Ian Rush, Whyteleafe, and a Disturbing Glimpse of a Potential ‘New Normal’
A Singapore-based company connected to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush is buying up the freeholds to lower league football grounds in this country, and at one of these clubs this has led to a crisis which is now immediately threatening its existence. So, is there a land grab going on, and can Whyteleafe FC be saved?
It is a truth of non-league football that whilst most of its clubs don’t matter to many people, they all matter very much indeed to someone. In the overall scheme of things, Whyteleafe Football Club are a speck in an ocean, one of hundreds of non-league football clubs below its top divisions, scraping along on meagre gate receipts and bar takings, some with their eyes on the stars, but most just happy to exist and to be giving an opportunity watch a game of football on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday night. So the story of what is currently apparently pushing this particular club towards oblivion should concern us all. There may be a land grab taking place. But strap yourselves in, because this story is complicated.
This has not been directly caused by Covid-19. Whyteleafe Football Club has torn up the lease on its stadium, a decision reportedly made by the chairman of the club without any reference to the club’s management committee or trustees, let alone its wider membership or supporters. As the chairman of a members’ club, Mark Coote is an elected official, but he was also the chairman of a company called AstroSoccer4U Ltd (AS4U), which owned the stadium. It is believed that Whyteleafe FC owe £67,000 in unpaid rent.
So, how did we get here, then? Having been gifted freehold to the ground in 2012 by club members (in exchange for a reduction in club debts and a promise of security), AS4U decided to commission a 3G pitch to be installed there in 2014, two years after taking ownership. These were the early days of 3G pitches being used in non-league football. In the Isthmian League, only two clubs – Maidstone Utd and Harlow Town – had them. Whyteleafe became the third.
However, one of their first matches of the 2014/15 season, against Chipstead, had to be cancelled because after a fault with the pitch following heavy rain. Bernhard’s Sport Surfaces, the pitch installation company, did their best to identify the issue and correct it, and after a few months it was clear that the pitch was in full working order again. Despite the fact that only one first team match and a few youth matches were called off, though, Coote remained unsatisfied, leading to the final instalment for the cost of the installation going unpaid.
Bernhards took AS4U to court and won, which left AS4U with a massive bill, both for the pitch itself and the legal fees. AS4U were declared insolvent and liquidated in September last year, but the court then ordered that their assets could not be sold to anyone connected to AS4U. In other words, those connected with AS4U couldn’t buy the ground back for themselves from the administrators.
A couple of years passed with AS4U in the hands of administrators and the Church Road ground advertised in the window of a local estate agents, but this situation couldn’t last forever. Insolvency law required the administrators to get the best return for creditors. Time ran out and the ground went up for auction. The expected selling price was published as £350,000, but this jumped to £490,000 just 48 hours before the auction day itself. There were two bids for the ground: a first for £490,000, and a second for £495,000. Several weeks later, supporters found out that the buyer was called Irama, an obscure Singporean company with connections to Ian Rush and an office on a yacht in the south of France.
Irama have recently been piqueing interest elsewhere, too. The Athletic(£) recently reported on them, reporting that they paid £300,000 for Hellenic League club Abingdon Town’s Culham Road ground towards the end of last year, and that they’re close to the completion of a further deal with another club, Brighouse Town, of the Northern Premier League. The Atlantic also reported that, “at least seven parish councils throughout England have all received similar letters from Irama asking, “if you may have any football grounds or playing fields in your community which you would considering (sic) selling.”
Irama have already stated that they want clubs to continue playing at their grounds, but how dedicated are they to this statement in practice? We’re about to find out. The sale of Whyteleafe’s ground came with the £67,000 in outstanding rent owed by the club now owed to Irama, who wanted them to pay it, and it was in response to this that Coote tore up the lease. Since then, vice-chairman Clive Davis and manager Harry Hudson have both quit the club, who remain without a regular income stream and with Coote still in charge.
It is possible that this could still all be overturned. When Barrow AFC were headed towards liquidation in 1999, chairman Stephen Vaughan quietly passed ownership of their Holker Street ground to his own company, Vaughan Promotions, as repayment for the money that he had put into the club. When the club entered into insolvency, the legality of this previous disposal was overturned because Vaughan didn’t gain the approval of the other directors.
A case could be made for saying that, if Coote has acted unconstitutionally in his actions, then the termination of the lease could be overturned in court because he didn’t have the authority to terminate the lease unilaterally in the first place. Whether that could happen, of course, is another question, still less whether such a case would be successful. The devil would likely be in the detail of the constitution of the club and the contracts.
Just this morning, Coote turned up on the Non League Show podcast, but his appearance was less than convincing. He glossed over the issue relating to the lease, and no mention at all was made of what happened to the funds from the sale of the freehold of the ground or the matter of the rent arrears, which haven’t been brought up to date. Coote wanted to reassure listeners that nothing had changed, and that the club is continuing as per normal, but this doesn’t seem particularly convincing, when we know that Whyteleafe do not have an agreement with Irama at present. Unfortunately, though, the nature of the questioning was so softball that we never got anywhere near the questions that Coote should be answering, at the moment.
Coote is not alone in having questions to answer at present, though. If Irama are serious about wanting clubs to stay in their grounds, now is the time for them to step up to the plate. If Whyteleafe FC can wrest Mark Coote from a position of control of the club, will they make an agreement with a new set of directors, as voted for by members of the club? Would the Isthmian League, who must be aware of difficulties of doing anything at the current time, allow an extension in order for it to happen, were it possible? Could the council be called in to mediate between the parties?
And in a broader sense, what is going with this company from the other side of the world which has suddenly decided to throw money into non-league football, a part of the game which famously never makes any money for anybody? Until we get a more convincing explanation than “the goodness of their hearts”, it’s difficult to see the motives behind their recent spending spree and, considering what often happens when property investors get involved in smaller football clubs, it’s even more difficult to accept that their interest in this level of football is purely benign.
At a time when there is much conjecture about what the post-pandemic world will look like, it is incumbent on clubs and governing bodies to ensure that the ‘new normal’, if there is going to be one, works for the benefit of the game, rather than those that would seek to pick at its bones during these troubled times. After all, most non-league football clubs don’t matter to many people, but they all matter very much indeed to someone.