11 March ~ A number of clubs in the English pyramid do not hold ownership of their home grounds, much to the anxiety of their supporters. One such club is Cambridge United. Faced with considerable financial difficulties, their Abbey Stadium ground was sold to Bideawhile 445, the company of then-director John Howard, to help pay off debts in 2004. Yet an imaginative scheme currently underway suggests that there are hopes in CB5 that the ground may be about to be bought back.
The club is considerably hampered by having to pay rent for the ground they no longer own, with £240,000 per year due to Bideawhile and subject to future increases. For any club this is a hefty sum to have to make up in addition to the annual playing budget, but even more so for a club who receives no television income and no FA funding for the running of their youth system.
Bideawhile have now accepted an offer from local property developer Grosvenor Estates for the ground, alerting U's supporters to a clause from the original sale which allows the club a legal right to repurchase the ground for the same fee agreed with the new buyer. There is only a limited time frame in which this clause remains valid and the club has a mere two more weeks before that deadline passes. The largest stumbling block is the fee itself – £3.5million. No bucket collection would even make a dent upon this figure, so Cambridge Fans United (CFU) has launched a campaign to raise all of the money in the time required. The proposal is to form a Community Interest Company (CIC) and sell 3,500 shares for £1,000 each to make up the value of the ground, before leasing the stadium to the football club.
By non-League standards, the U's are a very well supported side with over 2,000 season-ticket holders but the campaign needs to reach beyond their fanbase for this scheme to be successful. Rather than giving the ground back to the club, the CIC would still charge a rent to the club, speculatively set at £140,000 per year, which would be split up and divided among the investors. It is hoped that this will attract benefactors who may not be football fans but able to spot the benefits of making a return from their input. The benefit to the football club is clear to see, a considerably reduced rent and friendly landlords who can be counted on not to leave the club in future peril. If the rent is indeed agreed at £140,000 this represents a six-figure annual saving on the fee that would otherwise be payable to their new landlords, which makes up a large amount of the club's annual turnover.
CFU chairman Dave Matthew-Jones noted in a press release this week that: "Since 2004 Cambridge United has never had the chance to be a proper football club: the cost of not having control of our ground isn't just a financial one. It means the whole community loses out as we can't provide the sporting hub that our town so desperately deserves." CFU has a race against time to bring this plan to fruition but if it comes off the U's can look forward to a brighter future. Matt Ramsay