The sale of Coventry City is yet another plot twist in football’s equivalent to Beowulf

Close-up of a Coventry City shirt reads 'In our Coventry homes' Credit: Alamy
Close-up of a Coventry City shirt reads 'In our Coventry homes' Credit: Alamy

It had been expected that Mike Ashley would be the new owner of their stadium, but the sale of Coventry City has blind-sided almost everyone.

 

‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.

‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’

That snippet of dialogue, from Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, has become popularised in recent years as an allegory for the way in which events seldom follow a smooth linear path. It was difficult not call it to mind when the news that Coventry City have been sold suddenly hit the headlines.

If nothing else, Coventry’s season so far has been a rollercoaster. After their pitch was declared unplayable and unsafe on the eve of their first league game of the season, they lost four straight games to drop into the Championship’s relegation places, but since then they’ve recovered their form in the league, losing just two of their last 14 matches to lift themselves back into the top half of the table again.

Off-the-pitch events soon came to overtake the progress being made by Mark Robins’ team. In the middle of October, it was confirmed that London Wasps RFC, the owner of the club’s CBS Arena home, were entering into administration and when the stadium operators ACL followed them at the start of November, fresh doubt was cast over whether the club would be able to continue playing there.

But from out of nowhere came an announcement that seemed to blind-side just about everybody. Coventry announced that an 85% shareholding in the club had been sold to local businessman Doug King. Why blind-sided? Because the previous owners of the club had been running it since 2007 and had shown few signs of being prepared to sell up and leave.

According to their initial statement, King would be buying an 85% shareholding in the club, making an ‘equity bid’ to purchase the CBS Arena, and putting the club in a position of being both debt-free and reunited with the stadium itself, which has long been considered the best way in which the club can maximise its revenue generation and grow again.

The timing of the announcement was certainly curious, coming the night before what was considered a significant milestone in the future of the troubled stadium. Mike Ashley, formerly of Newcastle United and briefly linked with purchasing Derby County while they were in administration, had been confirmed as the preferred bidder for the stadium, but his period of exclusivity was due to expire on Thursday morning with a further court hearing.

A further statement clarifying further details appeared on the club’s website the following morning. In it, the club stated that they will be making a £25m bid for the stadium, that they had proof of funds available and that they would ‘be represented in this morning’s court proceedings and would welcome clarity on the administration process’.

Having been kicked from pillar to post so many times over the last decade and a half, it is wholly unsurprising that this flurry of announcements should have been greeted with some degree of suspicion by Coventry supporters. This is, after all, a fanbase that has seen its club leave the Arena twice, once to play at Northampton and once to play at Birmingham City, often feeling as though their best interests were at the absolute bottom of the agendas of everybody squabbling over the future of their home stadium.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

So who is this new guy, then? Well, Doug King is CEO of Stratford-upon-Avon based company Yelo Enterprises, and the CEO of RCMA Capital LLP. RCMA Capital has overseas investments of over $400 million, while Yelo Enterprises has recently invested more than £70m in the construction of an oilseed processing facility in order to generate renewable energy.

There is considerable suspicion on the part of Coventry supporters that his involvement could be a backdoor route for Sisu, the hedge fund that has owned the club for the last 15 years, to get ownership of the stadium themselves, but as usual there’s only speculation, which is producing considerably more heat than it is light.

Taken entirely face value, it all seems like good news for the club. A fresh start under a local owner is just what the club needs after such a lengthy period of uncertainty, while the separation of the club from the ground – and, crucially, the revenue streams that it could bring – was at the heart of the decline that defined so many of their problems.

Emerging from all of this debt-free is similarly encouraging news, and it is significant that the club’s statement described his attempt to buy the Arena as an ‘equity bid’, meaning that the purchase would not be funded by lumping debt onto the club itself. On the surface, this is something close to everything that you could ask for from such a takeover, especially considering the events of the club’s recent past.

But it’s right that Coventry supporters should be asking ‘what’s the catch?’, because there has been so much subterfuge and mixed messaging in the club’s recent past. Mike Ashley’s interest in the Arena doesn’t seem to have extended to the club itself – and Newcastle supporters might well be saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ when it comes to his ownership of a football club – and keeping the club and the stadium separate would certainly be sub-optimal for the club’s long-term growth. It should also be added that it has been claimed that the Arena needs £13m worth of repairs.

It was always understood that the reason why Sisu were hanging around at Coventry for so long was the intention to eventually buy the Arena for as little as they could get away with. If King’s links to them are what the speculation suggests, then they may well get what they have long sought.

As ever with Coventry City, there remain at least as many questions as answers. Is the King deal to buy the club done and dusted, or might it be conditional on the outcome of the court hearing? What’s his commitment to the club, should it end up being decided that Mike Ashley’s bid for the Arena is the one that will be accepted?

And most importantly of all, when will Coventry’s supporters finally get a break from this interminable saga? Because it still feels as though this season could end brilliantly for a team that has in recent weeks clambered to being just two points off the Championship play-off places, or disastrously for a club that has been here before so many times before that it’s easy to lose count.

If supporters are taking a cynical tone towards this latest burst of news, it’s because they’re all too familiar with all the squabbling over the future of their club and its home pushing their best interests to the bottom of the priority list.

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