19th Nov, 2018

Council leader backs protests and says his refusal to talk is better for Coventry City in long term

Les Reid 6th Feb, 2017 Updated: 6th Feb, 2017

COUNCIL leader George Duggins has backed ‘protests’ by some Coventry City fans, and says his ongoing position of refusing to talk while legal action is outstanding will be better for the Sky Blues in the ‘long term’.

It comes despite his previous denials of Sky Blues’ claims there was a ‘political agenda’ against the football club while hedge fund Sisu remained the parent company.

Coun Duggins’ words also came as the Sisu group of companies resurrected High Court action – a second Judicial Review known as JR2 – against the council’s controversial sale of the Ricoh Arena to then London Wasps rugby club in 2014. It was on a cut-price 250-year deal not offered to the Sky Blues, on which the stadium always depended.

The Sky Blues and their parent company have long insisted the club needs more commercial and matchday revenues from a stadium to invest in the team and make the football club more valuable, viable and competitive with other clubs.

Coventry rugby club chairman Jon Sharp announced last month his club’s board had taken a decision they could not ‘deal with Sisu’ concerning further exploration of a groundshare with CCFC at an expanded Butts Park Arena, due to ‘anti Sisu sentiment in the city’. The two city traditional clubs continue with a limited off-field Joint Venture arrangement.

A campaign to oust Sisu in favour of ‘fans’ ownership’ sought for five years – and pushed by fans’ group the Sky Blue Trust and the associated Fighting the Jimmy Hill Way – has divided fans’ opinion.

While Sisu are unpopular and the team is bottom of League One, many fans on social media and Sky Blues internet forums are unhappy about disrupt and distress tactics, which appear to be damaging the club and team. They include pitch protests and fans’ boycotts.

Fighting the Jimmy Hill Way’s ‘leader’ David Johnson – while distancing the group from any illegal actions – last month said the campaign was preparing for the possibility of acquiring the club via a points-deducting administration, should season ticket holders not renew in the summer.

Takeover attempts failed in 2013 when administration cost the club 20 League points – and the Sisu group of companies retained control. Many fans have stated on social media their concern that any attempt to oust Sisu again through another damaging administration would fail once more.

Coun Duggins, who ousted previous leader Ann Lucas who had once stated “hell freezes over” before a Ricoh deal with Sisu, repeated the stance he told the Coventry Observer when he became leader in May last year – that there would be no talks or relationship until the legal action was dropped.

Asked by Jo Tidman of BBC Coventry and Warwickshire whether such a ‘hardline’ approach was preventing negotiations over finding a solution – as happens in all walks of life to stop impending legal action – Coun Duggins said: “I’m not prepared to talk with Sisu. I don’t believe I could enter into conversations with people who are about to take you to court.

“…It’s their right to pursue a Judicial Review. It’s also my right to take the stance which I believe is best for Coventry City Council, the people of Coventry and in the longer term the football club.”

The football club insists decisions over legal action are taken separately by Sisu, and do not involve club money.

Coventry City Council stands to financially benefit from Ricoh Arena profits, via a so-called ‘super-rent’ arrangement. A leaked council email a year ago proposed a legal block of any Coventry City move to an expanded Butts Park Arena – a position which Coun Duggins told us on becoming leader he would not support.

Coun Duggins also said about some fans’ protests, after use of smoke bombs and illegal pitch protests by a few at Northampton: “If you want to continue protests, please do. You have public opinion on your side, not just in Coventry but nationally. But don’t spoil that by stepping outside the law.”

He also alleged the FA and Football League had been “utterly useless” in failing to intervene.

But football authority insiders have long recognised the role of many parties – including the council – in the dispute, which has resulted in a lack of ‘security of tenure’ of a stadium for the Sky Blues to play. And there has been no illegal or improper behaviour found for CCFC’s directors or owners to fail FA rules.

It follows Wasps calling off negotiations last year over a deal for the Sky Blues to stay at the Ricoh Arena after next season, when the current rent deal expires.

Wasps are £43million in debt and the council deal in 2014 has resulted in them taking nearly all the 24/7 commercial and matchday revenues at the Ricoh. The Sky Blues say they got a paltry £73,000 in matchday revenues last season, and nothing in non-matchday revenues.

Coun Duggins was deputy leader alongside then leader John Mutton in 2012/3 when talks collapsed with Sisu over joint ownership of the Ricoh Arena, in which Sisu would have purchased the Alan Edwards Higgs Trust’s 50 per cent shares. In 2012, Sisu had withheld £1.3million rent payments which all sides accepted was too much.

Justice Leggatt ruled in 2014 any potential for a deal ‘fell away’ amid acrimony as no side ultimately wanted one, noting the council also had the power to block any deal over the Higgs shares.

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