In 100 Days from now, on 28th April Coventry City will play Shrewsbury Town in what could be their final match at the Ricoh Arena, possibly the last home game our Football Club plays in its EFL history. 135 years of a great football club may come to a sorry end. While there is the prospect of a further home tie in the League One play-offs, that would be largely irrelevant if current circumstances do not change for the better.
I wrote a very similar headline almost 12 months ago when there were fears that City’s playing agreement at the Ricoh Arena might come to an end. As we know, a deal was concluded not too long thereafter, whereby the Sky Blues could enjoy a further season in the stadium that was built for our club.
In 2018 we had heard encouraging noises from Dave Boddy, CEO of Coventry City; in fact, he had been telling supporters since well before Christmas 2017 that an announcement was “imminent”. Many supporters were largely skeptical and only believed that a deal was done when we had confirmation, both from CCFC and from Wasps Rugby Club, our landlords.
Such doubt was natural when the record of failed commitments and promises broken by club directors had been so extensive in the past decade. Who can ever forget Mark Labovitch’s claim regarding a new stadium that: “We are about 3 weeks away from being able to name the final site”. That 3 weeks has turned into 5 years and of course no land and no stadium have been provided.
There is far less doubt about our prospects for playing at the Ricoh in 2019/20 and beyond; they are very slim indeed. Open Letters from the club to fans, programme notes from Mr Boddy and Chairman Tim Fisher have made very clear that:
- There is no alternative ground available for Coventry City apart from the Ricoh;
- The EFL will not sanction a move out of Coventry, similar to what happened in 2013 for 13 months, when City played “home fixtures” at Northampton;
- Wasps will not even discuss a new deal covering future seasons while the Court Action continues.
When Nick Eastwood, CEO of Wasps announced the extension of playing facilities to the football club for an additional 12 months, there was a clear warning attached. If the application for Judicial Review, pursued by CCFC owners Sisu against Coventry City Council was continued, there would be no negotiations covering further seasons. This litigation in the name of Otium Entertainment Limited, which trades as Coventry City FC, and other parties is a direct threat to Wasps very existence and it should not be surprising to anyone that this stance has been taken by the landlords.
That warning has been ignored by Sisu and the case was taken by the Court of Appeal last summer, with a rejection of the Application announced in November 2018, confirming an earlier High Court decision. Nonetheless, Sisu have ploughed on regardless with a request to the Supreme Court to hear their application. A decision is expected in the next month or two but even if that decision brings this particular action in English Courts to a conclusion, the possibility remains of Sisu taking this dispute to the European Court. There is also speculation about other forms of litigation in England being commenced by the Sisu boss, Joy Seppala.
Nick Eastwood maintained the position of his Rugby Club in an ITV interview earlier this week. He was plain in talking about the rent Wasps receive from Coventry City that: “ … it’s not really a fundamental number in our business plan, we’d like them [Coventry City] to play here [at the Ricoh] but it’s not a commercial decision. Their permission to appeal to the Supreme Court was filed at the end of November. Our understanding is the Supreme Court works on a two to three month time frame, so hopefully there may be a decision shortly and that may lead us to a different situation than where we are now.” The implication being that if the court case stops then a deal is still possible at the Ricoh but not if the present situation remains unaltered.
With the prospect of being homeless in 100 days comes the danger of being expelled from the EFL. The football club could apply to join a league further down the football pyramid, for example the Midlands Premier League where Coventry Sphinx and Coventry United also play. It is equally possible that Coventry City could be out of business altogether if it loses current status.
In the face of this imminent threat to the whole future of our football club, the Jimmy Hill Way Campaign has worked alongside the Sky Blue Trust to involve our local MPs and for them to bring Government Ministers into the situation. We have been successful (so far) in engaging 10 Members of Parliament to take up this cause.
Jim Cunningham MP secured a debate in Westminster Hall and he was joined by Colleen Fletcher, Matt Western, Kevin Foster and Marcus Jones all speaking eloquently in support of Mr Cunningham. The Government was represented by Sports Minister, Mims Davies, who was also sympathetic to the position of Coventry City in this regard. The full transcript of the debate can be read here https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-01-15/debates/A2556BCC-229B-4517-B3FE-77F6BDEE3AE7/CoventryCityFootballClub
What can we expect from our politicians? Fine words must be translated into good deeds if there is to be any chance of rescuing the club from possible extinction. Ms Davies made the following commitment which sums up what we may expect: “In terms of immediate action for Coventry City, I will work with the Secretary of State [Jeremy Wright, MP for Kenilworth & Southam] to convene an urgent meeting with the various parties to see if a solution can be found to ensure that the club has a stadium to call home for next season. That is an imperative for loyal fans, who want answers. As my hon. Friend said, I can give no guarantees, but I hope that that meeting can bring about a meeting of minds, press together those interested parties beyond the courtroom, and emphasise the importance that Coventry as a whole places on its football club. No club should be forced to leave its historical home and local fan base. We have seen that in the past in football, and it is wrong that that might be the case.”
Now that does sound like a further round of mediation is being proposed. Two previous attempts at mediation do not appear to have achieved anything. If Sisu stubbornly continue to pursue their course of legal proceedings and Wasps maintain their stubborn resistance, then mediation cannot succeed. Coventry City Football Club, its supporters and the whole Sky Blues Community is the “human shield” in this war and likely to become collateral damage at the end of this season.
Both Sisu and Wasps are legally entitled to take their current stances. Sisu however have a clear duty to be good stewards of a much-loved community institution. This was again well expressed by the Sports Minister: “I reiterate that it is not the Government’s direct responsibility to be the custodians of one particular football club, but it is our responsibility to hold to account those club owners who sign up to be custodians of a club but do not show that to be in their hearts.” It is fair to say that Sisu came in for much criticism from MPs of all parties in this debate.
Unless Sisu are shifted from their present course of action, it seems most likely that Coventry City Football Club are on a fast-track to oblivion. Government and Parliament have no direct power to make them stop. However, Ministers and MPs can exert more powerful influence on Sisu, Wasps and other parties, both directly and through the EFL, than can be achieved by fans and representative groups such as the Trust and JHW.
The EFL are also a vital part of the persuasive process: not only will they decide the fate of the Sky Blues but they also have some responsibility for failure to deal adequately with the last homelessness event in 2013. Having placed the football club into administration, Sisu were then allowed to resume control of CCFC, which was an appalling decision to our minds. The EFL owe the supporters a better outcome in 2019.
In the meantime, the Jimmy Hill Way will continue to explore ways to save the club. Much of our work is focused on raising the issue of Coventry City’s problems to bring pressure on those who may actually be able to make a difference in this situation, a crisis brought about by incompetence, greed and arrogance of owners and directors.
Homelessness of the Sky Blues is our current concern as football fans. This winter in the City of Coventry we are witnessing increased levels of homeless people, which causes us concern as people with social consciences. Therefore, ahead of the game against Blackpool FC on 26th January, a group from the Jimmy Hill Way Campaign will be sleeping outside the Ricoh Arena near the Jimmy Hill Statue on the previous night. This will be combined with a bucket collection to raise money for the local homeless organisation, The Winter Night Shelter run by the Hope Coventry Charity (subject to their agreement) or a suitable alternative.
The expression “Hope Coventry …. [plus] City survive well beyond the next 100 days” is surely what all Sky Blues supporters dearly wish right now. It may be more in Hope than Expectation but JHW will continue to “Fight ‘til the Game is Won” … at least until there are no more games for CCFC to play.
The Jimmy Hill Way Campaign