6th Dec, 2016

SAVE OUR CITY: Wasps flags at Ricoh removed amid wrangle over Sky Blues' bid to share

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

COVENTRY City Football Club has for months been seeking to fly Sky Blues flags alongside the giant Wasps ones on a traffic island outside the Ricoh Arena where the rugby newcomers enjoyed exclusive use of ten flagpoles, leaked emails reveal.

The 10 Wasps flags on the A444 roundabout have recently mysteriously been taken down.

But we can reveal approaches to Coventry City Council and Wasps had led to nothing for months amid delays – despite Sky Blues’ and fans’ concerns about bias against the 133-year-old football club, which rents the Ricoh from owners Wasps since the council’s 2014 sale of the stadium.

Emails between the council and club – leaked to the Coventry Observer – show the club’s request was made in April and state it had later been referred up to the council’s ‘chief executive’ via a female ‘line manager’, apparently in the chief executive’s department where Fran Collingham is PR manager.

Asked about the revelations from the leaked emails, Coventry City managing director Chris Anderson told us, before it became known the flags had been taken down: “This appears to be a microcosm of what it feels like is happening here, with the football club being denied access to Coventry.

“It’s a small thing but it’s hugely symbolic.”

The council emails also state: “The wasps approached Icon (which is the flag pole company) directly and was enquiring about having flags installed on the existing poles on the roundabout. We the city council own the flag poles and this occasion gave permission for them to be used.”

In response to the Sky Blues’ request for the flagpoles to be shared, or even used by them just on Coventry City matchdays, the council member of staff suggested the council would be happy to work with all parties towards sharing the flagpoles at all times, and even approached Icon for costings. But she also stated the matter would be referred upwards in the council.

The club also claims in the emails that Wasps had flatly refused to share the flagpoles, in one instance allegedly claiming: “We’d rather take them all down.”

The leaked emails show several approaches by the club since April have met with delays, and a council decision or explanation is still awaited.

The giant Wasps flags appeared in February on the 10 flagpoles, originally used for the 2012 Olympics when Olympic football came to the Ricoh. The flags’ appearance prompted allegations of insensitivity and bias on social media and CCFC fans’ forums.

Mr Anderson added: “We’ve had a number of supporters express their view on seeing these flags and we’ve been working to address that.

“We agree with our supporters it would be beneficial if Coventry City could fly our flag in the city of Coventry.

“We agree with our supporters that this is something we want to fix in association with the current users (Wasps) and the people who have the authority to decide who gets to fly their flag (the council).”

The Coventry Observer’s Save Our City campaign is calling on the council and city’s sporting institutions to do more to ensure Coventry City Football Club retains a viable and sustainable presence in the city, amid the club and fans’ concerns it is being squeezed out in favour of rugby and Wasps, following a long running dispute with the club’s owners Sisu.

It follows Wasps this month submitting to the council a planning application to move its training facilities into the football club’s purpose-built youth academy at the Alan Higgs Centre in Allard Way, having obtained the Ricoh Arena on a massively extended 250-year deal not offered to Sky Blues for which the stadium was built, and on whose money it depended.

It also follows revelations in this newspaper from a leaked council email in January which proposed blocking any prospect of the football club moving to an expanded Butts Park Arena home of Coventry Rugby Football Club, a proposal which aimed to enable both traditional Coventry sporting clubs to access more vital revenues from commercial stadium activities.

Coventry City fans’ organisations – including the Supporters’ Consultative Group and the Sky Blue Trust – are protesting against the potential loss next year of the Sky Blues’ ‘lifeblood’ youth academy. It has produced young stars such as Callum Wilson and James Maddison, and develops Coventry’s elite sporting youngsters, apparently in line with a democratically approved ten-year Coventry Sports Strategy.

The council’s chief executive is Martin Reeves, who is also a former director of Ricoh company Arena Coventry Limited.

The council has also since March had an acting chief executive, Martin Yardley, who is in charge while Mr Reeves is on West Midlands Combined Authority business for an estimated ‘two or three days a week’.

A Coventry Observer investigation this month revealed how Mr Yardley – another unelected council officer – had made presentations to a council scutiny committee explaining a ‘Coventry Sports Network’ (CSN) of council officers and sporting trust officials had quietly made decisions to designate rugby as a key sport following the Wasps move to the Ricoh, and to promote Coventry as a ‘City of Rugby’. Those sporting trust officials on the CSN include representatives from the Coventry Sports Foundation, which operates the Higgs centre.

* We have approached the council and Wasps for comment. More to come.

UPDATE: 14.35pm

COUNCIL RESPONSE

“Wasps arranged for the production of their own flags and they dealt with a company to get them produced, installed and removed.  We don’t know how much they paid for this work.

They did need permission from us to put them up – and we agreed based on them being up for a few days for a specific match.

When Wasps asked for the flags to come down we took the opportunity to go out and have a look at the poles.  The poles, which are nine metres high, had shifted a bit in the ground and are now not in a good enough condition to fly large flags on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. This is the reason that the flags haven’t been able to go back up.”

  • We have asked further questions of the council which emerge from the story and this response.

UPDATED: 15:17

Further Council response

“Wasps flags were up on the island for longer than planned in part because it looked better than having no flags at all.  This wasn’t an issue when no one else had asked us about flags.

When Coventry City approached us to see if they could fly flags too we were happy to talk to them about them flying flags, in fact we suggested Wasps and CCFC shared the flagpoles between them, paying all costs between them.

Then they came down for MTV crashes and when we checked flagpoles, that’s when Icon said that the poles couldn’t be used to fly large flags over long periods of time.

No councillor was aware as this was an operational issue. But both Martin Yardley and Martin Reeves were updated for their information, not for any action, on the issue as part of regular updates on all comms issues. There is no budget for repairing the flagpoles – they were originally funded from money used for city dressing for the Olympics in 2012 – so it is unlikely they will be repaired at the moment.

UPDATE: June 29.

  • The council clarified the Wasps flags went back up after MTV Crashes and were again taken down for the ‘end of the rugby season’ in ‘mid-June’. Regarding any return of flags, the council would still “be willing to work with both clubs as long as both clubs would be willing to share costs,” including repair costs.
  • CCFC managing director said today in response: “We would be delighted to contribute to making the flag poles safe so we can fly our flag, or flags.
  • Wasps has declined to comment.
  • Asked if the council would clarify it would be prepared to work with the Sky Blues solely were Wasps no longer interested in flying its flag on the roundabout, a ‘council spokesman’ said: “We had already said that we are happy to talk to any businesses about use of flagpoles.”
  • The council declined to put a name to who was providing the responses to our questions. It also continued to claim the council’s ‘assistant director communications’, Fran Collingham, approved the use of the 10 flagpoles by Wasps and was later also ‘happy’ to consider a sharing arrangement; and that the two chief executives were simply notified for their information as the matters developed.