As both a Coventry City fan and journalist/editor, the news we revealed on Friday of a groundshare at Birmingham City after Ricoh Arena talks with Wasps collapsed is utterly depressing, albeit unsurprising.
Covering the ugly and entrenched Ricoh Arena dispute for seven years has been like pulling teeth.
We have had long periods of not touching the often circular story so badly tainted by vested interests. There’s been no will here for several doses of click-bait every day.
Both the political journalist and the Coventry City fan in me has seen that, above all, the story must be about football.
There was no need for unwelcome daily repetitive distractions for like-minded fellow fans, Mark Robins and his exciting young team. My young son, a Junior Sky Blue, the next generation, feels that too.
Regrettably, it has for years also been far too much about politics – vile, manipulative, distorted, moronic politics.
Politics which has failed the city. There now needs to be a fundamental re-think among the city’s ‘leaders’, council leaders on both sides and MPs, in line with shifting public opinion which offers some hope.
It is high time the media and some so-called fans’ group ‘leaders’ make that shift too, and there are some signs that they are already having to.
Even the anti-Sisu Sky Blue Trust leaders have had to alter their public statements to a much more balanced view, recognising in this week’s latest offering that opinion is divided as to who is “mainly” to blame.
ALL sides are now held in abject contempt.
Fans now loudly in their thousands sing a song that in strong, unrepeatable terms expresses their feelings about ALL sides – ‘the Wasps’, club owners Sisu and Coventry City Council. Videos of that song were within days watched, heard, clicked on, by tens of thousands of people, data showed.
The Coventry Observer re-entered the fray over several weeks before Christmas, and then from early March. There was a role to play in ensuring pressure on all parties – helping to re-calibrate the debate away from the predominate and counterproductive blaming of the club and/or the club’s owners. Such has been the long established pattern by politicians, commercially invested media, some fans’ ‘groups’ leaders, and failed club takeover hopefuls supported by the politicians and Wasps.
As we have stated amid extreme hostility over the years, this has patently been a multi-party dispute, with all sides responsible. The Coventry Observer’s Save Our City campaign has consistently for years called for a ‘Fair Deal for Coventry City’.
It followed the council’s hated and divisive 2014 Ricoh Arena sale – amid the poisonous dispute – to then London Wasps on a massively extended 250-year deal not offered to Coventry City. It deprived the would-be begging-bowl tenants of revenues and value, and made any future Sisu sale less likely.
The European Commission will examine if it was an unlawful ‘state aid’ misuse of taxpayers’ money. British courts have said not.
Wasps are locking the club out of the stadium built both BY it and for it, because the football club and its owners won’t pledge to protect Wasps from any potential multi-million pound losses. They include losses that could potentially flow from the EC Complaint. We don’t yet know the full confidential details.
Mark Robins’ words sum up how most feel: “It is a complete and utter disgrace that the Ricoh Arena, which again, was built as the home of Coventry City Football Club, is owned by a rugby club that has its roots in Buckinghamshire (sic). How can that happen? Coventry is ‘City of Sport’ in 2019 – this is an absolute joke.”
Wasps’ bargaining position of locking out the cherished 136-year football club – the city’s great sporting and economic asset – may be rational if it had prospects of success.
But therein lies Wasps’ (and the council’s) problem. It has NO prospect of success, and can only lead to further alienation. Sisu will not agree to such measures that could bankrupt Coventry City.
Wasps (and the council) must know this. Conversely, the EU complaint (which cannot be pulled) will go ahead wherever Coventry City play.
Is it all part of a council and Wasps not-so hidden agenda to oust Sisu by distressing the club outside the city over time, perhaps with a phoenix club emerging? There has been much evidence of such attempted yet failed tactics over the years, as we have highlighted.
Again, such an approach is widely unsupported and would be divisive and disastrous for the club and all involved.
Friday’s outcome is another failure for the city, the football club and its fans.
But while dark clouds loom, there is perhaps cause for optimism in public opinion.
It’s arguably not just shifting fans’ opinion, but wider public opinion. Among those uninterested in the football, who hasn’t had a City fan amid friends and family across generations? More truthful and balanced pieces now, finally, are appearing in some national media, calling out the council and Wasps’ role.
Shifting public opinion is important as, just as in 2013, there is no prospect of Sisu selling the devalued club just because they are being backed into a corner – calls for “boycotts” or otherwise. Boycotts which will only further hurt our club. As ever, pragmatic solutions should be sought.
DERELICTION OF DUTY
Political leaders and Wasps now know very well – albeit belatedly – that public opinion has not played out the way they hoped when they sought in recent months to, yet again, solely blame the club and the club’s owners (one and the same thing, argued Labour council leader George Duggins).
It wasn’t just crass, naked political propaganda. It was a dereliction of duty, so reckless was it to Coventry City’s future, and so divisive it was in explicitly taking sides with Wasps.
Councils as public bodies should be rational enough to accept their decisions about taxpayers’ money can be tested in the courts and in Europe where ‘state aid’ laws were made, without arrogantly playing hardball with something as cherished as the 136-year football club.
Politicians – the Conservative opposition leader Gary Ridley included – seemingly failed to understand that in 2019, opinion was not the same as in 2013 and 2016.
There are several reasons for this, among them the Mark Robins bounce, and the fact you can only so many times march people up the hill along the wrong path and back down again.
The politically motivated and false one-sided scripts by some national journalists, especially the increasingly irate David Conn of The Guardian, have been widely discredited and called out by those who know better, mostly fans. His agenda is as over-idealistic as his political and economic commentary is over-simplified yaboo party politics, which ought to be beneath any seasoned journalist.
Right-thinking fans are no longer cowered into silence – those of us who just want the football team and club to succeed, those who hold all sides to account, are well aware that the problems long pre-date Sisu, and that all sides have sought to distress each other.
Hateful, usually anonymous, obsessive social media accounts have also been widely called out.
The transparent pretence that court rulings somehow explained all, peddled by Conn, politicians and other media – despite the judges themselves saying otherwise – has been dismantled and rightly ridiculed by many fans on forums for the nonsense it is.
Justice Leggatt had said that 2012 talks over council and club Ricoh ownership had broken down as ultimately no side wanted a deal. That echoed what I knew as a long-standing political journalist – leading council figures before and since Sisu had told me of an unwillingness to have shares sold to the club.
The judges had also made clear they were not there to judge on matters of morality rather than the law. Those matters included the council going behind the club’s backs in approaching the bank to buy out the Ricoh Arena ‘mortgage’ loan – which council executives and leaders naively believed would be a ‘gamechanger’ to oust Sisu.
On going behind the club’s backs to the bank, Justice Hickinbottom stated in his Judicial Review decision: “.. In English law, there is no general duty to conduct commercial negotiations in good faith.”
The part-council-owned Ricoh company – also then half-owned by the Alan Edward Higgs Charity – had also secretly approached Wasps in early 2012 about bringing them to the city – prior to Sisu’s “rent strike”.
The football club was enticed back to the Ricoh from Northampton’s Sixfields in 2014 with council politicians stating the club could perhaps buy into the stadium over time. Unbeknown to the club, their secret deal with Wasps was just weeks away from completion.
With all sides held responsible and in contempt, let’s hope more rounded coordinated campaign efforts can more sensibly be targeted, with more pressure on all sides towards getting Coventry City in the city on a fairer deal.
Perhaps there will be a rapid return to playing at the Ricoh. Perhaps it might have to wait until due process has finally played out in Europe.
A new stadium the club can call its own – for the first time since Highfield Road – should be collectively fairly examined as an option.
Quite apart from its own financial considerations, indebted Wasps should recognise its moral responsibilities in favour of the greater good, rather than locking out the city’s great football club, and allow due process. If the council (Ricoh freehold owner) did nothing wrong, what do the now deeply more unpopular Ricoh landlords lose?
As we have repeatedly reported, Wasps are in any case facing a potentially fatal financial cliff-edge in 2022, when they have to pay back £35million of their £55million debts back to bondholders.
Wasps can ill afford to be losing up to £2million in rent and revenues from Coventry City footfall – even though their council friends will do all they can to prop them up.
The local media too must act more responsibly. It includes, I’m afraid, the taxpayer-funded local BBC station, which we have long enjoyed collegiate relations with.
Lord Reith must be turning in his grave at outspoken commentator Stuart Linnell MBE’s one-sided polemic, while being feted by the failed takeover campaigners.
The broadcaster, who deserves some respect for his better work and is at least a passionate Coventry City fan, has often been quick to fire on-air cheap shots at critics.
His recent summary of a mainly anti-Sisu ‘protest’ in the Ricoh Arena after the final whistle hit new disproportionate depths.
Bemused listeners could be forgiven for thinking they were listening to a re-run of reporting from Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The football – what most listeners care about post-match as they drive home, including me and my son – was forgotten for 20 minutes, and other bulletins were delayed as Stuart reported the great drama.
“Fans are now running from one side of the stand to the other.. they are now running back again,” we learned. A tannoy announcement (erm, Wasps security, Stuart?) had called on them politely to leave the stadium, Edge of seat stuff it really wasn’t.
In his excitement, crucially, Stuart had forgotten to fairly estimate the numbers of fans taking part, a basic requirement of such reporting, I am told it was less than 20. The vast majority of fans, naturally enough, simply wanted to support Robins and his team’s League One promotion push.
BBC Coventry and Warwickshire has some fine people working for it. They are being unfairly tainted when the station continues to sanction false claims on far less important matters – that it has “broken” and “uncovered” stories “first” – for days after evidence and complaints categorically proved otherwise. Again, so much for the BBC Standards code of conduct commitment to “impartiality”, the truth and balance.
For the record, the Coventry Observer has repeatedly asked questions of Sisu that went unanswered and that we published, We called out the city’s political leaders for failing to show for crucial Westminster talks and supporting Wasps’ lock-out threats.
We held the council to account using the Freedom of Information Act for reneging on pledges to protect Coventry City’s security and future from the 2014 sale. Journalists/newspapers must hold public bodies to account.
We investigated after revealing accounts ‘falsification’ (cooking the books) by Wasps when accountants PwC had shot to pieces Wasps’ own version of events. The story went unreported for days and months elsewhere. Wasps had for years been championed in local media for their supposed business and PR acumen.
We have been unashamedly and transparently pro-Coventry City Football Club, not ‘pro-Sisu’ or any other party.
The football club is an important sporting, cultural, historic and economic giant of this city. It must not be lost.