20th Sep, 2018

Lies, boycotts and Trumpification in Coventry City row - show us the plan

Les Reid 20th Oct, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

OPINION PIECE BY LES REID

DONALD Trump-style politics is raging in the ugly battle involving Coventry City Football Club, the city’s politicians, media editors, and self-styled fans’ campaign leaders.

In 2012/3, Coventry Telegraph editors characterised the dispute in documented meetings as “good guys versus bad guys.” (Yes, they really did!) It is a matter of public record that they colluded with the council in covering up a taxpayer bailout of the Ricoh Arena still contested legally today, in a hidden agenda that led to the stadium’s sale to London Wasps. The paper’s “biggest stakeholders are the council,” stated the ex-editor, explaining his decisions backed by the current editor, all recorded in written documents.

Back then, it resembled an oversimplistic George ‘Dubya’ Bush polarised understanding of the world that was bound to just exacerbate a complex problem. And so it did, just as some of us warned in writing. Fans were marched up the metaphorical hill, then straight back down again.

Today, the renewed campaign politics by the same suspects, politicians and editors to oust the club’s parent company Sisu is full-blown Trumpification.

How is it Donald Trump-esque? The renewed campaign has assembled a rickety old bandwagon carrying false hope, based on lies, distortion, misconceptions, fears and scaremongering.

FANS KNOW ALL SIDES ARE TO BLAME

The fundamental deception is the illusion that the club’s current perilous state can solely, or almost solely, be blamed on Coventry City’s current owners.

The vast majority of Coventry City fans and interested observers know the damage has been inflicted by a protracted dispute involving bad blood between many parties. They include the politicians, Sisu, council executives, former club owners and council leaders, a politicised cabal of leaders of one fans’ group (Sky Blue Trust) and breakaway group individuals; the Higgs charity, editors and sporting trusts caught in the spread of the city establishment’s tentacles.

And therein lies the second fundamental deception. That somehow all Coventry City fans share the same black and white perspective  falsely presented by the politicians and media campaigners. Social media and internet forums have demonstrated daily for years that fans and public opinion is split, and nuanced.

Yes, everybody (including me) would welcome a new club owner if it meant better investment, and the club, stadium and youth academy re-united. So petitions have been signed – again. But it’s not that simple. Just as no one side is to blame, there is now no simple remedy. I suggest potential solutions below.

The most damaging blow against the city’s greatest sporting (and important economic) asset came from the council and Higgs charity’s shadowy and hated sale of the Ricoh Arena on a cut-price 250-year deal to indebted London Wasps not offered to the football club on which it financially depended.

The same campaigners and media profoundly failed to represent fans’ fury over the Ricoh Arena’s sale to Wasps.

This newspaper’s Save Our City campaign, backed by many fans including high-profile and professional CCFC supporters in Open Letters, has called for a better stadium and academy deal whoever the club’s owners (barring any being deemed unfit). We collectively also called for a full independent inquiry into the dispute, including into Coventry City Council/ACL’s hiring of a London PR firm to plan an underhand ‘witchhunt’ against opponents – which council officers in secret emails termed a ‘media war’.

Our campaign has been backed by many as redressing the balance, although despised by the ‘Sisu Out at all costs’ fundamentalists. (Before we go further, for the record, my investigations have also exposed Sisu’s secret Cayman Islands Arvo Master Fund, club accounts discrepancies, associated Football League ‘errors’, and more recently the plan to groundshare at an expanded Coventry rugby club’s Butts Park Arena, which they desperately wanted to be kept secret).

Over the years, I’ve also provided commentary on Sisu’s aggressive attempt to distress and acquire the Ricoh Arena, matched by the dogmatic determination of council leaders not to sell it before and after Sisu’s arrival in 2007, eyeing up the dividend for council coffers. Leading council figures told me many times and quoted fanciful £100million valuations. The unviable business separation distressed the club and its teams by depriving it of commercial stadium revenues, while respective owners were required to meet the exorbitant costs of players’ wages.

It was ‘town hall knows best’ control versus the vagaries of the free market. Let’s not forgot the council-controlled stadium company ACL actually bid to take over the football club in 2013 after filing for the club’s administration following rent arrears.

CLIMATE OF DIVISION AND HATE

Back to today. As with Trump, the oversimplistic false diagnosis obscures understanding of what the likely remedies will entail.

As with Trump, the campaign leaders’ distortions are encouraging a climate of division and hate. It scapegoats in scaremongering. Those not signed up are called ‘scabs’ and worse. They are smeared and some, like me, have faced co-ordinated obsessive attempts to damage their reputation and livelihoods. I anticipate more for simply writing this. But many tell me it needs to be said.

In political campaigns, truth is the first casualty, followed by loyalty.

So, time for truth, on the eve of a planned boycott of Saturday’s game, and on behalf of so many who feel cowered into silence, or who have simply given up.

Many fans have messaged me in disgust over the latest campaign misrepresentations and the way recent history is being re-written. (It includes in a recent book which from extracts appears to key players to make serious inaccurate singled-sourced claims in the council’s favour going back to the club’s former Highfield Road stadium sale. A Pandora’s box could have been opened and the truth will out with more rigorous academic scrutiny).

IS THERE A CREDIBLE TAKEOVER PLAN?

The truth is this. The usual suspects renewed their Sisu Out campaign opportunistically last month by seizing on the moment the club was bottom of the league, after being top last year. It has undoubtedly heaped further distress on the struggling club.

It swayed those desperate for a solution into believing there must actually be a credIble plan to take over the club.

From my soundings off-record with key players on both sides, there really is no clear realistic takeover bidder – and I speak as a Coventry City fan and experienced political journalist with inside knowledge both at the council and club in the 1990s and later, pre and post the Sisu 2007 takeover.

Still less is there a willing seller, unless someone is pepared to stump up funny money for a desperately struggling League One club. A fans whip-round – in the form of a ‘Community Share issue’ suggested by the campaign leaders at fans’ group Sky Blue Trust – patently won’t do it alone. It needs a big investor.

The truth is also this. The campaign tactic is to poison and strangle the club in the hope of decapitation, hence boycotts and the like. Many fans do not support it. They rightly say it is the club that loses, not Sisu. As can be demonstrated by the last few years. After the Ricoh sale, the purpose-built lifeblood youth academy is being sold to Wasps after council talks and planning permission.

As many fans know, the problem with jumping on this latest shoddy bandwagon is not only that its disrupts the team and hits crucial club coffers. It also sanctions the political status quo to continue. That is, the ongoing deceitful squeeze on the club by the politicians and cohorts which has been exposed by this newspaper.

POLITICIANS’ HYPOCRISY

The irony is not lost on many of the city’s ill-briefed MPs vocalising outrage over Coventry City’s lack of security of tenure of a stadium, and  its lack of assets, after their council colleagues’ Ricoh sale. Oh, the irony of their condemnation in Westminster of nomadic “franchise” sporting club owners. Er, Wasps?

Neither is the politicians and campaigners’ contribution lost on the footballing authorities, who are now being naively lobbied and cajoled by the politicians and media.

The irony too of Sky Blue Trust and associated breakaway group leaders (who exactly are they all? – more transparency needed to avoid the charge of hypocrisy) now calling for more investment in a club with no assets, having been on record in statements for years calling for the club to live within its means and be “self-sustainable” – which is now being delivered.

Sky Blue Trust for years, along with certain media, categorically denied they were pursuing a one-sided ‘Sisu out’ agenda. Now, in a Trust statement, they admit they had been planning it for two years.

No wonder many fans have stated for years they don’t trust the Trust leaders, those certain media, and the city’s politicians.

From my soundings, I’ve been told two USA investors are waiting in the wings, two from China and two from the UK. Some are the same names as with the 2013 failed plot. I’ll believe any of it when I see it.

If there are people willing to invest to support a part fans’ ownership (fine in principle and seemingly working at some other clubs), they will not only need a big purse but will have to step forward soon. Fans are entitled to know who they are, rather than the ‘locker room’ banter on a nudge and a wink promulgated by the usual suspects.

Here’s the inconvenient truth too. They will face exactly the same problems faced by Sisu. How do you make a club viable, competitive and successful if it is deprived of the crucial matchday and non-matchday revenues from a stadium (and potentially its surrounding commercial activities)? How will assets be acquired? Could a new owner with better relations than courtroom wrangles with the city’s authorities make a better fist of it?

Do they have proof of funds? Would they have the same shadowy off-shore business structures? Are they ‘fit and proper’? The ‘anything is better’ sentiment that applied when Sisu came in and when the red carpet was rolled out for Wasps has to be tempered.

NO SIGN SISU WILL SELL

All this is premature. The fact is Sisu hold the keys to the club and show no signs of selling, only digging their heels in. So how long do people want to go on strangling the club in the hope of decapitation? While in business parlance everything has a price, the smart money is on Sisu sticking around.

Like it or not, the politicians and campaigners may still have to deal with them. And it is a self-evident fallacy – another lie – that bridges are only being burned from one side.

There will be more twists and turns in this saga yet. Even a week is long time in depressing football politics.

A FAIR DEAL ON STADIUM AND ACADEMY

Many still believe pressure will need to be applied on all sides including the city authorities for a better stadium and academy deal for the football club.

One local media commentator seemingly excited  by Wasps – who are a major advertiser in the city’s media – likes to repeat claims Coventry City had “at least three chances” to buy into the Ricoh Arena (it is false – read Justice Leggatt’s judgement for starters). I respect him for his better work over the years, but he also claims it is ‘common sense’ that most fans want a long-term deal at the Wasps owned Ricoh Arena, where the club says it got just £75,000 of matchday revenues and no non-matchday revenues last season.

No. It is common sense that many fans would want to evaluate any stadium options in terms of their financial viability and suitability.

The Butts Park Arena has been a serious proposition since early last year for both CCFC and Cov rugby’s chairman Jon Sharp who was on record about it last December to the BBC after we broke the story. That is, despite certain subsequent false media attempts starting the very next day to deny it, and council attempts to prevent it. We uncovered evidence of this from a leaked council email.

We also investigated the tangled web of relationships between Butts Park Arena head lease owner Chris Millerchip, the council, Higgs centre operators, sporting trusts, Wasps and the Millerchip funded ‘Coventry – A City of Rugby’ project.

The Butts was provisionally supported as one option to further examine by many CCFC fans and even Sky Blue Trust leaders’ statements, although as ever opinion was split. Could it be developed into a stadium of 20,000 or 25,000 capacity? Why not continue to explore it? Why not pressure council leaders to prevent any interference in the planning process, if it gets that far? How about other stadium sites in Coventry? Or just over the border?

Why the renewed campaign right now about long-term stadium solutions and ‘Sisu Out’, with Ricoh tenancy assured until 2018 and while the priority of the academy mess is still not sorted?

WASPS’ CONCERNS

The timing appears to be partly about Wasps.

Councillors have staked their reputations on the Wasps Ricoh project succeeding. Last month, we revealed council plans for a Wasps vehicle to buy lucrative green belt land next to the academy for homes. The proceeds might fill some of the hole in their £35million debt residing in a retail bond scheme.

By the end of the month, Wasps need to submit a revaluation of the Ricoh Arena to the bond scheme’s trustees to illustrate that a legal promise that the value of Wasps assets – made up of the stadium and its ‘P-share’ permit to play in rugby’s Premiership – remain at least 1.4 times the value of the Wasps’ group debts. The bond or debt holders have loaned £35million to Wasps. The Ricoh Arena was valued at £48.5miion, or 1.4 x £35million.

With no stadium naming rights, Sisu legal action outstanding and no long term Sky Blues commitment to begging bowl Ricoh tenancy, there could be serious problems with the Ricoh Arena valuation. This is not withstanding that Wasps, with the city’s huge support, appear to be making a decent fist of making their business work.

Wasps’ business plan remains precarious. So could they be enticed back to the table over a meaningful and fairer equity and revenue deal with CCFC? Not without pressure.

Shouldn’t the city’s politicians, CCFC fans’ groups and media be fighting for a fairer deal for the football club? Perhaps a fair deal in return for Sisu dropping ongoing legal action against the council which Wasps appear to fear (they’ve strangely cited it as the reason for calling off talks with the football club)?

Football remains a potentially much bigger business for the city than rugby, and the 133-year-old club and academy must not be forced out of the city and local area by Sisu, the council, Wasps, Higgs charities or any party.

TIME TO SHOW US THE PLAN

Fans are in the invidious position of having to decide if they support the campaign agenda or their team.

But if the anti-Sisu campaigning politicians, newspaper editors and fans group leaders do have a serious workable plan after all, it’s time to reveal it. I’ve said many times that Sisu and CCFC need to be much more open with communication. So do all sides.

Many believe it’s time to stop the drip, drip of poison over the club and show us the plan.

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