Thirteen Days To Save Coventry City FC
If there is one thing that is more striking than anything else to have come from the ongoing saga of Coventry City and the Ricoh Arena over the last seven or eight years, it has been a sense of stagnation. Having been relegated from the Championship in 2012, a club which should have had realistic ambitions of getting into the Premier League seems to have almost accepted its fate to be stuck in the lower divisions in perpetuity. There have been blips in either direction, relegation to League Two turned out to be a temporary state of affairs and they even managed a trip to Wembley for a Football League Trophy final, but as of today Coventry City are on ninth place in League One. Eight points off the play-off places with five games to play, a coveted top six place isn’t mathematically impossible just yet, but it seems unlikely at this stage, to say the least.
Off the pitch, the same situation has felt similar. Legal rumblings continue in the background while the club makes noises about moving to a new ground that never seem go any further than than the release of an occasional picture alongside some words which explain what the club would like to do if everything were to go their way. The move to Northampton, which had a ruinous effect upon attendances and severed much of the residual trust that remained between its owners and those who had previously kept faith with them, also proved to be a temporary measure. At some point, though, denouement has to be reached. This level of uncertainty cannot continue indefinitely, and it increasingly feels that moment is now arriving, most likely by shove rather than by push.
The Football League’s patience with Coventry City has clearly been running out over the course of this season. The club’s temporary permission to continue to use the Ricoh Arena comes to an end in just a few weeks time. Following its sale to the Wasps rugby union club in 2014, the club’s ultimate owners Sisu (and yes, there’s a whole plethora of limited companies that have been and are related to Coventry City, but let’s stick with this shorthand for now) have continued legal action to attempt to pry ownership of the Arena away from them. Wasps have been consistent, in stating that they would not countenance in extending the lease while legal action regarding the stadium continued. Sisu have not dropped the legal action, and as a result of this Coventry City are now just a couple of weeks away from being rendered homeless.
The Football League have been similarly consistent in their assessment of the situation regarding the club. Earlier this season, they gave Coventry City until the second of April to confirm where they would be playing their home matches next season, and that a failure to do so would result in a meeting being held on the twenty-fifth of April to discuss the club’s expulsion from the competition. To not be able to confirm where you’ll one playing your matches next season is a pretty clear breach of their rules, and the League’s increasing tetchiness is completely understandable. The ability to stage matches is just about the most basic provision that a member of the Football League should be able to meet, after all. With Sisu not dropping the legal action, though, the assurance required has not been given, which led to this statement being released on Thursday:
There is, of course, considerable anger amongst Coventry supporters at just about everybody in any sort of official position at the moment, and such frustration is, of course, completely understandable. The amount of leverage that the Football League has on this matter at this point in time is, however, both limited and not evenly-balanced. Short of making a couple of statements in order to give some impression of applying pressure or maybe making a couple of telephone calls, neither the Football League nor the Football Association have much leverage over either Coventry City Council or Wasps. And whilst they have the potential leverage of sanctions against Coventry City, we are where we are in terms of this long-running saga and Sisu have given precious little indication of taking much notice of any outside bodies in terms of tempering their own behaviour for some considerable time. Yesterday, presumably in response to the Football League’s statement, the club itself had a statement of its own to make, and it wasn’t – not that many were expecting any different – anything that supporters would have wanted to read:
Coventry City Football Club and its management team cannot affect the stances of Coventry City Council, Wasps or of our Owners in this situation – what we can do is put in plans to ensure this great Football Club continues to survive despite the impasse that exists, and that is what we will do.
So, the ultimate owners of Coventry City Football Club would rather ground-share elsewhere than drop their legal action over the sale of the Ricoh Arena. The two grounds that have reached a Head of Terms position have not been revealed to the public, and they could be just about anywhere in the Midlands (Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium and Birmingham City’s St Andrews seem to be the current favourites – Burton is forty-three miles from Coventry but is small enough for inevitably-depressed attendances to be able to create some semblance of an atmosphere, whilst Birmingham City could really do with the extra income at the moment), but is less than two weeks enough time to get this all signed, sealed and delivered? Such is the uncommunicative way in which all of this is being carried out that it’s difficult to say for sure.
Season tickets for next season, it should be noted, are not yet on sale. Last season, the club sold more than 6,000, an increase of over fifty per cent on the year before following promotion back from League Two. If the club is not playing in Coventry, of course, they’ll sell nowhere near that number. When the club last moved out of Coventry to play a season in exile in Northampton, it sold around 500 season tickets, and Northampton is ten miles closer to the city than Burton-upon-Trent is. Were these numbers anything like an accurate projection for future numbers, therefore, the club would lose around £1.5m in season ticket sales, and that’s before we factor in other financial costs that would come with such a move. And despite the ongoing squeaks that emerge from the club concerning sites for a new ground, it would seem insensible to put any faith in that coming to fruition until work actually starts on it, to say the very, very least. The move away to Northampton was temporary, but that doesn’t mean that the next one will be too.
What seems more likely than anything else is that Coventry City will leave the Ricoh Arena for a second time at the end of this season and that support for and interest in the club will start to atrophy almost immediately. There were protests while the club was in Northampton. There have been protests this season. But Coventry supporters ire has been aimed at a hedge fund that doesn’t care what they think, a governing body that has no control over the council and the rugby club, a council that found itself dragged into row after row, through court case after court case, by the aforementioned hedge fund, and a rugby club who, as far as they’re concerned, bought a stadium legally and above board, only to find the sitting tenants acting as though they had the right to evict them and take ownership of it themselves.
Should Wasps be in Coventry? Probably not, but how professional rugby union wants to franchise itself is none of professional football’s business, and the rugby club has found itself an audience in the city. Coventry City Council haven’t acted without slip-ups along the way, either. Having said all of that, though, there is little equivalence between the behaviour of all parties concerned over this entire period of time. Sisu, the hedge fund which owns the holding company which owns the football club, has been a disgrace towards Coventry City Football Club, its supporters, and anyone who’s dared to get in the way of their long-term aim of picking up the Ricoh Arena for buttons.
The owners of the club, whichever legal shell they’re hiding under, have the ultimate responsibility, here. Sisu’s declared tactic of “battering people in court” has failed and failed and failed over the Ricoh Arena. Maybe they’ll get their break in court eventually and will win that one case that they need in order to get what they want. But they haven’t yet, and when it gets to a point at which the the hedge fund is willing to make the club homeless in order to continue with legal action, then that legal action stops looking like a policy and rather more like a debilitating addiction of some form or other. There are no guarantees whatsoever that Sisu ultimately winning ownership of the Ricoh Arena would even be good for Coventry City – what would stop them from charging an exorbitant rent to be paid by draining money out of the club of they did? – and their willingness to voluntarily impoverish the club in order to continue their legal action speaks volumes about the nature of their priorities and how low the ultimate wellbeing of the Football club seems on that list.
In most respects, last week’s statements were little more than holding statements, confirming what we already know. Nothing has actually changed. However, the clock is ticking, and in less than a fortnight that ground-share contract is going to have to be completed, presuming that Wasps don’t perform a volte face on their long-held refusal to discuss the matter further until legal action is dropped. Sisu’s refusal to do so confirms that they are more interested in this legal action proceeding than they are in Coventry City staying in Coventry, no matter what the costs – financial, emotional, and institutional – of that may be. Wasps and the Football League have been clear in what is required, but Sisu still seem to believe that they have an upper hand in terms of a form of negotiation that looks more like sticking someone’s arm behind their back and twisting it until they do what the hedge fund wants.
With a support base that is still hopelessly split between those who blame the rugby club and council and those who blame the hedge fund, the certainty of haemorrhaging support away from Coventry should they have to leave at the end of this season, and the refusal of anybody to talk to anybody else over the matter, then it feels as though the Football League’s meeting in less than two weeks is a conversation that needs to be held. Coventry City are going to atrophy if they leave the city. This much seems just about inevitable. But this has gone on for long enough. The hedge fund could accept that the world has moved on, that Wasps aren’t going anywhere and that yes, Coventry City are now tenants in a stadium they consider their own whether they like it it not. Such an acceptance would make moving on possible. The club could get on with actual plans to build a stadium of their own and remain at the Ricoh Arena until it’s ready. This, it feels, is just about the best solution that could be reached, considering everything that we know about what has happened in recent years.
Eyes, however, remain fixated on prizes, and those prizes are only tangentially related to the overall wellbeing of Coventry City Football Club. Sisu doesn’t have its hands tied. It could drop the legal proceedings over the sale of the Ricoh Arena. But it won’t, because it doesn’t care about the football club. It cares about getting ownership of a prime piece of real estate. That always seems to have been the end game, from the “rent strike” to a completely avoidable second spell in exile. Is there a degree of blame to be meted out to all that have found themselves involved in this dismal saga? Probably. But there’s one organisation that is a common theme from start to finish, that has worn its lack of heart on its sleeve from the very beginning. All blame is not equal. Hedge funds have no place in professional football. They involved themselves to enrich themselves, and they deserve to leave the game with their tails between their legs.
For the Football League, the point at which a club can no longer guarantee where it’s going to play its home matches is a point at which a line in the sand has to be drawn. It has seventy-one other member clubs to think about, after all. What would be to stop the hedge fund liquidating Coventry City halfway through next season if it didn’t get what it wanted yet again in court? How much disruption and cost would that bring about for the whole of the Football League? And if the ultimate owners of the football club would rather than move it out of Coventry altogether, with all that this entails beyond inconvenience for fans, than drop their legal action, then why should anyone believe that they care enough about Coventry City to not do that? In thirteen days time, a decision will have to be made, but it probably won’t be the end of the story. That won’t come until Sisu are out of any involvement in football whatsoever. It’s an impasse that doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon, unless hands are forced. After years of stagnation, perhaps it’s time to find the denouement for this story, whatever it turns out to be.