Sent to Northampton: the sad demise of Coventry City
Big Ron once quipped that if the Titanic was painted Sky Blue it would never have gone down. Like many of the big man’s insights this proved wide of the mark, and in 2001, after 34 years in the top flight the Sky Blues were relegated to the old Division One.
And if relegation was impossible for Big Ron to imagine, then I’d love to know what line he would have come up with if you’d told him the Sky Blues would be plying their trade in Northampton just 12 years later.
That though is the reality. Two days ago the club announced that for the next 3 seasons, Coventry City Football Club would be playing their home games, 34 miles away at Northampton Town’s 7,600 capacity Sixfields Stadium. During which time the club intend to build a new stadium within the city limits, leaving their previous home the Ricoh Arena.
Fair enough you might think. Except there is no evidence that a planning application for a new stadium has been submitted, never mind permission being obtained. How on earth did a club, once a mainstay of top flight football, end up here?
The history as to how and why is long and complicated. In 2007, Coventry narrowly avoided administration when hedge fund managers SISU took over the club with twenty minutes to spare before the deadline.
At the time, the acquisition was widely welcomed; there were promises of squad investment, clearing of debt, a “3 year back to Premiership” plan and eventually a move to acquire a share in the part-council and part-Higgs charity owned Ricoh Arena.
As promised with the acquisition, the initial investment was forthcoming with quality young players such as Keiren Westwood, Aron Gunnarsson, Scott Dann and Danny Fox being brought in. However, within a few seasons the cracks began to appear. Managers came and went, the team refused to gel or offer any consistency, attendances fell and the downward spiral commenced.
The sale of these newly acquired players soon began, along with a worrying fire sale of youth players who had been bought through the academy – generally for below the going rate or for “undisclosed fees”.
This short term and short sighted profiteering, coupled with criminal mismanagement of contract negotiations (effectively letting the most valuable and bankable assets leave on a free transfer at the end of their contracts) reduced the overall playing ability of the squad.
Holed below the waterline, there was only so long Coventry could remain afloat in the Championship, and in 2012 the inevitable relegation to League 1 happened. Unfortunately the worst wasn’t over.
The situation plunged to new depths in December 2012 when SISU became embroiled in a high-profile dispute with Ricoh Arena operators, ACL, over the rent arrangement and unpaid rent (backdating over a year). SISU were demanding £200k as annual rent for the Ricoh and not the current £1.2 million being paid, strangely this is despite having been paying the rent rates for the last 5 years.
SISU claims it is paying the highest rent for a football stadium outside the Premiership. A winding up order was enforced through the High Court, with SISU eventually putting the club into voluntary administration 24 hours before a mandatory order would have been enforced.
During the weeks which followed various front men and consortiums came forward with potential offers and it was announced that there were 4 “serious” bidders. Giving hope to the Sky Blue faithful that the club might change hands and we would see the back of SISU.
The SISU appointed administrator eventually put the club up for sale with three parties making a bid (Preston Haskell, ACL and SISU).
The eventual “winning” bid was accepted from the previously unheard of Otium Entertainment Group Limited, a company based in Mayfair and whose directors include the current and permanently dressed down, Chief Executive Tim Fisher.
Fisher, was duly despatched on a PR tour to address fans forums, but he offered little more than excuses and convoluted answers and quickly found himself as the new whipping boy.
Otium’s other directors include ex-Sky Blue directors Onye Igwe, Leonard Brody and Ken Dulieu. Dulieu was previously CCFC’s “Head of Football Operations” under SISU, who resigned from the club following a “gross error of judgement”. (Following the cringe worthy decision to sit in on manager Andy Thorn’s team talk and then take a seat on the bench during the home defeat to Hull City in 2011).
Ironically, “Otium” being an abstract Latin word, which has a variety of meanings – some might say, given the rogues gallery of director’s quite apt.
Since the takeover the club Otium/SISU pushed on with plans to move away from the Ricoh, exploring options such as Walsall’s Bescot Stadium and former Rushden & Diamonds stadium Nene Park. This has led to outrage amongst the Sky Blue faithful, whom in the last month have had to stomach the resale of the club to Otium and now witness the club being rehoused outside of the city.
During the last week, protests have taken place at SISU’s Mayfair headquarters, at the Ricoh Arena and as of last night the Sixfields Stadium. There is also a Sky Blue Trust run petition with over 11,200 online signatures and a fans’ campaign “Not One Penny More” (to Sky Blues owners SISU).
The Football League as always have been typically quiet on this and have left many supporters amazed as to how a company formed in 2011, which have yet to file accounts and contain prominent directors who have worked under SISU, have passed the Football League’s “fit-and-proper-person test”.
The supporter’s best hope is SISU/Otium bow to fan pressure and sell up (ideally to American property tycoon Preston Haskell). However, this seems very unlikely with the drama likely to rumble into the new season and beyond.
Whether the Sky Blues continue with the move to Northampton, perform a “U” turn and stay in Coventry, acquire new owners or we witness the formation of an “AFC” or “United” remains to be seen – however, for most of the Sky Blue army that sinking feeling remains.
Written by Stew Lauder