Coventry City’s Three Lost Years
“We are either on the launch pad for success, or we can hover on the brink of disaster,” wrote popular Coventry City ex-chairman Joe Elliott. And as a summary of the Sky Blues’ current plight, it works. The problem is Elliott wrote those words in December 2007. And they now work as an exposure of the failings of Coventry’s owners in the subsequent years, as ‘hovering on the brink of disaster’ has been the club’s default position ever since. Elliott’s words were in a letter to the Sky Blues’ small shareholders in December 2007, part of an effort to persuade them to all-but-gift their shares to London-based hedge fund Sisu Capital, who were negotiating a takeover of the club.
Sisu insisted on 90% control before doing the deal. And with Coventry’s major shareholders owning 71.5% of the shares, the minor shareholdings were required. But the offer price of 1p-per-share was not universally popular, unsurprisingly; hence Sisu’s reliance on emotional blackmail to reach their target. As Coventry Evening Telegraph journalist Dave Wardale noted, with his tongue so firmly embedded in his cheek it would have needed surgery to remove: “Give me a decent price for my share if it is so important that you get it… you wouldn’t really hurt that puppy would you?”
There were also dire threats of more newspaper interviews with ex-chairman Jimmy Hill. Hill only had one share. But given his genuinely innovative (distant) days as chairman, it was a heavily symbolic one. He claimed: “Having a share at my age (79) doesn’t make any difference at all… but handing it over does.” His message was simple. Coventry would enter “an exciting time for the club” with Sisu and would enter administration without them. After two months of this, Sisu reached their target. And Coventry could enter a bright new dawn. How false that dawn turned out to be has recently become clearer. Many small shareholders felt ripped off by the 2007 offer. They must now feel like Wayne Rooney after completing a hat-trick at West Ham.
The public and footballing face of the takeover was former Manchester City full-back Ray Ranson, who made the rare move from football dressing-room to company boardroom through a career in insurance and, latterly and significantly, sports finance. Ranson got rich from heavy, lucrative investment in insurance company Benfield Greig. He then invested in a range of finance companies involved in funding football transfers, a business he is reportedly still involved in. He was definitely involved in bids for Aston Villa, who eventually chose current owner Randy Lerner, and Southampton, who chose two years of internal squabbling, fearful financial mismanagement and ultimate administration rather than Ranson and…Sisu. And days after the Southampton deal fell through, Coventry were up for grabs.
With Coventry saved, Ranson became chairman, promising “financial stability and a platform to achieve its commercial and sporting aspirations,” which were promotion to the Premiership (sic) followed by repurchase of a 50% share in the club’s swish, lucrative Ricoh Arena home. And he was confident enough to propose a £20m investment in the team. Sisu, meanwhile, were anonymous to an Olympian degree. £38m debts were to be ‘refinanced’ and ‘restructured’ (not ‘repaid’) although details were not publicised because, as Ranson put it, “there are a lot of personal things in there.” Cynics might suggest that between then and February 2011, Sisu did nothing to achieve City’s “aspirations.” The Sky Blues, now as then, languish closer to League One than the Premier League, seven-figure annual losses have continued and, however they are structured, debts remain uncomfortably closer to £30m than £20m.
In February 2008, Wardale, pre-tongue/cheek surgery, quoted a fictitious club spokesman claiming the new board “represented a change in the way Coventry would be run from now on…past boards have seemingly sat around demanding that the best players are sold.” In February 2011, Wardale’s cynicism was entirely appropriate. As boardroom changes hit the headlines, there was a suspiciously timely revelation that Ranson had been persuaded not to resign over the sales of Scott Dann and Danny Fox in the summer of 2009, to balance the still-unbalanced books. The sale of promising youngster Conor Thomas to Liverpool this January sparked renewed unrest. Gary Hoffman, vice-chairman since 2008, resigned, claiming Sisu were “losing sight of what they set out to do when they took over.” Three new directors were appointed, including local man John Clarke and (overwhelmingly) non-locals Ken Dulieu and Leonard Brody.
Elliott was wheeled out to insist that Sisu remained unsurpassed since people started cutting bread into slices, despite being reshuffled himself in January, to the Life Presidency, inadvertently exposing his real power under Sisu by passing the move off as “a very nice progression, having cut the grass and washed the dishes over the years.” Nevertheless, he insisted the new directors were “very nice guys and very high calibre.” He was “massively impressed with them” because “they had done an awful lot of Googling on myself and knew what I had done in the city.” And, presumably, knew how easily flattered he was. But although “Canadian internet entrepreneur” Brody and former Southampton parent-company chairman Dulieu were unveiled in mid-February, the three new board members had clearly sanctioned Thomas’s January transfer-deadline day sale, outvoting Hoffman and Ranson.
Ranson initially claimed the sale was part of the Sky Blues’ “player trading policy.” And, in an attempt to de-personalise the issue, he added that “Coventry City will be around a lot longer” than any individual directors. But it was to emerge that Coventry might not have been “around a lot longer” full stop. For the moment, though, the new board set about establishing themselves. Brody was quickest; with some ill-advised ‘tweeting’ suggesting erroneously that Ranson had backed the Thomas sale, after all. Such misunderstandings were understandable, however, as Brody spent – and spends – much of his time with his foot firmly planted in his mouth.
Next up was, at last, an actual Sisu presence, in the “Swiss-educated Nigerian” shape of Onye Igwe. It was claimed he had a “key role” in “saving” the club “from extinction” in 2007. He claimed to be a season-ticket holder in the Ricoh’s family area. And he denied he was a ‘mystery figure’, denials he undermined when he revealed he was a ‘mystery’ even to Ricoh Arena security on one occasion. He also said: “People ask if I go to games. And yes, I certainly do, and not just at the Ricoh.” But he ruined this image of home-and-away Coventry fan by adding: “I watched Coventry Blaize this Sunday,” missing the point as spectacularly as he could without saying: “Isn’t it nice that Leicester City are doing so well?”
The unholy trinity was completed by Dulieu, whose Southampton record was undergoing a touch of revisionism. His year as chairman of Southampton Holdings PLC was characterised by failed promises of, and failed searches for, investment, until a below-value offer for shares in the company by… Sisu. The failed promises weren’t his fault. Otherwise, he split the board by insisting that, here’s familiar, the Sisu offer was the only hope for Southampton’s future. And although Southampton Holdings went into administration after Dulieu left, the only evidence of what Sisu might have done instead came from the football project they embarked upon before Dulieu left…Coventry City.
Dulieu remains a ‘Sisu man,’ though. A fortnight after joining Coventry’s board he claimed: “(Sisu) haven’t got the credit they deserve,” to hoots of derision from Sky Blues fans. He read loyally from the Sisu “saved this club from administration a few years ago and continue to fund the club” script. And he suggested Coventry were “unique” among football clubs, as the owners “are the funders… there aren’t other banks.” News, that, to Roman Abramovich, I’m sure. Asked if City were a selling club, he suggested “every club is a selling club.” He also noted that Sisu had “behaved impeccably for the last few years.” And he asked, unwisely, “Why would they stop funding the club now?” He would soon get an answer.
The true state of City’s finances emerged during March. The club began to exhibit all the regular symptoms of the “cash-strapped”; a transfer embargo (as had been the case just before Sisu took over), a mortgage taken out on the club’s training ground in order to secure a £1m loan… last July (so much for Coventry being “unique”), unpaid tax (half a million quid, which led HMRC to send the proverbial boys round to the Ricoh). And then came the admission that only a multi-million pound injection from Sisu had saved the club from administration. In 2007 the club were “half-an-hour” from administration. Last month, according to Dulieu, “it wasn’t half an hour… but it was certainly within a couple of days.” And that, you could argue, is how much progress Sisu have made in three-and-a-bit years.
Not their fault, though. At a remarkable press conference on March 30th, designed to “unveil” Coventry’s finalised new board, the blame game began. New Chief Executive Paul Clouting introduced himself to the Coventry City public by calling the club a financial “basket case.” Dulieu said he would have made buying the Ricoh a “pre-requisite” if he had come in three years ago, announcing that City were “seeing the council on Friday” on that very matter. And Brody proclaimed: “You are measured by your results. In three years, and £30m, where did it get you? Virtually the same place.” But it wasn’t Sisu’s fault. “The fingers can’t be pointed at the investors,” he continued, pointing furiously. “They have to be pointed at the people responsible for running it,” by which he appeared to mean the departed Ranson and Hoffman.
Yet he then put Coventry’s plight down to “three years of a dispute between shareholders, people who had different visions.” Superficially reasonable, given the all-too-well publicised differences over player sales. But Sisu had demanded 90% control as a price for ‘saving’ the club and 84% of Coventry’s shareholding belonged to five separate ‘Sisu Capital Private Equity Funds.’ So who was arguing with who? Ranson held the remaining 16%. But it wasn’t his fault, either, despite Brody’s insinuations. His hands had been “tied” by Sisu, otherwise he would have “brought in and developed young players” and, with £30m up front “we would have been in the Premiership (sic) by now or at the very least the top of the Championship.”
But Ranson reportedly still makes his money facilitating transfers, with the Football League investigating the terms of loans to Cardiff City, supposedly from Ranson companies and guaranteed by Cardiff transfer revenue (thereby, as one wag noted, giving Ranson more influence at Cardiff than he claimed to have at Coventry). So whether these young players would have developed Coventry’s future or Ranson company profits is, at least, a question that needs asking. The new board’s reliability needs questioning too. Depending on the director, the club are “in advanced negotiations with potential investors” or “investors aren’t queuing up to invest in Coventry.” And the talks over buying the Ricoh? “We have no knowledge of the club asking for a meeting and there’s nothing in our diaries,” said a council statement. Crucially, Coventry’s prospects of Championship survival have improved greatly since manager Aidy Boothroyd’s dismissal in March, under caretaker boss Andy Thorn. But the fundamental problems which existed in December 2007 still exist in April 2011. And the Sky Blues continue to “hover on the brink of disaster.”
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