West Allotment Celtic, currently battling relegation from Division One, now faces a far more serious crisis following a huge increase in rent at its Whitley Park home. The facility, which is owned by the Northumberland FA, will cost £7,500 for next season, 67% up on the £4,500 charge for the current campaign. In the past, rents have been reviewed every three years and increases have typically been around the 10-15% mark; in future, the FA reportedly wishes to review annually, suggesting that even a successful bid to find the extra funds for next season could be little more than a delaying of the inevitable.
In a statement on the club website, club secretary Ted Ilderton described the news as “a disaster”. With Celtic averaging fewer than 90 fans at Northern League games, the club feels it will be unable to find the additional money and has officially notified the league of its intention to quit at the end of the season.
“At the moment, it looks as if we are going to go, unless we can come to some arrangement,” Ilderton added. We are still prepared to sit down and talk to them. We would like it to be resolved between us and the county FA.”
As the home ground of the Northumberland FA, Whitley Park is also used for many County Cup finals, and for representative games in competitions like the FA County Youth Cup. Newcastle United, whose training ground is next door, play u23 games here as well; the Sports Direct advertising hoardings hint at Mike Ashley’s occasional presence.
With a well-maintained playing surface, good floodlights and a recently installed covered stand – reportedly funded by Celtic – the ground is one of the most attractive in the Northern League … but Saturday afternoon football may soon be a rare sight here. For Celtic, looking forward to a 90th anniversary celebration next season, a long history could come to an abrupt halt. A ground-share, as the team once did at Whitley Bay, is no longer feasible; a return to the Northern Alliance doesn’t suit an aging club committee who, in Ilderton’s words, no longer fancy wet winter afternoons on open fields.
As the news emerged on Tuesday, many were quick to blame the County FA for thinking purely of its own budgets and driving a grassroots club under rather than trying to support it. But this may not be entirely fair on the landlords. Earlier this year, John Ackerley, the CEO of the Northumberland FA, gave an interview to Non-League Daily TV in which he stated that the organisation was committed to investing “no less than 97%” of its income back into the grassroots game. That isn’t the financial model of an organisation seeking to enrich itself.
At a time when there is growing concern at the decline of lower leagues in the county – and especially in the rural north, where the North Northumberland League has suffered a steady decline in numbers – Ackerley also spoke of wishing to increase turnover so that the football experience across the county could improve at all levels.
In that context, seeking to maximise the rental income from Whitley Park makes some kind of sense, particularly if the increased fee for West Alloment is matched by an equivalent hike for Newcastle United’s rather more affluent youth teams. In theory, it’s a virtuous circle: more rent from the county’s flagship facility means more cash to help maintain and upgrade park pitches and the like. Better facilities then encourage more clubs and players, making competitions more attractive and generating more revenue for the County FA. Everyone’s a winner … except West Allotment.
That’s the theory. Now, surely, the challenge for Mr. Ackerley and his colleagues is to find a way to implement that without driving one of Northumberland’s clubs into extinction along the way.
Groundhoppers Blog recently released its first E-book, ‘Ancients and Mariners’, following the stories of the teams in the 2016-17 Northern League season. Featuring all 44 clubs who started the campaign, and six interviews with club chairmen, it’s available from Amazon for just £2.49.