A lack of collective vision and tit-for-tat infighting leaves a smudge on an otherwise fine example of community focused growth
If there is any positive for Coventry City fans to take away from this season it’s surely that their lowest league finish for over forty years has been shunted from the spotlight by a desperate set of performances behind the scenes, both from their own directors and would-be allies at management level. From disputes over their stadium tenancy to clashes with the City Council the club has lurched from disaster to disaster, each time sewing dysfunction where the fertile seeds of co-operation had been laid.
The wheels began to fall off around the turn of the year with a dispute over rent arrears on the Ricoh Arena, managed on behalf of the council and co-owners the Alan Higgs Trust by Arena Coventry Ltd (ACL). The club felt over-charged at £100,000 a month rates with no access to match day takings from refreshments and on-site facilities, given the club’s limited earning potential as an outfit in the third tier, and summarily refused to honour the tenancy agreement signed in 2005 when City had designs on a return to the top flight. The destructive pattern, it’s clear, was woven closely into the medium term business model, if indeed that’s what the club is working from.
Having tossed their financial responsibilities to the breeze City responded with scarcely earned indignation when ACL turned to the High Court to recover their losses, an act which resulted immediately in a freezing of the club’s assets and a spell in administration. A points deduction followed which was received with characteristic grace and inevitably an appeal by City against the League. Those keeping up with the story thus far have earned a moment of quiet judgement over the consortium pulling the strings at City, Sisu.
Springing from the wreckage like a jack-in-the-box is the thought that the League could have played a more proactive role in operations at City when the transition from Highfield Road, a ground to which the club owned the lease, was made eight years ago and the club entered into the three way arrangement with ACL and the council. The noises coming from City then and since were that the move was necessary for a host of reasons which now appear comical in their naivety, everything from low capacity to poor parking facilities; even England’s 2006 World Cup bid was factored into the calculations. Is it me or is there a white elephant in the room?
So having failed to exercise any effective duty over the way one of its members was handling its affairs the League responded in the only way it knows how to try and salvage some illusion of responsible governance – with a hefty punishment. But then that is the way these days in football leadership, readily reactive but rarely proactive. The club slumped down the league table and a season that was beginning to show promise was effectively ended in March. The club’s fans are left to reflect on what might have been had the League focused more on its responsibilities as a body for guidance and consultation rather than as supreme judge and executioner.
The dispute with ACL intensified when Sisu hit back by taking the city council to court on a charge that they had unlawfully used public money to bail out Arena Coventry when the latter’s creditors came howling at the door, a dispute which is still on-going at time of writing. That Sisu’s cause is just (and has recent precedent in Europe – Real Madrid are currently under investigation by the EU into claims that public money was pumped into the club in a cut price land deal) doesn’t shake the feeling that there’s an element of hair pulling here. Why did you hit him? Because he hit me first. City feel as though the council and ACL are united against them and – again preaching the doctrine of reaction over a co-operative action plan – have sought to weaken the alliance and give themselves something of a bargaining chip.
Which brings us up to the present. Sisu tabled an offer in April to pay rent at a reduced rate for their tenancy which was summarily rejected by ACL, leaving both parties in an intractable stalemate. Worse still the relationship between the football club and three of its closest working allies is at an all time low. If, as expected, the club relocate from the Ricoh this summer then the rift with ACL shouldn’t cause too much tension moving forward, but the dispute with the League over the points deduction will leave a sour taste on both sides.
The real sticking point though is over the rift with the local council. City have an impressive track record in the community over recent seasons and a strong working relationship with local government will be necessary to maximise its impact moving forward. The Sky Blue in the Community programme has targeted the homeless and unemployed this season and a scheme to tackle obesity and inactivity amongst adults in the area has delivered impressive results. There’s also an on-going partnership with local colleges and schools and offer vocational qualifications for 16-18 years olds with the aim of providing skills and guidance to young people when big life decisions present themselves.
All the more reason then why the club could have done without the fallout from the stadium fiasco. Coventry have become synonymous in the sports and local press with mismanagement, whilst a real success story for professional clubs making a positive change in the community has gone largely unreported. The club have allowed a dispute with a meddling third party to damage important links with key partners and to compound matters they may find themselves homeless before August rolls around. The illusion of progress can be a tantalising mirage for some; City may yet find the most troubling times are still to come.