A lot has been said about what the effects might be of leaving the Ricoh Arena this summer on Coventry City Football Club, but if they were to decamp to Walsall, what might be the adverse effects on their host club? Tom Lines is uneasy at the idea of the Sky Blues coming to stay.
Football club owners have never found it particularly hard to have a negative effect on their own team. But it takes a special kind of talent to start extending that influence into the affairs of another side entirely. As anyone who has followed the saga at Coventry City in recent seasons knows, City’s owners Sisu are fast entering the upper echelons of club ownership notoriety. The sequence of events that recently led them to reveal plans to leave the Ricoh Arena for a new ground (location as yet unspecified) has been well documented on this website. But it is what they plan to do in the meantime that has aroused the interest of fans of another Midlands club.
After several years scraping around in the lower reaches of League One, Walsall have just enjoyed their best season since being relegated from the Championship almost a decade ago. Assembled with a playing budget that barely touched seven figures, Dean Smith’s mix of youth team graduates and unheralded pros played some of the best football in the division last term and only missed out on the play offs after finally running out of steam in the last month of the season. The performance of the side went a long way to repairing a lot of the ill feeling and mistrust that accompanied the hugely damaging episode in 2010 when Walsall banned fans for raising perfectly valid questions about owner and landlord Jeff Bonser.
With most of this season’s squad already signed up for next season, the club should currently be concentrating on persuading 20-goal striker Will Grigg and jet-heeled winger Febian Brandy to sign new contracts, while fending off all but the silliest bids for talented midfielder Jamie Paterson. Instead, another story has been making all the headlines. Because it appears that Sisu have decided that Coventry City would very much like to call Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium home for the next three years.
Rumours of a ground share between the Sky Blues and the Saddlers first surfaced when Sisu placed the club into administration in March. Few Walsall fans gave the reports any credence. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the very mention of ground sharing raises the hackles of supporters of a certain age, given the unsuccessful attempts by former chairman Ken Wheldon to take the club to both Molineux and St Andrew’s in the 1980s. In fact, long-serving director Roy Whalley made his name as a vociferous leader of the opposition to Wheldon’s schemes. Secondly, Jeff Bonser is one of the Football League’s most outspoken critics of clubs entering administration. Fans simply couldn’t see Bonser allowing Sisu to slip out of their contract at the Ricoh, only to pitch up at a club that under his stewardship has made being “well-run” something of a mantra in the last twenty years.
Yet, astonishingly, it now seems there was some substance to this after all. On Thursday, local news in the West Midlands reported that talks between the two clubs were “close to completion”. Walsall FC quickly issued a terse statement “categorically deny[ing]” that a deal had been done but, crucially, not that talks were taking place. Walsall fans were shocked to discover on Friday that the club did indeed appear to be talking to Coventry.
It’s not hard to see the potential benefit to Walsall of a ground share. Few clubs in League One could afford to dismiss out of hand an extra six-figure windfall per season. So that’s the upside dealt with. The negative aspects of this potential deal will take a little longer to deal with. Beyond the points mentioned above there are a number of other reasons why this would appear to be a phenomenally bad move by Walsall FC. For a start, the team’s attractive passing game was severely tested last season by a pitch that never recovered from an unusually harsh Midlands winter. It’s not hard to see the effect another 23 league games (plus cup matches) would have on a pitch that the club are currently relaying at some expense. Then there is the negative PR that hosting a Sisu-owned Coventry City would have among fans of both clubs, not to mention the wider football community. The Sky Blues Supporters’ Trust has already written to Walsall to ask them not to facilitate a club moving thirty miles from its home and has collected over 10,000 signatures from Coventry fans opposed to leaving the Ricoh.
Walsall might argue that their main responsibility is to the financial stability of their own club but throwing away a well-earned reputation for doing things “the right way” over the last two decades for the sake of a short-term cash injection would be a huge gamble. This also assumes that Sisu would be model tenants for the next three years. Given their record at the Ricoh there must be a chance that Walsall would be risking their reputation getting into bed with an organisation that hardly has a spotless record when it comes to paying their bills. Furthermore, how viable will this new Coventry City be at all, given that they’re likely to be playing in front of a few thousand people while trying to build a new stadium that few people actually want? It seems entirely plausible that the move to the Banks’s Stadium is part of a wider agenda. When Sisu’s ultimate plan for Coventry City is revealed where will that leave Walsall?
A quick look at the messageboards shows Saddlers on both sides of the argument. Some welcome the chance to boost our playing budget, or repay some of the £2m in loans that are still owed to our directors. Others have made it clear that their season tickets will be returned to the club if the ground share goes ahead. That there is any discontent at all after such a tremendous season is testament to the growing gravitational pull of events at Coventry. Walsall has been a one-club town since the merger of its two professional clubs (Town and Swifts) in 1888 and plans are well advanced for the club’s 125th anniversary celebrations next season. Having two league clubs play in the borough again isn’t quite the nostalgia trip that most Walsall supporters had in mind.
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