Tuesday 18th October 2016 ko 19.45
COVENTRY CITY 2 (Stevenson 28 Sordell 43)
OXFORD UNITED 1 (Crowley 90)
Att 9,912 (2,137 away)
Stadium Parking £10.20
At Oxford United we’re used to the awkward relationship between the club and the stadium. The club is, in effect owned by Daryl Eales but the stadium is owned by former chairman Firoz Kassam. Occasionally the two disagree, and the end game is clearly when in 10 years time the lease runs out and all options become open to all parties. It’s a complicated business, but compared to what’s facing Coventry City- it’s positively straightforward!
The Sky Blues moved to the Ricoh Arena in 2005 from the homely but outmoded Highfield Road. Incidentally the final goal at the old ground was scored by Andy Whing, now Oxford United’s youth team coach, and who was present at this game, summarising for BBC Radio Oxford.
On one hand the Ricoh Arena provided the club with a 32,609 seater home fit for a club apiring to a return to the Premier League. On the other they found themselves in a stadium owned half by by Coventry City Council and half by themselves, with an Stadium Company, Arena Coventry Limited (ACL) to run it. The football club then then sold their half to the Alan Higgs Charity- set up in memory of the late businessman for the benefit of the people of Coventry, with the charity presumably looking at the 50% share as an investment.
In all probability it wouldn’t have mattered to either club or charity, but then Coventry City were taken over by SISU, a hedge fund. Now the whole title “Hedge Fund” sounds pejorative, but if it’s seen as a company to extract maximum value for its investors, its aims needn’t necessarily be at variance with the aims of Coventry City FC. But to do that the club had to return to the riches of the Premier League. When that didn’t happen, the trouble really started.
In 2012 SISU tried to renegotiate the £100,000 a month rental agreement with the stadium company ACL but during the negotiations withheld the rental payments. ACL sued arguing it was a deliberate and illegal attempt to financially distress them, winning the case.
The club were relegated to League 1 that season, but with SISU and ACL still in dispute SISU opted to move the club 35 miles away in July 2013 into a groundshare at Northampton Town. If SISU saw it as a means of forcing ACL’s hand to offer better terms what happened next clearly hadn’t even crossed their minds.
If a hedge fund’s responsibility is to provide value to their investors, then much the same goes for a local authority or a charity. Wasps rugby union club had long since split their club in two, with the amateur section (who still own 5% of the professional club) still based in Acton, and the professional club branded as “London Wasps” leading a nomadic existence playing first at QPR’s Lofus Road, then from 2002 at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park.
By 2014 Wasps weren’t happy at Adams Park. They neither owned the stadium, nor could extend it, so the chance to move again looked a good one, assuming of course you could ignore the fact that Coventry is over a hundred miles from London. They could, the prefix “London” was artfully dropped and Wasps bought both the council and the Higgs charity’s shares in the stadium for £2.77million each. The rugby club also paid back the remainder of a £14.4million council loan to ACL and agreed an extension of the lease of the venue from 50 years to 250 years from freehold owners Coventry City Council. It’s easy to see how both parties would have been quite content to rid themselves of a stadium that was proving to be more trouble than it was worth.
There was another side to this though. There was and is a well-established rugby union club, Coventry RUFC playing at the Butts Arena. To describe their reaction to Wasps’ arrival as somewhat unimpressed would be something of an understatement, but I’ll come back to them later…
Noone has publicly admitted that Wasps’ purchase of the Ricoh Arena forced SISU to reopen negotiations with ACL but in 2014 the club signed a two-year deal to return to the Ricoh Arena with the club holding the option of playing here for another 2 years. The first game back took place in September 2015 but already SISU are looking at alternatives to the Ricoh, one of those being the Butts Arena home to Coventry RUFC and from next season home to Coventry United a club formed in 2013 in reaction to SISU’s running of Coventry City!
Whatever happens next the oddest part of the whole saga is SISU. Clearly as an investment Coventry City has failed, and as I write they’re trying to unpick Wasps’ purchase of the Ricoh, and trying to sell the training ground for housing with the club’s training base moving to the Alan Higgs Centre. If you’d clicked the earlier link, you’d know that used to be home to Coventry United!
It goes without saying that City’s fans are heartily sick of SISU and are campaigning hard to see the club sold, but there seems little or no desire, despite everything for SISU to sell up.
From ACL and Wasps’ perspective the stadium loses money, £1.4 million in the year to 30th June 2015 and Wasps losing money averaging only around 11,000 per game. According to the Coventry Telegraph Wasps are having to service a £35million debt to retail bond holders, and cover operating losses of £2.5 million during that June 2015 year end. It doesn’t look sustainable, and that’s assuming that the football club stays put!
So what’s it like to visit at the moment? In a word-odd. Oxford United were allocated 1,500 tickets for this game, those sold out before the previous weekend’s home game. So upwards of 600 fans were meant to fit through 2 cash turnstiles…. it worked as well as you’d expect.
The stadium continues to be a high quality stadium in Coventry City sky blue; was I the only one to wonder whether Wasps would completely rebrand the place if football left here completely? And let’s face it, with Coventry City rock bottom of League 1 coming into this game the stadium is far too big for them and you can see why alternatives are being sought.
But courtesy of a youth team graduate and a free agent featured in a Sky documentary on the struggles of players out-of-contract before signing during the week before they won this one, and as I write Coventry are at least out of the relegation zone.
I headed back to the car and passed the last piece of the madness that is Coventry City’s existence. Next door to the Arena is Coventry Arena Railway Station but in August 2015 it was announced that the station will be closed for one hour preceding and following football or rugby matches and concerts on safety grounds. The reason would you believe that their is insufficient rolling stock to provide a suitable service and the cost of providing them is prohibitive. Or putting it another way, the only the service that could be provided to shift a 32,000 crowd is a single 75 seat diesel rail car!
I shook my head at the ridiculousness of it all, and when the car park finally cleared disappeared into the night.