Coventry City: 151 Days To Go
On Saturday 28th April 2019, Coventry City are due to host Shrewsbury Town in a League One match at the Ricoh Arena. There is, of course, every chance that they may well have a home play-off match to play thereafter – they are currently in ninth place in the table, two points from a play-off place, after all – but at present this match against Shrewsbury, just 151 days away, remains potentially the last match that the club plays at this poisoned chalice of a venue. With no indication that any alternative has been arranged for the club and a familiar feeling of rancour growing yet again, homelessness is in the air in Coventry for the second time in five years.
The legalese, writs and court cases are too complex and numerous for us to be able to cover in a great detail on these pages, but for those who have been unaware of how this cancer of a story has played over the last few years, here’s a brief refresher. The club moved to this new stadium from its previous Highfield Road home in 2005, but a dispute between the club’s hedge-fund owners Sisu and ACL, the company half-owned by Coventry City Council and half-owned by the Alan Higgs Trust charity which in turn owns the leasehold over the stadium, led to a rent strike, and in March 2013 the club left the stadium quite suddenly to play their home matches thirty-five miles from Coventry at Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium.
The club returned to the Ricoh Arena in September 2014 after Sisu made a £470,000 payment to ACL towards compensation and back rent as a result of a Football League ruling, but the extent to which the council had clearly lost faith in the club – as though this wasn’t already clearly obvious already – was made crystal clear three month later, when they sold ACL (and with it the leasehold to the stadium) to the London Wasps Rugby Union football club. Since then, though, the legal disputes have continued, with Sisu pursuing every available legal means to attempt to force a reversal of the sale of this leasehold.
Just as it was widely believed that the company’s behaviour towards ACL (up to and including the temporary move to Northampton) was part of a plan to attempt to financially distress the company into surrendering the stadium on the cheap, similar rumours have surrounded the club’s continuing attacks on Wasps. The new landlords, however, have thus far batted away all the fresh legal challenges issued against them and have also confirmed that the short-term agreement which has kept the club at the Ricoh Arena for the last three years will not be extended unless legal action against them is dropped.
The Sisu argument is that the stadium was undervalued by around £30m at around the time of the sale of ACL from the council to Wasps, but their attempts to somehow demonstrate that there is a legal basis to their complaints have largely fallen upon deaf ears so far. The Court of Appeal dismissed an application for a judicial review into the sale of the Ricoh Arena to Wasps in 2014, and an attempt to get the matter moved to the Supreme Court was dismissed in 2017. The 2013 claims of former chief executive Tim Fisher – who in 2013 infamously told a fans’ forum that “Sisu is a distressed debt fund and therefore batters people in court” – couldn’t have subsequently ended up looking much more hollow.
With time now starting to run out and no agreement in place regarding extending the club’s stay the stadium, supporters might have hoped that Sisu’s legal threats might now finally slow, but it was confirmed today that Otium Entertainment Group, the company which owns Coventry City, has now appealed to the Supreme Court yet again and, in addition to this, the club’s chief executive Dave Boddy recently claimed in programme notes that “As I have previously said the football club, its senior staff, CEO and chairman have no direct involvement in the court case. Neither do we have knowledge related to, or input into, the proceedings” (this current legal action is being brought by the company which owns the club rather than by the club itself, though whether this would wash with their landlords is far from certain) and that “Failure to reach agreement to play in this stadium next season will mean the club’s place in the EFL is at risk.” This came after the Football League confirmed that another groundshare outside of the city of Coventry will not be acceptable to them.
If this was all a strategy on the part of Boddy to force Wasps to the negotiating table, then subsequent events, one might argue, have only shown how little control over what is happening to the club he has at present, while the idea that Coventry City Football Club could be wholly separated from their owners, or their owners’ owners, always sounded somewhat fanciful, to say the least. But with fresh legal papers now having been served, the Wasps position remains clear – there will be no negotiating on extending the club’s stay at the stadium beyond the end of this season while legal proceedings against them remain ongoing, and the decision of OEG to continue this can only therefore be perceived as one which kicks the likelihood of the club staying at the Ricoh Arena into the long grass yet again. And with just five months left until the last home league match of the season, to say that time is now running out can only be considered something of an understatement.
It seems likely that, just as much as this perpetual blizzard of legal papers has long been part of a wider strategy, the decision to issue this particular set of legal papers could be an attempt to call Wasps’ bluff over their previous statements regarding extending permission to play there. But there are obvious problems with this. It is widely believed that the decision to evict Coventry City from the Ricoh Arena would be considered a PR disaster for Wasps, but this isn’t guaranteed. After all, many within the game have identified the key theme of the frequent difficulties in which Coventry City have found themselves over the last decade or so to have been Sisu’s constant bullishness and heavy-handed attempts to “batter” anyone who looks like getting in the way of their desire to own the stadium, and the absolute presumption that no-one whatsoever would look beyond a simplistic “rugby club kills football club” headline seems like an enormously high-risk strategy that is far from guaranteed to succeed.
Coventry City have been mistreated for much longer than Wasps have been on the scene in this particular story. And in terms of where we are now, whilst any failure to an agree an extension to the groundshare could hardly be described as the club leaving the Ricoh Arena voluntarily, to suggest that they’d have been “evicted” when they were repeatedly told by their new landlords that there would be no negotiation while legal papers continued to be issued against the very people who they need to negotiate with seems a tiny bit fanciful, too. The owners of Coventry City Football Club, in other words, going to have a lot of work to do in order to win a PR battle when their modus operandum has been common knowledge to the rest of us for a considerable period of time. There is, of course, considerable sympathy in the wider world for the distressed state in which this football club has found itself in recent years, but this won’t necessarily translate into a groundswell of support for the hedge fund getting what it wants when it wants it.
This fresh round of legal action also has the effect of overshadowing the recovery that that the team has undergone on the pitch over the last couple of seasons. Last season saw returning manager Mark Robins take the club to Wembley for the second season in row. Relegation from League One had been accompanied by winning the Football League Trophy against Oxford United, and the club returned at the end of last season to win the League Two play-off final, the club’s first promotion since 1967. This season has seen his team settle well back into life in League One, and they currently sit just below the play-off places in ninth place in the table. It all amounts to progress after years of slow decline, but it now threatens to be overshadowed by yet more boardroom chicanery which has little to do with actual football at all.
But it’s not really about football at Coventry City, is it? It ceased to be about football there a very long time ago. The club has been kicked from pillar to post for years now, having dropped from the Premier League to League Two over the course of a decade and a half and being shunted off to play at Northampton for a season at the same time. And there remains no long-term security for the club, even if this matter gets resolved before the end of this season and an extension is agreed for them to continue to play at the Ricoh Arena. Where will Coventry City be in five years time? In ten years time? In twenty? The club repeatedly claimed that it was at an advanced stage in planning to build a new stadium to leave this entire mess behind, but nothing has ever come of that, only more attempts to “batter” anyone who gets in the way of the hedge fund through the courts, all of which have delivered increasingly diminished returns over the last couple of years. And even all of this is over the short-term future, a lease which, when we consider that it only covers the short term, starts to look like little more than the application of a sticking plaster to a broken leg.
There are 151 days left until the last home match of Coventry City’s season at the Ricoh Arena, and at this moment in time it’s difficult to see what Wasps’ motive to enthusiastically negotiate a new tenancy agreement with this club would be. A “fear of bad PR”? The risk of losing out on a couple of hundred thousand pounds a year in rent for a season? Well, yes, there’s a possibility that either of these tactics could work for Sisu in theory, but the club’s future is apparently heading back towards being “in the balance” yet again, and every time this sort of high-stakes brinkmanship (which failed when the club threw its toys from the pram and decamped to Northampton and has failed pretty much repeatedly since then) is employed there is a chance that it might kill it altogether. As Sisu’s truculence continues unabated, small wonder that patience with them on all sides appears to be running out.