Board stupid

Ed Wilson explains Coventry City fans’ growing discontent with Sisu Capital’s ownership of the Sky Blues

Bournemouth chairman Eddie Mitchell has already won this season’s award for elevating supporter-owner friction to the level of hilarious and harrowing performance art. But on the same day that he took to the Dean Court pitch to confront unhappy supporters, the relationship between Coventry City fans and the club’s owners, Sisu Capital, was also bottoming out. City’s 2-0 home win over Derby took place against a backdrop of antagonism towards the hedge fund, with the confiscation of a banner bearing an anti-Sisu message leading to a scuffle between supporters and stewards.

There are plenty of reasons for this acrimony. The team’s poor start to the season is a factor. Lack of investment in the squad has also contributed to discontent. Three first-team regulars left the club on free transfers over the summer and centre-back Ben Turner was sold to Cardiff for £750,000. Incoming transfer activity was limited: two goalkeepers were signed for free, while the striker Cody McDonald arrived from Norwich for an undisclosed fee.

There has been upheaval in the boardroom too, causing supporters to feel alienated from those running the club. In February, Gary Hoffman, a Sky Blues fan and the man appointed to oversee the rehabilitation of Northern Rock, resigned from his role as vice-chairman. Additions to the board include Leonard Brody, a Canadian venture capitalist. (Brody’s innovative suggestions so far include a fans’ fund for the purchase of players, something to which I’d only contribute if it was an investment rather than a gift. Part-ownership of a Championship footballer – let’s say, Martyn Waghorn – is quite an appealing idea.)

Added to these specific concerns is a more general worry that the club is in decline. In the three and a half seasons since Sisu saved City from administration, performances on the pitch have been dispiritingly consistent, with League finishes of 21st, 17th, 19th and 18th. A weaker squad this time round makes relegation a possibility. And, despite attempts to slash the wage bill, financial stability hasn’t been achieved. Sisu are reportedly bankrolling the club to the tune of £500,000 a month. The purchase of a share in the Ricoh Arena – in which City are tenants – doesn’t seem any closer.

Frustration at this malaise is compounded by uncertainty over Sisu’s plans for the club. As a hedge fund, they are geared towards making profit for their investors, but their ownership of Coventry is loss-making. Without investing in the squad in an attempt to drive revenue up, or buying the stadium to acquire a concrete asset, it’s difficult to see how that situation can change.

Yet they don’t seem inclined to walk away. Over the summer they rejected a bid for the club from a consortium of investors led by Hoffman. This bid, which reportedly involved a nominal initial sum followed by possible future payments if promotion was achieved, promised significant investment in the stadium and squad. After much grandstanding from both sides in the local media, the deal fell through. Current chairman Ken Dulieu claimed the bid was not credible, while Hoffman said his investors backed away due to information leaks.

The fans’ ire at the bid’s failure has forced Sisu to react. In an open letter, their representative, Onye Igwe, effectively dismissed Hoffman as a timewaster, making a pointed reference to “parties who have promised much in public, but delivered absolutely nothing”. He accepted that Sisu had made mistakes in their handling of the club, but reaffirmed that they are “committed to getting it right for the club long-term”.

Which leaves you wondering how it will all end. The current situation, with a half-empty stadium and protests at every home game, is clearly not sustainable, but it won’t change unless results improve. And results won’t improve without investment in the squad. Presumably, the hedge fund’s dream outcome involves another company agreeing to co-invest, or buying the club outright for a sum that eradicates their losses. Neither is likely at the moment, and will be even less likely if City are relegated.

It is this uncertainty that has escalated tension around the club. Sky Blues fans don’t expect miracles – the definition of a miracle in this context being “a League finish of 12th or above”. But they do want to know what’s going on. If Sisu are to repair this broken relationship, they have to be open about their plans. Igwe showed an awareness of this in his statement, promising greater transparency in the future. But on the stadium ownership issue, he went on to say: “Everything possible shall be done moving forward to reach the right solution.” If that near-parody of empty corporate rhetoric is anything to go by, I’m not hopeful.

From WSC 297 November 2011