Battle over future of Bridge goes to tense vote

CPO shareholders opposed to move need just 25 per cent of vote to scupper club's plans

The increasingly bitter battle for the ownership of the freehold for Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium will reach its conclusion today with neither side able to say last night with any certainty that they have carried the day.

The club, who are bidding to buy back the freehold from Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO), have said that they need the freehold in order to be able to redevelop Stamford Bridge and move to a new stadium. The extra publicity around the vote today has meant that the club will now hold the meeting on a concourse in the West Stand to accommodate the estimated 400 shareholders who have expressed an interest in coming.

There is still mystery surrounding the sale of more than £200,000 worth of shares in the last two weeks, more shares than have been sold in the last seven years and 10 per cent of the entire issue. The "Say No CPO" (SNCPO) campaign has claimed that those shares have been bought by "Yes" voters loyal to the club. The club maintain there is no evidence of that, and argue certain individuals in the "No" campaign have also increased their holding.

The "No" campaign require just 25 per cent of the vote to defeat the club's attempt to buy the freehold for around £1.5m to £2m. It was originally acquired in 1997 for £10m, around £8.5m of which was loaned to CPO by the club at the time. Shares cost £100 each and are limited to 100 per person and they were still on sale up until Thursday, 17 days after the club announced their intention to buy back CPO.

The SNCPO group, who have said that they would endorse a "Yes" vote in exchange for the freehold on any potential new stadium, believe they have around 1,000 proxy votes given to them by fans sympathetic to their cause and will muster around 3,000 in all. However, neither side has a clear idea of how many people will come to the vote today with only a fraction of voters contacted directly by campaigners on both sides.

When the Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, first announced the club's intention to buy out CPO on 3 October it was estimated that there were around 12,000 CPO shareholders who held a total of 15,000 shares. Since then the number of shares has risen to more than 18,000 before sales were suspended.

The SNCPO campaign has encountered problems contacting shareholders because of the outdated shareholders' register they were initially given. It is not yet clear whether CPO chairman Richard King will allow questions from the floor today or move straight to a vote, which will be conducted by the Electoral Reform Society. The SNCPO have said they will circulate a series of questions for the CPO board, with whom there has been friction since the vote was announced.

Among the questions that SNCPO want answered is why the club left so little time between announcing their intention to buy back the freehold and today's vote – 24 days, three more than the legal minimum. They also want to know why the new shares were sold after that announcement, especially as the money raised has no direct benefit to CPO and simply goes to pay off the 14-year-old debt to the club.

Many Chelsea fans who attended last night's fourth-round Carling Cup game at Goodison Park are expected to have got back from Liverpool overnight in order to attend the meeting. The club's desperation to get the "Yes" vote was revealed yesterday by The Independent, which was given transcripts of Buck asking a contractor at the club to help put one "No" vote agitator "on the sidelines".

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