Fighting spirit

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The Humber in Coventry is a roaring success thanks to the determination of licensee Eddie Sheridan and his wife Lyn (pictured).It sounds like a...

The Humber in Coventry is a roaring success thanks to the determination of licensee Eddie Sheridan and his wife Lyn (pictured)​.

It sounds like a Midlands version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. A possee of drug dealers and their cohort, 30 of them altogether, descended on the Humber in Coventry where publican Eddie Sheridan and his brothers were waiting. The showdown that followed would determine the future of the pub. Did it belong to the outlaws or the licensee?

The Sheridans stood their ground. All three of them finished up in hospital, Eddie with four broken ribs, a brother with an ear half bitten off, but they had won. Seven of the opposition finished up in casualty as well. As Eddie puts it, "it's not like Hollywood".

Six years later the Humber is a tribute to Eddie and his wife Lyn's determination to succeed in a pub that it would have been easy to write off. Indeed, things had got so bad that the police were threatening to close it down. The Sheridans were its last chance.

When the couple took it over, Eddie estimates that the Humber's customers were spending 15 to 20 times more money on drugs than they were on alcohol.

"People were openly using and selling drugs in the bar," he said. "As soon as I got here I set about barring people left, right and centre and in the end we had to fight them to keep them out. They thought it was their pub, and I suppose, until then, it had been. But I was too stubborn for them, that's all. It's not a job for the faint-hearted."

Eddie and Lyn also believed that the pub could work. They had been using the Humber themselves since 1975 and Eddie, a former firefighter who got his grounding in the licensed trade as a bar manager in the fire service social club, had briefly looked after it in 1990, when it was owned by Bass. In 1993 it was bought by Mercury Taverns, now absorbed by Pubmaster, which has firmly backed the Sheridans in their commitment to turning the business around.

"The pub has got great character and it's in a great neighbourhood, more tough than rough, really," said Eddie. "We really believed that all the effort would be worthwhile."

Both landlord and tenant have been proved right.

Annual barrelage at the Humber has gone from between 80 and 100 in the bad old days to 530 barrels and rising. And the pub has found itself back at the centre of the local community.

Eddie, who is now chairman of the local Licensed Victuallers Association, reckons that 90 per cent of the clientele are new, joining 20 or 25 old regulars who have stuck with it, some of them for half a century. "Their grandchildren are coming in here now, which is nice," he said.

Trade has really taken off since the function room at the back reopened last year with a new roof and a new floor. It is now home to the Labour Party, a choir, a senior citizens' tea dance, MP Bob Ainsworth's surgery and Pubmaster's own training sessions for other tenants and their staff among other regular events and hosts a packed diary of weddings and similar shindigs.

The Humber also has four darts teams, three football teams, two bagatelle teams and a dominoes team.

The car park has already been the scene of family fun days which have attracted up to 300 people and raised cash for the Humber's adopted charity, a regular's son who has cerebral palsy.

People invited to a party there will still think twice about turning up, however. "It still has a reputation around here," said Lyn. "The only answer is to get them in here so they can see for themselves.

"We did think about changing the name of the pub, but people will still call it the Humber."

The Sheridans turned down the landlord's offer of a refurbishment when they moved in, knowing that such cosmetic changes would not have any effect on the clientele.

Instead, it was a question of digging in behind the bar. After seeing off the dealers, the Humber's windows were repeatedly smashed in retaliation and on one occasion the jukebox and pool table were demolished by sledgehammers. A nice refurbishment would obviously be a waste of money. The main thing would be for the new licensees to make it clear that nothing would shift them.

"We never felt confident enough to walk away and leave it," said Eddie. "In the early days we would pop out to the cash and carry and when we got back there would be undesirables hanging around. It was February of last year before we had a holiday."

Apart from the function room, the smoking room, which used to be a favourite spot for nefarious activities, has been knocked through to create one large front bar. Work has begun on the beer garden, previously used as the local rubbish tip and now cleared and lawned.

The outdoor work will cost the Sheridans £12,000 to add to the £50,000 they have already spent on the pub. Pubmaster has contributed close to £100,000.

Eddie and Lyn are enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead. The closure of the Peugeot car plant over the road could be good news for the pub because the site will eventually be occupied by a new housing estate with 800 homes.

All the trouble, it appears, is in the past. There is what Eddie calls "the occasional hotspot" which Lyn is the best person to handle - "she's less confrontational," he added.

The perils of running a pub

The Humber's story is not unique. Its fall into the hands of drug dealers is a misfortune that could happen to any urban community house, as Simon Barnes, the Pubmaster regional manager responsible for the Coventry pub pointed out.

"The way it goes all depends on the people you have got behind the bar," he said. "All these kind of pubs have the capacity to go horribly wrong and they need exceptionally strong personalities to run them.

"I see my job as keeping them in the pub and keeping them happy. If we lose the right person it is very difficult to put someone else in who can do a good job. Finding people like Eddie and Lyn is not easy. We've had tenants go into a pub, stay a week and then they're off."

The kind of support that Simon might offer will change from pub to pub. "If you already have experienced people running the place successfully, as we have got with the Humber, there's not a lot I can offer them in terms of advice. But I have got to keep them happy and make sure they are on the right deal for them and so on.

"We usually have to offer good deals on these pubs, so we can let them. That means the financial rewards for the tenant can be excellent on top of the satisfaction they get from turning it around.

"They tend to have low overheads, too, because a couple will take a lot of direct responsibility for running it day-to-day. Pubs a quarter the size of the Humber will have higher staff costs."

One thing that Pubmaster has usefully given the Sheridans is training, which the company offers free to its tenants. Eddie himself has taken a variety of courses which he describes as "re-awakening" his skills and helps him better understand why he does the things he does.

His son Edward has taken a cellar management course and daughter Anne has taken advantage of the training offered to staff with a view to taking her own pub one day. It won't be another Humber, though. "I'm looking for a food pub," she said.

Related topics: Spirits & Cocktails

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