Worcs swimming against the tide

JUST as Worcestershire are wondering how they can pay for their £15 million hotel and development plans at New Road their chief executive resigns and the captain stands down.

Mark Newton ended his tenure as chief executive this week after 10 years, to be replaced by his assistant and former player David Leatherdale, and Vikram Solanki handed on the captaincy to Daryl Mitchell as a disappointing season in Division Two was drawing to a close.

After the financial disaster caused by the deep flooding in 2007, Worcestershire continued to suffer. Losses in 2009 stacked up to £118,439 after a £350,000 profit in 2008 that followed the £693,000 loss in the ‘Atlantis’ summer. Each year county clubs receive a pay-out of about £1.3 million from the ECB. Mediocre results on the field last year did not help the atmosphere at Worcester. At the start of 2009 the club invested heavily in a squad of 20 contracted players, including 10 with international experience at full, Lions or Under-19 level.

The chairman Martyn Price disclosed at last winter’s annual meeting that for the first time cricket expenditure rose above the £2 million mark, and Championship relegation in 2009 was an unexpected blow. “We all felt the squad would be strong enough to compete in the Championship and challenge for one-day titles,” he said. “Unfortunately it was not to be, and as the season progressed it was clear that a change of direction was required as some senior players chose not to extend or see through existing contracts and others were released.”

Apparently players were not easy to attract for a county with no indoor training facilities on site. And the club might be regarded as a cricketing backwater — all too literally during the flooding that ruined 2007 and affected 2008. The coach Steve Rhodes was landed with an unenviable task, though he had money to spend after a clear-out of players saved the club £491,000 in salaries, with £214,000 re-invested for 2010.

The scheme to build a 120-room Premier Inn hotel as part of a ground redevelopment met with opposition from conservation groups who complained that the bland design did not suit the environment at a ground renowned for its beauty and cathedral view. The plans were amended — for example, one storey was wiped off — and Worcester City Council gave the go-ahead, but the Worcester Civic Society, English Heritage, the Inland Waterways Association and the city’s advisory body on conservation areas remained doubtful. The hotel, they said, looked too “modern” and “simplistic” and out of keeping with the surroundings. The council’s own conservation officer admitted the design was “one-dimensional” and needed “more animation”.

In a letter to the Worcester News

, the chairman of Worcester Civic Society’s development committee, Richard Lockett, described the designs as “characterless”. He wrote: “Budget constraints should not be allowed to dominate on a site where only highest-quality design is acceptable”.

The city planner John Wrightson rejected the criticisms, saying that the use of “quality materials and a contemporary design” would preserve and enhance the character of the riverside. The proposed new hotel should rise above the flood plain in time for the start of the 2011 season, assuming financial deals are completed. The first phase of new building, the £2 million Graeme Hick pavilion, opened in May 2009 and has been well received.

It was a tough 10 years for Newton, and the challenge will be no easier for Leatherdale, though Rhodes’ position as coach looks more secure with his former team-mate in charge.

CHARLIE SAYS: The New Road frontage, as planned, looks ordinary at best, but this area of the ground has always been less than imposing. An iconic building would presumably not fit the budget. A great shame.

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