It was a difficult choice of topic after so many months, but Coventry City is probably the obvious choice for me – I live about a mile from the old Highfield Road ground and could hear the roar on matchdays.
By chance, I was turning out last week and came across a copy of the Coventry Observer from 20 December 2007. My reason for keeping it was apparent on page 3 – two stories which began thus:
- Last minute deal secures football club’s future
Coventry City were just half an hour away from going into administration when pen was finally put to paper on a long-awaited takeover deal.
with the clock ticking towards Friday’s 4pm deadline for a deal to be struck, the Sky Blues confirmed shortly before 3.30pm, the takeover by SISU Capital was going ahead – securing the club’s future and banishing the threat of administration…
- Arena pledges support for club’s future
Ricoh Arena chiefs have pledged to support SISU Capital’s efforts to return Coventry City to the Premier League…
Clearly much has changed since December 2007. The club had been through a disastrous period in the years immediately before. Debts had been reported as running as high as £38 million; year after year the club made operating losses; and investing in the new £60m stadium had proved a step too far. Indeed, the stadium, the brainchild of the club’s then Chairman, Bryan Robinson, had only become reality by the club passing the stadium project over to Arena Coventry Ltd (ACL), a joint venture company consisting of Coventry City Council (50%) and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity (50%), a trust set up to help deprived children from Coventry.
The then owners of the club – the major shareholders, owning 90%, were Craigavon (City MP Geoffrey Robinson’s family trust, and Sir Derek Higgs, son of Alan Edward Higgs) – announced their intention of placing the club into Administration. Apart from Sisu, the only potential buyer was ‘Greek billionaire businessman Alki David’, who rapidly backed off when he realised the scale of the debts he would inherit.
The club thus stood, to borrow the recent words of David Conn (or a Guardian sub-editor perhaps) on the edge of an abyss.
Coming in then as saviours of a club in distinct danger of liquidation, how then did we reach today’s situation of repeated legal confrontation and the club’s exile?
Sisu were by their own admission new to the football business. They brought in football business experts such as Ray Ranson and Ken Dulieu. Their judgement proved questionable and both departed. As the performance on the pitch deteriorated and the club suffered a further relegation to League 1, the fans became severely disenchanted, a situation compounded by Sisu’s almost non-existent transparency or engagement with the fans.
Opposition to Sisu became public and organised, and we drifted into phases of protest characterised by a series of slogans.
The first of these was the unequivocal SISU OUT. Understandable though this was, in my eyes it always seemed at best only half a strategy – and what next? The further Sisu sank funds into the club, the less likely it was that anyone else would want to buy the club. In the six and a half years of Sisu’s ownership only the brief appearance of Preston Haskell IV presented any viable alternative to Sisu. It became abundantly clear that a presumption of the SISU OUT slogan – that Sisu were willing to sell – was ill-founded, and even wishful-thinking.
The straw that broke the back of many fans was the decision of Sisu, in an attempt to force ACL’s hand in the increasingly bitter disputes over rent and matchday revenues, to take the club into exile at Northampton. We then entered a phase where the slogan of choice was BRING CITY HOME. A perfectly simple proposition on the face of it, but one which begged the intractable questions of how and under what conditions.
The most recent phase has seen protests with banners saying LET DOWN, which begs the question of by whom. Moz Baker of the Sky Blue Trust when interviewed on local television earlier this week cited Sisu and the Football League, and it’s not hard build an argument for either nomination. I would add to this list ACL and its joint owners, Coventry City Council and the Alan Edward Higgs Trust. I would also add to the list the previous owners of the club, for it was they who precipitated the current situation by deciding to move away from the old stadium at Highfield Road, which resulted in the separation of ownership of the club and its stadium.
From a business perspective, it is perfectly understandable and indeed reasonable that the club owners would want the matchday revenues, particularly with the restraints that Financial Fair Play protocols now place on spending . Equally understandable and indeed reasonable is that the owners of the stadium would also want the matchday revenues, particularly as the football stadium is the core of the revenue generating potential of the infrastructure.
So, we are in the situation where the entrenched positions of the two main proponents are understandable and reasonable from their own perspectives. The only way out of the impasse would be compromise by one or both parties. At present we have a war of attrition. There are unsubstantiated rumours that talks are taking place between Sisu and ACL. If true, we can only hope that ‘jaw jaw’ will stop ‘war war’. The present situation with the club in exile is patently bad for the owners of the club, for the owners of the stadium, and, above all, for the fans, and indeed for the Council Tax payers in Coventry (of which I must put my hand up as being one). The only gainers are the lawyers.
A return to the Ricoh is a no brainer. There must surely be some way forward through compromise.
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