It was only last week that we discussed Leyton Orient’s possible mooting of a move from their home at Brisbane Road to Harlow in Essex. It seemed likely at the time that this was an idea that was being, for the want of a better phrase, being run up the flagpole to see if it flew. This week, however, Orient shareholders received a letter which is worrying in the extreme. The main body of the letter is here. As you can see, it proposes the sale of the club’s Brisbane Road stadium to a company called Matchroom Sport. The details of the deal are pretty straightforward. Matchroom will purchase the stadium for £6m. For five years, Orient will stay there free of rent for five years. Then, the rent will increase to £180,000 per year for five years. Five years further on, the amount payable may be further reviewed, and then again five years after that.
This, however, isn’t the only significant detail in the letter. In addition to this, Leyton Orient Football Club won’t actually receive the full £6m from the sale of the stadium. Over the years, Matchroom have lent Leyton Orient money, so £3.4m of the £6m paid for the stadium will not be paid to the club at all. It will, effectively, be kept by Matchroom in settlement of debts for loans already made to the club. In other words, in cash terms, Leyton Orient will receive £2.4m for the sale of Brisbane Road, which, according to the letter from the directors of Leyton Orient Football Club, can be spent on “improving the strength of depth of our playing squad”. Orient will also share 50/50 any profits from sale of the land over £6m, as well. Curious that they should talk about a twenty year long lease and then mention this in the same letter. There is also one final sting in the tail, that all Leyton Orient shareholders and supporters will be already aware of. The owner of Matchroom Sport is Barry Hearn, who is also the chairman of Leyton Orient.
Where, then, do we start with this? What are the possible motives for such a sale? It’s difficult to analyse the details of it for any length of time without coming away from it feeling somewhat depressed. It’s a fairly established opinion at Brisbane Road that Leyton Orient cannot continue in the long term there. The conversion of all four corners of the stadium into blocks of flats have effectively ended the possibility of any significant further development there and, as things stand, Brisbane Road can hold around 9,200 people. The club has looked at moving to Harlow, of course, and has also looked into the possibility of moving to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford after the 2012 games. The Olympic Stadium is to be regenerated as a 25,000 seater stadium after the games, but the idea of 4,000-odd Orient supporters rattling around this vast stadium with an athletics track around it doesn’t appeal to most of the clubs supporters. An annual rent of £180,000 in five years time is a substantial amount of money for the club to have to find in order to stay at Brisbane Road, and that amount is guaranteed for only five years. There could be substantial increases in ten years time. It’s difficult to see anything in the detail which secures the long term future of Leyton Orient Football Club – only various clauses which make their medium term future at Brisbane Road look shaky and without providing and answers regarding their long term.
Then, there is the small matter of the £2.6m that the club will receive as part of the deal. This is not a great deal of money. £50,000 per week for a year, to be precise. Depending on what their wage budget currently is, it would be enough to cover the running costs of the club for somewhere between one and two years. And then it has gone, forever. In some ways, the letter echoes what happened at Brighton & Hove Albion in the 1990s. At Brighton, the club’s directors sold the Goldstone Ground to property developers without having made any plans for a new stadium or having even consulted with the council to build a new one. They ended up playing two seasons seventy miles away in Gillingham before returning to the ramshackle Withdean Stadium, which has been a drain on the club’s resources for a decade now. At the time of writing, work has just begun on their new stadium at Falmer, and they are looking likely to be finally back at somewhere that they can call “home” in two years. Brighton supporters can say from experience that leaving your home ground can be a devastating experience, and one that it can be incredibly difficult to bounce back from.
Ultimately, Orient supporters have to ask themselves how this proposal benefits them, and how it benefits Matchroom. Matchroom will get a prime piece of East London real estate, all ready to be redeveloped in line with the proposed with the regeneration of the area for the next Olympics, and they get it cheap. No matter what loans Barry Hearn’s company has put into the club, £6m is very cheap for a piece of land of that size in that area, even allowing for recent property falls. And Matchroom wouldn’t even be paying that. They’d be paying £2.6m, with the rest written off on the accounts sheets. Orient, in contrast, would lose more or less their only asset. They would be depending on the continuing goodwill of Matchroom, not only postpone any sale of the ground before a new one is found, but also to prevent any hikes in the cost of the rent in ten or fifteen years time. There is currently still some debate over whether Hearn will be able to use his block vote to force the matter through as he has an interest in the affairs of both companies, but one suspects that Orient supporters need to start mobilising now, getting behind their Supporters Trust and making completely certain that Mr Hearn is left with no doubt as to their feelings on the matter. It is not merely scaremongering to say that the very future of their football club could be at stake and they will repent at leisure should one the worst case scenarios come to pass.