When, in March 2013, Coventry City left the Ricoh Arena in what, in hindsight, resembled Walter White’s frantic attempts to gather his dirty money and bury it in the desert before Hank could reach it in the final season of Breaking Bad, it seemed almost inconceivable that the club’s absence from its purpose-built stadium could be truly long-term. Such a situation was virtually without precedent, and however bad the relationship between Sisu and ACL was, a solution would surely be brokered – a football stadium with a football club-shaped hole in it clearly benefited no one.
And yet, a year later, there is still little prospect of a resolution, and the same old protagonists remain doggedly in place. Despite, in real terms, having spent most of 13/14 hovering around 6th-8th position in League One (accounting for the 10 point deduction, of course, tells a different – albeit inaccurate – story), the season has followed a familiar course for City fans – beginning positively but ultimately tailing off after Christmas, leaving the final three months of the season as a mere exercise in securing mid-table mediocrity. Chris Coleman and Aidy Boothroyd would be proud.
However, given the circumstances, this is a major achievement. Assuming safety is secured come May, Steven Pressley is a worthy manager of the year contender. Every time I lose faith or grow frustrated with our often farcically inept defence, I remind myself of the situation in which the club found itself in August of last year. With a meagre squad consisting largely of inexperienced academy graduates, relegation looked a certainty; the club’s continuation as a going concern almost seemed like a more pressing priority than any footballing targets. In this context, a mid-table finish would be miraculous.
But what of the future? When Sky Blue Sports and Leisure Ltd (holders of 90.1% of Otium, who own the club) recently published their annual accounts – covering the year up to May 31st 2013 – they painted a gravely worrying picture. For all the conjecture surrounding the tangible consequences of the Ricoh dispute – the Sixfields tenancy – the state of the club beforehand has, to some extent, escaped scrutiny.
As the excellent Two Hundred Percent blog eloquently summarises here, the accounts reflect a club in contraction, struggling to function – even when they were able to rely on the revenue from average league attendances of nearly 11,000, as opposed to this season’s woeful 2,000. The value of the club’s assets was down significantly compared to the previous year, income from player sales had plummeted, and a reliance on loans had increased. Perhaps the most damning verdict was that of independent auditors, who refer to “material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt over the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”.
While the owners have stated that ‘investors’ will cover the losses incurred from playing at Sixfields, it is believed that these funds exist only in the form of loans – the repayment of which could seemingly be demanded at any moment. To the casual observer, it’s very difficult to foresee how this supposed investment is likely be recouped, barring an unlikely return to the Premier League, combined with the amalgamation of the club and a stadium. Moreover, the approach appears to be informed by a high-risk, all-or-nothing strategy. If that gamble does not pay off, it seems inevitable that the club and its supporters will be the ones who will ultimately suffer. It is not melodramatic to argue that the long-term future of the club is still very much in danger.
Rather than endorse any view that the Sixfields tenancy is financially viable, the accounts apparently show that it is utterly unsustainable for one season, let alone the four or five that may be required if a new stadium is to be built. And question marks remain concerning fundamental details of such a stadium. Despite promises from the club in January that a site would be announced within three weeks, three months later we are none the wiser. A fans’ consultation group was set up at the turn of the year, but many feel that this is simply an exercise in giving an illusion of fan advocacy to the authorities.
This inaction may or may not be related to June’s upcoming judicial review into the legality of a £14m loan given to ACL by Coventry City Council which, Sisu argue, was an unlawful use of public funds. It is difficult to predict how this will play out – and consequently, how it will impact on next season – but a suspicion has lingered all along that the club’s owners will procrastinate over resolving the stadium situation until an outcome to the judicial review is reached, in case it eventually facilitates the purchase of the Ricoh Arena freehold. In the meantime, uncertainty reigns.
We can be sure, though, that the current situation is having a devastating impact on the club’s fan base. A loyal core of supporters will fight for the club until its death, but, broadly speaking, stagnancy is breeding both resignation and widespread detachment. While some are relinquishing their support in anger, many fans will drift away simply through fatigue and frustration. In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and back again), Andy Warhol says:
“Sometimes people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, So what. That’s one of my favorite things to say. So what.”
Unfortunately for Coventry’s long-term prospects, Warhol reflects a feeling inherent in many people. Supporting a football team is, contrary to mythology, a choice. If it seems endlessly hopeless and yields nothing but misery, fans will stop caring and cut ties. And, as the continued boycott of Sixfields shows, they already are. While some are staying away through moral determination, the actions of many are no doubt motivated by apathy. Everyone wants to back a winning horse; following Coventry at the moment sometimes feels like betting on one that’s about to be euthanized: hardly an appealing prospect for young fans.
Making the bold assumption, again, that the club will remain in League One next season, it looks to be another challenging year. For the time being, the prospect of starting a season on zero points after consecutive points deductions is enticing, but we should remain cautious: there is every possibility that a conclusion to the judicial review – however long-winded – may result in further sanctions against the club if it goes against it.
Even if such a penalty is unforthcoming, challenges will still remain. With several key players out of contract at the end of the season (including talismanic goalkeeper Joe Murphy, creative enigma Franck Moussa and coveted full back Cyrus Christie), Steven Pressley may have a job on his hands to build a squad of a similar calibre to this season’s. Retaining the division’s current top scorer, Callum Wilson, will be a test in itself, and futile efforts to replace Leon Clarke in January showed how difficult it is for League One teams to recruit players, even when money is available. When financial forecasts are so dismal, though, there is a natural inclination to assume that funds will be minimal, no matter what the club says about investors covering costs.
We must also acknowledge the risk of losing Steven Pressley to another club. The manager has arguably been the differential between further decline and the club keeping its flagging head above water. The destabilising effect of having to find a replacement would set the club back by another year on the pitch, and there’s no guarantee that a new manager would be able to utilise the academy with such success.
A potential third season in League One is indicative of a former Premier League mainstay becoming a fixture in the third tier, and the long-term downscaling of a club that, little more than a decade ago, was set to move into its own 45,000 capacity stadium. Even so, most Coventry fans will probably tolerate lower league football for the time being. Of more immediate concern is the normalisation of crowds of 1,000 home fans and the gradual deconstruction of Coventry’s support. Achieving success next season – whether in League One or League Two – is likely to be a struggle if fans are still being forced away. And, more philosophically, how meaningful is success without fans, anyway?
If this season has demonstrated anything, it’s a gradual acceptance by supporters that they can ultimately do little to influence things. In reality, we are still in a situation whereby the prospect of a fruitful season next year is still entirely dependent on the outcome of the stadium dispute and the actions of a handful of influential individuals. How predictable. How frustrating to stand by and witness such enforced quiescence.