Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. After more than a year of exile thirty-five miles from home in Northampton, Coventry City are to return to the Ricoh Arena in time for their home League One match against Gillingham on Friday 5th September. For a club whose owners have steadfastly refused to so much as countenance the very concept of returning home over the course of that time – and which has come up with mind-melting justifications for it on the way – the celebrations amongst supporters happy at a return home will most likely be in sharp contrast with the mood amongst those who run it.
For most of the last two years, Coventry City Football Club has been in a state of tumult brought about solely by the behaviour of the owners of the club itself. Its rent strike, the reasons for which were laid bare in a damning judicial review earlier this summer, ended with the club leaving its home for a self-imposed period away from home. There’s no way back, supporters were consistently – and, it would appear to have turned out, disingenuously – told. Sixfields would be home until such a time that the club had a new ground ready somewhere in the presumably deliberately oblique “Coventry area.”
Those who never particularly believed that this version of events would never quite come to pass were less than impressed by the club’s plans for a new stadium, which never seemed to get much further than an impressive-looking set of artist’s impressions of what it might look like. Meanwhile, on the pitch, the team struggled along in front of crowds that seldom rose much above the 2,000 mark and, with a tailing off in form in the second half of the season, it finished last season in eighteenth place in the league table, just four points above the relegation places.
Last season, however, most of the news relating to this club came a long way from the view of the pitch. Last year, it launched a judicial review against Coventry City Council over a £16m mortgage that was facilitated for the stadium operators ACL, who were part-owned by the council. The club lost its first court hearing but won an appeal which secured a full judicial review, but when that came about earlier this summer, the presiding judge threw out the club’s claim with the damning conclusion that Sisu had indeed been deliberately and systematically trying to financially distress ACL towards insolvency in order to pick the Arena up on the cheap.
This season, therefore, started with the stalemate looking as strong as ever, and this aspect of the omnishambles over which Sisu have presided isn’t quite over yet. The club has already announced its decision to appeal the findings of the judicial review and there is no suggestion that this will happen. However, it would appear that a degree of common sense has finally managed to see the light of day with the announcement at the end of last week that the club would be returning to the Ricoh Arena in a couple of weeks time. For most supporters, this will be regarded as a complete vindication of the protests that have been ongoing against the owners of the club over the last year and a half or so.
That there has been no confirmation that the legal action being put forward by Sisu has been put on ice, however, indicates that there may well have been no great alteration in the hedge fund strategy, and it is also worth bearing in mind that this return is only a temporary one, agreed for a two year period, with the option to extend it for a further two years once that has ended. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that this matter hasn’t been resolved once and for all just yet. Still, a sticking plaster has been applied to a situation that had seemed to only get increasingly intractable as time went on, and this is obviously a considerable improvement when we consider the bricks and arrows that had been being thrown around between Sisu and ACL over the previous couple of years or so.
Ultimately, though, for once in the recent history of this troubled club, it is the supporters who will have something to celebrate when the club does return home a week on Friday. Many individuals and organisations – most notably the Sky Blues Trust – have worked tirelessly to secure this outcome, and they can reflect on the likelihood that this return may never have come about, or at least that it surely wouldn’t have come about as quickly as it did, had they not made their voices heard. Football supporters the length and breadth of the country have been appalled by what has been allowed to happen to Coventry City Football Club over the last two years or so, and keeping this story in the public eye may well have been instrumental in forcing those concerned back qroun the negotiating table.
One organisation that is claiming credit for this return, however, has somewhat less to be proud of from its role in it all. The Football League issued a statement at the end of last week in which it stated that, When The Football League Board gave its consent to Coventry City playing its matches in Northampton, it did so with this outcome in mind.” This, of course, should hardly be surprising. After all, what other outcome could the Football League have conceivably have wanted from this situation? This statement, however, seems to indicate that the Football League believes that it deserves a pat on the back, that the exile in Northampton that it sanctioned is somehow vindicated by the eventual compromise being reached which allowed the club to return to Coventry. It is worth remembering at this stage that none of this would have come about had they not sanctioned the move in the first place.
It remains to be seen what the scars that the club may carry forward from this debacle may yet be. Whilst a bumper crowd will be expected for the first match against Gillingham, it is worth asking the question of how many of the club’s supporters have now found something better to do on a Saturday afternoon. And in addition to this, the owners of the club remain in charge, with little hint that they have changed their long-term strategy for the club. Will the protests against Sisu now die out as the club returns to the Ricoh Arena and a semblance of normality returns to it? Perhaps such questions will only be conclusively be answered in the fullness of time. For now, Coventry City Football Club is going home. For the first time in a long time, the skies are a little bluer over the Ricoh Arena today.
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