu and the Arena management to bring Coventry City home.

Dean Witcombe said that the cathedral's involvement had been the feather that tipped the balance. "I think the offer of Bill as a mediator helped, but then I would put something down to the power of prayer, and the belief that God can make a difference. Our history here is that things that seem impossible can become possible." It was also "high time" Coventry Cathedral's world-famous peace and reconciliation work began to make a difference in Coventry itself, he said.

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