No Speedy Resolution To The Ricoh Arena Dispute
After a brief wobble over the course of last week, Coventry City got back to form on Saturday afternoon with a three-one win in Milton Keynes in a match watched by an astonishing seven thousand travelling supporters. The love, for now, is still there, even if this may not be quite as readily apparent from the attendances that the club has been managing at its home away from home in Northampton, where less than two thousand people turned out last Tuesday night’s three-nil home loss at the hands of Rotherham United. This evening, however, any prospect of the club returning from its self-imposed exile thirty-five miles from home seem further away than ever following an accumulation of recent events.
At the end of last week, the club’s owners won their appeal against the dismissal of their application for a judicial review of the financial arrangements made at the start of this year involving stadium owners ACL and Coventry City Council. Whether this was much of a victory for the club’s owners comes down, as so much else in this story does, to which side of the divide upon which you stand. On the one hand, this was not necessarily expected result for the club’s solicitors to achieve, especially when we consider how emphatic the original judge had been in dismissing this claim. On the other, however, this is hardly a decisive victory for the owners of the club. What the judge’s decision means is that the case will now go to a full hearing. The council has already stated that it is confident that it has not breached any state aid laws. Sisu continue to argue that, somehow or other, they have been persecuted by this disputed transaction. Acrimony, as ever, rules.
The combination of insistence of pushing ahead with a judicial review and a refusal to countenance any return to The Ricoh Arena other than as owners of the freehold (with all the non-football related benefits that come from that), however, remains worthy of comment. If we discount the idea of a hedge fund being interested in the moral aspects of State Aid, then we must surely look to the long game that Sisu may be playing. One interpretation of what this long might be has occasionally popped up on Coventry City supporters’ forums over recent weeks, and it makes for thought-provoking reading. In its original statement on the subject in April, CCFC (Holdings) Ltd stated that it had submitted an application to the High Court in order to ‘determine whether the council acted unlawfully in its use of public funds to financially support ACL and in its actions towards Coventry City Football Club in relation to the dispute with ACL.’
In the intervening months, however, this argument has become increasingly refined, with argument increasingly falling upon the matter of the losses incurred by the club as a result of leaving The Ricoh Arena. When we consider whether there could be anything in this, we should certainly consider the club’s absolute refusal to return to The Ricoh Arena under any circumstances other than them owning the freehold to the stadium, because if the long game is to win the judicial review and then sue ACL for damages, then in a perverse way it makes financial sense for Sisu to accumulate as many losses as they can right now. Such an outcome might well end with Sisu, as many have believed was the end-game all along, being “gifted” the stadium by way of settlement in lieu of a substantial damages claim. If this were anything like being the case – and this remains mere supposition – then the judicial review hearing might not be the sideshow that it may appear to be upon first glance.
Even if this long game were to be anything like the case, however, it seems unlikely that such a case would be resolved quickly. The judicial review itself has no powers to grant compensation or damages, so another court case would then have to go through its machinations before anything conclusive were to be announced, and that’s without taking into account any further appeals. What it does suggest, though, is a rationale behind Sisu’s insistence that they are in this for the long haul, and it also offers a plausible reason for their absolute refusal to return to The Ricoh Arena under any circumstances other those that they demand.
We shall see, at an indeterminate point in the future, what the outcome of this case is. Down in the realpolitik of supporting Coventry City Football Club, though perhaps the key point about the court’s decision last week has been that there is surely now virtually no chance of the Sky Blues returning to The Ricoh Arena this season, no matter how much the supporters of the club continue to yearn for this to occur. The only reasonable answer to the question of how long it might be before this court case is successfully concluded – and there may well be further appeals ahead after the case that is to follow – is to answer it with another question: how long is a piece of string? When we pause to consider the absolute intransigence of the owners of the club since they stopped paying the rent to use the facility in the first place, it’s difficult to imagine how this stand-off could ever be resolved happily for both parties.
Last night, however, came a revelation which caused only to confirm the suspicions of those who have long believed that Sisu’s game all along has been to take ownership of the stadium, on their own terms, at a price that they consider to be acceptable. It has been confirmed that ACL has, through using the Football League as brokers this time around, offered the stadium to the club rent free until the end of this season, with £100,000 payable for each of the next two seasons if they remained in League One. The total cost to the club, including match-day running costs, would amount to £320,000 and then £420,000 for the two following seasons – and these running costs are something that every club has to bear.
In an interview with BBC CWR this morning, non-executive director of the Otium Entertainment Group – the latest legal entity to be be apparently administering this car crash of a football club – Mark Labovitch stated that that no such offer had been made “directly” to the club, which we know to be true because ACL’s statement confirmed that the offer was made through the Football League. “There is no prospect of us returning to the former landlord/tenant relationship with ACL, a company which bled the club dry for many years over two generations of owners, and wilfully sought to damage the club with actions which led to needless points deductions over the last two seasons,” he had previously told the Coventry Telegraph.
Furthermore, considering that Labovitch had, when speaking to the Telegraph, added that, “In the absence of a clear commitment to discuss ownership, we are pressing ahead with the plans for our new stadium on the outskirts of Coventry” and taking into account the fact that, at present, there is no pressing financial reason for ACL to sell the ground to Sisu at anything like the valuation that Sisu seem to be expecting – it was suggested to us long ago that they offered a figure of between £3m and £5m for the stadium during talks just prior to the club exiting administration during the summer, a figure that seems to have been confirmed in an outstanding article on the subject by the Guardian’s David Conn on the subject published yesterday which identified the figure of £4m as being at the lower end of their valuations of the value of the site – then the likelihood of the club returning to Coventry in the foreseeable future now seems more unlikely than it has at any time since the club left in such haste earlier this year.
In the meantime, at least we now know – unless ACL have lied in a public statement, which would be an extraordinary thing to do – for certain that an offer has been made that it would be, to say the least, a push to describe as unreasonable. We now also know that the Football League must be aware of this. There is, therefore, no further room for obfuscation on the central point of this story, which is that ultimate control over what happens next rests with the Football League, as their own statement on the subject released at the time stated, “reluctantly approved an application by Otium Entertainment Group… for Coventry City to play its home matches at Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium for an initial period of three seasons.” The Football League should, for the sake of its own integrity, revisit this decision and consider what, exactly, the necessity was for the club to leave the city of Coventry in the first place. If they cannot come up with a more convincing explanation than they have done so far, there should be only one course of action for the League to take – they should enforce their own rules and tell the owners of the club that they must be back at The Ricoh Arena by the end of the season with some degree of security of tenure, that they will take action to force them back.
As things stand, though, it seems – and it is a pretty damning indictment of the organisation to say this – that the Football League can’t be relied upon to act on this matter, not that this should dissuade the supporters of Coventry City from trying to pressurise them to do so. And, as ever, another flurry of activity concerning English football’s biggest basket case only leaves us with even more questions than we had before and even less prospect of getting straight answers from anybody concerned. All we know for certain is that the prospect of the club returning to The Ricoh Arena in the foreseeable future is starting to vanish over the horizon and that. over time, it surely only becomes increasingly that support will dwindle. A generation of Coventrians may well drift away from the club, perhaps never to return. And the tragedy of Coventry City is that this was all avoidable, and has nothing whatsoever to do with sport. Whether through stalemate or ceding to the demands of the vultures, even the rays of sunshine that Steven Pressley’s team have delivered this season seem destined to fail to lift the gloom over the club’s support for the foreseeable future.
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