COVENTRY council leaders have been accused of u-turning on a pledge to secure Coventry City’s future and misleading the public – as Sky Blues’ owners declined to answer our questions.
With the six-year multi-party Ricoh Arena dispute now threatening to leave the 135-year old club homeless from next season, the Observer put key questions to leading council figures, City’s owners Sisu, and the stadium’s leasehold owners Wasps.
George Duggins, leader of Coventry City Council which still owns the Ricoh Arena freehold, confirmed he is still ruling out any talks with the football club, despite the club’s public request last week, unless its owners drop all legal action.
Coun Duggins also claimed public opinion was on his side, while hitting out at Sky Blues chief executive Dave Boddy.
We questioned London-based hedge fund Sisu on why its companies were continuing with court appeals against failed legal challenges to the council’s Ricoh Arena sale on a 250-year lease to then London Wasps in 2014.
We also called on Coun Duggins and Conservative opposition leader Gary Ridley to produce evidence for their ‘joint statement’ claims last week that the council’s October 2014 public written commitment to “the security and future of Coventry City Football Club” under the stadium’s sale was limited to just FOUR YEARS – the timescale for previous tenancy arrangements.
The deal was unanimously approved by councillors under ex-leader Ann Lucas, when Coun Duggins was a leading cabinet member.
We also challenged Wasps on why they were refusing to talk about extending the Sky Blues’ tenancy arrangements – after doing so for this season – unless all legal action was dropped as a precondition, rather than a desired end point of talks.
As our website reported, the club’s Open Letter challenged the council over the four-year claim. It added the club had no control over the legal action, in which the club’s companies were roped in as joint parties.
Sisu have been roundly condemned by City fans for continuing court action against the council’s Ricoh Arena sale, which continued to disadvantage the Sky Blues over equity, matchday revenues, and crucial 24/7 commercial revenues at the stadium built for it.
Many City fans have also taken to social media to express outrage at Wasps and council leaders, including over the ‘four year’ claim.
In a fans’ discussion on internet forum Sky Blues Talk widely supporting the club’s Open Letter, one poster wrote: “What they are saying is that Wasps couldn’t kick the club out within the four years. That’s not what was written, they are moving the goalposts.”
Another responded: “Duggins should be sent the (council’s) ethics committee.”
The council’s code of conduct commits councillors to be honest, open and transparent.
Asked by us directly to provide evidence for the ‘four year’ claim, or admit the joint statement was false and misleading, Coun Duggins responded: “I don’t regard anything misleading about the statement. As for public opinion I believe the vast majority of people in Coventry share our view that it in the gift of the owners to solve this matter.
“By the way on the four year tenancy between 2014 and 2018, in fact it was a two plus two year tenancy.”
Asked again to produce the evidence, he simply responded: “I am happy to stand by what Gary and I have said.”
He added: “Public opinion is firmly on our side and will remain so.”
We referred him to a statement last week in which even anti-Sisu fans’ group Sky Blue Trust calling for Wasps to talk and do a deal with the club while Sisu ‘could and should’ ‘halt’ legal action.
Coun Duggins responded: “Did anyone hear the Dave Boddy interview on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire just now?
“He asked what has changed since (this year’s) one year extension (on the Ricoh tenancy). And why negotiations could not go ahead as previously.
“Omitting that Wasps had made clear ‘no further deals’ if legal action continued.
“It reminds me of someone who sets their house on fire and blames the fire brigade for not getting there quick enough.”
Asked if he would meet the club for talks as Ricoh freeholder, and reminded of the council’s power and influence in Sky Blues’ city, he said: “Of course, once the legals are dropped or exhausted.
“Essentially the main negotiations are not ones we can have any influence over.
“It is now time for Coventry City shareholders to demonstrate their love for the club by dropping the legals, allowing the opening of negotiations. They can’t absolve themselves of responsibility for the future wellbeing of the club, and pass it on to others.”
The Coventry Observer has consistently called for pressure on all sides for talks and a fairer deal for the football club – rather than a ‘no deal’ outcome that damages or destroys Coventry City at the expense of blame-game politics on all sides.
Some fans believe Wasps – £55million in debt with rising operating losses of £6.3million this year – may face pressure financially to agree a deal.
They receive not just £100,000 in annual rent from Coventry City, but much more with a slice of the Sky Blues’ own matchday commercial revenues.
Coun Ridley responded: “Just to re-iterate our position, the Conservative group supports the actions which the council has taken.
“We’re confident that Coventry City Council has acted in the best interests of the city’s taxpayers. We also believe that all legal action by Sisu-related companies needs to come to an end.”
He added: “I completely agree with these comments from George and I am happy to add my name to them too.”
SISU FAILS TO RESPOND
We put these questions to Sky Blues’ hedge fund shareholder ‘owners’ Sisu as an opening approach, which it declined to answer before we went to press..
1. Why don’t you now drop the appeal to the Supreme Court against the council in the hope of an arrangement with Wasps for Coventry City to play at the Ricoh Arena, as fans want, rather than contributing to a situation where the club’s future is apparently in jeopardy?
2. What is your understanding of the Supreme Court’s timescale for an initial decision of whether the appeal can go forward?
3. And if it does, what’s your understanding of the timescale for a hearing?
WASPS insist the ‘ball has been entirely in the court’ of Coventry City and their owners
Here are our questions this week to the Premiership rugby club, with their answers underneath…
OBSERVER: Why are you refusing to enter important discussions towards at least a temporary arrangement for Coventry City to continue playing at the Ricoh Arena next season, insisting on preconditions that the other side’s ‘owners’ must first cave in?
Surely, long entrenched disputes are rarely settled that way and the END goal is an end to the dispute.
WASPS: “We have made it clear to the football club that we are happy to enter negotiations for a new deal to allow them to remain at Ricoh Arena, but only once the legal action is ceased. I am sure that people – whether fans of rugby, football, both or neither – understand that we cannot enter discussions while legal action over ownership of the Ricoh Arena is underway and we feel that is a reasonable condition to have set.”
OBSERVER: You extended Coventry City’s rental arrangements for this season, so why not now?
WASPS: “We negotiated last year to allow Coventry City to remain in the city, but with the clear stipulation that the legal action must be ceased before the commencement of any talks for the 2019-2020 season.
“That was at the start of negotiations on the current deal in late summer 2017, so the football club and its owners have had time since then to take the steps which are necessary to safeguard their own future at Ricoh Arena.
“The ball has been entirely in their court but they have chosen to pursue legal action knowing full well the consequences for their club and its supporters – and we cannot control that.”
OBSERVER: Do you realise the strength of feeling expressed against you on the internet and elsewhere by many Coventry City fans as much as against their owners, with suggestions there should be significant implications for your business should you shut the city’s traditional football club out of the stadium that was built for it?
WASPS: “We have been clear in our stance that we are happy to talk to the football club once the legal action is ceased. We completely understand the strength of feeling but there is also a recognition that this is not a situation of our making.”
OBSERVER: Do you accept that you bought the Ricoh Arena in 2014, for whatever reason, on a deal that was to continue to badly disadvantage Coventry City in terms of equity, matchday and 24/7 revenues?
WASPS: “Coventry City had not had a stake in Ricoh Arena for a long time before we expressed an interest in purchasing. It was a deal they had agreed long before we looked to move to Coventry.
“Coventry City was saying persistently that it was building its own ground and that Ricoh Arena wasn’t a viable option for them.”
OBSERVER: If so, shouldn’t you commit to discussions – probably through mediation – concerning a long-term ‘Fair Deal for City’?
WASPS: “We did not need mediation when we agreed the deal for this season and on an operational level we get on very well with Coventry City.
“We made them very aware of the steps that would have to be taken for us to start negotiations for a longer-term arrangement. We hope common sense will prevail to allow us to move forward for the good of Coventry City and their supporters, Ricoh Arena and the city as a whole.”