Friday, 7 August 2015

The Mysterious Case of Sisu and the Sustainable Business Model

Everyone's favourite Coventry City owners were back in the news recently when a number of fans complained about the club's recent push for fans to buy season tickets. Chief Executive Steve Waggott released a statement on Tuesday through the club website in which he urged supporters to buy a season ticket: "We'd still like to bolster our forward line and the wide areas, and season ticket sales are imperative to get these deals over the line." It seems that these are the words that prompted much of the criticism, as many fans felt held to ransom over the comment. The line has basically been construed as 'if you don't buy a season ticket, you won't get your signings'.

Now obviously, the club have to make money from ticket sales; as with most teams, tickets are the prime source of income, and season tickets are a guaranteed source of funding for the upcoming campaign - you pay your fee up front, the club gets a handy cash injection and you get to watch the games. According to the club, they are 15% under their target, and having sold around 5000 already, the target must be around 6000 season tickets. Taking into account an average home attendance of 11000 has been set by the club as a benchmark to comply with the Financial Fair Play regulations, if the 6000 season ticket target was reached, 5000 more fans would still need to turn up for each game. We'll discount away fans for the moment, as their numbers tend to fluctuate due to a number of factors: distance to travel, importance of game, price, etc.

If everything I have been saying seems fairly obvious so far, bear with me: I think I'm going somewhere with it.

Looking at our average attendances since dropping down into League One, at the end of our first season in the third tier in 2013, we averaged 10997 (all statistics courtesy of The second season was an anomaly but did nothing to help matters: as we toiled away at Sixfields Stadium in Northampton for a season we averaged a paltry 2348. For the year just gone the number stood at 9332. Considering we are about to enter our fourth season in League One, and only in our first season in the competition did we average anywhere close to 11000, this number does feel a little bit optimistic.

That said, you can never overlook the effect of a good season on attendances, and it seems like the average ticket target has been devised with this in mind. Should Mowbray and the boys get off to a flyer and avoid the desperate form and performances of last season, this should entice a few more fans to the gate. There is nothing like supporting a successful team after all. Before pre-season optimism was high for the coming campaign: we had an experienced manager in place, Reda Johnson had signed a new deal, Romain Vincelot had been bought (with money!) and our youngsters seemed ready and raring to show their mettle.

However, the weak showings from the team in pre-season probably haven't helped season ticket sales: at worst, you could say fans have become disillusioned with the team and the coming season from these few performances, but I think that does a disservice to our fans. The more likely reason is that many will probably want to see how the season starts to pan out and decide on their level of support from there; a season ticket takes a lot of commitment, and to watch a team that could perform as insipidly as Coventry did at points last season, and indeed at points in the last decade, a certain degree of masochism would be involved as well.

It is clear that the club has been injected with sums of money to keep it afloat during the Sisu tenure, or at least during the Financial Fair Play era. As the Coventry Telegraph pointed out recently, "The Football League rules do permit donations from owners of clubs, as long as there is no expected repayment to the donor. That means clubs can’t rely on large cash loans for their income. Injections of equity also count as turnover under the rules, which means a wealthy owner can fund the club in ways that are not permitted in other divisions." Although Waggott and the club have maintained that the club is and will be self-sufficient, it is hard to accept, naive to accept even, that it has been throughout the whole period of Sisu ownership. As mentioned before, it should be clear through this that Sisu have provided the club with money in times when there was not much to spare.

The problem is that it has always seemed to us fans that the amount we are afforded by our owners is the bare minimum to keep the club functioning. Unfortunately in modern football, success cannot be achieved through the bare minimum, especially for a club such as Coventry who have been stagnating for years. For clubs such as Southampton, Leicester, or even Leeds to a certain extent, a dramatic fall from the Premier League to the third tier was followed by a fairly quick promotion, meaning fans had less time to become jaded by the slow decline of the team and their position, unlike we at Coventry. This meant attendances for those teams stayed at a high level, meaning more money for investment that would not make too much of a hole in the owners' pockets.

All this leads to my main point and a subject that has been debated back and forth since Sisu took control of the club: how can Sisu be making any money from this? And for how long will they want to keep control of a club that has been a drain on their resources from day one, and will surely not prosper unless a certain degree of investment is introduced? If the plan was (as many suspected) to gain control of the Ricoh to make the club a more attractive proposition to potential buyers and make a profit on their acquisition, then that ship seems to have sailed. If the plan is now (I can think of no other option) to restore the club to a respectable position within the league system while being as sustainable as possible to increase interest amongst potential buyers, then again, I feel that ship may have gone the way of the first.

As mentioned earlier in relation to Southampton et al, the fact that these clubs bounced back so easily compared to us meant more money through more bums on seats. The hard truth of the matter is, that until Coventry fans have something to be excited about, our level of support is just not going to be what the club needs at this point in time. Imagine yourself in a relationship with a partner who constantly lets you down, promises to change, but keeps on in the same old cycle of disappointment and hurt. Your support of them would waver too, wouldn't it? That's not to say we won't get our hopes up when the time calls for it: just look at the 31000 who came to the Johnstone's Paint Trophy semi-final (who then were subsequently let down again).

What is needed, but what probably won't happen, is for Sisu to invest. Not just in anyone, but to use the experience of the manager and the eyes of the scouts to bring in some players who would really get people excited. Yes, it might be more of an outlay than they expected in the first place, but in fairness, so has their whole tenure as club custodians. It's all very well harping on about sustainability but if you can't even entice the fans who are part of your business model into the stadium in the first place then you should probably just give up on your job of coming up with business models.

Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe this season Mowbray will guide us to the playoffs or beyond with an exciting brand of football, all on a shoestring, ticket-sale led budget. Trust me, I would be glad to be wrong in that scenario. Over the moon, even. For some reason though, I just can't see it happening. What I can see is another season in which we see a lopsided squad under-performing and crying out for some financial backing.

At least we're consistent in that regard, I guess.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Time for Thomas to stand up and be counted

A lot can happen in a year. Just ask footballers. Angel Di Maria started last season as a World Cup star and the record British signing. Now it looks like he'll be off to Paris Saint Germain after failing to live up to his own hype at Manchester United. Harry Kane began as Tottenham's first choice striker amid raised eyebrows after a few indifferent seasons and kept himself there, scoring enough goals and impressing the right people to earn himself an England call-up and talk of a move to a footballing superpower.

For Conor Thomas, one of our more successful academy graduates, his year has been more Di Maria than Kane. As many will fondly remember, his role in the first half of that Jekyll and Hyde 2013-14 season helped to provide a platform that enabled the front-four of Moussa, Baker, Clarke, and Wilson to score more goals than we're ever likely to see from a Coventry team. Thomas and John Fleck, a partnership forged by necessity rather than choice that for a while ended up feeling rather serendipitous, were the perfect foils for each other in a central-midfield pairing that, when on form, was one of the more effective double-acts we've seen at Coventry in recent years. Thomas' tireless running and simple recycling of the ball was a lovely counterweight to Fleck's measured passes and intelligent touch. The cart-horse and the show-pony, each very different yet equally important in their own right.

Although the form of both dipped after Christmas - it could be argued the loss of Leon Clarke was a factor in this, as his ability to receive the ball into feet from midfield and hold it up was a key role in the system which no incoming striker could really replicate - the hope was that at only 20 years old Thomas would continue to improve and that the blip in form was a natural result of a young player struggling to match the consistency of a seasoned professional. Thomas played 49 matches in that topsy-turvy campaign, an incredible amount for such a young man and a figure which underlined his importance to the team during that time. The 2014-15 season would be an important step for the young midfielder, a chance for him to display he could be for one, the midfielder we have needed but have so rarely enjoyed, and secondly, the player that he has threatened to become but hasn't quite metamorphosed into: one that grabs a game by the balls and exerts his influence on it, rather than letting the match pass him by.

For a number of reasons, we were to see less of Thomas last term than in 2013-14. He made only 19 appearances last season, as former boss Steven Pressley seemed to prefer Jim O'Brien as the high-energy presence in the middle of the park to partner John Fleck. Even Adam Barton, who had failed to impress Pressley but found some success with current boss Tony Mowbray halfway through the season, ended up making more appearances than Thomas. The former-mainstay missed chunks of the season due to injuries and poor form and failed to build momentum within the first-team. He finished the season playing with the under-21s.

At the start of pre-season it was encouraging to hear from Tony Mowbray in an interview with the Coventry Telegraph that Thomas had been impressing in training and was putting forward a case for a return to the first-team. Mowbray remarked that, "In pre-season this year he’s giving me, not a headache, but something to think about because he’s looked powerful, strong and fast. With total respect to him, he’s showing me more than I saw at the end of last season so he’s come back really hungry to force his way into the team which is a real bonus for us."

Yet for all this positivity from the manager, pre-season has seen Thomas play less than one half of football against Nuneaton Town; he started the second-half but came off after a clash of heads which left him concussed in the 78th minute. Mowbray had said he expected Thomas to be out for at least a week but the young midfielder hasn't made any further appearances in the lacklustre pre-season matches, which may well hamper him when it comes to the season proper. The lack of depth in the City squad has been exposed by the recent friendlies, and all over the pitch (except, possibly, in defence) we look short of quality. There was a time during that dreamland of the first-half of the 2013-14 season where we would look at Thomas and think that the midfield would be in safe-hands if he was on the pitch. Now with Fleck, Romain Vincelot, and O'Brien ahead of him in the pecking order, he will need to take his chances and prove he is worthy of a place in this team. We shouldn't write him off yet of course, but this will be a telling season and determine whether the the local lad has a future at this club.

After last year's disappointing season, I would love Thomas to force his way into Mowbray's thinking for the year. New signing Vincelot seems to have the nod from the manager on starting with John Fleck in that all-action, central-midfield hard-man role, but Thomas is no fool; as a professional footballer he will know any loss of form or injury for the new man will mean an opportunity to force his way into the team. Thomas has always seemed like a player and personality who will always work hard, and his natural fitness levels are impressive. Concerns remain about his passing ability and propensity to earn silly bookings, usually after a particularly heavy first touch has forced him into a rash challenge (the 2013-14 away match against Crewe remains in the mind - his touch, passing, and tackling were all over the place that day and I actually doubt whether he made a single effective contribution to the game) but at 21 years old, he has plenty of time to mature into a more effective, clever, and dominating player. Maturity tends to have a calming effect on central midfielders, and if it means his body will start to look on the same wavelength as his brain during crucial moments, he will be all the more useful for it. Whether he can add that sangfroid to his game before Tony Mowbray loses faith in him remains to be seen.

As an academy graduate and local boy, of course most fans will want to see Thomas improve and fulfill that early promise which nearly materialised in a move to Liverpool as a teenager. For his footballing career, and our team, I desperately hope at the end of this year we are again remarking on how, in football, a lot can happen in a year: and how Conor Thomas' year has looked less like Di Maria's, and more like Kane's.