Grey Skies and Silver Linings at Coventry City
Filling us in on the latest in the ongoing saga that is Coventry City is Tom Furnival-Adams…
Given that Coventry City ended 2012-13 without a ground, under a transfer embargo, with a ten-point deduction, without a club shop, and shrouded in uncertainty on virtually every level, it seems defiantly perverse to describe the season as a relative success. However, for fans familiar with four decades of struggle in the lower reaches of the first and second tiers of English football, the Mark Robins era in particular delivered much promise, and for its brief endurance, an unfamiliar sense of optimism. Ignoring the off-the-field issues, Coventry could take pride in their most successful season in nearly ten years. Indeed, quite how much everyone associated with the club wished they could ignore the catastrophic handling of affairs away from the pitch should not be underestimated.
For a collective of supporters who have learnt to expect the unspectacular, to lower expectations when expectations had long-ago been substituted for apathy, pre-season was a time of subdued optimism. Following the loss of the prodigal Gaël Bigirimana to Newastle United and 2011-12’s Player of the Year, Richard Keogh, to Derby County, Andy Thorn quietly went about revamping the squad in preparation for the unfamiliar territory of League One. The likes of Kevin Kilbane and John Fleck were brought in; high-earning, low-contributing passengers like Sammy Clingan and Freddy Eastwood were shipped out. We appeared to have the makings of a financially manageable squad capable of making a promotion push.
A topsy-turvy pre-season, starting with 8-0 and 5-0 wins against Hinckley United and Brora Rangers respectively – followed by four consecutive defeats to technically inferior teams – was impossible to draw too many serious conclusions from (the less said about the embarrassing ‘League One tour’ t-shirts, the better). The mood going into the sunny opening day fixture away to Yeovil was, all things considered, faintly positive.
To the eternal boredom of Media Studies GCSE students across the land, the Bulgarian literary theorist, Tzvetan Todorov, observed that most narratives follow a fundamental pattern. They begin with a state of equilibrium, progressing to overcome disequilbrium and concluding with a newly-established equilibrium. If stability could ever have been perceived at the Ricoh Arena, it was dispensed with after only 3 games (and 3 underwhelming draws), as Andy Thorn was promptly let go. Few tears were shed on his behalf, but many were left feeling baffled that he hadn’t been sacked immediately following relegation from the Championship, enabling a new man to build his own squad over summer. In any case, the Hamlet-esque procrastination over appointing his long-term successor and consequent 5-game losing streak in the league meant Todorov’s theory was rendered meaningless in this instance. 3 points from 8 games in the third tier was not deemed good enough and disequilibrium reigned from the beginning.
Richard Shaw’s brief spell in charge was even more disastrous. A genuinely likeable man and loyal servant to the club as a player was quickly proven to be out of his depth, despite nostalgically-motivated initial calls from a minority of supporters to give him the job permanently. An altercation between Kilbane and a fan during a 0-1 defeat to Crewe in Shaw’s first game in charge was a memorable low point.
It was greeted with muted enthusiasm, but the eventual appointment of Mark Robins on September 19th couldn’t come soon enough. Reaching the latter part of September without a single win meant that any new manager would have been warmly welcomed at that point. Some had reservations that he lacked pedigree, but fans still yearning for a ‘name’ manager clearly hadn’t realigned their expectations with the fortunes of the club. Quite simply, managers with proven track records don’t tend to seek work with League One clubs with no money and questionable futures. Ironically, the most unspectacular appointment in Coventry’s recent history turned out to yield our most exciting spell in years.
Robins quickly set about building a team and a system that worked to the strengths of the players he already had at his disposal. David McGoldrick was identified as the fulcrum on which our approach would pivot, and Carl Baker’s creative instincts were utilised to provide McGoldrick with service. In Joe Murphy, Richard Wood, and William Edjenguà©là©, we had the foundation of a solid League One defence. Robins also appeared to have a Midas touch in the transfer market, bringing in the likes of James Bailey, Franck Moussa and Blair Adams, all of whom made an immediate positive impact. His aptitude for bringing quality players in cheaply, with little fanfare and integrating them into a winning team was nothing short of miraculous. When we had money to spend in the Championship we became accustomed to seeing it squandered on the likes of Kevin Kyle and Lee Hughes. Here, suddenly, was a manager who could identify hidden gems with minimal outlay.
McGoldrick rapidly emerged as arguably the best player in the division, and slowly but surely, Coventry negotiated their way out of the relegation zone and towards the fringes of the play-offs. Away trips in the Capital One and FA Cups to the Emirates and White Hart Lane further buoyed travelling fans. The visit to Tottenham in particular evoked memories of happier times; namely our famous 1987 FA Cup win and survival on the final day of the 1996-97 Premier League season. Most of us were taken by surprise, and there was an embarrassed self-awareness as fans seemed to have no idea how to deal with this sudden bestowment of success. Imagine the ugly bridesmaid catching the wedding bouquet as the rest of the congregation looks on in bemusement.
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, too, provided an unexpected source of pride. Never having been low enough in the football pyramid to enter the Football League Trophy before, it was hard not to see the competition as an irritating symbol of our demise, a cruel joke that would surely detract from the key objective of promotion. But as we progressed through the early rounds and found ourselves in the regional final after knocking out Preston in outrageous fashion, suddenly the prospect of silverware enticed the fans back. A record-breaking crowd of 31,054 assembled for the first leg at the Ricoh. Capitulation, however, was inevitable under such pressure. In what was probably the most one-sided 3-0 defeat in the history of association football, Coventry hit the woodwork on countless occasions, piling relentless pressure on the Crewe defence. But with three expertly taken counter-attacking goals, defeat to the eventual winners was sealed and the season came almost instantaneously to an end.
Everything that has taken place on the pitch since has felt like a sideshow. Steven Pressley, who was appointed as manager at the beginning of March, has had his hands tied by off-field events. The points deduction has rendered the majority of his games in charge virtually meaningless. He has essentially used the final stretch of the season as a series of friendly games, testing out young players and experimenting with his strict, Caledonian brand of tika-taka.
The reminiscence of Mark Robins’ reign now, unfortunately, only serves to highlight how swift, and how damaging subsequent events have been. Since Robins (quite sensibly) accepted the offer of a switch to Yorkshire to take the reigns at Huddersfield, football has ceased to be the primary concern of Coventry City Football Club (or, at least, what remains of CCFC — it’s difficult, these days, to define exactly what constitutes the entity operating under the banner). Robins officially departed on Valentine’s Day, and it was not long afterwards that Coventry began to crumble. On March 1st a transfer embargo was placed on the club for failing to file its accounts in time. The resignation of John Clarke (vice chairman) and a parliamentary debate on the Ricoh rent dispute followed soon after. The club was finally placed in administration on March 21st in the most bizarre of circumstances.
Following increasing pressure from Arena Coventry Ltd (ACL), the organisation responsible for running the Ricoh Arena, Coventry owners Sisu Capital Ltd. anticipated legal action by placing their own subsidiary, Coventry City Football Club Ltd, into administration. Whether their primary intention in doing so was to ensure that their chosen administrator was appointed, or if they thought they could bypass the mandatory FA 10-point deduction by segregating the club’s assets, is not clear. What is patently obvious, however, is that Sisu long ago ceased to act in the interest of the club, and instead have since engaged in an exercise of desperate self-preservation. They continue to release statements under the guise of CCFC, but their words and actions are those of Sisu alone. Like canonical Coventrian novelist, George Eliot’s character, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate in Middlemarch, Sisu refuse to take responsibility for any of their own actions. They are perpetually wronged — primarily by ACL, but in a wider context, by everyone but themselves. Why should they pay rent at the rate that was agreed when they bought the club? And why shouldn’t ACL adjust their budgets to accommodate CCFC’s descent down the leagues as a result of Sisu’s asset-stripping strategy? There is a suspicion that Sisu’s decision to withhold rent on the stadium was actioned with the aim of forcing ACL out of business and, ultimately, to seek an opportunity to acquire the Ricoh Arena from the wreckage on the cheap.
If events seemed farcical then, they have only become more ridiculous since. The club shop was extracted from the Ricoh, along with CCFC administrative staff. Sisu launched a legal challenge against the 10 point deduction, and subsequently revoked it less than a week later. It’s hard not to perceive a dying animal desperately seeking a morsel to sustain it for just a little longer. Pending the results of the administrator’s report, Sisu openly declared a wish to move CCFC outside of the City of Coventry in preparation for next season (later officially confirming that this is their intention). With ACL actively encouraging the football club as tenants of the Ricoh, it’s difficult to see any logical reason to take the club elsewhere (besides as yet another militant negotiating tactic in Sisu’s endless battle of one-upmanship). Various venues have been mooted, but none of them could accommodate the current level of demand for season tickets, let alone anyone else who might want to watch their team casually. Alienating fans has become a Sisu speciality, but doing so whilst also sabotaging the possibility of generating any income in the long-term is foolhardy.
So was this the season that finally instigated a resolution to the long-standing problems that have existed at Coventry for so many years? American multi-millionaire Preston Haskell IV’s loitering in the wings with intent during the past few weeks finally manifested itself on May 6th in the form of a tangible offer for the club (plus half of the Ricoh Arena). The union of these two entities is clearly essential for Coventry to have a future in the new era of financial fair play. Whether Haskell can be trusted remains to be seen, but his bid, spearheaded by the familiar pairing of Joe Elliot (ex-chairman) and Gary Hoffman (ex-vice-chairman) is promising at least. Haskell has also been vocal about involving the Sky Blue Trust (a rare bright spot of unity in this whole, sorry debacle), presumably with the intention of mimicking the kind of set-up that has propelled Swansea City from League Two to League Cup Final glory in just a few years.
Coventry fans, however, must now be far too war-wounded to raise their hopes unduly. The administrator Paul Appleton’s report submitted to the high court last week ‘concluded’ that he was yet to come to a conclusion. The sacred golden share is, as yet, still unaccounted for (although it is believed to be in the hands of the Football League). Appleton’s impartiality has been questioned by many fans, who are concerned that his having been appointed by Sisu previously implies a loyalty to their interests. The latest development is that he has “open[ed] up the sales process…for the right, title or interest in the golden share and any other assets that may lie in CCFC Ltd”. Coventry fans can only hope that such a comically ambiguous sales pitch does not conceal sinister implications. Given that Sisu are potential candidates to buy back the subsidiary of the club that they put into administration, it is not inconceivable that they are in pole position, being the only bidders who can have any real idea what they are bidding for. If they do re-acquire Coventry City Football Club Ltd, the future is undeniably bleak. Fans have almost unanimously resolved to desert the club if it leaves the City and essentially becomes a nomadic ‘Sisu FC’. Without an income, without fans and without a stadium, Sisu will be left with a barren shell of a former community asset – a failed, insolvent business masquerading as Coventry City FC.
As Appleton prepares to consider bids for CCFC Ltd, we are approaching a crucial crossroad. Whatever the outcome, this dispute still has the potential to run and run. If Sisu are successful, we will probably witness the slow, laboured death of CCFC. If an external bidder wins, Sisu will fight to the death in court to appeal the decision. A Todorov-esque resolution involving a stable future in the City of Coventry is what everyone wants, but this is Coventry City: conventional narrative theory cannot be applied to such a complex, deranged story.