Darkness Descends Upon The Sky Blues

The clock was always ticking, but for the perpetually beleaguered supporters of Coventry City, it likely felt this morning as though its hands had started moving considerably more quickly than they had been previously. With time running out before the end of the season and no movement having been made on extending the club’s lease on the Ricoh Arena, the Football League has written to the club, giving it until the 5th March to confirm where it will be playing its home matches next season or face the possibility of expulsion from the competition, which could – in the event of no agreement being reached – lead to an EGM being held on the 25th April in order to “to provide clarity regarding Coventry’s future membership in advance of relegation and promotion issues being resolved during the run-in to the end of the season.”

To put it another way, the Football League’s patience seems to have run out.

First, though a brief recap.

London Wasps completed their purchase of the Ricoh Arena in November 2014, purchasing the shareholdings of Coventry City Council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity, who had bought the club’s stake in stadium operators ACL for £6.5m in 2003. CCFC Ltd (a company now in liquidation as a result of the club’s previous period in administration) had historic first option rights to purchase the charity’s shares in ACL, but an offer from the liquidators of that company, curiously put in whilst CCFC Ltd were in their death throes, was rejected.

Following the agreement of a short-term contract to allow Coventry City to continue to play at the stadium, however, the continuation of legal action by the club’s hedge fund owners Sisu regarding the sale of the stadium led the new landlords to issue an ultimatum stating that they would not be entering into negotiations to extend the lease unless that legal action was stopped. These legal claims rested on three key points:

  1. To amend their claim form so that they could claim damages and to focus on the lease extension (from fifty years to two hundred and fifty years) granted by the council as part of the Ricoh sale to Wasps.
  2. To be granted permission for a judicial review into the sale of the Ricoh Arena to Wasps.
  3. To allow further evidence and witness statements to be considered as part of the claim.

All three of these points were rejected by the court. On the first point, the presiding judge stating that the demand for damages was  “a highly unsatisfactory element of the claim” and that there had been an “undue delay on the part of the claimants” with regard to the amendment (the damages demand was not added until over a year after the court claim was issued.)

On the second, the valuation of the stadium, the judge stated that, “In my judgement is that the claimants seek to compare apples with pears. The valuation before the authority was one that perfectly entitled it to come to the view it did. There would be no arguable basis there was unlawful state aid in this case.” On the third, he confirmed that additional evidence, which was not available at the time of the council’s original decision, would have provided “no benefit to the court” and he would not have allowed it.

Despite the court’s decision going emphatically against them, though, Sisu persisted, and even Wasps’ warnings that they will not negotiate an extension to Coventry’s lease to play at the Ricoh Arena while legal action remains ongoing hasn’t deterred the hedge fund from pushing on with an appeal in court against these rulings. Wasps may well be interlopers in Coventry, but while their position over this may be considered hard-headed (and is certainly unpopular amongst Coventry supporters), it is understandable that they wouldn’t be that interested in negotiating a tenancy extension while the owners of said tenants are acting against them in a series of court claims in which they are an interested party.

The Football League hasn’t given much indication of having been that interested in the goings-on at the club over the eleven and a half years since Sisu took ownership of the club, but they sure as hell – at least in that peculiarly administrative way in which this sort of organisation does – care about such matters as the integrity of their competition, and with promotion and relegation decisions to be decided (hopefully) on the pitch over the next ten weeks or so, they now need to know where Coventry will be playing next season.

All of this has left Coventry City supporters in a somewhat unenviable position, watching on helplessly as the court cases rumble endlessly on. Neither side in the argument itself seems to have a great deal of support at the moment, an understandable state of affairs, considering that one side is a hedge fund which has demonstrated little interest in the well-being of the club and seems to view it as little more than leverage in the acquisition of some prime real estate whilst the other is the council that sold their home and a rugby club that has parachuted itself into the city from London. This is a position that has been acknowledged by The Jimmy Hill Way campaign group, which issued a statement of its own this morning that concluded thus:

For the owner of the club, Sisu Capital and boss Joy Seppala, and the sole director of Otium Entertainment, Tim Fisher to continue to risk the future of OUR football club in this legal process is completely unacceptable. As stewards of the club, they have a clear duty to preserve its existence, a duty that they are failing by the stubborn pursuit of this court case. At the same time, we continue to appeal to Wasps to recognise that it is the Sky Blues Community, particularly supporters, who suffer as a result of this impasse over the Ricoh. It is not us who are taking this action, yet we will be the ones penalised by failure to reach an agreement between landlord and tenant. Please consider whether there is any way that you can accommodate the Sky Blues at the Ricoh while you maintain your defence against this legal action.

Meanwhile, the club itself issued a statement on its website this morning which stated that:

Coventry City Football Club wants to do a deal with Wasps Rugby Club as soon as possible, to resolve this impasse so that the dates above are not encountered. All parties now need to work together for good of Coventry City Football Club, its supporters, the Ricoh Arena, the City of Coventry and our community – the continued future of the Football Club needs to be everyone’s focus to prevent more heartache and worry.

This followed on from a statement issued by the club at the start of last week which confirmed what we already knew, that “Without agreement of a stadium to play at next season, the club’s place in the Football League is at risk”, and that “The Ricoh Arena is currently the only suitable option available for the club to play home matches in Coventry.” At this stage, it’s important to differentiate between the football club and the hedge fund. It is Sisu that has poisoned every single “negotiation” they try to enter into, moved the club more than thirty miles away to Northampton for a year as the culmination of its “rent dispute”, after all.

The support-base remains both fractured and atrophying. Progress has been made on the pitch over the last couple of seasons after years of decay. Rrelegation into League Two proved to be short-lived, with the club scrambling straight back up through the play-offs at the end of last season (winning the Football League Trophy into the bargain), and this season sees the team in a creditable eighth place in the current League One table. This, though, will count for little if they don’t even end up with a place to call home in a few weeks time. Small wonder that the football club itself has given the impression of wishing to distance itself somewhat from the ongoing antics of its owners over the last couple of years. Considering everything, this is hardly surprising.

It has started to feel as though the left/right politics of the twentieth century are dying before our very eyes. We don’t know what the next axis along which our allegiance, but there’s a chance that the Overton window of this century could end up being between those who act in good faith and those who don’t. If there’s anything in this theory, then the story of Coventry City, the hedge fund, and everybody they’ve encountered over the last eleven and a half years, might even be a canary in the mine for this future. Few believe that Sisu have acted in good faith towards anything but their bottom line and their Return On Investment, and the point at which that becomes frightening is the dawning realisation that this bottom line may, in the fullness of time, be even bettered served by Coventry City being liquidated altogether.

Whether Coventry City Council, ACL, the Higgs Charity, London Wasps, or anybody else who has had dealings with Sisu has been doing the same has been subject to furious debate. Wasps are interlopers in Coventry, of that there is no doubt. And it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that Coventry City Council have always had the best interests of the club – or, at least, the supporters of the club – if they were prepared to sell the stadium to said interlopers when they turned up with an offer for it. The ultimate sum result of all of this is that Coventry City, who were for three and a half decades a top flight in this country, are now now just a few weeks from possibly being expelled from the Football League.

And that is a tragedy, whichever way you look at it, whoever you choose to blame.