O’Brien offloads troubled former Doncaster soccer grounds

Denis O’Brien has found a buyer for the troubled former home ground of Doncaster Rovers football club.

Contracts were finally exchanged between his company, Westferry Ltd; the ultimate owner of the land, Doncaster Council; and a British builder, Barratts.

The deal should see Mr O’Brien offload one of the most controversial assets in his portfolio, which was the subject of a lengthy inquiry by the Moriarty Tribunal. He has held a long-term lease on the site so his company will divide the proceeds with the council.

Mr O’Brien took control of the aging stadium for £4.3m in 1998. It is reported to be selling for £10m (€11.7m). Mr O’Brien disputed the tribunal’s findings that his original investment was set up to benefit former minister Michael Lowry.

During the 15 years he owned the site, it has been mired in bother. This included his unsuccessful Supreme Court appeal to block the tribunal extending its inquiries in order to investigate the acquisition.

In 2002, Mr O’Brien was forced into mediation talks with the Northern Ireland-based land agent Kevin Phelan over management fees arising from the plan.

The tribunal said Mr Phelan got £150,000 from Mr O’Brien to make sure he did not undermine a false version of events which distanced Mr Lowry from the project.

Separately, his father, Denis O’Brien Sr, made a complaint to police in London after claiming the former owners of the football club had sought to blackmail the family regarding the deal.

In the 15 years since he took control of it, Mr O’Brien has been unable to develop the ground. There were initial discussions with developers including McAlpines but the plans never came to fruition.

Doncaster Rovers, who had rented the ground, moved to Keepmoat Stadium in 2007. Subsequently the old ground has been crumbling.

In a statement, Doncaster Council confirmed a sale was agreed with British builders Barratts on Mar 22.

“The contract is conditional upon the purchaser Barratts obtaining planning permission for a scheme of residential development. We are not able to reveal the price prior to completion of the sale,” it said.

Despite allegations, the tribunal could not find evidence linking Mr Lowry to the Doncaster deal. It cited one solicitor’s letter, written on behalf of Mr Phelan, which said 40% of the profits resulting from the sale of Doncaster would be split between him and Mr Lowry. This was disputed by Mr Lowry and Mr O’Brien. The tribunal said its lack of direct evidence on Doncaster had to be viewed in the context of the level of falsehoods, concealment, and suppression which emerged.

And it said ultimately it believed the purchase of Doncaster was intended to benefit Mr Lowry.

Mr O’Brien’s spokesman was contacted, but no statement on the sale was forthcoming.

Last week it was revealed that Mr Phelan had been declared bankrupt in Northern Ireland.

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