For readers who have been following this blog since its inception last April you may have noted that there has been relatively little talk about the rental dispute between the club and ACL. Largely the reason has been that the details of the situation has been far too confusing to comment on with any true insight. It’s also been a lot of rumour, claim and counter-claim as well as having had a divisive impact on the supporters of this football club. So to sum up I didn’t want to write too much about something where the facts aren’t known, where I have felt that I’ve had little to add to the debate and anything that I did say may have angered my fellow Coventry City supporters.
So why produce this piece now? Why not wait until at least the club has secured survival in League One for another season?
Well, the answer is that the club’s league position shouldn’t affect the debate that fans have been having over the whole Ricoh Arena situation. Whether Coventry City play another season of League One football at Sixfields or they play League Two football at Sixfields shouldn’t make any difference to the reality that Coventry City are playing any kind of football at Sixfields. I have waited for this time to form an opinion on the situation and try and be objective as I possibly can in analysing it.
Unfortunately the 7 months that have passed since it was announced that Coventry City wouldn’t be playing their football in Coventry hasn’t changed the feeling of farce that I felt when I heard the news. It simply didn’t feel real and even having seen Coventry City play games at Sixfields it still has felt watching a real team play real football. There is no justification for what has happened to this club. Yes, other clubs like Brighton and Rotherham have been in a similar situation but in each of those two examples there have been forces trying to get them to return to their home. 7 months later and it still feels that each side is waiting for the other to make the first move to return the club to the empty stadium lying dormant for its return.
Why SISU are in the wrong
By far the side that has taken the most flak for what has happened to this football club over the past season and even further back. From day one they have seemed to have made the wrong move whenever confronted with a situation to better the club. From allowing Ray Ranson to convince them that it was best to spend money on players rather than the stadium, to the calamitous managerial appointments of Chris Coleman, Aidy Boothroyd and Andy Thorn, to letting star players like Keiren Westwood and Marlon King leave for free as well as Ben Turner and Danny Fox being sold for fractions of their market value. It seems obvious to any observer that SISU were to blame for the club’s relegation from the Championship.
Of course the counter-argument, which is a valid one, is that the actions of previous regimes placed the club in the perilous financial situation that made SISU the only option. Having failed in bids for both Southampton and Manchester City it was clear that Ray Ranson and SISU were determined to buy a football club but the fact that they had twice failed to do so should have sent warning signs to the previous directors of Coventry City. Except that the club back in 2006 was saddled with debt from both excessive transfer spending and the cost of building the Ricoh Arena. For whatever reason the board were determined to avoid administration, which may have relegated the club but also cleared its debts, so SISU arrived in the final minute and were allowed to dictate their own terms of sale for the club.
Focussing on the rental dispute which began with the appointment of Tim Fisher and Steve Waggott to replace the likes of Onye Igwe and Ken Dulieu in the spring of 2012. After relegation from the Championship the club entered a transfer embargo surrounding uncertainty over the continued presence of SISU’s financial support with the club reportedly losing £500k a month. What followed was eventually the news that Joy Seppala had agreed to fund Coventry City for the next 3 seasons. It’s also emerged recently that the club had also begun negotiations to buy the Higgs charity’s share in the Ricoh Arena.
However it seems like SISU’s hard-ball tactics in negotiations which involved withholding rent from ACL, made relations between the club and the stadium company incredibly frosty. It set the motions for nearly two years worth of statements where the club said they wanted to negotiate with ACL and ACL then stating they would only be willing to negotiate a rental deal. Personally I feel as if any reasonably minded person was in charge of the club they would have taken a reduced rental deal with the proviso that the club could one day own a stake in the stadium.
SISU though have been unwilling it seems to ever consider returning to the Ricoh Arena as tenants. They say it’s down to the deals being offered by ACL being tied to too many restrictions which wouldn’t benefit the club such as paying match-day costs and not having access to food and beverage revenues on match-days. But surely the purpose of negotiation would be to try and get these including in the deal, it has felt that too often that the club has rejected these deals upon first-sight rather than use them as a tool to get back to the negotiation table.
We all know SISU’s real intentions though, at least we think we do, which seem to be to buy the Ricoh Arena. The line is that they want to unite club and stadium which seems entirely reasonable. However there has been very little detail on what terms SISU wishes to do this. The best-case scenario for Coventry fans would be that the club would own the stadium, receiving both match-day revenue as well as from all the other business that is brought in to the stadium. The worst-case would be what has happened at Oxford where the same individual owns the club and stadium but the club still pays rent to the owner. The fact there’s been little clarification on this detail has led many to assume the worst, especially given SISU’s shady track record.
Simply judging on SISU’s actions it seems clear to me that the move to Sixfields was completely avoidable. A more willing desire to negotiate with the council as well as better communication with the fans would have at least painted them in a better light. The council may have acted in a way to force them out of the Ricoh Arena or even the club but their bullying tactics with ACL and the fans has left them in a situation where they can only depend on a loyal 1,000 supporters to support the club. Had they been able to sell out Sixfields wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference but they’re in a situation where even if they do manage to purchase the Ricoh, they are unlikely to return the club’s gates to even its pitiable level of the 2012/13 season.
Why the council are in the wrong
Whilst it’s easier and more satisfying to pin the blame on SISU it is worth questioning whether the tactics of the council in this situation could have been more conducive to keeping the club its city. The main point which has emerged from the recent court case between the club and the Higgs charity has been that the council was willing to let the club go bust rather than allow SISU to own the football ground. Depending on your political stance this is either the act of a party that doesn’t care about the city’s football club or the council taking a stance against a hedge-fund for the benefit of the city.
What it does tell you though was that the council were as unwilling, if not more, to negotiate either a sale or a more beneficial rental deal with the club. Yes, the council did make what seemed on face value to be great rental deals to bring the football club back to the city. Really though the council must have known that SISU wouldn’t have taken any sort of rental deal, not least one which didn’t provide the club with access to match-day revenues.
Whilst SISU’s stance has been more or less clear from the summer of 2012 where they attempted to purchase the Higgs share of the Ricoh, the council have kind of been all over the place. The recent court case has seemed to show that the council approved a loan to support ACL in order to force SISU out of the club. Over the course of the past 18 months or so the council’s public position has switched from being willing to negotiate rent to only wanting their terms on the rental deal, from negotiating the sale of the Ricoh Arena to forcing the club into administration.
One of the key anecdotes to highlight the council’s position in all this was of council leader Anne Lucas being on a train to negotiate with Joy Seppala over the sale of the Ricoh to then turn up at the meeting and only be willing to discuss a rental. It seems to me that the council isn’t entirely sure what they want out of all this, they’re not sure how important the club is to the city, they’re not sure if they should sell or rent the Ricoh Arena to SISU, they’re not sure if they should even negotiate with SISU or try and get someone else to buy the club. It must be incredibly frustrating for SISU to know how to play this situation, anything that council says or does always seems to be contradicted within the next week or so.
All in all it’s hard to tell whether the council wants the club back in the city or whether they simply want to beat SISU at the game they’ve been playing. You can look at a number of the things they’ve said and done as genuine, such as offering the club a way back to the Ricoh for the season for free but then it’s tinged with doubts about their real intentions. The suspicion from some is that they only want the club back under a similar scenario to the previous time where the club’s paying rent to help support ACL and hopefully this grand regeneration project of Northern Coventry. Yet the club’s decline since 2001 has been entirely to do with the Ricoh Arena and being hamstrung financially by previous debts and those being racked up by continued rent payments with little income to supplement it.
The council’s interest in the club seems to be as a source of revenue for the Ricoh Arena rather than as a beacon for the city. Whilst the club remains in Northampton there is an area of Coventry which used to depend on the income of fortnightly home games throughout the football season. By focusing solely on getting the football club to redevelop an ailing area of the city they have made things worse than they should have been. Once again the club’s move away from its city was entirely avoidable and the council could have been more accommodating in understanding SISU’s needs and wants but also making sure that the club and the city were able to benefit from any potential deal. Now they’re stuck with a stadium that now plays host to reserve team football and could potentially lose a court case that could cost them millions all in an attempt to deny SISU and the club a stake in its home ground.
As you can tell from reading this it’s been tough to look at what’s gone on and consign it to fact and apportion it to either side. There’s still a sense that there’s more that we don’t know about the situation than what we do know. But my stance has always been that the details don’t matter when it comes to Coventry City playing in Northampton. It’s simple, it should never have happened. It seems to me that both sides have been far too proud to accept any attempt at compromise to seek a resolution. We’re getting to the point that in the summer a court case could decide whether the club dies or takes its first step of recovery after hitting rock bottom. What’s worse is that there are no guarantees that the Judicial Review could solve this ongoing crisis, the conclusion from it may not bring the club back to the Ricoh or there could be an endless cycle of appeals.
It all feels as if the club is in a state of purgatory. Which is a sorry state of affairs considering this was the season of Steven Pressley and of Leon Clarke and of Callum Wilson. Where the team would regularly snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, where we finally threw caution to the wind and went after our opponents. In the end though it may be viewed as the last hurrah of a once proud club before it slithered into the footballing wilderness where the likes of Scarborough and Stockport County now lurk.
This is why there has to be resolution this summer, the club cannot continue in the state that it is currently in. There is no alternative that I see other than SISU ‘winning’ the judicial review and being allowed to purchase the Ricoh Arena. It seems that a loss for SISU would either continue the cycle of football in Northampton and court cases or they would cut their losses and kill off the club. All we can hope for is that the club and the stadium are united in a single entity and we can carry on in the next few seasons and view what happened as the necessary thing to finally cast off the ghosts of previous debts that the club had lived with since selling Highfield Road.