Coventry are one of the moving spirits of the Phoenix League. Neville Hadsley believes their frenzied activity masks panic about their own financial position
It’s always struck me that the acting career of the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet was limited by the fact that there weren’t enough up-to-no-good twins around to portray. Once you’ve done the Krays, who else is there? Step forward Geoffrey Richmond and Bryan Richardson. True, they are not twins. Also true they are upstanding citizens, rather than criminal gang leaders. But they do have a certain physical resemblance – too many good meals in decent restaurants, one suspects – and they are also the joint architects of a rather rum scheme.
Both are short of cash. For Richardson, the chairman of Coventry City, that’s a bit of an understatement. His club are in debt to the tune of £60 million, of which £41 million is due for repayment in approximately five months’ time. Richardson says these debts are “soft” loans and will not need to be repaid, but a man with a huge debt and who has sold his club’s ground without even starting to build a new one is undoubtedly a man in search of some money.
His Bradford counterpart has been a bit more frugal and wisely began his fire sale before the fire of relegation took hold, but even with Benito Carbone (and his salary) overboard, he is also tempted by the prospect of the odd bob or too. Between them they have been the public champions of the Phoenix league – a Premiership II which would select by invitation rather than merit, hopes to invite Celtic and Rangers into their midst and wants a much more arms-length relationship with the hoi-polloi of the lower divisions than the current boring old Nationwide First Division.
To understand the Phoenix plan, you only have to look at its most vociferous advocates. By and large they are football’s Micawbers, gentlemen of middle rank who believe they are entitled to a certain status in life but have fallen on hard times and are waiting for something to turn up. Of the main protagonists, only Manchester City can be said to be in decent shape. Al- ongside them we have Sheffield Wednesday, who find they lack the financial clout to keep their stately home in order and Nottingham Forest, former champions of Europe, who now struggle to publish their accounts.
Coventry’s financial problems are daunting. Not only have Richardson and his board sold off one of the club’s most tangible assets – Highfield Road – but the site of the new stadium, already four years behind schedule, remains a wasteland. The club does not even own the site and sold all its interests in the project last year in return for a bail-out loan of £13 million – a debt which was passed off in the accounts as an asset. I’m no financial wizard but that seems to me like desperate business.
Not that Richardson himself will feel the chill wind of recession. Despite claiming repeatedly that the new stadium project was insulated from the club, and despite presiding over our first relegation for almost half a century, he has awarded himself a £300,000 “bonus” for work he claims to have done on the new stadium. Over the past financial year he has also exercised a £80,000 loan facility provided by Coventry City Football Club.
Around a decade ago, Bryan Richardson inherited a club with debts of around £4.5 million and has managed to increase that 12-fold without having anything to show for it on or off the pitch. In the summer the board sold £27 million worth of players – John Hartson, Craig Bellamy, Moustapha Hadji, Chris Kirkland and John Aloisi among them – and spent around £7 million .
Gates have plummeted from over 20,000 in the Premiership to around 14,000 for recent home games and with another £20million of debt to pay off at the end of this financial year, financial survival rather than Premiership survival is now the preoccupation of most Sky Blues fans. It is a matter of desperation: if Coventry and clubs like them believe the Phoenix league can bring in more TV cash, then they are for it.
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month