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Revealed: Rio Ferdinand made a multi-million pound offer to save troubled non-league club Dulwich Hamlet

Exclusive: The former Manchester United captain bid to save the troubled non-league club in December, but their American owners are refusing to sell while the club is strangled of funds

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Friday 23 February 2018 14:40 GMT
Dulwich Hamlet FC playing Harrow Borough
Dulwich Hamlet FC playing Harrow Borough (Getty)

Rio Ferdinand has made a multi-million pound offer to save troubled non-league club Dulwich Hamlet, The Independent can reveal.

Ferdinand made the offer, close to £10m, through his affordable housing company Legacy Foundation on 12 December last year, to buy the Champion Hill ground from owners Meadow Residential. Meadow rejected it and now want more than £13m for the site, or else one of the country’s most popular non-league clubs is facing death.

Former England and Manchester United captain Ferdinand has a long-standing interest in the Bostik Premier Division side. He grew up in nearby Peckham, is life-long friends with Dulwich manager Gavin Rose, and has trained with the team before. Ferdinand has watched closely as the club was caught in the middle of a development dispute between property investors Meadow and Southwark Council, over Meadow’s now-abandoned plans for an £80m residential development on the Champion Hill site.

Southwark opposed Meadow’s plans, which did not come close to meeting their target for 35 per cent affordable housing in new developments. So Southwark blocked the development, taking back the lease of crucial adjoining land, and Meadow withdrew their planning application on 20 October, accusing Southwark of “defamatory statements”.

Peace talks between Meadow and Southwark in early November went nowhere, with Meadow threatening Southwark leader Peter John with a libel action for criticising them on Twitter.

With no prospect of Meadow being able to agree a deal with Southwark to develop the ground, Ferdinand met Meadow on 14 November to express an interest in Legacy – which he owns with Bobby Zamora and Mark Noble - buying Champion Hill from them and to ask for their price. Ferdinand wanted to save and support the football club, giving them a sustainable future, and develop the site in accordance with Southwark’s affordable housing criteria.

Southwark, who had given up on working with Meadow, saw far more potential for redevelopment in working with Legacy, while the football club saw Legacy’s football backgrounds and community ethos as making them the ideal owners and custodians.

The future of the club hangs in the balance (Duncan Palmer) (Duncan Jones)

So on 12 December Ferdinand submitted his bid, of just under £10m, to buy the freehold to the Champion Hill ground. The shares in the football club itself, currently owned by south London construction magnate Nick McCormack, would be transferred over as part of a deal. But on 18 December Meadow responded to Ferdinand that the site was not for sale. Legacy have not made a second bid.

Meadow would have almost doubled their money had they accepted Legacy’s offer, having bought Champion Hill for £5.7m in February 2014. But they insisted to Legacy at the time that they would not sell the site for any price. The theory in the property industry is that they would not want to sell the ground for that price to another developer who they believed would make more money as soon as they got planning permission.

Meadow still say now that they "are not looking to sell the site", though they are now understood to have an informal asking price – at least £13m – though industry sources believe that is far more than the land is worth, deterring other potential developers.

The outcome is a bitter stalemate: Meadow cannot to find anyone to meet their valuation, and Southwark will not work with Meadow on development. Meadow have been talking to third parties about working with them, the club and the council to find a solution, but no agreement has yet been reached. Meadow say that until Southwark give the club back the lease to Greendale, "the club's ambitions cannot be fulfilled".

But this stalemate is killing the football club. After Meadow withdrew their planning permission on 20 October, they also cut off funding for the club. As Meadow still own and operate Champion Hill, they have continued to receive all the club’s healthy gate and bar revenue, only passing on gate revenue after deducting their own significant costs. But bar revenue, which the club expected to receive, but which Meadow say the club is not entitled to, has been withheld for months, with the club losing out on an estimated £50,000 since November.

Given this reduction in income, Dulwich Hamlet have struggled to pay their wage bill, roughly £30,000 at the end of each month, and have asked for donations from fans and businesses. Manager Gavin Rose told The Independent how difficult that has made life for his team.

“Over the last month or two I’ve had continuous questions, and fear, from the players concerning whether they’re actually going to be paid at the end of the month,” Rose said.

“They’ve got real-life situations where if they don’t get paid, it could lead to problems with their rent, mortgage or nursery fees for their kids, money that they have obviously budgeted for with their Dulwich salaries. For me, as the manager, not knowing the answer is a hard position. It leaves a bitter taste.”

The club have been threatened with eviction (PA Archive/PA Images)

In early December Meadow threatened Dulwich with eviction and it was only when the football club reluctantly signed a new licence to play at Champion Hill that they were allowed to stay until the end of this season. The team’s results have dipped but they are still third in the league, in a play-off place, and hopeful of promotion to Conference South next year.

It is impossible for them to continue as Meadow’s tenants next season, while Meadow deny them the money they need to survive. Meadow, despite everything, insist that "nothing has changed" in their support for the club. But Dulwich Hamlet, with help from Southwark Council, are now exploring options for a new home for next season, most likely a ground-share away from their historic home.

Even if they survive, they will have to leave the prime Zone 2 land that explains why this non-league club is so popular, but also so troubled.

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