The Steven Gerrard Football Academy has tried to distance itself and the eponymous former Liverpool and England captain from any mention in the public outrage caused by two non-league football clubs being forced to quit their home grounds after they were bought by a property company based in Singapore.
One of the now-homeless clubs is Whyteleafe FC, who on Monday night issued a strongly worded statement announcing their withdrawal from the Isthmian League because they could not negotiate a new lease on their Church Road ground with new owners, Irama Sport.
Irama Sport have done much in the past to publicise a close association with another giant of Liverpool FC, Ian Rush.
Irama Sport’s company logo says it is “powered by Ian Rush”.
But as they encountered fans’ anger over the threat to the existence of two non-league clubs, Irama were describing the former Wales international striker as “a real estate investor and partner with Irama in all our football grounds…”, adding that the former player should not be held responsible for any of Irama’s acts.
“Irama own these football grounds and have no affiliation to the clubs and teams using the grounds,” they said.
Irama’s website lists a range of projects with the Ian Rush Foundation which they claim to have provided around Sin$750,000 (more than £400,000) in assistance and equipment to sports and charitable causes, mostly in the Far East.
This week, they were appearing less-than-charitable to English non-league football.
The Steven Gerrard Football Academy, based in Liverpool and which can charge up to £10,000 per term for young hopefuls to attend its courses, is due to begin operations from the Whyteleafe ground in September this year.
As they sought to distance themselves from the crisis facing Whyteleafe this week, one of their directors responded to media enquiries by writing, “We would not like to be mentioned in any articles being published at this moment in time.”
On Monday, Abingdon Town also issued an announcement, stating that they were also withdrawing from their league, the Hellenic, blaming “ridiculous demands” from Irama.
In Whyteleafe’s case, the club’s youth and women’s teams plan to continue operating from Church Road, where they will pay hire fees to the new owners.
At the Isthmian League annual meeting on Monday night, the Leafe’s fellow clubs agreed unanimously to keep a place open in their South Central League for 2021-2022 in the hope that the club’s senior men’s side might yet be able to find an alternative home ground.
That could be less-than-straightforward. After two incomplete league seasons with virtually no gate receipts because of coronavirus, the club’s statement claimed that they had been forced to pay Irama £50,000 – a massive amount for non-league clubs; about one-third of a week’s wages for Premer League players – in “back-rent” which the club disputes was ever due.
The club is already without a first-team manager, after Harry Hudson, the former Croydon FC boss, quit in March. Hudson had been in charge for three seasons, of which only one league campaign had been completed because of covid.
At the time, Mark Coote, the Whyteleafe chairman, hinted that his manager’s resignation was connected to uncertainty created by covid and the change in ground ownership.
“Harry asked for commitments from me and I simply could not give him any,” Coote said.
“The club can’t commit to anybody at the moment, whether it be for next season or with what’s going on with the lease. Harry is an ambitious guy and has decided to move on. I didn’t want to stand in his way.”
Hudson remains an integral part of the Croydon Arena-based Kinetic Foundation, a youth sports and education charity, which has also had use of the facilities at Church Road.
This week’s announcements offer little assurance to fans of Whyteleafe, nor Abingdon, where fears expressed over whether the grounds would be used for property development have been rejected by Irama, who claim that their only building plans for Church Road are for classrooms to support the various courses to be held there.
Whyteleafe FC’s statement on Monday shocked the tight-knit world of non-league football.
“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,” it said.
“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 2021-2022 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 31 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.”
In a flurry of their own statements in response to criticisms from Whyteleafe and Abingdon, Irama said variously that, “Ian Rush has no involvement in the running of this company and only wanted to use the grounds to create a ‘don’t pay to play’ scheme.
“This is not any fault of Ian’s and [he] has no involvement of [sic] dealings with tenants.”
Rush has previously said that, “My Foundation has come to get kids off the street and give them a better life. I come from nothing. I want to see kids go in there and smiles on their faces.”
Irama claimed that the Church Road lease was terminated not by themselves, but by the trustees of the football club.
“We have taken over the facilities and spent thousands of pounds on repairing and replacing structures of the club that have been left unfit for use and unsafe,” Irama said, something hotly disputed by sources at 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.”
And apparently determined to take no prisoners in what is developing into a bitter war of words with Whyteleafe, Irama’s statement said, “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.”
Meanwhile, Marc Garnett, the marketing director of the Steven Gerrard Football Academy, was also keen to distance his organisation from the troubles of Whyteleafe’s first team.
Whyteleafe will be the Steven Gerrard Football Academy’s first UK venue outside of Liverpool when its courses begin there in September. In an email sent by Garnett yesterday, he wrote, “Our arrangement at the club is very much that of hiring facilities and our intentions from September onwards will be to support the local community by way of providing voluntary coaches and [continuing professional development] for clubs.”
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