I’ve been talking a lot about Coventry City recently. It’s a case I’m very familiar with, having previously advised the Sky Blue Trust throughout the torturous period that the club was moved to Northampton, and then unceremoniously had their ground taken over by a cuckoo-esque move by Wasps.
Let’s face it, the case is about as hopeless as it gets. When you’re at the point where the Chairman attacks the supporters’ trust for trying to make an offer to buy the club and take it out of the seeming death spiral it’s in, you know it’s bad. Worse even that Blackpool? Quite probably, but only by a whisker.
I was asked again yesterday in an interview with a local station in the city, what the ‘solution’ is. The truth is, there is no immediate solution. Not one that presents itself readily anyway. A hedge fund that seems not to want to admit when its business plan hasn’t worked, a football club that looks basically broken, and fans and their representatives who are completely in the cold. It’s all pretty horrendous.
But maybe there a process that could lead to a way of resolving it. It would have to occur outside of the normal bounds of the rules of football. It could also point to a potential future structure for dealing with disputes between supporters and their clubs within the game.
The problem, which I’ve highlighted a great deal in recent weeks with several legal and football-rules brains I know, is that football, despite having made some decent advances in recent years on ‘fan engagement’, still doesn’t actually recognise fans as a formal part of the game along with players, referees, officials, etc. Despite the language of the ‘stakeholder’ regularly used by The FA, Premier League, EFL, it is really, in terms of substance, largely optional, and just that: language. Fans are mentioned in the rules, yes, but crucially, as effectively a side-issue. In fact, even football agents, after FIFA decided to disperse power on their regulation to national FAs, are included within the rules of The FA, and can use dispute resolution procedures. Long term, this in my view needs some serious thought. What would make it really work is the presence of a recognised supporters’ organisation at every club (which would invariably have to be a supporters’ trust, given their unique legal status), and a body providing oversight (which I would suggest would equally very naturally be Supporters Direct, given it already acts as a ‘guarantee’ or a ‘kite mark’ for its members). I will be writing more about this subject in the near future.
So back to Coventry City, the only way out seems to me to be some of form of binding arbitration, basically like the process ACAS use in industrial disputes. It requires a commitment from both sides to make it work, and there would have to be a period of radio silence on the issues so that the process can be undertaken. The EFL, whilst it says that it ‘It is not for the EFL to “force” a club to comply with the rules’ (which in itself is to me a very odd thing for body that aspires to be a regulator to say), could along with The FA place political pressure on SISU and the club to go down this path. There may also be some carrots and sticks I don’t know about. But if they do enter such a process, then it can be understood what a hedge fund £60m+ down on a bad investment want or need to walk away (and I am only speculating but I suspect that it’s financial); and what the fans might be prepared to accept so that they can start to see some kind of an end to this horrendously bad episode, which should be a source of shame for the whole game. Will it happen? It’s doubtful, but then nothing changes if we don’t at least try.