There is a footballing world -much bigger and much trickier – than the ones ruled by Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools and Chelseas. Arun Krishnamoorthy, in his endeavor to bring to you a fascinating homecoming story from that part of the world, pens down a memorable journey of Coventry City here at Goalden Times.
“And the ball sails through the goal posts… What a start!” the commentator on BBC Radio Five chimed. The crowd at the Ricoh Arena was buzzing. Their local boy Andy Goode had just scored the first points for them and subsequently secured a win for the club. “Obviously as a Sky Blues fan I’ve been up here to watch Coventry City play a few times, so it was great for me to run out and play here“, said Andy.
This was Rugby, not football!
“OGGIE OGGIE OGGIE! WASPS WASPS WASPS!”
It was December 21, 2014. The London Wasps, yes, the Wasps were playing at their new home ground some hundred miles away from where they were supposed to be – not Wycombe, not North London, but The Ricoh Arena in Coventry, the former home of Coventry City FC.
The last 12 months had been tough on two sets of fans of two different sports; torn from within by a common enemy and a solitary question – Is it a club or is it a business?
The feeling was mutual. They had been robbed of their identity and their home. A football club had been asked to relocate from the Ricoh Arena and play elsewhere, while a Rugby club hastily decided to come in and use the 32,000 seater for their home games. It became a complete disregard for the 274 miles round-trip that a Wasps fan (or ‘Waspie’, just so you know) had to entail.
Wind the clock back by ten years: the Coventry City Football Club had moved into their new home, the Ricoh Arena, with big aspirations. From a financial viewpoint, it didn’t go all too well due to heavy debts. The club were warned that they were about to meet the same fate as Portsmouth. Just around then in 2008, eyeing millions to be made by winning promotion to the Premier League, the club was purchased by the hedge-fund SISU Capital owned by Finnish-American Joy Seppala, saving them from the brink of administration. The club went on to invigorate the squad with some quality signings and shape a squad capable of challenging for promotion. Leon ‘Zorro’ Best, a striker who had shown great promise in the lower leagues while on loan from Southampton, was the first of many. He was followed by Freddy Eastwood for just over a million pounds, Keiren Westwood, arguably the best keeper in League One back then, and Iceland international Aron Gunnarsson, who was voted Supporters’ Player of the Year in his debut season. Good times were promised.
The new manager Iain Dowie found immediate success but the energy soon fizzled out and the club ended up 17th on the Championship table at the end of the season. A poor managerial appointment in the form of Chris Coleman who took over from Iain did not help either, as the Sky Blues went down the mire and into their lowest league finish in 45 years, 19th on the table. League One was looming if this was allowed to continue. Aidy Boothroyd, who had limited success at Watford and Colchester was brought on but he too failed to really live up to the potential of the squad. Not surprisingly, some of the better players started to leave, but the board’s tomfoolery and inexperience meant they were let go on a free transfer rather than cash in while still in contract.
In fact during the 2011/12 season, after letting go around 15 players in the summer, and bringing only three in with two of those being goalkeepers, Coventry were relegated to League One under the management of ex-Chief Scout, Andy Thorn who was essentially, for those who love alliterations, a mere marionette manager, because he was cheap and already working at the club, despite having no managerial experience. His cheery mannerism had won him plenty of friends from within and even had fans chanting his name — but the predicament was taking its toll. SISU sold the club’s top goal scorer for the season, Lukas Jutkiewicz, in the January transfer window, failing to provide the funds to replace him. The average collections at the gates were falling. At one point, Coventry City FC were in such a sorry state that they did not have a full time scout nor a fitness coach. Instead they had kids on work experience do their jobs!
Meanwhile, there was turmoil brewing in the boardroom. During their first season in League One, it emerged that SISU had decided to stop paying the rent on their stadium, the Ricoh Arena. They believed the rent of £1.2m per year was way too high for a club of their stature, and refused to pay until it was lowered. SISU were offered the stadium on a revised rent deal believed to be around £300,000 a year but they rejected it due to low match day income. When negotiations with Arena Coventry Limited, the club’s main creditor, broke down SISU and begun the process of entering Coventry City FC Ltd into administration. At this point the club was separated into two parts, and the part that was put into administration contained the lease for the Ricoh Arena. The Sky Blues received a 10 point deduction and the season grinded to a halt.
The Golden Share
In the summer of 2013, SISU filed for liquidation of Coventry City FC Ltd, cutting all ties with the Ricoh lease which meant the club was ‘locked out’ of their own ground and would need to relocate. To make matters worse, it was also determined that CCFC Ltd also contained the ‘Golden Share’, which is required by the club to be part of the Football League, players’ contracts and registrations, income et al. The ‘Golden Share’ is only returned on condition that football creditors are paid in full.
A failed bid attempt by the American tycoon Preston Haskell got no mileage. Eventually, the Football League granted SISU permission to move the ‘Golden Share’ to the other part of the football club to avoid the club disappearing completely, but this resulted in another 10 points deduction for the beginning of the next season. SISU put the club on the market and Otium Entertainment turned out to be the highest bidder. Upon closer inspection it was revealed that Otium Holdings was in fact controlled by a Cayman limited partnership managed by, well, blimey… SISU! Did you see that coming? No, don’t answer!
“Coventry City have also been cleared to play their home matches at Sixfields Stadium“ read the Football League’s decision. Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium, which holds around a quarter of the capacity of the Ricoh Arena, and is located 35 miles away from the Ricoh Arena, was where Coventry fans would have to go to enjoy ‘home’ games for the entire 2012-13 season. The fans were gutted; the decisions seemed to drill them lower and lower.
Elsewhere, in North London anxious Rugby fans of the London Wasps (or simply ‘Wasps’ or let us even call them the Wasps Wanderers because, why not, the number of stadium moves they have made in the last decade) awaited the outcome of yet another relocation plan. Their last joint ground share venture was with the Wycombe Wanderers and Wycombe District Council at Adams Park. In spite of a rollicking support, they needed a higher attendance to break even. About two years ago, the Wasps had a measly £65 in the bank and a mounting tax bill. They were losing between £3m and £4m every year until the Irish businessman Derek Richardson stepped in, and completed a deal to buy the entire stake in the 32,000-capacity Ricoh from Coventry City Council and the Higgs Charity, who jointly comprised Arena Coventry Limited. To give you a context, their previous ‘home’ ground in Wycombe seated about 10,000 people. With an aim to take the club back to the summit, they have moved their training base from Acton in West London to Coventry.
The board claimed that the revenue earned from a weekend game was expected to be in the region of £500,000, four times the record amount secured from a match day at Adams Park; all at the expense of fans who now had to make the rather long arduous trip up and back the M40 to watch a game.
The Ricoh Recall
The 2013-14 campaign saw the Sky Blues record the lowest home attendance with an average of just over 2,000. Sixfields, Northampton was most definitely drab and quite a strange experience. They even called it ‘The Library’ for a reason. On match days, a red van would bring the ball and kits, whereas the souvenir shop open to Coventry fans was all but a trailer.
“Play up, Sky Blues“, the fans would sing. Persistent standing was not an issue. Well, simply because they were not in the stadium. These were the ‘Hillers’ who watched an entire season of Coventry’s home games sat upon the nearby hill supporting the team, chanting anti-SISU chants all whilst reminiscing the good old days of football in Highfield Road stadium, their home from 1899 to 2005, bereft of any commercial obligations.
In the summer of 2014, the Football League intervened in order to make amends with the Arena Coventry Limited and SISU. A decision was made to reinstate Ricoh Arena as the joint-home ground along with the Wasps. In return, the League ordered Coventry to pay ACL around £500,000. The Coventry Council were labelled peacemakers where in truth, this matter could have been resolved well before things got out of hand. As for the Wasps, the move to the Midlands will probably keep the club alive. The past few games certainly seem to suggest that, but this just makes it bleeding obvious that where business sense prevails, the board have little or no respect for the teams’ fans that have been loyal over the years. And the Council only struck when the iron was hot. ‘Oh, smashing, groovy, yay capitalism’!
The fans are the ones who make the team a respectful side, not an owner with a blinkered belief that all will follow.
The fans are the ones who make the team a respectful side, not an owner with a blinkered belief that all will follow. Cardiff City and Hull Tigers, anyone? This is not to say any and every club owned by a capitalist monk at the helm will end up this way. Madejski and Reading FC in the late nineties – early noughties is a fine example to go by.
SISU were well aware of Coventry City FC’s debt situation well before they decided to buy them; which then begs the question “What really is the FA’s ‘fit and proper persons test’ ?” , because whatever it is, it certainly is laughable; a clear dereliction of duty while the club becomes the owner’s new plaything.
As for the Wasps, the question remains, what will it be like watching a game in a 32,000 seater stadium? What loyalty will the new fan base have knowing how the old fans have been treated? They are patiently waiting for the decision to be recalled and their home games be brought closer home. And, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers fans might know what I am talking about, when I say ‘sending someone to Coventry’ couldn’t be any more apt or ironic in this context.
Coventry City FC return to Ricoh Arena now plastered in the unfamiliar black and yellow of the Wasps and with a hedge-funding albatross still hanging around their neck. Community-owned clubs such as AFC Wimbledon or FC United have set an example in the past and that is still an option. While the fans might not want to consider that just yet, at this juncture they just cannot see their club being handled this way. It is a Premier League obsessed time we live in, and it is quite easy to forget the plight of the smaller clubs. The Hillers or their protests would have never received media coverage by the likes of Sky. Meanwhile, the Football League and the FA are looking the other way while the indignities are steadily stacking up.
Picture references & sources:
- Ricoh Arena – Richard Fulford
- BBC Sport
- Coventry Telegraph