When the players of Coventry United were told training had been cancelled and they should join an online meeting with the club’s directors at 10am two days before Christmas, they had little idea about what was to follow. Sitting one place off the bottom on goal difference, the Championship side had been struggling, but why call this meeting now?
The reality was far worse than anything they could have imagined. Also on the call were accountants from BK Plus, who had been instructed to assist the formal process of putting the club into voluntary liquidation.
The players and staff, who had not been paid for four weeks, were told their contracts were being terminated. Within days they had received formal notification that their employment had been terminated “with immediate effect”. According to one source, a creditors’ form was attached which disclosed the addresses of each player and staff member, and how much was owed to them.
“It was a situation I hope never have to go through again,” says the manager, Jay Bradford, who has been with the club for 17 years. “I lost my dad in August so me and my mum were preparing for our first Christmas without him and had plans to go away and do different bits together.
“Immediately I’m thinking about my own situation, I’m supposed to be going away and I’ve got a mortgage to pay but I’m not being paid, then I’ve got 24 players and X number of staff going: ‘What happens? What are we doing?’ I didn’t have the answers for them, which is difficult when I’ve always been the one that’s been able to answer their questions and give them information. It was so unexpected and I think we just felt blindsided by it.”
It was such a bombshell because the club’s three owners – the proprietors and directors of the Coventry-based Mirius, owners of the cleaning brand Hycolin – had bought into Coventry United in December 2020 with the bold ambition of making the team fully professional. That goal had been realised but the poor results and the clear need for further investment was a “reality check” for them, says Bradford.
“It’s a process,” says Bradford. “I kept saying to the original owners: ‘Yes, they spent a lot of money in the summer, but we haven’t spent enough.’ That wasn’t me being greedy and wanting the best players in the league, it was me saying we needed to compare our budget to the teams at the top.
“I think hearing me say that may have been a bit of a reality check for them because we weren’t winning and we weren’t top, as they thought we would be. They thought what they’d invested was going to be enough, whereas actually we’d only really touched the surface.”
As players and staff took to social media, Michael Mogan MBE, a fundraiser who was key to Coventry’s bid to become the 2021 City of Culture, became aware of their plight. At the request of his 10-year-old twin girls who play for Coventry United Juniors, he launched a Crowdfunder that raised more than £15,000 in 10 days to support the unpaid players. “It was phenomenal,” says Mogan of the response.
“If I was to launch a campaign I would not launch it on 23 December, it’s the one time when we’re turning off our computers and our out-of-offices are on. So the fact that hundreds of people gave £15,000 within a couple of days, 1,000 people signed this petition and it was circulating widely at the hardest time of year to build momentum makes you realise that the groundswell of opinion is very, very strong.”
Alerted to the club’s plight was the CEO of the energy company Angels Group, Lewis Taylor, who launched into action to attempt to buy and save the club before the deadline set for liquidation on 4 January. “When you see a lot of people about to lose their jobs, if you feel that you can help you should always help and that’s ultimately what drove the next steps,” he says.
The liquidators then connected him with a sceptical Bradford, who met him for coffee on New Year’s Eve. After a chat with the team and staff in an online meeting the following day, during which he told them: “We can save this if you want me to,” he got the takeover ball rolling. He struck a deal with the existing stakeholders eight minutes before the deadline.
While everyone waits for the paperwork to be completed and for Taylor to formally become chairman, the wages have begun to be paid from Mogan’s fundraiser, topped up with Taylor’s own money.
A big barrier remains the FA’s 10-point deduction for any club that suffers an “insolvency event”. Coventry are appealing against the decision, pointing to the impact of the pandemic, Brexit and the energy crisis affecting businesses such as Mirius.
“Ten points doesn’t seem right,” says Taylor. “I agree with the FA that women’s football needs to take its own path but in the men’s Championship for the same punishment it is a 12-point deduction, but there’s 138 points available if you win every game. In the Women’s Championship the punishment is a 10-point deduction out of a possible 66 points on offer, essentially 15% of the points available versus something like 8% in the men’s.
“That doesn’t seem to fit when actually the women’s game needs more assistance, if anything it needs a leg up. Had we triggered administration, which we didn’t, I feel like there’d still be a valid argument there for that points deduction to be lower.”
Taylor also believes there is a need for a “safe timezone” where clubs can raise a hand for help and support before they start to reach a crunch point. With the appeal continuing it is time for Coventry to get back to playing. First there is a trip to Sheffield United, then they play London City Lionesses at home on 23 January. That is a moment to pay back those that have supported them during this crisis, says Bradford.
“Although these situations have happened before I think we’ve seen that people really do value the sport and they weren’t prepared just to let us be swept aside. I really hope that those people that donated, far and wide, make the effort to come because ultimately they’ve put us back on the pitch.
“We have to have a mentality that says: ‘We nearly lost everything, and we didn’t. Now we need to be a force to be reckoned with.’ We’ve got 11 games left and we’re going to give it absolutely everything. It’ll either be the greatest comeback you’ve ever seen or it will relegate us but I can guarantee that we’re going to give it our absolute best.”