A war of words over the future of Sheffield Eagles has threatened to upstage even the blood and thunder of the rugby pitch.
A Sheffield-based investor wants to build a rugby stadium, costing up to £7 million, in the Olympic Legacy Park, and a £35m green power plant nearby, which he says will help fund the club.
The Eagles say they face administration if investment does not come within the next month, and have accused Sheffield Council of a lack of support.
Few details of the biomass power plant have been made public, but the site the investor has identified is allocated partly for housing and partly for business.
Yesterday the investor, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was running out of patience with the council and was considering taking his money to another city.
But, following inquiries by The Star, a telephone call from Simon Green, the council’s executive director of place, eased the investor’s concerns.
If we can’t get things sorted in the next three or four weeks we will probably have to go into administration and go into league oneJohn Whaling
“I trust in the guy and I think we can work together,” the investor said. “He’s given me his assurances that we will get on with things.
“Sometimes you have to bang a few heads to get where you want to go. But you have to do it in a structure. The priority is to get the stadium off the ground.”
Eagles’ director of rugby Mark Aston told The Star on Tuesday that the club would be ‘dead and buried’ within a month if the stadium deal did not go ahead. Mr Aston claimed a lack of support from the city had put investors off the stadium project and placed the club in jeopardy.
The investor behind the latest stadium plan came on board in March, and put the power plant idea to the council in May. Prior to Mr Green’s call yesterday, he said he agreed with Mr Aston’s criticisms of the council.
“At the end of the day, we have got a business model that’s got built into it a plan to fund the Eagles. The idea with the stadium is it’s debt-free,” he said.
“We are talking about building an education centre for kids on energy. Putting in a picnic area. We have ticked every box under the sun. It’s not ticking it for the sake of it.”
The investor, who has three other similar power plants, said he could make ‘good margins’ on the business. He proposes selling energy at 8.5p per kilowatt for the next 10 years - compared to 10.5p at the moment. This could save the council up to £2m a year.
“I have not asked them to commit in writing,” he said. “We understand there is a process to go through. But we are saying whatever it takes we will delivery. How can you object to that?
“I never even argued about the price of the land. We have all been in business a long time. If there is an investor wanting to come to Sheffield and spend £35m on a power station and £6m to £7m on a stadium, and that’s doing something they made a mess of in a previous life with Don Valley Stadium, I would want to make sure these people were looked after.” Yesterday’s talks calmed the waters between the investor and the council, and Mr Green said he was excited by the project - but stressed that the scheme would have to go through proper the planning procedure and could not just be ‘waved through’.
“We are continuing to talk to each other,” he said. “There is no issue of talks having paused or broken down. I know the investor quite well. It is not some out-of-town investment. Everyone has the needs of the city at heart and it’s a case of how we get there.” Mr Green said there was no hidden agenda over the proposed site for the power plant, which is allocated for housing and light industry under the city’s local plan. However, a change of use would have to be approved before a power plant could be built.
“If he wants to put a power plant on the land in question that’s fine, but it will be subject to the usual covenants and regulations,” said Mr Green.
“You wouldn’t want us to change planning policy overnight, and I think he knows that as well. And perhaps the Eagles have misunderstood the timeframe to get that through the process.” Mr Green admitted he was ‘a bit peeved’ at some of the comments made by the club.
“We are disappointed that it has come to this. We are disappointed at how they have reacted to the position we are in,” he said.
“I can appreciate that when they are facing financial difficulties, and there is a perception that a particular line of inquiry is closed, they would react in a different way.”
But he said there was no question over the council’s commitment to bringing rugby league to the Olympic Legacy Park. A 4G pitch designed for rugby use will be built regardless of the stadium plans.
“We will hopefully find a way forward on what is an exciting project within an exciting portfolio of projects,” said Mr Green.
But Eagles CEO John Whaling said the club did not have time to spare.
“To get to where we are now has taken the best part of four months,” he said. “I’m disappointed with the speed at which it has moved.”
Mr Whaling added: “If we can’t get things sorted in the next three or four weeks we will probably have to go into administration and go into league one. We will be back at square one where we were 17 years ago.”