EFL COLUMN: COVENTRY'S RICOH PROVIDES HOPE FOR CLUBS WITH ABSENT OWNERS
On Wednesday morning, it was announced that Coventry City would be returning to the Ricoh Arena next season after spending the last two seasons sharing St.Andrews with Birmingham City.
A 10-year deal has been agreed with Wasps Rugby who currently own the stadium, hopefully bringing an end to the ground-hopping that has defined the past eight years of the club’s history.
Since Mayfair-based hedge fund bought the Sky Blues in December 2007 with the club on the brink of administration, Coventry have played in three different ‘home’ grounds and gone from the Championship to League Two and back.
Although Sisu initially helped keep Coventry afloat and promised that investment would be made available to return the club to the Premier League, they were relegated to League One at the end of the 2011/12 season.
Things only got worse from there, as they failed to pay rent at the Ricoh in an attempt to run down the price of the company that owned the stadium, ACL. This resulted in ACL filing to have to the club put into administration.
The club owed more than £1.3million in unpaid rent, and it ended up being Sisu themselves that put the club into administration before purchasing it again.
This triggered a deduction of 10 points from the club’s points total for that season as well a 10-point deduction going into the following season, seriously hampering their chances of returning to the Championship.
Even more concerningly, Sisu broke the agreement with ACL to use the stadium. This created a situation where 24 hours before a home game against Doncaster Rovers, staff, players and supporters had no idea where the fixture was going to be played.
A deal was eventually struck to play the game, as well as the team’s last two home games of the 2012/13 season at the Ricoh but it was very much a temporary fix.
Sisu announced plans to build a new stadium in the Coventry area after claiming both ACL and the local council had suggested there was ‘no commercial deal to be done’, despite both making statements to the contrary.
With the club clearly in no financial position to build their own home, they ended up ground sharing with Northampton Town at Sixfields, 34 miles away from the Ricoh Arena.
A number of protests by supporters coupled with boycotts of games in Northampton meant crowds averaged just over 2,000 during the 13 months at the ground, with club legend Ronnie Farmer saying “it is not a Coventry team if they are not playing in Coventry”.
The move was widely seen as another attempt by Sisu to pressure ACL into giving up the Ricoh, but when Rugby Union side Wasps moved into the ground in 2014, the bluff was well and truly called.
Coventry moved back to the Ricoh later that year, although Sisu claimed that the sale of ACL to Wasps had been ‘unlawful’ and subsequently took the case to court to ensure there would be no harmonious homecoming.
Relegation to the fourth tier for the first time since 1959 followed as a team mostly made up of youth-team graduates and loanees was ample proof that Sisu had effectively given up on the club.
Coventry ended up very nearly losing their place in the EFL after failing to declare where they would be playing their home games ahead of the 2019/20 season, eventually leading to the groundshare at St Andrews.
Bad ownership is nothing uncommon in the EFL, clubs have suffered just as badly as Coventry over the past decade and some have fared even worse.
The most concerning aspect of Sisu’s ownership of Coventry has not been meddling on the playing side or reckless spending, but rather a complete lack of interest in the fortunes of the football club.
An absent owner is worse than an inadequate one, an ownership group willing to sit back and allow a club to wither away hasn’t been caught short trying to chase a dream or made poor decisions when appointing managers or signing players, they have simply abdicated their role as custodians of an institution that belongs to the communities it was born out of.
Instead Sisu have focused on finding ways to cut the cost of owning a football league club.
The best thing they have done is re-appoint Mark Robins.
After initially leaving the club in 2013 as the first Ricoh departure loomed, the former Manchester United striker returned in 2017. He won the EFL Trophy in his first month in charge before guiding the Sky Blues to a first promotion in 61 years after they won the League Two play-offs in 2018.
He then oversaw promotion from League One last season despite the team playing effectively a whole season without a home game.
Even Sisu could not afford to not back Robins following his remarkable success on a limited budget, bringing in Gustavo Hamer in the summer as the first player the club have spent over £1million on since 2009.
Hamer and his team-mates currently sit 20th in the Championship table and have given themselves a real chance of surviving in a league that consists of numerous sides still receiving parachute payments following spells in the Premier League.
If they do manage to stay up, the first day of next season will be incredible should a packed out Ricoh be housing second tier football for the first time since 2012.