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Crunch time as Welsh push for a new home
5:00pm Thursday 13th February 2014 in News
IT has been left empty and unused for 12 months. But Witney Community Stadium could soon get a new lease of life.
London Welsh Rugby Club have announced plans to consider the disused Witney Town Football Club ground on Downs Road as a contender for a new stadium.
But the club’s move to the venue is not yet guaranteed.
The stadium was built in 1992 and has a short but fraught history.
Original occupants Witney Town Football Club, founded in 1885 but now-disbanded, moved there from their original ground in Marriott’s Close to save money.
The late Aubrey Oakey, club chairman at the time and “Mr Witney Town FC”, arranged the sale of their previous home and for £1.5m the team moved to the new – and affectionately named – ‘Oakey Park’.
At first the future looked bright, but they were to play there for just nine years before pulling out of the Dr Marten’s League in 2001.
The club had built up substantial debt after losing money for a number of years, chairman at the time Brian Constable said.
Fans and former members expressed outrage, but in the meantime new landowner On The Edge snapped up the site in a deal estimated to be worth £400,000.
Then, in 2002, from the ashes of Witney Town, rose Witney United FC.
The new club made a deal with On The Edge, which agreed to pay the club’s business rates – but rent was now a cost in addition to the upkeep of the ground.
Over the next 10 years the club became saddled with more and more debt until it was finally unable to pay rent and folded in February 2013.
On The Edge director Gavin Brown said earlier this week: “In the end they just could not afford to pay.”
The Oxford Mail reported last April that the ground might have been sold to a developer for use as a supermarket or depot facility.
But in September and October, talks between On The Edge and London Welsh Rugby Club began.
A planning application was submitted to West Oxfordshire District Council just before Christmas to set up temporary stands with 10,000 seats at Witney Community Stadium.
London Welsh are playing in the Greene King IPA Championship this season but hope to secure promotion back to the Aviva Premiership.
When asked if the site could become Welsh’s primary ground, team commercial director David Jenkins said no assurances could be made until “the various pieces had fallen into place”.
Mr Jenkins said: “There are a few obstacles in the way.
“We’re confident we can meet the RFU’s requirements for the Premiership, but it also depends on whether we win the promotion play-offs in June.
“If we then see the people of West Oxfordshire coming out to support us at matches then we would be looking to build a permanent stadium and really buy into the community.
“We already have a number of partnerships in the county with schools and clubs, so this would be a wide-ranging project.
“We think there is a great rugby audience in West Oxfordshire.
“The decision in February will be critical, but until then Witney remains an option.”
That decision will be taken on Monday.
The club will also need to get the ground inspected and approved by the Professional Game Board for Rugby Union in England before the end of the month.
Then the team would need to finish in the top four and win the two-legged play-off semi-final and final to get back into the Premiership.
Local firms and residents have already voiced enthusiastic support.
Witney Mayor Peter Dorward said the plans were an “exciting prospect” for the town and added that London Welsh would get an enthusiastic welcome.
And landlord of Hailey pub The Bird in Hand and rugby fan Matt Tucker said supporters would be welcome at his pub.
Witney RFC chairman Danny Crump said the club would be “delighted” to see London Welsh come to the town.
He said: “This could bring even more interest in rugby and is definitely something we could benefit from.”
West Oxfordshire District Council planning officers have flagged this up as a “key” concern and the issue is not likely to go away.
For the first time since the plans were announced, ex-members of Witney Town FC have also commented on the proposal.
Former club director and manager Andy Lyne said: “It is a good thing for the area, but still a disappointment for those of us who were involved with the football club.
“Obviously, we would rather it was football being played there.
“But if London Welsh’s proposal protects the facility, so that local football in Witney might once again benefit, then I’m sure that football followers would give it their full backing.”
A decision on Monday, and input from Oxfordshire County Council, will be critical for the future of the ground.
The Lowlands planning sub-committee is due to make its mind up on the question of temporary stands and will set the stage for any future works being considered.
For all the players in this move, kick-off hangs in the balance.