It is turning out to be another eventful week for the put-upon supporters of Coventry City Football Club. It has only been four days since our last update on the subject but enough has happened since then to warrant it, with further developments over the last couple of days only further clouding waters that had in recent weeks already become so muddy as to be practically impenetrable. The only certainty about the future of Coventry City Football Club at present seems to be greater uncertainty in the near future, with the club currently hurtling towards next season in administration, with no-one – perhaps even including the people running the club – knowing where it will be playing its home matches next season and with even what many may regard as the best case scenario for it carrying almost as many questions as it does answers.
This week, the first significant moves have come from Arena Coventry Limited (ACL), the joint venture between Coventry City Council and the Alan Higgs Trust charity, who own The Ricoh Arena, which has been the club’s home ground since 2005 may or may not yet be so again in the future. It was confirmed on Monday that ACL is bidding to buy the club from the administrators. There are serious questions to be asked over whether a public body should be getting involved in the running of a football club which last year recorded annual losses of £6.7m and is up to £70m in debt at the moment in the current economic climate, and even those that may be untroubled by this from a moral perspective might be given pause for thought by the potential legal ramifications of such a deal going through, considering EU laws on State Aid for private businesses from the public purse.
Until greater detail about the ACL bid is made public, all discussion of the subject of their bid is little more than speculation, and it is understood that theirs is one of six “indicative bids” received by the administrators before the deadline at the end of last week. What has, however, been made public is a detail which hints at the extent to which the intransigence between ACL and SISU, the hedge fund that has owned the club for the last six years, has developed into a battle for hearts and minds. The owners of the stadium have let it be known that the club would be allowed to use the Ricoh Arena free of charge while the club remains in administration, with the following press release:
The directors of Arena Coventry Limited have been deeply concerned with how the emotions of Coventry City Football Club supporters have been tested over recent months and more especially the past few weeks. These concerns were discussed in great detail at an ACL Board Meeting on 7 June 2013, and we have today notified the Football League and the joint administrators of a proposed solution for the coming season.
To enable the football club to fulfil its commitments under Football League regulations, and to provide stability whilst Coventry City Football Club Limited, which owns the League Share, remains in administration, ACL has agreed to allow the club to play its homes games free of any rental fee, therefore removing any need for the supporters to travel outside the city to watch home games.
All charges incurred on match day as a consequence of staging a football match, will be passed through at cost, for example, stewarding, policing, utilities, frost protection, match day repairs to stadium, health safety and compliance management and certification, service charges for maintenance contracts e.g. flood lights, generators etc. Whilst these sums may vary depending on attendances, it should be noted that policing, stewarding and pitch maintenance have historically been directly managed and paid for by the club.
ACL also acknowledges that service related charges can be verified if necessary by an independent external party. Given ACL wishes to ensure it provides the best playing surface possible for all football league matches, it will now take direct responsibility for future management and maintenance of the pitch. The directors of ACL hope the supporters of Coventry City Football Club, the joint administrators and the Football League, will view this as a positive and productive move, and should assist in dispelling the uncertainty and upset of the past weeks.
It all sounds very generous at a glance, but there may be method behind ACL’s decision to make this offer – and to make this offer public – at this particular time. For one thing, the possibility of the club and ground being united under their ownership is likely to be attractive to the administrator, whose principle concern should be to rescue the club as a going concern. There is also the small matter of the fact that it pulls the rug from under SISU’s feet somewhat. The current owners of the club are all but set to leave the Ricoh Arena once and for all, with the strong suggestion being that the club will ground-share thirty miles away at Walsall for three seasons while a new home is built. In making this announcement, regardless of what the medium to long term future of the club may turn out to be, the pressing need for the club to leave its current home is effectively neutralised.
The risks of moving to Walsall are obvious. Crowds will plummet if the club does leave for Walsall, of this we can be almost certain. A recent poll of supporters suggests that as few as a quarter of the club’s fan-base may follow it to its temporary home, and this will have an obvious knock-on effect on its ability to compete on the pitch over this period of time through a significant loss of revenue at a time when the Football League is introducing SCMP (Salary Cost Management Protocol – a wage cap, in plain English – in League One. And this is without taking into consideration the fact that season tickets are still not on sale yet, even to those that would wish to buy one. In addition to all of this, the small matter of whether the Football League would even sanction three years in Walsall for the club with the Ricoh Arena sitting empty is a question that may, in the near future, become an important one, especially if its use was comfortably affordable.
So there is, perhaps, a choice of sorts, although it’s not one that the supporters of the club are likely to have much of a say in. On the one hand, the club could continue at The Ricoh Arena, perhaps under the ownership of ACL and perhaps with ACL sharing the responsibility for running the club with one of the other groups that have submitted a bid to the administrator. On the other hand, it seems as though SISU are ploughing on regardless, even though whether the ACL offer is taken up is a decision to be made by the administrator rather than them – three years at Walsall followed by a new ground of some description “in the Coventry area.” Interviewed by BBC Coventry & Warwickshire Radio this morning, SISU’s mouthpiece and chief executive Tim Fisher was as bullish as ever, stating that using the Ricoh Arena while the club is in administration is a “moot point” because it is the administrator’s decision over whether to take up ACL’s offer or not, misrepresenting the views of fans from recently held forums to make it sound as if the club’s support is behind him by saying “Some understand the need for a new stadium,” and suggesting that “the boat has sailed” on the club returning to the Ricoh Arena. SISU, in the form of another company, are one of the bidders for the club, of course.
As Michael Appleton, the administrator, has a final deadline of this Thursday for bidders’ “best and final offers”, we should know more about the make-up of the bidders for the club over the course of the next few days. None of this, however, means that the future of the club is likely to be resolved quickly. Fisher’s certainty that the only way forward for the club is for CCFC Ltd to emerge from administration as quickly as possible is obvious, particularly if SISU ends up back in control of the club. On the other side of the coin, it seems inconceivable that ACL wouldn’t prefer a lengthier spell in administration than for SISU to take control of the club again, all of which brings us back to SISU’s sudden interest in State Aid and the court case being brought by SISU on that matter. “What about the £100,000 the council will have spent on this? How many jobs would that have saved?” asked Fisher on the subject at a recent forum. It’s touching, we might think, to consider how much the misuse of public funds affects the hedge fund managers – or at least we might if we believed for so much as a nanosecond that this was anything like their primary motive behind bringing such action. As such, this power play seems likely to last for months rather than days, and the cloud of uncertainty that continues to hang over Coventry City Football Club doesn’t look like lifting for some considerable time yet.
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