Saturday 2 November 2013

A response to Supporters Direct

The piece below is a response to Supporters Direct in an attempt to clarify what I believe to be some inaccuracies in their account of the current unholy mess that is Coventry City Football Club. As such it should be read alongside that account which can be found here.

For those with a keen sense of the inviolability of historical record I have, in this version, added one paragraph to the original dealing with the concept of the Ricoh Arena as a “white elephant” and corrected one minor spelling mistake.

I don’t disagree with your general conclusions on the shared responsibility for the current plight of the club or your assessment of Sisu’s aim: to get ownership of the stadium as cheaply as possible. Whether that has always been their aim is open to doubt as is, more importantly, whether that is good or bad for the club and for the city as a whole. I think that could go either way but that is why it is critical that supporters’ groups play it right and get as much influence as they can now and move towards potential eventual ownership. In this respect, by the way, I believe the Sky Blue Trust to be evolving into a hugely credible and important body.

In terms of accuracy I think you need to be clearer firstly when Sisu took over and acknowledge more clearly that they inherited a totally unsustainable situation, not entirely of their own making and secondly be clearer on changes within Sisu’s own strategy towards the club. Too many supporters take the easy option of considering Sisu to be a monolithic unchanging behemoth rather than adopt the more subtle approach to them as an organisation with an ever-evolving strategy. The current manifestation of this dates, in my estimation, from a little under two years ago when Joy Sepalla took a more direct role in the running of the football club and appointed Tim Fisher and Steve Waggot to carry this out. Prior to that I think they were floundering under a succession of poor operators from Ray Ransom to Ken Dulieu. I’d go as far as to say that the current regime, judged purely on football decisions, can hardly be faulted.

The stadium is of course another matter. Even so on matters of due diligence and failure to deal with a crippling rent and revenue agreement all can agree they messed up badly and, by the time Sepalla was in fuller control, this was pretty much unsalvageable by any normal means, particularly since by this time—and on this I fundamentally disagree with you—ACL were set on a course of regime change. This is not to condone the actions of Sisu, particularly in moving the club out of the city, but it illustrates my view that a combination of previous owners, the city council and Sisu themselves had created the situation they were in at that moment. But crucially, for future developments, Coventry City Council, not just Sisu, had embarked on its own form of stubborn rejectionism that was to play a key role in the club’s decline.

Sisu have always maintained that this was about more than the rent and, whilst the spectre of Financial Fair Play regulations may be a slight red herring, they nonetheless have a point. Even so you are totally wrong on your assertion that they have turned down an offer lower than what they currently pay Northampton Town. I assume you refer to an attempt by ACL to amend the terms of the CVA, but the figure mentioned in this regard has never—to my knowledge—been offered to the football club. There is a very good case for saying that it should—it would call Sisu’s bluff, since they would easily make more revenue from the bigger gates at the Ricoh than they currently do at Sixfields. If it could be arranged on a rolling basis they could even continue to build their own stadium at the same time, if that’s what they want to do.

The biggest setback of all was probably the failure of the bid to buy the Higgs’ share of the stadium. In all honesty, and contrary to your assertions, no-one knows why that did not succeed. But to say the council had no involvement is naive: they retain the absolute right to veto such a sale and, particularly in the person of the now-deposed John Mutton, gave every indication they intended to use it.

You dispute descriptions of the stadium as a “white elephant”, citing accounts which show a minor loss this year, which could be easily made up by the odd extra event. Others would dispute this, though certainly ACL argue that the stadium can exist as a viable business without the football club. Without entering into that debate what is undeniable is the shear waste of resources that is represented by the existence of a modern, state-of-the-art football stadium standing empty every Saturday afternoon whilst the club it was built for play their “home” games 35 miles away. Regardless of any business case this alone is reason enough to label the stadium a pretty large “white elephant”.

My biggest problem with your account though is over the administration itself. Of course it is undeniable that Sisu put the club into administration. Of course they did this in such a way that it would work in their favour. But it was an essentially defensive move in response to the legal moves by ACL. To think that they would have taken this course otherwise is absurd. Incidentally, ACL—formed by Coventry City Council and with several board members in common—is hardly a separate entity from the local authority.

As a fan, the timing of ACL’s actions firstly to push the club into administration, and secondly to refuse to sign the CVA that would have taken them out again—accompanied on each occasion by a ten point penalty—was appalling. Just as the team was looking near-certainties to clinch a play-off spot to be hit by this was heart-breaking. To compound that with another points deduction—for no positive reason that anyone has yet discovered—just as Steven Pressley’s squad served up the most exciting football for a generation truly beggars belief. To maintain that Sisu were technically responsible for administration is kind of like shooting the messenger.

We are now in a seemingly intractable situation where apportioning the blame for what has happened so far is increasingly futile. Even allowing for the huge element of spin employed by both sides I feel the latest statement from the club, in which they state that there will be no return to the previous landlord/tenant situation, is probably a fair summary of where they are at. I don’t truly believe they want to build a new stadium—though I think they will if they have to—so a return to the Ricoh is the only way forward that makes any sense at all. And if that’s what the council want then they will have to consider a sale.

I hate that we are in this situation but can see at least one positive. As I said at the outset the Sky Blue Trust has emerged as an organisation truly fit for the role of intervening and playing a crucial and positive role in all this. Normally for me which side to take in the battle between an international hedge fund and a Labour-controlled local authority for a small part of the soul of a community would be a no-brainer. But on this occasion the only side I want to take is that of the supporters who, via the Trust, can drag the other ragged self-interested parties into doing the right thing in spite of themselves.

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