Evicting Non-League Football Clubs: Powered by iRama

by | Jun 16, 2021

Imagine, if you will, a world in which a Singaporean property development company could keep a diligent eye on non-league football in England, paying particular attention to clubs in varying states of distress. Once they identify one, they make a bid to purchase the club’s ground – not the club itself – and then, when the time is right, they evict the club concerned from its home.

Imagine no longer. This is world we live in, right now.

It’s important to state from the outset that Irama, the company at the centre of this cesspit, have, to the best of anybody’s knowledge, done nothing illegal. Acting legally, however, is not the same as acting ethically, and the way in which this company has acted now poses a threat to the entirety of the non-league game in this country. Wherever there is a financially distressed non-league club, we now know that there is a malign influence that will be prepared – and without giving, so far as we’re aware, a single, solitary fuck about the ramifications of doing so – to buy that land and evict the club concerned from it.

This all sounds difficult to believe, but it’s already started. Two clubs, Whyteleafe and Abingdon Town, resigned their places for next season’s Isthmian and Hellenic Leagues respectively after a ‘failure to reach agreement’ with the landords which we can, considering everything, reasonably consider to be code for ‘were evicted’. After all, none of the clubs who have been unfortunate enough to have their homes taken by these vultures actually have been able to reach agreement with their new landlords, and if this is the level of intransigence that clubs are facing, then ‘evicted’ is the only word that accurately describes what is happening to them at present.

We covered Whyteleafe on these pages three months ago, in the hope that doing so would prompt some action to keep the club in its home ground. This, however, has not happened, so this week the club confirmed its resignation from the Isthmian League:

It is with deep regret and sadness that we informed the Isthmian League earlier today that Whyteleafe FC will not be playing in next season’s Isthmian South Central League.
 
The club has been forced to give up its Step 4 status after new owners of the Church Road ground refused to negotiate a new lease or licence agreement with the club for the 2021-22 season.
 
Home to the Leafe for more than 60 years, Church Road was purchased by Irama last year at auction after the previous owners went into administration.
 
Despite numerous attempts by the Trustees, current management committee and an independent fan led group to discuss a way forward, Singapore based property development company Irama – the new landlords – activated a break clause to terminate the club’s lease on July 31st this year.
 
This was despite the club paying Irama nearly £50,000 of back rent that the new owners had been told by the administrators was due for the administration period. Whyteleafe didn’t believe this was the case as the club had been paying all the landlords’ costs during that period to keep the ground viable and to protect the value of the facility.
 
But Whyteleafe FC believed Irama were acting in good faith and also wanted to have an ongoing working relationship with the new owners and despite the lack of income during the Covid-19 lockdowns paid the back rent.
 
Our withdrawal from the Isthmian League is a devastating blow to everybody involved at the club, the fans, players local community and the wider football family. We would like to thank all of you.
 
 
It is with deep regret and sadness that we have informed the Hellenic League that Abingdon Town FC will not be playing in next seasons Hellenic League.

The club has been forced to give up its Step 6 status after new owners of Culham Road were unable to negotiate a new lease.

Culham Rd was purchased by Irama at the end of last year after the previous owners wanted to sell. Despite attempts by the Management Committee to discuss a way forward, Singapore Property Development company Irama, made it impossible to move forward, with ridiculous demands.

Despite the lack of income during COVID, Town looked to be progressing over the last year on and of the pitch by correcting the wrongdoing of the last few years. With no funds coming in due to COVID, and unable to negotiate with Irama we had to make the devastating decision.

We would like to thank everyone involved with the club, including the fans, players and wider football family for your support over the years at Abingdon Town.

The 21st being the 21st century, of course, iRama decided that somebody, somewhere needed to hear their version of events, and in the first place, at 6.35 yesterday evening, they claimed to be “shocked” by Whyteleafe’s withdrawal from the league:

We are shocked to hear the news of Whyteleafe withdrawing from the league. After initially handing in their lease months ago, we have since been in dialogue to find a solution and have them continuing to play at Church Road. We hope to still reach a mutual agreement.

Within three hours, however, their tune had changed somewhat:

We at iRama have the vision to create a safe environment for people of all ages to come and play football. Our vision and values are and will continually remain centred around football. We had taken over as the owners of 15 Church Road with the view to have a First Team playing at our ground, which we wanted, and still want to be the Whyteleafe First Team. Upon purchasing the ground, the lease was terminated not by ourselves, but by the trustees of the Football Club.

We have tried and have still been actively trying to accommodate the Whyteleafe First Team as we know how much the club means to the fans and the players and we want to ensure that the community that has been built all these years continues to thrive. It is very unfortunate that we are being used as the scapegoat for a club that has in fact been poorly run the last couple of years and exploited by some of the individuals in charge.

We have taken over the facilities and have spent thousands of pounds on repairing and replacing structures of the club that have been left unfit for use and unsafe for a number of years and we will continue to do so in order to create a safe environment for those using our facilities.

To corroborate the fact that our vision has remained football and upkeeping a thriving community, everyone else who has been playing at the ground can confirm how accommodating we have been in order to ensure that no one has to change the location as to where they play football. Kinetic Foundation and the numerous Whyteleafe Youth teams in particular, who use the grounds regularly can testify how amenable we have been to ensure that they can continue to play at our grounds currently and going forward into future seasons.

Our plans are to continually build the community feel at Church Road, host charity related football events and continue to ensure that it is a safe and friendly environment. We guarantee that all grounds that we have purchased will remain 100% recreational, helping communities to have a safe place to go to avail at all of our facilities.

There remains, however, a possibility that iRama have overplayed their hand and that things might yet change. Isthmian League chairman Nick Robinson has confirmed that Whyteleafe will allowed to take their place in the league next season if they can resolve this, and there is a sense of revulsion at the behaviour of this company which is starting to grow well beyond the perimeter of non-league football.

Over the last couple of years, iRama have made a great play of ‘celebrity endorsements’, encouraging players and former players to make statements in support of their stated goals. One of these players was the former Liverpool and Juventus striker Ian Rush, whose name was plastered all over their website with the strapline “Powered by Ian Rush”, but the events of the last couple of days have radically altered all of that. Rush’s image seems to have been removed from their company website and replaced with this somewhat curious disclaimer:

Ian Rush is a real estate investor and partner with Irama in all our football grounds shown on this page. Ian Rush plays no part in any other part of iRama’s business unless stated, and nor should he be held responsible for any of iRama’s acts. Ian Rush and iRama own these football grounds and have no affiliation to the clubs and teams using the grounds.

Rush, however, seems less than impressed at the way in which the company concerned have been using his image rights, and this morning posted a tweet which signalled the extent of this, in reply to being asked about it by another Twitter user:

I have nothing to do with the dealings with this! However an investigation has commenced and a police investigation and people will face consequences.

Whether the police would be able to get involved in something like this – it’s difficult to see where a criminal offence might have been committed, here – at least Rush’s comment on the matter provides a little clarity on his perspective on it all.

So let’s be clear about one thing, before anything else. Nobody, but nobody, is going to suggest that it’s not a good idea to allow for community use of club facilities. One of the big advantages of installing an artifical surface is that they allow for this. However, in the case of Whyteleafe there is already valuable community work going on at the club which doesn’t need the intervention of interloper property developers from the other side of the world.

Should they wish to profiteer off the back of the good thing that is getting kids involved with playing football from an early age then all well and good, just stop hanging around financially distressed football clubs like a creepy uncle at a playground (they were reported earlier this year as , and stop ‘failing to be able to reach terms’ with them once their leases expire.

What, we might wonder, will happen to Brighouse Town, who are also reported to have sold their ground (£) to these shysters, when their lease expires in 2026? Their ground at St Giles Road was put up for sale towards the end of 2018 after its owners, the Blakesborough Sports & Social Club, collapsed into administration, with the selling estate agents describing the seven-acre site as, “a site that currently has an attentive and ambitious football club as its tenant, alongside any longer-term prospects that might develop”, all of which raises the question of what “any longer-term prospects that might develop” might mean, because in the cases of Whyteleafe and Abingdon Town, the “longer-term prospects” that have “developed” have involved making two clubs homeless for the benefit of businesspeople who have almost certainly never set foot inside either venue.

Football clubs need protection from the rapacious, and the smaller those clubs are, the more protection they need. Almost everything related to property in this country is fundamentally broken – including our attitude towards it, and that this is the case has already been demonstrated by the need to bring in the concept of an Asset of Community Value through Localism Act a decade ago, to give some degree of protection to organisations at risk of their homes because of this.

The problem, of course, is that the Localism Act 2011 is woefully undercooked, offering no means for community organisations to actually purchase, only to make an offer, and the majority simply cannot afford to do this. Were the government to offer, say, interest-free or low interest loans to enable community groups to quickly and decisively purchase these properties, the Act would have some teeth. As it stands, all the provisions of the Localism Act ever seem likely to do is delay the locks from being changed or the bulldozers from moving in by a few months.

It is too late for Whyteleafe and Abingdon Town? Probably, unless public pressure does happen to make any difference to them. It is to be hoped that Ian Rush’s apparent anger at his name being used by a company that is doing this to football clubs makes some difference. There’s also a substantial list of other former players who’ve also lent their support to this particularly shady organisation. Some of them are also on Twitter.

In the meantime, what can the rest of us do? We can continue to be noisy, we can make it difficult form, and we should be pressuring those in a position to be able to do something about what looks like a distinct threat to the non-league and grassroots games in this country. At a time when an actual “fan-led review” into the governance of the game in this country is going on, you’d think they’d be able to find the time to add this to the manifesto.