Stripped, Supplanted, Subverted: The Kafkaesque Fall Of Coventry City
Since taking over in 2007, hedge-fund owners Sisu have watched on as Coventry’s star has dwindled. Now without a manager, without infrastructure and seemingly without hope, the club’s problems look almost impossible to solve.
When it was announced on Thursday morning that Tony Mowbray would be resigning as Coventry City manager, few were surprised. On a 10-match winless run and rock bottom of League One, the Sky Blues have started their campaign in disastrous fashion, and are already three points adrift at the bottom of the table. In a season where it was hoped they could push for promotion, a record of six points from 10 games left Mowbray with little choice but to quit his post. Few Coventry fans could begrudge him the right to bow out with dignity, however. The truth is that, despite his failings, the problems at the club run far deeper than Mowbray, and are fundamental on a level that transcends the team.
To an outside observer, Coventry looks not so much like a football club as it does a name, a badge, and thousands of despairing fans. The club doesn't own its stadium, the future of its academy is uncertain, and its training ground looks set to be redeveloped for housing, leaving one wondering exactly what assets the Sky Blues actually possess. Though the training ground redevelopment isn't due to take place until the club find an adequate replacement, the term 'adequate' is relative, and Coventry supporters believe there is little reason to put their faith in the club's ownership. That ownership has persistently frustrated them and, what's more, seems to be largely inscrutable and unaccountable to fans.
Coventry City are owned by Sisu Capital (now registered as Otium Entertainment), a hedge fund based a short walk from Hyde Park in the refined climes of palatial Mayfair. Having considered takeovers at Southampton and Derby County, Sisu completed their acquisition of Coventry in December 2007, with the club struggling financially and in considerable debt. It didn't take long for Sisu to be criticised for a lack of transparency, with much of the investment the fund facilitated coming from unidentified parties and unnamed, high-net-worth individuals. It is fair to say that this was not a company that was interested in owning a grand old football club for the sake of sentiment. This was about money, and professional investors receiving a return.
Whether or not investors have been happy with their return since then, only Sisu can say. One would suspect not, considering that the club has lurched from one crisis to another in recent years. Under Sisu's tenure, the Sky Blues have suffered relegation from the Championship, a spell in administration, and a year in exile, playing their home games at Northampton Town's Sixfields Stadium. They have also gone through seven managers and a whopping 17 board members, with their latest managing director stepping down earlier this month. Their temporary relocation to Northampton came after an almighty rent row over the Ricoh Arena, Coventry's home since 2005, which saw Sisu fall out spectacularly with then owners Arena Coventry Limited, a company owned jointly by Coventry City Council and the Higgs Charity.
While Sisu claimed that they had no other option but to move the club to Northampton, the decision was deeply unpopular and has left permanent damage to their standing with supporters. That is yet another problem for them, in what has been a tenure beset with difficulties. While the issue of who is to blame for Coventry's decline is a contentious one, with considerable resentment reserved for the Ricoh's previous owners, there are few in Coventry who have a good word to say about Sisu. In fact, The Coventry Telegraph have gone as far as to run a front page calling for the hedge fund to sell the club, a move that has seen them banned from attending Coventry City press conferences in recent weeks.
To further complicate the situation, there is now another player in the game. Rugby union side Wasps moved to Coventry in 2014, buying the Higgs Charity's shares in the Ricoh before becoming outright owners of the ground. Having made their own efforts to secure ownership of the stadium, Sisu were deeply unhappy about the situation, and legal action regarding the sale is still rumbling on. Sisu have previously argued that Coventry City council were motivated by animosity towards them, though this claim has already been quashed once in the Court of Appeal.
Whatever the exact goings-on behind the scenes, the sale of the Ricoh Arena to Wasps was a crushing blow for Sisu. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Sisu partner Onye Igwe said: "We do have a long-term plan to buy 50% of the stadium. It is a very important part of our strategy to make the club successful." Sisu had seven years of ownership to deliver on that ambition prior to the arrival of Wasps, and they failed to do so.
Looking at the sorry state Coventry now find themselves in, the whole thing seems remarkably Kafkaesque. Wasps, Coventry City council, Arena Coventry Limited – these organisations have essentially decided the club's fate, and the fans have had little to no say in the matter. Sisu, meanwhile, are almost always characterised as a secretive, taciturn, non-communicative body, whose agenda and endgame have never been entirely clear. With complex struggle and counter-struggle swirling around the club, the reality is that its future is now in serious doubt.
If it seems unclear as to why a hedge fund would want to invest in Coventry City in the first place, that's because it is. Football clubs are risky assets, and there are numerous examples of teams becoming financial black holes for investors. It should be said that Sisu inherited a difficult situation in 2007, with Coventry close to administration and in around £40m of debt, but that only throws up further questions about their suitability to own a club which, even at the time, looked like a labour of love. Simon Gilbert, a journalist with The Coventry Telegraph and author of 'A Club Without A Home', a book on Coventry's time in exile, has his own views on the matter. "In my opinion, there were three ways in which they were hoping to make money," he says. "The first one was that they were hoping for a quick investment, a quick return on promotion to the Premier League."
Unfortunately, after substantial spending in their early years in charge, Sisu then seem to have changed tack. "They bottled it, for want of a better expression," Simon tells me. "Plan B then became to secure a stake in the stadium or to secure the stadium outright, and to turn that into a viable business. Now, obviously there was a massive issue there with the council and the Higgs Charity; negotiations broke down, they stopped paying the rent and there was a horrible court battle, with everyone falling out with each other. Sisu have since argued that the council acted inappropriately, that they were forced out to Northampton and that the council acted with malice to stop them securing a share in the Ricoh Arena, and all that sort of stuff. There's also a second legal challenge about Wasps being handed the Ricoh, but not on commercial terms.
"The undertone to all this is that everyone is out to get Sisu, and that people didn't want Sisu to secure a share in the stadium. Now, with instant success and a viable stadium business off the table, I believe that the endgame is their ongoing legal action."
With Sisu challenging the circumstances surrounding the sale of the Ricoh, that legal action could be their last chance to recoup their investment in Coventry City. One can imagine how the theoretical argument might go: denying Sisu the chance to purchase the stadium has cost them millions in revenue, in tenant's fees at Sixfields and, who knows, perhaps even a place in the Championship, or the Premier League. That's all academic as it stands, but it gives a glimpse into the potential compensation that might be sought. Unfortunately, that legal action has further destabilised the club itself, with Wasps pulling the plug on negotiations for Coventry to continue playing at the Ricoh as a result. Their current tenancy deal expires in the summer of 2018.
While Sisu might say that their inability to secure the Ricoh has restricted the club financially, Simon isn't so sure. "They would argue that not having their own stadium and access to the revenues that come with that – the non-matchday revenues for other events and so on – has hamstrung the club. How severely hamstrung they actually are is difficult to stay. It's a big stadium, they aren't paying the maintenance costs and they aren't paying to operate it other than on matchdays. There are obviously some big savings to be made, too."
As with almost everything else, Sisu are the only ones who know the exact truth of the matter. Their sphinx-like identity, the sense that their intentions are somehow unintelligible, is just another reason they are so unpopular with fans. The decline in the standard of the playing squad is another huge issue, and results this season speak for themselves. Investment in the team, the club's last real asset, has been visibly inadequate, while many of Coventry's most accomplished players have departed for pastures new in recent times.
In the great gamble that is football, the club seems to have lost the vast majority of its bargaining chips. It has been relieved of its infrastructure, supplanted in its home stadium and subverted completely, leaving supporters wondering where to look next. While Sisu have previously claimed that they want to build a new stadium for the club, Simon tells me that he has seen few indications of such a development, even in its embryonic stages. "It's very difficult to buy into this vision of a new stadium, when we've seen no real evidence of it," he says.
Coventry fans are refusing to accept the situation in silence, however. They may have been left powerless as impenetrable organisations manoeuvre above them, but they have begun to organise protests and make themselves heard. Over 17,000 people have signed The Coventry Telegraph's petition calling on Sisu to put the club up for sale, while several different fan groups have come together to organise future protests, with a boycott planned for their home game against Rochdale in late October. Coventry City is not a fashionable club, and they have struggled for national coverage. That changed with the ban on the Telegraph, which made many media outlets sit up and take note.
Though everyone I speak to tells me that Coventry fans have previously been divided on how best to salvage the club – it's little wonder, really, with such the situation so complex – supporters' groups are now working together to make a plan of action. They all seem to agree that Sisu should put the club up for sale, even if a potential buyer is still to materialise. Fans' groups recently attended a collective meeting, where they finalised the details of the Rochdale boycott and agreed on a path of active protest against Sisu. They are hoping that by marching, demonstrating and raising awareness, they can show the rest of the country just how serious the situation is.
When I speak to John Taylor, a member of the Preservation Sky Blues Group, his determination to see the back of Sisu is obvious. The group started almost two years ago, and was previously known as the 'Sisu Out Group', so John knows better than most what it is to protest against the current ownership. "People have wanted Sisu gone for years, to be honest, but no one was really doing anything about it," he tells me. "It was all a bit half-hearted, and a lot of fans had lost that much interest that they couldn't be bothered to go to games and protest – they were just staying away."
While results in League One were passable, even good at times, the sense of apathy was enough to hinder unified protests. Now it's a different situation, however. "Things at Coventry have continued to get worse, and worse, and worse, which has obviously strengthened our case," John says. "Previously, there was a bit of animosity between different supporters' groups, for whatever reason. Now, we've all come together and agreed what to do next. We've had to say: 'It's either now or never'. We're all in it together at this point, so hopefully we can gather more interest and coverage. That's all we can hope for, really."
John speaks positively of the recent meeting between supporters' groups, and at least seems to feel a renewed sense of cohesion in the fanbase, if not a sense that Coventry's problems are close to being remedied. I get a similar impression from Moz Baker, member of and spokesman for the Sky Blue Trust. With over 3,000 members, the Trust is the biggest Coventry City fans' group, with a stated aim "to secure supporter involvement in the ownership and management of the club." Formed in 2012, Moz tells me that they have consistently tried to strike up dialogue with Sisu. "Unfortunately, I think we've come to the point now where we have to take more robust action," he tells me. "We recently called upon the club to put in place a recovery plan as to how the situation might resolve itself. They couldn't do that, and so we've said the right thing to do would be to put the club up for sale."
Moz tells me that, the morning after they had communicated this to the club, The Coventry Telegraph published its call for Sisu to sell up and go. It wasn't a collaborative effort, but it seems to have had a substantial effect. "It's really galvanised the people of Coventry," Moz says. "We've had no end of messages of support from other parties, and we're now coordinating a plan of action to convince Sisu to sell."
While Moz is cautious about how to proceed against Sisu – "It's an ongoing process," he tells me, "We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket, or run out of steam" – the Sky Blue Trust are throwing their weight behind the Rochdale boycott, and making plans for the medium and long term. He has experienced first hand the difficulties in trying to get through to Sisu, and to get them to lay out a credible vision for the future. "I don't think anyone has a clear view of quite what the endgame is for them. Communicating with the club has been really difficult, though we have tried our best over the past four years."
Though he's ready to protest alongside fellow Coventry fans, Moz does strike a melancholy note with his summary of the situation. "Many supporters are at the point now where they don't know where this is going to end up. I don't think anyone can see a happy ending here. We don't own the stadium. The academy is in a state of confusion, the lease runs out in June and there seems to be no progress in talks on that. Now, only last week, it seems the club are looking to sell the training ground. To the outsider looking in, it seems very much like an asset-stripping situation."
With an inextricable web of problems facing Coventry, fans could be forgiven for feeling demoralised. While almost everyone seems to agree that Sisu ought to sell the club, finding a buyer could be a tough ask. Even the ultimate football enthusiast might baulk at the prospect of buying a club without infrastructure, an itinerant entity with only the playing squad at its disposal. That is the future that could be facing Coventry, whether or not Sisu depart.
That said, Coventry also have something priceless to their name. They may be little more than a badge at the moment, but that badge represents a proud heritage, and a history as one of England's oldest and most venerable clubs. This is a side that, not so long ago, boasted the likes of Dion Dublin, Gary McAllister, Craig Bellamy and Robbie Keane; a side which, prior to relegation in 2001, had spent 34 consecutive years in the top flight. Those memories might feel remarkably distant at the moment, but Coventry fans can still look to a time before Sisu, and Wasps, and rows over the Ricoh. They can remember better days, and take hope.
Sisu were contacted for comment but, as of time of publication, failed to respond.