6th Jul, 2022

Coventry City's owners hit back at council leader Duggins' attempts to blame club - after Wasps' Ricoh Arena lock-out

Les Reid 19th Jun, 2019 Updated: 20th Jun, 2019

COVENTRY City’s owners have hit back at council leader George Duggins’ attempts yesterday to blame the club for departing the Ricoh Arena for Birmingham City next season – after being locked out with talks with Wasps collapsing.

Coun Duggins responded yesterday to much public criticism of his and the council’s position concerning the long-running Ricoh dispute, accusing certain unnamed individuals of peddling misinformation.

Coun Duggins sought to explain to Tuesday’s (June 18) web-broadcast full council meeting how Sisu and the club only had themselves to blame for Coventry City Council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity’s sale in October 2014 of the Ricoh Arena company to then London Wasps – on a hugely extended 250-year deal not offered to the club.

He used selective quotes from prior press articles in which CCFC personnel had appeared to express a commitment to pursuing a new stadium.

He also outlined his often repeated allegations that the club’s owners Sisu had missed several opportunities to buy into the Ricoh Arena (where the council is still freehold owner), claims which have been strongly contested by Sisu.

His entire speech can be viewed on the Coventry City Council website via the link here.

The stadium company Arena Coventry Limited’s (ACL) sale for circa £5.5million for the shares (plus circa £14million of debt) has for years been the subject of so far failed legal action by Sisu and club-related companies. A complaint is now being considered by the European Commission that it was a “state aid” use of taxpayers’ money – unlawful under European law. Council leaders had publicly pledged a condition of the 2014 Wasps deal was that it would protect the security and future of CCFC.

Sisu claimed earlier this month Wasps rugby club were seeking protections against any losses and damages, which could bankrupt the football club – as a trade-off for extending Coventry City’s tenancy at the stadium built for it.

Labour councillor Duggins has been a key player in the Ricoh Arena dispute since he took part in failed talks in 2012 over joint council and CCFC Ricoh Arena ownership. He was yesterday again supported by Tory group opposition leader councillor Gary Ridley.

Coun Duggins was in 2012 deputy leader alongside former leader John Mutton, supported throughout the dispute by council executives Chris West (now departed) and current council CEO Martin Reeves, who were then also Ricoh Arena directors.

Justice Leggatt has since ruled that all sides ultimately did not want the deal in 2012, after considering evidence that the council would have vetoed a sale of Ricoh Arena shares to CCFC. Justice Hickinbottom later ruled Sisu had sought to distress the Ricoh Arena company with non-payment of £1.3million rent, contested by Sisu amid some deposit account payments – rent which all sides later agreed was too high.

Council documents disclosed to court and elsewhere have since revealed that ex-council leader Ann Lucas once wrote in a meeting note that “hell freezes over” before any deal with Sisu; of council/ACL plans for a “media war” against Sisu; and of council plans to go behind Coventry City’s backs in buying out the Ricoh Arena’s £14.4million loan debt.

An ACL email from March 2012 also recently emerged showing that the Ricoh company had secretly sought to bring in London Wasps by buying the rugby club – BEFORE the so-called “rent-strike”.

Sisu and club chairman Tim Fisher had at various times talked about potentially staying at the Ricoh Arena – and returning to it from a one-year exile at Northampton in 2013-4 – but only on ‘unincumbered’ freehold or long-leasehold arrangements, as Mr Fisher had told a meeting of one dissolving CCFC company. They returned as tenants amid some councillors’ expressions that CCFC might eventually be able to buy into the Ricoh Arena. But behind the club’s backs, councillors were on the verge of agreeing the secretive sale to Wasps.

A statement by Sisu on the CCFC website this afternoon contains a council email which again appears to show a council desire to prevent Coventry City under Sisu buying in to the Ricoh Arena.

The full statement reads: “We have been made aware of Cllr Duggins’ statement at yesterday’s Coventry City Council meeting. We would prefer not to respond; yet again, we have no choice when highly misleading and inaccurate comments are made.

“Most of Cllr Duggins’ points have been dealt with in our previous open letters and accompanying evidence and we suggest a review of that evidence. Typically, rather than relying upon the evidence and facts, Cllr Duggins provides select quotes from one media outlet only.

“Additionally, the quotes he depends on were made both before the first mediation process in summer 2014 and CCFC’s return to the Ricoh. Indeed, as late as August 2014 the then-acting Leader of Coventry City Council publicly stated that there needed to be a period of time to rebuild trust before discussing Ricoh Arena ownership (see attached article). Clearly, this was never going to happen as by then, the Council were in their final exclusivity sale stage to London Wasps (as they were then called).

“We have never had the opportunity to buy a stake in the Ricoh: we now know that by December 2012 the Council’s actions and intent were emphatically against CCFC ever owning a stake in the Ricoh,

“Member authority given to say CCC will not/never do a deal with SISU” (see attached email).

“Now it is indeed puzzling that Cllr Duggins seems confused as to our objectives for CCFC. We have been crystal clear, CCFC needs its own stadium to aspire, grow and progress up the leagues. The Council failed to engage in a competitive, transparent sales process for the Arena.

“We question why Cllr Duggins has felt the need to issue such a statement now, in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to destabilise the Club as it prepares for the upcoming season.”

The full Sisu statement with links to the emails and other evidence can be viewed here.

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