Sky Blues fan and ‘Keep Cov in Cov’ campaigner David Johnson tells the sorry tale of Coventry City and explains why the game is letting fans down. Read more and sign Keep Cov in Cov's ‘Without Fans There Is No Football’ here.
Back in the mid-1990s Coventry City were financially stable, the perennial ‘Houdini’ club of football with only Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool having stayed longer in the top-flight for a continuous spell.
By the late-90s, CCFC Directors had grandiose dreams for the club which outweighed their business sense and started to spend on transfer fees and wages at a rate that far exceeded the income the club received. One of these dreams was to leave Highfield Road with a capacity of 23,000 for a much larger stadium, a strange decision you might think as Highfield Road was only sold out two or three times per season. Eventually, this was to see the club move into the magnificent Olympic-standard Ricoh Arena in 2005.
However, before a single piece of earth was turned on the construction project, the risks taken by the Directors had put the club into real financial crisis. The money that would be raised from the sale of Highfield Road had been squandered and when the club was relegated to the second tier in 2001, there were reportedly debts of £60million.
Coventry City Council stepped in at this point to rescue the new stadium project and funded the construction at a total cost of £113million. Coventry City would therefore have their new home, however the Club Directors were in a weak negotiating position and the terms of the lease were very steep.
Although the football club paid an annual rent of £1.3m+ covering matchday expenses, Coventry City did not enjoy any of the matchday revenues apart from ticket and merchandising sales; the club was deprived of the benefits from food and beverage, car-parking etc. Also, there was no access to profits from other events such as conferences and concerts, or from the hotel and casino which were part of the complex, as these were not part of the tenancy arrangement.
In 2007 Coventry City FC were on the brink of going into administration. At the last minute, Sisu Capital, a London-based Hedge Fund with investment operations sheltered on the Cayman Islands, arrived on the scene and bought the club. A lot of big promises were made about re-investment in the football team to bring about a return to the Premier League but little was delivered. In 2012 the club was again relegated, this time to League One.
Following relegation, the owners declared that the terms of the lease for the Ricoh Arena were unacceptable for a League One club and stopped paying the rent with immediate effect to force a re-negotiation. This is despite the fact that the lease was legally binding and although Sisu had not been the original signatories they had effectively accepted the terms when they bought the club. The ‘rent strike’ continued for almost 12 months and although the landlords offered significantly reduced rent to reach a settlement, Sisu refused to accept.
In March 2013, with court decisions in place in favour of the landlords, the owners put Coventry City Football Club into administration before the creditors could do the same. They also announced that the club would be leaving the Ricoh and would seek an alternative venue for home games for the 2013/14 season, although the team were permitted to complete fixtures for the last season at the Ricoh.
Eventually, it was announced that the new venue would be at Sixfields, home of Northampton Town, 35 miles from Coventry. This move was sanctioned by the Football League for a period of three to five years, despite vociferous protests from supporters' groups.
Just before the current season began, the Football League also agreed to the transfer of the ‘Golden Share’ which confers rights to be a member of the League to a different operating company, also owned by Sisu. So the same people who put the club into administration were now back in control of the football club having bought the relevant assets from the Administrator. Again, the majority of supporters were totally dismayed at this turn of events.
Attendances at Sixfields for ‘home’ games average around 2,000 compared to 10,000 in League One at the Ricoh. For some it is impractical to attend, for most of us it is an active decision not to attend; many of us extend this boycott to not purchasing any club merchandise, a campaign known as ‘Not One Penny More’ at least until we are playing back at the Ricoh, or for some until Sisu have exited from the club.
This is a hard choice as we know that an economic weapon hurts the team we love but it is the only effective tool that we have to use against owners who are ruining OUR club. The sad irony for supporters is that while this is going on, the team are playing the most attractive and successful football seen for at least 15 years. This partly explains why the away following has been massive by comparison: 7,000 at MK Dons; a 5,000 sell-out at the Emirates for a televised game on a Friday night (which could have been more if CCFC had taken a bigger allocation); and almost 4,000 to Notts County on 8th February, the largest away following in the country that weekend.
Supporters generally feel betrayed by the club’s owners; for many people the City Council are considered to have some share of the blame; former Directors certainly have much to answer for; and the Football League has failed us totally by not acting to regulate properly in this matter, partly because their rules are inadequate, partly through incompetence and largely because they place the interests of club owners and their own self-interest far above the wishes of the mass of supporters.
With no sign of a resolution in sight, the ‘Keep Cov[entry] in Cov[entry]’ campaign has launched a petition on the Parliamentary web-site called ‘Without Fans There Is No Football’. It calls on the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport to re-open its inquiry into Football Governance following an ultimatum that they issued in January 2013 to the governing bodies – FA, Premier League, Football League – to bring about self-reform in the interests of supporters within 12 months or face legislation to enforce appropriate changes.
Since that report was issued, the whole Coventry City saga has erupted so we are asking for it to be used as a case-study to demonstrate the manifest failings in governance procedures. But we are not alone. Cardiff City, Hull City and most recently Leeds United fans can all claim that they are being let down by football governing bodies who support owners against the demands of fans - dare I say customers! - on every occasion. By far the largest group of participants in the national game – the paying supporters – are mostly ignored by those who should be standing up for us.
Please support this petition and ask friends, relatives and fellow football supporters to do the same. We need to get 100,000 signatures within 12 months in order for Parliament to take notice but really we need to do this much quicker to be effective.
Over the first 10 days we are exceeding 1,000 signatures per day which is brilliant: but there is still a long way to go to reach our objective. The petition is not just about Coventry City, its concerns are rooted in the loss of football’s soul and has the well-being of all our clubs at heart. We have the backing of the Football Supporters' Federation and MP’s from both sides of Parliament among many others. Please bear in mind that if this can happen to Coventry City it could be your club next.
The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.
Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.