Sisu's reign of misery: What exactly is going on at Coventry City?
In an era where statistics are ubiquitous within professional football, there cannot be many more depressing than the fact that the last time Coventry City finished in the top six of an English football division was over 45 years ago – the 1969/70 season, to be precise. Therefore, a Sky Blues supporter born in the summer of 1970 may have lived through the reign of nine prime ministers, Britain joining and leaving the EU, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and even their side’s famous 1987 FA Cup win, but they are still to witness Coventry City winning promotion (or even coming close to doing so).
If there is any silver lining to this, it is that the same supporter would have only experienced relegation twice in that time. Sadly, it is entirely possible that they will be forced to endure a third if things continue as they are at the Ricoh Arena. Coventry find themselves second bottom of League One after just two victories in their opening 13 games.
To make matters worse, they also find themselves without a manager after Tony Mowbray resigned at the tail end of last month. The former Celtic and West Bromwich Albion boss had guided the Midlands outfit to an eighth placed finish last term, and it could have been even better had his side maintained the early season form which saw them top the table for a fortnight in November. Back then, it all seemed so promising. So just what has gone wrong at the Ricoh Arena in the last twelve months, and will the misery of Coventry City supporters come to an end any time soon?
For supporters, the blame lies squarely at the door of the club’s controversial hedge fund owners, Sisu. Last Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Charlton Athletic saw both sets of supporters engage in a joint protest, whereby hundreds of plastic pigs where thrown onto the pitch in an attempt to interrupt the game. This comes amid a campaign by the Coventry Telegraph, calling for Sisu to sell the club as soon as possible, following a disastrous eight-year period since their initial takeover. During that time, the Sky Blues have dropped out of the Championship and are now staring relegation to the Football League’s bottom tier right in the face. In addition, a high court judgment two years ago also accused the owners of “serious mismanagement”, having revealed that £40 million had been lost during their time in control of the club.
Not only have attendances dwindled from around 20,000 eight years ago to an average of less than 10,000 this season, but the club were famously left without a home in 2013, after a protracted rent dispute with the Ricoh Arena’s operating company, ACL. As a result, the club was forced to play its home games at Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium, leaving loyal supporters with a 60-mile round trip just to watch their side. The club eventually returned home in 2014, and it has since emerged that the reason for the initial dispute was that Sisu engaged in a rent strike, where they simply stopped paying the rent on the stadium in an attempt to financially distress ACL.
For how long Coventry will remain back at the Ricoh is unclear, with the current contract set to expire at the end of the 2017/18 season. The arena is now owned by Rugby Union side Wasps, who within two months of Coventry’s exit, took advantage of the situation by agreeing a deal to purchase all of the necessary shares to complete the purchase. The stadium’s facade now features the badge of Wasps, something which must be a painful sight for supporters of Coventry, whom the ground was originally built for.
Meanwhile, the bleakness of operations behind the scenes has also been reflected on the pitch. Last season, Mowbray managed to assemble one of the division’s most exciting teams, with the attacking talents of loanees Adam Armstrong and Jacob Murphy terrorising many a League One defence. Unfortunately for Coventry, the pair returned to their parent clubs at the end of the season, leaving Mowbray with the task of replacing them as he attempted to build a team capable of challenging for promotion this term. However, the wage bill has been cut, and whilst Mowbray managed to work wonders by inspiring a team full of loanees to challenge for a play-off position last season, his frustration at the lack of resources at his disposal was evident in the weeks prior to his departure. So far, the replacements brought in have not been good enough at all; only Marvin Sordell has found the net more than once, with his four league goals making up almost half of Coventry’s measly tally of ten.
Despite a lack of success in the league over the past 45 years, the club were an established top division side up until the turn of the century. However, the days when the likes of Dion Dublin, Robbie Keane, and Gary McAllister donned the sky blue shirt now feels like an eternity ago. At the time of their relegation in 2001, only Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal could boast longer top flight tenures than Coventry’s 34 years. Whilst few could have predicted the club’s demise since, they are not the only big club to have suffered in recent years. What is holding back Coventry, in comparison to Sheffield Wednesday or Nottingham Forest, for example, is the fact that they do not own their own ground, and until it does so, it will be almost impossible to make the money required to grow sustainably. In recent years, promising academy graduates such as Callum Wilson and James Maddison have had to be sold on in order to assist financially.
Coventry may not be dead and buried just yet, though. After no wins in their first ten league games left Mowbray describing his players as “babies in a man’s league”, the team have picked up six points from a possible nine under caretaker boss Mark Venus, suggesting that they may possess more fight than many had thought. Venus will remain in interim charge of the team until January, and if he can inspire the team to perform as they did against Oxford United on Tuesday night, when they recorded their first home win of the season, then he may well be given the job on a permanent basis.
Nevertheless, the club clearly needs new ownership and fast. Convincing Sisu to sell up is not proving easy though, with a fan-led takeover being turned down last week. In a move that is sure to enrage the club’s fanbase, the owners declared that they have no intention of putting the club up for sale any time soon. Further protests are planned, and with questions marks also being raised over the future of the club’s training ground, which has been earmarked for housing developments, there appears to be no happy ending in sight for the nation’s longest suffering fanbase. May 2017 will mark the 30-year anniversary of Coventry City’s famous FA Cup win over Tottenham Hotspur – their only major honour to date. It would be extremely sad if, in the same year, the club were to be relegated to English football’s fourth tier due to the incompetence of the current regime.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Richard Fulford