The 25-year lease imposed on Thorp Arch when Leeds United sold their training ground in 2004 was long and binding for the simple reason that the club did not envisage a time when they would want to leave the property.
Visualised by Howard Wilkinson and opened in its present form after the completion of the main building in 2002, Thorp Arch has long been United’s proudest asset – even in the years after the plush, sweeping complex near Wetherby was used by a former board to bring in an urgent sum of cash.
At a stroke, the sale of the training ground to Jacob Adler, a Manchester property developer, 10 years ago raised £4.2m and guaranteed Leeds both a buy-back provision and permission to rent the facility until 2029. After less than two months as United’s owner, Massimo Cellino cannot even say if Thorp Arch will be used by the club next season.
A fortnight ago, the Italian businessman closed the training ground as part of a substantial money-saving exercise at Leeds, leaving the bare minimum of staff to tend to the many pitches there. The idea was to reopen Thorp Arch before pre-season training began but Cellino and United are heading for a stand-off with landlord Barnaway, the firm used by Adler to purchase Thorp Arch in 2004.
Cellino says the annual cost of using Thorp Arch is somewhere in the region of £2.5m. The rent of the complex costs £600,000 a year and increases by three per cent every October. It is not known whether Leeds have the right to break their lease.
“The club have been there paying rent for 10 years,” Cellino said. “If we are there for another 10 or 15 years, we’ll have paid someone £20m to use the training ground.
“It’s too much money, this club cannot afford it. This club loses money every month. I need to think about what happens next because we cannot pay more than we can afford to pay.”
Thorp Arch is the location of United’s successful category two-academy, and the closure of the complex caught the attention of the Football League.
The governing body planned to send officials to Leeds this week to investigate whether shutting Thorp Arch might breach the standards set for category two academies and threaten Leeds’ annual central payment of £490,000. Benito Carbone, United’s new consultant on first-team and academy matters, stressed in an interview last weekend that Cellino was anxious to protect the current status of United’s youth-development scheme.
Leeds, nonetheless, have considered the possibility of leaving Thorp Arch before. Around the time when the club allowed a £6m buy-back clause on their training ground to elapse, their then technical director Gwyn Williams is said to have examined the option of vacating Thorp Arch and using different facilities. Leeds Metropolitan University was one of the alternatives considered.
Cellino believes that other locations could be viable. The University of Leeds is served by Sports Park Weetwood. “The universities and colleges, they have football fields,” he said. “My feeling about Thorp Arch is that it’s too expensive and too far away from Leeds. But I’m not saying we’ll leave. I’m saying that at the moment I can’t say yes or no to the question.
“Over the summer, there’s no-one there and money gets wasted. The air conditioning, the swimming pool – it all costs money but no-one is using it. It’s like an amusement park. An empty one.”
Thorp Arch received fleeting care and attention after its sale to Adler but an overhaul of the training ground was instigated by manager Brian McDermott last summer, costing Leeds a reported £250,000.
The main changes included the extension of the sprinkler system and the installation of barriers around the main pitches. The inside of the barn at Thorp Arch was reorganised and the media room on the first floor of the building underwent redecoration.
Speaking last summer, McDermott said: “It just seems like a good idea to have everything up to the required standard. It’s not all there.”
Prior to his takeover of Leeds on April 7, Cellino spoke openly about his plans to buy back Elland Road stadium and Thorp Arch.
Elland Road is protected by a buy-back clause and would cost £15m. Cellino’s most recent timescale was repurchase of the ground by 2015. The buy-back clause applied to Thorp Arch when Gerald Krasner’s board sold it was shorter and ran for only five years to 2009. In sale negotiations, Barnaway would now be free to name its price.
Cellino in any case is not free to buy either property on a whim. The share purchase agreement reached between his Eleonora Sport company and Gulf Finance House when he bought Leeds from the Bahraini bank requires the approval of 85 per cent of shareholders before United acquire significant “material assets”, a clause which includes the stadium but excludes players.
Cellino and Eleonora Sport hold a 75 per cent stake. The remaining 25 per cent of shares are owned by GFH and its associates: Bahrain’s International Investment Bank (IIB) and Salah Nooruddin, United’s chairman and a GFH shareholder.
A decision to buy Elland Road or Thorp Arch could also be taken by a majority of directors but only so long as that majority includes one of the two board members appointed by GFH. In effect, Cellino would need the bank’s tacit support before bringing the properties back under United’s control.