23rd Apr, 2017

EXCLUSIVE: Coventry City in talks to relocate 'lifeblood' youth academy to city school

Les Reid 20th Mar, 2017

COVENTRY City Football Club are in talks over partly relocating their ‘lifeblood’ youth academy to a school in the city, we can reveal.

The academy wants to use the outdoor football pitches at the school – which we have chosen not to name at this stage while deliberations continue – which has good quality pitches.

Our sources say the club has also sought a provisional agreement with the Coventry Sports Foundation (CSF)-operated Alan Higgs Centre to use rugby club Wasps’ delayed new indoor ‘kicking barn’ facility, if and when it gets built.

The academy will require outdoor and indoor pitches. We have learned from several sources the school is the most advanced option for outdoor facilities, although other options have been examined.

The Sky Blues’ academy – which has produced young stars such as Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson and Norwich’s James Maddison, and current homegrown City stars Ben Stevenson and Jordan Willis – has faced an uncertain future in the last year.

A multi-party dispute between Coventry City Council, the club’s parent company Sisu, the Alan Edward Higgs Charity and other parties over the Ricoh Arena stadium and later the academy, led to city councillors last year granting Ricoh Arena owners Wasps planning permission to build a £7million training centre for their players at the Alan Higgs Centre.

The centre in Allard Way was originally purpose-built for the football club’s academy.

Wasps recently confirmed their new training centre has been delayed. They say it is now scheduled to be built some time next season, including the kicking barn. The initial expectation had been that it would be ready this summer, ahead of the 2017/8 season.

But Wasps’ finances are precarious. This newspaper has consistently raised questions over how bondholders of £35million of Wasps’ debts of over £40million will ever get their money back, and whether ‘covenant’ commitments to them can be met – let alone how a £7million training facility could be paid for.

Wasps have today re-iterated they may need to ‘refinance’ the bond debt. But it remains to be seen how that could be done without selling their stake in the Ricoh Arena, which they insist they remain committed to for the long term.

There are also council-backed plans for a 50-metre swimming pool at the Alan Higgs Centre, to be built on the Sky Blues’ academy’s existing indoor and publicly used pitch.

Wasps’ kicking barn would be built on the football club academy’s former outdoor pitch.

Questions remain over whether the council would plough ahead with building a swimming pool – displacing CCFC academy’s indoor facilities – if Higgs’ training centre and kicking barn are ultimately not built.

No provision to retain Coventry City’s academy was written in Wasps’ planning application last year – discussed in secret with council officials for months previously.

It later emerged the Alan Edward Higgs Charity had inserted a a legal clause into the centre’s lease transfer in March last year from the Alan Higgs Trust – which had included leader councillor John Mutton and former CCFC chairman Joe Elliott as trustees – to the Coventry and Warwickshire Award Trust. The clause effectively blocked the long-term use by the football club under the club’s current parent company Sisu, given its legal action in the multi-party dispute.

The club had – before and after the council and Higgs charity’s sale of the Ricoh Arena to Wasps in 2014 – publicly mooted creating new academy facilities alongside a new stadium.

But the club insisted last year at no point had it served notice to leave the Higgs centre, and had wanted to continue with a temporary rolling contract there. This newspaper revealed last year leaked emails showed such written requests by the club.

Following public outrage, Wasps told the media the Sky Blues’ academy may be able to use its proposed kicking barn, at times when it was not being used for its rugby players,

Former Coventry City chief executive Chris Anderson said last summer that would not be enough to retain the academy’s crucial ‘Category 2’ status – which requires full-time indoor and outdoor multiple facilities including education facilities.

The ‘Category 2’ excellence rating from the Premier League means the club’s academy receives over £500,000 a year from the footballing authorities.

Discussions over the future have taken place between the club, CSF and the Football League, including its head of youth development David Wetherall, the former Leeds and Bradford defender.

It is understood it is hoped the latest plan to use the school’s outdoor facilities and the indoor facilities at the Higgs centre could be enough to satisfy the football authorities that Category 2 status should be maintained.

New Coventry City team manager Mark Robins emphasised on his first day in charge this month how crucial having the academy ‘in the best shape possible’ would be to rebuilding the club, which is facing relegation to League Two, the fourth-tier of English football.

CSF’s Paul Breed and others had claimed they were left with little choice but to seek alternative permanent arrangements with other parties for the Alan Higgs Centre, after a lease with the football club expires in June this year.

Yet Peter Knatchbull-Hugessen, clerk to the Alan Edward Higgs Charity, stated last year the legal clause blocked any sale or lease beyond seven years to any organisation or individual who had taken legal action against the Higgs charity since 2011, which would include the football club’s parent company.

EXCLUSIVE: Mediation talks under way to keep Coventry City in city, involving MPs