16th Nov, 2018

Our call to Coventry Cathedral for all-party talks to end Sky Blues dispute

Les Reid 28th Oct, 2016

THE COVENTRY¬†Observer’s Save Our City campaign is calling on Coventry Cathedral to step in to try and help resolve the multi-party dispute involving the Sky Blues, which threatens the 133-year-old club’s future.

The Observer understands the cathedral is considering what role, if any, it could play after two years ago bringing all sides to the table for confidential talks with the help of an independent professional mediator.

Any such role would be confidential and the cathedral would not publicly comment.

We have since last year been calling for a Fair Deal for Coventry City Football Club on vital stadium revenues and its lifeblood youth academy whoever the owners (barring them failing ‘fit and proper’ rules). The council and Higgs charity in October 2014 sold the Ricoh Arena to London Wasps on a secretive 250-year cut-price deal not offered to the Sky Blues on which the stadium always depended.

Many fans and others have supported our call, including in Open Letters. They have backed us in saying the multi-party problem cannot solely be blamed on one party – and will require a multi-party solution. The club’s parent company Sisu has not responded to renewed protest demands they put the club up for sale at the bottom of the market, with nothing to sell. There is no clear or credible takeover bid.

The cathedral, proud of its work on ‘peace and reconciliation’, played an instrumental role in 2014 when, through mediation, agreement was struck to bring the Sky Blues back to Coventry after a year playing in Northampton. It had followed a legal bitter dispute over Ricoh rent, revenues and ownership, and failed takeover plots.

Coventry City Council leaders then publicly stated they hoped the triumphant return could be the first stage towards the club buying a stake in the Ricoh Arena.

But it emerged weeks later that before and during the cathedral mediation talks they had been holding secret discussions towards finalising the London Wasps deal.

We have called on the cathedral to seek all-party talks, in the knowledge that intransigent disputes are rarely solved by blaming one party and expecting them to cave in or ‘lay down their arms’ unilaterally with nothing in return.

The ongoing legal action over the Wasps deal and an earlier council taxpayer Ricoh bailout could be parked to one side – accepting anyone has a right to legally challenge a council decision as much as a council has a right to defend it. That, is whether or not the legal action could ultimately be dropped after negotiations.

The current position of the council and Wasps in ending all talks or relationships with the football club until legal action is dropped will likely see the stalemate continue for years, with yet more damage to the football club, not Sisu.

Many fans appreciate any solution will require A STADIUM in Coventry for the club – or a fair share of commercial revenues, whoever the owners, for the club to be viable and competitive.

Our call for all parties to end a multi-party dispute was supported this week by Coventry Labour MP Jim Cunningham, who called on ‘any and all parties’ including the council to come together for talks involving a mediator.

He had announced Commons culture, media and sports select committee chair Damian Collins MP had offered to mediate. But there was confusion, now clarified after our approach to Mr Collins, that he was initially only offering to mediate between Sisu and Wasps about staying at the Ricoh beyond the current temporary Sky Blues rental deal which expires in 2018. Mr Collins’ suitability has also been questioned given his campaigning work against some football club owners and criticisms of Sisu.

Such a narrow remit would patently not work. The club’s preferred option for nearly two years has been a groundshare at an expanded Butts Park Arena of between 15,000 and 25,000 capacity, which would return the club to a city centre home. Even the anti-Sisu fans’ group Sky Blue Trust leaders have said the Butts option should be fairly explored.

Yet shortly after this newspaper revealed the Butts plan last year, it was being talked down. We also revealed a leaked council email which proposed to block any professional football and associated training activities for 125 years at the Butts as a condition of the transfer of the head lease, required for the expansion plans.

We have also exposed Butts head lease holder Chris Millerchip’s connections with the council and Wasps, including through his funding of the ‘Coventry – a City of Rugby’ project. It is thought he has been threatening a similar clause in any transfer of his head lease to the rugby club, though it is unclear what powers he has.

Given this evidence, many share our concerns of political interference and potentially political interference in the planning process. Professional advisers have advised both clubs the scheme can be delivered on highways issues and with modern modular stadiums built upwards incrementally – if there is a political will.

It all illustrates why ALL parties will have to be part of the solution, if there is to be one.

The past is the past, when Sisu tried aggressively to acquire a stake in the Ricoh and council leaders, prior to and during Sisu’s tenure, were equally dogmatically determined to hold on to the asset.

To survive and prosper, the club and team needs A STADIUM solution – with 24/7 seven days a week commercial activities in and around it – in or around Coventry’s boundary. Just as indebted London Wasps stated they needed before October 2014 when the Ricoh deal was signed.

A Ricoh deal on shares and/or revenues seems unlikely. Wasps, £35million in debt, will need all the revenue they can muster, and Coventry City says it received a paltry £75,000 in matchday and zero non-matchday revenues last season before Wasps called off talks.

Our concern is the alternative is the club’s liquidation or removal from the city, and all we will be left with is the tedious PR blamegame hot air that has characterised this four-year dispute.

It could be the ‘Butts or bust’. Or a fair deal at the Ricoh. Or another stadium site. Time to talk.

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