130-year-old club Coventry, a club that predates its league, struggles to breathe

By Rob Harris, AP

LONDON–Just a year ago Coventry was hosting Olympic soccer and being lauded by FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

For world soccer’s most powerful executive, seeing top-level matches there again was “a source of great joy and pride.”

Now the Ricoh Arena, just eight years old and with a 32,000 capacity, is a soccer stadium facing a future without soccer.

And the financially troubled team that had been based at the stadium is fighting for its future after 130 years in existence, predating the league it plays in.

“It’s a dreadful thing and it ought not to be allowed for a city to have its football club to be taken away,” Labour Party Legislator Bob Ainsworth, who represents part of Coventry in the House of Commons, told The Associated Press on Friday.

“I want an investigation to expose everything that has gone on over the last few years.”

In the topflight for 34 years until 2001, the 1987 FA Cup winners have plunged into the third tier as a bitter dispute between the hedge fund that owns the club and the Ricoh Arena landlords escalated.

As they rowed over an annual rent of 1.3 million pounds (US$2 million) to play in the stadium, the team entered bankruptcy protection and gained permission from the Football League to play home matches about 30 miles away in Northampton, much to the annoyance of fans.

Arena Coventry Limited holds the keys to the Ricoh — and the football team’s future. At a creditors’ meeting on Friday, the stadium’s operators blocked a bid by the club to exit administration.

As a result, Coventry’s parent company will be put into liquidation.

The immediate implication was a 10-point penalty handed to Coventry on Friday, which still allows it compete in League One in the Football League’s 125th season, starting Saturday at Crawley.

“We now have certainty and the club’s future is secured,” Coventry chief executive Tim Fisher said. “We can now get on and put our future plans into action which means building and owning our own stadium in the Coventry area.”

Stadium operator ACL is co-owned by a charity and Coventry City Council whose offices are adorned by a FIFA pennant honoring the “lasting legacy of the Olympics” to Coventry.

Football League chairman Greg Clarke said his board is “dismayed at the level of intransigence being shown” by the stadium owners and the club’s administrators.

“It is a source of immense frustration to everyone involved that the two parties in this dispute have failed to reach any agreement,” said Clarke, who is in charge of running the three divisions below the Premier League.

The league has backed Otium Entertainment Group — named as the administrators’ preferred bidder — to take control of the club from the hedge fund SISU, which has owned Coventry since 2007. That, though, has been opposed by fans, the stadium owners and the tax authority, who are owed money.

ACL lawyer James Powell said Otium’s proposals do “not give stability to Coventry,” and the Sky Blue Trust urged authorities against making a “bad situation any worse” by handing over control of the club to them.

ACL, whose offer of annual rent of 150,000 pounds (US$230,000) has been rejected, has concerns that Otium is connected with the existing owners following a “catastrophic insolvency,” Powell said.

“It is does not seem a fair and equitable outcome,” he added.