The Airco Arena has been the subject of an increasingly rancorous dispute between the Allams and Hull City Council, which has recently escalated with legal action now being threatened. Mark Sellers tells the story (so far) of this debacle.
Back in the halcyon days of 2002 Hull City Council built the KC Stadium and the (now named) Airco Arena. financed with cash raised from the sale of their holding in KC Communications. The council provided most of the funds, more than £42 million, with the remaining £2 million coming from government regeneration grants and from the Football Stadium Improvement Fund.
The KC Stadium was built as the home venue for Hull City AFC And Hull FC, and the arena was built as a facility for community sports. Hull City Council owns both the arena and the KC Stadium, but the Stadium Management Company (SMC) manages both. The SMC was originally owned by Adam Pearson and associates, but is now owned and run by the Allams.
The Airco Arena has previously been named the Bonus Arena, the Gemtec Arena and the Vulcan Arena. The current sponsors Airco are a national building services company and have been sponsoring the facility since September 2014.
The Hull City Academy is based at Bishop Burton College, and is currently rated as Category 3, although the club are striving to gain Category 2 status. It makes a lot of sense for City to attain a Category 2 rating, particularly as they want to remain an ambitious Premier League club. One of the main benefits is that it would allow the Under 21 side to play in Professional Development League 2, with the likes of Birmingham City, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. At present, they play at a much lower level against Gateshead, Mansfield, Rotherham, and Hartlepool. This lack of quality opposition is holding back the development of the young players, so the club see it as essential to pass the Category 2 audit.
There are a number of criteria required in order to attain Category 2 status which have already been addressed by the club, including suitable facilities and staffing levels per player. The Allams made these improvements a priority and increased the Academy annual budget from £700,000 to just over £2m, and upped the number of full-time staff from 7 to a team of 25 headed by Academy Manager Tony Pennock. Despite these strides the major item missing is an indoor 3G pitch.
Why the Airco Arena?
It’s unclear why the Allams have not planned to build the indoor pitch at or near to the Bishop Burton site. The Airco/KC site at West Park is 11.5 miles from Bishop Burton. Neither the first team nor the development squad currently train at the KC, so building the pitch next to the KC would mean increased travel costs and reduced training time for the players utilising it.
This aside, the Allams run the Stadium Management Company and are therefore in control of the Airco Arena (although the building is owned by the council). On the 13th of March they gave the local community groups based at the Arena a month’s notice to vacate so that the 3G pitch could be installed there.
This came as a huge shock to the many clubs and societies that use the Airco, which include Wrestling Gymnastic and Trampolining clubs, Electric Wheelchair (Powerchair) Football teams and Roller Derby clubs. It is also home to the Yorkshire Jets netball team (who represent the region in the Netball Superleague which is televised on Sky Sports).
The clubs have expressed real concern about the their ability to continue without access to the Arena, with many fearing that they would be unable to continue as alternative venues were either unavailable or simply did not exist in the area. With a growing groundswell of discontent forming, “Airco for All” Facebook and Twitter pages were created, and an online petition quickly garnered over 4000 signatures.
On the 31st of March the council contacted the Premier League to request an extension to the audit deadline of the 23rd of April. This was agreed to and the deadline was moved later in the year to September. Why the club never asked for this in unclear, a statement from the Premier League said, “It is up to clubs themselves to request a date on which the independent audit takes place, and is not dictated by the Premier League.”
With the pressure now off time-wise, discussions were started in early April around building a separate “bubble pitch” facility behind the Airco Arena which would be covered by a waterproof plastic membrane roof. The cost of this was put at around £850,000. This pragmatic proposal meant a reprieve for the users of the Airco Arena, and would mean the club could achieve the Category 2 rating.
All seemed fine with this, but the community clubs’ hopes were soon dashed when news broke on the 15th of April that (without warning) work had begun on installing the 3G pitch in the Arena. Letters that had gone back and forth between the club and the council found their way onto social media, and people were astonished to learn that Ehab Allam had requested that HCC grant planning permission straight away (which is unlawful), and pay half the building costs. Council leader Steve Brady was quoted in the HDM, saying that the club had “made certain requests of the council which could not possibly or legally be fulfilled”.
All of which leads us to the current position where HCC are threatening both legal action, and to block the Category 2 audit. HCC make the point that under the terms of the SMC lease the arena was designated as a community sports facility that could be used “by any resident of Kingston upon Hull” and if access is restricted to only Hull City then SMC are in breach of the lease.
Looking back over this sorry story the whole thing seems completely avoidable. The sensible long-term decision should have been to build the 3G pitch at (or close to) the Bishop Burton Academy. This would have taken longer, and would have cost more, but would have avoided the monstrous PR disaster the club now has on its hands. While striving to attain Category 2 status for Hull City should be applauded, it should not be achieved at the expense of disabled sports teams and toddler trampoline groups.
The feel-good factor around the Allams in Hull had already sunk to a low ebb after the re-application of the Tigers’ name change, the publication of the damning FA report, and the ASI money scandal. The Airco saga has only added to the list of negativity and PR blunders that now surround the club, and for what? The council have been dragged back into an unwanted spat with the club, City may not get the Category 2 accreditation, and the local community groups are homeless. This story is not over yet, but so far there are no real winners here.
Mark Sellers @mrmarksellers