Competition for the prize for last season’s biggest crisis club was one of the most hotly contested and morbidly gripping tussles up and down the divisions. Portsmouth provided the latest, and hopefully final, volume in their beginners guide to self-destruction whilst Aldershot Town tore up two decades worth of progress following liquidation to leave themselves with a sinking feeling of deja vu. Both offered a credible challenge to Harry Redknapp’s QPR as they wrote themselves a tragic-comedy about highly paid superstars on the road to ruin, but Coventry City surely offered up the most absorbing page-turner. With the new season’s fixtures still warm from the presses and the club yet to confirm a home ground for next year, the Sky Blues are looking a good bet to be the critics’ choice once again.
With the opening weekend barely a month away, the Football League announced this week that Coventry will play their home games over thirty miles outside of the city in Northampton, an arrangement that has already drawn an angry reaction from fans unwilling to pay for the privilege of spending an hour on the M1 every other weekend in addition to the usual rising match day costs. The demands being made by the club of its fans have the feel of an outfit with its back to the wall – its hands tied by circumstance, the next inevitable victim of an unforgiving and blisteringly harsh financial winter. But whilst the fans may be victims, the club’s problems are the product of a flawed design stretching back over the last decade and the blame rests not with the uppity fancies of a fickle financial climate but deep within the annals of power at the club and at Football League HQ.
When the season gets under way in mid-August, not only will the Ricoh Arena stand empty in the heart of the city like a lost shoe as thousands of fans pass by on the long trip to Northampton, the great majority of those fans will remember the other stadium that was left abandoned in the name of a vision of the club’s future that has stubbornly failed to materialize. When Highfield Road was sold off to developers in 2005, the directors were in good voice, speculating loudly about prospects for the Ricoh Arena that included a key role in England’s 2006 World Cup bid and competing in finances and facilities with clubs like Leicester and Southampton, whom hindsight has taught us have taken a more realistic perspective on their prospects from the start. Even the old ground’s parking facilities were held up as a reason for forcing a move to more illustrious digs. Dodgy parking and a long walk to the ground on match days will seem a longed-for memory now to those fans who face a sixty mile round trip on home weekends.
Avaricious short termism and a phobia of parallel parking aren’t the only thorns in the side of a club that have regressed spectacularly in recent seasons. And the decision makers at Coventry aren’t the only ones who deserve a share of the blame. The relationship with the de facto owners of the Ricoh, Arena Coventry Limited (ACL), has been tense for years, largely due to disagreements over the divvying up of match day takings, which is ultimately at the core of the current dispute. City, having already reneged on their tenancy agreement and been offered a generous golden handshake that would see them play out at least a season at the Arena for gratis, have stubbornly refused to budge on ACL’s demands that the owners retain the bulk of match day takings, and the working arrangement between the two parties has become, at least for now, unpalatable.
With the season drawing in, the city of Coventry finds itself with a fine stadium standing empty but no professional club playing within its boundaries, whilst thirty thousand plus fans go without (if the official attendance at the recent Johnston’s Paint Trophy match against Crewe Alexandra is anything to go by). Finger pointing abounds, but the Football League have remained conspicuously tight-lipped in their judgements, and the guidance offered to all parties has been thin on the ground. The rule book was dropped on the team’s hopes of a promotion push when 10 points were swiftly deducted upon owners Sisu putting the club into administration over the stadium fiasco.
It’s hard to look past the football authorities when it comes to placing responsibility for what has happened at Coventry. Readily reactive but rarely proactive, the League has rumbled along for too long now with loose regulations that fail to properly define the levels of responsibility shared between its members and their commercial partners. Meticulous calculations over divisions of assets and income from the sales of meat pies may not court the kind of glamorous attention the Football League craves as it enviously clings to the coat tails of the Premier League but it’s the kind of heavy lifting that underscores everything the organization is trying to achieve, and without due diligence there can be few complaints when more and more corporate relationships sour and leave a stain on the football landscape.
Because nine thousand fans packing into Sixfields Stadium whilst potentially double that number invest their money and support elsewhere makes little commercial or sporting sense, and in encouraging a club to move such a significant distance from its core support undermines the grassroots spirit of the game. Echoes of Wimbledon and Milton Keynes create an ominous soundscape for authorities and fans moving forward.
And so a lot rests on how much of a success League One side Coventry are able to make of the next twelve months. It’s not inconceivable that this could all yet turn into a sterling example of a small club kicking out against corporate interference and holding their own in the shark pool of investment capital. But the authorities have failed to fulfill the terms of their guardianship too many times in the past for us to pin our hopes too firmly on a positive outcome.