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[14 DEC 01] THE STUART LINNELL COLUMN

Stuart LinnellOpinions and Goals

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My last column, focusing on the recently published annual report and accounts of Coventry City Holdings, the Sky Blues' parent company, prompted some interesting responses from CWN readers.

Brant, for example, felt it was a "good piece - well written". Thanks Brant, and when it all becomes clear to me, I will endeavour to write the piece you request giving a step-by-step guide to the new stadium.

Another reader Steve, however, questioned some of the views I expressed. For example, he took me to task over my assertion that the clubs' debt had now been reduced by around 20-million since 31 May, the date to which the accounts run.

My calculations, take into account the reduction in wages that followed the sale of players in the summer as well as the transfer fees received. That, plus other cost-cutting measures taken by the club as a consequence of being relegated, has reduced the debt by around 20-million. I am also assured by excellent sources (not Bryan Richardson, by the way) that imminent developments regarding the new stadium will have the effect of significantly reducing the debt further.

Now let me stress that as a Coventry City supporter and shareholder I read the accounts with as much concern as anyone. However, the point I was trying to make in my last column was that an increase in debt for a club of City's size and stature was inevitable if we were to even try and hold our own alongside the big boys of the Premiership.

There are ways to fight free of that debt and, indeed, to turn it round, but they are not things that happen overnight, or indeed, in a few years. Relocating to a new stadium, designed in such a way that you can utilise the asset as a continuous revenue stream from other uses than football, is one such strategy.

It is almost certain now, by the way, that our new stadium will not have a sliding roof or a sliding pitch, but will probably have a multi-purpose indoor arena alongside it to allow for concerts and other sporting events to be held. That is, apparently, a less costly and simpler option to achieve (though should common sense prevail and the new National Stadium, against all the odds, come to Coventry, the original arena design will be built for that purpose with the club almost certainly housed elsewhere in Coventry).

Steve also takes me to task over my use of the word "allegedly" when referring to Bryan Richardson as an architect of the proposed Phoenix League. I used the word quite deliberately and I stand by it. Bryan has shrugged off claims that he is the man behind the idea and, indeed, the Bradford City Chairman Geoffrey Richmond said on Sky Sports News at the weekend that he and "a number of other First Division Chairmen" were in at the birth of the plan.

It is highly probable that Bryan was one of those Chairmen and he may even have been the prime mover, but no one has held their hand up yet to say, "it's my idea".

We may be, as you say, "a hate target for many other clubs" because of Bryan Richardson's association with the plan. So what? If people can't see the wood for the trees that is their problem.

Jimmy Hill was not exactly Mr Popular when he successfully fought for the abolition of the maximum wage, many fans fearing that their clubs would no longer be able to afford the 100-plus per week the top players would demand. Little did they know!

I stand by what I said last time. Television, provider of the most significant single source of income for football, will not pay the same amount again for the same product. ITV blew a hole in everything when they paid way over the top for the rights they currently enjoy. They will not be back with anything like the same money; Sky knows that, so does the BBC and both are privately relieved in the knowledge that football will cost them less next time around.

TV football ratings are falling, too, and it's clear that Sky, in particular, wants a new product to offer to its subscribers. The current system won't do. ITV's audiences for the Nationwide League are dire, leaving the Premiership as the only truly saleable domestic commodity that football has.

While the existing Premiership clubs are being naturally protective of their cartel, they must wake up to the fact that TV money will dwindle, even for them, unless they agree to a shake-up. The Phoenix League, as proposed, is clearly just one option, but it solves - at a stroke - the issue of the wannabe Premiership clubs in the First Division by creating a Premiership 2, and the issue of Celtic and Rangers joining in.

As Celtic manager Martin O'Neill said at the weekend, if the two Glasgow giants want to continue to attract good players they must offer a better standard of football than is currently on offer in Scotland. The Premiership is the answer, and shoe-horning them into a new Phoenix League is the best way anyone has yet come up with of bringing them in.

Steve, as many others are, is also sharply critical of the financial benefits Bryan Richardson has received for being Sky Blues Chairman. I am not going to comment on specifics because I don't know the true facts anymore than Steve or any other City fan, but I repeat my point that, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with a Club Chairman (or Deputy Chairman, as at some clubs) being paid a salary for the time he devotes to doing the job.

Indeed, some of the companies for whom Club Chairman otherwise work actually demand that the equivalent of a salary (usually in six-figures) is paid directly to them as compensation for the time taken up by that Chairman in running his club.

Whether Bryan Richardson should have received the amount he has, and the other benefits that go with it, is a matter over which we can all hold opinions, yet it comes down in the end to whether the board of directors - and more particularly, the club's owners, the largest individual shareholders - are prepared to sanction it.

You can disagree with them, you can even protest for what it's worth, but you cannot change the contractual relationship that exists between the Chairman, the board and the owners.

Only they can do that.

What we all can and should do, is get behind a side that we know is capable of winning this division. It is desperately short of confidence right now and needs all the help it can get.

A few goals will make a lot of difference. A season ago, many of the shots on target that Lee Hughes is currently responsible for would have become goals. At the moment he is hitting the goalkeepers arms, knees and backside, the post, the bar and if that fails it seems there's a defender scrambling back to make a sensational goal-line clearance.

No-one is working harder, as his performance on his old stamping ground in West Bromwich proved, and the arrival of Lee Mills has undoubtedly given Hughes more room to work in.

But he and the rest of the team need a lift that only supporters can give. The loyal and true who roar the Sky Blue Song and the rest of the repertoire at the tops of their voices match after match are to be commended, to say the least.

More of the same is greatly needed and will, I know, be much appreciated.

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