A HIGH Court battle has been fought out in London over the home of one of the borough’s non-league football clubs.
East Thurrock United’s Rookery Hill ground, which the club lease from its owners the Bennett family, has been the centre of attention as family members seek to establish who owned what.
The root of the issue goes back to 2002 when the club, then run by members, was in debt to Green King Brewery who were threatening to close it down and take possession of the site. A number of bidders came forward to the club and Ben Bennett was selected by members as the best candidate and he took over.
Since then the club, nicknamed ‘The Rocks’, has had a significant run of success and now plays in the National League South.
Several years ago Ben Bennett mooted a plan to sell Rookery Hill for housing development, a move which was supported in principle by Thurrock Council and its sites of specific interest strategic plan – and its Cabinet also backed moves to sell land at the Billet in Stanford-le-Hope as a new home for the club.
Mr Bennett also attempted to buy the Pegasus Club on nearby Herd Lane in Corringham after its owners, Petroplus, went bust but lost out to a Malaysian consortium.
Estimates of the value of the land at Rookery Hill go as high as £10m, but no deal has happened though it is understand Mr Bennett has been involved in negotiations with several possible developers.
At the heart of the case currently being heard by Judge George Bompas QC, Mr Bennett’s son Wayne, his nephew Trevor Ford and local businessman Simon Renoldi are claiming they are due a share of any profits from the sale of the land as they helped Mr Bennett senior turn the club’s fortunes around.
That is denied by Mr Bennett senior who contends the trio were just three among a large number of supporters, officials and local businessmen who were involved – many of whom have remained involved to this day.
In 2009, on the advice of the FA and the Isthmian League, East Thurrock Football Club was dissolved and a new club, East Thurrock United (2009) Ltd was formed. Ben Bennett’s daughter, Dominque, is 100 per cent shareholder in the club which is effectively run on a day to day basis by a team of volunteers.
A spokesman for the current club said: “We are aware of the dispute which is about the ownership of the land, not really the club. Materially it does not affect the current club as it relates to a different company. We lease the ground from its registered owner, as we have done for a number of years, and have been carrying on our normal business which has included recently signing an extended lease for 2018-19.”
Among those volunteers connected with the current club is Neil Speight, editor of the Thurrock Independent, who has been club secretary since 2009.
A decision on the High Court case is expected in several weeks.