DCSIMG

Richard Sutcliffe: Council gives Leeds United its best result for some time

LEEDS UNITED may be enjoying a record breaking run of 14 consecutive home league wins but it is tempting to believe the most important result of this or any recent season came yesterday well away from the raucous atmosphere of Elland Road.

Instead, Committee Room 6-7 at Leeds Civic Hall provided a rather more sedate setting for a gathering of just 25 people to witness the City Council taking a significant step towards safeguarding United's future at the Thorp Arch complex which houses their training ground and Academy.

Under a proposal agreed by its executive board shortly after 4.30pm, the authority will – subject to the club agreeing terms over security bonds and rent payments – borrow the 6m required to purchase the 12.1 hectare site and then lease it back to Leeds.

With the clock ticking towards a deadline of October 10 when United's right to buy back at a pre-fixed price a facility they had sold in 2004 is due to expire, the club had approached the Council for help after being unable to raise the funds themselves due to the poor credit rating that is a legacy of their spell in administration two summers ago.

Councillors last month ruled out loaning United the money but agreed to investigate further a plan to exercise the option to buy Thorp Arch and then rent it back to the club. Those findings were the subject of yesterday's meeting in the Civic Hall when, in principle, the go-ahead was given.

Chief executive Shaun Harvey stressed last night Leeds were yet to receive details of the Council's terms, but it would be a major shock if agreement was not now reached.

The benefits for United are multiple, not least their soon-to-be new landlord being a body that, unlike even the most altruistic of property magnates, recognises the important standing a city's only professional football team has in the community.

Financially, it should also be good news for a club who this year are due to pay 486,000 in rent to use Thorp Arch.

The Council may want a similar sum in the short term as it looks to cover the cost of its investment, but any new terms will surely not be as punitive as those that would have seen the rent due to Manchester businessman Jacob Adler, who bought the complex in 2004 for 4.2m, increase by three per cent in each of the 20 remaining years of the lease.

With the total annual rent bill for Elland Road, also sold five years ago, and Thorp Arch being not too far short of 2m, it is open to conjecture as to just how long United would have been able to continue using the site near Wetherby without the Council stepping in to help.

And, make no mistake, losing one of the best training facilities in the country would have been a monumental blow for a club battling to return to the upper echelons of English football. Another potential benefit for Leeds as a city concerns the bid to bring the World Cup to England as an ability for the football club and local authority to work together will surely be a prerequisite of any would-be host should the Football Association be successful in landing the 2018 or 2022 finals.

It is also worth nothing that the City Council should also benefit substantially from the deal, just as it did following its 1985 purchase of Elland Road for 2.5m.

With the football club handed a 125-year lease in return, the authority did very well out of a deal that saw United initially pay an annual rent of 160,000 that was topped up by a 20 per cent share of annual receipts (matchday and commercial) above a certain figure.

By the 1990-91 season and with a rejuvenated Leeds back in the top flight playing in front of capacity crowds, the Council's income from Elland Road had soared to an estimated 1m per year.

A subsequent renegotiation of the terms led to the club paying a higher base rent but with a capped share of profits but, even so, by the time Elland Road was bought back by United for 10m in 1998 they were again paying 1m a season.

Even allowing for inflation, the rent and 10m sale price proved to be a very good return on the Council's investment to prove that deals such as yesterday's can work in the favour of all parties.

THORP ARCH TIMELINE

THORP ARCH was the brainchild of Howard Wilkinson who felt the club would be best served by a youth academy being set up on the same site as the club's training ground.

He became manager in 1988 when the players trained on Fullerton Park, the area that lies behind the West Stand and is now a gravel car park.

By the early Nineties, Leeds were actively searching for a new site and, eventually, they settled on Thorp Arch, near Wetherby.

Construction on the first-team pitch began soon after along with work on dressing rooms, office space and living accommodation for the youngsters. When Thorp Arch opened, the club linked up with a local school so the likes of Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Ian Harte and Alan Smith could 'live in' at the complex.

Floodlit pitches were constructed along with several other full-size grass pitches.

Just after the turn of the Millennium, Leeds decided to vacate the building (which was shared with a local business) that housed the offices and dressing rooms (the youngsters now stayed with local families) and build their own state-of-the-art academy.

Including an indoor pitch, a swimming pool, dressing rooms and gym, the 'Barn' cost 5m and was officially opened on December 5, 2002.

Within two years, however, the club's worsening financial position led to Thorp Arch being sold to Manchester businessman Jacob Adler for 4.2m – then chairman Gerald Krasner revealing the deal on November 12, 2004.

A 25-year lease was agreed only for chairman Ken Bates to reveal 12 months ago that United's right to buy Thorp Arch for a fixed price will run out on October 10, 2009. Leeds approached the City Council for help earlier this year.

 
 
 

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