For the visitor to Coventry City’s Ryton-on-Dunsmore training ground this week, the sight of Steven Pressley’s squad at work on a sun-kissed pitch offered a brief reminder of that tingle of anticipation so prevalent around football clubs at this time of year.
Sadly, other matters dominate the agenda at a club with no new kit, no new players – owing to a transfer embargo in place since March – and, crucially, no home stadium for this coming campaign. After the Football League’s decision this week to approve a groundshare with Northampton Town, the 130-year-old club is poised to start 2013-14 not at the 32,000-capacity Ricoh Arena but 35 miles away at the 7,000-seat Sixfields Stadium.
The move has been met with widespread anger – 14,000 people have signed the Coventry Telegraph’s “City Must Stay” petition – and even Tim Fisher, the Sky Blues’ chief executive and public face of Sisu, the hedge fund that took over the club in 2008, knows why he may be portrayed as the villain of the piece. “From a PR perspective I am the devil incarnate,” he admitted.
This is no apology, though; instead Fisher, in a series of interviews on Thursday, sought to explain just why the plan to play away while building a new stadium in Coventry is the best option for a club long embroiled in a rent dispute with Arena Coventry Limited (ACL), owners of the Ricoh Arena.
“If I’m being vilified for dislocating a [club from its] community, I think it’s wrong,” he said. “The short-term solution is horrendous, we all understand that. But the long-term uplift in security, stability and sustainability in Coventry City Football Club is the thing that people should cling on to.”
Birmingham City’s and Walsall’s stadiums were considered for the ground-share but Northampton – “just off the M1” and with “access to 2,000 car parking spaces” – was chosen. The deal with the League Two club is for an initial three years but includes an option for two more. However, Fisher, who promises that fans’ extra travel costs will be factored into season-ticket prices, points to the £1m bond paid to the Football League as evidence of Sisu’s intention to return to Coventry. “The Football League will never allow another MK Dons so you have to show how you get back to Coventry,” he added.
According to Fisher, the club is “close to securing exclusivity” for a site for a new stadium in Coventry. It is tempting to wonder why Sisu wants to bother – its £45m investment to date has yielded relegation from the Championship, debts of £50m and considerable ill will.
The great pity of it, of course, is that there is a perfectly good stadium in Coventry already. Yet who precisely is to blame for the present mess is not the straightforward question it might seem. After City’s 34-season top-flight stay ended in 2001, Coventry had debts close to £60m. As a result, in 2003, they sold their 50 per cent stake in the Ricoh Arena development to the Alan Edward Higgs Charity for £6.5m. Peter Knatchbull-Hugessen, clerk of the charity and an ACL director, says: “The intention all along was for the club to buy back that share. The concept of the Ricoh Arena is absolutely designed for Financial Fair Play – it is a 365-days-a-year business.”
Instead, eight years after the club left Highfield Road, that stake remains in the charity’s hands, with Coventry City Council holding the other 50 per cent and the club reaping none of the benefits. (The annual £1.28m rental fee Sisu inherited was, according to Knatchbull-Hugessen, the result of previous club directors, anticipating a top-flight return, turning down a restructured arrangement that included contingencies for an extended stint in the lower divisions.)
Sisu stopped paying rent in March 2012; negotiations last year for the company to buy the stadium collapsed; and in February Sisu – unhappy with a proposed share of matchday revenues – rejected a new £400,000 annual rental agreement. In March, City went into administration after ACL called in a debt of £1.3m in unpaid rent and since then there has been a bitter stand-off between two parties with a deep mutual antipathy.
Since the club’s chosen administrator, Paul Appleton, selected the Otium Entertainment Group, a Sisu company, as its preferred bidder in June, ACL has refused to recognise CCFC Holdings – the company set up by Otium/Sisu. ACL turned up the heat yesterday when it dismissed Appleton’s offer to act as mediator between the parties and its lawyers warned the Northampton chairman David Cardoza it would sue the club if it staged a Coventry “home” match, stating that the club are under contract to play their home fixtures at the Ricoh Arena, under a lease and licence drawn up in 2006.
For their part Otium/Sisu issued a statement this week asking a local MP, Bob Ainsworth, to withdraw the “defamatory” suggestion made in Parliament this week that their entering administration was part of a deliberate strategy to defraud the club’s creditors. They also rejected an offer by ex-vice-chairman Gary Hoffman – part of an unsuccessful bidding consortium headed by the American, Preston Haskell IV – to pay Coventry’s rent for the next three seasons at the Ricoh
Temperatures are clearly rising and there will be members of the Sky Blues Trust, a fans’ group, will protest today outside Nuneaton Town’s ground, where City play their first pre-season friendly. Jan Mokrzycki, a spokesman for the trust, said: “For many people, the news the club is going to do a deal with Northampton is just the final straw.”
Before that comes to pass, Coventry must leave administration and it remains to be seen whether ACL will sign Appleton’s proposed Company Voluntary Agreement at a creditors’ meeting on 22 July; if not the alternative for the club would be liquidation and another sizeable points’ deduction. This saga could have more twists yet.
Groundsharing: The moves in miles
1985: Charlton-Crystal Palace, 11.5 m
Charlton moved from The Valley to Selhurst Park for six years.
1991: Wimbledon-Crystal Palace, 6.3
Wimbledon had a 12-year stay at Palace’s Selhurst Park before moving to Milton Keynes.
1997: Brighton-Gillingham 73.8
Brighton moved from the Goldstone Ground to the Priestfield Stadium for two years.
2002: Fulham-QPR, 3.2
Fulham moved for two seasons.