Daniel Chapman | Writing etc

For a football club with its own radio station, internet-tv channel, and media-happy chairman, Leeds United sometimes uses the oddest outlets to tell fans about the most important things. The Leeds United On The Road event in Hampshire was a meet-and-greet for the local fans, a welcome chance for supporters to chat with Peter Lorimer, Gwyn Williams, Davide Somma and Ben Parker, and hopefully a good time was had by all.

According to this brief report, posted on Waccoe by an attendee, Technical Director Gwyn Williams used the occasion to share some important news with the fans present, news that could materially affect the future of our football club; news that is worthy of communication to fans beyond Fareham Working Mens Club.

To quote from the thread:

Couple of bits from Williams.
If we don’t go up we will probably scrap reserve team due to poor opposition, play behind closed door matches.

On Thorp Arch.
12 years old, getting out dated and would need a lot of money spent on it to bring it up to Prem standards.

Options would need to be looked at, a disused site (school, or uni) may be cheaper option to redevelop than buying T.A. and bringing it up to standard.

The first point, about abolishing the reserves, seems at first to be counter to good sense given the size of our squad these days. But the point about the standard of opposition in the East League Division – Gateshead, Grimsby, Middlesbrough, Scunthorpe, Hull, Lincoln and Hartlepool – has merit, and Thorp Arch has lately become a regular venue for games against sides from Sheffield United and Newcastle to give the old lags like Crowe and the young hopefuls like Hatfield a sterner test. Making such matches a regular habit in place of trips to Gateshead could be a sensible policy.

Williams’ remarks about the future of Thorp Arch itself, however, are more concerning.

Buying back Thorp Arch and Elland Road from Jacob Adler was one of the stated aims of Ken Bates when he assumed control of Leeds United after administration; since then, Elland Road has been sold on to Teak Trading in the British Virgin Islands while Thorp Arch has remained the property of Barnaway Ltd of Manchester (of which Adler is a director); six years later, Ken Bates is still no nearer to acquiring either one. Attempts to buy Thorp Arch reached a peak of activity fifteen months ago, as the club tried unsuccessfully to convince Leeds City Council to finance the repurchase on their behalf. Soon after this eleventh-hour bid failed, the period of exclusivity that would have allowed Leeds United to buy Thorp Arch at favourable terms ended, and we have since been reduced to the status of tenants at the facility we built, with no exclusive right-to-buy and an ever-increasing rent; something Ken Bates never fails to mention whenever there are complaints about the high price of tickets to see Leeds.

To find, fifteen months later, that Gwyn Williams considers Thorp Arch to be ‘outdated’ is surprising, then, given howpublic the club’s disappointment was when the council funding fell through. It is difficult to imagine that Thorp Arch’s condition has deteriorated so much in such a short space of time that it is no longer cost-effective to buy. The club loves to quote a new signing on the official site as ‘impressed by our Premier League facilities’ – surely they didn’t all mean Billy’s Bar?

Leeds City Council’s August 2009 report (pdf) on the merits of helping Leeds to buy Thorp Arch includes some detailed information about the facilities:

3.3 We are advised that the facility comprises:-
(i) 12.1 hectares of fully landscaped facilities at Thorp Arch, near Wetherby, including a highly sustainable balancing pond which is used for irrigation of the many playing surfaces.
(ii) 8 full size grass pitches, 2 of which are floodlit.
(iii) 2 full size all-weather pitches.
(iv) Reception, cafeteria, ancillary offices.
(v) 12 changing rooms all with associated shower facilities, kit rooms, and equipment stores.
(vi) 25 metre indoor swimming pool.
(vii) Hydrotherapy/physiotherapy/injury treatment facilities.
(viii) Three-quarter size indoor football pitch with artificial grass surface.
(ix) Gymnasium.
(x) Surfaced access road and car parking areas.
All of the facilities are maintained by the Club, to a very high standard.

3.4 Because of the high quality facilities Thorp Arch is highly likely to be used as a Team Base Camp during World Cup 2018, should England secure the nomination to host the event from FIFA, regardless or not of whether Leeds secures Host City status.

4.1 (v) The Thorp Arch facility is a truly exceptional sporting asset for the City. If the option to acquire is not exercised before October 2009 then at the end of the Club’s lease in 2029 there can be no guarantees that future planning regulations would protect its use for sport, and the facility could be lost to the City.

As well as describing the present “high quality facilities,” the report also analyses the cost of replicating those facilities elsewhere:

5.4 The cost of acquiring land and constructing a similar facility has been estimated by the Council’s Strategic Design Alliance at over £15m – nearly three times the cost of acquisition under the option to purchase detailed in the exempt appendix. While this would not, in itself, protect the Council’s financial position, it is important in reassuring Members [of the Council] about the scale and quality of the facilities under discussion.

In August 2009, then, £15m was “nearly three times the cost of acquisition” of Thorp Arch, putting the buyback price at that time at £5m-£6m for a ‘truly exceptional’ facility, suitable for use as an international ‘team base camp’; the market value was believed to be £11m. In January 2011, though, we are supposed to believe that buying Thorp Arch and‘bringing it up to Prem standards’ would cost so much more than £15m that it would be cheaper and easier to start again elsewhere.

What has happened to Thorp Arch in the space of just fifteen months? How could it be of World Cup standard fifteen months ago, but not even Premier League standard now? How can we account for the difference between £6m to buy it fifteen months ago, the market value of £11m, and in excess of £15m to buy and use it now? Were the repercussions of not buying it during the period of exclusivity really so severe? If so, why did the club not make sure of buying it then? If we can afford, or can secure the finance to develop a new training ground, why couldn’t we afford or secure the finance to buy Thorp Arch?

Questions are always more common than answers at Leeds United these days. For my part, I cannot believe that Thorp Arch is no longer fit for purpose, or that £15m would be required to buy and reinvigorate it when the keys were ours for £6m fifteen months ago. If the real reason for the dramatic cost increase is an extortionate purchase price now demanded by Barnaway, or that the present owners of the club do not want to do business with Jacob Adler, then we should be told the truth about that deal, and not expected to believe that an international class training facility has fallen into disrepair in a matter of months. Should Leeds leave Thorp Arch, then Barnaway and Adler, who have benefited from rents from the club (financed by Leeds fans’ ticket purchases) since 2005, would be free to profit by either selling the facility, finding new tenants, or as has often been rumoured, selling the site for housing; a successful planning application for houses on the site would be worth a fortune. Even as a sports facility, it has value. In assessing the back-up options, the Council report in August 2009 saw few problems in finding new occupiers should Leeds default on repayments:

5.1 In such circumstances the Council may find itself in possession of an asset which requires a new tenant, and given the specialist nature of the facility, there may be only a limited number of options available, especially given the relatively high rental required to service the Council’s debt. However, there are other high-profile sporting organisations in and around the City in the activity areas of Rugby league, Rugby Union, and Cricket, which might be interested in renting all or part of the facility, or indeed, acquiring the freehold.

It is impossible to feel comfortable about Thorp Arch being left in the hands of Barnaway. Thorp Arch was the project of Howard Wilkinson, and perhaps more so even than the League Title, it is his legacy at Leeds United. It is there so that Leeds United Football Club can profit: profit by attracting top players to its “truly exceptional” facilities, where they can train and improve; and profit by producing players of the calibre of Woodgate, Smith, Robinson, Lennon, Milner, Delph, et al. But Wilko’s vision for the academy has already been allowed to run down. In his forthcoming interview with The Square Ball Howard speaks at length about the importance of the residential aspect of youth development, describing how at Thorp Arch he created The Grange, a live-in “greenhouse” for young footballers, where players like Woodgate and Smith were nurtured twenty-fours a day. When the newer buildings, known as The Barn, and the playing pitches were sold to Barnaway (do note the name) in 2004, The Grange was sold to Stirling Investments, who have since demolished the residential academy and are currently seeking permission, in partnership with Barratt Homes, to build twelve houses in its place. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the supply of talented players from Thorp Arch has slowed to a trickle since Wilkinson’s residential ethic lost out to property developers and the young players were sent to live with landladies. Thorp Arch was not built so that property speculators could profit from its rent, sale, or demolition; but that seems, these days, to be its primary use.

I worry too that any potential replacement, at a ‘disused school or uni’ site would not be a) of the standard of Thorp Arch or b) as easily achieved as Williams makes it sound. Such a major development could, dependent on location, face neighbourhood opposition; it would also require the blessing of the council’s planning department, where policies thatprotect the community use of school playing pitches would need to be overcome. The infamous ‘Visit Beeston’ hotel project still does not have planning permission, despite the club’s claim to have been granted consent in April 2009; and Shaun Harvey has this week turned again to Leeds City Council for financial support for the stalled project. A similarly protracted and fruitless process could see Leeds United kicked out of Thorp Arch with nowhere to go.

If leaving Thorp Arch is a serious proposition, and if Leeds United have a sensible case to support the idea, with a workable plan in place for a suitable and cost-effective replacement, then rather than casually mention it at a supporter’s club dinner, they need to tell all the club’s supporters, and they need to put that case to us for our approval. As Ken Bates often reminds us, our ticket money pays the rent on the place; and our ticket money would be the security against any loan to pay for a new facility. We need to know the real reason why we have to move and why we cannot stay, we need to know where and what we will move to, and we need to know who stands to profit. Leaving Thorp Arch would impact Leeds United Football Club at every footballing level, from the schoolboys to the first team, and a move like that should only be made after full consultation, and with the full consent, of Leeds United’s supporters.


Originally on The Square Ball blog