Coventry City is not simply experiencing a financial catastrophe right now; it faces a crisis of identity, with far-reaching implications for football supporters across the country.
The Ricoh Arena dispute has spun out of control over the past 12 months, to such an extent that it is virtually impossible for Coventry supporters to comprehend, let alone confront what is happening to their club.
At face value, the idea that Coventry’s owners, Sisu, were able to place part of the club into administration themselves, before appointing the administrator and buying the same subsidiary back as their administrator’s preferred bidder is absurd. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Imagine, then, the difficulty of explaining to those with only a passing interest why this is such a significant, disturbing case.
A typical conversation with the uninitiated goes as follows:
“So I hear Coventry are in administration then?”
Me: “Er…not exactly. Half of the club is in administration”.
“Ok. But new owners will sort everything out, right?”
Me: “No. The new owners are the old owners”.
“Right. But you’ll at least be able to afford to pay the rent on the stadium now?”
Me: “The owners could afford to pay the rent before, they just chose not to. We might be ground-sharing with Walsall next season”
“I don’t get it. Surely the FA don’t let that sort of thing happen? Anyway, how do you think Mourinho will get on at Chelsea next year?”
And this is one of countless frustrating facets of Coventry’s situation: it is virtually impossible to outline without sitting someone down and giving them a half-an-hour lecture on the complicated recent history of the club and its owners.
It may be a significant case study, but it’s a complex and boring one. People don’t follow football because they’re interested in the convoluted business practice of anonymous hedge funds.
It was the romance of England’s Euro ’96 campaign that truly hooked me in the first place, not the intricacies of the catering deals struck for that tournament and how they impacted on overheads for men in suits. If I supported anyone but Coventry, I probably wouldn’t take much more than a passing interest either.
Not another Porstmouth
One of the greatest misconceptions is that Coventry are another Portsmouth or Leeds, having spent beyond their means in order to achieve undeserved success. This is a popular perception because it is simple and easy to understand. We live in a post-2008 financial crisis world; we can all relate to that narrative arc, and according to some, Coventry fans should stop whining and deal with the consequences.
To reduce the Coventry situation to this, though, is like comparing Hamlet to The Snowman on the basis that they both conclude with the death of their protagonists. For a start, where was Coventry’s post-relegation overspending? And where was the success?
According to reports, Coventry are now around £70m in debt. Sisu claimed upon purchasing the club that they had rendered it debt-free. In recent years the net transfer spend has been negative. Sisu even used the Ricoh Arena for almost zero outlay last year.
So where on earth have these colossal debts come from? Why is there so little transparency? Unsurprisingly for an ownership who have failed to file their accounts on time for three years in a row, the breakdown of these debts remains for their eyes only.
Fans are running out of patience because their club is being taken away from them needlessly. It is not being downsized and dismantled because there isn’t an appetite from supporters, but because of a series of terrible business decisions made by individuals who have no affiliation with Coventry, and who appear to be unashamedly acting solely with self gain as their motive. There is a reason that all football fans should sit up and take note: this could happen to any club in the country.
Coventry City has averaged an attendance of approximately 18,000 throughout its history. This is a club who were deemed to require a 45,000-seater stadium only fifteen years ago, who represent a city of nearly 320,000 people.
The FA and the Football League have been very quiet when it comes to recent events at Coventry
As recently as February of this year, 32,000 fans filled the Ricoh for a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy game against Crewe. And yet here we are, hypothesizing over the number of fans who might follow Coventry if they spend the next three years sharing with Northampton or Nuneaton while a new stadium is built (Sisu anticipate 3,000; a more realistic figure is 1,000 or less).
In other words, in such a deregulated system, no club is ‘too big’ to be immune from similar abuse.
It is this lack of accountability that Coventry’s plight serves to highlight. A governing structure that allows an anonymous hedge fund specialising in extracting profit from corporate insolvency cases to purchase a football club, drive it to administration and then buy it back to continue the exercise is one that requires some serious scrutiny.
The FA and the Football League have been very quiet when it comes to recent events at Coventry. Presumably they hope to distance themselves from the negative PR that inevitably follows Sisu’s circus, but they have a duty of care to the club’s long-suffering supporters.
Sisu’s actions are morally reprehensible, but they have not yet apparently broken any rules. Much like corporate tax evaders, one has to examine the system that allows them to get away with it just as much as the offenders themselves.
The tribal nature of football fans is partly what makes them such ripe targets for the antics of the likes of Sisu. Capitalism is driven by consumer choice and the collective influence of a customer base which has a shared goal of attaining the best quality product for as little cost as possible.
Consumer choice does not traditionally exist in football because a club is bestowed upon you from a young age, as a consequence of your family’s allegiance or a link to the place where you grew up. If a supermarket treated its customers with the same contempt that Sisu has treated fans of Coventry, they would all have taken their money elsewhere a long time ago.
But football fans are stuck with their club, and investors in modern football know this. They can afford to exploit their customers, safe in the knowledge that they will stay loyal to the brand – and I think the gradual re-defining of football clubs and supporters as ‘brands’ and ‘customers’ is partly what lies at the heart of Coventry’s mess.
If those responsible for regulating “investors” were not so reliant on them for revenue, they might be able to carry out their responsibility to protect historic community institutions such as Barry Town and Wimbledon FC.
Only by discarding petty club rivalries and combining their collective spending power will football supporters have any success in fighting back against the likes of Venky’s and Sisu.
Tom Furnival-Adams is a contributor to Just Football and long-suffering Coventry City fan who has also written for When Saturday Comes and The Two Unfortunates. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_FA
(photo credit: Southampton Atlantean via Flickr)